The short version is that in the late 1960s through the early 1980s, Italy was a hotbed of assassination, shoot-outs and bombings between various factions of the far-left, the far-right and the Italian government – with American, British and Soviet intelligence agencies often pulling the strings.
While the death toll was a lot lower than it could have been, it’s a fascinating and oft-overlooked area of history. When all was said and done, the Italian political landscape had been radically changed. Thousands of leftists were forced to flee the nation, but ultimately, shocked by the violence, Italian politics moderated.
Did we mention that a Masonic Lodge came very close to overthrowing the government? Strap yourself in. You’re about to take a bumpy ride down an obscure historic lane, where “truth being stranger than fiction” is most certainly true (and well documented).
Before diving into the Italian Years of Lead, it’s important to understand the political climate of Italy after the Second World War. The Communist Party was always a strong force in post-war Italian politics. In the first election after the war’s end, in 1946, the Communist Party received 18.9 percent of the vote. Going into the second election at the end of the war, the Communist Party was poised for even greater success, buoyed by their alliance with the Socialist Party – an almost exact replay of what happened in Czechoslovakia. In both cases, the Communist Party had entered into an alliance with naive Socialists, whom they quickly outfoxed, dominating the electoral combination of nominal equals.
Meanwhile, in Czechoslovakia, a Communist coup d’etat was engineered by a section of the government dominated by Communist elected officials. The CIA stepped in, putting their thumb on the scale in an attempt to prevent the Communists from succeeding in Italy as well. This was one of the first battles in the burgeoning Cold War. All told, the CIA funneled somewhere between $10 and $20 million to defeat the Communists (between $106 and $212 million in 2019 dollars). In contrast, the Soviets spent between $8 and $10 million every month to ensure a Communist victory in the elections.
In an incredibly tense and vitriolic campaign, the Christian Democrats eventually bested the Communists, getting 48 percent of the vote to the Communist Party’s 31. The anti-Communist Socialist grouping netted the balance of the remainder, with small parties picking up the rest, as is common in Italy. The Christian Democrats formed a broad tent coalition, despite having an electoral mandate that did not require it, bringing in Liberals, Republicans and Social Democrats.
However, this did not end the involvement of the CIA in Italy, nor the strength of the Communist Party. The CIA spent an average of $5 million annually in Italy, both to prop up center-right governments and to weaken the influence of the trade unions, who traditionally supported the Communist Party. From 1948 until the first Italian election after the fall of Communism in 1992, the Communist Party polled between 22 and 33 percent in Italian elections, a fact that always filled the CIA with dread.
The CIA was also a key player in Italy through Gladio, the stay-behind organization it backed in Italy to fight a guerilla insurgency against a potential Communist takeover of the country. The extent of Gladio’s direct involvement in the Years of Lead is a hotly debated topic among historians.
Throughout the 1960s, Italy became increasingly industrialized and modernized, which led to discontent among both the left and the right. These forces were very briefly united in a series of protests in Italy in 1968. However, the similarities between the far-left and far-right were too tenuous, and the establishment parties were largely skeptical of the counter-cultural orientation of the young radicals.
These protests set the stage for what is known in Italy as the “Hot Autumn.” This was a series of wildcat strikes throughout Italy in its industrial sectors, largely in response to layoffs due to increased efficiencies in industrial production. It was the basis of a growing Communist Party, and one that was shifting even further to the left in response to networks of activists known as “autonomists.”
The Italian Years of Lead were in some part a reaction of the far-right to this ascendant Communist movement. However, as stated above, international intelligence agencies were deeply involved and the truth of how the whole thing started moving is incredibly complex.
The initial movement in the Years of Lead was simply a continuation of the Hot Autumn. A group of autonomist students and workers occupied a FIAT factory in Milan. During a related protest in November 1969, Milan police officer Antonio Annarumma was killed by an iron tube. The leftists protesters claimed that this was an accident, however, the courts found differently.
This was followed by the first, but certainly not the last, bombing in the Italian Years of Lead. On December 12, 1969, a bomb went off in the National Agrarian Bank’s headquarters in Piazza Fontana, some 200 meters from the Duomo. The bomb claimed the lives of 17 people, with another 88 wounded.
At first, the press and the police blamed the attack on anarchists. Police arrested prominent anarchist Giuseppe Pinelli, who died under suspicious circumstances when he fell from the fourth-story window of the police building while in custody. The three police in charge were later investigated, but cleared of any wrongdoing. Police commissioner Luigi Calabresi was later assassinated by autonomist paramilitary group Lotta Continua as revenge for the death of Pinelli.
Another anarchist, Pietro Valpreda, was arrested and held without charge for three years after a cab driver identified him as his “suspicious passenger.” He was later exonerated.
Approximately three years after the bombing, the police finally switched their focus from investigating anarchist operatives to looking into the far-right, neo-fascist grouping Ordine Nuovo (New Order). On March 3, 1972, Italian police arrested Franco Freda, Giovanni Ventura and Ordine Nuovo founder Pino Rauti, who consistently described himself as a non-fascist and a leftist throughout his lengthy political career on the far-right in Italy. The first two were eventually convicted for two separate bombings in 1987, and sentenced to 16 years.
The Masonic P2 Lodge – which we will go into in greater detail later – played a key role in running interference for the accused through their member General Gianandelio Maletti, the head of the Servizio Informazioni Difesa, the Italian state security services.
Curiously, the initial reaction of the police was not far off from what Ordine Nuovo had intended. The bombings were meant not just to create a sense of overall terror, but to implicate the Communist movement in Italy.