Silvio Berlusconi: An Italian Saga

Every life story has its end, no matter how rich and powerful its protagonist. For 86-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, entrepreneur, and statesman, it came at San Raffaele Hospital in Milan on Monday morning, June 12, 2023. His life story is fascinating, and his mark on the Italian political and public scene is indelible.

Berlusconi spent longer in the position of prime minister than anyone in the history of the Italian Republic: 3,339 days, almost ten years. He was also the most controversial Italian politician since Benito Mussolini. Loved or sympathized by a majority of the Italian nation, he was also hated and reviled by a significant minority.

Berlusconi was a singular phenomenon in Italian politics, a revolutionary and explosive blend of dynamic innovation and respect for tradition. Both characterized him as a person and as a politician. The party he founded in 1994, Forza Italia, from the very beginning reflected his personality and outlook. For nearly three decades, Berlusconi would call on Italians to vote for him personally, not for an idea or a clearly defined program. That is why Berlusconi will not have a successor, and that is why the party’s supporters will probably turn either to Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy or Matteo Salvini’s Lega.

In Berlusconi’s case there is no “objective” assessment of his character and his work, as is evident in this morning’s obituaries in the Italian media. The legacy of il Cavaliere (the title which came with a decoration he received in 1977, and by which he was subsequently known) will be debated by biographers and historians for many years to come.

Born in Milan on Sept. 29, 1936, Berlusconi graduated in law and performed for a time as a singer and cabaret artist on cruise ships. He founded the construction company Edilnord in 1963. Its rise begins with his father’s contribution of 30 million lire for the purchase of plots of land and a meeting with the entrepreneur Pietro Canali, to whom the young Berlusconi proposed his first big job: the construction of the Cantieri Riuniti neighborhood in Milan. Canali offered a 10 percent stake to the novice, but Silvio asked for—and got—50 percent. He talked about himself first and foremost as an entrepreneur who built many homes and then changed the model of broadcasting and media marketing. In a 2001 biographical profile, “The Italian Story,” Berlusconi says that when an entrepreneur enters a new sector, the old foxes look at him with distrust and some sneer:

When I entered construction, I took care of the quality of life of the residents of the subdivisions I built, of the environment surrounding them, and therefore I planted hundreds of trees. The old builders said, “This cannot last, it will fail miserably!” When I started my television network, everyone said that a builder could not compete with Mondadori, Rizzoli, Rusconi, and everyone laughed at me!

The louder the laughter, the more persistently Berlusconi followed his ambition to develop a national TV network. During the 1970s, the giants Rusconi, Mondadori, and Rizzoli, the old media dynasties, started a war that he won hands down. His channels became partners in the growth of new companies and small-to-medium enterprises that wanted to reach the wider public. This was not possible while the state giant RAI held the monopoly of nationwide broadcasting. Berlusconi’s success in obtaining national frequencies after a long legal fight, and subsequently in establishing a media empire of a radically new type, was the basis of his power, enormous wealth, and political ambition.

Already a billionaire, Berlusconi discovered politics in the early 1990s and fell in love with it. Eventually, he evolved from a politician into a statesman. He was prone to various human weaknesses—everyone knows of his “bunga-bunga” sex parties with prostitutes—but overall Berlusconi was a positive phenomenon, a breath of fresh air in Italian politics. As he said in the address to his compatriots when he entered the political arena in early 1994, “Italy is the country I love, where I have my roots, my hopes, my horizons”:

It was here that I learned my job as an entrepreneur from my father and from life. Here I learned the passion for freedom. I chose to enter the field and engage in public affairs because I do not want to live in an illiberal country, governed by forces and people closely linked to a politically and economically bankrupt past… With the determination and cheerfulness that life has taught me, I tell you that it is possible to put an end to the politics of chatter, stupid fights, and time wasting. I tell you that it is possible to achieve a great dream together: of a fairer Italy, more generous to those in need, more prosperous and peaceful, a more modern and efficient player in Europe and the world.

Berlusconi’s aspiration for Italy to be an independent player on the international stage was not to the liking of external powers, which had exerted political pressure on Italy since the first day of the Republic in 1946. After “the West” won the Cold War, the globalist elites set about gradually dismantling the national sovereignty of the countries of Western Europe. It was no longer necessary to maintain the illusion of sovereignty, which was needed while the fight against the USSR was still going on. After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, that pretense ended. In Italy, this led to the collapse of the Christian Democratic Party, although its dominant part (led by Giuli Andreotti) has been for decades a faithful executor of orders from across the Atlantic.

At that crucial moment, in the early 1990s, Berlusconi appeared on the scene as the defender of Italy’s place under the globalized sun, as part of Europe and the West led by the USA to be sure, but not an unconditional servant of external powers. When a journalist asked him what his vision was, he replied that people who have “visions” should see a doctor. Already at the start of his political career, he insisted that “Europe” is not just the EU of Brussels, that Russia is an integral part. Before long the globalist elites recognized Berlusconi as a dangerous sovereignist and began to use the politicized judiciary as a tool against him.

Charming, witty, clever, and elegant, with a velvety singing voice, hugely successful in business, perfectly acquainted with the mentality and spirit of his people, at the turn of the century Berlusconi was becoming a truly invincible force on the Italian political scene. That is why the globalists used the judiciary against him, a horrid politicized apparatus that had been turned into a tool of Italian servants of the Trilateral and Davos. The judiciary, displaced from the state as a weapon of transnational elites, became an enemy of the will of the Italian people and the sovereignty of their state. It hindered and restrained Berlusconi for years through 20 indictments for tax evasion, conflict of interests, abuse of power, etc. There were irregularities, to be sure, but the inquisitorial methods used against Berlusconi were never commensurate with his sins.

Until his final day Berlusconi played a much-needed role as counterbalance to Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who presents herself as a patriot on the domestic scene but is an obedient Atlanticist on the foreign front. He tried to slow down Italy’s increasingly active role in the anti-Russian camp and advocated the beginning of the peace process in Ukraine. In the end, he was overtaken by health problems that followed him for years: prostate cancer, bypasses, covid, pneumonia, and leukemia. Berlusconi fought many battles, but the hardest was the one he could not win: against illness and the inexorable passage of time.

Silvio Berlusconi is undoubtedly the most prominent figure in Italy after World War II. Both friends and enemies agree on the importance of his outsized personality. For some, he served the aspirations and needs of his nation. For others, he was always a vulgar political celebrity and a cynic of dubious morals. Berlusconi rejected wonkish political professionalism and jargon, in line with his belief that the nation is comparable to a firm that should be run as a business project. For better or worse, he saw established institutions and rituals as a nuisance and a burden.

Berlusconi’s foreign policy was based on personal diplomacy, on mutual understanding and friendship between the powerful, which was especially evident in his close relations with Vladimir Putin. Berlusconi’s tepid Europeanism and dislike of Washington’s power holders—with the exception of George W. Bush and Donald Trump—were matched by many Western leaders’ dislike of him. Berlusconi did not suffer from the inferiority complex of his predecessors vis-à-vis Berlin and Paris. He rightly rejected the “Europeanism” of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, which meant renouncing the defense of Italian national interests in the name of imaginary “European” ones. For Berlusconi, to repeat, the borders of the European Union never corresponded to Europe as a whole, which for him necessarily included Russia.

The departure of Silvio Berlusconi closes a major chapter in the history of the Italian Republic. The founder of a new and successful center-right coalition, the creator of an entirely new way of conducting politics, he maneuvered between the aspiration to reaffirm the model of authentic liberalism (in its European sense) and the temptation to govern in the time-tested manner of behind-the-scenes arrangements. During his 30 years of active presence in Italian politics, he greatly contributed to the modernization of the country’s institutions. He rejuvenated the party system, reintegrated the post-fascist right wing of the National Alliance into the government majority, and promoted institutional acceptance of the Northern League Party’s secessionist aspirations.

On the other hand, Berlusconi failed to implement many of the reforms he promised and which were necessary for the realization of his model of Italy: with less state and more markets, with a political agenda capable of giving a boost to a stagnant economy. Despite his efforts and despite his long tenure at the head of the government, in the end even Silvio Berlusconi was unable to overcome the resistance of powerful lobbies and corporations which still dominate Italy—an infinitely complex country that has always been infinitely difficult to govern.

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