Silvio Berlusconi (Reuters)

Silvio Berlusconi's latest remarks, in which he defended Italy's fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, hardly came as a surprise to those used to the populist strategy of the 76-year-old former premier.

To commemorate International Holocaust day, the media mogul said Mussolini's anti-Semitic race laws were the worst fault of the dictator "who, in many other ways, by contrast, did well". He said Italy "did not have the same responsibility as Germany" and Mussolini's alliance with Hitler "was not completely aware". The government of that time, fearing German power, "preferred to ally itself with Hitler's Germany rather than opposing it".

Willingly ignoring even the most elementary factual evidences of history, Berlusconi even hinted that Mussolini was forced to exterminate Jews - which is a blatant lie, since the 1938 Italian race laws were imposed out of a fascination for Nazi Germany, not because it was forced to.

But it would be naïve to think that Berlusconi's comments on such a highly-symbolic occasion are just the bitter fruit of senile dementia. As some commentators pointed out, the experienced media communicator managed to grab the headlines once again, shifting the public's attention from the complicated - and double-edged - scandal of Monte dei Paschi di Siena, thus dictating the media agenda and setting his own goals.

Even better, while Italians were looking suspiciously at the massive slush fund at a bank traditionally close to the Left, he picked from his magic box of favourite tricks, pointing the finger at the underbelly of Italian history. Roberto Saviano, the writer of the anti-mafia best-seller, Gomorra, led the condemnation of Berlusconi's remarks along with many other personalities from across the political spectrum.The leitmotif is that Berlusconi is trying to intercept votes from the far-right. But this theory is not persuasive.

As the overwhelming, obsessive media coverage demonstrates, Berlusconi's aim is far higher. After 20 years, he wants to reinstate the deep communion between him and the nation, invoking the sort of divine ritual that allowed an enthusiastic priest to say once that Berlusconi was "a gift of God to Italy".

In this context, Italians' fascination for strongmen, particularly Mussolini, has been widely debated and serves Berlusconi's electoral purposes and the former PM's aide, Renato Brunetta, was able to claim that "most of Italians share Silvio's opinion on Mussolini".

Berlusconi essentially targets those Italians who are more "a-fascist" than "anti-fascist",

The omnipresent stereotype that during Fascism the "trains arrived on time" became the apologia that allowed a whole country to come to terms with its own past, to bury the uncontested fact that it was Mussolini who was the first totalitarian dictator.

"Italiani brava gente" translated into "Italians, good people" is the long-lasting nursery rhyme that cuddled generations into thinking that the bloody dictator who sent to death or exiled opponents, crushed personal freedoms, imposed racial laws (and delivered thousands to concentration camps) and steered youths and elders to the deadliest conflict of the 20<sup>th century was after all "a good man".

The former prime minister knows this rhetoric very well. Next month, the election will tell whether it was successful.

Gianluca Mezzofiore is IBTimes UK's foreign correspondent