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In Italy, the past is a foreign country

The “darkest night of the Italian State” happened 40 years ago. Political leader Aldo Moro and journalist Giuseppe “Peppino” Impastato were both murdered on 9 May 1978, the first by far-left terrorist group Red Brigades, the second by Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia.

Aldo Moro had been kidnapped 55 days earlier and his case had made the newspapers’ front page for weeks. He was the leader of the Christian Democracy, the centre party that ruled Italy in the aftermath of the Second World War. Officially, he was kidnapped because he was attempting to make an agreement with the Communist Party that the Red Brigades wanted to prevent. Officially, he died because his fellow party members refused to negotiate with the terrorists.

The real motives behind Moro’s case have been the subject of a number of books, articles and conspiracy theories. What role did the Italian secret services play? Did the US and the Cold War have anything to do with it? Most of the supposed mysteries have now been cleared, but a sense of hidden truth lives on – as it is in Italy for so many historical events of the 1970s.

By contrast, not many people knew Peppino Impastato outside Sicily when he was still alive. He was born in a mafia family in Cinisi, close to Palermo, but broke any relationship with them and became a journalist. He started denouncing mafia’s crimes, telling the story of their drug traffics. In 1978 he ran in the local election, but was murdered before learning the outcome.

The killers staged a suicide – it took 24 years before Gaetano Badalamenti, the boss who had ordered the murder, was sentenced to life in prison. “One Hundred Steps”, a 2000 film that tells his story, took its name from the distance that separated the houses of Peppino and Badalamenti in Cinisi.

The night of May 9th 1978 perfectly sums up the years of lead. The violence, the secrets, the fight for justice, the obscure role of the State – it is all there.

But telling what those years meant for Italy, that is more difficult. Italians do not like to talk about it too much – old grandmothers will tell endless stories about the Second World War and the end of Mussolini’s dictatorship, but will mostly shrug their shoulders when asked about the 1970s. The years of lead do not have a clear good versus evil narrative. They are obscure, divisive and not fit for a coffee table conversation.

Most of all, they now seem reassuringly far away in the past – left behind and as forgotten as they can possibly be.

Still, they left a scar that itches and burns. They left the feeling that the State is something alien, an independent entity that shapes citizens’ everyday life – and there is nothing they can do about it. Conspiracy theories have strong appeal in Italy because they have proven right so many times in the past that no one ever really feels confident enough to rule them out.

The Five Star Movement, the populist party that got more votes in the March 4th election, joined the mainstream by promising transparency and by labelling the establishment parties’ members as liars and conspirators. There are multiple reasons behind their success – social, political and economical ones.

But the recurring belief that reality is not what it looks like also played a part. People always feel that there is another story behind. And the years of lead, both forgotten and deeply remembered, still cast a shadow on present times.

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