ROME (JTA) — During the inauguration of a Holocaust memorial in Milan, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime had carried out some positive policies.
“The fact of the racial laws was the worst fault of a leader, Mussolini, who in many other ways did well,” Berlusconi said in informal remarks to the media at the ceremony on Sunday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The memorial dedicated at Milan’s train station is located at Track 21, from which 700 Milan Jews were deported to Nazi camps.
The ceremony, attended by Prime Minister Mario Monti and other senior state, civic and religious leaders, was one of scores of events taking place this week in Italy to mark the Holocaust memorial day.
Political figures and Jewish leaders slammed Berlusconi’s remarks.
Berlusconi, who is running for prime minister in general elections next month, said Mussolini had chosen to ally Italy with Nazi Germany for policy reasons that were separate from the persecution of the Jews. He said it was difficult today to put oneself in the shoes of decision-makers of that time.
Mussolini’s government, Berlusconi said, “fearing that the German power would win, certainly preferred to be allied with Hitler’s Germany rather than oppose it.” Italy, he said, “did not have the same responsibility” as Germany for the Holocaust, but “there was a connivance that at the beginning was not totally conscious.”
Later, Berlusconi sought to clarify his statement, saying that his "historical analyses" had always been "based on the condemnation of dictatorships." He said he regretted "not having explained this fundamental fact in one of the many answers" he gave to reporters at the Holocaust memorial event.
"There can be no misunderstanding about the fascist dictatorship," he said. "I thought this was clear throughout my past and present political history."
Berlusconi reiterated that he had been a "longtime friend of Israel, the only defense of freedom and democracy in the Middle East." He accused leftists of exploiting his statements for political reasons.
Berlusconi’s remarks drew immediate condemnation from political figures and Jewish leaders. Renzo Gattegna, the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, said his statements “appear not only superficial and inappropriate, but where they suggest that Italy decided to persecute and exterminate its Jews to please a powerful ally are devoid of a moral sense and historical basis.”
Among those condemning Berlusconi’s remarks was left-wing lawmaker Dario Franceschini, who tweeted that they “are shameful and an insult to history and memory.”
Daniele Nahum, the former spokesman of the Milan Jewish community and a former vice president, called Berlusconi’s statement “shocking.”
“Let’s not forget that, besides the racist laws, the Mussolini regime canceled freedom of thought and expression, was the author of massacres in Ethiopia and created that discriminatory framework against homosexuals, Roma and all the other minorities that we are still combating,” he said.
Writing in the Italian version of the Huffington Post, longtime anti-Berlusconi activist Gianfranco Mascia said he planned to press charges with the state prosecutor against Berlusconi for "apology for Fascism," which in Italy is a crime.
Berlusconi, despite being embroiled in sex and financial scandals, has gained in the polls in recent weeks. Monti also is running to retain his post. In 2003, Berlusconi received the Anti-Defamation League’s Distinguished Statesman award.