The Origins of the Red Brigades

by Michele Groppi


The Red Brigades, or Brigate Rosse (BR), is a leftist terrorist organization that tore Italy from the mid 70s until the 80s. Its main goals were to fight the government, eradicate US influence in Italian affairs, withdraw Italy from NATO, and, eventually, enforce Communism. The BR mainly used bombings, assassinations, and kidnappings as their main tactics. Lack of support after the Moro murder and successful police operations toppled the leadership of the organization, which formally renounced to violence in the late 80s. However, three politically driven assassinations in the 90s and in 2003 raised doubts about the establishment of a new, less dangerous, but active BR movement.

This short memo takes into analysis the origins of the Red Brigades and which factors triggered its establishment as one of the most radical, violent organizations in Italian history. Such analysis is divided into five main parts: the historical and contemporary international level, the domestic level, the individual sphere, the actual birth of the organization, and a final assessment.

The Historical and Contemporary International Level

In order to explain the origins of the Red Brigades, it is crucial to understand the historical and the contemporary contexts prior to its foundation. Historically, there were a number of factors that on the edge of US victory over Fascist Italy in WWII and in the first years of the Cold War led to the creation of the BR. In spite of the US crucial role and support in the Fascist defeat, the Italian left resented US foreign policy for three main reasons. First, the US paved the way for Mafia’s domination over post-war Sicily. When US troops landed in Sicily in 1943, the CIA made a deal with American Mafia boss Lucky Luciano to infiltrate the island inland, creating a network of spies (Willan, 2002). Unfortunately, most double agents were Mafiosi who, after the end of the war, took control over Sicily, killing, kidnapping, and intimidating Communist activists (Impastato, 1986). Second, the Americans refrained from prosecuting Fascist war criminals. In some cases, paradoxically, former Fascists were even cleared of all war crime charges and returned to governmental institutions, the police, and the army (De Lutiis, 1984). Even before the end of WWII, the Americans understood that Communism would become the new enemy. Hence, the US decided not to prosecute Fascist war criminals, as they suddenly became reliable, knowledgeable, and precious allies against the increasingly powerful Italian Communist Party (PCI). Third, America constantly kept actively financing the Italian government against the rise of the PCI by all other practicable means (Cline, 1981). De facto, US administration and the CIA donated tens of millions of dollars to Italy as a gesture of friendship and confidence in democratic Italy (Faenza, 1976, Blum, 1986). Nonetheless, US dollars often sponsored violence against Communists. Hence, according to the leftist rhetoric, the WII “Resistenza,” “The Resistance” against Fascist, Nazi, and then US forces had not come to an end. As a matter of fact, many activists felt the whole concept of “Resistenza” was continuously betrayed, as 1960s Italy did not represent what Italian Communists fought for during WWII (Gallinari, 2006).

At the contemporary international level, that is, in the midst of the Cold War, there were three main factors that exacerbated left-wing resentment and concurred to its radicalization. First, the war in Vietnam fully embodied American imperialism and open war on Communism. Extended military campaigns, 1969 President Nixon’s secret bombing of Communist Cambodia and the My Lai Massacre of the civilian population plunged the US into a sea of criticism and hatred (Moretti, 1998). Second, Che Guevera and other armed groups in Asia and South America became revolutionary icons, whose ideas were to be emulated by an increasingly socially unsatisfied, unstable, anti-American leftist movement (Curcio, 1993). Third, many Italian leftists had faith in the Communist victory over the Western block (Biscione, 2009). The Soviets were revered as a political, social, and military superpower that was backing up revolutionary groups around the world. Domestically, as one of the former BR leaders states, in those days “There was a revolutionary culture and the idea of a possible, feasible revolution was real. By revolution we meant deep and radical changes in everyone’s life” (Franceschini, 2009, 31).

The Domestic Level

In addition to international historical and contemporary factors, domestic grounds were also crucial in heralding the creation of the BR. Politically, the climate was prone to leftist extremism for two main reasons. First, the state-sponsored “strategy of tension” plunged the country into havoc and terror. Terrorized by a potentially real Communist threat, the right-wing government and the Italian secret services backed, financed, and covered terrorist attacks carried out by radical right-wing groups (Flamini, 1983, Borraccetti, 1986). For instance, neo-fascists groups bombed Piazza Fontana on December 12th, 1969, and the Italius Train in July 1970, causing dozens of casualties. Yet, the government’s attempt to blame Anarchists and Communists failed when indisputable evidence of its engagement and coverage of the attacks came to light (Mancuso, 1986). One of the most significant episodes, however, was a failed attempt of coup-d’état by former Fascist General Junio Valerio Borghese in 1970 (Monti, 2006). Ironically, the government’s fear-driven countermeasures may have been unwarranted because, unlike other Communist parties, the PCI, theoretically, rejected violence. Ergo, the second reason that accelerated the formation of the BR was the fact that they considered the traditional PCI as too moderate and accommodating (Della Porta, 1995). Its leaders realized a full-scale Communist revolution would actually be counterproductive. Instead, what they hoped and began to aim for was a compromise with the Catholic Party (“Democrazia Cristiana”), which later on would be known at the “Historical Compromise” (Biscione, 2009). Given that the Catholic Party was supported by the US (Willan, 2002), and almost continuously remained in power since the end of the WWII, disappointment and frustration grew among radical fringes of the PCI.

Socially, the climate was more than unstable. Compared to its initial stage, the 1968 student movement became more politicized and aggressive due to increasing scuffling and rioting with the police, which often caused casualties (Biscione, 2009). Factory workers were fighting for better working conditions, especially in the two largest auto companies in Italy, Fiat and Pirelli (Ruggiero, 2005). The refusal by a part of the ruling class to integrate new demands from segments of society yielded a protest cycle that was much more enduring than the corresponding wave of social movements in other Western countries (Della Porta, 1995). Further, police repression triggered radicalization of the union and student movements in Milan and other parts of the country. For instance, the southern city of Reggio Calabria experienced a yearlong revolt in response to the killing of leftist activists (Lucarelli, 2009). In fact, during the period between the late 60s and the early 70s –until the 80s-, political culture accepted and justified violence (Della Porta, 1995). In the words of a former BR leader: “For us [the BR], the climate of social instability and the government’s violence, like in Piazza Fontana, were wake up calls. We felt attacked and we had to do anything to fight back” (Curcio, 1993, 5).

The Individual Level

Another key factor in the establishment of the BR is found at the individual level. Like several other terrorist organizations, concepts of group dynamics, brotherhood, and solidarity made a difference in the individuals’ choice to join such groups. Feelings of belonging and group solidarity are defining and appealing pillars, which are often used to allure and recruit members (Merari, 2005). The Red Brigades, to such regard, were not different. Comrades helped each other in every given occasion. They matured an unbreakable sense of brotherhood, “affective generosity” that went beyond any material interests (Della Porta, 1995). When asked about the origins of the BR, one of its former leaders Alberto Franceschini explained that: “The foundation of the group was a matter of friendship, we shared the same apartment for many years, had parties after some actions, as external relations would be impossible to cultivate” (Franceschini, 1988, 46). Group solidarity was crucial especially in the initial establishment in Milan, when BR members set up communes not only for mutual economic support, but also “as a way of providing a physical point of reference to other activists, and a cocooned environment in big, inhospitable Milan” (Ruggiero, 2005, 292).

The Actual Birth of the BR

The actual establishment of the Red Brigades can be divided into two parts: the pre-Pecorile period (1969-70) and the post-Pecorile period (1970-2). During the pre-Pecorile period, the BR did not exist yet, but activists from other radical leftist groups began to interact in several northern cities. At one of these meetings in Genova three crucial future members of Red Brigades met (Cascino, 2009). Renato Curcio and his wife Margherita Cagol came from Trento Faculty of Sociology and both of them were devout Catholics. Alberto Franceschini, from Reggio Emilia, came from a heavily Communist environment. Mario Moretti, from Porto Recanati, grew up as a Catholic, had ties with local aristocrats, but embraced Communism when his work brought him to Milan’s factory world (Arca’ et all, 2005). Yet, the breakthrough came on August 17th 1970, when 100 radical activists met in a small village in Reggio Emilia’s province, called Pecorile. Inside the small, run-down local hotel Curcio et all opted and decided for armed struggle against the State (Lucarelli, 2009). Formally, the Red Brigades were established. However, it was only in the post-Pecorile period (1970-2) that the BR became known to the public, as they carried out armed propaganda in Milan’s largest factories, demonstrative kidnappings, and destruction of private property. This marked the beginning of the war against the Italian State.


This memo proposed a three-level study of those factors that triggered the creation of the Red Brigades, which was divided into the historical and contemporary international level, the domestic sphere, and the individual level. Historically, the Italian left resented the US for triggering Mafia’s domination of post-war Sicily, not prosecuting Fascist war criminals, and actively financing the government’s struggle against Communism. At the contemporary international level, US war on Vietnam, iconized revolutionary groups, and steady faith in a Communist success were key factors that accrued left-wing hostility and radicalization. Domestically, the state-sponsored “strategy of tension,” an “unacceptable” moderate PCI, and the violent, unstable social climate were also instrumental. Finally, concepts of brotherhood and belonging surely concurred to the establishment of the Red Brigades.

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