Giorgio Napolitano, Italy's grandfatherly President, was trying not to squirm in his seat. But sitting center stage at a ceremony to honor World War II resistance fighters, the 83-year-old head of state couldn't help but wince as Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa shifted gears mid speech. "I would betray my conscience," La Russa declared, "if I did not recall other men in uniform."
Those "other men" were the fascist Italian troops allied with the Nazi occupiers. "From their point of view," La Russa said of the Nembo division, which served alongside the Germans in Rome, they "fought in the belief they were defending their country." La Russa's Sept. 8 speech was the second time in two days that a top leader of Italy's "post-fascist" National Alliance party a key ally in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's ruling coalition had opened wounds that most Italians have considered closed for decades.
Napolitano, a member of a Naples youth resistance movement during World War II, left no room in his own remarks for any backsliding on what is accepted history in Italy. "All the social, political and intellectual components" of Italy's postwar democracy come from those who opposed the Nazis and their Italian fascist allies, Napolitano said.
La Russa's controversial speech came just a day after Rome mayor Gianni Alemanno refused to categorically condemn Benito Mussolini's fascist regime. Interviewed by Milan daily Corriere Della Sera following a visit to Israel, Alemanno, who also belongs to National Alliance, said he did not consider fascism an "absolute evil." While racial laws passed by Mussolini in the last five years of his two-decade reign were abhorrent, Alemanno told the newspaper, "fascism was a more complex phenomenon. Many people signed up in good faith."
Alemanno's comments were denounced by Jewish groups, surviving resistance leaders and members of the center-left opposition. Walter Veltroni, former Rome mayor and current head of the major center-left Democratic party, said he would resign from a city committee spearheading the building of a Holocaust memorial museum in protest.
The National Alliance has spent the past few years distancing itself from its extremist past. Five years ago, Gianfranco Fini, the longtime National Alliance party chief, used the words "absolute evil" to describe Mussolini's regime. Coming at the conclusion of his first trip to Israel, the then deputy Prime Minister appeared to have definitively separated his party from its fascist origins. This week's comments have undone a lot of that work.
Before his flight from Rome in 1943, Mussolini reigned over an iron-fisted dictatorship. He instituted one-party rule, eliminated basic freedoms, and ordered the killing of political opponents. In 1938, Italy instituted racial laws which helped pave the way for the subsequent deportation of thousands of Italian Jews to Nazi death camps.
But fascist or "post-fascist" Italians still try to separate the excesses of the leaders from what they consider a worthy ideology and the good intentions of its followers. In some sense, the comments by La Russa and Alemanno express the two halves of the nostalgia in fascist circles. La Russa sought to defend the legacy of the soldiers who fought, and sometimes died, in pro-Mussolini forces. Alemanno hinted at the need in Italy for the kind of rigidly controlled, law-abiding society that was said to have existed under fascism.
But both miss a larger point that their leader Fini had finally seemed to grasp about the "absolute" lessons that must be drawn from history. As Venice mayor Massimo Cacciari said after La Russa's remarks: Nazi soldiers also believed that they were defending their nation, and no German politician would think to praise their efforts.