The Case of Adriano Sofri

Carlo Ginzburg

The eruption of youthful insubordination in 1968 seemed to go beyond barriers of language, culture and class. Today, almost thirty years later, one is struck not only by the homogeneity of the movement, but also by the diversity of the traces it left behind in different countries. In Germany, for example, the effects of 1968 (or so it seems to a foreigner) were expressed mainly in people’s private lives and a gulf opened up between generations. In Italy, political and social stability were profoundly shaken. The workers’ struggle for improved conditions of employment, sparked off by the French example, dragged bitterly on throughout the ‘hot autumn’ of 1969. The climax came on 12 December, when a bomb exploded in a Milan branch of the Banca dell’Agricoltura: 16 people were killed, and another died soon afterwards. On the same day, two more bombs exploded in Rome, one in a bank and the other next to the Altare della Patria, but in neither case was anyone hurt. According to the questore (the state functionary in charge of public order), Milanese anarchists were responsible for the bombings.

Many years later, as a result of inquiries conducted by a few courageous magistrates, a very different picture emerged: the bombs had been placed by neo-Nazis, under the protection and at the instigation of the secret services, with the intention of throwing responsibility onto the anarchists, and thus pushing the country to the right. As the title of a pamphlet (which had a powerful effect in Italy) put it, a ‘state massacre’ had taken place.

The official version had already begun to look suspect in the immediate aftermath of the bombings. Pietro Valpreda, a dancer, was ‘identified’ as the man responsible and described as a ‘monster’ by the police and the moderate press. A friend of his, a railwayman and an anarchist, Giuseppe Pinelli, was illegally held for three days in police headquarters in Milan, and during a break in the interrogation fell from a window and died. At an unscheduled news conference held on the same night, the Milan police announced that Pinelli had thrown himself to his death shouting: ‘It’s the end of anarchy.’ First the police presented this as an admission of guilt on Pinelli’s part, then they denied he had ever said it.

Many people saw these events as an attempt to mislead the public; and in an extremely violent press campaign conducted through its own newspaper, the extra-Parliamentary left-wing group Lotta Continua expressed the conviction, widely shared by both the Parliamentary and the extra-Parliamentary Left that Pinelli had ‘been suicided’ during the interrogation; and that the person responsible for his death was the police commissioner Luigi Calabresi. Lotta Continua’s objective was to re-open the inquest into Pinelli’s death (filed away several years later as a case of malore attivo, or ‘active breakdown’ – the resources of Italian legalese are infinite). After much hesitation, Calabresi eventually sued Lotta Continua for libel: but the trial was cut short after a magistrate was challenged by Calabresi’s lawyer (on dubious grounds of prejudice) and never concluded.

On 17 May 1972, Calabresi was assassinated on his doorstep. No one claimed responsibility. Lotta Continua declared that political murder was not an instrument of social liberation, but that it was unable to condemn an act in which the exploited classes recognised ‘their will to justice’.

The hunt for Calabresi’s killers began immediately. On 31 May 1972, three carabinieri were killed in an ambush at Peteano, near Gorizia. A pentito, or supergrass, Marco Pisetta, maintained that both the ambush at Peteano and Calabresi’s death were part of a campaign of subversion by Lotta Continua. A group of officers in the carabinieri supported him in this but were later accused of conspiracy to deceive.

Over the next ten years, explosive devices placed in Italian public squares and railway trains claimed hundreds of victims. In the summer of 1980, 80 people were killed in the station waiting-room at Bologna. On this occasion at least, several members of the secret services were convicted of spreading disinformation about the bombing and who was responsible for it. People who do this don’t just want to conceal the truth: they want to cover up for someone else. Who were the secret services covering for in the summer of 1980, and why?

For the whole of the preceding decade, the Italian Left (including the Communist Party) had lived in fear of a fascist or CIA-engineered coup that would bring in an authoritarian regime on the model of the Greek colonels. Now, with the Cold War at an end, it is generally admitted that a very high price was paid in order to contain the advance of the Left in Italy. But paid by whom, and to whom? The answer isn’t clear. Certainly, political corruption and the collusion between the Government and the Mafia show that a substantial section of Italian society profited, either directly or indirectly, from the situation. Nevertheless, it could not have come about without support from abroad: neither the ‘Mani pulite’ inquiry into political corruption nor the trial in Palermo of the former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti would have been imaginable before 1989. Significantly, Andreotti explicitly traced to an American source the charge that was made against him of colluding with the Mafia.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in