National Narratives of a Controversial Past: The “Years of Lead” in the Collective Memory of Italy

Sabrina Nardin, University of Arizona

From the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, Italy experienced a period of intense political violence, including failed coups d’état, bombings, assassinations, and violent attacks against properties, carried out by both right-wing and left-wing groups. This season of violence, known as “Years of Lead” (Anni di Piombo), has left traces on victims’ families, perpetrators, and society at large. Key events, such as the bombings in Milan (1969), Brescia (1974), and Bologna (1980), and the 1978 kidnapping of Prime Minister Aldo Moro, have entered the national memory of the country. Current research on this period revolves around the moment in which violence occurred. Only recently has a scholarly interest on the legacy and collective memory of this violence been emerging. This paper contributes to this developing literature by focusing on the national narratives of the “Years of Lead”. Data consist of over 20,000 archival documents, selected to include political reports, judicial material, and newspaper articles. The data also include 20 in-depth interviews conducted with politicians, magistrates, journalists, and intellectuals who have been involved in the construction of a “collective memory” of this period. Methodologically, the paper combines in-depth qualitative content analysis with quantitative text analysis techniques as methods of distant reading of large quantities of textual documents. Using a set of key events as unit of analysis and tracing how they have been narrated over time, I show how different and radically contrasting versions of the same event have legitimately entered the national debate. Preliminary findings suggest that within Italian society antagonistic memories of the “Years of Lead” endure not because of silence, denial, or a State-imposed hegemonic narrative, but rather because events are kept constantly open to multiple interpretations.

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 Presented in Session 19. Culture & the Politics of Nationhood