Italy's opposition politicians and Jewish leaders reacted with outrage Monday to a newspaper interview in which Rome's right-wing mayor refused to condemn fascism as evil.
Gianni Alemanno's comments were published Sunday by Italian daily Corriere della Sera as the mayor and other Italian politicians concluded a trip to Israel that included a stop at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
In the interview, Alemanno condemned the racial laws passed by Benito Mussolini's regime in 1938, but when asked if he considered fascism "an absolute evil" the mayor took a softer stance.
"I don't think so and I never thought so: Fascism was a more complex phenomenon," Alemanno was quoted as saying by Corriere. "Many people joined it in good faith, and I don't feel like labeling them with that definition."
Alemanno added that "the racial laws enacted by fascism, which caused its political and cultural end, were the absolute evil."
Center-left politicians accused Alemanno of rewriting history and ignoring earlier dictatorial actions by Mussolini, who seized power in 1922 and went on to curtail political freedoms and jail or murder opponents.
"It's hard not to define as an absolute evil something that for 20 years suppressed liberty," said Giuseppe Fioroni, a center-left lawmaker and former education minister.
"Before the racial laws, fascism had erased the freedom of citizens who didn't share its views. There was only one party in Parliament and unions had been destroyed," said Walter Veltroni, the opposition's leader and Alemanno's predecessor as mayor of Rome.
Veltroni said Monday he would resign in protest as head of a city commission charged with building a Holocaust museum in the capital. He said he could no longer work on the project with Alemanno, who is also a member of the commission.
Renzo Gattegna, the president of Italy's Jewish Communities, criticized Alemanno's comments, telling Corriere that "it is difficult to separate" the judgment on fascism from that on the anti-Semitic laws it passed.
"Without fascism there wouldn't have been any racial laws," Auschwitz survivor Piero Terracina told the paper.
Alemanno was quoted as saying by the ANSA news agency on Monday that his comments had been misunderstood and that the outcry had been based on "journalistic headlines and not on the reality of my statements." He also called on Veltroni to reconsider his resignation.
The 50-year-old Alemanno is a former youth leader of a neo-fascist party that turned mainstream conservative during the 1990s. He won local elections in April to become the capital's first right-wing mayor since World War II.
The choice of the city of Helsinki is not incidental as the capital of Finland had hosted US-Soviet negotiations on the limitation of nuclear stockpiles in 1969