Italy remembers Sacco and Vanzetti

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[NYT CORRECTION 8/30/07:"A recent Op-Ed article about the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti described the original charges against the two men incorrectly. The charges did not include possession of subversive pamphlets. And Sacco and Vanzetti faced only one trial together, not three."]

In the previous century millions of men and women died in wars, epidemics, genocides and persecutions, and unfortunately their memory is all too much in danger of vanishing. Yet the deaths of Sacco and Vanzetti in the electric chair 80 years ago today, as much as those of John and Robert Kennedy by assassins’ bullets, are destined to remain in our minds. Perhaps this is because, as with the Kennedy brothers, we still have difficulty accepting the reasons, or lack thereof, for their deaths. And in Italy, where meaningless (or all too meaningful) killing has long been part of the political landscape, this uneasiness is keenly felt.

In the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, it seemed immediately clear to many in Europe and the United States that their arrest in 1920 — initially for possession of weapons and subversive pamphlets, then on a charge of double murder committed during a robbery in Massachusetts — the three trials that followed, and their subsequent death sentences were intended to make an example of them. And this regardless of the utter lack of evidence against them and in spite of defense testimony by a participant in the robbery who said he’d never seen the two Italians.

The perception was that Sacco, a shoemaker, and Vanzetti, a fishmonger, were the victims of a wave of repression sweeping Woodrow Wilson’s America. In Italy, committees and organizations condemning the sentence sprouted up as soon as it was announced. By the time the sentence was carried out in 1927, Fascism had been in power in Italy for nearly five years and was brutally consolidating its dictatorship, persecuting and imprisoning anyone hostile to the regime — including anarchists, naturally. And yet when Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, the biggest Italian daily, Milan’s Corriere della Sera, did not hesitate to give the story a six-column headline. Standing out glaringly among the subheads was the assertion: “They were innocent.”

There is probably not a single Italian newspaper that has not devoted an article to the case every Aug. 23 from 1945 to the present. In 1977, much prominence was given to the news that Michael Dukakis, then the governor of Massachusetts, officially recognized the miscarriage of justice and rehabilitated the memory of Sacco and Vanzetti.

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