Former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi sparked outrage on Sunday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, after he praised the country’s wartime fascist leader Benito Mussolini.
Mussolini was a key ally of the Nazi regime, the main perpetrator of the industrialised slaughter of millions of Jews during the Second World War.
During his rule, Italy enacted anti-Semitic racial policies while allowing thousands of Italian Jews to be deported to concentration camps.
“The racial laws were the worst mistake of a leader, Mussolini, who however did good things in so many other areas,” Berlusconi said on the sidelines of a ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in Milan.
“Italy does not have the same responsibilities as Germany,” said Berlusconi, who is hoping to make a return to politics in next month’s parliamentary elections.
On Saturday, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany had “an everlasting responsibility for the crimes of (the Nazis)”.
Mussolini, who ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943, passed racial laws in 1938 that barred Jews from the civil service, the armed forces and the National Fascist Party while prohibiting intermarriage.
Italy later participated in the deportation of Jews to the Auschwitz death camp where many of the 7,500 Italian Holocaust victims met their deaths.
Mussolini also hoped that through his alliance with Germany, Italy would be able to build an empire from the ashes of a British defeat in North Africa.
But a steady string of defeats led to Italy’s capitulation to the advancing Allies in 1944.
Mussolini was deposed and Germany moved into Italy to block the allied advance, leading to a protracted and bitter war of attrition that lasted until the end of hostilities in 1945. He was executed by partisans as he was fleeing the country with retreating German troops in April 1945.
Renzo Gattegna, the head of Italy’s Jewish community, on Sunday told reporters that Berlusconi’s comments were “not only superficial and inopportune, but also… devoid of any moral meaning or historical foundation.”
“The persecution and the racist anti-Semitic laws of Italy originated well before the war and were applied with full autonomy under the… fascist regime, later an ally and willing and conscious accomplice of Nazi Germany,” he added.
Berlusconi’s comments, he said, showed “the extent to which Italy still has trouble seriously accepting its own history and its own responsibilities”.
Centre-left politicians also voiced outrage over Berlusconi’s comments.
“Berlusconi’s words are a disgrace and an insult to history and memory. He should apologise to the Italian people today,” Dario Francheschini, head of the centre-left Democratic Party parliamentary group, said in a Twitter message.
The Democratic party is tipped to win the elections set for February 24-25.
Left-wing MEP Debora Serracchiani said in a statement: “It is simply disgusting that even on Remembrance Day Berlusconi goes about rehabilitating the actions of the dictator who dragged Italy into the Second World War.”
Antonio Di Petro, head of the small anti-corruption Italy of Values party, dismissed Berlusconi as “nothing more than a caricature” of Italy’s former fascist ruler, whose wartime slogan was “Believe, Obey, Fight”.
The flamboyant, scandal-plagued 76-year-old, who has had three stints as prime minister, heads the centre-right People of Freedom Party (PDL) but has not decided whether to seek a fourth term or settle for a cabinet post if the party wins in February.
Berlusconi himself sought to clarify his comments later on Sunday. “My historical analyses have always been based on the condemnation of dictatorships,” he said in a statement, noting that he was “a historical friend of Israel.”