Valle Giulia Has Taken On Mythological Stature Forty years ago, there were protests in many European countries. But perhaps the longest and most complex movement was in Italy. During the battle of Valle Giulia, the meadow in front of Rome University's school of architecture, some 4,000 students confronted police. By early 1968, most Italian universities were occupied.
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Valle Giulia Has Taken On Mythological Stature

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Valle Giulia Has Taken On Mythological Stature

Valle Giulia Has Taken On Mythological Stature

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Forty years ago, protest movements were building across Europe. Perhaps the best remembered and most commemorated of 1968 was in France. The longest and most complex, though, was in Italy. The country's economy was booming, but the post-war generation wanted more from their government, including social and political reform. As part of our occasional series Echoes of 1968, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Among Italians, there's little agreement when '68 began or when it ended. In a few cities, the student protests actually started 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 the date of March 1st, 1968 has taken on mythological stature.

Unidentified Man #1: (Italian spoken)

POGGIOLI: This was the battle of Valle Giulia, the meadow in front of Rome University school of architecture. Four thousand students confronted police surrounding the building. It was a violent clash - about 150 policemen and 500 students were injured.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PAOLO PIETRANGELI: (Singing in Italian)

POGGIOLI: Paolo Pietrangeli's voice is a little more hoarse than, when a philosophy student, he wrote what became the anthem of Valle Giulia.

Mr. PIETRANGELI: The heroes were ourselves. It is silly now to say that. But we thought so, and we were proud of it.

POGGIOLI: By early 1968, most Italian universities were occupied.

Unidentified Man #2: (Italian spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: (Italian spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Italian spoken)

POGGIOLI: This activist with a walkie-talkie asked occupiers of the Rome physics department if they had enough food and blankets. Italian students were rebelling against an authoritarian, paternalist and bigoted educational system. They wanted courses in new fields, such as sociology and psychology - taboo topics in a traditional Catholic society. Not all students were against the system. There were fascists spoiling for fights with leftists. Giuliano Amato has served as prime minister over the last 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.

Mr. GIULIANO AMATO (Former Prime Minister, Italy): Entering university, I was putting myself at risk. Being well familiar with the habits of these rightist people, I had my defense ready in my hands.

POGGIOLI: Tension on Italian campuses in '68 was a reflection of the turmoil in Italian society. Over the previous decade, a massive internal migration uprooted eight 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.

Professor FRANCO FERRAROTTI (Sociologist): Italy was becoming an industrial country - unfortunately, without an industrial culture, because economic developments are faster than the change in mentality.

POGGIOLI: 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 Marxist revolution. Many '68 activists were militant Catholics who discovered the revolution power of the Gospel and embraced the workers' struggle.

Unidentified Man #4: (Italian spoken)

POGGIOLI: 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.

(Soundbite of explosion)

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

POGGIOLI: On December 12th, 1969, a bomb exploded at 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. Former Prime Minister Giuliano Amato.

Mr. AMATO: At that point, things happened that have never been really explained. There was a strategy of tension. I didn't know exactly by whom, and I didn't know where the strategy should lead. The mixture between parts of the Secret Service, terrorist attacks, right wing and left wing used somehow in order to do what?

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

Prof. FERRAROTTI: Terrorism as such has been the tombstone of '68.

POGGIOLI: Sociologist Franco 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.

Prof. FERRAROTTI: There was a (unintelligible) mentality. There was a feeling of social injustice, also a feeling that 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.

POGGIOLI: 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 a hundred 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 '70s, 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.

Prof. FERRAROTTI: The latent function of terrorism, far from bringing around a revolution, has been to make it necessary for this country to go back to a very authoritarian approach. And not only that, thanks to terrorists, the Italians, they started having a kind of - if not reverence - a recognition of the tremendous duty to keep the social order in existence.

POGGIOLI: 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. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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