Europe Compelled to Confront Left-Wing Terrorist Past | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 14.02.2007
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Europe Compelled to Confront Left-Wing Terrorist Past

The scheduled release from prison of a former left-wing extremist has sparked a sharp debate in Germany. But in the past, Italy and France have also had to decide how to battle left-wing terrorists.

32 Red Brigades received life sentences for the 1978 kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moros

32 Red Brigades received life sentences for the 1978 kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moros

The Italian Marxist-Leninist terrorist group Brigate Rosse or Red Brigades officially disbanded in the 1980s, but pockets have remained, as arrests on Monday showed.

Italian authorities took 15 people into custody. The suspects are allegedly linked to the Red Brigades for planning several attacks, including one on a company owned by former premier Silvio Berlusconi. They have been accused of "associating with terrorists and participating in an armed group," the Italian Interior Ministry said.

The group, founded in 1973, has been mainly inoperative since the end of the Cold War. But in the 1970s and 1980s, it was responsible for thousands of acts of violence. Over 400 deaths are attributed to the Red Brigades.

The climax of Red Brigades terror occurred in 1978, when the group kidnapped former Prime Minister Aldo Moros and subsequently murdered him. The period belonged to the most dramatic days that Italy experienced since the end of the Second World War.

Today, a small plaque on house number 9 in the Via Caetani in Rome's city center commemorates the Moros murder. On May 9, 1978, his body was found here, in the trunk of a parked car.

Groups had the same goals, but no cooperation

Left-wing extremists such as the Brigate Rosse in Italy also existed in Germany and France in the 1970s. All groups wanted to build up an "anti-imperial European front," said Rolf Tophoven, director of the Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy in Essen.

Rolf Tophoven, Terrorismus-Experte

Rolf Tophoven is a leading German terrorism expert

Germany's Red Army Faction (RAF), the Red Brigades and Action Directe in France had a social revolutionary approach in common.

"They were against the state, against exploitation and for the interests of the working class," Tophoven said. "They were aiming for the revolutionary reorganization of society according to a Marxist-Leninist ideal."

The instrument they chose to meet this goal was violence, and the targets were mainly leading politicians and top managers from the business world. But the groups never got further than an ideological linking.

Cross-border cooperation, such as that practiced by Islamic terrorist groups today, never existed.

Justice collaborators helped break up the Red Brigades

The Red Brigades had dreamt of a Communist order in Italy. The result, though, was a climate of uncertainty and violence caused by numerous assaults and kidnappings. The break came after the Moros murder.

Aldo Moro in der Hand der Roten Brigaden

Aldo Moro spent 55 days in the Red Brigades' hands before he was killed

"This event shocked all of Italy," Tophoven said. "For the first time, a wide front spanning across all political parties formed against the terror from the left."

The decisive aspect of the fight against terror in Italy was the so-called pentiti, or justice collaborators. It offered leading heads of the movement a milder sentence if they cooperated with the state.

"This led to the breakup of the Red Brigades in 1982," Tophoven said. Over 200 activists received sentences at the time -- 85 of them for life.

In the meantime, however, many have been released from prison or were granted day release. In 1998, when founder Renato Curcio was released after 24 years in prison, the discussion in Italy was nowhere near as heated as in Germany. A German court ruled on Monday that former RAF leader Brigitte Mohnhaupt will be released on parole next month. This has sparked a sharp debate across the country.

Public opinion in France forced government action

In France in the 1980s, the government and president Francois Mitterrand initially reacted relatively reserved to Action Directe. As opposed to Germany, they didn't consider the state order directly endangered.

Joelle Aubron kommt frei

Joëlle Aubron from Action Directe died of cancer in 2006

But with the Action Directe commando's first casualties, public opinion changed. The major left-wing liberal newspapers, such as Le Monde and Libération condemned Action Directe. The publications criticized the lacking reference to the working class, in whose name the group operated.

The French government took a tougher stance after the murders of General Rene Audran in 1985 and Renault director Georges Besse in 1986. One year later, the founders of the group, Jean-Marc Rouillan, Nathalie Ménigon and Georges Cipriani were arrested and Action Directe fell apart.

In 2006, the three prisoners requested release on parole after serving the minimum time of 18 years. But authorities denied the request due to their lack of remorse.

RAF dissolved itself

Following the successes in Italy, the witness leniency program was introduced in Germany, too. But the RAF dissolved itself. In a letter in 1992, it declared its fight as useless and the RAF experiment as failed.

Generalbundesanwalt Buback bei Anschlag getötet RAF

The attack on federal prosecutor Siegfried Buback left three dead

Following the decision to release Mohnhaupt on parole, three RAF members remain in prison: Christian Klar, Eva Sybille Haule and Birgit Hogefeld. Their prison sentences could also be changed into a suspended sentence after 2009.

"In all three countries, the social revolutionary experiments drenched in violence and terrorist attacks failed," Tophoven said. The virtually worldwide collapse of real Socialism ultimately contributed, too.

"The story of the anti-imperialist European front is a story of failure," Tophoven said.

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