Monday, September 15, 2003

The benign dictator and his holiday camps: Italian “patriotism” 60 years on.

Italy commemorated the sixtieth anniversary of the 8 September 1943 armistice this week; a few days later, the English weekly The Specator published an interview with Silvio Berlusconi in which he said that Mussolini was a “benign” dictator who “never killed anyone” but instead “sent them on holiday” to internal exile. Not surprisingly, there was an immediate furor from the Italian centre, left and Jewish communities. Mr. Berlusconi’s political allies froze and took their distance. Even, or rather especially, Gianfranco Fini and Alleanza Nazionale whose roots are in fascism were clear “he could have spared us that remark on Mussolini” said Fini. If it hadn’t been for the murder of Swedish foreign minister Anna Lindh and the continuing crisis in the Middle East, the foreign media would have given the remarks far more coverage.

Comparative evil

Berlusconi’s remarks were part of a comparison with Saddam Hussein and if “comparisons are odorous,” this one left quite a stink. They are essential in the classroom and in academic analyses but are dangerous in short interviews.

In one sense, Mussolini and Fascism have always had it easy compared to most other dictators past and present, Saddam or Hitler. Whatever Mussolini did before and during the war, Hitler and the Nazis did far more and worse. So although Mussolini was far less noxious than Hitler, there is the risk that by saying so, his actions are somehow rendered harmless. When you add Stalin into the formula, Mussolini again goes into a second division of dictators.

But benign? Hardly. Forget about gulags and concentration camps; look at Italy before and after Mussolini instead. Thankfully Mussolini’s government was corrupt and incompetent and many of its servants were less than convinced of the righteousness of Mussolini’s aspirations. This tempered the effects of Fascist aggression and cruelty and it was a relief for many Italians as well as those attacked by Italy: the Greeks, Maltese, Yugoslavs, Russians, French, British and Americans.

But little relief was available to the Libyans where hundreds of thousands died in the brutal repression and concentration camps even before Hitler set up his own. Nor for the Ethiopians massacred with mustard gas during the war and killed in their thousands even after the official war was over. Here there is indeed a comparison with Saddam as only he and Mussolini have used gas on their enemies since the 1920s conventions banning them.

For Italians, thousands of trade-unionists and socialists were killed or beaten up before Mussolini came to power. After 1922, a whole series of anti-fascist leaders were killed, notably the Socialist Giacomo Matteotti, the liberals Amendala and Gobetti and the Roselli brothers. Thousands were sent to prisons or to what was called confine, a concept usually translated as “internal exile.” Neither the prisons nor the places of confino were gulags -- much less extermination camps, but to call 10 or 15 years in close confinement a “holiday” is obscene and to giggle at the idea that some of these places are now summer resorts, as the Spectator journalist does, is grotesque. Of course, some, like political writer Antonio Gramsci, died in prison.

In 1938, Italian Jews were deprived of their civil and political rights, their jobs, and their property. They were catalogued making it all the easier to round them up 5 years later. Hardly benign. During the war, Mussolini knowing that they would be “exterminated,” authorized the transfer of Jews to the German authorities.

And then to say that Mussolini never killed anyone once he declared war on Britain and France shows insensitivity as well as ignorance. Here again, there are faint echoes of Saddam for anyone with keen enough hearing; going to war presuming it would be a walkover and then finding that there was real fighting to be done as Saddam did with both Iran and Kuwait. Mussolini’s overstreched ambition cost millions of lives, Italian for the most part but there were thousands of French, Maltese, Greek, Yugoslav and British killed by the Fascist aggression.

There were concentration camps, like Rab in the Adriatic, where the death rate was as bad as a gulag or German camp and after 1943 Mussolini’s puppet republic hosted an extermination camp in Trieste.

By no stretch of the imagination could he be called “benign.”

Patriotism and the fatherland

When the predictable furor exploded on Thursday (11 September), Mr. Berlusconi dug his hole deeper in his defense. “I reacted like any true Italian would have had the duty to react”. The implication is that Mussolini might have been a dictator but as an Italian patriot, Berlusconi is obliged to defend him.

This is a very dangerous vision of “fatherland” and “patriotism,” one that removes principles, ethics and reason and substitutes them with nationalism. Sixty years ago millions of Italians had to make a choice and decide where their loyalties lay; they had to give their loyalty to the king, the anti-fascist alliance and the Anglo-Americans or to Mussolini, Italian fascists and the Nazis. For many it was a question of life and death, coloured by expedience and personal loyalties. Today, with hindsight, there are very few indeed who argue that the real Italian “patria” was the Nazi-Fascist one. It was not Italy then and most definitely not Italy today, and for a Prime Minister to suggest that to defend Mussolini is “patriotic” colours Berlusconi’s own position in a sinister way.


As a contribution to an understanding and the debate on “8 settembre” and the subsequent division of Italy, the American University of Rome will be hosting a seminar on the subject on Monday, 15 September 17.00 - 19.30 with Rosario Bentivegna, former partisan in the GAP and Carlo Mazzantini, former volunteer in Mussolini’s neo-fascist RSI. They wrote a book together in 1997 explaining their choices of 60 years ago and on Monday will describe what that period meant to them then and what it means today. Dr. Bjørn Thomassen will give a presentation on the significance of the date in today’s popular consciousness.

If you are in Rome, come along. Call 39-06-58330919 to reserve a free seat.

For comments, please write to James Walston at

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