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In Italy, Mussolini makes comeback

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Europe Correspondent

BERLIN, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- Italy's Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini is making an unexpected popularity comeback in Italy, a phenomenon nurtured by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi over the past 15 years.

Mussolini was one of the closest allies of Hitler's Nazi Germany; his soldiers committed brutal war crimes in Africa and the Balkans; and his regime is responsible for the deaths of around 1 million people.

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Despite all that, the Duce, as Mussolini's admirers call him, is becoming increasingly popular in Italy -- even with the younger crowd.

In January, the iPhone application iMussolini became the most popular in Italy. The program, harshly condemned by Jewish groups noting the "Duce" had sent thousands of Jews into concentration camps, allowed users to read and listen to speeches of the Fascist leader. Up to 1,000 people downloaded the app each day, before Apple pulled it from its Italian store earlier this month.

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The iPhone app is just one of many manifestations of the gradual rehabilitation of the Duce and his fascist dictatorship, which lasted from 1922-43.

Streets are being renamed after "regime heroes," "good Fascists" are the stars of movies and politicians from all major parties are belittling the Fascist horrors.

In 2008, the mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, a member of the National Alliance, Mussolini's political descendants and key allies of Berlusconi, defended the Fascist dictatorship during a tour of Israel.

Last June, Michela Brambilla, the Italian minister of tourism and a possible successor to Berlusconi, did what many interpreted as the Fascist salute during celebrations in honor of the local Carabinieri.

In any other Western European country, this would have destroyed the woman's political career -- not so in Italy. She remains in power, despite the fact that doing the salute is against the law.

These are not isolated incidents but "results and symptoms" of a larger change gripping all walks of society, writes Aram Mattioli, a historian at the University of Lucerne in Switzerland, who has researched Fascist revisionism in Italy.

His 200-page study "Viva Mussolini -- An Appreciation of Fascism in Berlusconi's Italy" (Ferdinand Schoeningh) hit book stores Friday. It describes in detail how Italy for the past 15 years has cultivated a gradual revisionism of Fascism, "focusing on the period before the anti-Semitic race laws and the ever-closer alliance with Hitler's Nazi Germany," Mattioli told United Press International in a telephone interview Friday.

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Revisionism began to bloom starting in 1994, when the decades-long Christian Democratic-dominated government collapsed and Berlusconi shot to the scene to establish himself as the new leader.

Berlusconi's new government, comprised of political startups and political descendants of Mussolini, in 1994 was the first in Europe to include neo-Fascists -- a major watershed point in European politics.

The defeat of Communism, Berlusconi's ability to influence the media and the fact that Italy had not really come to terms with its World War II past (unlike in Germany or Japan, no war tribunal tried Italy's fascists) made it easier for conservative and neo-Fascist politicians to rehabilitate Mussolini during the years since.

Under Berlusconi -- who himself has spoken warmly of the Duce many times -- opinions that would have labeled extreme years earlier all of a sudden were used even by center-right politicians.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the hapless opposition was too busy licking its own wounds to counter that development.

This revisionism affects Italy as a whole, Mattioli said.

"I see a close connection between the revisionist tendencies and the inner state of today's Italy, were political culture has reached a low-point," he told UPI. "Italy has entered a state of post-democracy. Democracy is still formally existent but policies are increasingly illiberal."

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Berlusconi's government has in the past been criticized for cracking down on illegal immigrants. Mattioli also warns of a general militarization of society that has seen soldiers doing police work and citizens establishing vigilante groups.

Young people increasingly back this political development.

Italian newspaper La Stampa Thursday published a poll that indicated that 45 percent of young Italians sympathize with xenophobic or racist ideologies.

These numbers worry Mattioli, who has a deep sympathy for Italy, from where his great-grandfather emigrated to Switzerland in the late 19th century.

"The European Union needs to more closely watch Italy and should try to slow down the country's negative development," Mattioli said.

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