On 27 April 1945 Benito Mussolini, founder and leader of fascism, was shot dead by Italian communist partisans. They had found him hiding under a German military topcoat in a fleeing convoy. A day later the dictator’s body was strung up upside down in a Milan public square, the mob then subjecting the corpse to unspeakable indignities.

By any reckoning, an inglorious end. Amazing thus that Mussolini still has fans. (Past ones included Englishmen like Winston Churchill and Austen Chamberlain who warmed to fascist anti-communism.) Such as Paolo Di Canio, feisty head coach of Sunderland football club. Which prompted the resignation of former Labour Blair politico David Milliband, the club’s vice-chairman, with an ensuing kerfuffle in the media. A droll saga that will rumble on, you bet.

The priest does not give a damn about football. Still, he must not pooh-pooh this hoo-hah. Because it has led to an interview he had had this morning with Colourful Radio’s Henry Bonsu. Brilliant young journalist friend of mine. Henry will go places, I tell you!

Why does Mussolini’s vile end remind me of a scapegoat? A victim bearing a people’s sins. Going back to a primitive Hebrew ritual the Old Testament describes in Leviticus 16. Of course, unlike the poor biblical animal driven into the wilderness the dictator was not innocent. He had precipitated Italy into a disastrous, unnecessary war alongside Nazi Germany, leading eventually to his own downfall. But the Italian people were not guiltless either. In truth, the fascist regime had throughout its 20 years’ rule enjoyed massive popular support. The oceanic crowds in Rome rapturously cheered the Duce when he declared war on Britain and the US. Qualitatively they were the same angry mob that tore the helpless corpse to pieces In Milan. That way Italians sought expiation from their sins, their seduction by the clever demagogue and their active complicity in his adventures. All very savage and beastly but, as historian Rene Girard argues in Le Bouc Emissaire, a highly meaningful and cathartic procedure.

Sounds implausible but...is Paolo Di Canio also being cast in the role of scapegoat? First, by David Milliband? A failed ‘bright boy’ who had been PM Tony Blair’s head of policy and held many posts in New Labour governments. As such, along with the Prescotts, the Blunkett’s and the many ‘Blair Babes’, politically implicated in Britain’s aggressive military adventures, assaults on Muslim countries like in Afghanistan and Iraq. Did the man ever dissociate himself from such dubious exploits? Did he ever resign his posts? Anyone with a conscience should be feeling a little bit guilty about that, no? So perhaps jumping on a scapegoat, in this case a foreigner, a hot-headed Latin, makes sense. A useful scapegoat, a sacrificial victim, one who, however naive, unlike the Blair gang has not actually brought about the deaths, the maiming, the ruining of hundred of thousand innocent lives? Hhmmm...

Unfair, you object. Blair was no dictator. He and his ministers were democratic, elected politicians. No analogy with Mussolini and his regime. But is that the point? Democracies, unlike dictatorships, do not start wars, the cliché goes. Bullshit, I say! Historically false. Quite apart from countless US military interventions in Latin America, Afghanistan and Iraq did not declare war on the Western democracies – it is the other way around. And, as Noam Chomsky had maintained in Letters from Kossovo, the New Military Humanism, NATO’s war on Yugoslavia also was ‘another rampage’ under the aegis of democratic virtue. Hence the convenient myth of spotless democratic light versus despotic darkness is exploded for good. Democracies sins too. And grievously so.

What about racism? That is surely intolerable. Mussolini, however, until 1936 propounded intense patriotic nationalism, a fault shared with democracies like France and, yes, even Britain (‘my country, right or wrong’, does it ring a bell?) not biological, Nazi style racism. The shameful aggression on Ethiopia – a Christian nation! – saw the regime launching a popular, sentimental song about Abyssinians, Faccetta Nera, ‘cute black face’, hardly racist imagery.

Where Mussolini went madly wrong was with his anti-Jewish legislation, following the ill-fated alliance with Hitler. It was absurd. Jews had aided the Italian independence, the Risorgimento, and, as patriots, even joined the nascent fascist movement. There was no real tradition of anti-Semitism in Italy, apart from some harassment from the Catholic Church, terminated by the Italian state in 1870. Italian anti-Semites were few and far-between, oddball fanatics. Mussolini’s aping of Aryan doctrine was ridiculous – the Italian race is amongst the most mixed in Europe, as even Italy’s ostensibly racial theorist, Julius Evola, averred – it all stemmed from Benito’s irrational falling for Adolph, an unnatural marriage that brought ruination to both.

Di Canio, his admiration for the Duce notwithstanding, denies being a racist. Is there evidence to the contrary? Has he discriminated against a player on grounds of race? Let us hear it. Surely a man until proved guilty is innocent.

Racism came up in the Colourful Radio interview. ‘Italians are not natural racists’, I said. Henry suggested that no people or nations are. ‘I am not sure about that’, I responded. I thought of a certain Persian-Arab Gulf state whose foreign guests complained to me of the locals’ treatment but...I named no names.

Maybe no one is congenitally a racist. Still, nations which have run big empires don’t easily forget having been top-dog, lording it over others. Such as the French and the Brits. That is their tragedy. Racism or not, it is that damned, un-Christian sense of being superior to, better than others. It still underlines deep Britannia attitudes. It lurks in the English psyche. Only the radical humiliation of being conquered and ruled by others, as it has indeed befallen the Germans and the Japanese, might perhaps heal this accursed disease, the priest believes.As to Di Canio: the scapegoat should better look after itself.

Frank Gelli I am an Anglican priest and cultural critic and commentator. I have BA in Philosophy, MA in Christian Ethics, MA in Islamic Studies, PGCE in Religious Education and Oxford Certificate in Theology. I have been a journalist & drama critic in Italy and England.
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