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
Manichæan Silvio - a tactic or does he really mean it?
Unspun Berlusconi or how not to deal with the press

There have been two episodes and as many rows in The Spectator saga (6 and 13 September) and, at this rate, there’ll be more next week; in them Silvio Berlusconi confirms his frequent claims to “tell it the way it is” or at least the way he thinks it is.

Last week, he said that to be a judge in Italy, “you need to be mentally disturbed, you need psychic disturbances. If they do that job it is because they are anthropologically different!” This week, he said that Mussolini was a “benign dictator” who “never killed anyone” but had sent the opposition “on holiday” to internal exile.

By any standards, Berlusconi is a serial brickdropper, but the question is, does he do it to cultivate an image of a plain-talking guy in touch with his supporters or does he actually believe what he says? I fear it is the latter; Berlusconi is a master of promotion and advertising, but when it comes to spin or even presentation of difficult issues, he is a tyro. He presumes that he does not need to be subtle, give nuances, or room for manoevre. Given his background as a businessman whose word was not contradicted plus his present wealth and control of the media, one can see where the presumption comes from. Hence, too, the all-or-nothing, Manichæan tone to so many of his outbursts.

With a long tradition of “ideological” politics, Italy has always had this tendency that paradoxically continues despite the end of the Cold War and, as some have put it, the “end of ideology.” Berlusconi is still very much an ideologist, one of those Japanese soldiers lost in the jungle still fighting World War II after 20 years since the end of hostilities. Except that he does know exactly what has happened since the end of the Cold War. Surely that means he is in bad faith then and that all these bricks are knowingly dropped? Too easy. Apart from a few great actors, most good liars manage to convince themselves that they are telling the truth. Berlusconi falls into this category. Furio Colombo put it nicely in L’Unità (12 September). He wrote that the Prime Minister is “overcome by hyperactive narcissism” that excludes interaction with the real world. This allows him to keep a straight face when he says that judges are part of a Communist plot when they prosecute him and honest servants of the law when they acquit him. Or when he implies that the “left” equals “Communism,” conveniently forgetting that in Italy and abroad strong opposition to Soviet communism came from the left. To make such an equation is to show political and historical ignorance and to denigrate the sacrifices made by that opposition. It would be like saying that all conservatives are either real or crypto Nazis.

When he is caught out on any of these scores, he never retracts, he just says he was misquoted, taken out of context, or that it was meant as a joke.

Last year, the Minister of the Interior was forced to resign because he called a consultant murdered by the Red Brigades “a ball-breaker only interested in having his contract renewed” after he had the dead man’s escort removed. The Minister’s boss feels he has no such obligations to take responsibility for what he says.

He does not apologize; instead he attacks and says the opposition (usually defined as “leftwing” or even “Communist”) is exploiting the situation. Tullia Zevi, the former president of the Union of Jewish Communities (herself a victim of fascism), was explicit, “What need does the left have to exploit his words? ... you just have to listen to him because what he says is truly eloquent” (Corriere della Sera, 12 September).

It is all the more ironic that his bricks were published in an otherwise fawning interview where the authors complimented his physical features (“…nipples showing through his white Marlon Brando pajama-suit.”) and political prowess (“Is he a good thing? Our answer is an unambiguous yes.”) and made snide comments about Anna Lindh, the Swedish Foreign Minster killed this week. The Economist, the other English scourge of Mr. B., is explicitly highly critical, but would support his policies if he only set about implementing them.

A final (ironic) word on the Spectator interview; it begins with a rapturous compliment from Berlusconi on the power of an olive tree ‘Look’ he says, pointing his flashlight. ‘Look at the strength of that tree”. Perhaps the opposition, the Ulivo or Olive Tree Alliance, should have taken more solace from that remark than rage at the bricks.

For comments, please write to James Walston at

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

On heroism at sea and pusillanimity on land

To go down with your ship with all guns blazing is supposed to be the honourable thing to do for a sailor. Politicians have a different reputation and tend towards excessive care even when the risks are slight.

One man, though, is prepared to come out fighting and very likely will not even have to go down with his ship but, nonetheless, his comrades in arms are trying to stop him. Antonio Di Pietro has always been a bulldog as a prosecutor and as a politician; his allies much less so.

A Risorgimento battle parallels today’s politics.

In 1866, Italy went to war with Austria to bring Venice and Venetia into the new country. In six years of unification, millions of lire had been spent on a new steam-driven, ironclad navy and the politicians in Rome were itching to show their mettle, defeat the Austrians and make the Adriatic an Italian lake. The commander in Ancona, Carlo Pellion di Persano had different ideas. Admiral Persano was approaching retirement and he knew his own limitations; he had never commanded in a combat situation and he really did not think that now was a good time to start.

He delayed and found endless excuses for not seeking the enemy. When the Prime Minister explicitly ordered him to sea, Persano did his best to avoid the Austrians whose fleet, by the way, was smaller and mostly timber and sail. When the engagement finally took place because the Austrian admiral Wilhelm v. Tegethoff was actually on the offensive, the Italian fleet was horribly and ignominiously defeated.

Worse, Persano fled his crippled and sinking ships and back in port used all his belligerent abilities to accuse his subordinates of incompetence and cowardice.

A Parliamentary inquiry finally established the truth and Persano was lucky to escape with his life, unlike the British admiral Byng a century earlier.

Despite the disaster, honour was not entirely lost for the Italian navy. One officer, Emilio Faà di Bruno more than fulfilled his duty. He engaged the enemy with skill and courage and went down with his ship. He was given the Gold Medal, Italy’s highest award for valour and is remembered across Italy with streets named after him that do little more than perplex the passerby with the pronunciation. A pity, as he deserves more.

What is the relevance to today’s politics? The setting is far less dramatic but the lesson is there.

In June, Parliament passed a bill protecting the country’s five top institutional posts. President, Prime Minister, Speakers of Senate and Chamber and the President of the Supreme Court are immune from criminal prosecution while they are in office. In practice, of course we know that only the Prime Minister Mr. Berlusconi is actually on trial and that the law was rushed through before Italy took over the EU presidency.

Not surprisingly, the opposition would like to see the law removed but they are by no means certain how they would like to do it. A long term possibility is to change the law if and when they win the next elections.

Another possibility is that the Supreme Court declares the new law unconstitutional. The Milanese court where Mr. Berlusconi is on trial for bribing a judge has appealed to the Supreme Court for a ruling. It should deliver its verdict in between six and twelve months.

The third option is a referendum to repeal the new law. In order to do so, half a million Italian voters’ signatures have to be gathered, the Court of Cassation must determine that the law is neither budgetary nor an international treaty nor constitutionally relevant. The proposal is then voted on and if more than half the electorate vote, the result is valid; the law is either confirmed or repealed.

The only risk for the anti-Berlusconi opposition is that one of these conditions is not met. Now, it is relatively easy to find 500,000 signatures and the immunity law will certainly pass muster at the Court of Cassation. The next two conditions are trickier and are bringing out all the worst in the centre-left. The lack of interest in the issue might mean less than half the voters turn out which would mean the result was invalid. The worst possible case would be a defeat with the immunity law confirmed.

Antonio Di Pietro is well on his way to collecting the signatures but the two main parties of the opposition have been less than helpful. The DS has been ambiguous on the question. The official position is against the referendum but they have still given space to Di Pietro’s people collecting signatures at their summer Feste dell’Unità.

The Margherita is actively against the initiative and has lauded the Verdi and Comunisti italiani for also being on their side.

The logic, according to the Margherita spokesman, the deputy Maurizio Fistarol is that they should leave it all to the Supreme Court. He reckons that the referendum could end up as a boomerang against the centre-left and in favour of Berlusconi, if it failed, Berlusconi would be endorsed by a popular vote. He even promised a campaign to try and stop Di Pietro; one centre-left party fighting another in order to prevent an anti-Berlusconi initiative. Self-destructive? Well, yes.

This is where the parallels with the 1866 battle come in; Persano had a bigger and more powerful fleet but no stomach for a fight so when he did go into battle, he made a terrible mess of it.

The centre-left has a perfect weapon against Berlusconi in the referendum and a highly principled and moral reason for using it but if they fight each other, pull punches and show the world that they lack the courage of their convictions, then they really do risk losing the battle. If the professional opposition is not convinced, why should the public be?

In contrast to the big parties, Di Pietro has no such doubts. He is prepared to go down with his ship like Faà di Bruno. But the absurdity of the whole business is that for once the moral and political choice coincides with the pragmatically most winnable one. The referendum should be easily winnable.

If the Supreme Court hands down a verdict before the referendum, all well and good but the campaign will have had its effect in the meantime.

For comments, please write to James Walston at

Friday, July 18, 2003


There have been times over the last few years when it has been difficult to sell stories on conflict of interest. “No doubt terribly important in abstract terms,” sighs the editor. “But what does it matter in real terms to our readers?” Then he challenges, “Give me examples of how Mr. Berlusconi has profited or other people lost because of his position. Then let’s talk.”

These last two years have seen a few plums but now we are in the middle of a major harvest.

For starters, a month and a half ago, the government’s tax amnesty law (condono) put €162 million into Mediaset hands, mostly directly to the Berlusconi family. While they were not the only ones to benefit, last year Silvio Berlusconi himself had said that he would not even apply for the amnesty.

A month ago, the Prime Minister was given immunity from prosecution. The bill was rushed through Parliament so that he would not lose face by possibly being given a guilty verdict while sitting as European Union President. In theory, of course, there are four other beneficiaries of the law even if none are on trial at the moment.

The third, latest and biggest conflict of interest is directly beneficial to the Prime Minister.

The Gasparri Bill is being fought over in the Senate at the moment and, unless it undergoes major re-working when it returns to the Chamber, it will in practice protect the Prime Minister’s broadcasting empire from regulation and allow him to expand into other fields. The danger is primarily for freedom of information and secondly in the consolidation of Italy’s broadcasting cartel to the detriment of other players in broadcasting and print.

Minister of Communications, Alleanza Nazionale’s Maurizio Gasparri maintains that his bill will liberalise and regulate broadcasting and act as an anti-trust barrier in the field. Since about 1990, Italian media have been in increasing need of overall regulation, undergoing stopgap and sometimes contradictory legislation and Constitutional Court sentences. Despite its promise, the Gasparri bill does not fulfill its declared aims.

In practice, the areas where Mr. Berlusconi’s Mediaset is acting illegally or at least irregularly will become explicitly legal and the present anti-trust limits that prevent the extension of Mediaset will be expanded so that the Prime Minister’s company will have an even greater share of the market. As added extras, the bill also damages the print media and puts the public broadcaster (RAI) even more under government control.

No wonder there is a major demonstration planned for Tuesday 22 July in piazza Navona outside the Senate. It is the day of the final vote but also the anniversary of President Ciampi’s speech appealing for pluralism in the media.

Mediaset’s most immediate problem is how to keep its Rete4 on the ground. In 1994 the Constitutional Court declared that no single company could own more than two terrestrial channels. Last year they reiterated the decision that Rete4 should move onto satellite (90% of Italian television is analogue terrestrial so changing would mean losing most of the audience). Apart from being the home of the fawning Emilio Fede (who spends most of the news adoring Berlusconi, Mediaset’s precursor of Comical Ali), Rete4 has an audience share of over a million and is a good earner.

The bill would allow Rete4 to stay terrestrial.

The other main regulator, the 1997 Broadcasting Law (usually called the Maccanico after the then minister) caps the market share of publicity to 30%. By almost any calculation Mediaset is above that limit but each year has appealed and discussed the findings so has never had to sell any of its assets. The new bill reduces the share to 20% but vastly increases the definition of the “market.” Today, the “market” is made up of publicity, license fees and subscriptions to pay-TV. Tomorrow, when the law passes, it will include almost all media: print, books, cinema, public relations and promotional material as well. In practice, it will be a universe impossible to calculate. Nonetheless, the Mediaset CEO Fedele Confalonieri has reckoned that it is around €25-27 bn. and Mediaset’s turnover between €3.5 and €4 bn., meaning that, instead of slimming the company down, the new law will allow Mediaset to expand by another €1.5bn.

One and a half billion euros means they could take on the Sky publicity concession, they could buy an existing newspaper or found their own and, in addition, they could buy up any number or smaller local papers.

Mediaset could do this also thanks to the end of cross-ownership prohibition. At the moment a broadcaster cannot own a newspaper and vice versa. The new bill allows cross-ownership, in theory a liberalising measure. In practice, as Giovanni Sartori pointed out “big fish eat little ones, not the other way around” (Corriere della Sera 16/7). There are no newspapers big enough to go into the broadcasting business, but Mediaset can easily move into print.

These are the big battle lines, but on the edge of the conflict there is the dominance of television over print in Italy for publicity, above all, but also for audience and information. The new bill will consolidate RAI’s position even though it will be partially privatised. Salvatore Bragantini argues that it just strengthens the RAI-Mediaset duopoly (Corriere della Sera 9/7). Not surprisingly it has been Mediaset’s press office that has been busy at damage control over the last few days - they are very conscious that the bill is to their almost exclusive advantage, but do not want it to be presented as such.

Obviously the centre-left criticises the Gasparri bill, the Margherita’s Paolo Gentiloni states, “1990 to 2003 has been the story of an endless chase for a solution to the problem; now a highly concentrated market is being accepted.”

But others too are worried.

Enzo Cheli, President of the Communications Authority, said in his annual report last week that “pluralism in television was unsatisfactory”. He maintained that present legislation is ambiguous and that there is a need for “clear laws that respect the Constitution”. And the President of Italian Publishers’ Association, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo said, “This is a law that goes against the pluralism called for by the President and Speakers of the Parliament”.

It is another move towards the concentration of power and wealth in Italy and there are no prizes for guessing to whose advantage.

Contact James Walston at

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

The Berlusconi reality show

A week into Italy’s presidency of the EU, there are two fundamental keys to understanding Silvio Berlusconi’s disastrous debut on 2 July. The first is the personal, almost psychological insight that the explosion gave us. Here is a man who is unable to control his anger and pique, who is unable to take harsh criticism but has learnt that he can vent his anger less dangerously by covering it with a veneer of “humour”.

The second key is in the actual words which provoked Berlusconi’s insults. The brouhaha which followed the “Nazi” attack has nicely obfuscated the substance of Martin Schulz’s initial attack which covered a number of important issues both for Mr. Berlusconi personally and for Europe.

First, the events: on Wednesday 2 July, Mr. Berlusconi delivered the opening speech of the Italian presidency to the European Parliament. It was 11 pages long and covered the semester’s agenda. Almost all of it was predictable and uncontroversial: agreement in the Convention leading to the signature of a European Constitution; preparation for next year’s enlargement of the EU and planning for further enlargement; a major public works and infrastructure programme to relaunch the Union’s flagging economy; cooperation on security measures to combat terrorism and illegal immigration.

He did not go into detail about the constitution which would certainly have rubbed someone up the wrong way. He did not mention enlarging the EU to include Russia and Israel as he had before. Only the very vigilant noticed a couple of omissions which were more substantial; no reference to combating racism at the same time as illegal immigration and no mention of confiscation of criminals’ assets as part of the Union-wide justice deal. Both points were in previous EU policy statements.

One of the replies came from Martin Schulz, head of the European Socialist Party group at the EP. Schulz asked Mr. Berlusconi explicit questions on all these issues which are European problems certainly not just Italian ones. The language was tough but Parliamentary and the substance of the criticism was wholly relevant to the European Parliament.

Instead of replying to the criticism or avoiding the questions as most politicians do, Berlusconi went for the man, not the ball. The attack had been against Berlusconi’s political and judicial position and his statement of European objectives and was couched in Parliamentary language. The counterattack was personal and unparliamentary.

Now the whys.

First the personal side. In 1993 Berlusconi exploded with real anger when a foreign journalist pressed him at a press conference he was giving with Gianfranco Fini, then candidate for mayor of Rome. Since then he has kept his temper under control but only by smiling while he delivers the insult as he did last Wednesday. As CEO of Fininvest, as leader of Forza Italia and the House of Liberties and as Prime Minister, he is unused to being criticised and when someone dares, Berlusconi lashes out against the presumed lesè majesté. On top of this, he has little sense of function and role. If I swear at a motorist who tries to knock me off the road, it is maybe uncontrolled behaviour but acceptable for most people. If I swear at a student who is being provocative, that is wholly improper. It is wholly improper for the President of the EU to insult an MEP in the Parliament and then refuse to apologise. But Mr. Berlusconi still insists that he is the injured party.

On the substance side, the issues are serious. As Mario Pirani pointed out (Repubblica 4 July ‘03: 1&17) it was not only Schulz’s immunity taunts which maddened Berlusconi but the very clear questions about him and his allies. EU statements about controlling illegal immigration have always been accompanied by proposals for measures to curb racism. Berlusconi’s speech had no such reference while his Minister for Reforms, Umberto Bossi, has been making some very offensive remarks which would not be tolerated from Le Pen or Haider, let alone a member of the cabinet of the EU’s presidency.

Directly relevant to Berlusconi were the questions on EU cooperation over justice. Roberto Castelli, the Leghista Minister of Justice said in Il Giornale (30 June) that there was a “wide-ranging plot” against Berlusconi which included the proposals for cooperation on European justice: “the European arrest warrant, freezing and confiscation of goods belonging to physical or legal entities”. “It is not difficult,” Castelli added allusively, “to imagine which Italian company will be the first to be investigated.” He presumably meant Berlusconi’s Mediaset.

The underlying intentions behind the measures are to deal with cross-border crime both normal and political: mafia, drugs, money laundering and international terrorism. For Castelli and implicitly Berlusconi to think that all this fuss is just in order to get Mediaset is not so much paranoia as arrogance. But Berlusconi’s over-reaction and “Nazi” insult do show how close to bone Shulz went.

For the next 5 months and 3 weeks, Europe will be looking very carefully at any, but any, measure which might benefit the EU’s President and his companies.

If all this talk about conflict of interest and parliamentary insults bore you, go to the Italian presidency’s website where the really pressing issues are analysed and debated. There is a section called Vostre opinioni; given events in the first week, one might expect an interesting and heated exchange. No way. There is only one subject that you can express your opinion on - the burning issue which divides the continent - should there be a one euro note? Happily for decision-makers, the 2,730 who responded showed near consensus, 50.51% in favour, 47.69 against and the rest don’t know.

Next week:
“Now is the time to bury bad news… about news” or how to bounce through media reform when everyone is looking the other way.


God bless Silvio: why the left needs Berlusconi.


Scandals in politics: what is the Telekom Serbia scandal all about?
Welcome to the latest contribution to comment on Italian politics. The International Herald Tribune’s Italy Daily supplement provided a good forum for opinions on politics and much more and italpolblog will be at least a partial substitute.

For the moment at least we will not be able to provide ID’s summary of events but I hope that in the not too distant future we’ll have daily postings of political goings-on in the country. Until then, there will be weekly articles on current issues by me, James Walston, and others, both orphans from ID and new commentators.

We welcome suggestions, comments and criticism on both style and content. What do you feel about the length of articles, the amount of background knowledge we can take for granted, the amount of references to other articles in the text?

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Thursday, July 03, 2003

Welcome to a forum for new insights to Italian politics with me, James Walston, a professor of international relations at the American University of Rome. Last month saw the end of Italy Weekly, published in conjunction with the International Herald Tribune, and now we have our first editorial comment in English on Italian politics on this blog.