When History Gets Personal; How an Italian Scholar Turned Advocate in a Terrorist Case

Crimes, investigations, evidence and trials have played a central role in the life and work of Carlo Ginzburg, considered the pre-eminent Italian historian of his generation.

Teasing meaning from Inquisitorial records of the 16th century, the 61-year-old Mr. Ginzburg, who has taught at the University of California at Los Angeles for 12 years, reconstructed the mental world of an Italian miller in his book ”The Cheese and the Worms.” It is a classic work that, along with Natalie Zemon Davis’s ”Return of Martin Guerre,” helped create the genre of ”microhistory,” an attempt to examine historical themes through seemingly small individual episodes. Because of its seminal importance, ”The Cheese and the Worms” is the subject of a symposium that the American Historical Society is holding this year to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its original publication.

Over the years, Mr. Ginzburg has acted as historical detective in essays titled ”Clues,” ”History, Rhetoric and Proof” and ”Unus Testis (The Single Witness)”; written books on the trials and persecution of lepers, witches and Jews; and reflected on intellectual sleuths from Sherlock Holmes to Freud.

But never has the blurry line between historian and criminal investigator touched Mr. Ginzburg as directly as in ”The Judge and the Historian,” his latest work to be translated into English, in which he comes to the defense of a close personal friend convicted of murder.

Involving one of the most important terrorist killings in recent Italian history, the dispute has become a kind of contemporary Dreyfus affair. Mr. Ginzburg makes his personal stake in the case evident from the beginning of the book: ”I have known Adriano Sofri for more than 30 years. He is one of my closest friends. . . . I am certain that the accusation is groundless.”

The case, which saw its latest twist just this week, is itself a mystery within a mystery, one that could shed light on Italian life during the last 30 years. And Mr. Ginzburg uses it as a chance to reflect on the roles of judges and historians and the differences between historical and legal forms of proof.

The story begins in 1969, when a bomb exploded outside a bank in downtown Milan, killing 16 people and wounding dozens more. The police immediately blamed local anarchists, although it later emerged that right-wing extremists had planted the bomb with assistance from the Italian secret services to discredit the increasingly popular radical left-wing protest movement. Just a few days later, an anarchist jumped or was pushed from a window in the office of Luigi Calabresi, who was charge of his interrogation at the Milan police station, and was killed.

Many Italians, especially those on the left, insisted that the anarchist had been murdered (the incident inspired Dario Fo’s play ”The Accidental Death of an Anarchist”). Mr. Ginzburg’s good friend Mr. Sofri, at the time the charismatic head of a radical left-wing group called Lotta Continua (the Struggle Continues), led the attack on Mr. Calabresi in a blistering series of editorials in the movement’s newspaper. In 1972, three years after the initial bombing, Calabresi was murdered outside his home in Milan.

Investigators immediately suspected Lotta Continua but were never able to build a case for trial. Then, in 1988, nearly 20 years later, a former Lotta Continua member came forward and said that he had driven the getaway car and that two leaders of the group, including Mr. Sofri, had ordered the assassination.

Mr. Sofri was convicted, then acquitted in a retrial. Yet in Italy, where defendants can be tried several times for the same crime, Mr. Sofri and his two co-defendants have been in and out of court and prison for 12 years. Just two months ago, when a court refused to order a new trial, Mr. Sofri was rearrested. Two friends fled to avoid returning to prison, although this week, one, Ovidio Bompressi, surrendered to the police in Pisa.

Focusing his historical skills on a contemporary event, Mr. Ginzburg deconstructs the texts of the Sofri trial to show what he sees as the inquisitorial logic that underlies them. He points out the troubling inconsistencies in the confession of the chief witness, Leonardo Marino, who was committing armed robberies until a few months before turning himself in to the police. Noting a 17-day gap between the day Mr. Marino first approached the police and the day he was brought before prosecutors in Milan, Mr. Ginzburg suggests that the police may have put pressure on Mr. Marino to make a false confession, perhaps offering him immunity for all his crimes.

Mr. Marino has spent no time in prison despite confessing to being an accomplice to murder. Furthermore, his once-desperate financial condition is said to have improved since the beginning of the case.

From an intellectual point of view, however, perhaps the most interesting part of Mr. Ginzburg’s book is the discussion of the respective roles of judge and historian. Mr. Ginzburg accuses the Italian judges of acting like historians, trying to reconstruct the political context of the crime rather than limiting themselves to the evidence before them.

Having a friend accused and convicted of murder is a sobering experience for a historian, Mr. Ginzburg said during a recent visit to New York. Indeed, part of ”The Judge and the Historian” is a polemic against those historians — he often calls them postmodernists and poststructuralists — who challenge the notion that there is any such thing as objective reality, facts or truth. ”If a poststructuralist historians had a friend on trial for murder, they would rediscover the idea of proof,” Mr. Ginzburg says.

And yet he is one of the historians most responsible for introducing (or re-introducing) novelistic elements into the writing of history. The son of the Italian novelist Natalia Ginzburg, he once considered writing fiction and has quite consciously adopted narrative devices in his historical work. His family’s history, however, has also given him a powerful grounding in the reality of history. His father, Leone Ginzburg, a Russian-Jewish emigre, was tortured and killed by the Nazis because of his role in the resistance to the German occupation of Italy during World War II.

This family background, Mr. Ginzburg acknowledges, awakened his interest in the history of trials of marginal groups like lepers, witches and Jews. Yet some of this work may appear a contradiction of ”The Judge and the Historian.” In his ”Unus Testis” essay, Mr. Ginzburg defends the credibility of a single witness to a medieval pogrom. But in ”The Judge and the Historian,” Mr. Ginzburg attacks the judges for basing their conviction almost entirely on the confession of one man.

”The Judge and the Historian” also involves a curious reversal of traditional roles. While Mr. Ginzburg is famous for weaving imaginative microhistories from fragmentary historical records, for conjuring the historical context of the times with a novelist’s touch, in this book he avoids doing so. He has written what he admits is a kind of appellate brief for the defense, probing for inconsistencies of tone and language as much as for errors of fact.

Mr. Ginzburg acknowledges that he had not set out to write a history of the Calabresi case or a book about his friend Mr. Sofri. While a historian may freely speculate about possible scenarios in the past, he says, the judge should decide whether specific evidence is sufficient beyond a reasonable doubt.

If Mr. Ginzburg avoids recreating the historical context of the crime, the judges, in their court sentences, tackle the big, meaty historical questions posed by the case: was Lotta Continua an incubator for the violent terrorism that plagued Italy in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s? This context, they contend, is essential to understanding the motive for the crime and the credibility of their chief witness.

Ultimately, Lotta Continua dissolved in 1976 because of a split between members in favor of and against taking up arms. Mr. Sofri rejected terrorism and resumed a life of teaching. But before this final breakup, the group’s attitude toward violence was ambivalent. The magistrates make much of Mr. Sofri’s rhetorically violent newspaper editorials, including one written the day of the murder that approved of, without taking credit for, the assasination.

Mr. Ginzburg argues that the judges are filling in the blanks of the evidentiary record with historical speculation. The prosecutors ”have behaved as historians rather than judges,” Mr. Ginzburg writes, and ”rather reckless historians.” He also suggests that the judges have made bad use of novelistic imagination, turning Mr. Marino into a kind of latter-day Raskolnikov, the confessed murderer of Dostoevsky’s ”Crime and Punishment.”

But historical background is often called for in cases whose context may not be well known to jurors. The trial of Maurice Papon, a former French police official who was convicted of complicity in the deportation of Jews during World War II, began with the testimony of four prominent historians. ”In the French and Italian legal systems, it is not only appropriate but necessary to establish the life history of the accused,” says Robert Paxton, an emeritus professor of history at Columbia University and one of the expert witnesses at the Papon trial.

The French prosecutors also presented evidence about Mr. Papon’s role in the killing of Algerian refugees during a 1961 riot. This kind of evidence — dating more than 15 years after the crimes for which Mr. Papon was standing trial — would almost certainly have been seen as irrelevant and prejudicial by an American court.

Still, while the American legal system has a narrower definition of evidence, historical context is often allowed, said Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University Law School. ”If Ginzburg’s point is that we should zoom in on the most essential details — the gun and the shooting — and blind ourselves to the broader context of social unrest and the political motives,” he said, ”that argument would fail in a U.S. courtroom.” Moreover, Mr. Gillers said, the lack of physical evidence and the heavy reliance on one witness does not necessarily make for a weak case. ”A single person’s testimony can send you to the electric chair in this country if the jury believes and the prosecutor can make them believe it,” he said. But he added, ”Ginzburg is also right to attack the credibility of the witness.”

Although Mr. Ginzburg sees Mr. Marino’s errors and inconsistencies as clear proof of lying, others disagree. ”I find Marino’s account extremely coherent and convincing,” Giampaolo Pansa, a prominent left-wing Italian journalist wrote recently. ”Even his contradictions seem of little importance.” In some ways, the Sofri case is a poststructural historian’s dream, in which what constitutes proof is very much in the eye of the beholder.

But precisely because the interpretation of facts is so variable, trials are supposed to be decided by corroborating physical evidence. Complicating this case, the getaway car, the victim’s clothes and the fatal bullet have all been lost or destroyed over the years.

Judges, Mr. Ginzburg says, should have a much higher threshold of proof than historians do. ”A historian has the right to detect a problem where a judge might find an ‘absence of grounds for proceeding,’ ” he said. Although the holes in the Sofri case invite rich historical speculation, Mr. Ginzburg argues, within a court of law they could tip the scales in favor of the presumption of innocence.

– March 11, 2000

As published in The New York Times


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