Alberto Trevisan. I broke my rifle: a choice still relevant today

In a few days we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the approval of law n. 772 of 12/15/1972 which recognized the possibility of choosing conscientious objection in the face of compulsory military service (art. 52 of the Italian Constitution). So we went to visit Alberto Trevisan, a historic conscientious objector, in his house on the outskirts of Padua, to give him an interview. He welcomes us with the flag of peace hanging from the lamppost in front of the house. Let’s go in. He immediately shows us a poster inviting the Paduans to be present at his ‘third’ trial on June 15, 1972, together with three other objectors from the Veneto. The sentence for him was 8 months’ imprisonment. Of that trial, in integral form, the first book in Italy was printed with the complete account of a military trial entitled “Process of the objector”. His choices then led him over the years to be one of the main actors of Italian pacifism, to be the first to establish a peace department in his municipality and to continue up to today to train schools and young people who choose to become civil service. He shows us his latest book entitled “Travel companions – A life journey with Giovanni Nervo”, with whom he collaborated for many years in promoting nonviolence and the culture of human rights. Alberto 75 years old, born in Feltre but transplanted to Padua as a child, married to Claudia Bernacchi from Treviso, he has 2 children and 4 grandchildren. In February they will celebrate the golden anniversary of a sometimes uphill path traveled in the name of freedom. Claudia supported him in even painful choices, such as prison and on the run.

First things first, Alberto, how did your choice of conscientious objection to armed service come about?

I grew up in the parish. However, I was lucky enough to have an Italian teacher in high school who helped me broaden my interests and told me about Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Lanza del Vasto, Aldo Capitini and Henry David Thoreau. I began to read his writings and to make a critical reading of them in the light of the Gospel. The Second Vatican Council had just concluded and I came across the book by an uncomfortable priest, Don Lorenzo Milani, entitled “Obedience is no longer a virtue”. I began studying social services at the high school founded by Giovanni Nervo and I was interested in the experiences of basic Christian communities and the work of worker priests. At a certain point the call to arms arrives in the Alpini corps: destination L’Aquila!

So when did the turning point come?

Reading the constitution “Gaudium et spes” I found answers to my inner impulses, especially where it says, in n. 79, “it seems fair that the laws provide humanely for the case of those who, for reasons of conscience, refuse to use arms, while nevertheless accepting some other form of service of the human community”.

I decided to object to military service for the first time on June 9, 1970, and it was an individual objection.

Up until that moment, in fact, as for the other young objectors, this was the method adopted. Despite going through the process, I told myself almost immediately that I wouldn’t finish!

What prompted you to move forward?

In my choice I had the support of my family who taught me the values ​​of freedom and anti-fascism. While in prison, my mother sent me a letter in prison with a poem by Langston Hughes, an African-American poet. It was an invitation to resist, to carry on. Rereading it I understood even more that I could not give up…

And so?

I had three objections, interspersed with a few months of freedom and three trials. After the first one-man show (June 9, 1970), two group exhibitions followed in 1971 and 1972. After the military prison in Rome, at Forte Boccea, 7 young objectors came together to share the same thought: “No to the army!” . We had met a few weeks earlier at a national conference on militarism, even if we were guided by different motivations: the Catholic creed, anarchist thought, radical philosophy. On February 9, 1971 we found ourselves holding a press conference in Rome where we expressed our choice of collective conscientious objection, the keystone for the entire movement.

And then what happened?

Our public objection was taken up by many newspapers and pacifist magazines or those of Catholic dissent of the time, such as “Testimonianze” directed at the time by Father Ernesto Balducci. He also gave a boost to the legislative process of the bills on conscientious objection to military service, reaching the approval in the Senate of the ‘Marcora proposal’ in July 1971, only to lapse due to the early dissolution of the Chambers.

How did your faith as a young Catholic help you during your stay in prison?

During my stay in prison I was able to read many books and get to know many authors, who have become real travel companions. Among these certainly Aldo Capitini and Pietro Pinna, Giorgio La Pira, Ernesto Balducci, David Maria Turoldo and Don Lorenzo Milani. As I mentioned earlier, I reflected a lot while reading Gaudium et spes, where for the first time the Church declared that there was no longer a just war, but it was right to respect the choices of conscientious objectors. It represented a pass with respect to my feelings. I felt a secular spirituality, close to that revolution that was taking place in the Church. Yet in my objections I was in contact with young people of different backgrounds and they didn’t weigh the roots: we were all animated by common reasons of conscience for not taking up the gun. I suffered a lot from being dismissed ‘without just cause’ as a worker (and night student) at SIP due to my detention for my choice to object. I was the third of ten siblings and had to go to work to help my family!

A choice that also gave a push to politics in making a specific law 50 years ago?

I perceived that we had reached a point that a law had to be issued. It was happening that with each group of military service the number of objectors increased, as well as demonstrations and arrests. The military structures had difficulty managing the situation… In July 1972 there was a trial of 4 Paduan objectors, while in the meantime trials were also taking place in other parts of Italy. From October, the debate on conscientious objection began to gain increasing weight also in the press. On November 30, the Senate approved the bill of some parliamentarians (such as Marcora, Fracanzani, Anselmi) who supported conscientious objection. Within a few days it passed to the Chamber where it was approved on December 14, entering into force the following day (December 15, 1972). Thus was born the law n. 772, which granted the possibility of objection to military service and gave birth to the substitute civil service for moral, religious and philosophical reasons, even if it introduced more restrictive and punitive modalities (ed. primarily 20 months of service instead of 12 foreseen for lever).

Why bring education for peace into local authorities?

It was the most effective way to insert the ideals of nonviolence, peace and justice and the defense of human rights within public institutions, a dream that I have always nurtured because being within associations can have a purely personal meaning while being inserted in institutions public means conveying great political and social significance.

How relevant is Law 772 of 15 December 1972 still relevant today?

In principle it is still relevant because it recognized the primacy of the freedom of the individual. Since 2000, military service is no longer compulsory and therefore law 772 has been largely emptied of its effectiveness. But it remains important to reflect on conscientious objection, at least for two reasons. In the first place because the need to keep alive a reflection on the values ​​that gave rise to and sustained over time the choice of conscientious objection, from peace to anti-militarism, from non-violence to the refusal of arms, cannot be said to be exhausted. And secondly, the question remains significant inasmuch as the reflection on the problematic relationship between norm and conscience remains open, which today touches the spaces of bioethics, the end of life…

What does it mean to ‘break the gun’ today?

With the civil service the discussion of voluntary work, of private social welfare, of helping the weakest groups has opened up… Breaking the rifle today means refusing the dominance of military culture but also fighting with those fleeing wars fought with firearms or with the more subtle ones of the economy. It means taking care of creation and thinking about future generations. This exercise must be a collective effort!

Henry Vendrame

Alberto Trevisan. I broke my rifle: a choice still relevant today