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    Silvio Berlusconi — Il Dunce

    Silvio Berlusconi — Il Dunce

    Thomas Jefferson thought that the best insurance against future tyrannies was an educated populace.  Historical ignorance is a petri dish that grows a lot of strange and destructive ideas.

    To wit: Silvio Berlusconi.

    Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi triggered outrage from Italy’s political left on Sunday with comments defending fascist wartime leader Benito Mussolini at a ceremony commemorating victims of the Nazi Holocaust.

    Speaking at the margins of the event in Milan, Berlusconi said Mussolini had been wrong to follow Nazi Germany’s lead in passing anti-Jewish laws but that he had in other respects been a good leader.

    “It’s difficult now to put yourself in the shoes of people who were making decisions at that time,” said Berlusconi, who is campaigning for next month’s election at the head of a coalition that includes far-right politicians whose roots go back to Italy’s old fascist party.

    Actually, putting yourself in the shoes of those who were making decisions back then is easier than recognizing whose footsteps today’s leaders want to follow.

    Much has been written about how the onerous conditions imposed on Germany at Versailles after World War One eventually led to Hitler and the birth of Nazism.  Much less has been written about how Italy’s betrayal at Versailles—not getting the territorial spoils of war it had been promised for joining the Allies—led directly, almost immediately, to Italian fascism the moment President Woodrow Wilson basically told Italy to shut up and vacate its demands.

    I’ve written elsewhere about the rise of Mussolini and the birth of fascism, so let’s fast forward to 1935, which was more than a decade after his becoming prime minister.  By 1935, he was already Il Duce—The Leader.

    In Germany in 1935 Hitler frothed over edicts in the Versailles Treaty that had forced the Fatherland to disarm, and then signed a compact with England agreeing to keep the German navy to 35 percent the size of the Royal Navy—a compromise that Parliament, despite back-bencher Churchill’s quiet shouts, decided was only reasonable.

    That was followed by Der Fuhrer’s organizing of an air force, the Luftwaffe, and his enactment of the Nuremberg Laws, which in order to prevent “racial pollution” stripped Jews of their German citizenship and made sex between Aryans and Jews a crime punishable by death.  Young women of pure blood were recruited to become the Eves of the thousand-year Reich by mating with appropriate SS officers to produce a super race of blond-haired, blue-eyed, thin-lipped, narrow-nosed Aryans.

    In Russia, the Soviet Comintern agreed to support Communists and other Leftist groups in the fight against Fascism, and Stalin declared that Soviet children older than 12 were now subject to the same laws as adults, meaning that a child caught stealing a potato would get eight years in the gulag.

    In Italy, Mussolini needed to keep up.  He could see no reason not to avenge a 40-year-old military defeat, exact justice for the broken promises and humiliation of World War One, establish the beachhead for a new Italian empire, and in that way begin reclaiming the glory of ancient Rome.

    Using his troops in Eritrea, Ethiopia’s northern neighbor that Italy had controlled (with Libya) for 20 years, he manufactured a scuffle as a pretense for a full invasion of Ethiopia, from which the Italian army had fled in 1896.

    England and France protested the invasion and tried imposing a negotiated solution, but Il Duce demanded everything or nothing at all.  “These two countries own half the world,” he declared, “and all we Italians want is a little morsel of our own, which we were promised.  They wouldn’t keep their promise, so we’ve taken what we deserve by ourselves.”

    England and France were tired of fighting, and didn’t respond to their recent ally with force.  Instead they convinced the League of Nations to do something it hadn’t done in its 15-year history, not even after Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 (nor would it do again before finally dying out after appeasing Hitler at Munich): vote for economic and trade sanctions.  Against Italy.

    Mussolini knew sanctions would hurt average Italians by making goods harder to get and eliminating export markets.  He knew times would be tough again, with much of the country’s food and almost all of its oil supplies going to supply the war effort.  But anyone who wondered why Mussolini chose to conquer an East-African country that didn’t have any resources, and anyone who figured the invasion was a stupid exercise in imperialism not worth the cost, didn’t understand Il Duce.

    He understood that the only way to unite his people was by reminding them they were alone against the world.  The strategy was a spectacular gamble.  If he’d lost, hungry Italians would’ve slit his throat.   But they stood behind him and with him.  Few had forgotten President Wilson’s stinging words.

    Italy didn’t have to stand alone for long.  Italy’s isolation gave Hitler an opening.  He offered the country German friendship and whatever raw materials it could spare.

    So now Mussolini had an ally in Hitler  Both were renegades, and both hated Britain and France—former foes of one, former friends of the other.

    Here’s where it gets interesting.  America hadn’t joined the League of Nations, which meant it wasn’t bound by the international embargo.  But President Roosevelt had just signed the Neutrality Act, preventing the sale of arms to any belligerent country and mandating “a moral embargo” on all trade with any belligerent.

    The language obviously left a lot of room for really good politicians to wiggle through.  And under pressure from prominent Italian-Americans, who promised to deliver FDR five million Italian votes in the upcoming election, America shipped oil and war contraband to Italy—everything but weapons and ammunition.  It was enough that exports to Italy hit a five-year high.

    On the first of June, 1936, Mussolini straddled the balcony of his palace and in front of thousands of cheering Italians declared victory in the name of Italy and Italians throughout the world.  He had, he said, successfully paired Eritrea with the conquered Ethiopia and renamed them Italian Somaliland; that part of the continent would now be referred to as Italian East Africa.

    “The Italian empire has been founded,” he shouted.  “The king of Italy will be crowned Emperor of Ethiopia.”

    Days later, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia—a tiny, bearded man with delicate features and skin the color of coffee—appeared before the League of Nations in Geneva.  “I pray to Almighty God that He may spare nations the terrible sufferings that have just been inflicted on my people, and to which the chiefs who accompany me here have been the horrified witnesses,” he said before describing for the international representatives how Italy had conquered his country.

    “At the beginning, toward the end of 1935,” he said, “Italian aircraft hurled upon my armies bombs of tear gas.  Their effects were but slight.”  Then came mustard gas.  “Barrels of liquid were hurled upon armed groups.”

    But again, not enough soldiers and civilians were slaughtered, so next came another form of poison delivery:

    Special sprayers were installed on board aircraft, so that they could vaporize, over vast areas of territory, a fine, death-dealing rain.  Groups of nine, fifteen, eighteen aircraft followed one another, so that the fog issuing from them formed a continuous sheet.  It was thus that, as from the end of January, 1936, soldiers, women, children, cattle, rivers, lakes, and pastures were drenched continually with this deadly rain.  In order to kill off systematically all living creatures, in order to more surely poison waters and pastures, the Italian command made its aircraft pass over and over again.  That was its chief method of warfare.

    Selassie told how those who’d been sprayed directly or drank the poisoned water or ate infected food—tens of thousands—would scream in agony before dying.

    It is in order to denounce to the civilized world the tortures inflicted upon the Ethiopian people that I resolve to come to Geneva…. That is why I decided to come myself to bear witness against the crime perpetrated against my people and give Europe a warning of the doom that awaits it, if it should bow before the accomplished fact.

    Berlusconi is an idiot.


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    fromabroad | January 28, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    1) I am Italian so I know what I am talking about

    2) you should know better before quoting foreign press. It would be like understanding Republicans through the NYT Editorials. Berlusconi is an easy target from the national leftist press and the American correspondents are more than happy to join the mud fest. The quote is not exact

    3) Berlusconi is center-right/conservative as much as you can get in a socialist country as Italy, he is totally and unbashedly pro American and was very much friend of G Bush. Is it in the interest of American conservatives to alienate such allies?

    4) his opponents in Italy are communists under a different name, people to the left of hollande and zapatero, people who have been drooling over Obama, people who push for gay marriage, open border immigration, green energy and in the 60 and 70 used to take funds from the commie party in Russia. Again what do you gain from slandering the opponent of this crap? Those leftists still call you imperialist power and warmongers

    5) finally look what kind of jerk Obama was when prime minister Berlusconi thanked USA inside your congress in 2006

    be careful in calling idiot your most trusted ally… Italian conservative press (that sides with Berlusconi) is totally anti Obama and the transformation of the USA into a socialist state. On the other side of the fence you have ppl with the bust of Lenin in their offices, fans of Tito and Castro lovers.

    fromabroad | January 28, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    Ps: for your information when I was in primary school (from 6 to 10 years in 1980-86) my teacher who wasn’t a right winger or a former fascism admirer normally taught us about the first years of fascism, swamps were drained (we still had malaria back then), the mafia was contained and industry blossomed and no, he did not make trains run on time. Nobody is able to do that. This is all part of the normal school curriculum, nobody denies the rest but this badly translated quote is just to stir the pot.

    I thought you were smarter than believing ‘the press. Or do not get mad when the only thing we get about Sarah Palin is that she sees Russia from her home

    Manyburgers | January 28, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    There is a fascinating book about Gino Bartali and his experiences in the Tour de France while riding for Italy. From his experience, Mussolini was an Italian supremecist but held back the reigns on his fascist party, until he became a true puppet of Hitler. Italy had been one of the few countries in Europe that had accepted Jews as true countrymen.That first unraveled first on paper and then in fact when Jews were rounded up. Obviously, he was no saint. The bokk is named Road to Valor.

    LukeHandCool | January 28, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    “Historical ignorance is a petri dish that grows a lot of strange and destructive ideas.”

    That’s beautiful.

    I have to share that with my son.

    lightning | January 28, 2013 at 2:42 pm

    I am not sure that I truly grasp fromabroad’s point, but I would caution him about staying entrenched in a left/right point of view. I was taught that there were things that both Hitler and Mussolini did that benefitted their respective countries. So in that regard I agree with him/her. As part of my education, I was encouraged to understand that no person is all bad. However, that being said, I was encouraged to see that in spite of some good being done, people in general, should always view a person based on the totality of their actions. This is why Hitler and Mussolini are not remembered well. We face this same type of threat regardless of a politicians political orientation. I truly believe that regardless of a democrat label or republican label, absolute power corrupts absolutely. We cannot make a mistake of getting caught up in political ideologies – evil will blossom in either. As an independent, I am as terrified by George W. Bush’s Patriot Act as I am Obama’s NDAA. I am concerned about a foreign policy that allows the government to ignore the Bill of Rights. I am worried about a country that has chosen to ignore the rule of law and allow wealthy bankers/investers to commit fraud with no penalty and refuses to enforce the law evenly. I do not believe that Italy, Germany, facism, communism, or Nazism created either Hitler or Mussolini. Rather Hitler and Mussolini utilized the time they found themselves in to seize power and to victimize those around them. We should be on guard for these people regardless of how they label themselves, because like Hitler and Mussolini, when they appear, they won’t be all bad and will accomplish things that many will like. I think that the only person to handle power appropriately was George Washington, and he was an amazing anomaly.

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