Football manager Paolo Di Canio not alone in admiring Mussolini

World View: There are times in Italy when it seems people would like to suggest Mussolini was basically ‘sound’

Sat, Apr 6, 2013, 06:00

When football manager Paolo Di Canio expresses his admiration for fascist dictator Benito Mussolini rest assured he is not alone in modern Italy.

Even if Di Canio has attempted to mollify public opinion with various apologies on the Sunderland website, that is hardly the point. His track record as a Mussolini enthusiast is long established.

On Saturday, December 17th, 2005, after a 1-1 draw between his then Italian club Lazio and Fiat-controlled Juventus, Di Canio prompted a major row by saluting the Lazio fans with the infamous straight-arm fascist salute. It was the third time that he had done this in 12 months.

Called on by the media to explain his controversial gesture, Di Canio told reporters: “I have huge admiration for a great leader [Mussolini] who, in a particular historical context, if nothing else was able to restore a sense of national pride…”

It would be comforting to think that Di Canio is alone in holding these views, that he is merely representative of a minority of Lazio football fans. You could console yourself with the reflection that his views carry no more weight than those of the black-shirted Mussolini nostaglics (5,000 last October) who every year gather at “Il Duce’s” birthplace in Predappio, Emilia Romagna, to shout “Duce, Duce” and give the fascist salute.

Not so. No, we are also talking about mainstream Italian political life. What do we make of the following statement by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi last January. Attending a Holocaust memorial ceremony in Milan, he said: “It is difficult to put yourself in the shoes of those who decided those things back then, certainly the government of that time, given that it was frightened that German power might become a German victory [in the second World War ], preferred to ally itself with Hitler’s Germany rather than to oppose it.

“Within the context of this alliance Italy was forced to take part in the persecution and extermination of the Jews. Thus you could say that the racial laws were the worst thing that the regime did. Apart from that, though, in many other ways, the [Mussolini] regime had done well…”

Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, did you enjoy the play?

In a country where the second World War remains a bitterly divisive memory, even 70 years later, those remarks were always going to provoke intense controversy.

Renzo Gattegna, head of the Italian Union Of Jewish Communities, called the comments “superficial and inopportune” and “deprived of historical foundation”, adding: “The persecutions and the anti-Jewish racial laws were in place before the war and were autonomously introduced by the fascist regime, which later became an ally and enthusiastic accomplice of Nazi Germany, all the way to the final catastrophe for Italy…”

Italy was indeed an “an enthusiastic accomplice” not just all the way to the “final catastrophe” for Italy but, much worse, all the way to Auschwitz.

Just yards from where Di Canio played his football for Lazio, at the Olympic Stadium in Rome, there are acres of splendid marble mosaics and an imposing obelisk, all proudly bearing the name “Dux”, the same name that Di Canio has tattoed on an arm.

Nowhere in all this celebration of Mussolini does it say anything about the 1938 racial laws which, effectively, banned Jews from public office of any kind.

Nowhere do the mosaics recall the Hungarian Jew Arpad Weisz, a talented football coach who won league titles in Italy with Inter Milan and Bologna but who then lost his job as soon as the 1938 racial laws were in place.

Weisz, his wife and two children had to leave Italy and eventually ended up in the Netherlands where they were arrested by Nazis in 1942 and sent to their deaths in Auschwitz.

Nowhere amongst the mosaics does it recall the 6,800 Jews that the Mussolini regime, directly or indirectly, sent to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps.

Nowhere do the mosaics tell the story of the thousands of Italians, opponents of the repressive Mussolini regime, who were tortured, imprisoned, sent into exile and in some cases [Giacomo Matteotti in 1942] murdered.

Nor do the mosaics recall the 1,200 Italian war criminals who, by 1945, were wanted for the killing by Mussolini troops of hundreds of thousands (many with mustard gas) in Ethiopia, Libya and the Balkans.

There are times in modern Italy when it seems that people would like to suggest that Mussolini was basically “sound” but just went a bit off the rails with that Hitler fellow.

How else would former parliamentary speaker Gianfranco Fini call him the “greatest statesman of the 20th century” back in 1994?

How else could Il Duce’s granddaughter Alessandra Mussolini make shameless use of her famous family name to carve out a right-wing political career? Would Hans Hitler, grandson of Adolf, win many votes in Germany?

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