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Review of Moro: L’inchiesta senza finale by Fabio Lavagno and Vladimiro Satta

Fabio Lavagno and Vladimiro Satta, Moro: L’inchiesta senza finale. Rome: Edup, 2018. 295 pp. €22.00.
Reviewed by Richard Drake, University of Montana

For Italians living in the 1960s and 1970s, Aldo Moro epitomized the country’s Christian Democratic political establishment. He had served in the country’s highest political offices, including stints as premier and foreign minister. One of Moro’s most controversial political initiatives was his attempt to reach a historic compromise between the Christian Democrats and the Communists, as a means of strengthening the government’s democratic base during a time of economic crisis and violent social upheaval. His efforts to achieve an agreement with Enrico Berlinguer’s Communist Party intensified in the late winter of 1978, as terrorism of the Left and Right worsened.

To the shock and horror of the Italian public, on 16 March of that year the Marxist-Leninist Red Brigades kidnapped Moro in Rome amid gunfire that killed the five security officers guarding him. The kidnappers disappeared with Moro. Fifty-five days later, his bullet-riddled corpse was found in the back of a car parked in the city’s historic center. Speculation, including a large volume of conspiracy theories about the authorities’ lack of desire to rescue Moro, has persisted ever since.

In this persuasive account of the kidnapping, Fabio Lavagno and Vladimiro Satta categorically assert that all the conspiracy theories about how and why Moro met his end should be dismissed. They both state in separate essays that the truth about the Moro case has been known for a long time. In the early 1980s, judicial trials and a Moro Commission parliamentary inquiry ferreted out the main facts in the case. The Red Brigades, without assistance from deviant elements in the Italian government or from any foreign entity, engineered the kidnapping. They bore exclusive responsibility for the entire episode, including his murder. The nearly unanimous testimony of the terrorists involved in these tragic events had proved out: they had kidnapped and then killed Moro in the hope of overturning the U.S.-dominated capitalist status quo, the supreme cause of the Italian revolutionary Left since the end of the Second World War.

Living the revolution was a secular religion in Italy, with a dense root system in the humus of the country’s radical cultures. Like all religions, it produced uneven effects on the believers. Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin supplied texts that sanctioned violence, as the Bible did. Driving the hell-fire anti-capitalist premise of Marxism-Leninism to its logical conclusion, the Red Brigades unleashed a fifteen-year reign of terror in Italy from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s. It was an appalling spectacle of bloodshed and barbarism whose most famous victim was Moro, but there were thousands of other violent episodes during these terrible “years of lead,” as the period came to be known.

Lavagno, a Democratic Party member of a new parliamentary commission that in December 2017 completed its three-and-one-half-year investigation of the Moro case, devotes his essay to a critique of that body’s work. He was the only one of its members to vote against the final report. One insuperable obstacle prevented the commission from succeeding, he argues: its addiction to conspiracy theories. The commission had been created expressly to clear up the mysteries and enigmas still thought to be at the heart of the Moro murder case. The assumption from the outset was that despite the investigations and trials of the past, “there remained a lack of truth regarding important aspects of the event” (p. 29). The commission thus took a “ghost story” approach to the case but then found absolutely nothing to bear out any of the conspiracy theories. The parliamentary investigators produced a vast quantity of documents without adding anything of substance to our knowledge about Moro’s tragic end. Lavagno’s main criticism concerns the commission’s failure to issue a final report that would put the Moro case definitively to rest—hence the subtitle of the book: the investigation without a finale.

Long the arch adversary in Italy of conspiracy theorists in the historians’ debates about Moro, Satta has written numerous books about the case, notably Odissea nel caso Moro (2003), Il caso Moro e i suoi falsi misteri (2006), and I nemici della Repubblica: Storia degli anni di piombo (2016). It is an impressive body of work, anchored in the documentary sources to which Satta had complete access as a parliamentary archivist.

Satta agrees with Lavagno about the shortcomings of the recent parliamentary investigation into the Moro case. He declares, however, that the commission’s very failures constitute a significant advance in clarifying the truth of what happened to Moro and of the real motives behind his murder. That the commission, through all its protracted labors, turned up nothing of consequence in support of any conspiracy theory in the case was a precious accomplishment comparable to “a disinfestation from fake news” (p. 165). The official interpretation of the case found in previous parliamentary and judicial investigations emerged unscathed and, thanks to the assistance of the latest forensic technology, confirmed and reinforced.

In the essay Satta wrote for Moro: L’inchiesta senza finale, he continues his longtime duel with Sergio Flamigni, a former Communist member of parliament whose La tela del ragno: Il delitto Moro (2003; 1st ed. 1988) is one of the archetypal conspiracy theory books about the case. Flamigni has written numerous other books with the same cast of thought, most recently Patto di omertà (2015), and his work has had enormous influence in shaping popular perceptions of malfeasance in high places as the real cause of Moro’s death. The United States, which had been alarmed by Moro’s opening to the Communists, figures prominently, along with alleged U.S. henchmen in the Italian government, as Flamigni’s paramount villains responsible for the crime. For Satta, such speculations belong entirely to the realm of fiction.

Satta devotes his essay primarily to a review of the findings put forward in 2017. He himself testified before the commission but could not deflect that body from its focus on a conspiratorial view of the case. Commission members wasted their time on secondary matters, he complains, inflating them out of all proportion to their actual significance and thereby failing to give the Italian people the closure the Moro case merited. In his view, the Moro case was not strictly speaking a “case” anymore, because we know what happened. Instead, it was a well-documented event that had passed into history and now could be weighed and judged for its true significance.

In addition to the essays by Lavagno and Satta, the book contains a documents section and a series of comments and reactions to the commission’s 2017 report. Extracts from the findings of previous political and judicial investigations serve to remind us how successful and satisfying these early efforts were in getting to the bottom of the case. Yet the comments and reactions section reveals the continuing vitality of the conspiracy theories, which Satta in an earlier book ascribes to extra-rational depths in human psychology that he lacked the professional qualifications to plumb.

This review first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue (Volume 20, Number 4) of the Journal of Cold War Studies

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