Silvio Berlusconi has accused Germans of denying the existence of concentration camps. Observers interpret the remark made during campaigning as a last gasp in Berlusconi's political struggle for survival.
Silvio Berlusconi, former Italian prime minister and a condemned tax evader, was supposed to serve his first hours of community service in a senior citizens' day center on Monday (28.04.2014). Or so the Italian media expected. But those inquiring were informed by the director of the center that Berlusconi "would not be coming today" but possibly on Friday or even next week.
Berlusconi, who's 77, had previously announced he would assume his work in the center with "humility." He said, "I will do what I have been requested to do," adding that there would be no limits on the tasks he could be given.
Still mingling in Italian politics
There were certainly no limits in his campaign appearance before supporters of his party "Forza Italia" in Milan over the weekend. Although, as a convicted felon, he is not allowed to hold political office, he continues to mingle intensively in Italian politics. In his speech on European elections, he first attacked German EU presidential candidate Martin Schulz, a Social Democrat, and then the Germans whom, he said, never recognized the existence of Nazi concentration camps.
Berlusconi said he had been only been trying to help Schulz get a job in 2003. At that time, he caused a scandal in the European Parliament when in a speech to parliamentarians he said Schulz would be an ideal candidate for the role of a concentration camp overseer in a movie.
Now Berlusconi stoked the fire again. "I didn't want to offend him but, for God's sake, for the Germans the concentration camps never existed," the news agency Ansa quoted him saying.
SPD General Secretary Yasmin Fahimi described Silvio Berlusconi's statements as "repulsive, outrageous and completely unacceptable." The gaffes, she added, have not only harmed Italy's image but also endangered Europe's entire political culture and values.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel took some time to comment, but when her spokesman did so, it was with withering effect. "The assertions that have been presented here are so absurd that the federal government will not comment on them," said Steffen Seibert during a press briefing in Berlin.
Need to apologize
In the European Parliament, both Berlusconi's Forza Italia and Merkel's CDU are members of the same parliamentary group, the European People's Party (EPP). The leading EPP candidate for the European elections, Luxembourg former Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, was stunned by Berlusconi's statements. "The recent remarks from Mr. Berlusconi disgust me," he said in Brussels. Berlusconi should retract them, he added, and apologize to Holocaust survivors and to Germans.
Roman Maruhn, a political scientist and staff member of the Goethe Institute in Palermo, criticized EPP's inaction. "The European People's Party would have been well advised to have barred Forza Italia and Berlusconi from its ranks at least ten years ago," he said. Instead the EPP used the votes of Forza Italia parliamentarians to strengthen their position in Brussels.
Andrea Tarquini, the Berlin correspondent of the large Italian newspaper "La Republicca," agrees. The EPP has done itself no favor by accepting Forza Italia, he said. It is, after all, not a traditional Christian Democratic Party.
For the European elections on May 25, Forza Italia is campaigning with the slogan "Piu Italia, meno Germania" ("More Italy, Less Germany"). "There are signals that Berlusconi intends to play an anti-German tune in the European election campaign," Tarquini said. "The Italians have developed the unfortunate habit - perhaps to comfort themselves - that Germany is responsible for all of Italy's ills. Soon Italian populists will blame Germany for the next Mafia massacre."
"You can score points with anti-German comments in Italy," said Maruhn. "The heart of the matter is that political populists are making the government in Berlin responsible for the severity of the crisis in Europe. There may perhaps be some truth to that but such a nutshell accusation isn't legitimate."
Maruhn sees no general anti-German sentiment in Italy. "That isn't the prevailing mood of the Italian population; there are no signs of this," he said. "The populists are just exploiting it as they fight for political survival."