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Death in Rome

THE ALDO MORO MURDER CASE By Richard Drake. Illustrated. 318 pp. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. $45.

ON the morning of March 16, 1978, Aldo Moro, the leader of the Christian Democratic Party, headed off to Parliament for the inauguration of the first Italian Government to be actively supported by the Communist Party. It was the beginning of the “historic compromise” between left and right of which Moro himself was the chief architect. But before he could reach Parliament, a squad of Red Brigades terrorists blocked his motorcade, murdered his five bodyguards and spirited him off to a so-called people’s prison in a Rome apartment. Fifty-five days later, after the Italian Government refused to negotiate for Moro’s release, the Red Brigades executed him and placed his dead body in the trunk of a car abandoned halfway between the headquarters of the Christian Democratic and Communist parties.

By killing Moro, the Red Brigades hoped to destroy the historic compromise, whose reformist, social-democratic agenda appeared to be the greatest obstacle to revolution. But the Moro murder boomeranged on the terrorist movement. The Red Brigades had been badly split over the decision to kill Moro and soon began to suffer major defections from their ranks. The case shook the beliefs of those Italians who remained infatuated with armed revolt and galvanized public opinion against terrorism. With enhanced popular support, the Government sprang into action and systematically dismantled the Red Brigades within just a few years. Rather than being the match that ignited the revolution, the Moro affair had no small role in pushing Italy toward the right in the 1980’s.

Precisely because the Red Brigades’ strategy played so neatly into the hands of their adversaries, innumerable conspiracy theories have sprouted up in the past 17 years, suggesting that some puppeteer within the Italian Government, perhaps in league with the C.I.A., the Mafia or the Freemasons, was pulling the Red Brigades’ strings. But while emotionally appealing, as Richard Drake argues in “The Aldo Moro Murder Case,” the conspiratorial view is not supported by the extraordinary amount of evidence: “Open though many questions in the Moro case may be, a historical analysis of the available evidence does not permit us to accept the conspiracy theory.”

The recent revelations in Italy of widespread political corruption and collusion between Government officials and the Mafia have made it convenient to explain much of the country’s postwar history — and especially the left’s failure to gain power — as the result of the Government’s criminal behavior. Mr. Drake’s book will serve as a healthy antidote to that tendency. For example, he absolves the former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti of any responsibility in the Government’s failure to liberate Moro — a small consolation for Mr. Andreotti as he faces trial for alleged ties with the Sicilian Mafia. The countless mistakes of the Italian police in searching for Moro were “quite in keeping with the Government’s performance in most of its endeavors,” Mr. Drake writes, while the “conspiracy theory . . . assumes an efficiency” that would be highly uncharacteristic of the Italian police in that period. The fact that some people in the Government may have been relieved to have Moro out of the way, Mr. Drake says, does not mean that they were in a position to control the terrorists.

Mr. Drake, a professor of history at the University of Montana, has performed the valuable service of sifting through the gargantuan documentation of the four different trials and numerous parliamentary investigations into the Moro affair that took place between 1982 and 1994. But by concentrating so heavily on the trial material, he has narrowed the book’s scope unnecessarily, making it less interesting than it might have been. In an excellent introductory chapter, Mr. Drake, showing a firm command of recent Italian history and politics, places Moro’s career in context. In his final chapter he states his own conclusions about the case. But in the chapters that make up the bulk of the text, he often limits himself to summarizing each trial and paraphrasing the positions of prosecutors and witnesses.

Because the four trials cover the same events, the reader is forced to tread across the same ground again and again, unsure of what to make of the slight variations in terrain. Occasionally this approach does produce a kind of “Rashomon” effect in which one starts to understand nuances of the case through its constant retelling from various angles. But too often it makes for a turgid narrative that is repetitive and sometimes confusing. Moreover, it is somewhat hard to understand why Mr. Drake does not try to tell us what he believes actually happened rather than merely repeating what others say took place.

Mr. Drake obviously has an excellent grasp of his material, and one wishes that he had given his own interpretive powers freer reign. The final chapter indicates that he has strongly held and well-documented, if debatable, opinions. The evidence shows, he insists, that there are no substantial mysteries left in the Moro case. There are no secret tapes of Moro’s interrogations and no proof that the Red Brigades were infiltrated by Italian or foreign secret services, or by the Sicilian Mafia. Mr. Drake credits the Red Brigades with conceiving and carrying out the kidnapping, and he echoes the opinion of the Red Brigades leader Mario Moretti, declaring that “one could say anything one liked about the Red Brigades, except that they were something other than what they always claimed to be and showed themselves to be in all of their actions. They were Communist revolutionaries.”

SINCE this view is placed at the conclusion of “The Aldo Moro Murder Case,” one assumes that Mr. Drake finds it persuasive. (Among the problems of this book is that Mr. Drake resorts so much to paraphrase that it is often difficult to separate the opinions of those he is quoting from his own.) Similarly, following the lead of another former terrorist, Mr. Drake seems to proffer a provocative explanation for the persistent questions about the case. “Conspiracy theories about the Moro case in particular and terrorism in general thrive because the truth hurts,” he writes. “The left could not face its own responsibility for having engendered utopian expectations and for having celebrated the myth of revolution, both of which the Red Brigades used to justify their terrorist campaign.”

While I think there is much to that analysis, I am not sure that Mr. Drake has given enough consideration to another key element: the effect of right-wing terrorism of the late 1960’s and early 70’s in driving groups like the Red Brigades toward the violence of the mid-70’s. The period from 1969 to 1974 was filled with neo-Fascist bombings and aborted military coups that dramatically polarized Italian public opinion. The conspiracy theories about the Moro case may be off base, but the Government’s ambiguous role in the right wing’s “strategy of tension” makes them understandable.

– December 10, 1995

As published in The New York Times

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