The murder of Walter Tobagi, 40 years ago


The evening before he was killed, the journalist from the Corriere della Sera Walter Tobagi participated in a lively meeting at the Milan press club. Tobagi at the time was mainly concerned with terrorism, and his work on the topic was considered one of the most careful, refined and profound in Italy. That evening, as often happened, he ended up being accused by his closest colleagues to the leftist protest movements, and the discussion quickly became quite heated.

Remembering his fellow journalists injured by terrorists in those years, some in the preceding weeks, Tobagi replied to his critics by asking: “Who knows who will touch next time”. He was killed about ten hours later, on the morning of May 28, 1980, while leaving his home in via Salaino, near the San Vittore prison in Milan. He was 33 years old. He was shot by a commando from the XXVIII March Brigade, a group of young terrorists from the far left who hoped with a striking action to be recognized by the Red Brigades, the best known Italian terrorist group. Struck by five pistol shots, Tobagi died immediately.

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His murder, among the hundreds that occurred in the period now known as the “Years of Lead”, between the seventies and eighties, was one of those that aroused the strongest impression and is still remembered with emotion today. This week the President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella and the Mayor of Milan Beppe Sala remembered Tobagi’s death, as did the Corriere della Sera along with all the other major newspapers. In Milan, the university’s school of journalism still bears its name.

Tobagi was a journalist appreciated by colleagues. Balanced and attentive, he had written extensively about the protest movements of those years and then about violence and political terrorism. Although he was among the most severe critics of the armed struggle, he sought at the same time to understand the causes and social dynamics that fueled it. As Mattarella recalled, “he was a free journalist who investigated reality beyond stereotypes and prejudices, and terrorists did not tolerate narratives other than those of their ideological schematism”.

It was his own killers who explained that Tobagi’s own critical but profound gaze drove them to target him. In an article on Corriere della SeraGiovanni Bianconi recounted the confession made first to the magistrates and then to the trial by the founder, leader and then repentant of the XXVIII March Brigade, Marco Barbone. The group did not intend to hit a “rough guy” journalist, one who was so uncritically on the side of the state that he “practically incited to continue on the path of the death penalty on the ground”.

These journalists fit perfectly into the narrative of the society carried out by the terrorists: that of a country irreconcilably divided between a monolithically repressive bourgeois state and hostile to all social demands and a revolutionary vanguard intent on shaking the consciences of the workers. Tobagi, who investigated terrorism by trying to understand its causes and consequences, was far more dangerous to them than others. He was, as Barbone said: one of the “most intelligent, who with their articles did not intend to insult or stir up, but functioned as a probe within the revolutionary left”.

Tobagi was born in Spoleto on March 18, 1947. At eight he had moved to Milan with his family, his father was a railway worker. He began his journalistic career in high school, in the school newspaper, in the following years he worked for the socialist newspaper The Next, then to the Catholic one Avvenire (“Socialist” and “catholic” were the two adjectives that he himself used to describe his political culture) and then get to the Corriere della Sera.

In those years he dealt above all with subversion and far-left terrorism, as well as with political and cultural contestation. He related the death of the publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, due to the explosion of the bomb he was placing on a high voltage pylon, the assassination of Commissioner Luigi Calabresi and that of Judge Emilio Alessandrini. And he also dealt for a long time with what was at the time the most organized and feared terrorist group in Europe: the Red Brigades.

Tobagi noted how the BR and the other groups targeted reformists above all: not the hardest against them but those who tried to take a moderate stance and create a dialogue between the demands of the protest movements and the rest of society. As much as this made him consider particularly dangerous terrorist groups – he claimed that by hitting moderates, terrorists made life easier for extremists even in the opposing camp – Tobagi always carefully observed the human aspects of that conflict.

As Bianconi pointed out in his article for the Courier service, when Tobagi recounted the massacre of the lair in via Fracchia, a BR base in Genoa where four brigatists were killed during a police raid (during a gunfight, according to the carabinieri; in cold blood, according to the brigatisti), he dwelled on the fact that the neighbors did not seem too affected by the death of four boys. “It is as if even a feeling of pity can no longer find space,” wrote Tobagi in his article, “and it is the most disheartening consequence of that perverse strategy that wanted to focus on armed struggle.”

The group that allegedly killed him took its name from the raid on via Fracchia. The XXVIII March Brigade had been founded by Barbone, who had already played in other groups, with five other main members. Some, like Barbone himself, came from bourgeois circles; others were students and workers’ children. At the time, none of them had significant contacts with the Red Brigades, a group that considered itself exclusive, the elite of the Italian revolutionary movement. But with the choice of their name and the sensational actions they were preparing to undertake, Barbone and the others hoped to get in touch with the brigatists and become part of their movement.

At the beginning of May, the journalist from Republic Guido Passalaqua. A short time later they decided to hit higher. Tobagi at the time was not only one of the best-known journalists among those who dealt with terrorism, but he was also the president of the Lombard Press Association, the regional union of journalists. For years it had been considered a possible target by armed groups. “His name,” Barbone said to the magistrates, “has always been around among the people to be hit.”

Shortly after killing Tobagi, the XXVIII March Brigade ceased to exist. Barbone told the magistrates: «Initially it seemed that we had achieved a goal, however after this very first moment the feeling of total collapse had been replaced; to have assumed responsibilities, human rather than political, absolutely disproportionate to any type of logic and justification ».

– Also read: All the false mysteries of the Moro Case

Poodle was arrested in October and immediately began collaborating with the magistrates. All members of the brigade were quickly arrested. The trial, like almost all those concerning the “years of lead”, left many discontented. Barbone was released almost immediately, thanks to his collaboration, and since then he has started a new life (today he is part of the Catholic association of Communion and Liberation). Even today, doubts remain about the fact that all the accomplices and supporters of the group have been arrested and the role played by some of Tobagi’s fellow journalists in inciting the terrorists’ action towards him.

What there is no doubt about is instead the legacy left by Tobagi, shared and object of few disputes, a rare case for the episodes and the protagonists of those years. His story was told by his daughter Benedetta in a very successful book, How strong your heart beats me. As Mattarella pointed out, Tobagi still symbolizes civic, committed and democratic journalism today: “We need this”, the president concluded in his message.

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