The most up-to-date historiographical research about the Red Brigades

Marco Clementi, Paolo Persichetti, and Elisa Santalena. Brigate rosse: Dalle fabbriche alla «campagna di primavera». Volume I. Roma: DeriveApprodi, 2017. 512 pp; 23.80 €. ISBN: 978-88-6548-177-6

Acknowledgement: the Version of Record of this Manuscript has been published and is available in Terrorism and Political Violence, 7 January 2021,

Reviewed by Marco Gabbas, University of Milan, Milan, Italy

With this volume – which is only the first of a multi-volume work – Marco Clementi, Paolo Persichetti and Elisa Santalena gave a crucial contribution to the understanding of a topic as difficult and complex as the history of the Italian Red Brigades (or BR). The three authors consulted a quantitively and qualitatively impressive amount of sources, which go from court records to the records of public investigating commissions; from police and carabinieri sources to those of the secret services; from memoires to interviews to those directly involved. This fundamental volume is certainly bound to remain the definite text on the topic for the forthcoming years.
The merits of this work are evident since the setting the authors clarify in the introduction. One first, important merit is giving Italian “armed struggle the dignity of a study subject.” This dignity, as the authors highlight, has been often denied especially in the cultural area of the Italian Communist Party (PCI). This cultural area has in fact produced over the years many “pamphlets written by essayists with a more than dubious methodology” (6). A second important merit is certainly giving a strong blow to the many conspiracy theories which are sadly still frequent in the discussion of the history of the Italian Red Brigades. In this case also, the authors underline the responsibility of the PCI in giving legitimacy to these theories, which go from labelling the BR “fascist provocateurs” to alleging the involvement of foreign secret services (KGB, CIA or Mossad, depending on taste). In fact, even though such theories existed since the beginning of leftist armed struggle in Italy, there was a “watershed in 1984, when the PCI [, which was] in a strategical crisis after the failure of the historical compromise [with the Christian Democratic Party] […] distanced itself from the majority motion” of the Parliamentary Investigating Commission on the abduction of Aldo Moro. The authors highlight that fighting against conspiracy theories is a lost battle since the beginning. However, they concretely help those who wish to tackle the matter seriously, from a historical point of view.
One third important merit is the authors’ courageous interpretation of the BR phenomenon. In fact, the three authors avoid comfortable explanations, and clarify that the Italian Red Brigades were not “the illegitimate child but an integral part – though a minority – of a decade-long clash whose existence few have admitted in Italy” (12). The authors painstakingly scanned the history of the birth of the Red Brigades, highlighting that they were born in large Northern Italian factories, and reconsidered the importance of the intellectual contributions coming from Trento and Reggio Emilia. The BR were an organization, then, which was born in factories and which could grow thanks to “workers’ opacity,” a concept developed by the British scholar Edward P. Thompson which the three authors relevantly apply to the case of the Red Brigades. Remarkably, this concept was used even by Giuliano Ferrara – who at the time was a leader of the Turin section of the PCI – to describe this phenomenon (56). The authors paint a realistic and merciless portrait of the Italian extra-parliamentary Left, which was fluid and magmatic. The BR were only one of many organizations – though it certainly was the most dangerous and long-lasting – which could be an arrival or a starting point for many militants, who were strongly convinced violence was necessary.
Fourthly, the authors give us new insights on the abduction of Aldo Moro by painstakingly analysing the stance of the PCI. According to the authors, Moro was not insane while being held by the BR, but sought a rational and strategic way to reach a compromise between the BR and the state, so that his life could be spared. The solution was not found, because Moro clashed against a rubber wall in which the PCI had a fundamental importance. The authors talk about “rigor mortis” (436-440) referring to the opposition of the PCI to any negotiation. They sketch a party which was prey of a rigid realpolitik, and which was more interested in saving its presence in the government than in saving Moro’s life. Certainly, the PCI acted in a certain way also because it was anxious to be recognised as a credible interlocutor by the Italian business world and by the United States. PCI representative Giorgio Napolitano played a crucial role in building links with “American friends” (417-435).
Fifthly, the authors make an incredibly detailed description of anti-BR strategies, highlighting a crucial factor which has been largely neglected so far, that is the fundamental use of torture which helped the Italian state to defeat the BR. In fact, the use of torture – which was at first episodic, but which became more and more systematic after the Moro case – was fundamental to extort information on locations and individuals which fundamentally contributed to the state’s victory. In particular, the book tells the case of Enrico Triaca, one printmaker of the BR who was subject to waterboarding (500-511).
By way of conclusion, all scholars and concerned readers cannot but thank the authors for their excellent work. We all wait for the second volume.


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