In the spirit of Node Your Homework!, I hereby present one of the few high-school essays I wrote that turned out nicely. Unfourtunately, the MS Word -> HTML conversion program I used did not manage to translate the footnotes; if anyone really wants them, then /msg me and it might be possible to solve.

History Guided Coursework

The Fermezza Policy during the Aldo Moro Kidnapping


On March 16, 1978, the secretary of the Italian Christian Democrat Party, Aldo Moro, was abducted by the Red Brigades, a left-wing terrorist group. His abduction was to last for fifty-five days, and end with him being killed and deposited in an abandoned car in Rome. Throughout that time, the discussion in Italy centred on the question of negotiations with the terrorists. The Christian Democrat and the Communist Party favoured a line of firmness, fermezza, while the Socialist Party, Moro's family, and Moro himself as expressed in the 49 letters he sent from his prison, supported what they referred to as a humanitarian policy, viz. that negotiations for the captive's life should be attempted.

A striking feature of this debate is the firmness exhibited by the fermezza proponents themselves, who were overwhelmingly dominant in both parliament and press, when advocating their case. Their refusal to investigate any possibility of saving the prisoner's life has given rise to much bitterness, and traces of the rift coloured Italian politics for a decade. This essay attempts to investigate the reasons for the fermezza policy.

Italy before the kidnapping

To understand the events that followed the abduction, one needs to know about the political situation at the time. The Italian version of parliamentary democracy in the 60's and 70's was in fact quite peculiar, and has been characterised as a `de facto single-party state'. The single party was the Christian Democratic Party (DC), which had controlled every government from the first post-war election (1946) and onwards. The second largest party, only a few percent units behind, was the Communist Party (PCI), which however was excluded from every government by the strongly anti-Communist DC. Instead, in 1962 the DC formed a coalition with the Socialist Party (PSI), who thus gained a much stronger position than its 10% votes would suggest. Meanwhile, this unstable situation resulted in periodical changes of government, as temporary coalitions crumbled.

In face of a growing PCI electorate in the 70's, this policy became untenable. Instead, Aldo Moro carefully brought the DC closer to the PCI: while the latter still would get no formal place in government, it would be allowed to exercise some influence over state policy in return for abstaining in the vote of confidence of the new DC government - an arrangement sarcastically named `government by non-no confidence' by the press. As this too became difficult, Moro suggested the `great compromise', which would bring the PCI and the DC still closer together. It was a controversial proposal, encountering much resistance from the right, from abroad, and from within DC ranks, and its eventual acceptance in early 1978 was much due to the diplomatic talent of Moro.

The reformist stance that the PCI had adopted to reach this recognition, however, left a large group of Italy's Marxist-Leninists disenchanted. It indirectly caused the formation of a large extra-parliamentary revolutionary sector, collectively referred to as the `Movement' and united primarily by their hostility towards the PCI. While violence was a part of the Movement, during the `first wave' of 1968-1973, it was limited to clashes between the extreme left and the extreme right and between police and demonstrators. In this context a new phenomenon of organised clandestine violence first appeared with the group the Red Brigades (BR). Their activities were initially limited to destruction of property and some bloodless kidnappings. They can be considered part of the wave of international terrorism that flared up during the 70's, and also included e.g. the RAF and the PLO.

The first BR action which got the public's attention took place in 1974, when they kidnapped the right-wing judge Mario Sossi in Genoa, and continued to hold him for thirty-five days. The BR dominated media completely, as they staged a `people's trial', a theme that would recur during the Moro abduction. At long last, the BR demanded the release of eight named prisoners in exchange for Sossi, and the attorney general of Genoa, Francesco Coco, unexpectedly declared that such an exchange would be made, provided that Sossi was released first. The BR did release him, despite a statement by the Prime Minister rejecting any possibility of compromise. The Eight remained imprisoned, and the incident was seen as a tremendous propaganda victory for the BR.

In many ways, the Sossi drama proved to be a dress rehearsal for the Moro drama, but during 1977, press and police attention to organised terrorism dwindled as a second wave of mass mobilisation in the Movement followed. On March 16 1978, the Italian society was brutally awakened, as Aldo Moro was abducted by the BR on his way to the ratification of the new Historic Compromise government. The time chosen was certainly significant, but if the BR had hoped to sabotage the Historic Compromise by kidnapping its chief architect, they were disappointed. On the contrary, facing the sudden crisis a rare unanimity between the various parties developed, and the new government, with the DC Giulio Andreotti as Prime Minister, was rushed through without even the scheduled ratification debate.

Italy during the kidnapping

The new-formed government was well aware of the implications of the kidnapping. The police had, up until this time, been completely ineffectual against such terrorist acts, and there was no reason to assume that it would be more successful in this case. Thus, the only realistic hope to reclaim Moro was by negotiations with the terrorists, like those during the Sossi abduction. Even so, the major political actors, the DC and the PCI, formulated their policies on the matter almost immediately. Already on the night of March 17, the Christian Democrat Donat Cattin announced on national radio that `no blackmail could or would be accepted from the brigadisti' -weeks before any demands at all had been made by the BR!

If the fermezza supporters were quick to formulate their response, the opposition built up only slowly and gradually. On April 4, the DC leader Benigno Zaccagnini received a letter from Moro, which urged him to try to open negotiations. This was to be the first of a series of 49 letters sent by Moro from the `people's prison', a series which changed tone from calm and reasoned to desperate and scornful. Following this, the party secretary of the PSI, Bettino Craxi, also announced his discontent with the hard-line policy. His second in command later described the party policy as `an open door and a possibility... to create conditions of fact that would leave... at least a road open the possibility of releasing the Honourable Moro'. Moro's family, which until then had remained silent, now openly announced their break with the DC, which in their eyes had abandoned Moro.

On April 15, the BR announced the conclusion of the `trial'. Moro was, as onlookers had expected and feared, found guilty and condemned to death. But the fermezza policy remained, and on April 24, the BR finally issued their ultimatum, naming thirteen imprisoned comrades to be released, and calling for an immediate, clear reply if Moro's life was to be spared.

At that point, Craxi launched his own plan, which called for a single BR prisoner, not on the list of thirteen, to be released for humanitarian reasons, which would allow the BR to release Moro without losing face. A suitable terrorist - female, sickly, and not guilty of shedding blood - was picked out, and on May 2, he explained the idea at a meeting with the DC leaders. They were unimpressed, however, and the project eventually foundered because of legal technicalities. A week later, on May 9, the BR put an end to the affair, when they shot Moro and disposed of the corpse in central Rome.

Motivation for Fermezza

The parties in favour of fermezza primarily cited the reason of state, which was succinctly summarised in an editorial of the independent liberal newspaper La Repubblica: `'s a question of sacrificing the life of one man or losing the republic. Unfortunately, for democrats like us, there can be no doubt about the choice'. Both public officials and newspaper editors at the time spoke of the necessity of not legitimising terrorist activities, thus tacitly assuming that negotiations would necessarily entail legitimisation. This seems especially peculiar after the experience of negotiating (if half-involuntary) in the Sossi affair, which left the state thoroughly humiliated, but hardly demolished. The involved parties appear to have very vague ideas about what tangible consequences would result from negotiations.

The few articulated scenarios that actually were presented are also telling. An article in the Communist L'Unita explained the assumed results of negotiation: `We would see, first of all, a break-up of the constitutional system which does not allow the existence of "armed parties", but only "democratically operating parties" (Article forty-nine of the Italian Constitution). Once the existence of an armed party and a situation of civil war were to be recognised, a state-of-siege declaration would be inevitable, with all the consequent suspensions of constitutional guarantees and the passage of power to the military... We would, in fact, have a legal coup d'etat and the installation of an authoritarian regime'.

In retrospect, such a vision seems rather defeatist. Also, the goal ascribed to the abductors - a strategy of provoking repression from the state - is quite different from the one claimed by the BR themselves in their numerous writings, namely to `catalyse existing tensions in the various movements and armed groups'. Thus, the quote indicates that the groups in charge of state policy did not know their enemy, which is even more evident when considering that the PCI and press as late as 1975 was still claiming that the `so-called Red Brigades' were really fascist provocateurs in left-wing disguise.

The reason of state as a whole is best considered in the light of the new government's uncertainty of the situation. The whole of Italy had seemingly exploded in the `year of the P-38' (a type of handgun) of 1977, which saw violent demonstrations featuring molotov-cocktails and thousands of participants, as well as entire cities beyond police control. Then, in the beginning 1978, the abduction of Moro showed that the BR was capable of attack on the very heart of the state to an extent no one had thought possible. The Prime Minister during the fifty-five days, Giulio Andreotti, later stressed the lack of knowledge of the severity of situation: it seemed a distinct possibility that the kidnapping would set of a `explosion of pararevolutionary phenomena in thirty different parts of Italy' (as the BR themselves hoped).

This interpretation of the hard-line policy is further strengthened by the fact that, when in 1980 the number of terrorist attacks finally started to decline and the feeling of crisis was lifting, the state once again proved willing to compromise with principles to save human life. In December 12, 1980, the BR seized Judge Giovanni D'Urso, and in return for his freedom demanded that a certain special prison be shut down. The prison in question, it turned out, was in fact already intended to be closed down, and after heavy debate the government decided to let the terrorists have their way, after which D'Urso was promptly returned.

Political Considerations

At the time of the drama, all the actors explained their decisions as rooted in deep philosophical considerations, whether it was the sanctity of human life, or the inviolability of the state - or for that matter the truth of Marxism-Leninism. Even so, to a large extent, their actions seem to have been influenced by practical political concerns. The political dimension of the abduction was present from the first day, when the new coalition government all but immediately found agreement on the negotiation issue. But despite this initial show of strength, the government remained highly fragile, which in turn meant that it essentially became locked to the adopted policy. Later, Andreotti readily admitted that he had not considered changing policy partly because he did not want to risk the `substantial compactness' of unanimity that had been achieved. This, of course, is especially understandable given how the BR action had specifically targeted the Historic Compromise government.

The other half of the coalition, the PCI, was of course in yet much more precarious situation, free from their role as opposition for the first time in the history of the party. If even the DC did not dare risk the unusual unity, it is not surprising that the PCI emerged as unyielding hard-liners. Also, in this affair the PCI was politically vulnerable as no other party, because of its ideological proximity to the BR. Indeed, the radical extraparliamentary left invariably presented itself as the true Communists, and accused the PCI of misreading or denying its historical roots. The PCI could certainly not afford to give its political opponents the ammunition that would have resulted from any position that could imply `recognition' of the terrorists.

The PSI and Craxi might not have had exclusively humanitarian goals either, for that matter. The Historic Compromise had deprived the PSI of its established power position, since it could no longer make or break coalitions at will. Some have interpreted Craxi's humanitarian scheme as an attempt to create a rift between the PCI and the DC. The PSI during these years has been characterised as a `party in search of an identity', and the role of humanitarian opposition that it assumed scored political points. There certainly was suspicion at the `humanitarian' current in the Moro affair, as exemplified by e.g. a DC deputy's reflections: `there has been a confused and foolishly ambitious "negotiating" manoeuvre on the parts of ... figures ... who have passed over to the side of the humanitarians solely in order to place the Party Directorate in trouble'.

The view of the PSI initiative as a populist move to recover lost political ground is made more difficult to assess by an uncertainty over how strong the popular support of the fermezza really was. During the time, only a single opinion poll was made, by the magazine L'Espresso, and the only conclusion published was that 60% were `in favour of negotiations as long as the government was not involved', a statement that can be read both as supporting and not supporting fermezza. The only other indicator is the results in the elections, which were held on May 14, where the `party of negotiation' PSI received a small but notable increase.

The Aftermath of the Fermezza Drama

With the benefit of hindsight, it is interesting to evaluate the positions of the two sides anew. The unquestioned assumption made by both no-negotiators and humanitarians was that the BR was in fact willing to negotiate. In the aftermath, this assumption has been called into question by several commentators, who believe that the fate of Moro was sealed the moment he was captured. In the subsequent trials, however, several terrorists asserted that there existed a BR faction who, struck by the negative attitude of the rest of the Movement, would have preferred a bloodless solution, thus giving credibility to Craxi's humanitarian scheme. Also, the leader of the Moro operation, Moretti, points out with certain logic that when the state choose to negotiate about Sossi and about D'Urso, they both returned alive.

Similarly, opinions differ over the role of the fermezza policy in the eventual decline of leftist terrorism (which peaked in 1979). While Andreotti would extol the political firmness, others have given more credit to a much-needed restructuring of the police, and to the inherent self-destructiveness of a revolutionary movement increasingly detached from its popular base.


We have seen that the reasons for the adoption of fermezza policy were far from clear-cut. The advocates of the hard-line policy referred to the reason of state: any negotiation with the terrorists would topple the republic into chaos. We need not doubt the sincerity of the men who expressed these concerns, however, with our current knowledge such misgivings seem highly exaggerated.

The Moro abduction was made at a time when political violence in Italy was increasing dramatically, and in itself it marked a significant change in the nature of terrorist violence. In the days that followed, the shock combined with a shortage of accurate information to create a sense of profound crisis. In this context, decision-makers chose not to risk any potentially dangerous concessions: in a remarkably short time, the fermezza policy crystallised.

Under other circumstances, this steadfast refusal of negotiations might have relaxed as the situation developed. In particular, Moro's letters, the BR's eventual ultimatum, and Craxi's `humanitarian' proposal could all have provided opportunities for reconsidering the policy. That this did not happen, was much due to the peculiar political situation at the time. Whereas coalitions in general were fragile, the new-formed government also was based on a novel and untested formula, and additionally it seemed to be under direct attack from the BR. Given such conditions, political unity became an end in itself, and neither the DC nor the PCI could afford to question the common front. Thus, political considerations tended to cement the first adopted stance.

The most useful interpretation of the fermezza, then, is that it was the combined results of two separate phenomena: the radicalisation of political violence, which demanded a political response, and the unwieldy and brittle Italian coalition politics, which prevented the government from responding in a flexible manner.


Della Porta, D. (1995). Social movements, political violence and the state. Comparative analysis of Italy and Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Drake, R. (1989). The revolutionary mystique and terrorism in contemporary Italy. Bloomington : Indiana Univ. Press

Drake, R. (1995). The Aldo Moro murder case. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Hellman, S. (1988). Italian Communism in Transition. The Rise and Fall of the Historic Compromise in Turin, 1975-1980. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Meade, R. (1990). The Red Brigades. The story of Italian terrorism. London: Macmillan.

Moss, D. (1993). Italian political violence 1969-1988 : the making and unmaking of meanings. Geneva: UNRISD.

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