ROME – Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi (search) was quoted Thursday as saying that fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (search) never killed anyone and only sent people away on vacations in internal exile, a claim that distressed Jewish leaders.
The premier later explained that he had not intended to re-evaluate Mussolini's place in history, and had only been responding to a comparison between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Mussolini's Italy made by his interviewer.
The published remarks appeared in London's conservative weekly The Spectator and the Italian daily La Voce di Rimini. Berlusconi granted the interview to two Spectator journalists, one of whom also works for La Voce.
Berlusconi made the comment after one of the interviewers equated Iraq after Saddam with Italy in the years after Mussolini.
"Mussolini never killed anyone. Mussolini used to send people on vacation in internal exile," Berlusconi was quoted as saying.
The premier clarified his remark later. He also said the interview was supposed to be a "summer chat" with The Spectator, and that he didn't know that the material would also appear in the Italian paper. Berlusconi added that he'd expected to be able to review the interview text before publication.
"I didn't accept his comparison, or the comparison of my country to another dictator or another dictatorship, that of Saddam Hussein, which provoked millions of deaths," Berlusconi said at a news conference.
Amos Luzzatto, president of the Italian Jewish community, expressed "sadness" over the remarks.
"The Fascist regime did not make extermination camps for the Jews, but certainly it contributed to creating them," he told the AGI news agency. "If killing someone only means hitting an adversary and killing him, then not even Hitler killed anyone. But in that way, we can say that there are no murderers in the world."
Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League (search) in New York, said by phone that comparing dictators does no good.
"It's like comparing suffering," Foxman said. "One doesn't need to parse evil. Dictatorships are evil and it's not a matter of degree."
Mussolini ruled Italy from 1922 until his ouster in 1943. Widespread persecution of Italian Jews began in 1938 when Mussolini's regime issued racial laws. In 1943, German troops occupied northern and central Italy, and almost 7,000 Jews were deported, 5,910 of whom were killed.
The Italian Jewish community numbers about 30,000, mainly in Rome and Milan.
Historian Dennis Mack Smith, who wrote the biography "Mussolini," said the Italian dictator was not a killer on the scale of Hitler or Stalin, but had certainly been a brutal leader.
"Mussolini never stood over and ordered killings himself," Mack Smith said. "He would not do it himself because he was rather squeamish. But he had absolutely no compunction in having people killed."
Berlusconi is known for off-the-cuff remarks that have sometimes gotten him into trouble. Speaking at the European Parliament in July, he told a German lawmaker who had criticized him that the man should appear in a movie as a Nazi concentration camp guard.
Berlusconi said the remark was meant as a joke and later expressed regret.