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  • Anatomy of the Red Brigades: The Religious Mind-Set of Modern Terrorists
  • Jeffrey Herf
Alessandro Orsini, Anatomy of the Red Brigades: The Religious Mind-Set of Modern Terrorists, trans. from Italian by Sarah J. Nodes. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011. 317 pp.

Alessandro Orsini’s informative and valuable study of the fanaticism that inspired Italy’s Red Brigades terrorist actions from the late 1960s to the 1990s draws our attention to a long-standing shortcoming of the realist tradition in political science, namely, that it is of little use in analyzing ideological politics. The Italian realist canon is rooted in Niccolò Machiavelli and his modern heirs such as Wilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, and Robert Michels, “according to whom politics in the end comes down to the struggle for power.” Orsini correctly observes that this apparent realism “can illuminate only some minor aspects” of the Red Brigades (p. 26). This is the case because their eschatological ideology “is not simply a reflection of underlying material concerns” or an instrument used in the struggle for power. Rather, Orsini views it as having been the driving force of the Red Brigades’ thought and action—the driving force that inspired political violence and terror intended to “exterminate their enemies.” Orsini offers abundant evidence of the close connection between extremist “theory” and terrorist practice.

He also informs us, rather surprisingly in an early footnote, of the remarkable extent of the carnage caused by political murder in Italy in these decades. Indeed, the Italian scholars G. Chailand and A. Blin have argued that “Italy was by far the country most affected by terrorist activities between 1969 and 1985.” This is a plausible statement within the European context (which includes the Red Army Faction in West Germany, the Irish Republican Army in the United Kingdom and Ireland, Action Directe in Belgium and France, and ETA in Spain) but is less convincing if one considers Palestinian terrorism against Israel or the actions of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. That said, the Italian mayhem and bloodshed does appear to have been the worst in Europe in those years and has not received the attention outside Italy that it deserves. According to the Italian political scientist Luigi Manconi in his Terroristi italani, as cited by Orsini, “333 people were killed in attacks and massacres in Italy from 1969 through 2007. Of these, 144 can be ascribed to left-wing terrorism, 54 to right-wing terrorism; 135 were killed in massacres” (p. 1). Orsini sets himself the task of reconstructing the ideological outlook and mental universe of the participants in the Red Brigades. He focuses on the “history of revolutionary Gnosticism” and the “pedagogy of intolerance” with which the Red Brigades degraded their enemies to “subhuman species,” “pigs” whose lives no longer had any value before they chose to kill or maim them.

Orsini views the Red Brigades as successors to previous fanatical advocates of terrorist violence from Thomas Munzer, the Jacobins, Karl Marx, and Russian populists who displayed a “gnostic mentality.” The Gnostics regarded themselves as an avant-garde who see the world as immersed in pain and sin and infected with evil substances that threaten the end of this forsaken order. Once the existing order has been destroyed, [End Page 137] evil will be punished in a violent revolution that will bring about an absolutely perfect world of justice and equality. The goal of perfection justifies the use of terrorist killing to bring it about. The history of the Red Brigades is also a history of a religious sect and “is an authentic part of the tradition of political messianism” whose goal was to create “heaven on earth” (pp. 6–7). These are familiar themes for historians of the intersection of ideology and politics in modern history but are less so for political scientists schooled in the canonical realist texts. Orsini’s reading of the massive verbiage left behind by the Red Brigades offers powerful evidence that terms such as “purifiers of the world” and “exterminating angels” captured an essential quality of their justifications for murder and were a causal variable of the first importance.

In addition to murdering and wounding hundreds, the Red Brigades...


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pp. 137-139
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