I was talking to an Italian friend in Rome when I heard the blast. A few hundred yards away, I found that a bomb had exploded against the staircase of the gigantic Vittorio Emanuele monument, killing nobody but showering the piazza with marble fragments. It was December 1969. Then as now, Italy was seething with a turbulent desire for change and a campaign of anonymous terrorist bombing had been launched in Milan and Rome. Then as now, many Italians suspected collusion between the ultra-right and the political and economic establishment. And there was the same talk of a 'strategy of tension'.
On 12 December, a bomb had gone off in a crowded bank in Milan, killing 13 people. Another bomb laid outside La Scala opera house failed to detonate, but three smaller bombs exploded in Rome - one of them at the Vittorio Emanuele monument. The authorities instantly blamed the far left. A young anarchist called Pinelli, under interrogation in the Milan police headquarters, fell or was pitched out of the window to his death. ('With a cat- like leap,' reported one imaginative newspaper, 'Pinelli reached the window and threw himself out.') But many sage Italians concluded - correctly, as it turned out - that the far right, rather than the revolutionary left, had been at work.
There were similarities to what is happening now, but the background was very different. In 1993, a tidal wave of long-accumulated fury against the corruption of public life is sweeping the land, against the princes of big business, the Mafia godfathers and the ageless trolls who have monopolised political leadership for 40 years. In 1969, the tidal wave had been set off by the European earthquakes of 1968: students and workers stormed about the streets of Italian cities demanding a new and revolutionary politics of the left. The centre-left coalition government led by Mariano Rumor had fallen in July, after a split among the Socialists, and in August a minority Christian Democrat government had been formed.
It was the phrase 'strategy of tension' which got me into unexpected hot water. But my colleagues and I had only reported what many Italians were saying: that President Giuseppe Saragat, a Social Democrat, had helped to brew a panicky climate which encouraged right-wing terrorism. He had helped to bring about the Socialist split, calculating that a weak minority government would lead to an eruption of strikes and revolutionary tumult. This would scare Italy towards the right, suppress hankerings on the Christian Democrats' left wing to reach some understanding with the Communists, and at the next elections produce a majority for another centre-left coalition with Saragat's own party.
Looking back, it seems a contorted conspiracy theory. But I was abused throughout the Italian press for slandering the President. There were diplomatic protests in London and then, when a German paper reprinted the story, in Bonn. 'Offensive insinuations . . . from the land of Punch and Judy and the paper of Philby]' shrieked the journalists (I worked for the Observer at the time). Then they went on to publish every word of our piece.
All the same, 'strategies of tension' exist, even if President Saragat did not plot that particular example. Somebody is pursuing one in Italy today. It is hard to say who is behind the bombings. It is harder still to interpret their strange targeting, which selects exactly those objects around which Italians of all views unite in pride and love: the paintings of the Uffizi, the basilicas of Rome. It is as if those early Futurists who embraced Fascism had returned from the 1920s, to exhibit ancient stones streaming with fresh blood as some crazy cultural statement. But the general purpose is clear. The torrent of reform must be diverted.
A strategy of tension is not a straightforward strategy. The bombings in Milan, Florence and Rome are not intended as a simple warning: 'Stop all these trials and reforms or we will murder more people, demolish more treasures]' That would be very nave. Great movements are almost impossible to intimidate once they are rolling. In fact, the Italian bombings made parliament bring forward its vote on the new electoral laws in order to get them settled by this week. The bombers would have expected that. And in a sense, they wanted it.
A strategy of tension is always, at heart, a strategy of provocation. Lenin used to say: 'The worse, the better]' Great movements or repressive states are difficult to slow down, but it is easier to goad them into moving faster. And if they accelerate to the point at which their brakes fail, they will destroy themselves far more totally and finally than if they are merely halted. This is a technique for provoking revolution, when a regime is prodded by judicious acts of terrorism into behaving so brutally that it loses all support among the uncommitted. And it is also a well-tried technique of counter-revolution.
'La Revolution en danger]' The French Revolution went into over- drive when it was threatened by foreign intervention. The Terror followed, consuming the old leaders and accelerating the whole process until it crashed into the muzzles of Napoleon's cannon and stopped. Many people learnt from that. In 1981, to take a recent example, General Jaruzelski's secret police in Poland used murder, kidnapping and faked attacks on Soviet war memorials to provoke Solidarity into grabbing for political power. Britain and Spain both endure terrorism designed to make the state lose control of itself and 'drop its mask', revealing the fangs of a 'Fascist-imperialist hyena' underneath. The strategy of the Red Army Fraction in Germany is no different. Hitler had already shown the way. On his climb to power, he used terrorism to create such a climate of tension that the Weimar Republic had to choose between appearing impotent or violating the constitutional rules.
In Italy, the strategia della tensione wants reform to gather speed until it approaches revolution. The bombers want to madden the reformers into hanging Christian Democrats from lampposts, into occupying ministries, into setting up committees of public safety run by art students and Calabrian peasants to purge Italy from top to bottom. Then, the strategists calculate, there will come a huge reaction as the mass of ordinary people decide that enough is enough and vote for a return to Order, Discipline, Fatherland.
Will the strategia work? Fortunately for Italy and Europe, there is not the slightest chance that it will. The grand cleansing of Italy is a renewal carried out by the most normal of means: by the law, by the ballot box, by constitutional change. It is a rebellion against those who stole law, ballot box and constitution from the citizens and used them as their private property.
Italy's anger is the anger of a family that has been robbed. And the only effect of the bombs is this: to remind the Italians that to act lawlessly would be to play precisely the game of those who have been robbing them. But they will not be provoked.Reuse content