Fifty years ago the law on conscientious objection

“I broke my rifle: a choice that is still current” Alberto Trevisan

Interview with Alberto Trevisan, historic conscientious objector, who recalls the long struggle, the reasons of conscience, the experiences of trials and prison. And he explains why celebrate the anniversary of Law 772/1972. In fact, in a few days we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the approval of the law which recognized the possibility of choosing conscientious objection in the face of compulsory military service (Article 52 of the Italian Constitution). This law has brought out a nonviolent way of thinking that has continued to involve tens of thousands of young people in the Veneto region in various ways and has given a strong boost to the third sector.

From Enrico Veltrame in La Vita del Popolo of 11 December 2022

So we went to visit Alberto Trevisan, a historic conscientious objector, at his home on the outskirts of Padua. He welcomes us with the flag of peace hanging from the lamppost in front of the house. Let’s go in.

He tells us about the three trials following his three objections. He expresses his satisfaction at having set up, the first in Italy, a public education department linked to peace education and the defense of human rights. His choices have led him, over the years, to be one of the main actors of Italian pacifism and to continue to this day to train schools and young people who choose to do the civil service. Alberto, 75 years old, born in Feltre but transplanted to Padua, married to Claudia Bernacchi from Treviso, has 2 children and 4 grandchildren. They will celebrate their golden wedding in February. Claudia supported him in even painful choices, such as prison and on the run.

How did the choice of conscientious objection to armed service mature?

I grew up in the parish. And I was lucky enough to have a high school Italian teacher who helped me broaden the interests I had 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 university, and was interested in the experiences of grassroots Christian communities and the work of worker priests. I was engaged in Fuci. At a certain point the call to arms arrives in the Alpini corps: destination L’Aquila! After the medical examination (October 1967), I postponed my departure because of my studies. Then I finally decided that I would not be part of that reality.

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 to 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, two group exhibitions followed in 1971 and 1972. After the military prison in Rome, at Forte Boccea, 7 young objectors found ourselves sharing the same thought: “No to the army!”. We had met a few weeks earlier, at a national conference on militarism, even though 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 whole 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, arriving in July 1971 at the approval in the Senate of the “Marcora proposal”, which at that moment lapsed, 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. But I’ve been in contact with young people of different backgrounds and they didn’t weigh the roots.

A choice that also gave a boost to politics in making a specific law?

I perceived that we had reached such a point that a law had to be issued. With each draft bracket, the number of objectors increased, as did demonstrations and arrests. 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 who supported conscientious objection (such as Marcora, Fracanzani, Anselmi). Within a few days it passed to the House, where it was approved on December 14, entering into force the following day (December 15, 1972).

Why bring peace education to local authorities?

It was the most effective way to introduce the ideals of nonviolence, peace and justice and the defense of human rights into public institutions. Being part of associations can have a purely personal meaning, while being included in public institutions means transmitting a great political and social meaning.

How current is that law still?

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. Secondly, the question remains significant inasmuch as the reflection on the problematic relationship between norm and conscience, which today touches the spaces of bioethics, remains open.

What does it mean to “break the gun” today?

It means rejecting 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!

Before saying goodbye, he would like to make one last recollection of a friend, Liana Fiorani – an authoritative scholar of the Barbiana Popular School – who passed away last year and to confide in us the two places of his heart: Barbiana in Mugello and Sankt Radegund in the ‘Upper Austria, related to Don Lorenzo Milani and Franz Jägerstätter.

“The broken rifle is not a simple metal pin. It is the symbol of peace and nonviolence. It is the image of a rifle that is no longer capable of firing, offending or threatening, it is a useless weapon. It just has to remind us that the great tragedy of war and violence can be overcome if each of us begins to break our rifle, to render our weapon useless. After all, wars are fought with weapons. The first reconciliation is achieved by renouncing to use them”

(Alberto Trevisan, I broke my rifle)

Fifty years ago the law on conscientious objection – CARITAS TARVISINA