In the late 1960s, the old conflicts between Fascists and anti-Fascists reignited in Italy. Driving the conflict was the widespread belief among the fringe groups on both left and right that a “new 1922” – the date Mussolini seized power – was coming. The neo-Fascists welcomed this, and the extreme Left prepared to fight back violently against any government measure or regulation which it thought to tip Italy back into a fascist dictatorship.
When the first bomb exploded on 12th December 1969 — at a bank in Milan — alarm bells went off on both sides of the political aisle. The bomber was arrested, but ‘accidentally’ fell to his death from a high window; the killers were never identified, but evidence pointed to neo-Fascists and right-wing elements within the Italian intelligence. The funeral of the bombing victims turned into a huge demonstration.
Each subsequent year saw an average of more than 2,000 terrorist attacks, even as the rumors of a right-wing coup by the Italian Army swirled. Throughout these years of terrorism, which ultimately claimed more than 400 lives, the Italian government maintained the stance, “The state must not bend” even when its head the Prime Minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped.
The kidnappers, a militant communist group called the Red Brigades demanded the release of several imprisoned terrorists. Under the gloom cast by a general trade-unions strike, the government raided hundreds of apartments in major cities futilely looking for Moro. Despite the pleas by Pope Paul VI (who offered himself in exchange for the Prime Minister), Aldo Moro was murdered 54 days after his kidnapping.
Thus ended one of the most grotesque episodes in modern Italian history. From his kidnapping on March 16, 1978 where his five escort agents were killed to his emotional letters from captivity to the final photo of his dead body stuffed into the back of a Renault 4, the saga unfolded right in front of camera lens and on the frontpages, and wielded a great evocative influence on the political landscape.
This was the modern Italy’s Kennedy moment. The five time premier of Italy was so popular, and his demise was so sudden and so inexplicable that many conspiracy theories appeared. Many of them pointed an accusing finger at the cadre of western superpowers — an unholy alliance of powerful banks, secret agents, and NATO — mainly because Moro was an idealist who wanted to include the Communist party in a coalition government alongside the Christian Democrats who had been the main governing party in Italy since the Second World War. In that, the place where the body was found — Via Michelangelo Caetani, equidistant between the headquarters of the Christian Democratic and the Communist Parties — was a powerful and silent symbol.
The photo below, which was featured on the cover of the Time magazine’s Europe edition was captured by Gianni Giansanti who would later become official photographer for Pope John Paul II. (See his entire coverage of Moro Affair here). His contact sheet showed the commotion of the day the body was discovered, and Marie-Monique Robin described Giansanti’s day in her book The Hundred Photos of the Century:
When Gianni Giansanti turned into Via Michelangelo Caetani that day … he had no idea what was in store. He was 22 years old, and full of the fire and enthusiasm of a young man setting out on his professional path. … He climbed up to a balcony from which he had a bird’s eye view of a red Renault 4 around which police officers were teeming; explosives experts were about to blow off the locks of the car door. Camera at the ready, when the boot flew open, Giansanti started shooting. “At a time like that you don’t really feel anything, you just cope with the technical problems. All I could think of was that I had to guard my photos with my life, and get them to the AP agency. I had an incredible scoop on my hands.”