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.