Forty years ago this week saw one of the most audacious and tragic acts of political terror of the 20th century. And, as PATRICK SAWER reports, its riddles still cast a long shadow over Italy
The image is seared onto the memory of most Italians of a certain age – in much the same the way as the Zapruder footage of John F Kennedy’s assassination with a generation of Americans.
A middle-aged man lies in the open boot of a Renault 4, half a dozen plain clothes and uniformed police officers gathered around his crumpled corpse.
The man in the boot is Aldo Moro, former prime minister and elder statesman of the Italian republic, kidnapped 55 days earlier by the Red Brigades (BR), in one of the most audacious acts of political terror mounted in Western Europe since the end of the Second World War.
Moro’s kidnap on March 16, 1978, and his subsequent imprisonment in what the BR called a ‘People’s Prison’ plunged the country into a paroxysms of recrimination, anger and self-doubt, reaching its bitter climax with the discovery of his body on May 9.
Just how could such a senior figure in a modern democracy be kidnapped, his bodyguards murdered, while driving through its capital city on his way to parliament?
How could his hiding place go undiscovered for the entirety of his capture, despite the full force of the state being supposedly brought to bear on the task of finding him?
How could the same state, known for its pragmatism and willingness to negotiate with terrorists and the Mafia, prove itself apparently happy to leave one of its own to his fate?
And how could a small group of former student militants and factory workers – which many had thought to have been largely defeated just two years earlier – have pulled off such a feat on their own?
Forty years on those questions remain unanswered in the eyes of many, the truth about Moro’s kidnapping buried among the many mysteries of Italy’s ‘Years of Lead’, the turbulent period between the late 1960s and early 1980s that saw this beautiful country, visited by millions each year, reach near-civil war levels of political violence between left and right.
Almost every detail of Moro’s kidnapping was significant and symbolic.
The plot was sprung as he headed towards parliament to take part in a vote of confidence in the government that would have seen the Christian Democrats (DC), the leading party in every Italian coalition since the war, enter for the first time in a power-sharing agreement with their long standing rivals the Italian Communist Party (PCI), as part of a historic compromise brokered by Moro and the PCI’s leader Enrico Berlinguer.
Four Fiat cars driven by members of the Red Brigade blocked the path of Moro’s own blue Fiat 130 as it entered Via Fani, close to Rome’s Olympic Stadium, shortly after 9am. Two paramilitary Carabinieri officers travelling with Moro and three police officers following behind in a white Alfa Romeo Alfetta were shot dead.
Moro, who had twice served as prime minister, as well as foreign, education and justice minister, was bundled into the back of one of the terror cell’s vehicles and driven off.
It had all taken less than three minutes.
News of the kidnapping and its eventual denouement in the death of Moro split the Italian left.
While some militants sympathised with the Red Brigades, and even approved their strategy of targeting the ‘heart of the state’, millions of other workers and students – in what was at the time Europe’s largest left-wing movement – feared it could only prompt a repressive right-wing backlash and even a Chilean-style military coup – the precise scenario that Berlinguer had masterminded the historic compromise in order to prevent.
Italy’s trade unions, including the Communist CGIL called a general strike in protest at the kidnapping and a far-left newspaper, Lotta Continua, published an appeal for his release.
However the kidnapping also split the Christian Democrats and Italy’s establishment, with hardliners rejecting calls for compromise with the BR from Moro’s family and friends.
The government, with the support of the Communist party, said the state could not bend to the BR’s demands for the release of a number of its own militants from prison and that only the rule of law could save Moro.
But even this appeared compromised. The search for the People’s Prison appeared inept, despite the 4,000 police, Carabinieri and security agents combing Rome and the surrounding area.
In the early days of the kidnapping a potential key witness was arrested and released instead of being tailed. Cars used in the kidnap were found parked in streets which had already been searched and were still being patrolled.
A list of wanted militants published on television and in the press included two already in custody.
More blunders followed. On April 3, police arrested dozens of left-wing activists in house-to-house searches. But the operation was based on lists compiled a decade earlier and included members of the PCI, leading magistrates to release nearly all those arrested within 48 hours.
One of the most bizarre incidents during those 55 days was a seance held by members of the Christian Democrats which is said to have revealed the location of a BR safe house where Moro may have been held.
For more than seven weeks Moro was kept in a specially-constructed cell in a residential apartment in Via Camillo Montalcini, close to the River Tiber in the southern suburbs of Rome, his ordeal and his complex relationship with his kidnappers best captured in the 2003 film Buongiorno Notte (Good Morning, Night).
His captors made him risotto, provided him with newspapers and, at no small risk to themselves, delivered dozens of letters to his family, Pope Paul VI and, crucially, to his party colleagues, urging them to intercede and negotiate with the Red Brigades on his behalf.
The BR’s rationale was that during long hours of interrogation in the ‘People’s Court of Justice’ and in his letters, Moro would reveal the contradictions and corruption at the heart of the Italian state and the Christian Democrats, allowing the far-left to score a major propaganda victory.
Some of the letters, their content deeply critical of senior DC figures, including the then Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, were kept secret for more than a decade, until being eventually published in the early 1990s.
In them Moro says that the state’s primary objective should be saving lives, and appears to suggest that the government should comply with his kidnappers’ demands.
The DC leadership argued that the letters were written under duress and did not express their colleague’s genuine wishes.
There were some who suspected neither the Italian state nor its American allies wanted Moro, who had after all supported rapprochement with what was western Europe’s largest and most powerful Communist party, to be freed at all.
The complex and corrupt history of Italy since reunification, and in particular the post-war period, has led many Italians to subscribe to the theory of dietrologia, the notion that behind all significant political events, acts of terror or even disaster, lies a shadowy network of puppet masters – politicians, secret services, business moguls, freemasons – pulling the strings for their own nefarious purposes.
Over the years, revelations about the truth behind outrages such as the bombing of Piazza Fontana in Milan in December 1969, initially blamed on an anarchist but subsequently established to be the act of far-right militants, and the bombing of Bologna Station in August 1980, which killed 85 people and was the work of fascists with suspected links to the elements within the secret services, have only reinforced this suspicion.
The kidnapping of Aldo Moro was no exception. Wild claims were made that the kidnapping had been staged not by the Red Brigades but by the masonic lodge P2, or that the BR had been infiltrated by the CIA or NATO’s paramilitary network Operation Gladio, whose existence was only later discovered.
More plausible voices stated that though the BR acted of their own volition the kidnapping, and other acts of left-wing terror, were exploited by reactionary elements within the Italian state and the US government determined not to allow the country to move to the left. Indeed one US State Department official, Steve R. Pieczenik, who was dispatched by President Jimmy Carter to assist the Italians during the crisis, later stated: ‘We had to sacrifice Aldo Moro to maintain the stability of Italy.’
The great Italian writer Leonardo Sciascia pondered this question, asking in his book The Moro Affair, why, in an Italy where nothing works, the Red Brigades, like the Mafia, ‘function to perfection’.
The Red Brigade members who had planned and carried out the kidnapping rejected all such claims, saying that holding Moro was part of its strategy of exposing and attacking what it termed the Stato Imperialista delle Multinazionali, the imperialist state of the multinationals.
Quite why he was eventually killed is another matter, given that he may have conceivably done more to undermine the Christian Democrats who had abandoned him if he had been allowed to walk free – a scenario envisaged in the haunting ending to Buongiorno Notte.
But killed he was, his body found in that abandoned Renault 4, on Via Michelangelo Caetani in the historic centre of Rome.
To Italians the location was no accident, as it lay roughly halfway between the headquarters of the Christian Democrats and that of the Italian Communist Party – as if the Red Brigades were laying symbolic blame for this death on both parties.
Moro’s widow, Eleonora Chiavarelli, appeared to agree.
Endorsing her husband’s instructions in one of his final letters, she banned any politicians or representatives of the state from attending his private funeral in the village of Torrita Tiberina, site of the family’s country home 25 miles from Rome.
In a statement Signora Chiavarelli and the couple’s four children declared: ‘The family retreats into silence and requires silence. As to Aldo Moro’s life and his death, let history judge.’