Bologna's lesson for London

Geoff Andrews
2 August 2007

On 2 August 1980, a bomb planted by neo-fascists ripped through the waiting-room of Bologna railway station, killing 85 people and injuring more than 200. It exploded on the morning of the first Saturday in August when hundreds were setting off on their holidays. Those killed were a mixture of station workers, passengers and tourists, including British and other visitors.

Geoff Andrews is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005)

Also on Italy’s modern history and politics, see:

Tobias Jones, The Dark Heart of Italy (Faber, 2003)

Paul Ginsborg, Italy and its Discontents: Family, Civil Society, State 1980-2001 (Penguin, 2003)

Paul Ginsborg, Silvio Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony (Verso, 2004)

The strage di Bologna was and is the most devastating terrorist attack in Italian history. It was the culmination of a decade of terrorist violence of right and left, defined by commentators as the “strategy of tension” in which the state was undermined from all sides and Italians lived in fear of each other.

The response of the city to the indiscriminate attack was immediate and unequivocal. As in the recent London bombings, the emergency services responded quickly. The number 37 bus travelling through the station area at the time of the bomb was used to carry off the dead, allowing ambulances to reach the injured. In the hours that followed, a demonstration filled the main piazza, where the reaction of the citizens was a mixture of repulsion and defiance.

The terrorists chose Bologna for its tradition of left-wing politics. But Bologna was also renowned for its enlightened local government and strong civic culture. Now it reasserted its anti-fascist values. The city was determined that it would not weaken in the face of terrorism. Its identity was to be preserved through the memory of those who died.

In the years that followed, there have been regular commemorations of the tragedy on behalf of the families of the victims and in order to recover the identity of the city. The original station clock remains fixed at 10.25 am, the time the bomb exploded. Inside the rebuilt waiting-room you can still see the jagged edges of the wall that was blown apart, while the crater has been preserved on the floor below to indicate the place where the bomb went off. The number 37 bus was eventually moved to a museum.

Every year the massacre is commemorated by a march through the city, with many of the victims' families taking part. For this year's anniversary, the walls of the waiting-room were adorned with a rich variety of artwork, stamps and photographs of the bombing and its aftermath.

Over the years, the city's own collective memory has been expressed through a range of cultural and artistic events. Memorials to the victims are prominently placed outside the station and in Bologna's main square, Piazza Maggiore, next to portraits of partisans who died resisting Nazi occupation during the second world war. This memorial is a living reminder of the event so that new generations can be educated and older ones do not forget.

This has become crucial in a country where history continues to constrain the present in very particular ways. The current right-wing government of Silvio Berlusconi, which includes post-fascists, has depended upon a revisionist account of the past, refusing to take part in the annual celebrations of the defeat of fascism, while local post-fascists in Bologna even tried to change the commemorative plaque to the station bombing which condemned “fascist terrorism”. This year, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the tragedy, the government has been criticised for giving only lukewarm support to the commemorative events.

Portals of memory

Of course London is not Bologna. Ten times bigger, its history and traditions are very different. The political contexts for terrorism in the two cities are also markedly divergent. Yet there is a profound message from the way Bologna responded to its tragedy that can help London in its own response twenty-five years later.

This has become apparent to me after writing about Italy and travelling between the two cities over the last four years (on 7 July I was working at home in Russell Square, equidistant between the bus bomb and the carnage on the Piccadilly line).

The families of the Bologna massacre victims set up a website in memory of their lost ones and the terrible event that took their lives, and to campaign for truth and justice

The website is here

See also the “portal of memory”, an electronic archive of materials related to terrorism in Italy, 1945-99

The Bologna example tells us that a rigorous historical memory is the best way to renew the identity of a city following terrorist attack. London will need to strengthen its collective identity as it faces its own “strategy of tension” which, just as in the case of Bologna twenty-five years ago, is intended to divide and instil fear. The city has already started to do this through spontaneous tributes and memorials, while there have been more discussions on what it means to be a Londoner than at any time I can remember.

Perhaps now is the time for a more coordinated response, where the places, the people, the remains of the number 30 bus and the images of the emergency services can be permanently preserved and renewed. This would be a living monument to those who died and would go some way to uniting a troubled city.

Bologna has renewed itself as a city of culture, tolerance and unshaken anti-fascist values. London is a city with a proud history of tolerance and dissent and of being a place of refuge for those facing persecution. It can justly claim to be one of the most diverse cities in the world, a fact which is becoming more evident in the conscience of its citizens. This is demonstrated by the backgrounds of those who died five weeks ago, and is reinforced by many responses of Londoners “old” and “new” since the bombings. Now the city needs to reassert this identity through its own collective memory of the tragedy of 7 July 2005.

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