When il capo met kapo

Dominic Standish reports from Italy on why Europe failed to get Silvio Berlusconi's 'ironic joke'.

Dominic Standish

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Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s comments in the European Parliament, and the furore following it, was a bizarre affair. Now that the dust has settled, what are we to make of a joke that caused the European Parliament in Strasbourg to be suspended?

The controversy centred on Berlusconi’s reaction to points made by Martin Schulz, a German Social Democrat member of the European Parliament (MEP), on 2 July 2003. Berlusconi, currently acting president of the European Union (EU), said:

‘Mr. Schulz, I know there is a man in Italy producing a film on the Nazi concentration camps. I would like to suggest you for the role of kapo. You’d be perfect.’

A kapo was normally chosen from prisoners by the Nazis to supervise inmates in concentration camps, and was usually hated. But Berlusconi had failed to appreciate that Germany’s political culture is based on rejecting the Nazi experience. He claimed he had merely made an ‘ironic joke’, but had clearly not seen Basil Fawlty’s jokes upset Germans in the classic British comedy Fawlty Towers: ‘don’t mention the war’ became the motto for jokes with Germans.

The German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s office immediately summoned the Italian ambassador, describing Berlusconi’s remarks as ‘unacceptable.’ After a telephone call between Schroeder and Berlusconi, Schroeder said: ‘He expressed his regret in the choice of expression and comparison. I explained that as far as I am concerned, this ends the affair.’

But like most affairs, this one was difficult to end. ‘I want to underline that yesterday I did not offer any apologies concerning the German parliamentarian’, added Berlusconi at a news conference in Rome. This provoked a second round of criticism from European politicians and journalists.

Robin Cook, former UK foreign secretary, encouraged Berlusconi to apologise because ‘the whole point of the European ideal is to get away from crude national stereotyping’. But where were such comments for members of the European Parliament, who held up signs saying ‘No Godfather for Europe’ as Berlusconi began his opening parliamentary address?

It was rare to find mention of the provocation for Berlusconi’s Nazi jibe. The French minister of industry and former president of the European Parliament, Nicole Fontaine, suggested that it was Schulz who should apologise to Berlusconi. ‘I am puzzled by the fact that attention and indignation concentrated only on the response of Silvio Berlusconi to Mr Schulz, without considering what provoked it’, she said during a visit to Rome on 7 July (1).

Many have accused the Italian media of failing to fully report Berlusconi’s Nazi jibe (2). But if you try searching the European press for Martin Schulz’s comments to which Berlusconi was reacting, they are very hard to find. Schulz attacked an anti-immigrant statement by a leading member of Berlusconi’s coalition government, Umberto Bossi, claiming that Bossi’s sentiments contradicted the EU’s charter of fundamental rights. ‘You are required as President of the (European) Council to defend these values’, Schulz said to Berlusconi. ‘Defend these values against your own minister, then’, said Schulz – warning that ‘the virus of Italian conflict of interest is being transferred to the EU’.

Schulz’s diatribe was the culmination of a crescendo of criticism in Europe as Italy was preparing to take over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU. Germany’s Der Spiegel newspaper had referred to Berlusconi as ‘The Godfather’, and the Greek paper To Vima said that ‘Europe is trembling at the thought of Silvio’. Berlusconi’s comments, stupidly, gave his media critics just what they were looking for.

There is a strange theory that Italians are living under a dictatorship that could spread across Europe through Berlusconi’s EU presidency. ‘Berlusconi has been pursuing a policy of creeping totalitarianism’, wrote Martin Jacques in the UK’s Guardian newspaper. ‘This kind of political style is a direct descendant of fascism’, he said – warning that ‘It is time Europe woke up to the threat Berlusconi poses’ (3).

Critics often focus on Berlusconi’s policies to curb immigration and his control of the media. Italy’s government has tightened laws on illegal immigration – but all EU governments agreed at their last summit in Greece on a clampdown on illegal immigration. Through his family’s ownership of private channels and his influence over state channels as prime minister, Berlusconi is said to control about 90 percent of Italian television (4). In a widely acclaimed new book The Dark Heart of Italy, Tobias Jones claims Berlusconi is duping Italians through TV:

‘Berlusconi has been compared, not unfairly, to Mussolini: both had a balcony from which they could harangue, cajole and persuade adoring voters. Berlusconi, being the head of Italy’s “videocracy”, is only different because he owns an electronic balcony.’ (5)

Berlusconi may be right-wing, and many of his policies objectionable, but he is no Mussolini. It is true that most Italian TV is pretty bad, although not much worse than in the UK or Germany. But to suggest that this explains Berlusconi’s political success presents Italians as passively following whatever they see on TV. (It also fails to explain why Berlusconi’s last government fell in 1994 after only eight months in power, or why he lost the 1996 general election.)

The absence of a real political opposition to Berlusconi is a better explanation for his success – though this is rarely mentioned. The centre-left coalition has been divided over issues like the Iraq war and is struggling to find a replacement for its stale leader, Francesco Rutelli. As I reported for spiked after the 2001 general election (6), one major reason for Berlusconi’s historically large majority was that the leading opposition coalition failed to offer any radically different policies on key issues like immigration.

This also contributed to the personalisation of Italian politics, which has helped Berlusconi’s immensely. If the leading candidates are offering more or less the same politics, then voting is reduced to who seems to be the most suitable character. For Italians, a man who owns a leading football club, AC Milan, and is Italy’s most successful businessman seemed like the best one for the job.

No wonder that Berlusconi has become even more obsessed with his own character. His past as a cruise ship entertainer and corporate leader means he thinks he can boss people around and poke fun at them. For many entrepreneurial Italians it is an attractive quality to show others who’s the boss (il capo). The majority of business people I have spoken to in Italy approved of Berlusconi’s putdown of Schulz.

Nevertheless, it is also clear that there is considerable unease within Italy’s traditional establishment over Berlusconi’s comments – as well as his introduction of legislation that protects him from prosecution for corruption charges while he is prime minister. Italy’s leading daily newspaper Corriere della Sera commented on 3 July:

‘The European presidency could not have got off to a worse start.… What happened at Strasbourg underlines for the umpteenth time questions that have afflicted the centre-right government from the beginning.’

The spat with Germany over Berlusconi’s Nazi joke has the potential to damage relations with Italy’s most important trading partner. An undersecretary in Italy’s Industry Ministry, Stefano Stefani, wrote about German ‘stereotyped blondes with a hyper-nationalist pride’ in an open letter in the Northern League’s newspaper, La Padania, on 4 July. Chancellor Schroeder’s spokesperson, Bela Anda, told Berlin’s daily Tagesspiegel on 8 July that the Chancellor would cancel his summer holiday in Italy if the Italian government approved of Stefani’s remarks.

The Italian government promptly distanced itself from them. Berlusconi also expressed his regret for his original comments to Schulz during a telephone call with the European Parliament president, Pat Cox. Again, the matter was declared settled. But on 9 July, Schroeder cancelled his holiday in Italy.

There is no real reason for Italy and Germany to fall out. However, the same could be said for the diplomatic tensions between the USA and France and Germany over the past year. Recall that it was the German justice minister, Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, who was dropped from Schroeder’s cabinet after comparing tactics used by US President George W Bush to those used by Adolf Hitler.

Berlusconi may be unsophisticated and this was not his first ‘gaffe’ (8). But as the traditions of diplomatic etiquette are dying out, he is not the only one to offend.

Dominic Standish is conducting PhD research in Venice, Italy, and writes for many publications on Italian politics (

Read on:

Italy’s Unfashionable Elections, by Dominic Standish

The Italian Gaffe, by Dominic Standish

Badly behaved diplomacy, by Josie Appleton

(1) ‘It’s Schulz that started it’, Corriere della Sera, 8 July 2003

(2) ‘Italian TV accused of censoring furore over Berlusconi jibe’, Sophie Arie, Guardian, 5 July 2003

(4) ‘The Italian poisoner’, Martin Jacques, Guardian, 5 July 2003

(5) ‘Berlusconi courts new controversy’, BBC News, 8 July 2003

(6) The Dark Heart of Italy, Tobias Jones, Faber and Faber, London, 2003

(7) Italy’s Unfashionable Elections, by Dominic Standish

(8) The Italian Gaffe, by Dominic Standish

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