Stop the Madness! Lay Off Berlusconi!

Look, I’ve already devoted more attention on EuroSavant this week to Silvio Berlusconi than I prefer to do to any one subject or person. I am also well aware that I have not been too terribly respectful of the current Italian prime minster. For example, in my post yesterday I used the word “jackal” (but only in reference to the way certain photos of his face that on-line newspapers have posted make him look), as well as variations on the word “insult.” Plus, in that post and in the preceding one I tried to give at least a strong impression of the sort of legal shenanigans he’s been involved in in his country ever since he was elected for the second time to be prime minister there about two years ago.

Nonetheless, I’ve now had more time to think about (and discuss) just what Berlusconi did and did not do at the European Parliament speaker’s podium. So that I am not trying to be ironic (unlike the Man himself when he addressed German MEP Martin Schulz) when I say that I can understand his bewilderment at what happened. Leave the guy alone! This is getting way out of proportion!

Just look at exactly what he said. Just listen (and look, if you can) at exactly how he said it. (I’m told the clip is available on-line; myself, I listened to him via the BBC World Service’s report of Wednesday evening.) People, he was trying to make a joke! The fellow giving him lip from the assembled delegates was some German named Schulz. There was also a German named Schulz (“Sergeant Schulz”) playing a prominent role in the 1960s American TV comedy series “Hogan’s Heroes,” which apparently has been enjoying a second life of syndication revenues on European TV in the past decades. Berlusconi was under pressure; his overheated brain connected “Sergeant Schulz” with the Schulz asking insistent questions in front of him, and so tried to lighten the atmosphere with reference to a movie currently being filmed in Italy and Schulz playing the role of “Schulz.” Of course, the effect turned out to be quite the opposite of what he intended – and that’s putting it mildly, as this incident seems have escalated into a diplomatic confrontation between two of the European Union’s leading member-states.

In short, Berlusconi got under pressure and tried winging it, tried for some extemporaneous wit, and in so doing he must have forgotten the advice his handlers surely gave him before he went out there into the lions’ den, i.e. to try nothing of the sort. For he didn’t have a chance with that audience, with so many of its member predisposed not to like him or anything he said. His safest strategy was to take no chances whatsoever, to stick tightly in his answers and remarks in the debate to the tried-and-true, the non-controversial and politically-correct. Silvio Berlusconi’s triumph before the European Parliament would not have seen him triumphantly marching out the door to the cheers of the assembled delegates (truly the impossible dream) but rather tip-toeing out to the snores of MEPs enjoying a deep and restful sleep.

In his “Kapo for the Nazis” reference, Berlusconi made a couple of errors. The minor one was the lack of true analogy: Sergeant Schulz was not a “kapo” (a “kapo” was a concentration camp prisoner who had gained the trust of the camp authorities and so performed work for them and was granted better living conditions – in American terms, a “trusty”); he was of course Sergeant Schulz, a living embodiment (at a low level) of camp authority.

But the big error was with “Nazi.” You simply don’t use that word in Germany, and/or with Germans, in any off-hand way. Just like, in America, white people simply do not use another “n- word” at all, which in the not-so-distant past was used to refer to Afro-Americans. (That is, black Americans. Hello to all EuroSavant readers from places like Spain and Italy and Japan – I have technical means to know you are out there! – who may not be familiar enough with American culture to know which “n- word” I’m talking about here. I certainly welcome your interest, but sorry, I will not spell this word out for you; if you have questions, please e-mail me.) Now, Afro-Americans themselves can use this “n- word” all they like; but white Americans cannot.

It’s the same way in Germany, with another “n- word” – Nazi – and its derivatives (e.g. “Hitler,” “Gestapo”). This is for obvious historical reasons; Hitler and the Nazis were without a doubt the greatest disaster to ever befall the German nation. One result of this is that, sorry, there is no room for humor here. (Although it is true that “Hogan’s Heroes” has played on Germany TV. Maybe that’s OK to the Germans because it’s an American creation. Or maybe that’s just not OK.) If you call a German a Nazi, or compare him to Hitler, in any context, you are seriously offending him indeed. And it’s just as serious for a German who calls someone else a Nazi; recall former German Federal Justice Minister Herta Däubler-Gmelin, who reportedly compared George W. Bush to Hitler in the German election campaign last year, and who as a result was pressured not to return to the government once Gerhard Schröder’s SPD-Green coalition had won re-election.

Unfortunately, Silvio Berlusconi spent his formative years not studying German literature or culture (or probably any other literature or culture for that matter, including Italian), but in earning large amounts of Italian lire and buying up other Italian companies. He does not have it in his head that mentioning anything having to do with the Nazis anywhere Germans are likely to be present – i.e. within the halls of any EU institution – is simply not done. But he is also not cut of the same politically-correct cloth as the Euro-parliamentarians he addressed on Wednesday, most of whom have never had to meet a payroll in their lives. He speaks off the cuff, shoots from the hip – that’s painfully obvious – and in retrospect it seems plain that introducing such a character into a European Parliament that is so pre-disposed not to like him was like tossing a lit match into gunpowder. Still, such a direct, get-things-done attitude could be precisely the breath of fresh air that the EU needs to make progress at this important time in its history; that’s at least what most Italians thought (with reference to their own country’s problems, of course) when they voted his party into power.

Even as they unite certain aspects of their politics and public administrations, the fifteen (and then the twenty-five) nations of the European Union still constitute 15/25 different cultures (or more). When their representatives encounter each other in common European institutions, cultural misunderstandings are going to be inevitable, despite everyone’s best intentions. It was just such a misunderstanding – and not any calculated attempt at defamation – that occurred in the European Parliament on Wednesday. Once it did, both sides fell back on the knee-jerk reaction of defending their dignity and denouncing the other side: Gerhard Schröder in making it plain he was waiting for an apology, Berlusconi’s people in insisting that he had been sorely provoked and in demonizing Martin Schulz. (Schulz had every right to raise the points that he did in Parliament, although Berlusconi would also have been within his rights to respond “I’m here not to discuss myself but the EU’s agenda over the next six months.”)

It’s this sort of irrational but all-to-human escalating chain of events that, in the plays of Chekhov, results in a husband and wife never speaking to each other again after one of them originally makes a simple comment about the soup that the other takes the wrong way. Except that here what is at risk of going bad in a storm of recrimination and bad feeling is the business of the European Union during one of its most important six-month presidencies in a long time. Silvio Berlusconi’s apology – for an incredibly-bad joke, not a deliberate insult – has now been made; the task now is for everyone to lighten up, if belatedly, and to support his Italian presidency as it pushes the EU’s important business forward.

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