Chapter 15: Times of stability and revolution: Italy in the 1970 and 1980s


15.1 The complex system of power of the Christian Democrats

The Christian Democrats headed the greatest period of economic, social, and political development in the history of modern Italy, which eventually finished with the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. They achieved this success thanks to a combination of factors. They were the first to harness for the good of the country the forces of Catholic culture and tradition. By striking a difficult but very precious middle ground between the interests of the common people and the capitalists, the DC started important land reforms, empowering small farmers all over Italy.

Farms appropriated from the large landowners were parceled out to the peasants. In addition, during their years in office, the Christian Democrats passed a number of laws safeguarding employees from exploitation, established a national health service, and initiated low-cost housing in Italy’s major cities.

The DC furthered policies assisting the growth of SMEs, which were to become the backbone of Italian economy. These policies were partly consistent with demands of the PCI for the poor in the central and northern regions they administered, and because of that they took the wind from the sails of the communists in two ways: Common people in communist regions didn’t see many policy differences with DC; and the PCI was nudged away from the radical Stalinist policies and toward policies that created and favored small ownership rather than the abolition of property.

In the end, in many although not all cases, the struggle between DC and PCI became based not on policies but on affiliation, almost like rooting for one football team or another. In this the DC masterfully kept in line with the interests of the Catholic Church, as many popes took a direct interest in following Italian politics, and the interests of the United States, Italy’s paramount ally. By doing this, the DC also brought the US closer to the Vatican, something that did not have many precedents, since the US was founded mostly by protestants fleeing religious persecution in Europe and thus deeply suspicious of the Pope’s overarching reach.

The US and the Vatican found they were each other’s best allies against a common enemy—the communist, atheist USSR—something that has lasted basically until today. The Vatican had a huge influence over people under Soviet rule. Common people, despite the official policy of atheism, continued to be Catholic or Orthodox and thus directly or indirectly (in case of the Orthodox Russia or Bulgaria, for instance) looked for Rome’s spiritual support and guidance. This convergence took place in Rome, and both directly and indirectly benefitted the Christian Democrats, who dealt with Washington and the Vatican.

Alcide De Gasperi dominated the party until 1954, the year of his death, when the young Amintore Fanfani stepped in. Fanfani argued in favor of greater state intervention in the economy, distancing from the body of the industrialists, the Confindustria, and most importantly beefing up the party organization, which previously largely depended on the Church Catholic association, “Azione Cattolica”. The party in those years also started promoting a welfare system extending to all citizens, whereas previously it was limited to people fully employed.

In 1960 and 1961, Fanfani and new party secretary Aldo Moro went to explore the possibility of having the socialists join the government. Importantly, in 1961 US President John Kennedy declared he was open to the idea and in many municipalities the socialists joined in the local administration. In January 1962 Moro won the party congress by a landslide on the issue of opening to the socialists. Although the socialists only joined the government at the end of 1963, and with many difficulties, a vast program of reforms was pushed ahead. Electric companies were nationalized and incorporated into one power agency, and the mandatory schooling was extended to the 8th grade.

These reforms brought a split at the heart of the DC and its coalition government. The right-wingers, both in the DC and in allied parties, like the liberals of the PLI, were wary of changes that took away power and resources from private groups and extended free benefits to the underprivileged, thus draining state resources. They thought these reforms were the opening for a communist take over. The left-wingers, again both in the DC and in allied parties like the socialists, pressed to extend the new Italian well-being to the poor and grant more opportunities for advancement, seeing in this the best strategy to undermine growing communist demands and pressure.

It was in this situation that neo-fascists and part of the military started hatching plans for a coup, while in 1968 communist demands spilled into the streets and a new left, beyond the clutches of the communist party, was born. The challenge of these new factions, and the rise in the early 1970s of a radical semi-Maoist splinter of the PCI, the Manifesto group, also put the PCI under pressure.

More than any other party, the DC, torn more than ever between left and right, experienced within itself the dilemma of the Italian society. One wing felt the solution to the social protests engulfing the country at the time was a strong hand, a tough crackdown. The other side favored dialogue. This two-pronged approach that had so far worked well seemed to be stalling under the combined pressure of right and left.

On December 12, 1969 a bomb went off in a branch of the Agricultural Bank in Milan’s central Fontana Square, killing 17 and wounding 88. It was the first massive action, after a year of tough confrontations between police on one side and workers and students on the other. At first the inquiry focused on left-wing anarchists, but in the following months and years, it became clear that it had been set up by neo-fascists aided by rogue elements in the Italian intelligence community.

Things with the investigation into the bombing immediately went amok as on December 15 anarchist Pino Pinelli died falling from a window while being detained by the police detective Luigi Calabresi. The suspicious death was soon blamed on police foul play. This and the increasingly fishy nature of the bombing pushed elements in the extreme left to think the DC was actually attempting to physically eliminate the opposition, just as some governments were doing in Latin America. To this, leftists thought the answer was to move the armed struggle, and reply to terror with terror. They were also prodded by agents of the USSR who wanted to turn Italy into a quagmire in which to bog down NATO and the US.

The prize was huge because Italy was home of the Vatican, which had been playing a huge role in the Soviet camp, and because of its geographical position. If Italy had been destabilized, NATO would be crippled on both the eastern and southern fronts. The loss of Italy would be many times more dangerous and threatening than that of Cuba or Vietnam, where a bloody civil war was going on. At the same time, if Italy had ceded to pressures to contrast communist extremists by moving to authoritarianism, it would have played into the hands of the Soviets, who were arguing that the West’s only response to social demands was to slip into fascism.

The immense contribution of the DC and the church to that historical moment was to stay the middle course and balance these opposite forces. This was theorized in the policy against “opposite extremisms.” In these very choppy waters the DC managed to navigate Italy without falling into fascism or a communist takeover.

15.2 The rise of the ’68 student movement

Historians are still unclear exactly why around 1967 to 1969 almost the whole world was engulfed in a wave of student protests. Definitely in the US there was the opposition to the draft for the growing Vietnam War. There was the ripple effect of the hazy yet fascinating Cultural Revolution in China. There were the new openings to civil society by the Catholic Church after the Vatican Council II, held in Rome in the mid-1960s. There was a new idea of being communist and in favor of social demands that were blossoming out of the traditional communist parties and their ideology was not clearly part of Soviet national geopolitics.

In France, Jean-Paul Sartre presented communism as a deep, personal, existentialist drive. In Germany, the Frankfurt School was trying to renew and adapt old Marxists tenets to the new industrial and postindustrial society, where workers (unlike a century before) now had welfare benefits and shorter hours but were still exploited. Catholics, though against atheism of communism, were campaigning for the rights of workers and the underprivileged in the whole world, proof, priests would argue, that the church could protect the underprivileged as well as or better than the communists.

Yet in this process some priests ended up siding with the communists against the old privileged conservative classes and thus a new dimension sprang up on the fringes of both the communist and the Catholic movement. Moreover, there were distant and vague echoes of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, in which Mao was driving the youth against the party officials, something that in Italy sounded like Trotsky’s concept of permanent revolution.

The social reality on the ground in Italy was a combination of internal and international issues, which made the period of social unrest longer and deeper than in other parts of the world. Internally, the working class was pushing a mix of social and “regional” demands.

Socially they were asking for better working conditions and greater participation, and this was combined with growing demands for better opportunities in the south, which despite years of investment was largely underdeveloped compared to the north. Moreover, many southerners had moved to the north, bringing together people with different social and regional grievances.

The communist party tried to channel and direct this movement, but soon it was sidestepped. Several tiny groups sprung up all over Italy trying to organize the student movement, but the workers remained largely under the flag of the PCI. There were Stalinists (accusing the PCI of betraying Moscow), Trotskyites (blaming the PCI for towing Moscow’s line), and a few staunch Maoists (waving the red book). In this motley chaos, two organizations emerged as dominant next to the role the PCI continued to have on the left. Lotta Continua was for a few years the largest such group and moved around the eponymous daily newspaper, which for a time was quite successful. Its influence was greatest among recently immigrated, young, unqualified workers in large factories.

Loosely organized, winking at the freewheeling hippies and flower children, and supporters of legal dope, Lotta Continua at first focused on spontaneous acts of violence and was one of the first to set up a fearful “servizio d’ordine” (service of order). These were people who trained for violent street confrontations and were initially armed with wooden clubs or iron bars to attack the police. Later they starting taking up knives and guns, and some of them slid into terrorist organizations. A crucial moment for Lotta Continua was the 1972 assassination of police detective Calabresi, allegedly ordered by some of its leaders and carried out by a couple of its militants. In 1972 the role of rogue intelligence officers in the Fontana Square bombing was emerging more clearly, and Calabresi was subject to a media campaign of daily attacks by the Lotta Continua newspaper as the prime culprit for the death of anarchist Pinelli.

The campaign got much support in the Italian press, and Lotta Continua perhaps thought it could push it even further by killing Calabresi and reaping the benefits of moving the country closer to revolution. The Calabresi assassination however backfired, creating new support for the government and the police. Lotta Continua’s leaders then got cold feet and backpedalled. But the organization as whole had gone too far, and in the following years it dissolved, its militants were split in two, and the newspaper folded. There were those who went into anarchic violent actions and robberies loosely justified by ideology or those who became hippies; and there were those who took the path of terrorism.

The theory was the old 19th-century one: terrorism will incite a state crackdown, which in turn will provoke more terrorism to oppose the government, and thus an even greater crackdown. The virtuous circle of terror and repression would eventually move the fight to larger guerrilla warfare and eventual revolution. But in this case, there was a more complicated aspect to this communist movement: most extra-parliamentary militants were against the USSR as much as—and possibly more than—they were against US hegemony.

However, as we shall see, the government didn’t take the bait and had a very well crafted, minimal plan for repression that eventually rooted out terrorism while saving democracy and freedom in Italy.

A second group also coalesced around a newspaper, il Manifesto. The core members were former senior PCI officials and intellectuals who split from the party because of their support for Mao’s Cultural Revolution, while the rest of the party still condemned it. This group didn’t have much of an organization, and tried to walk a very fine line between political evolution and revolution. When the terrorism of the Red Brigades started to emerge in its full profile in the mid-1970s and created a huge rift on the left over what to think of their actions, the newspaper took the position of being “neither with the state nor with the Red Brigades.”

This position isolated the newspaper from the mainstream of Italian society but also drew intellectual interest for the reports and opinions of the paper, which boasted of its heretical views. With Lotta Continua’s folding il Manifesto became the only voice of extra-parliamentary communist opinions.

Yet for all its impact in the streets and on the public opinion, the movement had little electoral results. Several times over the years left-wing groups tried their luck in the elections, but with dismal returns.

On the other hand, votes were only part of the issue, because in those years communist ideas largely managed to gain a cultural hegemony in Italy and thus drive the political and social debate. This didn’t translate into political leadership because Moro, with one more of his strokes of genius, had changed the rules of the game by inventing the Historic Compromise with communist party secretary Enrico Berlinguer.

15.3 The Historic Compromise and the strategy of black and red terror

The 1973 coup in Chile against left-wing president Salvador Allende and the following brutal crackdown sent shock waves down the spines of the Italian communists. The PCI’s votes had been growing, cashing in on the student movement sweeping the country at the time. But the Chile coup sent a very clear message: even if the PCI were to win the majority in democratic elections, the US and NATO would not allow it to take power, as the PCI was an instrumental part of the Soviet Cold War strategy. Therefore the issue was not simply Italian politics but international politics. To start building bridges with the Americans, Berlinguer, the party leader at the time, opened to collaboration with NATO in four articles published in 1974 in the party’s theoretical journal, Rinascita. The proposal opened a huge debate within and outside of Italy.

The USSR felt shaky about the PCI, while the US was still unconvinced. Moro offered a dialogue and external collaboration to the PCI, similar to what the socialists had in the late 1950s and early 1960s before actually joining the government. The socialists were the angriest, as they rightly saw a communist collaboration as a way to marginalize them. The socialists, who had been the swing vote of Italian parliament by collaborating with the DC but threatening to move with the communists, were deprived of their role. Also the most radical wing of the PCI felt betrayed as they had to abandon their dream of revolution and total change for Italy. Meanwhile, as with the socialist overtures 15 years before, the right felt the tip of the political balance was moving dangerously left.

The fabric of Italian society was in fact dramatically changing. In 1974, a vote permitted divorce, something that went to the heart of the concept of family for the Catholic DC, which held that matrimony was holy and could not be dissolved. For many traditionalists, the victory in favor of divorce was the beginning of the dissolution of the moral fabric of society, the end of all that was sacred. Soon after that, the left-wing radicals mobilized to have another referendum to legalize abortion, also bitterly fought by the church and DC, which saw it as a license to free love without responsibility. It mattered little that American liberals and anti-communist also supported these social changes.

Moreover, in the late 1960s Gadhafi’s revolution in Libya, a former Italian colony, brought the new Arab revolutionary nationalism closer to Italy. Like Algeria and Egypt, part of the Soviet front since the late 1950s or early 1960s, Libya also leaned toward the USSR in the complex global domino game played by the two superpowers. Italy was surrounded on all fronts, from the east and the south—just as some centuries ago it was the bulwark of Christianity against the Islamic threat creeping up from the Balkans and the Mediterranean. There was a deep sense of being under siege in Italy at the time.

For the extreme right, divorce, abortion, student protests, workers’ demands, threats of Soviet encroachment, and the new Islamic nationalism springing from the southern Mediterranean were all part of the same strategy: to bring down Italy and give it up to an alliance of Cossacks and Nationalist Arabs.

The extreme right wing believed that they had to respond with force to these threats. Terrorism could push the common people to think that only a strong government could bring back the necessary order of society and that things had gone too far.

At this point a series of mysterious bombings began, which were attributed to the extreme right although responsibility has never been made totally clear. In April 1969, bombs went off in Milan causing a score of wounded. In the summer of the same year, eight rudimentary explosives blew up in trains, injuring 12. On December 12, the largest and most mysterious bombing in took place in Milan, killing 17 and wounding 88.

The year after, in July, TNT blew off some rails in Calabria, derailing a train thus killing six and wounding 139. Between December 7 and 8, the weirdest case occurred: former World War II hero Junio Valerio Borghese, who fought with Mussolini and managed to stop the Yugoslavs who were occupying all of northeastern Italy, started a coup d’etat and then called it off at the very last minute. Even now it is not clear whether it was only trial balloon to scare the communists, whether Borghese had higher support, or whether it was the action of a madman. Borghese then fled to Spain, still in the hands of the fascists of Francisco Franco.

In May 1972, a police patrol called to check a car was blown up by the sudden explosion of the car. Three agents died, and the explosive used was T4, military ordnance for NATO forces. Two years later, also in May, a shell lands in the main square of Brescia during a trade union demonstration. Eight died and 103 were wounded. On August 4, another blast on a train killed 12 and wounded 48. The neo-fascist organization claimed responsibility by declaring “we wanted to prove to the nation we can plant bombs where we want, in any moment at any place where we feel like it.”

Italy was on the brink of civil war and at the border of a global war. With the Historic Compromise, both Moro and Berlinguer stepped back from the brink. The communists told the DC and the Americans they were not going to change the international periphery of the empire, and they would not ask to pull Italy out of NATO or challenge its traditional alliances. In so doing, they were trying to assuage the internal and international fears over the rise of the left in Italy.

Moro and the DC tried to channel into mainstream society the reasonable and undeniable social demands coming from every walk of life and transform those demands into positive energy for the society rather than disruptive and revolutionary forces. In sum, both PCI and DC had converging aims in an extremely volatile internal and international situation. This convergence was extremely important to defeat mounting terrorism from the right but also from the left.

15.4 The Red Brigades and the kidnapping of Aldo Moro in 1978

Neo-fascists were not alone in moving for a revolutionary solution in Italy. The extreme left drew the parallel yet opposite conclusion. If fascists were so nervous and active as to try to terrorize people back into order, then the conditions for revolution were actually ripe. We saw that in the late 1960s the extra-parliamentary left was going to demonstrations ready to confront and fight the police. Yet a change occurred in the early 1970s when some militants went underground and moved to countries under the USSR umbrella for guerrilla training. The most notable of them was the famous and extremely wealthy publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli who in 1970 organized the GAP (Groups of Partisan Action) and died in 1972 from the blast of a bomb he was planting on a power pole. In Genoa in 1970 a group of ex-partisans and workers kidnapped a rich heir for ransom. Others took to burglaries and heists to self-finance the organization and “gradually dismantle state powers,” as the slogan at the time claimed.

However, these early groups were loosely organized and poorly trained, and thus easily found and arrested by the police. The same proved not to be true for a tighter-knit military terrorist group, the Red Brigades. They were structured after the examples of real armies, like the Algerian National Liberation Front or the Vietnamese Vietcong army. Members were trained in Eastern Europe or Arab countries.

The original leaders came from the sociology department of the Catholic University of Trento and from the PCI youth organization of Reggio Emilia, expelled from the group for extremist views. Most of the Italian leftist political parties of the time, including the PCI, denied the Red Brigades’ involvement in the murder and even the existence of the Red Brigades’ itself. This was until 1974, when the Red Brigades moved to killing: two members of the right-wing neo-fascist organization MSI were murdered during a raid of the local headquarters. In this period, the police seemed able to land a mortal blow on the Red Brigades. In September 1974, General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, who later played an even bigger role against terrorism and the Mafia, arrested Red Brigades (BR) founders Renato Curcio and Alberto Franceschini. Their capture was made possible by the leaks of a former monk who infiltrated the BR for the Italian security services.

It could have been the end of the organization, but the situation was very volatile in Italy. Many individual communists felt stabbed in the back by Berlinguer’s overtures to the government, and some people in the eastern bloc felt they were losing ground as the PCI was in cahoots with the DC. Therefore, after 1974, the Red Brigades expanded into Rome, Genoa, and Venice; their numbers grew drastically; and they began to diversify their ventures. Bank robberies, kidnappings, drugs, and arms trafficking were the new major crimes. The group’s 1975 manifesto stated that their goal was a “concentrated strike against the heart of the State, because the state is an imperialist collection of multinational corporations.” The “SIM” (Stato Imperialista delle Multinazionali, Imperialist State of Multinationals) became the primary target.

In 1975, as the Italian police was raiding the farmhouse where an industrialist was held prisoner, there was a violent gunfight between the terrorists and officers. Two police officers were killed, as was Mara Cagol, Curcio’s wife. For the BR it was a political success, as they proved to be able to hold out and swell their ranks against the police. The following April, the Red Brigades announced that their activities, especially against police and magistrates, would increase. They terrorized juries and caused mistrials in cases against imprisoned leaders of the organization. Also, since arrested members of the Brigades refused to be defended by lawyers (they did not recognize the legitimacy of Italian courts, claiming to be prisoners of war), lawyers designated by the courts to defend them were also targeted and killed.

At this point, a second, more militarily managed, structure for the BR emerged under the leadership of Mario Moretti. It was this organization that carried out the biggest feat of political terrorism of in a developed country during the Cold War: the kidnap and murder of Aldo Moro, the DC leader and most powerful man in Italy.

Moro had been the pivotal man in Italian politics since the late 1950s, instrumental in bringing the socialists into government and moving politics forward, cleverly mediating with internal and international players. A professor of philosophy of law, he nudged the PCI in distancing itself from the USSR, and in fact in 1976–77, Berlinguer spearheaded the Eurocommunist movement, linking the PCI with the French and Spanish communists and apart from Moscow. Moro’s kidnapping on March 16, 1978 and his 54 days in prison created a new order in Italy.

The communist support for the DC government, advocated by Moro and until before the kidnapping opposed by the Americans and part of the PCI, came immediately to fruition. It was clear that political goal of the terrorists was to torpedo this new political agreement, and thus the response of the parliament was just the opposite, to move into Moro’s direction. The PCI in those two months demonstrated extremely loyal to the government, then headed by DC Giulio Andreotti. The PCI backed many controversial choices by the government, which sternly refused to negotiate with the BR.

Pope Paul VI, Moro’s personal friend, tried to intervene offering himself as hostage to the BR in return for the statesman. The socialists, who hated the Historic Compromise, which effectively was marginalizing them, tried to reach out to the BR. The terrorists leaked to the press a series of Moro’s letters pleading mercy and asking for acceptance of the terrorist demands. These demands were in essence quite simple: the BR wanted to be recognized as a political entity conducting an “admissible” civil war against the state.

It was impossible to accept those demands: they would have delegitimized the DC government and even the PCI, which had renounced the revolution. Besides, Moro’s letters undermined his stature. In these conditions if Moro had been released alive, some of the BR reasoned, they would be admitting defeat. On the other hand, Moro free and alive could have been a loose cannon in internal and international politics, where so many of his friends, in Italy and abroad, had done so very little to free him. In coldblooded terms, for DC, PCI, and NATO allies, it was clear soon after the kidnapping that Moro was better dead than alive, although they could publicly not admit it. The BR failed to realize this and take advantage of it, but after all they were not politically sophisticated.

This predicament may have generated many of the strange details of those 54 days. Moro had been kept in an apartment in central Rome, which was supposed to be searched but it wasn’t actually. Moro’s corpse was found next to the building hosting the DC headquarters, in the heart of Rome, a city officially under siege. After the capture of Moro’s kidnappers, more of his letters were found but soon disappeared starting a tempest of rumors.

In the aftermath of the kidnapping, the anti-government left was stunned by the cruelty and stupidity of the BR, which had brutally killed Moro without realizing the political value of his life. The Red Brigades could have sent a message of trying to change the country and save a human life if they had spared Moro, but they preferred to send the opposite message, thus scaring everybody, including people in the left. It was clear that it was better to be ruled by the Christian Democrats, no matter how corrupt, than by people intent on creating a reign of terror wherever they went.

The DC-PCI government had registered a severe military failure but scored a major political victory by isolating the BR. Only a few hardcore pro-terrorist voices, like ideologist Antonio Negri, defended the kidnapping and assassination, thus contributing to his marginalization.

The murder of Aldo Moro turned a page on the history of political protest in Italy.

15.5 The defeat of the Red Brigades while keeping a democratic system

After Moro’s assassination, the reaction of the state was not rushed but methodical. The trade unions, loyal to the PCI, helped to isolate and expel from the organization the most radical, militant workers who were liable to be supportive of the BR. The police started investigating without seeking fast results and refusing to go beyond certain limits. Della Chiesa was quoted as saying that the Italian state could survive the murder of Moro, but could not survive the reintroduction of torture.

Yet the magistrates played a new role in the fight against terrorism. PCI supporting-prosecutors starting in Padua but then all over Italy spotted a dangerous fringe in the student movement. The loose organization Autonomia Operaia (Workers’ Autonomy), a spin-off with former Lotta Continua members, was carefully defending the Red Brigades. It was arguing, yes Moro’s killing might have been too much, but he was certainly guilty of being a head of the hydra of Imperialist State of the Multinationals. This analysis actually echoes the fascists branding the US and Great Britain not democracies but plutocracies, governments based on money.

This advocacy, which had been tolerated in the past in the name of freedom of speech, after Moro was deemed dangerous because it was de facto openly advocating terrorism in society and some of the people involved were giving direct support to underground terrorists.

In early 1979, the magistrates arrested university professor Antonio Negri and others accusing them of being the political wing of the Red Brigades. He was charged with a number of offenses including leadership of the Red Brigades, masterminding the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, and plotting to overthrow the government. While some of the charges were later voided—as it turned out Negri had no control over the BR leadership—it was true that he and his fellow comrades were providing active support to the BR. Depriving the terrorists of this gray line helped to isolate them and flash them out in the following couple of years.

The PCI then led a massive campaign on the left, branding the BR as traitors to the communist cause, while a shrinking minority in the left called them compagni che sbagliano (mistaken comrades). That is, in the parlance of the time, they may make mistakes, but they are still comrades, part of the communist movement, whereas the PCI went on calling them criminals.

Italy was in a state of utter confusion when on June 27, 1980 a civilian aircraft with 82 people on board flying from Rome to Ustica (Palermo, Sicily) exploded in midair, killing everybody on board. The official version was first that it was an accident and then later a bomb. After decades of investigation, an even more complex hypothesis emerged: Libyan leader Gadhafi was using the Italian civilian route to go undetected to Switzerland and some non-Italian, NATO aircraft learned about it and tried to take it down with a missile, but the missile missed Gadhafi’s plane and hit the civilian aircraft. Gadhafi had been put on the terrorist list by the US because of his support for the growing anti-American actions of the Iranian regime.

This story remained unknown for years, and the Ustica aircraft, possibly blasted by a bomb, then fed more terror in the country

Meanwhile, the neo-fascist terrorist threat had not disappeared, and perhaps they did not want to miss the limelight and so they carried out the largest ever terrorist attack in Italy. On a hot August 2, 1980, a group of neo-fascists planted a bomb in the crowded, air-conditioned second-class waiting room of Bologna train station. Bologna is known in Italy as the capital of the red region, ruled by the PCI since after World War II. In all 85 died and over 200 were wounded. The group that set it up was later found to have had links and collaboration with organized crime in Rome and Sicily. The size of the event seemed to dwarf the danger of the BR, but the episode was isolated, while the Red Brigades had continuity and used the massacre to stress their campaign. For them, it was a god-sent: armed revolution was the only answer against those mysterious, indiscriminate attacks.

The police set up special anti-terrorist forces, which became more effective in the fight and in April 1981 arrested Mario Moretti, the head of the underground organization. But the BR were not yet not dead, and in December of that year, in Verona, four militants posing as plumbers broke into the apartment of US Army Brigadier General James L. Dozier, NATO deputy chief of staff for southern European land forces, and kidnapped him. Dozier was the first American general to be kidnapped by insurgents and the first foreigner kidnapped by the Red Brigades. It was feat almost as big as Moro’s killing and for 42 days the world was aghast. Were the BR really unbeatable despite the arrest of Moretti? Then, surprisingly a team of Italian operatives found and rescued the general unharmed.

The successful operation for Dozier contrasted with the many failures in Moro’s manhunt. This led some to believe that Moro could not be rescued only for the complex political calculations we briefly offered. Conversely Dozier had to be found and rescued to send the opposite message: nobody could attack a senior NATO military officer and get away with it.

The very different results for Moro and Dozier also fed into the ever-active Italian rumor mill of conspiracy theories. Did the Americans want Moro dead? Did the fact that Dozier was kidnapped after Moretti’s arrest prove the BR had a different, smarter leader pulling the strings under some false identity? Was there a strategy to push the PCI into the arms of the terrorists, as with the Bologna massacre?

All kind of theories sprouted while the Italian security service seemed to be everywhere, with their fingers in every terrorist plot. Semi-secret associations like the Freemasons were said to be involved. Truths and half-truths about Moro, black terrorism, common criminals, and the Red Brigades were leaked to the press in search of larger gains, promoting one’s career or blackmail opportunities. What was the actual US and USSR involvement in terrorism and its fight? What role did agents of the two superpowers play in the complex Italian game?

In the 1980s, Italian terrorism receded and Italy saved its democracy, but a cobweb of conspiracy theories, mutual blackmails, and unspeakable secrets would bog down Italian political development in the following decades.

In the meantime three more events came to help and complicate things in Italy: the new rise and aggression of the Mafia in the south; the election of the first Pope from the Eastern bloc, projecting Italy even more to the forefront of the Cold War; and the new booming economy. We shall start from this last part.

15.6 Italy’s economic superpower and the start of the great debt crisis

In about ten short years, in all the 1980s, Italian public debt ballooned from less than 60% of the GDP in 1981 to over 120% of GDP by the early 1990s. In those ten years of profligate public spending are the roots of all the problems that have beset Italy in the past 20 years. In those years, also in order to take away the social reasons for terrorism, Italy set up a new social pact providing for the common people and thus convincing them that reform of the old capitalist state worked better than revolution.

The PCI contributed to this pact and voted for the government, although it did not join it directly with ministerial posts. In return, PCI received a series of appointments in semi-governmental commissions without access to the most sensitive parts of the administration such as the ministry of interiors (controlling the police), defense, et cetera. Those were the years when in America Ronald Reagan was engaged in a major push against the Soviet empire and could not afford to risk having the PCI, still with strong links with Moscow, playing both sides.

However, it was significant that the PCI contributed to the antiterrorist fight and helped to stabilize Italy. In fact, the Italian concept of Euro-communism and accepting the rules of the democratic game played a key role in Russia. At the time, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was intent in introducing political and administrative reform in the USSR to revitalize its decaying system. Here, another important role was played by the church, headed by Karol Wojtyla, the first pope to come from the east.

It was a balancing act that first hinged on economics: the necessity of spreading money to “buy” support and votes.

In 1963 state deficit was a mere 32.6% of GDP, and tax revenues stood at about 25% of GDP. A generation later, in 1985, tax revenues were still quite low, 34.6%, compared to the European average of 41% and 45% in France. In those years Italy was setting up a comprehensive and extensive welfare state (meeting demands from the left) and de facto paid for it without increasing taxes (which would have angered the right). The solution was to borrow with the state counting on the traditional methods of inflation, devaluation, and a future larger tax base to pay for the present debt. However, as we shall see, the establishment of the euro a decade after the peak of the debt blocked the possibility for inflation and devaluation to reduce the amount owed, which was the method used in the past to whittle down debt.

The yearly budget deficit until the 1960s was less than 2%. It went from 5% to 9% in the second half of the 1970s, partially compensated for by strong inflation, and the deficit hiked to 10–11% a year in the 1980s, without much inflation. Moreover, in 1981, the central bank, Banca d’Italia, was detached from the treasury, and bonds had to be issued to repay the principal of the debt, with interest rates growing with the amount of debt and the sovereign risk perceived by the markets.

The new macroeconomic and political stability resulted in a second, export-led “economic miracle” based on small and medium-sized enterprises producing clothing, leather products, shoes, furniture, textiles, jewelry, and machine tools. In 1987 Italy’s economy overtook Britain to become the sixth-largest in the world. The Milan stock exchange increased its market capitalization more than fivefold in the space of a few years.

There was increased productivity and surging exports, but also a ballooning and unsustainable fiscal deficit. And with so much new money to go around, there was also unprecedented corruption.

The political leaders of this period hinged on a new political architecture: five parties (DC, socialists, liberals, social-democrats, and republicans) plus the eternal support of the PCI. Two main features marked the era. First, the five allied parties had equal dignity—that is the DC, although still the largest, was giving smaller parties a fairer share of the allocation of power. Second, there was de facto no longer an opposition party, as the PCI was part of general power-sharing agreement.

In reality there was no oversight or control, and an almost semi-official system of financing parties was set up taking bribes for a percentage of the allocated work. The main people who upheld the system were socialist Bettino Craxi and DC Giulio Andreotti and Arnaldo Forlani. Craxi in particular was prime minister from 1983 to 1987 and managed to emerge as the strongest political operator of the time, despite his lukewarm electoral performance, which never broke 15%. The communists, despite their contributions in the anti-terrorist fight and establishing a new social pact, could not join the government, and the DC no longer had a sufficient majority to rule on its own. Here Craxi’s socialists manage to sell themselves extremely well, playing all sides against any other.

Craxi also supported the rise of his long-term friend and associate Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi, who started in real estate investment, saw early on the power of television, and when broadcasting laws began to relax, he started his own network. Larger publishing companies also tried their luck but they all failed. Berlusconi emerged in the 1980s as the only large survivor. Craxi at this point helped his friend Berlusconi allowing him new broadcasting rights and de facto pitting his network against the public RAI, controlled by the state.

It was a special moment for Berlusconi who was extremely capable in collecting new sources of advertising from growing SMEs. Besides, RAI was restricted in its advertising by law because it had to provide a public service for information. That created a situation in which, although RAI and Mediaset (Berlusconi’s networks) had about the same audience share (45% each), advertisement revenues were greatly skewed, with Mediaset at one point collecting about 80% of all Italian advertising. Berlusconi used this river of money for expansion and acquisition, and put his media network at the political service of Craxi. The platform further enhanced Craxi’s ability to advance his agenda and bargain with DC, small parties, and communists.

Politics became a constant in-fight for small posts acquisition, a trench war justified by small vote swings in local elections and fueled by unending state handouts. It seemed as if nothing could change the system. Yet the system hinged on the division of the Cold War, and the prohibition of the communists to openly join the government. Once the Cold War ended, all bets were off.

15.7 Pope Wojtyla smashing communism in the USSR, but keeping it in Cuba

In 1978, shortly after Moro’s assassination Pope Paul VI also passed away. A new pope was soon elected, taking the name of John Paul, indicating he wanted to be innovative like John XXIII, who started the Vatican Council II, and cautious like Paul, the pope that had just passed away. Yet after a month the new pope also died, arousing all kinds of suspicions in a moment of extreme violence and volatility. Had he been poisoned? And if so, why? No official explanation managed to dispel the qualms surrounding the event.

Popular films have been spun around this mysterious death, like The Godfather 3. In any event, for his successor an important element became the good health of the chosen candidate. At the conclave starting on October 14, two factions were at loggerheads. One supported conservative Genoese Cardinal Siri, and the other favored liberal Florentine Cardinal Benelli. A compromise emerged around the idea of electing the young, energetic Cardinal of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla.

The news came as to a shock to the world and was taken by Moscow almost as an open declaration of war. Religion had always been the weak spot of the USSR, and fervently Catholic Poland, the largest country of the Eastern bloc, was the weakest spot. In fact, there is widespread agreement in crediting this pope with being instrumental in bringing down communism in Eastern Europe. He was the spiritual inspiration behind its downfall and the catalyst for “a peaceful revolution” in Poland. Lech Walesa, the founder of Solidarity, the workers’ movement that first pushed for more reforms in Poland in 1980, said the pope gave Poles the courage to demand change. It is widely believed that the Vatican Bank, IOR, directly financed activities in Eastern Europe or channeled funds there.

Historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote, “No one can prove conclusively that he was a primary cause of the end of communism. However, the major figures on all sides—not just Lech Walesa, the Polish Solidarity leader, but also Solidarity’s arch-opponent, General Wojciech Jaruzelski; not just the former American president George Bush Senior but also the former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev—now agree that he was. I would argue the historical case in three steps: without the Polish Pope, no Solidarity revolution in Poland in 1980; without Solidarity, no dramatic change in Soviet policy towards eastern Europe under Gorbachev; without that change, no velvet revolutions in 1989[1].” Also Gorbachev admitted later that the collapse of the Iron Curtain would have been impossible without the pope.

But the pope’s actions were not isolated. The American military build up had pushed the USSR to follow in pursuit, and this had strained the already weak Soviet resources. One can put it in a nutshell: bad material conditions plus pressure from the common people seeking more freedom plus the Soviet leaders confusion over how to respond to these threats made the poisonous combination that eventually brought down the Soviet empire in 1989. Yet it is important to consider that the Reagan administration with its anti-communist drive came to power after Wojtyla had already started pushing the Soviet envelope.

All of this immediately brought the Vatican back to the frontline of change and Rome became overnight a new center of the world. The Vatican—for almost a century pushed out of the limelight by the combined assault of materialistic capitalism and communism and working on the fringes for the values of the old tradition and for the spiritual health of the poor of all countries—became all of a sudden the new North Star for change.

The Soviets in fact might have realized the danger pretty soon and possibly decided to use time-honored methods: putting the Pope away. An elaborate plan was hatched in which they hired a Turkish expert marksman, the right-wing militant Mehmet Ali Agca, through the Bulgarian security service. On May 13, 1981 Agca shot the pope several times and critically wounded him. Wojtyla was rushed to the hospital and by the time he was in surgery he had lost most of his blood. He eventually was saved, and the Pope believed the Holy Mary that helped him in that moment.

Agca was caught and restrained by a nun and other bystanders until police arrived. He was sentenced to life, and in 1983, John Paul II talked to Agca in prison. The pope said, “what we talked about will have to remain a secret between him and me.”

The USSR always denied any role in the attack, but the global impact in turning sentiments against the Soviets was evident. The pope was an anti-communist martyr. The attempt on and the recovery of the pope further encouraged people in the Eastern bloc to rebel to communism.

Yet when communism was eventually faltering in the USSR itself in the early 1990s some differences arose with the US. While Bush administration didn’t want to take any risks with the Soviet Union and pushed for the disintegration of the USSR under Boris Yeltsin, the Vatican would have preferred to work with Gorbachev. In fact while communism soon disappeared from the Eastern European bloc, the Vatican maintained ties with communist Cuba and allegedly helped the Cuban cause with US. More than a decade later, this precedent of subtle policy helped the Holy See to improve ties with communist China and Vietnam.

15.8 Mafia threatens Italy and is defeated

While Italy was fighting for its life in the 1970s and 1980s, few paid attention to an old phenomenon that had become some kind of myth for the children to talk about, like the mysterious Loch Ness monster or the hideous Yeti. Was the Mafia actually real, or was it a story told to scare the foreigners?

In the early 1980s magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino again started working on the Mafia, which alas, was not a new phenomenon but had been festering for many decades. Besides the active return of the old Mafia in Naples, the old Camorra reorganized along Sicilian lines; so did the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria. In Puglia the new organization Nuova Corona Unita (“new united crown”) appeared out of nowhere. Most of southern Italy was in the hands of criminal organizations in the 1980s and in the early 1990s. The spread of crime was unprecedented. It all started with the rise of the Mafia in western Sicily, which was underestimated for many years.

In the mid-1950s two local officials with Mafia connections, Vito Ciancimino and Salvatore Lima, took control of Palermo’s Office of Public Works. Between 1959 and 1963, about 80% of building permits were given to just five people, none of whom represented major construction firms but who were probably Mafia front-men[2].

Construction companies unconnected with the Mafia were forced to pay protection money. Many buildings were illegally constructed before the city’s planning was finalized. Mafiosi scared off anyone who dared to question their building frenzy. The result of this was the demolition of many historic buildings and the erection of many new and often substandard apartment blocks. Yet, Palermo was not alone in this. Similar phenomena were occurring in many cities, especially in southern Italy. The 1963 Francesco Rosi’s movie Mani sulla città (“hands over the city”) denounces this phenomenon in Naples, still it was widespread in a moment of unbridled growth of the Italian economy and not necessarily linked to organized crime.

The general trend of corruption covered the special Sicilian phenomenon. The Mafiosi had access to cheaper resources by paying suppliers below-market prices due to intimidation, and managed to sell at higher prices by scaring away the competition, also through intimidation. They thus gained the upper hand in the local economy and accumulated resources that could be deployed elsewhere in a virtuous circle of the clean and dirty economies mixing.

Mafia-connected businesses in the 1950s acquired quarries and cement industries and thus managed to control the whole construction segment—but corrupt businesses and the Mafia seemed different at the time.

In fact, besides the gray area of construction, in the 1960s the Sicilian Mafia, in cooperation of their American brethren, also went into lucrative and totally illegal drug trafficking. In 1962 a Mafia war exploded in Palermo kindled by a missing delivery of heroin. In June, in the middle of the war, six military officers and a policeman in Ciaculli, near Palermo, were killed while trying to dispose of a car bomb destined for one of the rival gangs. This sparked national outrage and a crackdown in which nearly 2,000 suspected Mafiosi were arrested.

Mafia activity fell as clans disbanded and Mafiosi went into hiding. The Sicilian Mafia Commission was dissolved and did not reform until 1969. 117 suspects were put on trial in 1968, but most were acquitted or received light sentences. The inactivity plus money lost to legal fees and lost business opportunities reduced most Mafiosi to poverty and idleness.

Things changed in the 1970s when politics turned its attention from the south and concentrated on the new threats coming from the workers and students movements and later the black and red terrorist waves. At that time, the Sicilian bosses went into cigarette smuggling, using the port of Naples as their hub. Cigarette smuggling was an illegal trade but widely tolerated because both common people and US cigarette manufacturers opposed the tariffs on cigarettes imposed by the Italian state.

The establishment of these routes for cigarettes provided an infrastructure that could be used to traffic heroin and other drugs, which had become fashionable in the burgeoning student movement. It was the time when heroin refineries operated by Corsican gangsters in Marseilles were shut down by French authorities, and then in the mid-1970s Sicilians set up new refineries across the island. Thanks to the trans-Atlantic spread of Sicilian families, Cosa Nostra quickly brought about an unprecedented distribution network spanning from Europe to America to the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia, where the Americans were fighting communist expansion in Vietnam and Indochina.

By 1982, the Sicilian Mafia controlled about 80% of the heroin trade in the northeastern United States. Heroin was often distributed to street dealers through Mafia-owned pizzerias, operating as fronts, and the revenues would be passed off as restaurant profits.

Profits from this new international drug smuggling ring soon dwarfed revenues from corrupt building licenses, which had to be split with corrupt politicians. In the old deals, politicians had the upper hand because they controlled the building licenses, and Mafiosi had to be happy with handouts. But drug money inverted the relation of power. Mafiosi now had more money than local politicians, who couldn’t count on a great support from Rome, embroiled in bigger social and political issues. In this situation, the traditional power relation in Sicily changed.

Whereas for many decades Palermo’s Mafia, with its complex ties with some of the city’s big families and politicians, controlled the Mafia from the countryside, this time the country Mafia, rich with drug money, challenged the city Mafia. In the early 1970s, Luciano Liggio forged a coalition of Mafia clans known as the Corleonesi (“the guys from Corleone”) and moved to dominate Cosa Nostra and its narcotics trade.

Liggio was imprisoned in 1974 and the leadership of the Corleone clan went to his deputy, Salvatore (Totò) Riina. The city families were ahead: they had greater military power and the political connections. The Corleonesi bribed cash-strapped Palermo clans to join the fold, subverted members of other clans, and secretly recruited new members. Their rise to power was systematic but slow. The showdown came in April 1981, when Italy was totally concentrated on fighting the Red Brigades, and the Corleonesi, now fully confident of their new power, murdered a rival member of the Commission, Stefano Bontade, and a new Mafia war began in earnest. The Corleonesi came to completely dominate the Commission. Riina effectively became the “boss of bosses” of the Sicilian Mafia.

Riina also sensed the general power vacuum in Sicily and went beyond all of his predecessors in affirm his power. The bloodshed was unprecedented. Hundreds of enemy Mafiosi and their relatives were murdered, sometimes by traitors in their own clans. The division of power between different families was broken. Riina used his power over the Commission to replace the bosses of certain clans with hand-picked regents. Corrupt politicians who previously used Mafiosi for their dirty work, were pressed into becoming runners for Mafia orders. Mafia also waged a campaign of murder against journalists, officials, and policemen who dared cross them. The police were frustrated with the lack of help they were receiving from witnesses and politicians.

The tide started to turn with the investigations by the magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino who had their big break with the arrest of Tommaso Buscetta, a Mafioso-turned-informant against the Corleonesi. Other Mafiosi followed his example. Falcone and Borsellino compiled their testimonies and organized the Maxi Trial, which lasted from February 1986 to December 1987. 474 Mafiosi were prosecuted, of whom 342 were convicted.

It could have been the end, at least temporarily for the Mafia, but this time the Corleonesi had power and resources all over the world and were emboldened by the recent terrorist actions in Italy. They thought that Italian politicians, like those of some Latin American countries at the time, could be scared into submission.

Judges, prosecutors, and anti-Mafia businessmen were murdered, but the key moment was the assassination in Palermo on March 12, 1992 of local DC leader Salvatore Lima, a political ally of the Mafia, a friend of Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, for failing to reverse the convictions of the Maxi Trial.

The night of the assassination, I was working a night shift for ANSA in Rome, and driving to the office through the city center, I saw the city packed with police and soldiers in high alert, as during the years of terrorism over a decade before. As Mafia had killed Lima, they might as well kill Andreotti. After all, they were richer and more organized than the BR that had kidnapped and killed Moro.

Italy was stunned, yet Lima was a corrupt politician and had it coming felt many who were still unclear about the where the Mafia wanted to go from that. Before long Falcone and Borsellino were also killed by bombs the same year. This led to a public national and international outcry and a massive government crackdown, resulting in the arrest of Salvatore Riina in January 1993. The Mafia also failed to see that with the end of the Cold War there was no longer any interest for the Italian government or its international allies to keep Sicily as a gray area to hold back communism in Italy. In the following years, one after the other, more Mafia bosses were arrested, pushing back the power of Sicilian Mafia.

In the same years, criminal organizations sprang back mainly around Naples and in Calabria. Their power is still quite extensive there, however the high-profile murders and bombings have stopped. Now they concentrate on corruption and trying to siphon state subsidies. But this is also part of the larger problem of corruption in Italy.

A new page in fact had turned, and the end of the Cold War brought about the end of the old political system that ruled Italy for half a century. It was the end of the first republic.

[1] “The first world leader.” The Guardian. April 4, 2005. Retrieved November 4, 2013.

[2] For this part see Dickie, John. Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia. 2007. Hodder, Arlacchi, Pino. Mafia Business. The Mafia Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1988. Falcone, Giovanni, with Marcelle Padovani. Cose di Cosa Nostra. Milan: BUR.