Antisemitic, sexist, racist, homophobic: Silvio Berlusconi’s controversial statements

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ROME, Italy – Ever the showman, former Italian prime minister and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, whose death was announced on Monday, was known for his gaffes and one-liners, many of them sexist, racist, or in poor taste.

Islam and Jews

In September 2001, two weeks after the terror attacks in the United States, Berlusconi caused outrage in the Islamic world when he said the West “should be confident of the superiority of our civilization.”

In 2010, he offended the Jewish community in turn when he told a joke about a Jewish family hiding another Jew for a hefty rent, without telling him that World War II was over.

Diplomatic gaffes

In 2003, Berlusconi sparked a diplomatic crisis between Berlin and Rome when, after heckling by German Euro-MP Martin Schulz and others at the European Parliament, he said that the German would be perfect to play the role of a Nazi camp guard in a film.

Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the Forza Italia party, waves as he arrives to vote at a polling station in Milan on March 4, 2018. (AFP Photo/Miguel Medina)

Two years later, in 2005, he offended Finland when he criticized its food and claimed he had used his “playboy” charm to convince the country’s then president Tarja Halonen to allow the EU’s Food Safety Authority to be located in Parma rather than Finland.

In 2008, shortly after the election of Barack Obama as US president, Berlusconi said “he’s young, he’s handsome and he is tanned.”

Berlusconi’s view of history

In 2003, he defended the record of Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, claiming “he never killed anyone” but merely “used to send people on holiday.”

In 2006, he said that Chinese Communists under Mao Zedong had babies “boiled to fertilize the fields.”

Sexism and homophobia

In 2008, Berlusconi ruffled feathers in Spain, when he mocked the prominent role women had in the new cabinet. He said the government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was “too pink,” predicting that “he’ll have problems leading them.”

Italian three-time premier and leader of center-right party Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi (AFP/Gabriel Bouys)

In 2009, after two rapes in Rome and the wider region, he said he wished there were enough soldiers to protect “beautiful girls” from rape, noting that rapes were impossible to prevent “even in a police state.”

He then in 2010 tried to laugh off a potentially damaging sex scandal involving a young girl by saying, “It’s better to be passionate about beautiful women than to be gay.”

Italy and himself

Berlusconi compared himself variously with Napoleon and Jesus Christ during the election campaign in 2006.

In 2009, in the aftermath of the earthquake in L’Aquila that killed more than 300 people, he suggested that those left homeless should look at their plight as a kind of camping trip.

Health scares

Berlusconi suffered a number of health scares, notably undergoing open heart surgery in 2016, and in 2020 was hospitalized with coronavirus.

Discharged 11 days later, he told reporters it was “perhaps the most difficult ordeal of my life,” but added: “Once again, I seem to have got away with it!”

Ukraine and Putin

In September 2022, seven months after Russia invaded Ukraine, Berlusconi suggested Russian President Vladimir Putin – a long-time friend – had been “pushed” into the war by his entourage.

FILE – Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visit a memorial to the soldiers from Sardinia killed in the Crimean War, near Mount Gasfort outside Sevastopol in Crimea, September 11, 2015. (Alexei Druzhinin/RIA-Novosti, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

A month later, leaked recordings emerged in which Berlusconi described receiving 20 bottles of vodka from Putin for his birthday, adding that “I responded with bottles of Lambrusco (wine) and an equally sweet letter.”

Berlusconi later blamed the war on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

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