Silvio Berlusconi is one of the most colourful and controversial characters in western politics. Understandably, his recent praise of Benito Mussolini caused international outrage. The media tycoon and former Italian PM essentially argued that Italy’s racial laws were imposed on the country by Hitler, and Mussolini did much that was good.
Such comments about its fascist past are hardly new in Italy, where there have been many attempts at rehabilitating Mussolini. Fascism has been represented as moderate and acceptable and Mussolini’s policies as, at worst, tolerable.
But this obscures the political and electoral agenda underlying such whitewashing. Berlusconi’s anti-communist rhetoric, for instance, is often very attractive for far-right activists.
It is too easily forgotten that from the 1990s Berlusconi governed with neo-fascists and the Northern League. He is now allied with La Destra (The Right), a party founded in 2007 by the former governor of Lazio (Rome’s region), Francesco Storace. The Rome Jewish Community attacked La Destra in July 2012 when it took part in a meeting titled “Open the doors to the rebels”, which was attended by hardline neo-fascists, historical revisionists and well known antisemites, alongside activists from other parties.
Berlusconi’s own party has figures with a neo-fascist background. These include Alessandra Mussolini, the Duce’s granddaughter, former leader of a small far-right association and one of the founders of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party.
These people have never fully rejected fascism, and were happy to invite and praise Marine Le Pen after her performance in last year’s French presidential election. A former minister of defense and associate of Berlusconi suggested that Le Pen’s vote was the victory of a “modern…and democratic right”. Others suggested that the Italian centre-right should borrow some of Le Pen’s policies.
Far-right activists have also used international exchanges to strengthen their links. Italy was, for instance, one of the first countries that Marine Le Pen visited after becoming the leader of the Front National. In October 2011, she flew to Verona, in Northern Italy, at the invitation of a local politician close to Rome’s mayor. After a sightseeing tour led by an official city council delegation, Le Pen attended a dinner with entrepreneurs. The day after, she had a round table on the future of Europe with Berlusconi’s former cabinet undersecretary Daniela Santanché, who was La Destra’s candidate for prime minister in the 2008 parliamentary election. The event was chaired by the well-known journalist Vittorio Feltri.
The day after, a book launch was organised in Rome for the Italian version of Le Pen’s contre flots (counter currents). The discussants featured an MP from the People of Freedom’s national office. None of this was seen as in any way noteworthy on the centre-right.
Given this, it is hardly surprising that Berlusconi’s comments on Mussolini were backed by some of his leading party members, and this has revitalised many neo-fascist activists.
The border between the centre-right and the far right in contemporary Italy is more porous than most imagine.