June 23, 1980: After the assassination of magistrate Mario Amato by Italian right-wing terrorists, an anonymous group published a leaflet endorsing the murder:
“To the members of the ‘Great Fascist Organizations’ we say: Fuck off, you never achieved anything and never will; … you are idiots and sheep. … Our task is to find comrades, if need be, to create them. CREATE ARMED SPONTANEITY. We end this document by telling those who charge us with not being ‘political enough’ that we are not interested in their politics, only in the struggle, and in the struggle, there is precious little room for talking. … To him who needs a hand, we will give it, and it will be bullets for those who go on polluting our youth, preaching wait-and-see and the like.”
What distinguishes this flyer from other statements by right-wing terrorists is not its vulgar language or pseudo-sophisticated argument for a palingenetic rebirth of Italy, but rather the fact that it embodies key characteristics that would come to define a new form of right-wing terrorism that emerged and operated in Italy from the mid-1970s until the early 1980s. Although the number of right-wing terrorist attacks massively increased during this period, scholars have traditionally focused on the left-wing terrorism of the Red Brigades or the so-called strategy of tension in the early 1970s that saw the bombing at the Piazza Fontana in Milan in 1969 or the Italicus massacre of 1974.
The Bologna Attack of 1980: Italy’s Unhealed Wound
This new form of terrorism emerged foremost as a youth rebellion against Italy’s “old right” in a situation when they faced further marginalization within Italian society and politics. In the attempt to restore their self-esteem and their damaged masculinity, a younger generation found justification for a “heroic” crusade against the modern world in the texts of the British writer and linguist J.R.R. Tolkien and the Italian philosopher Julius Evola.
Far From Dead
In December 1946, the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) was created and enjoyed rapid success in regional and national elections. To increase its political influence, the party hierarchy collaborated with the ruling Christian Democrats as early as 1954. However, radicals like Pino Rauti and Stefano Delle Chiaie questioned the party’s legalistic approach and founded extra-parliamentary groups such as New Order (ON) and National Vanguard (AN). Due to their ideological and personnel continuity, these groups linked the 1940s with the terrorist groups of the 1970s, which became involved in what later became known as the strategy of tension.
Already in 1972, the failure of the strategy of tension was obvious. Rather than leading to a decline of the left, the destabilized public order was exploited by the communist and socialist parties. In the mid-1970s, the political right came under further pressure when right-wing groups such as ON were banned, and left-wing terrorism began to rise. However, right-wing terrorism in Italy was far from dead.
In 1976, right-wing terrorists killed State Attorney Vittorio Occorsio, officially launching a new phase that saw nearly 1,200 terrorist acts committed between 1976-1980. Among the victims were members of left-wing organizations, so-called traitors and, for the first time, state officials. The perpetrators of the strategy of tension deliberately avoided attacking representatives of the state, in particular of the security apparatus as they were regarded more as allies than as enemies. But now, they were among the preferred targets of right-wing terrorists.
The majority of those responsible for these attacks were short-lived groups or individual perpetrators — what people today might call lone wolf terrorists. In addition, we find organizations that existed for a longer time period even if their structure was also informal, including Armed Revolutionary Nuclei and Third Position. But what caused the shift within the right-wing terrorist scene in the mid-1970s?
To better understand the internal changes and dynamics, we have to look at the socio-political framework, especially the cultural situation within the far-right scene. Since the early 1970s, the growing influence of the left in society, politics and the extremist milieu added to a feeling of marginalization among younger radicals, most of them born after 1955, having no ties to the roots of Italian fascism. To overcome this apparent crisis, they pleaded for a radical change of ideology and tactics.
Led by nonconformist intellectuals like Marco Tarchi, they accused the MSI of being a corrupt party lacking the energy necessary for a revolution. They criticized the rigid hierarchy that had prevented the youth from becoming more involved and characterized the covert terrorist activities and the coup attempts during the strategy of tension years as both misguided and as the reason for the increasing marginalization of the right.
The charge against MSI’s establishment was led by the satirical journal The Voice of the Sewer, founded by Tarchi in 1974 in Paris. Heavily influenced by the French New Right, the journal used comics and texts to question the actions of Italy’s “old right” and their obsession with nostalgia and tradition. Tarchi, who would become the leader of the MSI youth group Youth Front, wanted to “rejuvenate” the political and cultural debate within the Italian right by looking to the left for inspiration.
Middle-Earth in Italy
The scope of this iteration of Italy’s New Right was first demonstrated at the Campo Hobbit festival in June 1977 in Montesarchio, which was organized by Tarchi’s Youth Front and named after Tolkien’s fantasy novel “The Hobbit.” Despite the party leadership’s opposition, the festival drew over 3,000 people and imbued the younger right-wing extremists with a new feeling of strength toward a hostile society and an anachronistic neo-fascist party. Concrete political objectives were rejected and replaced by abstract values such as courage, heroism and, above all, comradeship.
For the festival organizers and attendants, Tolkien’s fantasy novels served as a metaphor for their rejection of the modern world and their longing for a future that was better than any historical allegory. They perceived themselves as the heroes of Tolkien imagined Middle-earth, fighting against all odds for the betterment of the contemporary world. As Generoso Simeone, one of the organizers, stated: “Looking to the future, let us evoke from Tolkien’s fairy tales those images that enrich our imagination … We are inhabitants of the mythical Middle-earth, also struggling with dragons, orcs, and other creatures.” To express their attachment to Tolkien’s stories, which were deeply rooted in Germanic and old English legends, the Celtic cross became the new symbol of the Youth Front.
While festivalgoers were able to purchase a variety of books written by, amongst others, Robert Brasillach, Ezra Pound, Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, Oswald Spengler and Julius Evola, the musical performances were the real attraction given that music was considered the most important and efficient form of expression in right-wing counterculture. One highlight was the performance of the right-wing alternative band Compagnia dell’Anello (Fellowship of the Ring). For the occasion of the festival, several far-right musicians, including Mario Bortoluzzi, joined forces and created the band, which was named after the first book in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Their most famous song, “Il domani appartiene a noi” (“Tomorrow Will Belong to Us”), was a rallying cry to fight together for freedom and a better tomorrow against the forces of “darkness” and ultimately became the hymn of the neo-fascist Youth Front.
The Hobbit Camps, which took place 1977, 1978, 1980 and 1981, also featured theater, poetry and cabaret shows, art exhibitions as well as debates about issues like ecology, health and housing shortages. By including these traditionally leftist topics, the organizers intended to attract the leftist youth and start a dialogue with their former enemies. Through their engagement and willingness to incorporate these themes and types of events they sought to break out of cultural and social marginalization.
Their effort to establish contact with their counterparts on the left can also be noted in their leverage of Tolkien’s reputation. In many Western countries, the British writer was associated with leftist student protests, and “The Lord of the Rings” became the “Bible of the hippies.” In Italy, however, his work became associated with the far right thanks to the preface philosopher Elémire Zolla wrote for the first Italian edition in 1970. In contrast to Tolkien, who rejected any deeper contemporaneous meaning of his book, Zolla argued that the myths of “The Lord of the Rings’” represented a perennial philosophy that must be viewed as an outright rejection of the modern world.
Given Tolkien’s sociopolitical background, Zolla’s interpretation was not too far-fetched. Tolkien was a conservative writer, whose political and social ideas were grounded in a Catholic worldview that developed in opposition to the Anglican Church. He harbored skeptical opinions of economic and technological progress, both for the risk it poses to the human soul and for the damage it causes to its environment. Tolkien rejected socialism, Nazism and American capitalism and saw history as a long defeat. However, he still had hope. He identified among Western culture a strong romantic chivalric tradition of heroism and sacrifice, which would ultimately help to “turn the ship” around.
Of course, not everyone who loved Tolkien’s fantasy novels or who attended the Hobbit Camps would ultimately turn to terrorism. Those who did would usually look for other texts to justify their path to violence. One of their favorite writers was the Italian philosopher Julius Evola. In particular, his works “Revolt Against the Modern World,” “Orientations” and “Riding the Tiger: A Survival Manual for the Aristocrats of the Soul” became standard reading among the New Right in both Italy and France.
Julius Evola, who died in 1974, became a guru-like figure for the radical youth looking for guidance while lost in the mythical lands of Middle-earth. First, Evola never joined a political party despite his well-known affinity with Italian fascists, the National Socialists and members of the Romanian Iron Guard. He called Benito Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome a “caricature of a revolution” and rejected the Italian fascist regime as too populistic and devoid of any spirituality.
Consequently, he heavily criticized the MSI’s nostalgia and its failure to create a unique ideology that embraced Evola’s own pagan and spiritual ideas. It was this uneasy relationship between Evola and the MSI that made him an ally of the disorientated radical youth who felt betrayed and abandoned by the party. Nevertheless, the MSI tried to benefit from Evola’s popularity with the younger generation, calling him “our Marcuse (only better).”
Second, his ideology was abstract and frequently vague. He blended several schools of traditions, including Buddhism, eastern dogmas, Rene Guenon’s traditionalism and concepts of the German Konservative Revolution of the interwar period. This conglomerate of various ideologies and strands of far-right thinking attracted many people who were at odds with the fascist doctrine.
Third, Evola’s use of myth mirrored Tolkien’s saga of Middle-earth with its eternal fight between good and evil. The similarity between Evola’s philosophy and Tolkien’s novels, which enjoyed immense mainstream popularity, ultimately increased the appeal of Evola’s work among a younger generation of radicals who were in desperate need of a system of cultural references untouched by historical fascism or the MSI.
On the surface, Evola and Tolkien shared another worldview: anti-modernism. It is Evola’s concept of anti-modernism that the terrorists found particularly useful when justifying their acts of violence. In his book “Revolt Against the Modern World,” Evola argues that history was not an evolutionary success story but a devolution from an imagined spiritual and traditional culture to the modern world. While he praises the Knights Templar and the Nazi SS for their efforts to stop further decline into anarchy, he characterizes the Renaissance, the liberal ideas of the French Revolution, and Italy’s postwar economic miracle as “false myths” leading the world into chaos. Moreover, he claims that modernity could never gradually transition into what he considered the “traditional order.” The only way to establish this order — which, according to him, was “outside history” as it has never existed before — was the total destruction of the modern world.
In his books “Man Standing amid the Ruins” and “Riding the Tiger,” Evola argues that only political detachment — apoliteia — would allow the aristocratic elite to survive in a totally hostile environment. This elite expresses its racial superiority not through biological ideas but through spiritual qualities. Given his complex and seemingly contradictory arguments, his concept of apoliteia was interpreted by right-wingers in two ways. While one group saw it as a call for a complete retreat from all politics, others stated that activity was still possible, even desirable, as long as one’s acts were not influenced by political aims other than the destruction of the current world. For the latter group, absolute withdrawal was treason and achieving supreme spiritual identity was only possible through extreme engagement.
It should come as no surprise that Italian right-wing terrorists of the late 1970s advocated for the latter. They aimed for the total destruction of the rotten and decaying modern world in order to make way for the new. Terrorist acts — and thus destruction — were regarded as heroic acts, the only way one could achieve spiritual fulfillment. Those who committed such acts were viewed as possessing greater spiritual value and would become part of the avant-garde.
Debates about political aims and the right means were replaced by existential needs and slogans such as “restoring human values,” “building community” and “creating a new man.” “Evola,” as one right-wing terrorist said, “is a beacon. One of those men, who offers … all reference points necessary to lead a life in a world of ruins.”
However, such an interpretation necessitated an oversimplification and vulgarization of Evola’s original ideas. What in his doctrine was long, painstaking and by no means linear was reduced to its most literally brutal aspects. Even though Evola did not exclude future action, he stated that “Riding the Tiger” “does not concern the ordinary man of today.” But in their attempts to accelerate the decline and destruction of the modern world, the young right-wing terrorists demonstrated an incomplete grasp of Evola’s core ideas.
Dissatisfaction With the Modern World
Tolkien’s popularity among the right-wing youth who felt marginalized in their own country symbolized a deep dissatisfaction with the modern world that was more rooted in a generational conflict than a specific political ideology — not for nothing did they try to transcend the traditional left-and-right divide. Given the many thematic overlaps between Tolkien’s novels and Evola’s philosophy, it was a small step for some radicals to accept Evola’s writings as applicable facts and use them to legitimize their terrorist activities.
But, what can we learn from a cultural examination of Italy’s right-wing terrorist scene of the late 1970s? How does such an analysis contribute to a deeper understanding of past and present right-wing terrorism as a whole?
First, Italy’s right-wing terrorist scene is much more diverse than often acknowledged. This might sound trivial. But especially in the public discourse, apodictic and sometimes ill-defined labels such as “fascist” overshadow the complexity of the right-wing extremist scene and its heterogeneous ideology, which often transcends our common understanding of the political left and right.
Second, right-wing extremism turns to terrorism due to both external and internal dynamics. Analyzing Italian right-wing terrorism highlights the importance of examining the far-right extremist milieu itself, from internal rivalries between different generations to debates about the “right” ideological orientation and tactics.
Third, Tolkien’s world was dominated by male heroes and Evola’s anti-modernist philosophy centered on masculinity, arguing that an elitist group of men would ultimately overcome the materialist decadent modern world and ascend to true spirituality. The promise of a male-dominant, elitist patriarchal society helped to restore self-esteem to young men who felt emasculated by circumstances beyond their control.
Finally, Evola’s theory offered young radicals who felt marginalized an opportunity to recover their self-esteem and overcome their isolation. Through committing a “terrorist deed” they felt part of a “male” order of “heroic” knights destined to accelerate the destruction of the modern world. I would argue that this behavior shows similarities to what Jeffrey Kaplan defined as “tribalism”— the feeling of belonging to a group even though no direct contact exists between individuals.
Evola’s work has recently seen a transnational renaissance and has influenced the alt-right movement in the US, the Greek neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party and the Hungarian nationalist Jobbik party. Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief adviser, is also attracted by Evola’s traditionalist and anti-modernist philosophy, his anti-liberal aristocratic elitism, his spiritual racism and his male-dominated worldview. These groups and individuals use Evola’s work to call for a Christian-dominated Western world that must be defended against all immigrants, Muslims in particular.
Such calls ignore the fact that Evola was highly critical of Christianity and regarded Islam as the more spiritually advanced and thus more traditional religion, a classic example of the cherry-picking also seen during Evola’s initial adoption by Italy’s far-right in the 1970s. Nevertheless, Evola’s growing popularity among the radical right today calls for a deeper understanding of his teachings and philosophy if we want to gain a better understanding of the present transnational right-wing extremist and terrorist scenes.
*[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.