Where do you go if your attempt to overthrow the legitimate government in Italy fails? To have a plate of spaghetti, where else? This is exactly what happened when the coup d’etat planned by Junio Valerio Borghese, the heroic World War II naval commander and post-war, right-wing politician, aborted on the night between 7 and 8 December, 1970.
Called the Black Prince because of both his illustrious ancestors, who included popes and cardinals, and his extremist political ideology, Junio Valerio Scipione Ghezzo Marcantonio Maria Borghese was born into an old Sienese noble family in Rome on June 6, 1906. After his parents divorced, he spent his childhood following his diplomat father around to postings in China, Egypt, Spain, France and England. He was educated in London and then at the Royal Naval Academy in Livorno, from which he graduated in 1929. In September 1931, he married Daria Wassilievna, a Russian countess, in Florence; they had four children.
Having trained in underwater warfare, Borghese took command of a submarine in 1935. He participated in both the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, and the Spanish Civil War. During World War II, his daring naval assaults on Gibraltar and Alexandria harbors as well as the damage he inflicted on Allied shipping as commander of the elite commando unit known as the Decima Flottiglia MAS (10th Assault Vehicle Flotta), or Xª MAS, earnt him Italy’s Gold Medal for Military Valor.
After the armistice in September 1943, Borghese joined Mussolini’s Republic of Salò, the German-controlled puppet state in northern Italy. He signed an alliance with the German Navy and, together with many of his men, who were fiercely loyal to him, he revived the Xª MAS. Tragically, a land-based unit of the Xª MAS was also formed and used by the Nazis in a brutal campaign to suppress resistance forces, often torturing and killing not only partisans but also civilians.
At the end of the war, Borghese was tried and convicted of war crimes and collaboration with the enemy. He was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment, but was granted an amnesty in 1949. Once released, he became a member of the new rightist political party, Movimento Sociale Italiano. Believing it was not sufficiently hardline, he broke away and, in 1968, founded the Fronte Nazionale. Nostalgic for the past and fearing the growing inroads of the communists into Italian political life, he engaged in arming clandestine neo-fascist groups in close collaboration with two other extraparliamentary, subversive ultra-right factions, Ordine Nuovo, set up by Pino Rauti in 1956 and Avanguardia Nazionale, by Stefano Delle Chiaie in 1960.
On the night of Borghese’s coup (code named ‘Tora Tora’, in memory of the Japanese attach on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941), the conspirators, including disaffected army officers and members of the Forestry Corps, meant to arrest important politicians, seized control of key ministries such as the Interior and Defence and the broadcasting corporation, RAI. Groups of combatants also assembled in Lombardy, Veneto, Tuscany, Umbria and Calabria.
Unexpectedly, and at the last minute, Borghese called off the coup. His motive has never been fully explained although he may have done so because he learned that the Christian Democrat government had discovered the plot and was ready to suppress it. Three months later, after the leftist newspaper Paese Sera broke the story about the failed coup, 46 of the conspirators, excluding Borghese who had already fled to Spain to avoid capture, were arrested and tried for conspiracy against the Italian state. All the defendants were acquitted on appeal in November 1984, a decision confirmed by the Supreme Court in March 1986.
From exile, Borghese unconvincingly insisted that talking about a coup was pure fantasy. In reality, he insisted, he had merely organised a meeting to plan a protest demonstration against the forthcoming visit by Tito, the communist president of Yugoslavia, to Italy. Due to heavy rain, he had simply called off the meeting off and gone to have a meal with his comrades.
Borghese died under mysterious circumstances (poison has been suspected) in Cadiz, Spain on August 26, 1974 and is buried in the family chapel in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. By the time of his death, he was considered a politically irrelevant figure. Nonetheless, earlier that same year, he had travelled with Delle Chiaie, to Chile to see dictator General Augusto Pinochet and the head of the Chilean secret service. The reason for the trip remains an enigma.