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From ‘War Criminal’ to ‘Statesman’
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An Italian restaurant in the Irish village of Dalkey caused quite a kerfuffle when it opened a few months ago. It is called Benito’s and - yes - it is indeed named after Il Duce. And there are Italian fascist newspaper front pages on the wall to remind you just how bravely his men fought in the Second World War. A 1941 cover of La Domenica del Corriere carries a dramatic painting of six RAF Hurricanes crashing into the rooftops of Malta after vainly taking on the Italian air force. On another front page of the same year, four frightened British Tommies - a few of the 19,000 captured in the siege of Tobruk - surrender to black-feathered Bersaglieri troops at Sollum on the Egyptian-Libyan border.

It’s not a joke. A relative of the owner was an Italian air force officer in the Western Desert and there are archive photographs, too, on the wall. A handsome young airman is surrounded by photos of sand encampments and of the nose of an Italian fighter aircraft. (For Independent aero-buffs, it appears to be a Macchi C.200 Saetta (”Arrow”), in service with 372 Squadron in Cyrenaica - part of Libya - in 1941.) At Benito’s, the pizzas are great and the chocolate cakes positively ooze. Good old “Eyeties”, as the Eighth Army probably said after capturing their 20,000 Italian prisoners at El-Alamein in 1942.

Now I know that, compared with the epic cruelty of Hitler and Stalin, “Musso” was a softy. The Italian armies of Europe’s first fascist leader lost in Albania, lost in Greece and lost in North Africa. He ended the war strung upside down in a Milan piazza alongside his glamorous mistress after creating the last-ditch Republic of Salo, a state as ridiculous in its pretensions as the Italian dictator himself.

But in 1935, Mussolini invaded and occupied Haile Selassie’s Abyssinia after using poison gas to capture the country. He sent his forces to fight on Franco’s side in the Spanish civil war. “Musso” was an unashamed anti-Semite; his anti-racial laws were administered by a raving Jew-hater called Giovanni Preziosi and the Duce was too frightened of Hitler to prevent thousands of Italian Jews from being deported to their death by the Nazis. Indeed, he sometimes gave orders that they should be. His Italian fascists, along with the Germans, jointly operated an extermination camp at San Sabba near Trieste. Churchill, who called him “a swine”, once sarcastically noted that Mussolini had proclaimed himself the “protector of Islam” while having fewer Muslims under his protection than Britain. In fact, “Musso” deported 80,000 Arabs from their homes in Libya to make way for Italian “settlements”, and executed the courageous rebel leader Omar el-Mukhtar after a war in which 200,000 Muslims were slaughtered. In other words, Benito was a very nasty piece of work.

But wait. When he ended Italy’s crisis of strikes and revolution in the 1920s, Churchill himself admitted to being “charmed … by his gentle and simple bearing and by his calm, detached poise in spite of so many burdens and dangers … anyone could see that he thought of nothing but the lasting good … of the Italian people”. Even a few years before the war, Churchill was to write: “Many people in Britain admired the work which the extraordinary man Signor Mussolini had done for his country. He had brought it … into a position of dignity and order, which was admired even by those who regretted the suspension of Italian freedom.” Mussolini thus started off as a European hero, became a fascist beast, but is now regarded as just a bumbling buffoon, the sort of harmless court jester whose name can grace an Italian restaurant in Ireland.

But there is nothing exclusive about this sort of transmogrification. Back in 1986, I recall, Ronald Reagan called the “terrorist” Colonel Muammar Gaddafi “the Mad Dog of the Middle East”. But two decades after the Americans bombed Libya (with Margaret Thatcher’s help), Jack Straw called him “statesmanlike” for giving up nuclear ambitions which were as mythical as Saddam’s. Reagan himself was widely regarded as a “warmonger” until he visited China and turned into an old buffer who muddled up his White House cue cards and died in a fog of gentle memories from the Washington commentariat.

Arafat was a “super-terrorist” in 1980s Beirut before turning into a “super-statesman” after Oslo and then a “superterrorist” again before he died. Stalin went through the same epic transition. From being the vicious communist dictator of the 1920s and 1930s, he became “Uncle Joe” after 1941 - personally awarded the sword of Stalingrad by Churchill for killing Nazis - before reverting to Soviet arch-tyrant, Churchill himself complaining in 1953 of Stalin’s “bludgeoning xenophobia”.

It happens all the time, this little mis-step in our appreciation of human beasts. Kurt Waldheim started off as a nasty little Wehrmacht intelligence officer working for war criminal General Löhr’s Army Group E in Bosnia. Then he turned into a highly respected UN Secretary-General before being maligned by his respectful colleagues the moment his murky wartime past was revealed. Slobodan Milosevic was a brute until he turned up in the United States to negotiate a Bosnian peace at Dayton, Ohio, when he became a “statesman” - only to be tried as a war criminal after Kosovo.

This transformation happens to whole races of people. The plucky little Serbs of the Second World War became the Nazi “ethnic cleansers” of 1993. The heroic Muslim “freedom fighters” killing Russians in Afghanistan in 1980 became the freedom-hating “terrorists” killing Americans in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 and 2003 and 2004 and 2005 and 2006 and 2007 and 2008…

I think all this twaddle has a lot to do with journalism as well as political opportunism. Told that progressive Colonel Nasser had become the thief of Suez, we turned him into the “Mussolini of the Nile”; just as our old mate Saddam Hussein was helped into power as Iraqi “strongman” by the CIA, supplied with US and British military assistance after his atrocious invasion of Iran, but was then dubbed the “Hitler of Baghdad” after his atrocious invasion of Kuwait, his use of gas and … you know the rest. First we set him up. In the end, we hanged him.

Our own dear Anthony Blair will not be hanged for war crimes, of course. But who can say for sure that he will not make an equally speedy transition through the political-military firmament. From an initially much-loved prime minister, he became an arrogant, messianic liar who sent Britons off to die in an illegal war. Chances are, however, that he will turn out to be the devout - and extremely wealthy - peace-loving envoy who wins the Nobel Peace prize. Who knows, in a few years’ time, I may be slipping into Tony’s for a pizza and a chocolate cake that positively oozes.

by Robert Fisk

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