Giuseppe Pinelli - Death of an Anarchist

A radio interview by the BBC History Hour program on the death of the Anarchist Railway worker Giuseppe Pinelli and a discussion of the Strategy of Tension period of Italian politics.

Submitted by Reddebrek on October 30, 2017

The 1970's were a dangerous time to be politically active in Italy. Neo Fascist paramilitaries were mounting a prolonged bombing campaign killing many. As an extra sting the fascists often posed as left wing guerrilla's in an attempt to provoke and justify an authoritarian crackdown. There were leftist paramilitaries most well known were the Red brigades, but they tended to focus on kidnappings and assassinations instead of bombing public buildings and train stations.

After one such bombing Giuseppe Pinelli a local railroad worker and Anarchist activist was arrested in a dragnet. Whilst in police custody he went through a fourth floor window. The police maintained that he accidentally went through the window of his own accord, but the official story was so full of holes an entire play was written debunking it.

In 2001 a new investigation found three members of a Neo Fascist group responsible for the bombing that Giuseppe Pinelli had been detained for. So in addition to being killed by police he was innocent of the charges too. The interview below gives details of his life and death, including interviews with his family. There is also a discussion of this period of Italian politics, often dubbed the Strategy of Tension period, after the plans of the Fascist groups to increase tensions to breaking point.

Video link

I'd just like to make one critical comment, in the discussion afterwards the existence of the Strategy of Tension is dismissed and likened to a conspiracy theory. This is incorrect but appears to be based on a misunderstanding. The expert refers to the Strategy of Tension as being directed by the Italian state as a sort of evil block, and that's not really what the allegation is based on.

Its often described as a state within a state because it concerned the actions of networks of Neo-Fascists and members of the security services. Charges were on occasion brought up against members of Italian right wing groups and some state officials were investigated over this period. It was less a plot by a governmental monolith and more an attempt by a faction within the government to enforce its platform. For example in 1974 Vito Micelli the former head of the S.I.D (Italian secret service) stood and won a parliamentary seat as a member of the MSI. The MSI was the party that was founded by surviving members of Mussolini's defunct Fascist regime.

He had to stand down from his S.I.D job because he was connected to a coup attempt in 1970. But he was just one example, in order for the framing of leftists and anarchists to work it required the involvement of many within the intelligence and policing services. Most arrests in the aftermath of bombings were done by tip offs from the S.I.D, arrests which were often overturned and found to be spurious once an inquest was mounted.

The strategy of Tension was a conspiracy but it wasn't a conspiracy theory, because like MK Ultra it was exposed pretty conclusively. It can only be denied if like the expert you take it at its most extreme interpretation. At one point the expert claims the strategy of tension was fictitious because its aim of turning Italy into an authoritarian dictatorship didn't happen. Well he's right, but it wasn't for like of trying, in 1970 the Fascists were so frustrated with the liberal government they attempted to overthrow it with a coup. But even when that failed senior plotters were still able to stay in their powerful positions for years afterward.

Video Transcript

Program Announcer:

But first we’re going back to Italy in the late 1960’s when the country was riven by political violence from both left and right. Economic tensions and increasingly militant trade unions were tearing apart the fabric of Italian society. Acts of terror would be routinely blamed on extremists from either political wing, Anarchists or Neo-Fascists.

The government was also accused of running a strategy of tension indirectly carrying out attacks on its own people through proxy right-wing activists. Anna O’Neil has been to Milan to hear about the true story behind one incident which inspired one of the playwright Dario Fo’s most popular works, Accidental Death of an Anarchist. The incident in question was the tragic death of Italian railway worker and Anarchist Giuseppe Pinelli, who fell to his death while in police custody.

[Extract from the play Accidental Death of an Anarchist]
Actor 1:
Now superintendent think carefully, the report quotes you as having said “they are heavy suspicions pointing in his direction” did you say that?
Actor 2:
Yes, in the beginning later-
Actor 1:
The beginning, a good place to start don’t you agree?
Actor 2:
Thank you. Now towards midnight the Anarchist seized by a rapturous -your words- threw himself out of the window thus ending his life on the pavement below.
Actor 2:
Actor 3:
Actor 4:
Correct to the last detail.

Anna O’Neil:
The play may have been a comedy, at least on the face of it, but it was based on a tragedy. The arrest and death of an innocent man for a crime he didn’t commit. In Italy the time between the 1960s and the 1980s was a period of social and political turmoil marked by a wave of both left wing and right wing political violence.

Radio excerpt:
The Berlin bank bomb of 1969, a typical act of random terror; sixteen people were killed and dozens injured. Responsibility was immediately pinned upon an extreme left-wing group but after years of judicial wrangling it became clear that Neo-Fascists were really to blame.

Anna O’Neil:
It was on the 12th of December 1969 that a bomb went off in a bank in Milan’s Piazza Fontana. A local member of the Black Cross Anarchist group Giuseppe Pinelli known as Pino was one of a number of suspects rounded up and taken for questioning to the city’s police headquarters. His daugther’s Claudia and Silvia remember the evening their father was arrested.

That night we came back, me and Claudia, the door was completely wide open, the police were there and they were searching the apartment. There were papers all over the floor, the cupboards were open, the Christmas presents were open and on the floor. Claudia ran right in and wanted to chat to them, because it was so normal that people were round at the house. But my mum stopped her saying “no they are policemen”. That was when my mother told us Daddy had been stopped, but that he would be home soon. But we never saw him again.
Anna O’Neil:
Silvia and Claudia were 9 and 8 years old in 1969, the only children of Licia and Pino.

We had a house, a little council house in the San Siro area, but because Licia worked from home typing up letters for students on her typewriter there were lots of people coming and going. My father was always ready to talk to anyone, he’d actually bought a wooden sign on which “I’m an Anarchist” was written so that he could bring it up in conversation with people who came round.
There weren’t many other Anarchists who came to our house, friends of my father, these were university professors or students, also dissenting Catholics who my father met, because he was a conscientious objector to military service. And in those days only Anarchists were conscientious objectors, and then Catholics also started objecting.

They got together over common themes such as non-violence, being anti-military, being conscientious objectors to military service. Consider that being a conscientious objector carried a prison sentence, it was illegal. It was a battle, because those were the people at the time who organised hunger strikes or peace marches with Pino. War had been over for twenty years and there was a real hope that a different kind of society was possible.

Anna O’Neil:
But what does being an Anarchist mean? I asked the Pinelli sisters what it meant to their father.

For our father Anarchy was a sort of responsibility, towards other people. My father before he was brought into the police station for questioning on the 12th of December, he wrote a letter where he says “Anarchy isn’t violence, we reject it and we don’t want to be subjected to it, Anarchy is reason and responsibility”.

When it all happened, that was what I asked my mother, she said to us “Your father has been stopped by the police”
“Why did they stop him?”
“Because he’s an Anarchist”.
It was the first time we’d ever heard this word. And we asked her “what does being an Anarchist mean?” and she said “to love freedom”. And maybe for me, this is an answer. It’s the one that stays with me.

Anna O’Neil:
In 1969 the authorities needed someone to blame for the Piazza Fontana bombing, and they chose Milan’s Anarchists. Eventually in 2001 three Neo-Fascists were convicted of the bombing and Pinelli’s name was cleared. But what has never been established is exactly what happened on the 15th of December 1969, when Pino Pinelli was seen to fly out of the fourth floor window of the police headquarters. And no one has ever been brought to justice for his death.

Our life was never the same. Before our house was always full of people, now suddenly it was empty.

Our mother who had always been there was now never there. She was out working, seeing lawyers and in the evening she was cutting out articles from the newspapers.

She kept everything single article from the newspapers right up until now. Even the letters that arrived, both the anonymous ones and the letters of solidarity. Even the threats. When Pino died we were sent to stay with friends, then Licia’s brother our uncle, then we came back to Milan and stayed with Pino’s sister. We came back home after a long time away, Christmas had been and gone, but outside our door there were parcels. There were people who had come right up to our door and left presents for us, and letters, and even nasty letters and out of all this I remember a letter from a girl in primary school. She had sent me a drawing of Mickey Mouse.

The fact that Licia saved everything means that we’ve got everything documented, and that’s important because we are carrying forward an historic truth in place of any legal truth.

Anna O’Neil:
In the play Daria Fo set out to demolish the official version that Pinelli had somehow managed accidentally thrown himself from the fourth floor window.

The death was recorded as an accidental death, and this rapid closing of the case was what pushed Dario Fo to write Accidental Death of an Anarchist. He had collected all the contradictions or the lies; the clerk’s reports, the newspaper articles, the official police interviews. This is what made both Dario Fo and his wife Franca Rame write this play, and for the play they were taken to court themselves, more than 40 times.

Anna O’Neil:
I’m here now in Piazza Fontana just at the back of the Duomo di Milano, the Cathedral. And this is where the bomb that killed 17 people went off and was the event that led to Giuseppe Pinelli losing his life at the police station three days later. And there are two memorials here to Pinelli, both of them look very similar with very similar wording. There’s a slight difference, one of them has been laid by the Comune di Milano or the local council, and it says “to Giuseppe Pinelli, railway worker, Anarchist and innocent who died tragically in the grounds of the police station in Milan on the 15th of December 1969”.

And the other memorial plaque has been laid by students and Milanese democrats, and it says “To Giuseppe Pinelli, railway worker, Anarchist, and innocent killed in the grounds of the police station in Milan on the 15th of December 1969.” And that difference is telling because there’s still a debate about how Pinelli died, and that’s why Pinelli’s daughters are still fighting for the truth about what happened to their father.

Program Annoncer:

Anna O’Neil in Milan, and you can see a photo of the Pinelli family in happier times before his death, including his daughters Silvia and Claudia on our website. Just search for BBC Witness.