Review of GIOVANNI MARIO CECI. Il terrorismo italiano: Storia di un dibattito. Giovanni Mario Ceci. Il terrorismo italiano: Storia di un dibattito. (Studi Storici Carocci, no. 199.) Rome, Italy: Carocci editore, 2013. Pp. 342. €35.00.
By Richard Drake
The American Historical Review, Volume 122, Issue 5, 1 December 2017, Pages 1699–1700, https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/122.5.1699
Published: 11 December 2017
Italians commonly refer to the 1970s and 1980s as “the years of lead.” More than fourteen thousand terrorist attacks occurred in Italy during this period. From 1967 to 1969, violent student demonstrations and factory strikes created a highly charged atmosphere in Italy. A bank bombing in Milan on December 12, 1969, marked the real beginning of the terror that would long disfigure Italian civic life. Seventeen people died and scores more were wounded in the explosion at the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura in Piazza Fontana near the Milan Cathedral. The Piazza Fontana case remains legally unsettled, although investigating magistrates have attributed it to neofascist Ordine Nuovo (New Order) fanatics, an opinion generally accepted.
During the next fifteen years, Italy experienced more radical right-wing terror bombings, as well as a series of shocking kidnappings, kneecappings, and murders by radical left-wing groups, including, most sensationally, the 1978 killing of Aldo Moro by the Marxist-Leninist Red Brigades. Some 1,500 people were killed or injured during the years of lead (Donatella della Porta and Maurizio Rossi, Cifre crudeli: Bilancio dei terrorismi italiani , and Giuseppe De Lutiis, “Il sistema eversivo,” in Carlo Schaerf et al., eds., Venti anni di violenza politica in Italia, 1969–1988 ). Other industrialized countries experienced similar forms of ideological terrorism during these years, but not even remotely to the extent that Italy did, either in volume or in traumatic effect.
In the nearly fifty years since the Piazza Fontana bombing, many scholars from Italy and other countries have sought to account for the extremist assaults on the Italian Republic. In Il terrorismo italiano: Storia di un dibattito, Giovanni Mario Ceci has written a bibliographical essay of great merit about the international debate sparked by the years of lead. He wisely has confined himself to the scholarly literature on the subject. For him to have considered the commercial literature about Italian terrorism would have been an unmanageable undertaking. The Moro murder case, just to take one example, has given rise to a vast outpouring of conspiracy-theory books.
Ceci begins his survey by analyzing books written “a caldo,” in the heat of the terror attacks. One of the most important debates of that time concerned the role of the Soviet Union as a state sponsoring terrorism in pursuit of its Cold War objectives. Claire Sterling, an American journalist residing in Italy, made the case against the Soviet Union in The Terror Network: The Secret War of International Terrorism (1981). According to her, Moscow either controlled or assisted the left-wing terrorist groups of that time. Edward S. Herman in The Real Terror Network: Terrorism in Fact and Propaganda (1982) countered that the underreported “black” (or far-right/neofascist) violence perpetrated or subsidized by the United States in defense of corporate capitalism did far more to undermine world peace than did any of the relentlessly publicized deeds of the “red” terror network. In his account of the Sterling-Herman debate, Ceci adopts an evenhanded style that he maintains throughout the book. He does not weigh in on the merits of the arguments, resting content with detailed summaries, including substantive quotations, of the books under review.
As Ceci turns to the literature on Italian terrorism per se, it becomes evident that the extremist violence in Italy could not be explained principally as a result of external manipulation. Regardless of how the secret services of foreign nations sought to gain an advantage from the violence in Italy or even to influence it, research compiled by political scientists, sociologists, psychologists, and historians showed that deeply entrenched radical cultures long had existed there and continued to thrive. While not neglecting likely or documented Cold War superpower machinations in Italy, the book’s fundamental argument reflects a contention by sociologist Franco Ferrarotti in Alle radici della violenza (1979): “Italian terrorism is the expression of a genuine desperation on the part of rather large social strata” (cited 104). In short, the two “terrorisms” arose from the Italian situation, not from the headquarters of the CIA or the KGB.
Particularly on the left, but to a surprising extent even on the right, revolutionaries enjoyed a degree of support that enabled them to mount long-term challenges to the status quo. Extra-parliamentary left-wing groups calling for the violent overthrow of the capitalist order and long supportive of or sympathetic to the Red Brigades commanded an enormous following. Forty thousand people attended a September 1977 extra-parliamentary left rally in Bologna (Richard Drake, The Revolutionary Mystique and Terrorism in Contemporary Italy , 32). In an important Rivista storica italiana article of 1980, “Il problema storico del terrorismo italiano,” Angelo Ventura—himself wounded in a terrorist attack—tried to show, occasioning ferocious controversy, the organic relationship between the terrorist left and elements of the extra-parliamentary left over their pursuit of the same basic revolutionary political design.
Franco Ferraresi’s Minacce alla democrazia: La Destra radicale e la strategia della tensione in Italia nel dopoguerra (1995; English trans. 1996) brought needed attention to the connections between such groups as the New Order and the cultural traditions of the radical right. Arguing against the notion that radical right-wing actions could be explained simply as the crimes of pathologically disturbed individuals caught up in covert conspiracies, this sociologist analyzed neofascist political culture, with its profound reliance on the anti-modernist teaching of Julius Evola. Such groups as the New Order could only be understood in the light of their ideas about philosophy, history, and human nature. The deepest insights into the tragic phenomenon of Italian terrorism, left and right, have been gained by cultural rather than conspiratorial approaches to the subject.
In his conclusions, Ceci lists some of the lessons to be gained from the “extraordinarily vast patrimony of interpretations, hypotheses, researches, reconstructions, [and] analyses” (325) discussed in Il terrorismo italiano. This literature should be studied, he contends, for insights into the threat of terrorism today. He does not mention in this section of the book one of the most important lessons to emerge from the research done on Italian terrorism: the role of the state in exacerbating the problem, as explained by political scientist Donatella della Porta in Social Movements, Political Violence and the State: A Comparative Analysis of Italy and Germany (1995).
Earlier in his book, Ceci sums up della Porta’s argument: “This ‘harsh style’ of protest policing constituted one of the principal factors in the radicalization of Italian protest and the escalation of the violence in the 1970s” (166–167). As Joseph Conrad observed in Under Western Eyes (1911), his novel about the revolutionary ferment in late tsarist Russia, to understand terrorism we need to learn not only about terrorists. Poorly thought-through government policies and tactics can aggravate the social and political stress leading to terrorism.