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Journal of Contemporary History Copyright © 2001 SAGE Publications, London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi, Vol 36(4), 581–597.


Stuart J. Hilwig

‘Are you calling me a fascist?’ A Contribution to the Oral History of the 1968 Italian Student Rebellion

Until recently, oral history has glorified and glamorized the student move- ments of the late 1960s by focusing almost exclusively on the participants. Although the historiography of the years of student protest contains hundreds of interviews with former activists, there has only recently been an exploration of the perspective of non-participants. 1 This article focuses on neither the activists nor their opponents, but on those who were intimately connected to the students by familial and even ideological bonds. In the late 1960s, these bonds between parents and children were frayed by the threat of violence, by the New Left’s attack on the politics of the resistance generation, and by the students’ challenge to the very structure of their own families. 2 Indeed, historian Luisa Passerini’s important oral history of former activists, Auto- biography of a Generation, included a chapter on the students’ views of their parents entitled, ‘Choosing to be Orphans’. 3 Using the tools of oral history, this article will examine how the parents of student activists confronted and coped with their children’s political activism two decades after the end of the second world war. Historians of contemporary subjects disagree over the merits of personal testimony because of the highly subjective nature of the interviewing process which affects both the respondent and the interviewer. Along with the inter- viewer’s choice of questions, oral testimonies are conditioned by the respond- ent’s personal politics, selectivity of memory and the filter of time. As historian Alessandro Portelli has noted, only oral historians produce their own primary

1 The most recent work including oral testimony from non-activists can be found in Arthur

Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, ca. 1958–1974 (Oxford 1998). On the paucity of oral histories covering the 1960s, see Alessandro Portelli, The Battle of the Valle Giulia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue (Madison, WI 1997), 183–4, 188. Oral history in Italy is a relatively new genre. The most academic studies of Italian

oral history were begun in the 1980s by Luisa Passerini and a group of professors at the University of Turin. See John M. Foot, ‘Words, Songs and Books. Oral History in Italy. A Review and Discussion’, Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 3, 2 (Summer 1998), 164–74.

2 This article is based on a set of oral interviews recorded throughout Italy between March and July 1997, and includes testimony from Norberto Bobbio (Turin), Anna and Benevenuto Revelli (Cuneo), and Lucia Marghieri-Biocca (Rome).


Journal of Contemporary History Vol 36 No 4

sources. 4 In the same way that anthropologists are faced by emic and etic dilemmas, oral historians run the risk of wavering between intra- and extra- cultural interpretations of oral testimony. Notwithstanding these concerns, oral history can offer a window onto the emotions and thoughts of the histor- ical participant that are often inaccessible through the traditional processes of historical research. 5 The testimony for this article comes from four distinct individuals whose children were left-wing activists in the late 1960s: Anna and Benevenuto Revelli, Norberto Bobbio and Lucia Marghieri-Biocca. As such, this article makes no claims as a definitive study of parent–child relationships during the tumultuous years of student protest, but rather seeks to support the newest research that questions the older assumption that the student rebellion of the 1960s was predicated on an ostensibly unbridgeable generation gap. 6 Further- more, this article offers a model for oral historians who seek to gather evi- dence from discrete individuals rather than representative samplings. All four interviewees were selected because they shared a common history of anti- fascist resistance, a commitment to the established Italian left, a high level of education, and middle- to upper-class social standing. Benevenuto Revelli fought in the armed resistance against the German army near Cuneo; he and his wife Anna are the parents of the former Turin student activist and founder of Lotta Continua, Marco Revelli. After the war, Benevenuto became a writer and businessman and wrote several books on the wartime resistance in northern Italy. 7 Norberto Bobbio, a law professor and Senator of the Republic, also took part in the civilian resistance against the German occupation in the city of Turin. After the war, he took a post as a professor of law at the University of Turin and wrote several articles on the nature of Italian politics

4 See Introduction to Portelli, The Battle of the Valle Giulia, op. cit.

5 Louis A. Renza, ‘The Veto of the Imagination: A Theory of Autobiography’, New Literary

History, 9, 1 (Autumn 1977), 1–26; Ronald J. Grele, ‘A Surmisable Variety: Interdisciplinarity and Oral Testimony’, American Quarterly, 27, 3 (August 1975), 275–95; Introduction to Luisa Passerini, Fascism in Popular Memory: The Cultural Experience of the Turin Working Class

[translated by Robert Lumley and Jude Bloomfield] (London 1987); Donatella Della Porta, Social Movements, Political Violence, and the State: A Comparative Analysis of Italy and Germany (New York 1995), 19–20.

6 For examples of scholars who have focused on the generational conflict of the late 1960s, see Lewis S. Feuer, The Conflict of Generations: The Character and Significance of Student Move- ments (New York 1969); Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, ‘Generational Conflict and Intellectual Anti- nomianism’, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 395 (May 1971), 68–89; Morton Levitt and Ben Rubenstein, ‘The Student Revolt: Totem and Taboo

Revisited’, Psychiatry, 34 (May 1971), 156–67; Cyril Levitt, Children of Privilege: Student Revolt in the Sixties (Buffalo, NY 1984); and Ronald Fraser, 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt (London 1988).

7 Anna and Benevenuto Revelli interviewed by the author, Cuneo, 11 April 1997. At the time of

the interview the Revellis had been married for over 50 years. Their son Marco was born shortly after the second world war. At the time of the student unrest in 1967–68, Benevenuto was work- ing on L’Ultimo Fronte (The Final Front), a book describing the Partisan resistance, 1943–45.

Hilwig: A Contribution to the Oral History of the 1968 Italian Student Rebellion


and democracy. 8 Bobbio was both the father and teacher of one of the leading Turin activists, Luigi Bobbio. Lucia Marghieri-Biocca, a psychologist from Rome, had been married to a communist member of the resistance and came from a left-wing family. She entered her profession in order to understand the behaviour of her three children, Alessandro, Darrio and Paola, who joined in the student protests in Rome during the late 1960s and 1970s. 9 In the course of these parents being interviewed, each was asked a short set of open-ended questions about the events that struck them as significant during the years of protest, the effect of these actions on their families, and whether the students had provoked a significant or new discussion of fascism and the Italian past. 10 The memories of these parents often diverged sharply from the superficial reports of the student movement found in the popular press in the late 1960s, as well as from the nostalgic retrospective versions produced afterwards. 11 In their testimonies, the parents often alternated between impersonal, third- person narratives and intimate first-person recollections. This semi-conscious shifting between voices reveals the ambiguity of the parents’ response to their activist offspring. At times, they chose the objective third-person formulation to place distance between themselves and the student radicals, employing terms such as ‘the students’ or the ‘generation of 1968’ to depersonalize the activities of the demonstrators. These third-person accounts often fell into stereotypical representations of the student unrest, similar to the responses Luisa Passerini received from the Turin workers about their experiences under

8 Norberto Bobbio interviewed by the author, Turin, 23 April 1997. Bobbio is a Senator for Life

of the Republic, and noted intellectual of the postwar era. Bobbio’s publications include: Politica e Cultura (1955), Introduzione alla Costituzione (1964), Futuro della democrazia (1987), Liberalismo e Democrazia (1990), and Egulianza e Libertà (1995).

9 Lucia Marghieri-Biocca interviewed by the author, Rome, 22 March 1997. Now widowed,

Lucia lives in an apartment close to the parliamentary buildings in the heart of Rome. Her son, Darrio, and his wife live in the apartment below her.

10 Only five broad questions were asked in order to elicit a larger dialogue with the inter-


1. ‘Lei, che cosa faceva nel sessantotto? Qual’ era la sua occupazione? Può descrivere la sua famiglia nel sessantotto?’ (What were you doing in 1968? What was your occupation? Could you describe your family at that time?)

2. ‘Quale aspetto del movimento studentesco Lei pensa che abbia colpito di più gli Italiani?’ (Which aspect of the student movement do you believe struck the Italians the most?)

3. ‘Secondo Lei, come crede che sia stato il rapporto fra gli studenti e la stampa?’ (In your opinion, what was the relationship between the students and the press?)

4. ‘Secondo Lei, le manifestazioni degli studenti hanno provocato una nuova discussione sul

fascismo e sul passato politico dell’ Italia? Perché?’ (In your opinion, did the student protests provoke a new discussion of fascism in Italy? Why or why not?)

5. ‘Quale avvenimento specifico del movimento studentesco si ricorda di più? Perché?’ (Which specific event of the student movement do you remember best? Why?)

11 For a detailed view of the popular press’s role in forming images of the student movement

that became part of the collective representation, see Stuart J. Hilwig, ‘The Revolt against the Establishment: Students versus the Press in West Germany and Italy’ in Carole Fink, Philipp Gassert and Detlef Junker (eds), 1968: The World Transformed (Cambridge 1998), 321–49.


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fascism. 12 At other times, the parents shifted back to more emotional first- person accounts that offered specific details about the activities of their own children. These accounts differed greatly from the stereotypical recollections, often showing sympathy toward the student protesters or highlighting their own involvement with their children’s activism. 13 The parents also contrasted sympathetic or approving first-person accounts of their children’s activism with critical, and even negative, third-person comments on the student move- ment in general. Such contradictory views are typical of family discourse in which parents will often applaud or dismiss actions of their children that they would condemn in others. 14 In this case, the ambiguities also reveal a key aspect of the mature intellectual seeking to balance freshness and openness with the challenges of analysis, perspective and objectivity. The joys and sufferings of the older generation in the late 1960s show that even 30 years later, the parents of the sessantottini still struggle to understand the actions of their rebellious sons and daughters. The most immediate and pressing concern that was shared by all the parents was the fear of violence. As Walter Laqueur has pointed out, violent clashes between students and their professors and the police have been common throughout European history from the Town and Gown riots of the Middle Ages through the 1848 revolutions up to the fascist students’ attacks on their liberal-democratic professors in the 1920s. 15 However, as the historian of political violence, Donatella Della Porta, has noted, in the 1960s the Italian people still suffered from the scars of the fascist dictatorship, and for many of them the postwar Republic had become a ‘partisan democracy’ that had to be defended against all challengers. Thus, the proliferation of large, anti- government demonstrations was taken more seriously than the rowdy student actions of the past. According to Della Porta, this anxiety on the part of Italy’s postwar leaders led to a sense of urgency in dealing with student protests that frequently became translated into violent repression on the part of the state- run police. 16 Although much of the rhetoric of the New Left preached violent solutions to the problems of society, 17 only a tiny minority of student demon- strators chose to express their discontent in deliberate acts of violence. The former defence attorney for many of the Turin activists, Bianca Guidetti-Serra,

12 Luisa Passerini, Fascism in Popular Memory, op. cit., 17.

13 Some exceptions to the usually hostile relationships between parents and their activist off-

spring can be found in Arthur Marwick’s discussion of the diary of Anna Avallone, a widowed mother and former schoolteacher from Florence; see Marwick, The Sixties, op. cit., 627–31.

14 Carole Klein, Mothers and Sons (Boston 1984), 105–8.

15 Walter Laqueur, ‘Reflections on Youth Movements’ in Paul D. Knott (ed.), Student Activism

(Dubuque, IA 1971), 7–23.

16 Della Porta, op. cit., 193.

17 See, for example, Hannah Arendt’s discussion of Frantz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre’s glorifi-

cation of violence in Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York 1969), 12–13. Arthur Marwick has noted that the readiness to use state force to keep order in Italy also stems from the large number of uniformed police which is higher in Italy than in France, Britain or the USA; see Marwick, The Sixties, op. cit., 30.

Hilwig: A Contribution to the Oral History of the 1968 Italian Student Rebellion


remembered that most of the students she defended were charged with only minor offences. 18 In general, it can be said that student activists were usually the victims of physical violence, but they were often the instigators of verbal violence. 19 This distinction between verbal and physical violence was not, however, clear to the worried parents of student activists in 1968. They had feared for their children’s safety during the frequent encounters between protesters and police that are well documented. 20 Neo-fascists also attacked left-wing students. Between December 1967 and June 1968, three violent episodes involving fascist students took place at the University of Turin, and in February 1968 a large group of neo-fascists attacked student demonstrators at the University of Rome. 21 There were different perceptions of violence among the recollections of the activists’ parents. Norberto Bobbio insisted that the student parades and protests were non-violent: ‘There was verbal violence but no physical vio- lence.’ 22 On the other hand, Bobbio recalled a day when he himself had been intimidated by a rowdy crowd of activists in his lecture hall and quickly gave up attempts to talk to them. In his synthetic work on the image of the crowd, the political scientist J.S. McClelland has documented the historic fear of large groups of people from the days of Athens to the twentieth century. 23 Crowds and mobs, according to McClelland, are almost always viewed by people in positions of power (like Professor Bobbio) as sources of irrational acts and Professor Bobbio acknowledged the possibility of violence. 24 Within these recollections of violence, a contradiction emerges; Bobbio denied any danger to his son, but admitted that he had feared for his own safety. He fell back on the formulaic, collective representation of the student movement as an expres- sion either of his sympathy or of his belief that his son, one of the leading

18 The crimes most often attributed to student rebels were the occupation of university build-

ings, which carried a maximum penalty of two years in prison, disturbing lessons with a maxi- mum punishment of five years in prison, conducting unauthorized demonstrations, and writing

slanderous articles against the professors. Bianca Guidetti-Serra interviewed by the author, Turin, 10 June 1997. In another example Riccardo DiDontao, the national vice-president of the Catholic student group, Intesa, was charged in the Florence Court of Appeals with ‘occupation of public buildings’ and ‘interruption and disturbance of a public office’, which carried a penalty of 1–5 years in prison. All the charges were eventually dropped. L’Unita, 24 January 1968, 4.

19 Giovanni DeLuna, a historian of the sessantotto, has argued that the student demonstrations

of 1968 were a violent departure from the historic trend of peaceful protest in Turin because they were a drastic disruption of civic mores rather than actual physical violence. See ‘Aspetti del Movimento del ’68 a Torino’ in Aldo Agosti, Luisa Passerini and Nicola Tranfaglia (eds), La cultura e i luoghi del ’68 (Milano 1991), 199.

20 See, for example, Della Porta, op. cit., for a quantitative view of police violence, and Portelli,

op. cit., for eyewitness accounts of police violence at the University of Rome during the explosive episode in March 1968 known as the ‘Battle of the Valle Giulia’.

21 DeLuna, op. cit., 193.

22 Norberto Bobbio interviewed by the author, Turin, 23 April 1997.

23 J.S. McClelland, The Crowd and the Mob: From Plato to Canetti (London 1989), 1–33.

24 Norberto Bobbio interviewed by the author, Turin, 23 April 1997.


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activists, had not resorted to violence, but used the more personal voice for his own experience of danger. Such competing memories within the same indi- vidual help us understand the amorphous perception of violence during the years of student protest. Bobbio’s testimony supports Portelli’s claim that although oral history is a poor source of factual data, it can be an excellent source of ‘shared possibilities, real or imagined’. 25 In contrast to Norberto Bobbio’s contradictory reflections on violence, Benevenuto Revelli feared that his son, Marco, would be a victim of violence at the hands of the neo-fascist students or the police. His recollections show the primacy of personal experience as revealed in his consistent use of the first person voice. He remembered one time in January 1968 when he had planned to meet Marco for lunch at the train station.

I remember well, one time I went to meet Marco in Porta Nuova at noon. I waited and waited and Marco did not show up — then I ran into another student — he looked terrible, his hair, his eskimo (parka) was all torn up and he told me that there had been an occupation at the Palazzo Campana and the police had thrown them all out! 26

In contrast to Bobbio’s memories, Revelli recalled in detail an incident of police violence, describing a dishevelled student victim of a police evacuation. This account corresponds to the series of university evacuations that had been carried out under orders from Rector Mario Allara in the middle of January 1968. During that time, Rector Allara had chosen to side with the professors who favoured a tough, law and order approach to the student occupations of university buildings. 27 In another recollection of violence that mixed personal and objective observations, Revelli explained that most of the police called to evacuate the university buildings came from the provinces. When the youthful troops from Cuneo arrived in Turin, they recognized Marco as one of their childhood friends and warned him to wear a helmet. 28 Revelli perceptively noted that the Turin officials had consciously sought to depersonalize relations between the police and their generational counterparts on the other side of the barricades by dispatching provincials from the more conservative towns of Piedmont who had less ideological sympathy toward left-wing urban students. Benevenuto’s strong fears, kindled by the reports of the young rural policemen, may have been enhanced by his personal memories of the resistance, when he was pitted against (‘foreign’) uniformed agents of the state. Parental fear of violence was widespread, even in the smaller university

25 Portelli, op. cit., 88.

26 Anna and Benevenuto Revelli interviewed by the author, Cuneo, 11 April 1997.

27 The University of Turin’s Rector Mario Allara and the Academic Senate agreed that the

Senate must defend its liberty from the ‘tyranny of a minority’ and passed a resolution whereby they authorized ‘all means offered by law’ to stop a minority who used violence to impede uni-

versity activity; see Verbali del Senato Accademico 13 gennaio 1968, Università di Torino, 269.

28 Anna and Benevenuto Revelli interviewed by the author, Cuneo, 11 April 1997.

Hilwig: A Contribution to the Oral History of the 1968 Italian Student Rebellion


towns of Italy. Daniela Torresini, a former activist in the radical left-wing Sociology Department at the University of Trent, remembered that her mother had begged her to leave the university and return to Padua because of the student demonstrations. She recalled: ‘My mother could not have cared less that I had become a communist, she was afraid I would be hurt in the demon- strations or arrested by police — always the concerns of a mother.’ 29 The parents’ fear of violence was not unfounded. Portelli’s oral history of the Valle Giulia has documented several examples of violent acts on the part of both police and demonstrators. Many former protesters remembered some of the police deliberately firing canisters of tear gas at low angles in order to hit the students. 30 From the other side of the barricades there was also more than verbal violence. Despite Norberto Bobbio’s claim, Turin police records reported that his son, Luigi, punched a police officer during one of the uni- versity evacuations. Although there is no indication whether the younger Bobbio acted intentionally or out of self-defence, we can conclude that not all of the student activists were passive victims during confrontations with the police. 31 One of the key elements of the protest movement of the late 1960s was the attack on the most sacred shibboleth of the postwar era, the myth of the anti- fascist resistance. As Giovanni DeLuna has observed, the students attacked the passive conformism of the Old Left’s anti-fascism, an anti-fascism in Turin that was ‘conjugated with a respectable legality’. 32 For the parents of New Left students, the activists’ moral outrage and protest seemed inexplicable during a period when the threat of fascism seemed minimal. Hannah Arendt has noted that the younger generation had grown up in the shadow of the atomic bomb, learned about the concentration camps, torture and genocide in their class- rooms and, therefore, naturally vented their shock and moral rage against the older generation that appeared to be so quiet and complacent in the postwar years. 33 Like the individuals interviewed for this article, many parents of student activists had been members of the resistance and their children’s attacks on the heroic legacy of anti-fascism provoked a serious emotional response. 34 To the older generation that had lived through the dangers of the fascist dictatorship and the privations of the immediate postwar period, the denunciations of the Republic’s government in the 1960s as ‘undemocratic’ seemed absurd and malevolent. Turin’s main newspaper, La Stampa, pub-

29 Daniela Torresini interviewed by the author, Perugia, 17 March 1997.

30 Portelli, op. cit., 194–5.

31 Prefettura di Torino: Gabinetto Mazzo Busta no. 184: Notiziario Sindacale, 17 gennaio


32 Giovanni DeLuna and Marco Revelli, Fascismo/Antifascismo: Le idée, le identità (Firenze

1995), 146.

33 Hannah Arendt, op. cit., 13–14.

34 In Luisa Passerini’s Autobiography of a Generation, op. cit., several former activists noted

that they had parents who were members of the resistance; for example, see the testimonies of Eliana Minicozzi (Rome), p. 24; Marco Revelli (Cuneo), p. 25; Federico DeLuca Comandini (Rome), p. 31 and Maria Teresa Fenoglio (Genoa), p. 34.


Journal of Contemporary History Vol 36 No 4

lished a letter from one reader who identified himself as ‘an indignant ex- Partisan, who had worked long hours to send his son to the university’ and

claimed that: ‘I do not, in fact, believe that there is a big difference between the March on Rome and the occupation of the University. The weapons remain

the same: intimidation and contempt for democratic laws.’ 35

Although an extreme reaction, and one that was typical of La Stampa’s

efforts to portray the student activists in a very negative light, the letter con- veyed the resentment of the Old Left and its identification of the New Left with the old enemy of Italian democracy. The students’ attack on the Old Left ultimately proved damaging to the myth of the resistance. They discovered that in 1945 the Partisan leader Ferruccio Parri had failed to purge former fascists from political life, that the General Amnesty had allowed former Fascist Party members to prosper between 1946 and the 1960s, and that it was still possible to be arrested and tried under old fascist laws that had remained in force since the war. 36 Much of

this failure to purge Italian politics of the remaining vestiges of fascism could

be blamed on the mounting fear of communism in the immediate postwar years. The international historian D.W. Ellwood has described how the post-

war leaders of Italy were forced to give up military sovereignty to NATO for American economic aid under the Marshall Plan and a political commitment to anti-communism in the postwar years. 37 Consequently, when the Christian Democrats won control of government in 1948, they gave priority to an anti- communist programme and integration with the western alliance. Pope Pius


also glossed over his own war record and crusaded against communism in


postwar years, ultimately excommunicating all communists in 1949. 38 This

wave of anti-communist politics greatly dampened the hopes of former

Partisans and blocked the path to political power for the Italian Left through


1950s. Moreover, recent scholarship by Spencer Di Scala and James Miller


suggested that the Old Left, dominated by the Italian Communist Party

(PCI), had not only monopolized ownership of the legacy of the anti-fascist resistance at the expense of the Socialists, Liberals and Catholics, but had also helped to betray the goals of the resistance after the war. Both Miller and Di Scala noted that it was the New Left of the 1960s that first challenged the PCI’s role as guardian of the resistance legacy. 39 Norberto Bobbio, on the other hand, deprecated the students’ political com-

35 La Stampa, ‘Specchio dei tempi’, 5 dicembre 1967, 2.

36 Christopher Duggan and Christopher Wagstaff (eds), Italy in the Cold War: Politics, Culture

and Society, 1948–1958 (Washington, DC 1995), 3–6.

37 D.W. Ellwood, ‘Italy, Europe and the Cold War: The Politics and Economics of Limited

Sovereignty’ in Duggan and Wagstaff (eds), op. cit., 25–46.

38 Paul Ginsborg, A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943–1988 (London

1990), 169 and 182.

39 The PCI even allowed former fascists like Pietro Ingrao to join their party after the war; see

Spencer M. Di Scala, ‘Resistance Mythology’, Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 4 (Spring 1999), 67–72; and James E. Miller, ‘Who Chopped Down that Cherry Tree? The Italian Resistance in History and Politics, 1945–1988’, Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 4 (Spring 1999), 37–54.

Hilwig: A Contribution to the Oral History of the 1968 Italian Student Rebellion


mitment. When asked if they had provoked a new discussion of fascism in Italy, Bobbio emphatically replied, ‘No! The students were against bourgeois democracy in Italy — against representative democracy! They wanted direct democracy, democracy of the piazza.’ 40 Bobbio’s tone changed perceptibly when he used the phrase ‘democracy of the piazza’, emphasizing that all the voting in the general assemblies had been by open ballot which was not a ‘true’ democratic process. This was another mixed response that combined collective representation with an intensely emotional expression of his personal commit- ment to Italy’s postwar democracy. Bobbio, who had spent much of his adult life studying and helping to shape that democracy, could not separate his role of father and observer of the student movement from his identity as a law professor and committed democratic politician. As a survivor of the fascist dictatorship, Bobbio feared the consequences of the students’ rejection of representative democracy in the late 1960s. At the end of the interview, he observed that ‘Youth always dreams of a better world; fascism was also a dream of a better world for young Italians after the first world war — it was a reaction against the society and politics in which they found themselves.’ 41 Significantly, Bobbio, unlike the popular press in the 1960s, did not equate the student activists with the squadristi. Nevertheless, he expressed a genuine concern, as a father and politician, that youthful enthusiasm could lead to a dangerous political fanaticism. For many former Partisans, their children’s political activism in the 1960s provoked profound personal and intellectual turmoil, because of their own previous opposition to a truly corrupt and un- democratic system. Twenty years later, without warning, these parents found their children challenging the system they had constructed after the second world war as well as the underlying ideology of the Republic. Thus, anti- fascist parents like Bobbio found themselves trapped between encouraging a healthy political involvement in their children and restraining them from possible fanaticism that could be destructive to Italian democracy. It is also possible that someone like Bobbio was reluctant to hand the baton of anti- fascism to the next generation or allow his son to scrutinize his parents’ post- war record. According to Carlo Levi, Italy’s youth first began to take a leading role in anti-fascist demonstrations in 1960. Before their vigorous involvement in protests against the Neo-Fascist Party’s convention in Genoa, the young Leftists had simply acted as followers and reinvigorators of resistance veterans. 42 Giovanni DeLuna has argued that the student Left of the 1960s sought to distance itself from the Old Leftists like Bobbio, who preached intel- lectual resistance to fascism and a civic commitment to democracy. Instead, the students wanted to return to more active forms of political behaviour. In their occupations of the universities, the students consciously attempted to recreate the factory occupations of the 1940s. 43

40 Norberto Bobbio interviewed by the author, Turin, 23 April 1997.

41 Ibid.

42 Carlo Levi cited in DeLuna and Revelli, Fascismo/Antifascismo, op. cit., 143.

43 Ibid., 147.


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Like Norberto Bobbio, the Revellis recognized their son’s challenge to the legacy of anti-fascism. They were also caught between their desire to instil a commitment to political activism in Marco and their parental and political obligation to protect him and Italy from harm. Benevenuto and Anna denied that there were any serious generational differences between them and their son and recalled:

For Marco, who grew up in our house, it was a climate of anti-fascism, of the We tried not to suffocate or over-condition Marco too much, we tried to talk, to calm Marco — we always talked together as a family. 44

Benevenuto was confident that Marco and his university friends were con- tinuing the important work of the anti-fascist resistance. At the first meetings of the activists who would eventually form the group Lotta Continua, Marco invited his father and some other ex-Partisans from Piedmont to join in their discussions. The initial name for Lotta Continua was Nuova Resistenza (New Resistance), and Benevenuto was quick to point out that ‘we did have a common bond in the continuous rejection of fascism and neo-fascism — these students had an important role in confronting the neo-fascists, the missini.’ Benevenuto further noted that ‘almost all the children of the partigiani became sessantottini ’. 45 Revelli’s claim that his son was carrying on a legacy bequeathed by his father may also have reflected the pride that parents feel when their children decide to pursue similar life goals, much as a father may wish his son to repeat his former achievements on the football field. In fact, many children of non-Partisan parents also joined the student activists. However, Benevenuto’s strong belief that the protesters were heirs to the Partisan legacy reinforced the students’ conviction that they were the spiritual standard-bearers of postwar anti-fascism. 46 In some respects, Turin was atypi- cal because it had a very strong local tradition of resistance. 47 But Revelli shared Bobbio’s reservations that the students carried their notion of resistance too far and in some ways acted undemocratically. Also mixing the use of the first and the third person, Revelli recalled:

The generation of 1968 wanted liberty after the Liberation! They knew nothing of our gen- eration that suffered from the war — it is good that these children did not have to live

through the war

but the students made a mistake because when they came out in the piaz-

za, they disturbed a democratic peace! 48

44 Anna and Benevenuto Revelli interviewed by the author, Cuneo, 11 April 1997.

45 Ibid. The missini were the youth group of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, Italy’s Neo-Fascist


46 Passerini, Autobiography of a Generation, op. cit., 30–1. The radical left-wing students even

justified their sexual liberation during the late 1960s as a form of anti-fascist resistance; see Robert Lumley, States of Emergency: Cultures of Revolt in Italy from 1968 to 1978 (New York 1990),


47 Although Benevenuto’s assumption may be overstated, among the student leaders from the

communist UGI group at the University of Turin, several had parents in the resistance — Marco

Revelli, Luigi Bobbio and Massimo Negarville whose father spent 13 years in a fascist prison.

48 Anna and Benevenuto Revelli interviewed by the author, Cuneo, 11 April 1997.

Hilwig: A Contribution to the Oral History of the 1968 Italian Student Rebellion


Revelli’s words, with both a reproach and an attempt to understand the student activists, rebuked ‘the generation of 1968’, for indifference to those who suffered from the war. The caring father, however, expressed relief that the ‘children’ had not suffered the deprivations of war. Finally, in the last sentence, he reconciled the miscreant ‘generation of 1968’ with the naïve ‘children’ who, as ‘students’, had misunderstood their lessons and disturbed democracy. Revelli and Bobbio both expressed a fear of dangerous political activism as visualized by the recurrent image of young people streaming out into the piazza. For both of these former partigiani, the piazza image derived from the early fascist years. They had undoubtedly witnessed such scenes that became increasingly horrific in light of the dictatorship that followed. Alain Touraine, the French sociologist and observer of the European student movements of the 1960s, has also noted the anxiety of the wartime generation and the alarm felt by the governing élites in Germany and Italy over the student movements of the 1960s. 49 The popular press consciously and often clumsily revived visual images of the fascist past in order to cast the student protesters in a negative light. 50 For the ex-partisan parents of activists, however, these images caused deep personal turmoil, because their memories of violence and resistance were to some extent blurred by postwar myths and forgetfulness. Like the other parents, Lucia Marghieri-Biocca came from a family of the resistance. She resented the student Left’s criticism of her generation, noting with indignation that she had grown up in an anti-fascist household, and had

married a communist. ‘Despite all this’, she exclaimed, ‘the sessantottini called us fascists!’ 51 Like Benevenuto Revelli, Lucia believed that almost all the activists were the sons and daughters of the anti-fascist resistance. Speaking

for her generation, Lucia said: ‘We tried to understand them

in the begin-

ning the Left and the students were in agreement on ideology, but after a while everybody was a “fascist” — it was particularly difficult for those of us who opposed fascism.’ 52 Lucia, who also doubted the sincerity of the students’ commitment to anti- fascism, ultimately concluded that the students were simply rebelling against the authority of the older generation. 53 Even more strongly than the other parents, she believed that the students had been deluded by an absurd belief that the Italian Republic of 1968 could be equated with a fascist dictatorship. A third element of contention that arose between students and their parents was the family itself. What for most members of the older generation repre- sented ‘a bulwark of authentic values, a microcosm of order from which it [the

49 Alain Touraine cited in Della Porta, op. cit., 193.

50 For a discussion of the Italian press’s use of pictures and provocative words to compare the

students to the fascists see Stuart J. Hilwig, ‘Le reazioni della stampa e dei politici al movimento studentesco nel Sessantotto’ in Per il Sessantotto, 14–15 (1998), 2–12.

51 Lucia Marghieri-Biocca interviewed by the author, Rome, 22 March 1997.

52 Ibid.

53 Ibid. See Lucia Marghieri-Biocca’s early discussion of the family during the sessantotto.


Journal of Contemporary History Vol 36 No 4

family] could inspire internal social cohesion and organization’ was attacked by the younger generation as a ‘centre of cultural immobility and social sub- alternity’. 54 In the generational conflict of the 1960s, the parents of student activists found themselves in the front line as their children carried much of their spirit of protest home with them. 55 Mothers often adopted different strategies from fathers to cope with their rebellious offspring. Although both parents shared a concern about violence, mothers tended to be less alarmed by the Marxist politics of their children than fathers. Mothers often played the role of mediator between their activist children and their husbands. They not only placed the wellbeing of their offspring above political considerations, but also attempted to soften the political blows dealt by the younger generation on their fathers. 56 Anna and Benevenuto Revelli were anti-fascist parents who found them- selves drawn into the sessantotto by their son, Marco, a student activist in Turin and a founder of Lotta Continua. 57 When asked about their family life during the late 1960s, the Revellis asserted that they had kept an open dia- logue with their son. Although the Revellis shared a common commitment to the Left with their son, Anna claimed that she often tried to mediate between Benevenuto and Marco. Anna sympathized with her son’s desire for political and educational reform, noting that ‘the students wanted to change many, many things — and rightfully so!’ Anna, like the female communist deputies in the camera who identified with the student Left, 58 compared her son’s activism with that of the second world war generation. This gender split erodes the simple dichotomies of youth versus age and New Left versus Old Left that have dominated much of the literature on the sessantotto. 59 The family life of Lucia Marghieri-Biocca was profoundly affected by the sessantotto. Out of this experience came her decision to study psychology.

They [the student activists] created an endless discussion. It was good that the students talked about politics BUT within this discussion was the overall desire to rebel against authority.

54 DeLuna and Revelli, op. cit., 145.

55 For the students’ memories of their families in the late 1960s, see Passerini, Autobiography of

a Generation, op. cit., 22–36.

56 Political scientist and scholar of peace studies, Linda Rennie Forcey discusses the inter-family

role of the mother as ‘the peacemaker’ between fathers and sons in Mothers of Sons: Toward an Understanding of Responsibility (New York 1987), 85–6.

57 Anna and Benevenuto Revelli interviewed by the author, Cuneo, 11 April 1997.

58 In contrast to the male members of the PCI who supported the students’ efforts in general

terms, four female communist Deputies consistently advocated the position of the students, even

distributing copies of the University of Turin activists’ Carta di Rivendicativi; see the transcripts of Maria Cinciari-Rodano, Rossana Rossanda, Giorgina Levi and Angiola Massucco-Costa in Atti Parlamentari: Discussioni (Camera dei Deputati), vol. 40 (28 novembre 1967), 40950, and 40 (11 dicembre 1967), 41398, and 41 (10 gennaio 1968), 42129.

59 For example, former activist and cultural historian of the Italian student movement, Peppino

Ortoleva, argued that the politics of the student activists were symbolically intertwined with generational differences whereby the left meant youth and birth and the right equated to old age and death. See ‘Le Culture del ’68’ in La Cultura e i luoghi del ’68, op. cit., 52.

Hilwig: A Contribution to the Oral History of the 1968 Italian Student Rebellion


For some parents, the discussion ended immediately — Basta con questa ideologia! (Enough of this ideology!) But with the parents who were most patient, intelligent, and open, there was also no discussion. Their children always wanted to argue even though their ideologies were essentially the same; there was no calm discussion, instead the students shouted at the father, ‘You are authoritarian!’ and at the mother, ‘You are authoritarian!’ 60

Lucia’s detached tone and impersonal use of the third person failed to mask her continued struggle to comprehend the activists. In the end, she left the listener with an image of the student activist screaming at both his or her bewildered parents, while she retreated into general psychological theories of youthful rebellion. The novelist and mother, Natalia Ginzburg, also argued that the student unrest of the 1960s was a ‘battle between the older and newer generations rather than a revolutionary movement’. 61 When compared to the testimony of Anna and Benevenuto Revelli, who claimed to have maintained a healthy dialogue with their son during the late 1960s, we see that Lucia, despite her later use of detached and clinical terms, experienced the years of student rebellion as a time of domestic turmoil. Lucia’s testimony is not unique. Many families experienced a period of alienation from their children when normal dialogue was blocked by the ideo- logical rigidity of their sons and daughters. In Autobiography of a Generation, Luisa Passerini quotes a student Bulletin produced by activists at the Palazzo Campana in Turin during one of the February 1968 occupations.

The criticisms that will be hurled at us by parents will, in the majority of cases, be formulated in a language and with a content designed to supplant our discussions and ways of express- ing ourselves. This language is quite often the principal instrument of repression on the part of families. 62

The Bulletin went on to list a series of common parental phrases and then dis- missed them as a relic of the fascist years. Taken together, Lucia’s testimony and the view expressed in the student Bulletin suggest that in many cases both parents and children failed or proved unwilling to engage in a dialogue. Both sides either adopted an impersonal third-person narrative or retreated into vague and dismissive theories with regard to the other generation. By using the third-person voice to lump individuals together, in this case ‘students’ or ‘parents’, the speaker’s argument takes on greater rhetorical force, creating clear and solid dichotomies between the older and younger generations. How- ever, as the preceding testimony of Anna and Benevenuto Revelli suggested, such rigid third-person dichotomies rarely stood up to singular experiences narrated in the first person. Furthermore, both Lucia and the students’ Bulletin turned to psychology to justify their positions. Lucia evoked Freud’s Totem and Taboo with its theory of endemic hostility between sons and fathers, and the authors of the Bulletin

60 Lucia Marghieri-Biocca interviewed by the author, Rome, 22 March 1997.

61 Quoted from Maja Pflug, Natalia Ginzburg: Eine Biographie (Berlin 1995), 126.

62 Passerini, Autobiography of a Generation, op. cit., 73–4.


Journal of Contemporary History Vol 36 No 4

recalled T.W. Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality which sought to describe what personality types were most susceptible to the fascist message. 63 The novelist and ex-Partisan Alberto Moravia also resorted to psychology to explain the student revolt. Despite his sympathies with the student Left, Moravia told a journalist: ‘I know certain psychological mechanisms. These youths made revolutions with a sense of guilt — the guilt of being born rich.’ 64 Norberto Bobbio recalled a similar incident in which his son sought to cast off his bourgeois upbringing by acting like a proletarian: ‘The leaders were all the bourgeoisie but they wanted to ally with the workers. I remember my son Luigi wanted to live and dress like a worker — he refused to go shopping with his mother for new shoes.’ 65 According to Passerini, the middle-class fathers of student activists often held an ambiguous place in the family. At times conventional and even

authoritarian, they also considered themselves politically liberal in their beliefs in freedom and tolerance. Such incongruent attitudes may have kindled the political activism of their children. 66 The rebellious youth’s charge of ‘bourgeois guilt’ may well have been directed at these ambivalent fathers who erratically encouraged and disparaged political activism in their children. Because of the mother’s attempts to mediate, the familial dissent stirred by the student activists may also have led to conflict between husbands and wives. Lucia Marghieri-Biocca speculated that many marital relationships fractured in the wake of the student upheaval. 67 This conclusion about the impact of the sessantotto supports Passerini’s contention that in ‘oral testi-

memory continuously adapts received traditions to present circum-


stances’. 68 Lucia’s theory appears to be based not only on her own experience but also on her professional interpretation of the effects of parent-child con- flict. Both Lucia’s speculation and Anna Revelli’s claim to have been a medi- ator suggest that the sessantotto may have altered the traditional roles and power structure in some Italian families. Lucia’s testimony contains important similarities to and differences from that of the Revellis. All three recalled a genuine desire to understand their children’s viewpoints and discuss their differences. Hidden behind their words, however, is the tone of their recollections. Drawing from Alessandro Portelli’s notion that an interview is a ‘deep exchange’ between interviewer and

63 See Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo (New York 1952 (c.1952)), originally published in

1922 as Totem und Tabu: Einige Ubereinstimmungen in Seelenleben der Wilden und der

Neurotiker; and T.W. Adorno, The Authoritarian Personality (New York 1950). In 1969, a team of psychoanalysts presented a Freudian analysis of the student protests at the meetings of the American Psychoanalytic Association. This presentation was later published by Levitt and Rubenstein as ‘The Student Revolt: Totem and Taboo Revisited’, op cit.

64 Moravia interview in ‘Dal Sessantotto al terrorismo’ from Nello Ajello (ed.), Moravia:

Intervista sullo scrittore scomodo, (Roma 1978), 10.

65 Norberto Bobbio interviewed by the author, Turin, 23 April 1997.

66 Passerini, Autobiography of a Generation, op. cit., 26–7.

67 Lucia Marghieri-Biocca interviewed by the author, Rome, 22 March 1997.

Hilwig: A Contribution to the Oral History of the 1968 Italian Student Rebellion


respondent, involving facial and body language, the oral historian must also analyse these important non-verbal methods of communication. Throughout the interview, Lucia appeared much more distressed and irritated than the other parents of activists. 69 This may have been due to the fact that her three children, who were in the liceo in 1968, had adopted the political activism of their older, university counterparts at a very young age. When asked which experiences she most clearly remembered, Lucia recalled that her middle child, 14-year-old Darrio, had been arrested in 1969 for protesting and had told the carabinieri that, ‘Nixon is an imperialist’. 70 Lucia went to court with Darrio, and the judge released him because of his age. Lucia recalled another incident when her youngest child, Paola, lied to police about events at her liceo because she ‘did not recognize the state’. 71 These recollections, accompanied by nervous smiles that appeared to hide genuine worry about her young children’s extreme political views, suggest that even 30 years later, the family might still be divided over issues of politics. In conclusion, it is important to remember that the testimonies of these parents are deeply conditioned by the distance of time. For many parents of former activists, the years of student protest seem relatively benign in light of their children’s eventual success after graduation from university. As many of the former activists began careers in the 1970s and reintegrated themselves into their parents’ social class, the years of rebellion seemed to become ones of youthful exuberance in the eyes of their parents. Norberto Bobbio and the Revellis both maintained good relationships with their activist sons and view the period of protest as a generally positive, if somewhat anxious, time. Marco Revelli is now a professor of political science at the University of Turin and Luigi Bobbio is a successful lawyer. For other parents, the sessantotto will always be a painful memory, as familial relationships were irrevocably broken and parents and children were politically and socially alienated from each other. Lucia Marghieri-Biocca’s family still bears scars left from the years of student protest. Throughout the interview, something seemed to lay hidden behind Lucia’s words and expressions. She had barely mentioned her oldest son, Alessandro, who had been 15 years old in 1968. Finally, at the very end of the interview, Lucia mentioned that there was ‘another side to the sessantotto’. She began to speak, as if unloading a painful burden.

My oldest son, Alessandro, took a different course in 1968 — that was when he first experi- mented with drugs and later became a drug addict. In those times, this was when the trouble started and I tried to understand him. This was when I got interested in psychology.

Switching from individual to collective representation, Lucia continued: ‘In the sessantotto, some became involved in politics, a few in terrorism, and another

69 Portelli, op. cit., 72–3.

70 Lucia Marghieri-Biocca interviewed by the author, Rome, 22 March 1997.

71 Ibid.


Journal of Contemporary History Vol 36 No 4

part got into drugs and the counter-culture.’ Reverting to personal memory, Lucia looked sadly into the distance and said, ‘Alessandro’s drug addiction eventually led to AIDS and he died in 1995.’ After a painful silence, she looked me in the eye and reminded me that ‘This was the other side of the sessantotto.’ 72 Although far fewer Italian students entered the counter-culture than their American counterparts, Lucia’s testi- mony provided an important perspective on the ways in which the student activists upset their parents beyond the realm of political ideologies, irreverent attitudes toward cultural and sexual norms, and a new politics of dress. According to Lucia, her eldest son, Alessandro was a casualty of the cultural revolution begun in 1968. Reflecting on the testimonies of Lucia Marghieri-Biocca, Norberto Bobbio and Anna and Benevenuto Revelli, we see that although all were parents of left-wing sessantottini, came from similar socio-economic backgrounds and claimed ties to the anti-fascist resistance, each was affected differently by the sessantotto. For some of these parents of former protesters, the sessantotto will be remembered as an anxious, but ultimately positive time in their own and in Italy’s postwar history. For others, the sessantotto will for ever be a source of sorrow and an enigma in both their personal lives and their historical memories. These testimonies clearly show that the reaction to and understand- ing of the sessantotto were never sharply defined by generation or ideology. Many scholars, writing at the time of the student protests and into the 1970s and 1980s, have erroneously lumped non-students into general categories such as ‘the older generation’ which they assumed to be opposed to student actions. Such characterizations are oversimplified and stem from the rhetoric of student activists who wanted to create false dichotomies between youth and age. This article, along with other recent works, shows that in many cases these rigid divisions did not occur, and people like the Revellis, and to a lesser extent Norberto Bobbio, maintained a dialogue with their activist children. It further shows that a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the students can be gained by applying techniques of oral history to the recollections of students’ parents. By comparing the differences between their use of the first and the third person, we see that two contradictory opinions of the students could be held by the same person. Furthermore, parents generally remembered positive or atypical behaviour of their children in the first-person formulation, but often lapsed into more simplified and negative stereotypes of the students in the third person. What really emerges from these testimonies is an image of Italy in which the younger generation was reformulating its parents’ political ideologies and commitment to anti-fascism in an environment of peaceful affluence and democratic government rather than the hard times of war and dictatorship. To be sure, the leaders of postwar Italy had little experience of democracy and tended to overreact to the student challenge to political power,

72 Lucia Marghieri-Biocca interviewed by the author, Rome, 22 March 1997.

Hilwig: A Contribution to the Oral History of the 1968 Italian Student Rebellion


but a glimpse into the family lives of activists and their parents shows that in many cases both generations were fighting on the same side. The sessantottini’s challenge to the power of the older generation ultimately proved the strength and resilience of democracy as activists reinvigorated old debates about anti-fascism and political activism that were rooted in their parents’ generation. Luisa Passerini concluded her oral history of the children of these parents by noting that ‘there are as many 1968s as there are individual destinies, and the mark left by the real ’68 is not uniform’. 73 This article similarly finds the experiences of the parents during the sessantotto to be as tumultuous and diverse as those of their children.

Stuart J. Hilwig

is Professor of History at Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado. He is the author of several articles on student rebellion and is currently preparing for publication his dissertation, ‘A Young Democracy under Siege: The Italian Response to the Student Protests of 1968’.

73 Passerini, Autobiography of a Generation, op. cit., 152.