Eye witness

May 28, 1999

Last week's murder of a key government adviser on labour relations at Rome's La Sapienza University was claimed by the Red Brigades, the most important of the left-wing terrorist organisations active in Italy between the early 1970s and late 1980s.

The assassination of Massimo D'Antona, a law professor, coupled with a 28-page communique denouncing "imperialist war against Yugoslavia" and urging "class warfare", plunged Italy back into an unforgotten nightmare.

Although over 100 rank and file militants are still at large, most activists have been captured, and it was generally assumed that the Brigate Rosse (BR) no longer existed.

So was the shooting a return of old BR militants, the first evidence of a new generation, or both?

Paul Ginsborg, professor of contemporary history at Florence University and an expert on Italian politics, says: "I'm convinced that this is not a 'return' of the BR, of middle-aged terrorists still at large. This is a new generation, imitating and inspired by the old BR."

He believes the Yugoslav war prompted some young left-wing extremists to turn to terrorism. "There had already been signs; attacks against NATO bases and on local headquarters of the Democrats of the Left, the ex-communist party that leads the government. The bombing of 'communist' Serbia may have produced outrage which, through demented political reasoning, justified D'Antona's murder. He was engineering a 'social pact' between unions, employers and government. This was perceived as defusing 'class war' and a betrayal of the proletariat. By shooting a mediator of the moderate left, they hope to accelerate class war."

Professor Ginsborg says that today's social context is entirely different from that of the 1970s. "Today there can be only a much more limited consensus. There is no left-wing student movement in the universities that compares to that of the 1970s. The fact that the victim was an academic is significant in that in Italy academics are historically linked to government much more than in the UK."

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