European Parliament President Antonio Tajani apologized Thursday for remarks interpreted as praise for Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and insisted he is "a committed anti-fascist."
Tajani, who is a member of Silvio Berlusconi's center-right Forza Italia party, came under fire after telling Radio 24 on Wednesday evening that before Mussolini "declared war on the entire world, following Hitler, until he promoted the racial laws," the dictator did some "positive things," such as improving infrastructure.
After an outcry in Italy and abroad, including calls for his resignation, Tajani shot back on Twitter, saying it was disgraceful that his comments had been "manipulated." He later apologized for his remarks in a statement issued by his office in Strasbourg.
He said his comments were not intended to "play down an anti-democratic and totalitarian regime."
"I have always been whole-heartedly anti-fascist," Tajani said. "I have always stressed that Mussolini and fascism were the darkest chapter in the history of the past century."
Tajani was the target of criticism for his initial comments on Mussolini from a wide range of sectors, including European Commission Vice-President Franz Timmermans and Human Rights Watch.
Italy has struggled to come to terms with its fascist past, with neo-fascist parties playing a role in postwar Italy while supporting fascism was made a crime.
Mussolini was Italy's dictator for two decades until his summary execution in 1945. He allied fascist Italy with Nazi Germany in World War II and enacted racial laws that discriminated against Jews, paving the way for their deportation to Nazi death camps.
Political scientist Giovanni Orsina of Rome's LUISS University suggested that Tajani's "incautious" remarks may have been calculated to attract votes in the upcoming European Parliament elections from the right-wing League. Its leader Matteo Salvini has in his role as interior minister taken a tough law-and-order stance regarding migrants and also the right to self-defense.
Orsina said the Italian center-right in particular has been characterized by "the refusal to demonize fascism."