The origins of the Red Brigades lay in part in disappointment that the student movements in 1968 and 1969 had failed to produce a revolution. There was also dissatisfaction with the moderation of the Communist Party. Right-wing extremism, which went on the offensive in the summer of 1969, helped produce a terrorist response from the Left. The neofascist groups set out to create an atmosphere of violence that would lead to a military takeover. During 1969–1970, right-wing extremists in Italy were responsible for a hundred or more bombings. In 1970, Renato Curcio and Margherita Cagol, student activists from Trento, founded the Red Brigades to meet what they considered an imminent threat from the Right.
The Red Brigades combined the Italian tradition of resistance to fascism, which its members believed had been left unfinished, with ideas drawn from People's Republic of China's (PRC) leader Mao Zedong and the Viet Cong. In the beginning, the Red Brigades concentrated mainly on sabotage. Soon, however, they turned to violent campaigns against representatives of what they considered to be imperialism, targeting businessmen, right-wing political figures, government officials, and judges. In 1974 the Red Brigades kidnapped Judge Mario Sossi, known for his rightist views. Unable to locate the hideout of the terrorists, the Italian government reluctantly negotiated Sossi's release in exchange for eight prisoners. As soon as Sossi was released, however, the government reneged on its agreement to release the prisoners.
During 1975–1977 the Red Brigades went through a radical phase that included attacks on Fiat automobile plants and the murder of Francesco Coco, the attorney general of Genoa. On 16 March 1978, members of the Red Brigades caused a sensation by kidnapping Aldo Moro, at the time leader of the Christian Democratic Party and a former premier. Periodically, the Red Brigades issued statements declaring that Italy was an integral player in an imperialist coalition led by the United States. They viewed Italy as a good starting point for the revolution to destroy imperialism. Moro wrote letters demanding that the government negotiate his release. The Christian Democratic government of Premier Giulio Andreotti refused to negotiate, despite intense popular and political pressure. Finally, the Red Brigades murdered Moro on 9 May 1978 and placed his body in the back of a car, which was left on a busy street in Rome.
The government responded to Moro's murder by giving General Carlo Alberto Dall Chiesa unlimited power to wage a relentless campaign against terrorism. The Red Brigades, now into a second generation of activists, responded with thousands of attacks (2,379 in 1978 and 2,513 in 1979). A turning point in the terror campaign came with the 1980 arrest of Patrizio Peci, a Red Brigades leader who gave police information that led to raids on Red Brigades hideouts throughout Italy.
The Red Brigades mounted one more spectacular action, kidnapping U.S. Army Brigadier General James Lee Dozier in December 1981. In this case, Dozier was rescued and his kidnappers arrested. The Red Brigades continued to operate for the balance of the decade. (An offshoot of the Red Brigades claimed responsibility for two murders in 1999 and 2002, and two activists on the run for two decades were arrested in 2004.) Internally, however, the organization split into opposing factions, some of which rejected armed struggle. The Red Brigades, like its counterparts in other countries, tested the commitment of the Italian government to democracy and civil liberties. The government successfully balanced this commitment against the need for severe measures to deal with terrorism.
Seen in the context of the Cold War, the Red Brigades appeared to some observers to be part of an international terrorist movement backed by the Soviet Union. There were connections between the Red Brigades and other terrorist groups, such as the Red Army Faction in Germany. Nevertheless, there was no powerful Euro-terrorist movement capable of mounting a challenge to Western regimes. Each terrorist group pursued its own set of aims, and cooperation was limited and fleeting.
Michael D. Richards
Meade, Robert C. Red Brigades: The Story of Italian Terrorism. New York: St. Martin's, 1990.; Silj, Alessandro. Never Again without a Rifle: The Origins of Italian Terrorism. New York: Karx, 1979.