The current economic climate in Europe is one that lends itself to extremism. Groups such as the Golden Dawn in Greece often use times of public despair to bolster their ranks. It has been the same throughout history. With doomed Weimar Republic and hyperinflation in 1920s Germany, the country saw gangs of communists and Nazis killing each other in the streets. Men who once worked in factories together and shared the same streets now beat and shot each other over political allegiances gained only a short time before.

Post-WWII Europe was a war torn mess, especially so in the lands of those who lost. Not only were these countries destroyed physically and financially, but also politically. It was a void that needed to be filled quickly. There was little time for pluralism. Communism was encroaching from the east, while America, Britain and their victorious allies done all they could to stop it. It may have been called a time of peace, but war raged on behind the scenes and the future of Europe was still at stake. In the 1960s, bruised pride, an economy failing again and political pressure from all around led Italy into its most domestically violent period in its modern history. Anni di Piombo, or the Years of Lead, saw its citizens turn to terrorism to achieve their political aims.

The suggested causes for this violence are many. They range from American influence through a covert post-war stay-behind operation to a secretive masonic lodge named Propaganda Due. Its starting point though can be traced to a conflict between left-wing politicians and trade unions and the radical leftists who voted them in years earlier.

Come 1969 Italy was facing huge protests and strikes carried out by the far left. The major players were all members of the New Left, Potere Operaio, Autonomia Operaia and Lotta Continua. People had begun to reject the left wing politicians who had been victorious since 1958 and these groups were gaining distaste for the trade unions. They begun to look more and more to the student-worker population for a support base. Reliance on more extreme tactics grew and strikes and factory occupations become more and more common. The workers of Italy had begun to abandon political parties and trade unions. Autonomism was now key and that created an easy path to stronger dissent and methods. Despite the unions eventually wresting some influence back at the end of the 60s, the groundwork had already been laid for the following unrest.

It was not long before the first public official was killed in regards to these protests. On November 19, 1969, a Milanese policeman was shot dead during far-left riots. His name was Antonio Annarumma. This was the beginning of nearly two decades of violence which still echoes quietly in Italy today.

The first major bombing of this period manages to sum up the utter confusion that shrouded the Years of Lead. In December of 1969, the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricolutra (National Agrarian Bank) headquarters were bombed in Piazza Fontana, Milan. In total, 17 people were killed with 88 injured. On the same day, four other bombs were placed with three detonating in Milan and Rome. Another was found undetonated. Suspicion first fell on the anarchists. Over 80 people were rounded up, arrested and questioned in order to find the culprit. One suspect, Giuseppe Pinelli, died after falling from a fourth floor window of a police station. Suicide was the reason given by police, but murder charges were eventually brought against officers who were on duty at the time. All charges were subsequently dropped. Come 1972 and one of the officers implicated in Pinelli’s death, Luigi Calabresi, was assassinated by members of Lotta Continua. Two leaders were sentenced for ordering the attack and two members for carrying it out.

Attempts to find the culprit continued. Another anarchist, Pietro Valpreda, was arrested and eventually sentenced. He spent a total of 19 years in prison, only to eventually be exonerated after a slew of mistrials. During this time, fingers began to point in the other direction towards far-right extremists. In March, 1972, the founder of Ordine Nuovo, a neo-fascist group, and two members were arrested. Founder Pino Rauti and two other group members, Franco Freda and Giovanni Ventura, were charged with orchestrating numerous bombings including the one in Piazza Fontana. This also led to a dead end and all three were acquitted. Freda was eventually sentenced for the crime in 1979, although again he was acquitted. This time after serving under two years in jail.

Trials have continued to take place with the last one finishing in 2005. All those convicted were eventually let out and no convictions have yet to stick. There is still continuing debate on exactly who was responsible. An investigation carried out by the Olive Tree coalition suggested there was direct US involvement in the form of failing to notify Italian authorities of the attacks and funding people like Rauti. It was also suggested by the co-founder of the Gladio operation (a NATO stay behind paramilitary organisation whose job it was to suppress the spread of communism), Paolo Emilio Taviani, that the Italian secret service wanted to blame the attack on anarchists. Finally, the Red Brigade, who were a left-wing terrorist group, had kept their own investigation secret. When this was finally recovered after a gunfight between their members and Italian police it was revealed that they believed it was indeed anarchists who had carried out the bombings.

What followed these bombings was continuing violence. In December, 1970, a group of neo fascists nearly staged a coup. In March, 1971, two members of left wing terrorist group, Gruppo XXII Ottobre (predecessor of the Red Brigades), robbed and murdered Alessandro Floris, a public servant delivering salaries. The Red Brigades later kidnapped a judge to free the man arrested for the murder. This failed and they later killed another judge in revenge. There were continuous robberies, bombings, kidnappings and assassinations with both sides of the political spectrum, Italian police, secret service, Gladio and Propaganda Due all blamed for various crimes and often for the same ones. In 1978, Aldo Moro, a former prime minister and leader of the majority holding Christian Democracy party, was kidnapped and killed by the Red Brigade. His body was later found on the streets dumped in a car. It was clear that anyone was a target.

The 1988 Red Brigade assassination of senator Roberto Ruffilli is considered to signal the end of the Years of Lead although they have been active as recent as 2003 after killing a policeman and in 2005 suspected terrorists were arrested and suggested to have belong to the New Red Brigades. The question is, what was the true cause of all this violence?

There is no one answer. It seems all parties involved had their part to play. Left wing and right wing extremists engaged in awful activities, but it seems there were strings being pulled from higher up. Propaganda Due were accused of using their influence to attempt to mislead things like the police investigation of the Bologna massacre. There was also Operation Gladio which was said to have supported or stopped both right and left wing terrorism depending on how it suited their needs. Italy had become a playground for internal and external powers who wished to exert their control in post-WWII Europe.

The Years of Lead are mostly in Italy’s history now, but as extremism rises, will the violence return? It seems that not all the groups are completely dormant and only a little provocation could cause them to spring into action. If this were to happen it would be likely their adversaries would do the same. People are less ashamed of extremism nowadays. The Golden Dawn in neighbouring Greece openly use symbols and salutes of Nazism while organising violent attacks on immigrants. Anders Breivik carried out an atrocity which wouldn’t have been too out of place in 70s Italy. There may not be Gladio around to rile things up, but it may not be needed any more. The near future of Italy looks as though it will be influenced heavily by outside factors once again. Brussels has begun to weaken and a power reminiscent of Europe’s darkest hour grows just over the border and threatens to spill over.

Berlusconi may be gone for now, but the lodge be belonged to, Propaganda Due, still lurks in the shadows. Their influence is still strong, left and right wingers still hold grudges and weapons, and the future is uncertain. It is fertile ground for conflict. It does not seem likely right now, but these events can often be unpredictable. All it needs is one bomb to set a whole country ablaze.