Italy has a problem digesting its history. At the Epiphany fair in piazza Navona there was a stall which happily sold Mussolini memorabilia alongside 1950s advertisements with leggy filmstars, with even a Hitler mug and another with a star of David – not so much historical schizophrenia as a complete lack of concern about the historical significance of the objects.
It is not just the fascist past which is difficult to come to terms with; the recent and far less brutal past is equally indigestible. Or rather, the way a society treats its past tells us more about the present than the past so it will be very interesting to see if there is any change in how the anniversary of Bettino Craxi’s death is remembered this week.
He died 12 years ago, on 19 January 2000, the most controversial politician in post-war Italy. He was by far the most important victim of the Clean Hands investigations in Milan in the early ‘90s; in 1996 he was given a definitive five and half year sentence for corruption and in 1999, four and half for illegal party financing and taking kickbacks. When he died, he had four other gaol sentences pending from the courts of first instance or appeal. Unlike many others involved in the Milan corruption scandals, Craxi did not serve even a day of his sentences as he left the country for Tunisia in 1994 just before his parliamentary immunity was revoked. He died at his home in Hammamet honoured by Tunisian and Italian authorities.
Craxi’s protegé, closest supporter and political successor is Silvio Berlusconi, no longer prime minister but still the leader of the biggest party in Parliament and even a possible prime ministerial candidate. As he begins his long and slow final act, it is a good moment to look at the man who allowed Berlusconi to get where he did and who together with Berlusconi changed Italian politics and society.
There is a Fondazione Bettino Craxi founded by his daughter, Stefania a few months after his death. This weekend they have organised a trip to Hammamet to commemorate Craxi; they also keeps his archives and organises conferences on his work where scholars and politicians praise his achievements. It also, by the way, seeks public funding through taxpayers’ contributions.
When he died, the ex-Communist prime minister, Massimo D’Alema offered the family a state funeral but they refused because the felt that he had been treated badly by the Italian state and establishment. Since then most of that establishment has come round to the family’s way of thinking. It is hardly surprising that the Berlusconi family Il Giornale remembered the tenth anniversary with gushing hagiography, The irony of a right wing paper praising a man who early in his career was actually a socialist (rather than just a Socialist Party leader) was lost on the editor.
Nor was it surprising that the then director of RAI 1’s evening news, Augusto Minzolini, declared that Craxi was a scapegoat and that there was no need to “rehabilitate” him. It is more striking, though, when a leader of the centre-left like Piero Fassino, now mayor Turin, declared “I continue to think that picturing Craxi as a criminal is a foolish and unacceptable caricature… there’s no doubt that there was a reticent and ambiguous silence towards his speech to the Chamber” . In the months leading up to Craxi’s flight, he had written articles for the Socialist party daily using the pseudonym “Ghino di Tacco”, a mediæval bandit. The speech that Fassino referred to was an admission that he had taken kickbacks at the same time as saying that all the other parties were part of the same game. True enough but is an illegal action any more acceptable because it is brazen?
There are some towns which have honoured him with a street and in Aulla, there is even a statue dedicated to the “exile and martyr”. In both Milan and Rome, there were proposals by both left and right to give him a street but there were stopped by storms to protests.
No one doubts that Craxi was an important figure in post-war Italy and that he changed his party and the country. He was an innovative thinker and an effective doer and as such is certainly worthy of respect and considerable interest on the part of historians and political analysts. His family and party colleagues may obviously pay their respects. But he was also a criminal, declared as much by a court system which is certainly flawed but which is still the accepted administrator of justice in Italy. So for senior members of the political establishment to honour him is to explicitly condemn Italian justice and condone Craxi’s actions sending the message that politicians may steal from the taxpayer and that’s fine.
Condemning Craxi and those that want to rehabilitate him is not “moralism”, it is morality, legality and also the difference between good and bad government. The issues that Craxi was an example of are still with us and the way in which he is remembered reflects heavily on the present, not just the past.
There were no Craxi mugs on sale in piazza Navona which is just as well, but the reasons were neither moral nor legal which is a pity.