The terrorism that is now endemic in Italy evolved gradually, from the ideological extremism of the revolutionary generation of 1968, through the "hot autumn" of labor unrest in the Turin-Milan-Genoa industrial triangle, through the first guerrilla skirmishes in the "piazzas," to the ambushes that, beginning in the middle of the 1970s, marked the birth of a new category of citizens who walk on crutches.

The year 1976 saw the start of a sensational series of "executions," and by 1977 there were twice as many cases of terrorism and lesser guerrilla warfare as there had been the previous year. Finally, in March of 1978 came the Black Thursday Massacre which ended in the sinister imprisonment and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro.

A political terrorist is someone who systematically makes use of killing, wounding, destruction and other means of coercive intimidation in pursuit of political objectives. This is the definition given by Walter Laqueur in his history of terrorism.1 He traces terrorism back to the ancient Palestinian sect of the sicarii (from sica, a short sword hidden under the coat). In Jacobin France, the word "terror" was used to refer to an emergency regime called into being by historical necessity. After the ninth of Thermidor, however, it became a term of abuse with criminal implications. It then crossed the Channel to England where the neologism was used by Burke in a celebrated passage: "Thousands of those hell hounds called terrorists. . . ."

Although retaining its criminal connotations, revolutionary or nationalistic terrorism was nevertheless employed in the last century as an ultima ratio against local or foreign tyranny in czarist Russia, Ireland, South America and the colonial world. Now, in the aftermath of the youth revolts of 1968, revolutionary terrorism has for the first time in history broken out in several Western liberal democracies.

Whenever, in societies governed by a lawfully constituted state, non-identification with the state becomes rejection and rejection becomes terrorist revolt, then a more thorough examination of the theories underlying the phenomenon must be made.


What explanations, what attempts at ideological self-justification and legitimacy are to be found in the language used by the terrorists? Even a brief analysis points up their contradictions. The terrorists claim, for example, that there is no difference between liberal democracy, South American-style dictatorship and fascism because, despite a few formal distinctions, all are equally oppressive structures. Yet when arrested, these same terrorists demand the most lenient application of the laws that form the very backbone of the lawfully constituted state which they disavow in their basic premises. They declare war on a state in which capital punishment is not practiced and appeal to the Geneva convention on prisoners of war in defending themselves; for their part, however, they hand down death sentences to servants of the state and kill their own "prisoners of war." One corollary to their basic tenets is that information circulating inside the system is manipulated. At the same time, the main purpose of their action is to capture the attention of the press and the news media in order to publicize their pronouncements or theories. They know perfectly well that no restrictive laws exist by which such publication can be prevented.

At first glance, we seem to be dealing with an ideological schizophrenia that simultaneously enunciates and denies a system of justifications. It would be tempting to conclude that the tormented, lonely, mournful terrorists are completely lacking in ideological motives, that they are simply arrogant elitists who have been seized with a lust for killing and terrorizing. However, such explanations do not adequately explain the phenomenon. Among other things, it remains to be explained why only some Western societies have been affected by this radical repudiation of the state.

In France, for instance, the number of theoretical extremist creeds, unemployed youths and dropouts is far greater than in West Germany. And yet France has been untouched by anything like the German Baader-Meinhof organization, except for local ethnic revolts such as those in Corsica and Brittany. Great Britain is untainted by rebellion, apart from the ethnoreligious strife in Ulster. Post-Franco Spain has had only Basque separatism to face, just as Canada has its Quebec problem. Outside the short-lived apparition of the Weathermen, the United States has had to deal only with the racial terrorism-already on the wane-of the Black Panthers and the Symbionese Liberation Army. In other parts of the world-Scandinavia, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria-terrorism is non-existent. Among the modern industrialized countries, Italy, Germany and Japan are hosts to systemic revolutionary confrontation not rooted in any nationalist-separatist, racial or ethnoreligious cause. The extent of confrontation varies by country and is directly related to economic and political conditions.

It so happens that these are the three nations that lost the last war. Some "terrorologists" like Karl Dietrich Bracher of the University of Bonn have pointed out other common features: the introduction of democracy only after military defeat, overly rapid changes in "value systems," and the improvisation of ideologies scorning material prosperity in the midst of economic "miracles" (brought to an untimely end by the 1973-74 oil crisis).2

There is one other common factor: the three industrialized societies affected by ideological terrorism all lie on the frontiers of the great international blocs.

Another similarity, according to the armed extremists' ideology of cut-and-dried Leninist conceptions of imperialism, is that the rulers of these countries are under the sway of a foreign supergovernment. The terrorists believe the world is actually "supergoverned" by a powerful and mysterious "club"-as they unfailingly reiterate in their attacks against the "Imperialist State of the Multinationals." For example, they are convinced that the Trilateral Commission is the long-range policy planning staff of the giant multinationals; that President Carter was created and imposed on the United States by them; that contemporary imperialism (still defined in Leninist terms or even more often in "the catastrophic terms of the Third International") exercises its power in the world through similar instruments.


In Italy, the country most affected by the phenomenon of terrorism, as the Italian sociologist Sabino Acquaviva has observed, the guerrilla warfare of ideological confrontation advances on two fronts, drawing its recruits from among youth. On the one hand are the closely knit underground "columns" of the Red Brigades, who, making the factories of northern Italy their initial target, carry out sensational, military-style actions. On the other are the smaller armed factions (with 115 different names to date) and the suburban "autonomous collectives" that are systematically engaged in spreading violence in the form of full-scale guerrilla warfare and, like a "family of moles," daily expand the underground areas under their control. There were 702 terrorist attacks in Italy in 1975, 1,198 in 1976, 2,128 in 1977, and the number is still rising. Although there are only a few hundred underground leaders and militants, their efficiency and the extent to which they can find accomplices, protection and camouflage is quite alarming.

A January 17, 1978 Italian Communist Party (PCI) survey put the number of actual underground guerrillas at 700 to 800 and the extremists living on the fringe of legality-and often armed-at about 10,000. According to an autobiographical account by a member of the Prima Linea faction published in the Italian weekly Panorama, the "combatants" number about 3,000, or about the same as the number of Italian partisans who were active between September 1943 and March 1944.

The 1950s had already seen in Italy the rise of forms of terrorism involving explosives, the cult of firearms and paramilitary camps. This terrorism had fascist, nationalist or Nazi origins, and drew its inspiration from the ghosts of Mussolini's Salò Republic and theorists like Julius Evola. It was really an extension of the 1943-45 civil war.3 During the 1960s and 1970s the basis of the "strategy of tension" was still neo-fascist, but with some infiltration from and perhaps even the complicity of the secret services. Then extreme right-wing terrorism was dealt a series of crippling blows and the far Left gained the upper hand through the Red Brigades, Armed Proletarian Nuclei and the subsequent plethora of revolutionary offshoots.

Fascist terrorism, which mainly made use of explosives, was blind, indiscriminate and impersonal. It had no social foundations or cover. On the other hand, the mainstream of far-Left terrorism, which in Italy can be more accurately defined as an armed resistance movement against democracy, tends rather to use revolvers and submachine guns, to strike at well-chosen symbolic individuals while at the same time exploiting the media. Lesser terrorists have been more inclined to infiltrate street riots and try to steer them toward open guerrilla warfare, profiting by the favorable conditions and the social justification offered by the Italian crisis of the 1970s.

The progression of events in 1977 is a good illustration of the social and cultural milieu in which guerrilla warfare grew up. In January the so-called Metropolitan Indians, or "creative nihilists," appeared on the university campuses. In February the Indians, followed closely by neo-Leninist or anarchic groups from the "autonomous" student movement armed with P.38 pistols, defied both the PCI itself and the PCI-led General Confederation of Italian Workers (CGIL) when they stormed the platform from which CGIL President Luciano Lama was speaking at the University of Rome. March saw the outbreak of pitched battles in the streets of Rome and even in Bologna, a Communist Party stronghold, where the police had to use armored vehicles to quell the disturbances.

From June on, the civil unrest was paralleled by full-scale guerrilla war. With each passing day the underground groups, organized into "beehive" cells, emptied their pistols into the legs of magistrates, police officers, journalists, local party leaders, factory managers and foremen, at the same time keeping up a steady stream of ritual killings of members of the judiciary, including Francesco Coco, Public Prosecutor of Genoa, and Fulvio Croce, Chairman of the Turin Lawyer's Association. In November, in broad daylight, Carlo Casalegno, deputy editor of the Turin daily La Stampa, was shot four times in the face with a Nagant 7.62 pistol. The fourth shot, the coup de grace, was fired as he lay on the ground.

Guerrilla terrorism thus succumbed to an urge to commit purely ideological murder, the violent repression of any reasoning alternative, and an obsessive form of class struggle. When people were shot in the legs in intimidation or reprisal, the terrorists were showing that they could restrain and gauge their murderous fanaticism, that they were still capable of calculation and of making distinctions. In other words, it was politicized and even "merciful" in its arbitrariness. When they began to kill high-ranking officials of the state's legal system, they did so because they were carried away by their lust to destroy, at least symbolically, those powers that they could not overthrow. But from the moment they changed their aim and "executed" a journalist, a simple interpreter of a system of thought and judgment, the shadow of a figure who had conferred upon himself an "ideological" power of life or death over others was cast over the scene.

In the three historical waves of terrorism described by Walter Laqueur, including the most recent which has affected a number of Western countries for the past decade, no such phenomenon had ever occurred before, at least not on such a large scale. Indeed, the terrorist tradition had relatively shallow roots in Italian history, i.e., the murder of King Humbert I and several episodes on the eve of fascism. Nonetheless, the execution of a great political crime was predictable, and was felt to be imminent. It happened on March 16, 1978, with the kidnapping of Aldo Moro, five times premier and candidate for the presidency of the Republic, by a combat group of young terrorists. Their orders were to "carry the attack to the heart of the state." Their tactics, involving the instant killing of the police escort, resembled those used by the Rote Armee Fraktion in the Cologne bloodbath in which the German industrialist Hans Martin Schleyer was kidnapped.

Their strategy, which they pursued through the propaganda appeal of the mass media, had several aims and was resolutely pursued for 54 days, until the hostage was put to death. Their main aim was to eliminate the central figure of the system of mediation on which the delicate balance of Italian politics, including the shaky accords negotiated between Christian Democrats and Communists, depended. They intended to bring the hostage to trial as the symbol of their concept of an "objective enemy," and of themselves as agents duly appointed by history and invested with powers of life and death. They also wanted to negotiate an exchange of prisoners and de facto recognition of their faction as an armed revolutionary party-a Palestine Liberation Organization without a Palestine and with no foreign army occupying the lawfully constituted state.

Above all, they wanted to inflict the greatest possible emotional shock on the political forces in order to split them into ruthless "hawks" and irresponsible "doves," and at the same time cause maximum disorganization of the executive and judiciary apparatus, already harassed by continual attacks. By so doing they hoped to reveal the impotence of the legal institutions and to spread public and private panic, thus paving the way for their plan for the South Americanization of Italy which would make the great "revolutionary civil war" possible.

One essential element of contemporary ideological terrorism, from the Stalinist period down to the occult rituals of present-day guerrillas, is the sacrificial trial, preferably with the adjunct of a confession. For some years now, young terrorists in Italy have consistently subjected their prisoners to trials, and when they themselves are captured have subjected their judges to counter-trials. But if they imagined that their prisoner, Aldo Moro, was going to reveal earth-shaking state secrets, they had fallen victim to their own ideology, according to which a secret "state conspiracy" was still afoot. Their hostage could not reveal the conspiratorial plans of a supergovernment, which the extremists believe in because of their own cut-and-dried ideology, but only certain details of under-the-table dealings and episodes of misgovernment that were already common knowledge.

The exchange of prisoners and tacit recognition of the "armed party" were, in any case, rejected by all the constitutional forces on the grounds that this would have led to the collapse of the state; that is, not only to a South Americanization, but perhaps even to a "Lebanonization" of a disintegrating society. As in any true tragedy, two opposing issues were at stake, namely, an individual political figure's "right to live" versus the need to preserve a minimum of security and social cohesion, to which some observers have applied the unsuitable or abstract term of raison d'état. It would be perhaps more correct to say the "right of the many to live."

The Italian government was only partially successful in meeting this challenge. It managed to defend a legal principle, but was unable to meet its first and foremost obligation, that of obtaining the hostage's freedom from a terrorist organization that had declared war on a state.


Who are these terrorists and how did they reach this point? In Italy, the spread of the psychological and ideological notion that it is debilitating and repugnant to have any truck with an "enemy" who represents absolute evil can be traced back to the 1960s, and is the result of the emotional echoes of distant conflicts (Vietnam, South America, the Middle East), the cumulative effects of decades of ideological popularization, and the social upheavals wrought by the economic boom and the youth revolts. In the early 1970s, partly because of the existing deadlock between the main political parties and partly because of the failure of every new government, there was a growing awareness of the transition between extremism "of ends" and extremism "of means."4

All extremism of ends is based on the assumption that an ideology is revealed truth and that, if taken to extremes, it becomes an extreme or absolute truth. Generally speaking, however, in Italy, at least until quite recently, this was merely implicit in the thinking of the traditional left-wing extremist creeds. The worth or grandeur of an aim was not thought to justify every kind of action.

On the other hand, extremism of means, which is not necessarily linked to extremism of ends, consists of direct action with immediate objectives, often of a specific or limited nature. Separatist or nationalistic terrorists or, in Italy, those fascists who have never conceived of any plan for society based on a total revolution in social relations, often pursue ends that are specific and limited in nature.

In the Italian tradition, extremism of ends was more suited to the Left, whereas extremism of means and even the "conceptual necessity" of terrorism were represented in the very symbols of fascism (daggers and skulls) and even recently have produced neo-fascist or neo-Nazi groupuscules such as Ordine Nuovo, Ordine Nero, Anno Zero, Fenice, Avanguardia Nazionale and Riscossa.

But how did extremism of means spread to the Left? The galvanizing effect of the media's treatment of distant guerrilla wars and revolutions, the attraction and perhaps the myth of danger after 30 years of peace, the economic crisis in Italy combined with the Leninist or neo-Leninist assertion that, in comparison with the society one has in mind, the existing society cannot be tolerated for even one more day, and that compared with the repressive violence of the state, revolutionary terrorism is merely counter-terrorism, combined to foster the growth of extremism of means in the far Left.

Accounts and reports containing hundreds of biographies are now devoted to the seditious left-wing organizations that have taken over from the neo-fascist "strategy of tension."5 The Red Brigades got their start mainly among dissident Communists and Catholics of the Metropolitan Collective of Milan.6 The Communists came from traditional PCI strongholds like Reggio Emilia or Sesto San Giovanni, where the Party's control had been gradually eroded by the steady dimming of conventional revolutionary prospects of seizing power. Important figures like Renato Curcio7 and, to an even greater extent his wife, Margherita Cagol,8 had been not only believing but also practicing Catholics up to two years before they became revolutionaries. They then became converts to that post-religious ideology in which absolute values are transferred from transcendental faith to sanctified social conflicts.9

These were parallel processes. In the case of the young Communists, while the nature of the PCI was being transformed by revisionism, the virus of revolutionary ideas, previously stored and preserved in the Party as it awaited the dawning of the long-awaited "H" hour, spread in the form of intransigent theories and armed groups. With respect to the Church, a similar path was followed by Catholic groups who, both in Italy and South America, continued to reinterpret the ancient apocalyptic aversion for "the authorities, the rich, the learned, the powerful."

Franco Ferrarotti, a former professor of Red Brigade member Renato Curcio at the Faculty of Sociology at Trento University, has observed: "They accept no distinction . . . between principle and practical action. They are horrified by any talk of the opportune moment." This is what the Communist Giorgio Amendola, describing the contribution made to extremism by Catholic groups, has defined as a "non-historicist conception of the world." The sociologist Francesco Alberoni sees a connection not only between the two parallel rebellions but also between the vicissitudes of the Catholic Church and the PCI, two formerly authoritarian structures that have to a large extent lost their traditional power to impose a "rigorous militancy, a simple faith and the pleasure of obedience" on their followers. Moreover, as the Italian journalist Giorgio Bocca has said, "the need for total and definitive answers, the rejection of doubt, are at the same time Catholic and Communist."

The collapse of the educational system after 1968 had a decisive effect on these processes. Even Renato Curcio, when he enrolled in the Faculty of Sociology at Trento, had received his secondary education at a school for accountants and was thus unlikely to possess that "historicist conception of the world" that Amendola had spoken of. More significant, and also more tragic, is the case of Walter Alasia.

The son of Communist parents living in the "Italian Stalingrad," Sesto San Giovanni, Walter Alasia graduated from ITIS, a rapidly degenerating school in Sesto. Prior to the 1970s, ITIS trained "a few hundred students who found jobs as soon as they received their technical diplomas, who even received job offers by mail at home." Then, as a result of successive waves of ideological extremism and lax administration, the abolition of the roll call in class and the awarding of "political" grades, as well as the persecution of teachers deemed to be repressive and conservative, ITIS became "a shambles, not a school," to use the words of Walter Alasia's mother. Meanwhile, in keeping with the spirit of the times, the PCI weekly Nuovo Sesto censured any attempt at disciplinary action. The first action Alasia took part in was the destruction with electric drills of the school's protective railing. Later, around 1974, he probably drifted into the "shadow area" of armed extremism. He was killed on December 15, 1976 by a burst of submachine-gun fire after he had slain two policemen. His name later reappeared in numerous guerrilla bulletins signed by the "Red Brigades, Walter Alasia column."10

The strategy of the metropolitan guerrillas, who drew their recruits from the young generation and applied to the cities Carlos Marighella's manual for focos de guerrilla among the South American peasants, was worked out in the autumn of 1969, when the adventurous first groups met in Chiavari. The first document signed by the Red Brigades dates back to 1970. The first attacks against the first symbolic "objective enemy" (i.e., industrial capitalism, as, for instance, the Pirelli test track at Lainate) occurred in 1971. The first kidnapping (Macchiarini of Sit-Siemens) took place in 1972, as the following slogan began to circulate: "The vote doesn't work, the rifle does." This was followed by other kidnappings and the first "people's prison" trials. Then, throughout the circuit linking schools, factories, suburbs and prisons, the southern Italian Nuclei Armati Proletari groups and the numerous other minor factions that had sprung up during the extended period of economic collapse joined forces with the Red Brigade guerrillas. For a long time, the Red Brigades were considered by many people as a "masked fascist provocation." However, after the PCI opted for the historic compromise with the Christian Democrats in the autumn of 1973, following the tragic developments in Chile, the guerrilla struggle began to take on the appearance of a religious war within the Left, even though it was the "others" who were being shot at.

The extremists who had gone underground exploited the vast areas of camouflage and protection created by violent unrest in the factories, university riots, politicized prison mutinies, and violence in the outlying urban slum areas. They had agents and informers in factories such as Sit-Siemens, Magneti-Marelli, Breda, Pirelli, Ansaldo, Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Enel. Many political writers and students saw the terrorists as merely "errant comrades." In the September 1977 demonstrations in Bologna at least ten thousand voices shouted "Viva Curcio." In a Rome school, the announcement of an attack against a local Christian Democratic leader was greeted with applause. Nothing like this ever occurred during the exploits of the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany. These and other episodes point up the peculiar nature of the Italian phenomenon.

The growth of armed extremist influence seems to be directly related to the PCI's swing toward moderation and compromise with the Christian Democrats. In Moscow in 1969, Party chief Enrico Berlinguer had cited as proof of the combativeness of the workers' movement and of the merits of his own party Italy's astonishingly high strike record.11 Communist trade union leaders now appeal for them to limit their demands.12 The PCI was once a Stalinist party. Today it is, albeit discordantly and reluctantly, revisionist, even toward Leninism itself.

It must also be said, however, that quite apart from the PCI's change of policy, armed extremism has been favored by three objective factors. First is the migration into the cities from the countryside over the last three decades, an almost biblical exodus, which took place at a far faster rate than the accompanying industrial growth. The result has been a clash between the uprooted subproletarian masses and the congested cities, the Turin "belts," the Milan "Koreas," the numerous illegal townships that have sprung up on the fringe of the sprawling Rome urban area.

Second, the number of students enrolled at the universities situated in the hearts of the cities has passed the one million mark, three times the number enrolled in British universities. In these social parking lots, which are more crowded than the Fiat factories but provide no wages, except for the pre-salario (a kind of pre-dole handout), it has been easy for terrorists to recruit troops for their revolutionary extremism.

The third and more general factor of destabilization has been Italy's "arrested growth" following the 1973 oil crisis. This has been due to changes in the terms of trade, which have been keenly felt by the Italian economy, and also to the clash between the rising expectations of the masses and the limits of the means of production.


However, any analysis that hopes to go beyond mere "sociological determinism," the belief that all actions are the product of social conditions, must investigate the psychological and ideological characteristics of armed extremism. In essence, the terrorists have only two ideas in their heads: that "revolution" is an absolute good, and that the "objective enemy" is an absolute evil.

Italy's is the sole ideological culture in Europe to have rejected Solzhenitsyn's Gulag out of hand, even though Soviet dissident Roy Medvedev warned that, after having read it, few could remain "the same as they were before." Solzhenitsyn was seldom discussed, reviewed or cited by Italian leftist intellectuals but instead simply "removed" with the argument that he was merely a character out of the "old pan-slavic world." Out of concern for the good of the cause and fearing that the faith previously drummed into the generation of 1968 and of Vietnam would be shaken, only a few murmurs of dismay were raised over the "reeducation camps" in Vietnam, the massacres of Cambodian peasants and the new Gulag.

Doctrinaire extremism, which in its theoretical inflexibility ignores everything outside itself, does not concern itself with such problems. The very concept of hard facts is downgraded until it is abolished by the interpreters of the idea of revolution. It is thus understandable that extremism of means results in the belief that its Manichaean and militant conception of the struggle between the forces of good and evil is infallible, even to the extent of having to kill in the name of a purpose so lofty as to transcend and dominate all common moral criteria. The idea that it was such visions that led to the bloodbath and the plethora of ideologies of the first half of this century, the period of Stalin and Hitler, has yet to be popularized. The history of this period seems to be unknown, or else its lesson is incommunicable.

Cultivating conventional images of the revolutionary epic, a generation was taught to believe in what Raymond Aron has called "historic optimism," while remaining completely ignorant of the true story of the revolutionary wars. That generation believes that revolution is beautiful. It has never seen revolutionary war and it now wants to. It imagines a struggle between the forces of good and evil but explains its defeats as the result of plots by Olympian gods. And finally, while they may have discovered that the present was born in Russia a century ago, and while they may have heard Engels' definition of history as "the cruelest of all ideas, which rides its triumphal carriage over mountains of cadavers," they have not found teachers willing to remind them of Engels' warning that "those who believe that they have made a revolution always discover, afterwards, that they did not know what they wanted and that the revolution they have made has nothing in common with what they wanted to accomplish."

Revolutionary subjectivism is governed by repulsion and intolerance of the kind that Dostoyevsky called "passions of the mind" or "tragedies of conceptual passions." Just as Ché Guevara hoped to repeat through the Bolivian mountains the Long March of the Chinese revolutionaries, so, too, do the Red Brigades believe that the society lying before their "Metropolitan Long March" through the industrial triangle of Milan, Turin and Genoa is not only vulnerable but profoundly weak. It is, in any case, as uninhabitable as the burning house in Bertolt Brecht's parable: "I saw a house. It was on fire. There were people inside. One of them asked, as the flames were singeing his eyelashes, whether by chance it was raining outside, or windy, or if there was another house, and so on. I went on without replying."

The objective of the revolutionary guerrilla strategists is unswervingly declared in every document: a prolonged attack on "the heart of the state" and the fabric of society will bring about an authoritarian reaction. The latter, by a catalytic process, will then lead to a revolutionary and purifying civil war. The planners of the "Italian civil war of the 1980s" would like to convince all potential recruits, especially the theorists of the far Left and the militant rank and file of the PCI, that such an outcome is inevitable. The armed groups ignore the hypothesis that, in the uncertain conditions that prevail in a "frontier society" like Italy, terrorism might be followed by a dictatorship tout court. Or, even if they are mindful of what Trotsky, viewing events in Germany, Austria, Italy and Spain between the two wars, called "the short circuit of dictatorship," they accept this possibility, as long as their ideology of rejection is confirmed.


When President Kennedy was assassinated, numerous conspiracy theories were advanced in America. The Cuban refugees in Florida thought it was a plot hatched by Castro because he feared being sacrificed to the Kennedy-Khrushchev test-ban accords. The nationalists of the John Birch Society accused the Russians, mindful of their long tradition of political assassination. African leaders suspected the white racists of the south. The Arab press pointed to a Zionist conspiracy since Jack Ruby, the killer of the alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was a Jew.

The same happened in Italy. During and after the 54 days of the slow-motion murder of Aldo Moro, every politician's conditioned reflex suspected or accused a different enemy of being behind the Red Brigades. The Italians all looked elsewhere: "They will tell you that foreigners are involved in the Moro affair since no Italian could have prepared an operation so effectively."13

However, unlike the shock wave which swept over the United States in 1963, the possibility of a great political crime had been brewing in Italy for years as the greatest revolutionary guerrilla struggle ever seen in the industrialized West gradually spread. Life in Italy had already become "a series of sinister absurdities punctuated by moments of sheer horror." And yet, instead of searching for the ideological and social roots of Italian terrorism, the controversy over cui prodest (who will benefit) tended to spread, either subtly or vehemently, on the strength of mere hypotheses or of "logical certainties."

In the Communist ranks, in line with traditional Party logic, a patent and urgent temptation arose to combine a conspiracy theory with the question of cui prodest, although no one really knew whether the disappearance of Aldo Moro would drive the PCI closer to or further away from the government. The destabilization of Italy was imagined to be an anti-communist plot financed from outside like the truckers' strike in Allende's Chile (though the greatest destabilizing factor there was rampant inflation). Applying the same logic, it could just as well be argued that the events in Russia in 1917 were financed by the gold marks of the Kaiser.

Among the non-Communists, the hypotheses pointed to Czechoslovakia, and thus to the U.S.S.R., as some years earlier three Red Brigade members had spent time in Prague, or East Germany, or Libya. The Italian situation was, in any case, interpreted as a prologue to the "after Tito" phase in Yugoslavia.

The controversy rages on, fueled by lovers of theories who know nothing about the terrorist guerrillas of our times and have never studied them. In the face of the fundamental, crass inefficiency of the state, the very myth of the terrorists' incredible efficiency provides fuel for speculation about foreign conspiracies. Immediately after the Moro kidnapping, it was above all the failure of the investigations which was responsible for spreading the myth of the guerrillas' mysterious infallibility, along with far-fetched tales of complicity and secret sanctuaries which supposedly sheltered them. Actually, this infallibility was due merely to the extreme fallibility of the state and to the disorganization of society. The inefficiency of the public powers certainly did not lie in the size of the Italian police force, which is proportionately larger than its West German counterpart, but rather in the fact that a police force of peasant extraction was left to fend for itself in the face of an uprising of well-trained groups of armed intellectuals, amid the happy-go-lucky attitude and quarrelsome neglect characteristic of public life in Italy. Why should the police be expected to be more efficient than the ministries, post office, telephone service, hospitals, schools, and state-run industries?

Who will benefit? Well, who is behind the radical ideological terrorism in Germany and Japan, similar to Italian terrorism but on a somewhat smaller scale? And who is behind the ethnoreligious and nationalistic-separatist terrorism of Ulster, the Middle East, Croatia and the Moluccans? Each of these movements may well receive aid in the form of encouragement and occasional or regular financing, but no central conspiracy theory can explain the complexity of the overall phenomenon or of each national movement.

No one will ever be able to rule out completely the possible, perhaps only occasional, influence of dark plots on Italian terrorism. But how can the 2,128 terrorist episodes of 1977 be explained away? No foreign secret service could ever expose itself so widely without the armed groups being aware of whom they were dealing with, whether it was the CIA, the KGB, the Cubans, or Libya's Qaddafi. Unwitting individuals can be used as dupes, as the Nazis used the Communist Marinus van der Lubbe to start the Reichstag fire, but this is not possible on a large scale. There is no doubt, for instance, that other terrorists-Germans, Arabs, South Americans-are in touch with the Italian guerrillas, though this does not imply any subordination to a superior force. A Red Brigade commando unit might well have been trained in the fedayeen camps or other guerrilla schools. Nevertheless, the main attention ought to be focused on the fundamental causes rather than on speculation as to occasional interference.

However, the public at large is always attracted by such speculation. Those responsible for the state apparatus are tempted to accept it since it may extenuate their own personal responsibility, while many others seem inclined to steer the conspiracy theory in the direction suggested by their own political outlook, either by a kind of ideological conditioned reflex or in order to make political capital out of it. These explanations are useful to anyone unwilling to admit, for instance, that police efficiency was grossly undermined by the dismantling of the intelligence services, by conflicting pressures from the political forces, and by appeals for the introduction of Swedish-style laws and regulations in conditions of Argentinian-type guerrilla warfare. As for the Italian Left, once the crisis had exploded in its most tragic form, a conspiracy theory was needed to conceal and explain away the errors of the past.

For example, the Communists dallied over recognizing the true characteristics and extent of the Red Brigades from 1972 until 1977. Having sidestepped the need to subject their ideology to a convincing and coherent review when developments in the Party opened a gap on the far Left, the PCI failed to assess the effects of the oversimplifications that they had spread for years and under-estimated the sectarian urges to remove or do away with one's opponent. A number of PCI members long considered the Red Brigades as "that label which is convenient for goodness knows who," even though they must have known who the groups of militants were that first moved to the far Left and thence underground. However, following the 1969 Piazza Fontana bombing, between 1972 and 1977 the Left and the press widely claimed that the Red Brigades were merely an extension of the trame nere (fascist conspiracy). The intimidated police did not clarify the origin of the numerous episodes and an intimidated Minister of the Interior even went so far as to deny the existence of opposing extremisms at a time when opposing terrorisms were already rife.

The first full admission by the PCI apparatus of the fact that "red" sedition was taking over from "black" sedition may be found in an interview given by Ugo Pecchioli at the end of 1977. The first rigorous analysis is Bruno Bertini's report to the Togliatti Institute in January 1978, which warned that "today we are no longer faced with an extension of the strategy of tension" and that the explanations, "which were correct in the years around 1970," according to which every episode could be traced back to a "reactionary conspiracy concealed under leftist labels," are wrong. Not until early 1978 did a few Party writers begin to acknowledge publicly the significance of the facts: "Terrorism in Italy is not merely the old game of provocation in disguise; it is a real fact that has affected or neutralized considerable forces and groups."14 Or more explicitly: "For a long time the Red Brigades were thought to be merely a disguise for fascist terrorism, perhaps carried on using the more traditional technique of infiltration. Today it must be admitted that, around 1970, left-wing terrorism appeared in Italy."15

And yet the theory of the conspiracy "as a plan that has been under development ever since 1968" has often cropped up in Communist circles since the Moro kidnapping. The very day of the kidnapping, a communiqué issued by the PCI directorate made reference to a "large-scale" conspiracy and to "domestic and international reactionary plans." This report coincided with the news that Wadi Haddad, who, together with the mysterious "Carlos," had masterminded the alliance between Arab, South American, German and Japanese terrorists that led to the Lod Airport massacre, the Entebbe and Mogadishu hijackings and the kidnapping of the OPEC ministers in Vienna, had died of an incurable disease in an East Berlin hospital.

Why East Berlin? Of course, asking such a question does not entail any obligation to think that a phenomenon such as modern urban guerrilla warfare, which differs so greatly from individual terrorism, was under external control. But why censor one's imagination? A few clues led back to Prague as well as to East Berlin. There, at Comintern headquarters, Pietro Secchia, the number two man in the PCI under Togliatti with responsibility for the legal organization of the Party, headed an illegal apparatus which had been providing shelter for convicted or fugitive Communists. Also, the publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a friend of Pietro Secchia and founder of the new Gruppi Azione Partigiana guerrilla groups, went to Prague on several occasions and, before dying in an attempt to blow up a high-tension pylon, found shelter there for Augusto Viel of the armed Genoan "October 22nd" group. The "Reggio Group," which had joined the Red Brigades, had links with the Radio Prague Communists. Red Brigade members Curcio, Pelli and Franceschini are also thought to have spent some time in Czechoslovakia, while as early as 1970 there were reports of a number of Italians having attended the guerrilla training school at Karlovy Vary.16

On the other hand, a PCI press campaign suggested to party militants that the Moro kidnapping had something in common with the slaying of General Schneider in Chile, while a member of the Party executive, Emanuele Macaluso, claimed that "it was now clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that powerful international forces were at work behind the terrorists and that they had key contacts in the state apparatus." At the entrance to the Fiat-Mirafiori factory, according to a Manifesto account, CGIL activists were warning: "It is something bigger than the Red Brigades, that's why we've got to strike." Much publicity was also given to the hypothesis that the Moro operation had been carried out by "false Red Brigades"; the jargon used, the ideology, arms, techniques, traces and clues were all interpreted as a complex, yet perfect, simulation. The multiple minor incidents during the 54 days were interpreted as multiple perfect imitations.

The Red Brigade founders themselves, Curcio, Ferrari and Franceschini, in the speeches they delivered from the defendant's box at the Turin trial, were thus thought to have been taken in by the ruse as were the collectives of "Autonomia" and the other far Left movements, who had no doubts as to the identity of those who had conducted the operation. But the magistrates were soon able to find connections between the old and new Red Brigades. The weapons found in an apartment on Via Gradoli in Rome in April 1978 were identical to those found in the hideout in the village of Robbiano di Mediglia in October 1974 and were all part of a batch taken during a Rote Armee Fraktion raid on a Swiss armory.

However, allegations of a reactionary conspiracy certainly made it much easier to mobilize the militant rank and file of the PCI against something that carried the name of Red Brigades. The Party of Togliatti was long the paternal authority-possessive and severe but patient-over left-wing extremism. The Party raised it, nourished it with its own ideological obsessions, and finally discovered it had produced a problem child. The risk of giving birth to a problem child had been taken into consideration, but not the risk of it being terrorism, even though both the terrorists and the PCI spoke the same language in denouncing imperialism and multinationals. Now the crazy armed child (the natural offspring of Leninism, Stalinism, of the "idea of revolution") has shown itself to be an out-and-out criminal: "While Daddy votes, sonny shoots," according to Bernard-Henri Levy's provocative simplification. The child must be disowned, disavowed, but there is also the conflicting desire to believe he has been led astray: again, imperialism, the multinationals. And thus we have come full circle.

Then, in the autumn of 1978 came the anti-terrorist services' raids on a few Red Brigade bases in Milan, and the capture of some members such as Lauro Azzolini and Francesco Bonisoli (former members of the original groups of young extremists in Reggio Emilia) and the discovery of material referring to Aldo Moro's "revolutionary trial," which confirmed, beyond all reasonable doubt, the identity and continuity of the "armed party."


Italy is different from other, greater nations that have learned from cruel historical experience the pressing need to maintain their calm. The Italian nation has never known anything like a religious war, a large civil war, Stalinism or Marxism. This historical inexperience seems to exercise an irresistible attraction where crime and political hate are combined with innumerable disruptive factors which already exist in the society. It would seem that the guerrilla warfare that now exists is not enough, that there is a desire for a civil war, which could come about under the worst conditions that the modern era can offer. "The present," some suggest, "began in Russia a century ago." To an extent they are right. But the Russia of the early nihilists and revolutionary terrorists was a far cry from today's modern industrial society.

In other aspects, and taking into account the social processes, the present might have been born out of the Weimar Republic of the 1920s. Or, perhaps in Vienna, as Karl Raimund Popper's memories of Austria between the two wars suggest: "Almost all of us were without a future and with nothing to do. Civil war was endemic and, from time to time, would explode. Needless to say we were often depressed. We read voraciously, we were omnivorous readers; we argued, we snapped out opinions." Those are early examples of destabilized industrial societies.

According to the most recent report of the PCI, released in January of this year, the number of terrorist attempts and episodes of political violence reached 2,365 in 1978 as against 2,124 in 1977. There were 37 killings during the same period as compared to 31 in 1977. Today, 209 different terrorist groups have taken credit for terrorist attacks (76 were known to exist in 1977). Often, however, the same group will use new names to try to throw the police off the trail. About 101 of these "organizations" are leftist and most, if not all, simply mask the action of one of the two major organizations, the Red Brigades or the Prima Linea.

Among the first victims of 1979 were a Communist labor leader, Guido Rossa, killed in Genoa because he testified against a Red Brigade messenger from the Italsider plant outside Genoa, and Judge Emilio Alessandrini, killed a few days later in Milan.

In the climate of political tension among the major parties which led to the downfall of the Andreotti government, the temptation to explain these events as a permanent conspiratorial provocation by the "ideological enemy" is again on the upswing. This was expressed, for example, by one of the slogans chanted at the funeral mass held for Guido Rossa in Genoa: "Away, Away, servants of the CIA."

In recent weeks this tension has been heightened by the difficulty of trying to form a government and by the growing possibility that a stalemate might result in early elections, two problems which could stir up dangerous sectarian sentiments. It is also difficult to select the best political strategy to confront terrorism because of the contradictions that one must face. On the one hand, it would be useful to have a strong government backed by an ample consensus, including the Communists, since a weak executive can provide an incentive to armed sedition. On the other hand, the very idea of an agreement between Christian Democrats and Communists is a stimulus to armed extremism, because the terrorists see their own "revolutionary strategy" as an alternative to any such agreement and would try to block any compromise by all the means at their disposal.

Recently, the anti-terrorist forces headed by carabinieri General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa have scored some considerable successes with the discovery of several terrorist hideouts and the arrests of a number of Red Brigade and Prima Linea leaders. It is too soon to determine what effect these results will have on the clandestine network. But those people who had begun to lose faith in the government's ability to confront terrorism effectively at last have some reason for hope.

Unfortunately, how long it will take to root out armed extremism is still anybody's guess.


1 W. Laqueur, Terrorism, Boston: Little, Brown, 1977; a similar definition is given by L. Dispot, La Machine à Terreur, Paris: Grasset, 1978: "Un terroriste c'est quelqu'un qui fait de la politique en tuant."

3 See G. Salierno, Autobiografia di un picchiatore fascista, Turin: Einaudi, 1976.

4 G. Piovene, "Otto domande sull'estremismo," Nuovi Argomenti, January-March 1973.

5 See Alessandro Silj, Mai più senza fucile! (Alle origini dei NAP e delle BR), Florence: Vallecchi Editore, 1977; V. Tessandori, Brigate rosse, imputazione banda armata, Milan: Garzanti, 1977; Giorgia Bocca, Il terrorismo italiano, 1970-1978, Milan: Rizzoli, 1978.

6 An extreme left-wing organization that sprang up toward the end of the 1960s among workers and revolutionary students.

7 Renato Curcio was born in 1941 and received a traditional Catholic education. He became a revolutionary during the 1968 student movement while still a student at the University of Trento. He later went on to become one of the founders of the Red Brigades. He is now serving a 31-year jail sentence for forming an armed band to subvert the state and other crimes.

8 Margherita Cagol was born in 1945 to a Catholic family from Trento and led a normal middle-class life until graduation from the University of Trento where she wrote a thesis on "Training of the Labor Force During the Phases of Capitalistic Development." In 1964 she married Renato Curcio in a church ceremony. In 1975 she commanded an armed group which freed Curcio from the jail in Casale Monferrato, where he was being held following his first arrest. She was killed in a gun battle with police in Monferrato in the same year.

9 Other Catholics besides Curcio and Cagol were Maurizio Ferrari and Giorgio Semeria. Former card-carrying Communists include Alberto Franceschini, Roberto Ognibene, Prospero Gallinari. Of similar origin were the "Montoneros" of Mario Firmenich and Fernando Vaca Narvaja in Argentina.

11 "After the elections," Berlinguer said at the time, "the workers' struggles reached a high degree of combativeness. In 1968 there were more than 68 million hours of strikes, the highest figure in recent years. But already in the first few months of 1969 there have been more than 44 million hours." Conferenza internazionale dei partiti comunisti e operai, Mosca 5-17 giugno 1969, Testi e documenti, Roma:Editori Riuniti, 1969, p. 493.

12 CGIL Secretary Luciano Lama illustrated the 1978 change of tack by declaring that the idea of wages as an "independent variable" upheld by many in 1969 was "foolishness," that "there would have to be many restraints on wage policy in the next few years," and that "the working hours were among the shortest of the developed industrial countries," La Repubblica, January 24, 1978.

13 M. West, "Terror as an Historical Inheritance," Esquire, April 25, 1978.

14 See Rinascita, January 20, 1978.

15 Ibid.

16 Cf. Giorgio Bocca, Moro, una tragedia italiana, Milan: Rizzoli, 1978, p. 24; also G. Bocca, Il terrorismo italiano 1970-1978, Milan: Rizzoli, p. 135.

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  • Alberto Ronchey is a political columnist for Corriere della Sera (Milan) and the author of Accadde in Italia (1968-1977). This article is adapted from his Libro bianco sull'Ultima Generazione, Milan: Garzanti, 1978. Copyright (c) Alberto Ronchey.
  • More By Alberto Ronchey