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Honor Italy's Leader? Look a Little Deeper

Whatever else the prime minister may be, he's no champion of democracy.

September 22, 2003|Alexander Stille

Italy's Silvio Berlusconi has become America's favorite European politician. In July, President Bush invited the prime minister to his Texas ranch for lunch. On Wednesday, Berlusconi receives an award from the Anti-Defamation League for promoting democracy.

The timing could not be more inappropriate. Earlier this month, Berlusconi raised a ruckus in Italy when he brushed aside any comparison between Benito Mussolini and Saddam Hussein: Mussolini's "was a much more benign dictatorship -- Mussolini did not murder anyone. Mussolini sent people on holiday to confine them," referring to the practice under fascism of sending political opponents into internal exile.

Back when he first became prime minister in 1994, he told the Washington Post that "for a while, Mussolini did some good things here, and that's something that history says is correct.... Later, of course, he would take away liberties and lead the country into war, so obviously the total outcome was condemnation."

This, of course, shows a colossal ignorance of the history of fascism on Berlusconi's part. Mussolini's followers are estimated to have killed 3,000 anti-fascists during their rise to power. After he came to power, a special tribunal was created for political subversives. A vast network of informants was created, and 16,000 anti-fascists were arrested for political crimes. More than 5,000 were given sentences adding up to more than 28,000 years of prison. Thirty-one were sentenced to death and 12,000 were sent into internal exile, which was hardly a vacation.

The notion that Mussolini never murdered anyone would also come as a surprise to the Ethiopians, Albanians and Greeks, hundreds of thousands of whom were killed in Italy's unprovoked conquest of their countries.

Jews were deprived of many of their rights in 1938, when this "benign dictatorship" decided to align its racial policies with those of its Nazi allies. They were forced out of public employment and public schools; thousands lost their citizenship and were forced to leave the country. When Italy entered World War II, Mussolini's government had foreign-born Jews rounded up into camps in southern Italy. Nothing like German concentration camps, but hardly a "vacation."

In the last year and a half of the war, when Italy came under Nazi control, more than 7,000 Jews were rounded up there and killed in death camps, in many cases with the assistance of Mussolini's government.

These are facts that the Anti-Defamation League -- which basically exists to fight discrimination, especially against Jews -- should know well, but that the man it has chosen to honor evidently does not.

No one is suggesting that Berlusconi is pro-fascist, but he has absorbed the cliche with which many Italians comfort themselves: that fascism was a relatively innocuous authoritarian regime, a mix of good and bad with no complicity in the crimes of its ally, Nazi Germany.

But the problem of honoring Berlusconi with a prize for promoting democracy goes much deeper than his superficial ideas about fascism and Mussolini. Berlusconi is being honored presumably because of his support of the United States and of Israel since 9/11. But promoting democracy should be about more than whom you choose to support in international affairs. Democracy also depends on such things as the promotion of pluralism of information, respect for the rule of law and tolerance of diversity. On these issues, Berlusconi's record can only be described as among the worst in the democratic world.

Berlusconi is the owner of the largest television and media conglomerate in Italy and, despite promises to resolve the countless conflicts of interests this presents, has steadfastly refused to divest himself of any of his vast holdings. Despite his claims to be the "most liberal" publisher imaginable, he exercises iron political control over his media properties, which function like party organs, defending his positions and attacking his enemies with ferocity.

Moreover, he has vigorously extended his control over the state broadcasting system. Berlusconi has said that it is "inconceivable" that a state broadcasting system should be in disagreement with its government, which explains a lot about his views on freedom of the press.

When three newscasters dared to run critical programs about the various corruption investigations involving Berlusconi, he denounced the "criminal use" of the media. He got rid of the old board of directors of the state broadcasting system and announced that "the precise duty of the new management is to make sure that this doesn't happen again." All three of the broadcasters were taken off the air.

Berlusconi pressured the owners of Italy's largest and most prestigious newspaper, Corriere della Sera, into firing its editor. Although the newspaper is moderate to conservative in its politics, it still published columnists who dared to criticize Berlusconi from time to time. This time, the owners gave in to the pressure.

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