The hands of the clock above the Bologna train station have been stuck at 10:25 A.M. for nearly 28 years. That was the moment when a tremendous blast rocked the passenger lounge, and with it, the whole of Italy. The casualty count - 85 dead and more than 200 wounded - was hard to grasp, even for a country already caught up for a decade in a whirlwind of domestic terror that threatened to topple its democratic regime. Since that "Black Saturday," on August 2, 1980, the clock in Bologna has become a symbol of a time Italy would like to forget, but can't.
They were called the "Years of Lead" [see box]: A lethal blend of "black" terror from the right and "red" terror from the left, which caught in its crosshairs politicians, judges, policemen, businessmen, journalists and, primarily, innocent bystanders. A mini-civil war, which wreaked turmoil in Italy in the 1970s and early 1980s, and which left at least 455 dead, 4,529 wounded, 15,000 arrested and 4,000 convicted, in Rome, Milan, Brescia, Bologna and elsewhere.
The echoes of those years have been heard ever since, but are getting louder in these days of late spring, as the May 9 Memorial Day for Victims of Terror approaches. This date was not selected at random. It was on this day that the most traumatic event of the period occurred, even more traumatic than the Bologna bloodbath: The day on which, in 1978, members of the Red Brigades murdered the former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro, after holding him captive for 55 days, as Italy held its breath. "A first step in the campaign to destroy the state," the terrorists announced after carrying out the "sentence." The image of Moro's bullet-ridden corpse in the trunk of a red Renault 4 is still deeply etched in Italy's collective memory.
With the country now marking the 30th anniversary of the murder, and in anticipation of the expected declassification of secret documents from the period, the debate of what was referred to as "the greatest rift to split Italy since World War II" is being renewed with greater urgency. The episode features prominently in recently released books, in newspaper stories, in radio and television programs, and is once again raising questions and speculations about the circumstances of the abduction and murder.
Giovanni Bianconi, a journalist for the daily Corriere Della Sera, who is an expert on the affair, is not surprised by the surge in public interest. "This is a fundamental chapter in Italy's history, and though many of its protagonists have spoken about it, they've remained silent on many issues and continue to do so. That means there are still questions to be asked about this story, various points of which remain unclear," he says.
"The Moro affair had a major impact on politics, because once that figure was removed from the scene - and along with him, his plans for redesigning Italian politics - the course of history of governments and party alliances in Italy was irreversibly changed," adds Bianconi, whose latest book on the affair, "Esegeundo La Sentenza" ("Carrying Out the Sentence"), was recently published.
The feeling that the affair is still an unsolved mystery is shared by many people in Italy, including Giuseppe De Lutiis, an expert on the secret services and former researcher at La Sapienza University in Rome. "The Moro assassination is still an open wound, because the citizens feel that the official version is concealing the true motivations [for the crime], which have little or nothing in common with the explanations furnished by the members of the Brigades at the time."
'My blood is on your hands'
The drama that has haunted Italy for three decades began on the morning of March 16, 1978, in an ambush set by the Red Brigades for Aldo Moro right in the heart of Rome. A few minutes after 9 A.M., the chairman of the ruling Christian Democratic Party left his home for the swearing-in of the new government in parliament, an event made possible solely by the unprecedented he himself had hammered out with the Communist Party.
At the corner of Via Fani, a group of gunmen suddenly opened fire at his car and at the vehicle of his security guards. The five bodyguards were killed, and the 62-year-old politician was kidnapped. Moro was held by the Red Brigades for 55 days, during which the Italian government refused to discuss with the terrorists their demand for the release of 13 of their comrades. Finally, Moro was shot to death.
While Moro was being held, his captors allowed him to send letters to his family, to fellow party members and to Pope Paul VI. In the letters, Moro pleaded for his life: "If you do not intervene, a chilling chapter will be written in Italian history," he wrote to his colleagues when he realized that he had been abandoned by them. "My blood is on your hands," he warned them and requested that they not attend his funeral.
What exactly happened during those 55 dramatic days remains a mystery that continues to fuel various conspiracy theories and rumors about the planting of secret agents among the Red Brigades. "There are many inconsistencies that, taken all together, make for a disturbing picture," says De Lutiis, whose book "Il Golpe di Via Fani" ("Coup d'Etat on Via Fani") was published this year. "The location where the members of the Brigades claimed to have held Moro prisoner is in a quarter of Rome that, at the time, was under the absolute control of a criminal gang with ties to the Mafia; the prosecutor's office ran into insurmountable difficulties trying to investigate Swiss bank accounts linked to one of the Brigades' commanders. The autopsy on Moro's corpse showed a muscle tone in the legs and a level of personal hygiene incompatible with a 55-day detention in a cellar like that described by the terrorists. And I could cite dozens more examples of things that don't quite add up."
The most bizarre question about the affair actually involves Italy's outgoing prime minister and the former president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi. About two weeks after the kidnapping, Prodi, who was a government minister at the time, said that at a seance in which he had participated, a "spirit revealed to those who were present that Moro was imprisoned in Gradoli." Following this "lead," the security forces arrived in a town by this name near the city of Viterbo and left no stone unturned there, without finding a trace of the politician or his captors.
Two weeks later, the police discovered by chance a Red Brigades weapons cache in a Rome apartment that also served as a hideout for two of Moro's kidnappers. The address: Via Gradoli 96. Ever since, Prodi has been accused of knowing where Moro was being held and of having fabricated the seance story just to protect the identity of the person who leaked the information - someone from the radical left, according to several theories. Prodi has always categorically denied such accusations.
Whom did it serve?
But to all those who believe that much remains to be unearthed about the affair, the key mystery concerns who, apart from the Brigades, could have been interested and involved in Moro's elimination and, in the process, the elimination of the "Compromesso Storico" between his party and the Communist Party, which he formulated at the height of the Cold War. "Without question, the historic compromise disturbed many people," says historian Simona Urso. "On the one hand, there were the industrialists, the anti-Communists and the Mafia, and on the other, there was the Socialist Party, which feared losing its influence, the unions, or elements on the radical fringe, like the Red Brigades, who saw the agreement as a threat to their struggle against the establishment and as a tool to perpetuate the rule of the Christian Democratic Party, which they sought to topple."
In De Lutiis' view, the opposition to the historic compromise extended beyond the country's borders. "It's an incontestable fact that the 'historic compromise' was murdered in its infancy, together with Moro," he says.
"The United States and the Soviet Union both had an interest in seeing the nascent alliance between the Christian Democrats and the Communist Party blocked by any means: the United States primarily for military reasons, above all the concern that the Communists' presence in the government would put them in a position to know important strategic and military secrets; the Soviet Union, meanwhile, worried that the Communists' entry into a government subject to the will of the voter would reawaken the aspirations of the peoples of Eastern Europe to be able to freely choose their form of government."
De Lutiis believes that the secret services of the major powers likely played a significant part in the affair, and that they acted via a third party, such as the East German intelligence services, or the Hyperion Language School in Paris.
Evidence of possible American involvement is provided by Steve Pieczenik, an American psychiatrist and anti-terror expert who was president Jimmy Carter's special envoy, and who arrived in Rome at the height of the crisis in order to "assist" the Italian government. In a new documentary film by journalist Emmanuel Amara, the former American envoy claims that he manipulated the Brigades into killing Moro and that it was vital that he be sacrificed for the sake of the stability of both Italy and all of Europe.
"The decision was made in the fourth week of the kidnapping, when Moro's letters became desperate and he was about to reveal state secrets," Pieczenik says in the film, which is entitled "Les Derniers Jours d'Aldo Moro" ("The Last Days of Aldo Moro"), and which was aired in February on the France 5 television channel. "It was an extremely difficult decision, but the one who made it in the end was interior minister Francesco Cossiga, and, apparently, also prime minister Giulio Andreotti."
Journalist Giovanni Bianconi is skeptical of Pieczenik's tale, which was first published in a book entitled "Nous Avons Tue Aldo Moro" ("We Killed Aldo Moro") that the American wrote with Amara two years ago.
"There is no evidence to support almost anything this man says, and a large portion of his claims are either not very credible or contradict that which has been genuinely verified. Moro was murdered by members of the Red Brigades because he was the highest-ranking representative of the Christian Democratic Party - the ruling party the Brigades wished to attack and sabotage. However, I would not rule out the possibility that other elements pushed them to commit this act, fearing that Moro would reveal state and NATO secrets."
But De Lutiis does find Pieczenik credible, and calls him "the first protagonist from that tragic period who is beginning to reveal a little of the truth. It's a small step, but he deserves kudos for having more courage than many Italian politicians."
Closure at last?
Will the questions that have tormented the nation for 30 years finally be answered now that secret documents are being declassified? The experts aren't counting on it. "Questions still surround many of the great political murders of the past half-century, concerning the dispatchers and also the perpetrators, from the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, to those of Martin Luther King and Olof Palme. Therefore, it's hard to be optimistic," De Lutiis says. Bianconi doesn't harbor any great expectations, either, from the opening of the archives to the public. "To be honest, I don't expect much from these archives. Of course, the archives of classified papers may hold some interesting documents. These papers have already been examined, in theory at least, by investigating magistrates and by members of parliament who took part in the various commissions of inquiry into the affair."
Even the man who recently announced the declassification, Deputy Minister Enrico Micheli, sounds pessimistic. "It's hard to imagine that any institutional wrongdoing on the part of the government would be revealed, because even if there was any, there's probably no trace of it left in the archives."
Nonetheless, Italy longs to find answers that will allow it to finally achieve closure. But until then, it appears that the mood will continue to be that which was reflected in a recent editorial in the daily La Repubblica: "The dead are buried, the killers are free. And we haven't done a real reckoning with our past."