Valle Giulia Has Taken On Mythological Stature

Forty years ago, there were protests in many European countries. Most people remember the protests movement in France. But perhaps the longest and most complex 1968 movement was in Italy, which was enjoying an unprecedented economic boom at the time.

Among Italians, there's little agreement on when the '68 protests began or when they ended. In a few cities, the student protests began two years earlier.

For some participants, it was a brief time of joyful communitarian solidarity. For others, it was the start of a painful decade of violent ideological confrontation.

All agree, however, that March 1, 1968, has taken on a mythological stature.

This was the battle of Valle Giulia, the meadow in front of Rome University's school of architecture. Some 4,000 students confronted police surrounding the building.

It was a violent clash — about 150 policemen and 500 students were injured.

By early 1968, most Italian universities were occupied.

Italian students were rebelling against an authoritarian, paternalistic and bigoted educational system. They wanted courses in new fields such as sociology and psychology — taboo topics in a traditionally Roman Catholic society.

Not all students were against the system. There were fascists spoiling for fights with leftists.

"There was always this atmosphere of fascists were going to come and attack us, or police coming, there was always an atmosphere of something dangerous coming," says Scilla Finetti, now a retired schoolteacher, who remembers the constant tension.

Giuliano Amato has served as prime minister over the past decade. But in 1968, he was a Rome University instructor. Siding with students, he gave them the key to the political science department so they could occupy it. Amato also armed himself with a tire jack for protection against fascists.

"Entering the university, with food for the occupiers, I was putting myself at risk. Being well familiar with the habits of these rightist people, I had my defense ready in my hands," he says.

Tension on Italian campuses in '68 was a reflection of the turmoil in Italian society.

Over the previous decade, a massive internal migration uprooted 8 million families from the rural south to the fast-industrializing north.

Sociologist Franco Ferrarotti says millions of illiterate peasants had to adapt quickly to the harsh realities of the factory floor.

"Italy was becoming an industrial country, unfortunately without an industrial culture, because economic developments are faster than the change in mentality," he says.

Social, psychological and class tensions made the Italian '68 movement angrier and more ideological than those in other European countries.

Italy had the largest Communist Party in the West, and the international backdrop — the war in Vietnam and the 1967 right-wing coup d'etat in Greece — nourished a passion for a Marxist revolution.

Many of the '68 activists were militant Catholics who discovered the revolutionary power of the gospel and embraced the workers' struggle.

As the movement stretched into 1969, the protest mood swept factories. Workers rebelled against traditional unions and went on strike for a total of 238 million work hours. This was the hot autumn of 1969. Hundreds of thousands of workers and students marched together demanding better working conditions and chanting anti-capitalist slogans.

While leftists warned of a coup d'etat, the right-wing media fueled fears that an insurrection was brewing against the state.

On Dec. 12, 1969, a bomb exploded at a Milan bank, killing 16 people and injuring 90. The bomb of Piazza Fontana ushered in what came to be known as the years of lead, a wave of right- and left-wing terrorism.

"The state got scared," says Amato. "Things happened that have never been really explained. There was a strategy of tension."

A few months after the bank bombing, a group of Catholic students from the University of Trento founded the Red Brigades.

Ferrarotti knew some of the Red Brigades founders; they were among his students.

There was broad support, he says, for the armed struggle among large sectors of the '68 movement.

"There was a common mentality, there was a feeling of social injustice, a feeling the state, the government, far from being the custodian of the common good, were actually working for an unjust society, the unjust society can be purified ... only through fire and blood," he says.

Italy's wave of domestic terrorism was the longest and bloodiest in the West. Over a decade, thousands of attacks were carried out — the extreme left targeting nearly 100 individuals, and the extreme right bombing indiscriminately and killing 150 people.

Italian terrorism reached its climax with the Red Brigades' kidnapping and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro in May 1978.

Nevertheless, the social impetus of the '68 movement forced the political elite to pass far-reaching social reforms.

During the 1970s, Italy legalized divorce and abortion; it introduced a liberal workers' statute and a family code recognizing equal rights for women. It passed free health care for all and shut down repressive asylums for the mentally ill.

But, Ferrarotti says, the '68 movement failed to bring about needed political reforms and changes in the ruling elite.

"The latent function of terrorism, far from bringing the revolution, has been to make it necessary to go back to a very authoritarian approach, and not only that, thanks to terrorism, the Italians started having a kind of, if not reverence, a recognition of their tremendous duty to keep the social order in existence," he says.

Four decades later, Italians seem to have forgotten the tumult of the late '60s and '70s, and a thick veil of mystery still hangs over who masterminded many of the violent terrorist attacks — right and left — that plagued the country.

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