Messages from the Mafia

Federico Varese

  • Berlusconi’s Shadow: Crime, Justice and the Pursuit of Power by David Lane
    Allen Lane, 336 pp, £18.99, August 2004, ISBN 0 7139 9787 7
  • Silvio Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony by Paul Ginsborg
    Verso, 189 pp, £16.00, June 2004, ISBN 1 84467 000 7

A short film directed by Pasolini in 1966, La Terra Vista dalla Luna, opens with a caption printed over a fixed image: ‘Seen from the moon, this movie . . . is nothing and has not been created by anybody . . . But since we are on planet earth, it might be better to let you know that it is a fable written by Pier Paolo Pasolini.’ It is a fable about the power of neo-capitalism and consumerism over the minds and actions of its two protagonists. The American way of life had just reached Italy, and Pasolini had witnessed first-hand its homogenising force. He called it the ‘new Fascism’, ‘more insidious, elusive and destructive’ than the historical kind – which had failed completely to unify the country’s various cultures – because it both ‘assimilates and homogenises’. Two foreign observers of Italy, David Lane, the Economist correspondent in Rome, and Paul Ginsborg, who teaches at Florence University, are now also arguing that fascism has returned to the country.

Lane begins his book on the beaches of Lazio in January/February 1944: ‘That winter was among the coldest in Italian memory, which added to the terrible suffering of soldiers bivouacked in foxholes and trenches.’ The fighting at Anzio, after the Allied landings, was bitter, and Lane believes that the British and Commonwealth troops who were killed there died in vain. He believes this because, on first becoming prime minister in 1994, Silvio Berlusconi invited Mussolini’s political heirs into his government, and the country began to slide back into old habits. A commission was created to purge left-wing interpretations of 20th-century Italian history from school textbooks, and a senator from Forza Italia, Berlusconi’s party, proposed to mark 9 November as a national holiday: the day when, in 1926, ‘17 Communist members of parliament had been arrested and the Fascist-controlled parliament had taken measures to establish special tribunals.’

Ginsborg opens Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony with the story of a distinguished American historian who was asked what it was like to live in Italy under Fascism. ‘I didn’t really notice,’ he replied. According to Ginsborg, ‘it is even easier now not to notice.’ He thinks that Berlusconi and Mussolini ‘form a kind of commentary on one another’s character’.

How seriously should we take these recurring references to historical Fascism? Since Lane devotes significant portions of his book to the connections between Berlusconi and the Mafia, and draws on extensive judicial evidence as well as interviews with key prosecutors, we can best start in Palermo. In October 1925, Mussolini appointed Cesare Mori, a career functionary in the Ministry of the Interior, as prefect of Sicily’s regional capital. Not much interested in legality, Mori was a ruthless enforcer, his remit being to regain control of territories not fully under the sway of the increasingly totalitarian state. Between 1926 and 1928, 11,000 people were arrested in Sicily, 5,000 of them in Palermo province alone. Some 800 carabinieri were dispatched to join the Palermo force, and parts of the countryside came under military occupation. Despite offers from sections of the Sicilian aristocracy to find a mediated solution, the prefect went for total victory. Tonino Calderone, a Mafia boss, recalls in his memoirs that all the male members of his Catania family were arrested by Mori and shipped off to a prison island. When the prisoners threatened to revolt, the Fascist regime sent in the navy. The revolt subsided.

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