PARIS: The jailing this week of former communist radical Cesare Battisti, a key figure in the violent turmoil in Italy of the 1970s, has brought back memories of a time when leftist killings raged across Europe and beyond.
Battisti, 64, finally returned to jail in Italy on Monday after nearly four decades on the run following his escape from prison in 1981.
Ultra-leftist groups like his own sowed chaos during the period in Italy known as the “Years of Lead” — named after the number of bullets fired — from the late 1960s to mid-1980s.
Across Europe, it was a time when radical youths sought to smash the capitalist system with a wave of bombings, assassinations, hostage-takings and plane hijackings.
West Germany’s Red Army Faction, whose most extreme members were known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, carried out a string of attacks on “capitalist” targets such as police and US troops.
France’s Action Directe group also waged attacks in the name of the proletariat, while in junta-ruled Greece militants targeted the CIA, banks and industrialists among others.
In Lebanon, radicals in the diaspora set up the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) to fight Turkish interests, mostly in Europe.
And the Japanese Red Army, which waged terror at home and around the world, sought the overthrow of the country’s monarchy along with a global revolution.
Against the backdrop of the Vietnam war, the US-backed 1973 coup in Chile, student demos and trade union battles, a tide of anti-imperialist sentiment helped spur the radicals into violent action.
These groups built links and passed weapons across borders at a time when Palestinian guerillas like the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine were also flourishing.
Venezuelan Carlos the Jackal, for instance — the most-wanted terrorist of the era — was accompanied by the German radical Hans-Joachim Klein for his spectacular hostage-taking at the OPEC headquarters in Vienna in 1975.
“At the end of the 1960s, young rebels were turning to armed action with the idea of fighting the last fascists,” said Mosco Levi-Boucault, a French film director who produced a series about Italy’s notorious Red Brigades.
Just 15 years or so after the end of World War II, ex-fascists were prime targets for leftist revolutionaries.
“At the time, Italian factories still employed former fascists as foremen,” Levi-Boucault said.
“One of them was found with his head shaved, tied to the gates of the Fiat factory in Turin.”
The man survived, but he was one of the lucky ones.
In the most infamous of their attacks, the Red Brigades kidnapped and murdered Italy’s former conservative prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978.
Historian Marc Lazar, an expert on the period from the Institute of Political Science in Paris, said the fact that democracy was still relatively new in some countries made the resort to violence seem more acceptable.
In Italy, he added, leftwing militants were also out to fight the far-right which was itself waging attacks — such as the 1969 Milan bombing that left 16 dead — in a bid to justify a return to an authoritarian regime.
The particular violence in Italy, which Lazar estimates left more than 400 people dead, came from “one-upmanship in the escalation of violence between far-right and far-left.”
Battisti, who belonged to the Armed Proletarians for Communism group, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1971 for shooting dead two Italian policemen.
After his jailbreak he lived for years in Brazil under the protection of former leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
But the country’s new far-right President Jair Bolsonaro had vowed on the campaign trail to send Battisti back to Italy.
Battisti went on the run again — but was tracked down in Bolivia last week and swiftly extradited after authorities there ignored his asylum request.