How January 6 Echoed Past Right-Wing Coup Attempts In The Western World
Tobias Hof is a Privatdozent for Modern and Contemporary History at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich and a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.
The storming of the US-Capitol on January 6, 2021, when hundreds of supporters of then-President Donald Trump violently gained access to the Capitol building with the intent of stopping the formal certification of Joe Biden’s 2020 election win, represented an extraordinary event previously unthinkable for a Western democracy – an event that reminded the keen observer of the coups and military dictatorships in Latin America of the 1950s to the 1980s.
Five people died in relation to the incident, which some commentators – including FBI Director Christopher A. Wray – described as a terrorist act. Among those who stormed the Capitol were members of right-wing extremist groups like the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, and the Three Percenters who threatened to murder politicians of both parties. While there is no doubt that the insurgency was incited and abided by Trump and his enablers within the Republican party, the scope and nature of the incident as well as the question of who was directly involved in it remain highly controversial.
Even moderate Republicans are unwilling to uncover the truth and have blocked the establishment of a bipartisan parliamentary commission that might have forced them to reckon with the authoritarian attitude that has permeated their party, a party that is much more interested in perpetuating the big lie of a stolen election and in enacting minority voter suppression on state levels.
Nevertheless, as historians we are not dependent on the whims of a Republican Party that has partially abandoned basic democratic standards in order to gain a better understanding of the January events in Washington, D.C. Contrary to public perception, the January insurgency was not a unique event in the post-war history of the Western world. Rather it was another example in a series of cases where conservative and right-wing groups tried to (re-)claim political power by staging coup attempts at a time when their influence was threatened by a growing progressive movement in politics and society. Italy’s postwar history is another such example.
In this article, I will look at the “Piano Solo“ coup attempt of 1964 and the “Golpe Borghese“ coup d’état in 1970 (parts I and II) before undertaking an analytical comparison between these events and those of January 6 in the United States (part III).
Both events reveal the broad spectrum of right-wing coups, the networks between the main actors and their supporters within the security services, the political establishment, and the conservative milieu as well as the political and social consequences. Of course, the Italian events exhibited major differences to those in the US-Capitol, which are mainly due to different socio-political frameworks. Nevertheless, I will argue that a comparison between the Italian and American coup attempts allows us to better understand and contextualize what exactly occurred on January 6, 2021.
Part I: The “Piano Solo” of 1964
The Historical Setting
From the end of the Second World War, the Christian Democratic Party (Democrazia Cristiana: DC) dominated Italy’s government coalitions. Although the parliamentary elections of May 1958 did not bring any profound changes to the political landscape, Amintore Fanfani, who belonged to the left wing of the DC, sought to integrate the Italian Socialist Party (Partito Socialista Italiano; PSI) into a government coalition. This “opening to the left” was supposed to create a broader and more stable government capable of implementing the country’s pressing political and socio-economic reforms. However, Fanfani’s plan failed due to massive opposition from within his own party.
Instead, in early 1960 the rightist Fernando Tambroni (DC) was elected as the new prime minister of a DC minority government with the votes of the Italian Neofascist Party (Movimento Sociale Italiano; MSI). However, by July 1960 he had been forced to resign after nation-wide demonstrations against his government and its neofascist enablers escalated, resulting in the deaths of several protesters. Tambroni’s abrupt fall was the ultimate sign that center-right governments had no future in Italy. Even the election of Antonio Segni (DC) as President of Italy in 1962 could not alter this trend. Segni, one of the founders of the DC in 1942 and one of the most outspoken conservative politicians, had only narrowly defeated his Social Democrat rival, Giuseppe Saragat.
The first center-left government to include the Socialist Party was formed in December 1963 under Prime Minister Aldo Moro (DC), but it had collapsed by the summer of 1964. On July 14, 1964, while Moro was engaged in new coalition negotiations with the Socialists, President Segni summoned the commander of the Carabinieri, Giovanni de Lorenzo, to the Quirinal Palace. At that time, the content of the meeting was unknown but, one month later, Moro’s second center-left government with the Socialist Party was sworn in.
L’Espresso and the “De Lorenzo Affair”
On May 10, 1967, the Italian left-leaning magazine L’Espresso shocked the Italian public and political establishment with a bombshell report. “Finally,” the magazine told its readers, “the truth about (…) July, 14, 1964: Plot at the Quirinal. Segni and De Lorenzo were preparing the coup.” But did Giovanni De Lorenzo and Antonio Segni really plan a coup? The Carabinieri general and the president supposedly discussed a plan – the “Piano Solo” – to suppress public unrest, which De Lorenzo had put together a couple of months earlier. According to this plan, all persons who supposedly posed a threat to public security were to be imprisoned, and ministries, TV and radio stations as well as the offices of left-wing parties were to be occupied. Sole responsibility for the implementation of this emergency plan would rest with the Carabinieri – other security forces such as the state police or the military were neither involved nor informed.
It was not the first time L’Espresso had exposed De Lorenzo’s dubious and seemingly illegal activities, which was one of the reasons why the May report quickly caused public outrage. In January 1967 the magazine reported that De Lorenzo, then director of the Italian security service SIFAR, had ordered the compilation of 157,000 dossiers on leading figures such as politicians, intellectuals, trade unionists, managers, and clergymen, only for some of these secret dossiers to suddenly vanish. Even today it is not certain who leaked this information to the press.
Nevertheless, both L’Espresso’s reports came at a difficult time for the DC. Moro’s center-left government had come under a lot of pressure to deliver its promised social and political reforms; discontent in the country was brewing, particularly among students and the working class who resented the DC’s “wait and see” approach. Taken together, the parliamentary elections in the spring 1968 did not look very promising for the DC.
A Coup Attempt without a Coup?
But what exactly happened during the conversation between De Lorenzo and Segni? Some contemporary observers like the Socialist Party leader Pietro Nenni or the diplomats at the US embassy in Rome doubted that the meeting represented the early stages of a coup attempt. On April 15, 1969, a parliamentary commission to investigate the events of the summer of 1964 was established under the chairmanship of Giuseppe Alessi (DC). During its existence, the commission collected relevant documents and interviewed several of the main actors. It finished its work on December 15, 1970, but the commission’s findings were only made public by Giulio Andreotti (DC) in the 1990s.
The majority and minority reports reveal that the commission was deeply divided and could not agree on the exact nature of what had happened in the summer of 1964. The DC-led majority argued that a coup, in which only the Carabinieri would have been involved, had zero chances for success. In combination with De Lorenzo’s professional character, which was praised even by left-wing politicians, they concluded that the “Piano Solo” was therefore a purely defensive plan. Left-wing parties, however, were convinced of the plan’s preventive nature as it would have been ill-suited to suppress any nation-wide protests. They argued that all the other emergency plans at that time utilized all security forces, while the “Piano Solo” deliberately ignored the fact that when it came to restoring public order within Italy, the Carabinieri were subject to the orders of the Ministry of the Interior. In addition, the commission could not reach consensus on the extent to which President Segni was privy to De Lorenzo’s plans. It seems very likely that the DC had little interest in questioning the motives of one of its own most prominent politicians.
Even today, we still lack a satisfactory interpretation of the events of the summer of 1964. According to one theory Antonio Segni, who unlike De Lorenzo was a fierce critic of center-left governments, became impatient with the progress of negotiations between Moro’s DC and Nenni’s PSI. Instead of a new center-left government, he preferred a government of technocrats and a government system that would resemble France’s presidential model under Charles de Gaulle.
De Gaulle had become President of the Fifth Republic on January 8, 1959, after a new constitution with a presidential system of government had been approved the previous year. During his talk with De Lorenzo, Segni apparently wanted to discuss different options to curb the escalation of possible unrest in case he was able to go through with his plans. He desperately wanted to avoid another “1960,” which had led to Tambroni’s dramatic downfall.
A second theory does not doubt Segni’s strong leanings towards a presidential system but, given the limited resources of the “Piano Solo,” proponents argue that Segni never seriously considered the establishment of a presidential system in Italy. Rather he used the meeting with De Lorenzo as a smokescreen to pressure the Socialists into accepting a coalition pact that was only favorable for the DC. Of course, this argument assumes that Nenni found out about the talks between De Lorenzo and Segni in the summer of 1964 and only entered Moro’s second government to prevent a potential presidential coup.
Supporters point to the fact that Nenni joined Moro’s government without making any further demands; key Socialist reform projects, including affordable housing, urban planning, strengthening regional governments, and education reform, never made it into the coalition pact. Within Moro’s government, which lasted till 1968, the PSI’s position was so weak that even Confindustria – Italy’s employer organization – supported the center-left government for the first time, because it was overtly moderate and centrist.
The Affair and the Cold War
Due to the lack of sources and concrete information, the events of 1964 are still among the most controversial in Italian postwar history. While the second interpretation has recently gained traction, the international context of the Cold War and its impact on Italy’s domestic affairs should not be completely disregarded when assessing De Lorenzo’s and Segni’s meeting. The thesis of the reactionary coup attempt was first propagated by L’Espresso and a parliamentary commission investigating right-wing terrorism in Italy revealed that the funds for press campaigns against De Lorenzo came from the Soviet Union.
This information does not rebut the fact that De Lorenzo was involved in illegal and dubious activities, but it does suggest that the meeting between De Lorenzo and Segni might have been deliberately overblown by L’Espresso in order to discredit one of the most influential figures within Italy’s security apparatus, who was both a key ally of the DC and the United States of America.
In 1955, Giovanni De Lorenzo was appointed head of the Italian intelligence service SIFAR, whose original mandate included military espionage on behalf of the army, navy, and air force. Given the intensifying Cold War and the growing influence of the Italian Communist Party, SIFAR under De Lorenzo meddled more and more in domestic affairs. This overstepping of authority occurred with the explicit authorization and support of the American CIA.
After he was head of the Carabinieri between 1962 and 1965, De Lorenzo became Chief of Staff of the Italian Army in 1966 with the support of the Socialist Party, who praised his professional character and his partisan activities against German Nazis and Italian fascists between 1943 and 1945. When the “De Lorenzo Affair” made headlines in 1967, left-wing parties within the government successfully demanded his resignation as Chief of Staff despite opposition from many members of the DC.
Thus, the “De Lorenzo Affair” not only eroded public trust in Italy’s security apparatus and political elite, but also constituted a heavy burden for the center-left government. De Lorenzo himself sued L’Espresso’s two journalists, but both avoided prison time due to parliamentary immunity offered to them by the PSI. In 1968, De Lorenzo joined the monarchist party and ran successfully for a seat in parliament. In 1971 he became a member of the Italian Neofascist Party MSI, which merged with the monarchist party one year later.
When De Lorenzo joined the MSI, Italians were once again reminded of his 1964 meeting with Segni, not because his new party affiliation was cited as evidence of his alleged anti-democratic views, but because another reported coup attempt shocked the Italian public at a time when right-wing terrorism was on the rise. On March 18, 1971, the left-wing journal Paese Sera wrote on its frontpage: “Subversive plan against the Republic: Far-right plot discovered.” What had happened?
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Part II: The “Borghese Coup” of 1970
Chaos in Italy
Violent student and worker protests, intense social conflict due to high-unemployment rates and internal migration, as well as a wave of right-wing terrorist attacks, including the December 1969 bombing at Piazza Fontana in Milan, plunged Italy into bloody chaos in the late 1960s.
Ultra-conservative as well as neo-fascist forces viewed the breakdown of public order, which was more often than not incited and fueled by their followers, as the opportune moment to bring about their longed-for authoritarian change. A key figure in these attempts was the “Black Prince” Junio Valerio Borghese, honorary president of the Italian neo-fascist party MSI and leader of the neo-fascist group National Front (Fronte Nazionale, FN), which he founded on September 13, 1969. During the Italian Civil War (1943-1945) Borghese commanded the paramilitary unit Xª Flottiglia MAS, which gained a notorious reputation for their ruthless and brutal suppression of the Italian partisan movement.
After the Second World War, Borghese remained a staunch fascist and anti-Communist and harbored deep resentment towards the newly established liberal and pluralistic Italian Republic. Instead of integrating into the new political system, Borghese sought to establish an authoritarian regime and restore “the supreme values of the Italian and European civilization.”
Borghese’s FN appealed to a heterogeneous mix of right-wing extremists and conservatives, including army officers, former fascist officials, businessmen and industrialists, as well as emphatic anti-communists who were united by their opposition towards the “opening to the left” in Italian politics and society. In their attempt to push Italy further to the right, the FN closely cooperated with other right-wing extremist organizations who had abandoned the legalistic approach of the MSI. One of these groups was Stefano Delle Chiaie’s National Vanguard (Avanguardia Nazionale, AN), which became FN’s paramilitary arm in the late 1960s. Delle Chiaie, who was deeply involved in the terrorist campaigns of the “strategy of tension,” thought he had finally found the perfect ally in Borghese’s FN.
In his view, Borghese’s networks and contacts to the security apparatus, the military, and the business world would enable them to carry out a successful coup d’état. And indeed, Borghese was very well connected. He had also established close ties to Lucio Gelli, head of the infamous Propaganda Due (P2) lodge, who is often regarded as the puppet-master of Italy’s “deep state.” While this article is not the right place to discuss the validity of these accusations, it has nevertheless been proven that Gelli, who also preferred the establishment of a right-wing, authoritarian system in Italy, coordinated the funding for the planned coup.
The Abandoned Coup
On December 7, 1970, the time had come: As agreed with Borghese in advance, Major Luciano Berti gathered hundreds of cadets and officers of the Forest Guard (Corpo Forestale dello Stato) – a former Italian police agency – in the center of Rome. Equipped with submachine guns and handcuffs, Berti and his followers were supposed to occupy the television broadcaster RAI and kidnap Italian President Giuseppe Saragat (PSDI). Delle Chiaie and a few members of the AN went to the Ministry of the Interior.
The plot in Rome was supported by other far-rightwing groups who were supposed to occupy key state and party buildings in cities ranging from Milan in the North to Reggio Calabria in the South. Apparently, US-President Richard Nixon and the CIA knew about the coup attempt and were following the events closely, but only a minority within the CIA’s senior leadership was inclined to intervene on the side of the insurgents.
However, in the early morning hours of the next day – Delle Chiaie’s AN had just overtaken the Ministry of the Interior – Borghese suddenly called off the coup. While members of the AN and the Forest Guard tried as quietly as possible to retreat, accusations of betrayal and complaints began to surface by those involved. Why was the coup attempt abandoned? Why were participants informed so late? Rather than address these questions, Borghese and Delle Chiaie fled to Francisco Franco’s Spain. Even today the exact circumstances of the rash and surprising decision to abandon the coup remain unknown.
One thesis argues that, as in 1964, the masterminds behind the plot only intended to stage an attempted coup in order to scare the progressive elements in Italian politics and society. Instead of going through with a coup with an unknown outcome, they sought to remind the left-wing parties and the government that they could strike at will. By doing so, they intended to stop a further “opening to the left” and increase the influence of conservative groups and the far right. In 1971, remaining insurgents from the Borghese coup founded a new group, “The Wind Rose,” and hatched another plot against the Italian government. However, their coup was dashed before it began.
The Reckoning – or lack thereof
At the time of the coup, there was no public outcry, no investigation, and no arrests – the coup seemed to fade into oblivion, becoming an obscure side note in the history of the Italian Republic. On March 18, 1971, however, the left-wing journal Paese Sera wrote on its frontpage: “Subversive plan against the Republic: Far-right plot discovered.” Immediately after the story broke, arrests were made and criminal charges, including high treason, were introduced.
General Vito Miceli, then head of the Italian reformed secret service SID, was also questioned by the investigating magistrate about the plot. Miceli replied that on the night of 7 to 8 December, the secret service had received information of an “unspecified sensational event” by extreme right-wing groups, but the checks immediately carried out had not confirmed any serious threat. Furthermore, SID’s subsequent investigation had found no proof that active military personnel colluded with the rebels or participated in the coup attempt. Miceli called Borghese’s coup attempt a “jolly get-together among old comrades.”
Despite the fact that public prosecutors were able to prove connections between right-wing terrorists and extremists on the one hand and members of the police, military, and secret service on the other hand – Miceli himself was a member of the lodge P2 – as early as 1974, only a limited number of individuals involved in the coup were put on trial in 1977. However, the Court of Assize dropped the charge of “armed insurrection against the state,” arguing that the defendants had only “set out for an isolated, sensational demonstration, one that, although violent and hostile, was inadequate to implement [the charge of armed insurrection] … That ‘gesture’ appears now, as it did then, vain, fanciful, weak.”
Only a few defendants were sentenced on lesser accounts, including for membership in a criminal association. Consequently, with the blessing of the Italian judiciary the Borghese coup was officially dismissed as a comic opera. Borghese himself did not live to see the judicial farce unfolding, having died in exile in Spain in 1974.
Comparisons to January 6
But how do the “Piano Solo” coup of 1964 and the “Golpe Borghese” of 1970 shed more light on the events that were unfolding on January 6, 2021, in Washington D.C.? Can the events in Italy really offer new perspectives? Or are national peculiarities as well as different geographical, chronological, social, and political settings too profound to conduct an insightful comparison?
While we should not dismiss the differences, I would argue that a comparison illustrates several similarities that seem to be key patterns, features and motivations for a far right-wing coup attempt. I argue that taking a closer look at these common patterns can give us a better understanding of what happened on January 6, 2021, why it happened and what the future might hold for the stability of US democracy. In the following, I would like to mention four characteristics that are present in all three cases.
1. All three insurrections occurred at a time of social and political unrest or uncertainty. In the mid-1960s only a small segment of the far right and the conservative milieu regarded the increasing influence of the Socialists, and the beginning of the student and worker strikes, as a threat to their very existence. But, in the late 1960s Italy was plunged into public, bloody chaos, increasing the attraction of law-and-order rhetoric.
At the end of Donald Trump’s term, US society was extremely polarized with violent protests and demonstrations erupting all over the country and with the majority of the GOP abandoning basic democratic principles in pursuit of personal political power. Yes, the degree of turmoil varied. But the more apparent the unrest, the easier it was – and still is – for right-wing groups to recruit new followers by promising them the return of law and order and the establishment of a strong state.
2. In all cases, the insurgents were indirectly or directly aided by politicians, political parties, and businessmen as well as members of the security apparatus. The direct involvement of politicians and parties in the mentioned coup attempts remains a topic of heated discussion despite some incriminating evidence in the case of Antonio Segni and the Christian Democratic Party as well as Lauren Boebert, Josh Hawley and the Republican Party. Nevertheless, the legitimizing effect of their inflammatory rhetoric regarding these attempts cannot be denied.
In Italy, politicians of the DC and the MSI warned of a Sovietization of Italy, should the “opening to the left” continue; in the US members of the GOP accused the Democratic party of Communism and propagated the lie of a stolen election. In addition, the insurgents also enjoyed support from right-wing paramilitaries – particularly during the Borghese coup (e. g. AN) and the insurrection in Washington D.C. (e. g. Proud Boys) – as well as businessmen. Gelli and his associates in P2 channeled money to Borghese’s FN while Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point America, paid for several buses to take protesters to Washington D.C. Furthermore, in all three cases segments of the security apparatus played a role in how events unfolded.
While in 1964 the Carabinieri would have taken center stage, six years later members of the Forest Guard and the Italian army joined the coup attempt. In the case of Washington, investigations are still ongoing into the conduct of some Capitol Police officers, the slow decision-making process at the Department of Defence to deploy the National Guard as well as the lack of general preparation despite information regarding a possible armed insurrection. It seems that without the participation or at least the collusion of some elements of the security apparatus and the political elite, none of these coup attempts would have ever gotten off the ground.
3. Another unsettling similarity is the lack of will among the conservative political establishment to investigate and acknowledge the seriousness of the coup attempts. In Italy and the United States, the Christian Democratic Party and the GOP respectively either delayed or successfully stopped the establishment of an independent commission to investigate the events. In addition, after the plot became public, members of these political parties have been eager – often aided by members of the security apparatus and the right-wing media – to downplay the events.
Borghese claimed that he only gathered his members in Rome to protest the planned visit of the Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito to Italy, while the attack on the US-Capitol was preceded by a seemingly harmless demonstration in support of Donald Trump. Moreover, Miceli called Borghese’s coup a “jolly get-together among old comrades” and Republican Representative Andrew Clyde had the following to say about the attack on the US-Capitol: “Watching the TV footage of those who entered the Capitol and walked through Statuary Hall showed people in an orderly fashion staying between the stanchions and ropes, taking videos and pictures. (…) If you didn’t know the TV footage was a video from January the 6th, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit.”
The strategy behind these statements is always the same: play down, distract, rewrite, forget. And, as the British newspaper The Guardian wrote on July 6, 2021, “interviews with diehard Trump fans suggest that the riot denialism is working.” This leads me to my final point:
4. Operationally, the plots in Italy both failed. However, politically – according to Franco Ferraresi – they have succeeded because “from then on, the existence of groups and forces ready to carry out such steps had to be considered a realistic possibility.” Such a possibility forced Pietro Nenni to enter Moro’s second government in 1964 without making any further demands; the discovery of the Borghese coup in 1971 may well have accelerated the end of the center-left government and helped to establish a DC-government under Andreotti the following year. Both coups also undermined the public’s trust in state institutions, particularly in the security apparatus, with devastating consequences for Italy in the 1970s: The violence during the so-called “years of lead” claimed the lives of hundreds of Italians. The slow or even absent criminal prosecution of people involved in the plots and the inadequate investigation into the events also contributed to a feeling of strength among the far right.
At the moment, the exact consequences of the January riot in Washington D.C. for the stability of US democracy remain murky at best. The deployment of the National Guard in Washington for weeks is a strong indication that some decision-makers in Washington thought another violent insurrection was possible. The arrest of participants and the judicial process seems painstakingly slow and has been strongly criticized in US progressive circles, leading to an increased distrust of state institutions, while the current decision not to bring charges of armed insurrection against the rioters seems painfully reminiscent of the Italian court’s 1977 ruling.
In the meantime, the right-wing media and politicians use the absence of clear sentencing to “airbrush the US Capitol insurrection from history” (The Guardian) and construct their own narrative of a “fun tourist trip,” thereby framing the attackers as the actual victims of some “deep state” conspiracy. The best example in this context is Ashli Babbitt, who was shot while she tried to violently gain access to the Capitol Building. She is now hailed by the right-wing media and Trump’s base as a martyr to their cause. Paul Gosar, a Republican Representative from Arizona, claimed that Babbitt had been “executed.” This tactic reminds us of how Italian fascists and German National Socialists created their own martyrs in the 1920s and 1930s: The corpses of Nicola Bonservizi (1890-1924) and Wilhelm Gustloff (1895-1936) were brought back home with pomp and circumstance and given a state funeral.
The fears of a repeat of what happened on January 6, 2021, continue to grow in the United States, particularly in light of the lack of public reckoning and serious investigation into the events. A comparison with the plots that occurred in Cold War Italy reveals not only similarities in the build-up, the course of events, and the aftermath that can be regarded as characteristic of right-wing coup attempts; it also illustrates above all the importance of coming to terms with these coup attempts and the need to establish an accurate narrative of the events.
Failure to do so allows the right-wing media and politicians to spread deliberate misinformation, thereby legitimizing the use of violence against the state and everyone who is considered an enemy of their political and social worldview as well as trying to cancel the memory of one of the “darkest days” in US history. There is, of course, still time to remedy this situation; otherwise, the “darkest hours” of US democracy might be still ahead of us.
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