AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
Former Italian Prime Minister and business magnate Silvio Berlusconi will be laid to rest on Wednesday after passing away Monday at the age of 86. Although the colorful leader leaves a complex legacy, he also revived the national character of Italy and shaped a new nationalism that continues to influence the West today.
The story of Berlusconi’s rise to political prominence is a true rags-to-riches story – one of a boy from an ordinary family who would always choose to embrace the next opportunity before him. Berlusconi became a successful real-estate developer in the 1970s before entering the media space, and by the late 1980s his networks dominated Italian airwaves, which he used to help launch his political career.
In 1994, Berlusconi founded the “Forza Italia” party, which roughly translates to “Forward, Italy!” in English. Recognizing broad voter dissatisfaction with the policies of the Italian left and right-wing establishments, Berlusconi rode a wave of popular support to become prime minister.
Although his first stint as prime minister lasted just seven months (Italian prime ministers are notoriously short-lived) Berlusconi would become prime minister three more times, cementing his place among Italy’s great leaders.
Throughout his tenure, Berlusconi adhered to the common-sense conservative principles that first made him popular with Italian voters. “We believe the values of our Christian tradition are the indispensable values of human life,” he said during one of his first public speeches in Rome. “That is why we believe in the family, the fundamental nucleus of our society.”
Those values were instilled in him as a young boy growing up as one of three siblings in a working-class family in Milan. Born in 1936, his family lived through the horrors of fascist rule in Italy and World War II.
One story from that time period, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shared upon Berlusconi’s visit to Israel in 2010, captures the strong sense of right and wrong that Berlusconi’s parents instilled in him from a young age.
In the middle of the war, the Germans bombed Milan extensively, forcing most of the population to seek shelter in the surrounding villages, from where they would commute into the city via bus or tram for work. One day, Berlusconi’s mother, Rosella, was traveling into town when a fascist policeman tried to arrest a Jewish girl. The girl likely would have faced torture and death in a concentration camp.
At that moment, Rosella stood up and demanded that the officer release the girl despite threats that she would be shot. She faced down the officers and pointed at the other passengers, saying, “Look at these faces. If you kill me, you will never leave this train alive.”
All of the other passengers then stood up. Seeing that he was outnumbered, the officer admitted he had lost and left the train.
Berlusconi’s experience during the war shaped him into a staunch defender of Jewish patriotism and Zionism. He later became an educator about the significance of the Holocaust, something the Italian left ignored when they smeared him as a “fascist.”
As a teenager, Berlusconi attended a Christian school, where he soon distinguished himself as an altar boy, organ player, and church choir leader. During college, he even worked part-time as a singer on a cruise ship.
After graduating from college and law school, Berlusconi became an entrepreneur, where he pioneered a revolution in Italian real estate. For his successes, he was awarded the Cavaliere del Lavoro (Knight of industry) in 1977.
At the apex of his real estate success, Berlusconi committed the unpardonable sin for which the Italian and international left would continue to punish him for 40 years: challenging the monopoly of the leftist-controlled state media. At this time Italy had three major stations that were all controlled by the government, with journalists and hosts all recruited from the inner circles of prominent Italian politicians or academics.
When Berlusconi burst onto the scene with a new and fresh take on TV media, Italians responded enthusiastically with big ratings and investment. The programming on Berlusconi’s channels included successful U.S. TV series like Dynasty, Dallas, Winds of War, and children’s cartoons, like The Smurfs.
Berlusconi’s success set off a panic among the Italian elites, one that was only exacerbated upon his entrance to politics. As a result, Berlusconi was hounded by endless investigations and even court orders that shut down some of his stations.
The battle over Berlusconi’s TV stations quickly became a larger battle over free speech – the tyrannical government-sponsored media vs. the private free-enterprise model. Upset viewers flooded politicians and the government with phone calls. Italian mothers and children demonstrated on the streets across the country: “Bring back The Smurfs!”
“We believe in freedom, but freedom is not graciously ‘granted’ by the State; it comes before the State,” Berlusconi once declared. “It is an unalienable right. The State must recognize and defend freedom; if it fails, it loses its legitimacy, becoming a tyrant.” This defense of freedom as an “unalienable right” is something rarely espoused by European politicians, and draws on the tradition established by the American Founders in the Declaration of Independence.
As a politician, Berlusconi was defined by his optimism and unwavering belief in the Italian people. The victory of Forza Italia in 1994 shocked political elites throughout the West, as it solidified the defeat of socialists just when left-wing extremism seemed to have firmly captured Western Europe.
Berlusconi’s reforms included lower taxes across the board, pro-family policies, and limits on entitlements for privileged groups. A unifying theme throughout his political career was the idea of “one Italian nation” – a revival of patriotism that had been missing in Italy since the end of the Second World War.
But his achievements did not convince the Italian left, who even after his death are still resentful of Berlusconi’s success and nostalgic about their socialist past.
Conservatives in the United States can undoubtedly relate to much of Berlusconi’s worldview, and indeed Berlusconi himself acknowledged that he was deeply indebted to the American conception of freedom and individual agency.
In 2006, Berlusconi addressed a joint session of Congress, where he shared a story about how his father took him to visit a military cemetery that was the final resting place of American soldiers. These heroes, his father explained, “had crossed the ocean to restore dignity and freedom to an oppressed people.”
“I have never forgotten that sacrifice and that oath, and I will never forget them,” Berlusconi said.
Italy has lost a great champion of freedom in Berlusconi. But his legacy continues to live on, including in current Italian Prime Minister Giorgio Meloni, who has embraced his stolid defense of inalienable rights and the primacy of the nuclear family. While many commentators are now sure to predict the collapse of Forza Italia, the party and its ideological influence is even now continuing to shape Italy through Meloni.
For every leader who believes in elevating the power of the people over the power of the government, holding true to the traditional principles of faith, family, and freedom, Berlusconi will serve as an enduring example.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.