February 21, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Sons of darkness: Bologna, 1980

By |2018-04-22T17:44:28+02:00September 1st, 2005|Memory Lane|
Bodies were loaded onto a city bus and carted away.

few minutes past 10 a.m. on Saturday, August 2, 1980, Fabrizio Camisani walked into the oppressively hot second-class waiting area of Bologna central rail station at Piazza Maggiore. The young draftee on weekend leave had arrived from Pescara at 8 a.m. and hoped to board an 11:05 a.m. train bound for Naples. Backpack-laden tourists and weekend commuters shuffled in and out of the waiting area, smoking and chatting. But what caught the weary Camisani’s attention was an elderly woman perched upright on a wooden bench beneath a clock. He noticed the black and silver-colored shawl tucked around the base of her neck. In a futile effort to beat the heat, travelers fanned themselves with soiled newspapers, rolled documents, even handkerchiefs. But the elderly woman did not. She reminded Camisani of his graceful grandmother. Elsewhere, a middle-aged man with a large brown Labrador called “Papi” sat near several suitcases, including a bulging one held shut by frayed string. The dog’s loud panting made Camisani aware of his own thirst. Restless, he decided to grab an orange soda at a bar about 100 meters from the waiting room.

Camisani describes what happened next in a laconic trance. He heard what sounded like a thunderclap, followed by a sonic thud that struck the back of his skull and knocked him face-down. Looking over his right shoulder, he saw curling wisps of fire and the fluttering of confetti-like debris. What a monstrous celebration, he thought to himself. He tried standing but his right leg buckled, fractured at the knee. His hair also seemed to hurt — his scalp was singed. Camisani crawled aimlessly on the pavement until he came upon a wet, melon-shaped object he recognized as the fleshy portion of a limb. Around it was a black and silver shawl. He began to tremble.

Camisani was among the fortunate. He was alive.

At 10:25 a.m. a bomb made from TNT and plastic explosives detonated in the waiting room, killing most of its occupants. The restaurant beside it was also leveled. Police and forensics experts could not fix the definitive toll — 85 dead and 200 injured — for months. Some waited a year to bury the remnants of their dead. Until Islamic terrorists exploded bombs in Madrid’s Atocha Station in March 2004, the Bologna blast was the worst non-airline related terrorist attack in Western European since World War II.

Bologna is a hub for express trains rolling up and down the narrow Italian peninsula. Most trains headed north from Florence, Rome and the deep south pause in Bologna. Those going northeast, toward Venice and Trieste, do the same. Popular local lines leave Bologna bound for the Adriatic seashore.

The train station bombing came at the tail end of a numbing wave of terrorist incidents in Italy. Even now few are confident the culprits acted alone. Though Italian courts convicted three men and a woman who belonged to the rightist NAR (nuclei armati revoluzionari) group and upheld the convictions on appeal, some skeptics assert that rogue secret service agencies within the Italian state masterminded the attack hoping to discredit the nation’s influential Communist Party, the most popular in the democratic West. Italy’s meticulous and lethal Red Brigades terrorist group, whose members were revolutionary Marxists, and the NAR, each claimed responsibility for the bombing — but the Cold War climate attached the brunt of suspicion to the left. That Bologna was a communist voter stronghold helped conspiracy theorists embroider a destabilizing scenario: The extreme left would even bomb its own if necessary.

The public disdain that reigned 25 years ago has barely abated. Bologna’s largely pro-leftist crowds invariably heckle Rome government officials when they visit the city in August to pay homage to the victims. They do so in part to protest bureaucratic Italy’s ongoing tedency to conceal more than it reveals, spawning confusion, resentment and passionate accusations of complicity.

The summer of 1980 was blighted well before Bologna. In June, an Italian commercial jet flying from Bologna to Palermo exploded in midair near the island of Ustica, killing 81 passengers and crew. Some blamed a carry-on terrorist bomb, others a NATO missile fired during a dogfight with Libyan aircraft. An Italian investigative journalist later alleged that radar reports directly implicating NATO were destroyed. The Ustica crash one of many mysteries in Italian terrorist lore, but its suspicious nature and the civilian loss of life set the stage for Bologna.

Now 56, Camisani walks with a slight limp. A claims adjustor in suburban Milan, he calls himself apolitical. He was serving his year-long military service when he found himself at the Bologna station. Overall, he belittles speculation and conspiracies. The Ustica crash was just a crash, probably an accident, he says. The Bologna bombing, he’s convinced, was indeed carried out by neo-Fascist agents. But Camisani bitterness also emerges. He assails the justice system as biased against state leaders and brands the Italian press as untrustworthy at best. “Inveterate ‘conjurors,’” he says sarcastically. It is worthless to challenge official findings, he adds — “Non serve a nulla.” As worthless as trying to know why so many people died and he was spared. Absurd, he says quietly. Absurd, he repeats. Assurdo.

In his spacious Milan living room, retired school teacher Federico Narni sorts through newspaper clippings on a dining room table. When he finds the one he’s looking for — “Eccolo!” — he removes it from a fat brown folder. Some of the clippings are brittle and yellow, others smudged from repeated handling. Most have been cut out imprecisely. A smiling woman promoting a new car, the popular Fiat Panda, is torn jaggedly in half across her torso.

But the clipping Narni has selected is from Britain’s The Guardian newspaper and appeared a year after Islamic terrorists detonated the Madrid bombs. “Madrid was old-fashioned, mundane terrorism, of the kind Europe had witnessed before,” Narni reads aloud in poor English. “In 1980, for instance, 84 people we killed when a bomb exploded at the Bologna train station.”

He is roiled by the last line because it is in parenthesis, an aside.

“Parenthesis. As if it was nothing,” Narni scoffs. “History, when Italy is in the middle of it, gets lost from the viewpoint of the big powers. What happens here happens in another zone, in another kind of reality. The magnitude of what happened is undeniable, look at Madrid, at London, and yet no one remembers. It is as if terrorist history — because it was Christians and Muslims and skyscrapers instead of mere left and right — began on September 11, 2001.”

Interestingly, the Bologna bombing does not figure on the official U.S. State Department non-comprehensive list of significant global terrorist incidents between 1961 and 2001, issued soon after the September 11 attacks. Instead, it moves from the kidnapping of U.S. Embassy staff in Tehran in 1979 to a bomb attack on the American Air Force base in Ramstein, West Germany by the Red Army Fraction (not faction) two years later.

What Italian terrorism accomplished in Italy over a decade, September 11 achieved in a day in the United States: It brought out a primordial sense of personal and national vulnerability reflected in more personal terms as a widespread anxiety about the future. Britain’s experience with the IRA, Spain’s with ETA, and West Germany with the Red Army, gave those nations similar foretastes. Prosperity was no guarantee of peace. “Now you know what it is like,” he says.

In 1980, Federico Narni (he prefers Ricco) was a 40-year-old unmarried secondary school teacher, with university training in Latin and French. His term ended in July and he looked ahead to a quiet summer. Three days before the Bologna blast he’d returned from a week in London with a British girlfriend. “My friend did not want to come to Italy because she was afraid of what she had read about political violence,” says Narni. “I told her not to be silly. After all, it seemed the worst was over. By 1980 most of the world was following the [Iran] hostage crisis, not the Red Brigades or Italy.”

On the day of the explosion, Narni drove to the Bologna station in the city’s Piazza Maggiore to meet a friend of his mother’s who was passing through from Florence. He intended to loan her his Nikon camera for a trip she planned to India. But Narni left the camera in his illegally parked car. Exasperated at his mistake, he ran to fetch it. As he closed his car door to return to the station, the left side of the building shuddered and plumes of debris rose into the sky.

Ricco Narni instinctively pulled his thick forearms over his eyes to shield himself, a hand on each elbow. When he dropped his guard he saw that the left side of the station had collapsed. He did not approach the rubble. Dazed, he watched as desperate rescue crews commandeered a city bus, the number 37, and filled it with corpses. Some bodies were not covered. He then went home. Later, he learned his mother’s friend had died.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Italy was often labeled “terror central” in the global press. “There was a terrorist attack somewhere in the country once every three hours,” journalist and early terrorism expert Clare Sterling wrote of Italy in 1979. Between February and May of 1980, the Red Brigades gunned down a respected college law professor, Vittorio Bachelet, while he walked the hallways of Rome’s city university. He was shot not once but seven times. The group also killed the leading terrorism correspondent for the Corriere della Sera newspaper, Walter Tobagi, in Milan. “We have killed state terrorist Walter Tobagi,” said a terrorist communiqué. It appeared an entire nation had taken leave of its senses. But images of violence — a nefariously steadfast part of daily life now— were less prevalent and less frequent in that sleepier and less technologically advanced age.

CNN was in its infancy and Italian television had three RAI stations that ended transmission after the late-night news, usually at about 11:20 p.m. International news magazines such as Time, Newsweek, Der Spiegel and L’Express led the way in international reporting from Italy. In August 1977, Newsweek published the first of several cover stories on Italian terrorism. It was titled, “Italy: Living With Anarchy.”

In it, journalist Indro Montanelli, who founded and edited the Milan daily Il Giornale and was shot and wounded by Red Brigades terrorists, labeled the violence “undercover warfare” and tied it to traditions of Italian anarchy, “but without any of its fair play.”A student in her mid-20s, Lucia Brandizzi, spoke of Italians as “spectators to a horror story.” Gaspare Luchesi, owner of the La Pantera restaurant in Milan, told of an “evil mood” that was “half fear and half psychosis.” Rome real estate tycoon Alvaro Marchini said he’d abandoned walking freely in Rome. He feared sudden violence or a kidnapping. Often, he said, he traveled to London for solace. “In London, it’s wonderful not having to look over your shoulder.”

Italian terrorism was primarily ideological, a Cold War subplot that pitted extremist Marxist groups against Italy’s vaunted centrist, church-leaning establishment, led by the oligarchic Christian Democratic party.

“The purpose of terror is to terrorize,” Lenin wrote, and leftist militants took full measure of the remark. They hoped to intimidate the Italian state into adopting reactionary counter-measures. Such actions would theoretically collapse democracy, provoke public backlash, and foster the conditions for revolutionary change. Most militant leftists were disenchanted with the mainstream Communist Party, which by the late 1970s began trying to transform its electoral strength — it held 38 percent of the national vote at its height — into executive power.

The Communists enraged militants by working openly with two of Italy’s most entrenched Christian Democratic statesmen, Aldo Moro and Giulio Andreotti, both many-times prime ministers. The two parties hoped to hammer out an extraordinary shared governing agreement known as the “compromesso storico,” the historic compromise.

The idea deeply dismayed the United States, which saw Italy as possibly falling into the Soviet camp.

But for leftist students and teachers the betrayal was ingrained and intellectual: They had been enslaved by their mentor and their militancy reflected this rage. Many trained in Eastern Bloc and Palestinian military camps, taking unusual risks to do so. Police and law enforcement officials seemed helpless as dozens of politicians, scholars, unionists and journalists were killed. So effective was the ongoing campaign that some Italian officials took ironic solace in blaming the Soviet Union directly. Some insisted the terrorists themselves could not possibly be Italians; they were too cold-blooded. A Red Brigades member who turned state’s evidence, Patrizio Peci, said arms arrived from “Palestinian formations.” Another captured terrorist, Carlo Fioroni, said his cohorts were trained by KGB agents in Czechoslovakia.

It was too grueling to imagine the violence — like homegrown suicide bombing now — as within the family. But it was.

In March 1978, a tactical team of Red Brigades terrorists wearing stolen Italian Air Force uniforms and wielding automatic weapons ambushed and killed six bodyguards in a residential area of Rome to kidnap former Prime Minister Aldo Moro. His captors eluded blanket manhunts and held Moro for 56 days, finally sentencing him to death , executing him, and leaving his body in a car in central Rome. The strategic and psychological success of the mission left Italy reeling. Again the terrorists were presumed to be planted agents of hostile nations. Again they were not. Italy had appealed to the United States for assistance in tracking down Moro but was turned down. There was insufficient evidence to tie the kidnapping to international terrorism, said Carter Administration officials.

On the 20th anniversary of the Bologna bombing in 2000, Andreotti, now in his 90s, made notorious remarks in an interview with Corriere della Sera. Andreotti ran the Italian government five times from 1970 through 1982. Some revere his statesmanship while others view him as a kingmaker who used ties to the Vatican and the Mafia to consolidate his influence and broker secret deals. Whatever the truth, Andreotti was a consumate insider. “I think,” he told the newspaper, “that in the Italian secret services, and in parallel apparatus, there was a conviction that they were involved in a Holy War, that they had been given a sacred mission. And that anything that passed as anti-communist was legitimate and praiseworthy. There’s no doubt there were deviations, and that such deviations probably still exist.”

Italy has a history of semi-official organizations associated with its secret services. Recently, two secret service agents were detained in connection with running an anti-terrorist project called the DSSA. The aim of the enterprise, according to media reports, was to facilitate post-September 11 anti-terrorist strategies that might exceed constitutional authority.

But the DSSA allegations are part of a broader, and older, story.

Masons and deep cover agents have been mentioned repeatedly as a form of shadow government pulling policy strings. In the 1980s, the P2 Masonic Lodge, headed by Lico Gelli, was believed to have dozens of key politicians on its informal payroll. The Roman Catholic Church was also a friend to prime ministers, ministers and even mid-level officials.

More telling, but never efficiently documented, was the alleged existence of a clandestine NATO-backed program called Gladio (it means sword in Latin), which fit Andreotti’s deviant description. The Gladio plan, rooted in Cold War logic, called for the creation of “stay-behind” secret service armies created to harass communist governments in the event they took control of a NATO state. Andreotti himself confirmed the existence of such an agency in 1990, though he claimed ignorance of its operations. The aim of the Gladio project in Italy was to use any and all means to stop communist growth. Those who believe in Gladio’s strategies — most are dismissed as conspiracy theorists — believe its agents were behind the Bologna bombings. They suggest the convicted rightist bombers were pawns in an ongoing game to frame the Italian left — which in fact gradually lost its influence and faded from view as a governing force after 1989. Gladio remains active, they say, but concentrates its energies on demonizing Muslims, hoping Western states will turn reactionary, and ultimately Fascist, to rein in the threat. The DSSA could fit into such an effort.

If there is in fact any similarity between Islamic terrorism and the European model it is that both radical Islamists and the European radical left — now in tatters — seek to reproduce the hatred they goad and blame any resulting repression on the states challenged by their violence.

While Italian subplots are plentiful and fascinating, they are also improbably intricate. Few nations, decades later, know so little about the source of the dread that beset them. Nonetheless, Andreotti’s remarks and those of ranking officials suggest that even high-level Italian leaders may have been at least partially unaware of the mechanisms of rogue agencies at work within their own administrations.

Former center-left Prime Minister Giuliano Amato, asked in 1999 about the origin of the Bologna explosion replied tersely that the Italian state was responsible for “lies and connivances.” Like most in his position, he neither elaborated nor substantiated. Few have. “We are bad soldiers and bad citizens,” Indro Montanelli once wrote of Italians, “but as poisoners we have no rivals in the entire world.”So it is that poisonous accusations are dangled for the taking and allowed to fester for decades, usually without the evidence needed to credibly open or shut the faucet through which allegations of ill-intent flow.

Every year on August 2, the city of Bologna observes a minute of silence, at 10:25 a.m., to mark the anniversary of the 1980 bombing. A simple plaque with the names of the dead and their ages is in the rebuilt second-class waiting area. A crack in a wall has been preserved. The bombing, on the plaque, is referred to as a “fascist” massacre. The station clock has been stopped, with an equally terse explanation. “This clock reads 10:25, the hour of the Bologna massacre. So that we don’t forget.” Fifteen days after the explosion, the Italian newsweekly L’Espresso published a special edition on the incident. The artist Renato Guttuso drew the cover to honor the victims. Borrowing from a Goya painting of the same name, he titled his canvas “The Sleep of Reason Produces Nightmares.” He added only the date, “2 agosto 1980.”

About the Author:

The Athens-born author is a former political science professor and a freelance writer.