In a development that has made many here increasingly edgy, billionaire media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi was this week named prime minister designate of a new government that is expected to include neo-fascists for the first time since Italy became a republic after World War II.
“To be the first in Europe to bring the neo-fascists to power, after everything that has happened and is happening in the world, is anything but insignificant,” Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel told the Rome newspaper La Repubblica.
He said he would advise Berlusconi to remember that fascism had two faces, explaining, “One face is the word, which can be attractive. The other is power. And fascism’s relationship with power has always been tragic.”
Tullia Zevi, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, sounded a note of caution about the followers of Gianfranco Fini, head of the neo-fascist National alliance.
She noted that Fini, who wants to move the neo-fascists into the mainstream, had to beware of his own right wing.
“He has been able so far to keep on a leash the extreme right, the skinheads,” she said. “He knows how to control them.”
But she questioned if he would be able to maintain this control if economic and social conditions deteriorate.
In the month since the right-wing Freedom Alliance swept to victory in landmark general elections, controversy has raged in Italy over the legacy of fascism 49 years after fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was defeated at the end of World War II.
A broad, highly emotional debate has opened up over Italy’s fascist past, amid attempts to rethink and, some say, to rewrite history to minimize fascist evils and to regard fascism as a valid political ideology.
At the same time, fascist sympathizers have become much more open. Some have gone so far as to urge openly that one-time Italian territories now part of Croatia and Slovenia be reclaimed.
Fascism, the British newspaper The Guardian said, has now become an object of curiosity rather than contempt.
The Freedom Alliance brought together Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Go, Italy!) party with the National Alliance and the federalist Northern league. The anticipated entry of the neo-fascists into government has raised deep concerns inside and outside of Italy.
Mussolini ruled Italy for two decades. Until he entered into an alliance with Hitler in 1938 and imposed anti-Semitic laws, his right-wing, law-and-order regime had the support of many Italian Jews.
After the Allies liberated southern Italy in 1943, Mussolini established a last-ditch fascist state in northern Italy. He was arrested by partisans on April 27,1945, and was executed the next day. On April 29, 1945, his corpse and that of his mistress were hung upside down in Milan before a crowd of thousands.
Staunch anti-fascism became a firm, unquestioned pillar of postwar Italy.
On Monday, the national Liberation Day holiday marking Mussolini’s defeat and execution, hundreds of thousands of Italians, led by the leftist opposition, staged antifascist demonstrations and commemorations.
In Rome, President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro laid a wreath at the Ardeatine Caves, where 355 Romans, including 75 Jews, were executed in reprisal for a partisan attack in 1943.
The biggest demonstration was a mass rally by as many as 300,000 people in Milan. While commemorating the defeat of fascism in World War II, the rally was also pointedly directed against Berlusconi and his allies, particularly the National Alliance and its leader, Fini.
The right accused the left of using the commemorations as a means of getting back at them for the left’s humiliating defeat in last month’s election.
The size and political slant of the Milan demonstration came in part as a reaction to what has been as an attempt by the neo-fascists to rewrite history and place the fascists who dies in the war on the same level as their victims and the partisans who fought them.
Fini recently told the newspaper La Stampa that he considered Mussolini “the greatest statesman of the century.”
He and other right-wing leaders have called for “reconciliation” between left and right. Fini had called for the April 25 Liberation Day holiday to be a day of national reconciliation, commemorating the war dead on both fascist and anti-fascist sides.
The National Alliance, he said, “consigned the judgment on fascism and anti- fascism to history. That means looking to the future without being prisoners of the contradictions of the past.”
A television broadcast within the past month of wartime footage filmed by U.S. Army cameramen and held until now in Pentagon archives added fuel to the fire.
The broadcast showed graphic footage of Mussolini’s corpse and cruelty by both fascists and partisans, and touched off a fierce debate.
“My fundamental criticism is that sort of broadcast is part of a campaign under way to try to put the two sides, fascist and anti-fascist, on the same level,” historian Claudio Pavone told the left-wing newspaper L’Unita.
Zevi called the broadcast “revisionism, good old revisionism, and it was done in a very biased way.
“You cannot put on the same level murderers and their victims,” she added.