ROME Italy's left accused Rome's right-wing mayor of trying to rewrite history after he declared that racist laws enacted during Italy's fascist era -- rather than fascism itself -- were "absolute evil".
The controversy comes amid a broader debate in Italy over whether the far right's success in elections has fed a climate of xenophobia and intolerance, with a Catholic weekly last month suggesting Italy could be witnessing a rebirth of fascism.
Gianni Alemanno, a former youth leader of a neo-fascist party who became the first right winger to be elected mayor of Rome since the fascists in 1943, in the past has also courted controversy by sporting a far-right symbol around his neck.
"Fascism was a more complex phenomenon," Alemanno told Italy's leading newspaper Corriere della Sera in an interview published on Sunday while on a trip to Jerusalem, adding that he "does not and never has" considered fascism absolute evil.
"Many people joined up in good faith and I don't feel like labeling them with that definition. The racial laws desired under fascism, that spurred its political and cultural end, were absolute evil."
The comments immediately sparked an outcry from leftist lawmakers, who accused him of trying to separate Italy's fascist past under dictator Benito Mussolini from its sins.
Mussolini ruled Italy for more than two decades with an iron fist, allying with Nazi Germany and enacting anti-Semitic laws that ousted Jews from schools and public jobs and ultimately led to the death of nearly 6,000 Italian Jews in Nazi camps.
Still, some Italians fondly recall an era characterized by more order and severity than usually seen in Italy today.
"Every effort to legitimize a tragic, dramatic and absolutely unacceptable phenomenon like fascism is totally irresponsible," said leftist lawmaker Roberto Giachetti.
"History can't be wiped clean, the fascist regime was the darkest page in the history of our country."
Opposition lawmaker Roberto Morassut said Alemanno should apologize to Italians for his "imprudent and serious statements" that amounted to an "act of revisionism".
"If fascism didn't exist, there would not have been racial laws," Auschwitz survivor Piero Terracina was quoted as saying by the Ansa news agency.
But right-wing lawmakers rallied to defend Alemanno, saying the mayor was only trying to talk about a complex chapter in Italy's history without absolving fascism of its sins.
Alemanno often complains that the left tries to tar him with the "fascist" label, despite his efforts to win over the Jewish community that has included visiting monuments to Jewish victims of Nazi occupation and Rome's synagogue.
(Editing by Robert Hart)