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Italy's comeback kid Berlusconi defends wartime fascist Mussolini

Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, seen giving a speech during a campaign rally in Rome Friday, appears to have shrugged off recent scandals.
Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, seen giving a speech during a campaign rally in Rome Friday, appears to have shrugged off recent scandals.Vincenzo Pinto / AFP - Getty Images

ROME — He is the comeback kid of Italian politics, but Silvio Berlusconi's attempt to revive his career is under the spotlight after he defended fascist wartime leader Benito Mussolini at a ceremony for victims of the Nazi Holocaust. 

The former prime minister said Mussolini's decision to echo Nazi Germany's anti-Jewish laws had been his "worst fault" as a leader "who in so many other ways did well."

He said: "It is difficult now to put yourself in the shoes of people who were making decisions at that time. Obviously the government of that time, out of fear that German power might lead to victory, preferred to ally itself with Hitler's Germany rather than opposing it."

The remarks, given to reporters in Milan on Sunday, prompted outrage from many quarters in Italy and overseas.

“He has lost the plot," said David Patsi, president of the Italian school Dante Alighieri in Jerusalem and whose father was killed in a concentration camp. "He is an idiot. But I am not surprised. Sometime he even reminds me of Mussolini."

He added: "But I don’t think he is the problem. The problem is that a large number of Italians agree with him.” 

That helps explain why Berlusconi could still make his comeback, despite a track record would have forced almost any other politician to retire from public life.

In November 2011, he was forced to resign as prime minister after it became clear that his denial of the economic crisis was bringing Italy to the brink of disaster.

In October last year, he was sentenced to four years in prison for an epic offshore tax fraud, put off pending appeals to higher courts.

And, if that weren't enough, he is still on trial for allegedly paying an underage exotic dancer for sex.

His popularity hit an all-time low and the 76-year-old with a net worth of almost $6 billion -- according to Forbes magazine -- might have been expected to retire to one of his many mansions.

But he was simply waiting for the chance to strike back in the flamboyant style that won him three terms as prime minister.

Following the resignation of Mario Monti -- the technocratic prime minister who replaced him in 2011 promising to reinvigorate Italy's languishing economy -- Berlusconi has done what he does best: He carpet-bombed the Italian media with guest appearances, clocking up an impressive 63 hours of airtime in only 21 days.

In essence, it's as if during the recent U.S. presidential election, former president George W. Bush was given more airtime than Barack Obama and Mitt Romney combined.

Crisis 'wasn't my fault'

Seems inconceivable, but then Italy has always been an exception in the Western world, and flamboyant and media-friendly Berlusconi, even as an outsider, draws a bigger audience than his closest competitors combined.

Officially, Berlusconi is not actually running as a candidate prime minister -- because this was the price it took to persuade the Northern League party to join Berlusconi's People of Freedom party in a coalition.

But a good result in the elections could mean that all bets are off.

“Italy’s economic crisis wasn‘t my fault. It was the consequence of the wider international crisis,” a defiant Berlusconi recently told a TV host, before he refused to apologize for previously denying the extent of the crisis.

It would seem to be an uphill task for Berlusconi to win the premiership for a fourth time -- in polls his coalition is trailing the center-left Democratic Party by at least 12 points.

But, after his TV onslaught, Berlusconi's bloc saw its poll rating rise by 3 percentage points.

Berlusconi 'very clever'

Italians are tired of painfully high unemployment rates, rising taxes, tax-evasion clampdowns and plummeting spending power.

But it remains to be seen whether they really believe Berlusconi when he claims that the economic crisis wasn't his fault and that his tax-cutting strategy is the solution.

“Berlusconi has been very clever. He stepped aside when the new government introduced very unpopular austerity measures and has come back in the limelight only now, saying that the cure was worse than the illness,” Maurizio Caprara, a journalist for the daily Corriere della Sera, said.

“Now he is trying to rally again his troops. Many became disillusioned following his many scandals, but many, as the polls show, may decide to give him one more try,” he added.

Monti recently called Berlusconi the "Pied Piper of Hamelin," who “leads the mice to drown in the river, having fooled Italians three times already.”

And yet, at least according to his recently rising popularity, many Italians seem to find his tune irresistible.  


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