Former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi praised fascist dictator Benito Mussolini for "having done good" other than his regime's laws against Jews, creating widespread fury and revulsion throughout Europe as Holocaust memorials were held Sunday.
Berlusconi also defended Mussolini's decision to ally with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, saying that it was likely a conclusion reached via assessment of Germany's chances of winning World War II.
"It is difficult now to put oneself in the shoes of who was making decisions back then," Berlusconi said to reporters at the edge of a Holocaust remembrance ceremony in Milan. "Certainly the [Italian] government then, fearing that German power would turn into a general victory, preferred to be allied with Hitler's Germany rather than oppose it … within this alliance came the imposition of the fight against, and extermination of, the Jews. Thus, the racial laws are the worst fault of Mussolini, who, in so many other aspects, did good."
Mussolini's regime deported 7,000 Italian Jews, over 6,000 of which were killed in Nazi extermination camps or in other ways. Jewish organizations have already expressed outrage at the comments.
"It is the height of revisionism to try to reinstate an Italian dictator who helped legitimize and prop up Hitler as a 'reincarnated good guy,'" said Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which monitors anti-Semitic activity worldwide and was instrumental in capturing many Nazi war criminals after the conclusion of World War II.
The former premier's conservative allies are polling second in next month's elections; current Premier Mario Monti is losing badly to Pier Luigi Bersani, a center-left Italian politician. Berlusconi has repeatedly changed his mind on whether he would seek a fourth term.
Berlusconi has alluded to his respect for Mussolini before. In 2003, he said, "Mussolini never killed anyone," but rather would "send people on holiday to confine them" on islands that later became luxury resorts. Multiple historians and political leaders have pointed out that Berlusconi is promoting a false image of the dictator.
The former premier's remarks are "an insult to the democratic conscience of Italy," said Rosy Bindi, a center-left leader. "Only Berlusconi's political cynicism, combined with the worst historic revisionism, could separate the shame of the racist laws from the Fascist dictatorship."