One of the pleasures of living in Italy is watching the way the ‘facts’ of its postwar history slip and slither about. It’s like looking down a child’s kaleidoscope: every few weeks new evidence emerges to twist the lens, causing the colours to spill into disconcertingly different arrangements. Nothing stays in its place. Prompted by the confessions of a politician or pentito, events from decades ago suddenly find themselves once again splashed across the front pages and are caught up in an on-going, rolling revisionism.

Mauro De Mauro, for example, was the brother of the current Minister for Education. In 1970, he was a journalist on L’Ora, a left-wing newspaper based in Palermo. A slightly strange-looking man, he had jug ears, beady eyes and a crooked nose – the result of a car crash. He disappeared on the evening of 16 September 1970 on his way home from the office. He had stopped off at his usual bar and bought a couple of coffees, three packets of filterless Nazionali and a bottle of whisky. His daughter Franca, who was getting married the next day, was waiting at home for him. She saw his BMW pull up, and was opening the front door when her father began to ‘talk to two or three men’. He went off with them and, until last month, no one knew – or said they knew – what happened next. One way or another it became clear that he’d been murdered, but his body was never found.

Given the Sicilian setting, it was assumed that De Mauro had paid the Mafia’s price for chancing on a secret. He had been investigating the death of Enrico Mattei, the charismatic industrialist in charge of Agip, the state petrol company, who had been negotiating maverick oil deals directly with Arab nations, thereby undercutting the cartel of large oil companies – and all too clearly harming vested interests. Mattei died on 27 October 1962, when his plane crashed shortly after taking off from Palermo. Over the summer of 1970 De Mauro had prepared a dossier on the murder – the plane was sabotaged – for his newspaper and was helping with a television documentary about it. He had also been boasting to colleagues that he had a scoop which would make Italy ‘tremble’.

Last month a pentito called Francesco Di Carlo came forward claiming to know where De Mauro’s body was buried, who had killed him and why. A scoop, according to Di Carlo, was indeed the reason for De Mauro’s death, but it had nothing to do with Mattei. ‘The order to kill Mauro De Mauro,’ he said when questioned in January by the procurator in Palermo, ‘came from Rome, after someone realised that the journalist had discovered everything.’ What De Mauro had apparently found were plans for a coup, which, more comic opera than military operation, actually took place three months after his disappearance.

Prince Junio Valerio Borghese, the organiser of the coup, is one of the most controversial figures in recent Italian history. During the Second World War, he commanded the infamous Decima Mas, the body of assault troops responsible for raids on the British fleet in Alexandria. After 1943, Decima Mas was savage in its treatment of Italian partisans, and Borghese was later tried as a war criminal and sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment. On his (very early) release, he became president of the Neofascist Movimento Sociale Italiano, before founding the Fronte Nazionale, a pseudo-military organisation, in order to ‘build a dam against red terror’. (The MSI was a regular coalition partner of the Christian Democrats in local government in the South from the 1950s to the 1970s and was renamed Alleanza Nazionale in 1994.)

The coup itself was not entirely unexpected. The Far Right had for years been ‘clinking its sabres’ (in the words of the Socialist leader, Pietro Nenni) in the hope of provoking an ‘authoritarian solution’. In 1970, it was unsettled by a number of left-wing – not very left-wing – reforms: regional government had been introduced in the spring, and in May, the Statuto dei Lavoratori guaranteed a number of workplace rights. Most important, a few days before the Borghese coup, the Bill legalising divorce, passed in November 1969, became law. Spain, Greece and Portugal all had Fascist governments: democratic processes seemed, to some Italians, an anomaly and an encumbrance.

The coup took place during the night of 7 December 1970 (it has become known as ‘Tora-Tora’, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the same date in 1941). Borghese had prepared a proclamation:

Italians, the hoped for political change, the long-awaited coup d’état, has taken place. The political formula which has been used by governments for 25 years and has carried Italy to the brink of economic and moral ruin, has finally been abandoned … The Armed Forces, the forces of order, the most competent and representative men of the nation are with us and we can reassure you that the most dangerous adversaries – those who wanted to sell our homeland to the foreigner – have been foiled … In returning to your hands … the glorious tricolour, we invite you to shout with us our irrepressible hymn of love: Italia! Italia! Viva l’Italia!

Two hundred Forest Guards left their Cittaducale base in the north-east of Rome and made for the city centre in a convoy armed with submachine-guns and handcuffs. Members and former members of a parachute regiment remained at their base in Rome, under the command of Sandro Saccucci (later to become a deputy for the Movimento Sociale Italiano), awaiting orders. Across the country, other groups also waited, ready for action. The Ministry of the Interior was occupied, and a stash of arms removed (dummy weapons were later found in their place). Then, as the Guards were about to enter the state television studios, they were met by two unidentified men, who ordered them to retreat. The operation was called off after the order was given – we still don’t know by whom – that it was raining too heavily.

The abortive coup was quickly dismissed as the work of crackpots – ‘a jolly get-together among old comrades’, according to General Vito Miceli, head of the Italian equivalent of MI5 and another future MSI Parliamentarian. The notion that what took place had been an attempted coup was ridiculed, indeed there was barely any evidence, bar those toy weapons at the Ministry of the Interior, to suggest that it had ever happened. Gradually, however, in a typically slow drip-drip of revelations, the seriousness of the occasion became clear. General Miceli, it was revealed, had known about it well in advance, as had the Army Chief of Staff, who’d been ready to provide weapons.

Borghese died in exile in Spain, in 1974, the same year in which Miceli was arrested for his membership of Rosa dei Venti, another alliance of senior Army and Intelligence officers hoping to take over the reins of government. Those who had participated in the Borghese coup were accused of ‘armed insurrection against the state’, but by 1984 all had been acquitted on appeal. Once again, the coup was portrayed as a left-wing hallucination.

In the early 1980s, the existence of the sinister Masonic lodge, Propaganda Due or P2, was discovered. There is scarcely a crime in Italian postwar history which doesn’t have a link with P2: epic briberies, money-laundering, terrorist bombings, murders. The lodge’s central charter was a ‘plan for the rebirth of democracy’, and when the list of its adherents was published in 1981, it emerged that Miceli was a member. A Parliamentary Committee concluded that there was ‘positive evidence’ of P2’s ‘meaningful involvement’ in the Borghese coup; and in 1995 a magistrate investigating various unsolved murders found material to suggest that Licio Gelli, P2’s apparent leader, might have been one of the two mysterious figures who called a halt to the coup. According to this new theory, the coup was nothing more than a sophisticated gambit by P2 and its allies in the incumbent Christian Democrat Government, intended to flush out Fascist groups while encouraging the Government to ‘steer official politics to the right’.

Di Carlo’s revelations have encouraged journalists and historians to return to the Borghese coup. People have recalled that Mauro De Mauro had served in Decima Mas with Borghese, and even named two of his daughters – Valeria and Junia – after him. It has also emerged that Borghese had requested Mafia co-operation in the coup, promising in return to release all Mafia prisoners. They turned him down because Borghese had required that the Mafiosi wear green armbands so that they could be identified; but they did, apparently, offer to silence Mauro De Mauro. Di Carlo even named the Mafiosi who had done away with De Mauro. (His body, which Di Carlo says was buried at the mouth of the River Oreto outside Palermo, has yet to be found.)

One former colleague of De Mauro, Bruno Carbone, now says that he thought all along that Borghese was the reason for De Mauro’s disappearance:

He smoked like a Turk but only drank after we had closed … I have always believed that he was killed because of the coup, but we’ve lost thirty years before getting on the right track … He was always in touch with that Neofascist world, I took his phone calls, I heard him speak I’ve always been … convinced that De Mauro was killed because he was aware of something to do with that military plan. A few days before he disappeared I suggested that he speak with the chief procurator Pietro Scaglione, and he did so … a few months later they also killed Scaglione.

Members of Parliament connected with the case are keeping quiet. The Minister for Education and other members of Mauro De Mauro’s family have issued only a terse comment through their lawyer: ‘we’re waiting until we understand better what is happening.’ On the Opposition benches, in coalition with Silvio Berlusconi, are members of Alleanza Nazionale, who generally call themselves, rather daintily, ‘Post-Fascists’. One left-wing paper, La Repubblica, illustrated Di Carlo’s confession with a 1970 photograph of Borghese surrounded by his supporters; among them the Alleanza deputies Domenico Campisi and Enzo Fragalà. After the coming elections in April or May, these ‘Post-Fascists’ and former supporters of Borghese will almost certainly find themselves in government. Yet the new revelations haven’t harmed them at all: indeed, they’ve barely registered on the national consciousness. ‘It’s not that mud doesn’t stick,’ a friend tells me: ‘it’s that there’s so much of it that it doesn’t matter if it does.’ After all, Silvio Berlusconi was himself, as my friend points out, a member of P2. Everyone knows, and nobody cares.

The Mauro De Mauro story is a good illustration of the problems facing historians of postwar Italy. Even when facts seem to be secure, new material inevitably proves them false. And new information is constantly emerging because there are always new trials, followed by new convictions and acquittals. Given the paper-thin divide between high politics and low crime, every case seems to bear on the past of public figures now in Parliament. At any one time there are dozens of deputies under investigation for everything from bribery and tax evasion to collusion with the Mafia. The Italian judiciary is the most politicised in the West. Sitting in various court-rooms in the last few years, I have often been reminded of Jacobin justice, distributing fear for political ends – it’s what Italians call giustizialismo. And the process also works in reverse: every appointment – journalistic, judicial, bureaucratic, academic – is political, dependent on the right party connections. There’s no middle ground between bland denial and vertiginous paranoia.

Dietrologia, literally ‘behindology’, prevails because no one has a clue about what’s been going on or why. A Parliamentary commission, the Commissione Stragi (or ‘Commission for Slaughters’), was set up in 1988 to clear up the confusion. Thirteen years later, it’s still churning out documenti – over a million of them at the last count. Doubtless, as soon as the ink is dry on this article, another convoluted, unreliable explanation for De Mauro’s disappearance will emerge.

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