The first post-war energy crisis

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The fear of future problems in the supply of gas from Russia and the consequences that this could have on everyone’s life reminded many, especially those over sixty, of the winter of 1973-1974 when Italy , but also the other European countries and the United States, had to face an energy crisis that marked the definitive end of the years of the so-called “economic boom”. In that period, often called austerity, drastic measures were imposed on the Italians which were intended to contain energy consumption, albeit for a limited number of months.

It was an unexpected change of habits and for many traumatic. After the periods of continuous increase of the Gross Domestic Product of the years of the so-called “economic miracle” of the second post-war period, when Italy and other European countries had experienced an impetuous growth, we were faced with a crisis that broke the illusion of constant and uninterrupted development. The economic boom had produced the creation of new jobs, the fall in unemployment, increases in income and consumption. The standard of living of the Italians improved and this was also accompanied by a demographic growth (the most numerous generations in Italy were those from 1961 to 1967).

Fossil fuels, available at moderate prices and in quantities that seemed endless at the time, were increasingly essential to running industries and transportation. At the beginning of the 1960s, there were 1.6 million cars on the road in Italy, up to 9 million by the end of the decade. The cars produced in the country went from 600 thousand to 1.7 million in the decade. Fiat 600, 500 and 124 (the best-selling Italian car in the world) increased sales enormously.

The energy crisis of 1973 marked for many a return to a more difficult and moderate reality. The car industry was the first to pay the consequences: it went from 1,449 million registrations in 1973 to 1,281 million in 1974 and 1,051 in 1975.

In those years the oil market was controlled by what Enrico Mattei, president of Eni, called the “seven sisters”: Mobil, Chevron, Gulf, Texaco, Shell, Exxon and British Petroleum, which monopolized the extraction and production cycle. The situation began to change when the United States declared that the demand for energy had grown so much that it exceeded the available resources. At the same time, the Middle Eastern countries that housed immense deposits began to claim more income from the system of concessions, a legacy of colonial times.

In 1960, OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, was founded. In the beginning there were Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, then other nations were added (now there are 13 countries). The aim was to set up a cartel that would manage and regulate both the quantity of oil produced and the prices. After obtaining an increase in royalties, the producing countries however began to make a request for participation from the concessionary companies for total control of the resources.

The dispute between the seven sisters and the producing countries went on for a long time, then in 1973 there was the triggering event of the crisis. On 6 October 1973, the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, Israel was attacked by the Egyptian army across the Sinai Peninsula, and by the Syrian army from the Golan Heights. The goal was to drive the Israeli army out of the territories it had conquered during the Six Day War in 1967.

At the same time as the start of hostilities, the OPEC countries, in support of Syria and Egypt, decided a sharp increase in the price of oil globally and a 25% decrease in exports, as well as an embargo against the more pro-Israeli countries . The war lasted 19 days and had no decisive military results. However, it had enormous economic consequences: suddenly the price of oil quadrupled. Western countries suffered the backlash severely, and emergency measures were established across Europe. Italy decided the interventions last among the countries of the continent.

On November 22, 1973, the Council of Ministers chaired by Mariano Rumor, who led a government composed of the Christian Democrats, the Republican Party, the Social Democratic Party and the Socialist Party, decided on a series of measures with immediate effect. The first measure was the prohibition of the circulation of motorized vehicles on all public roads, urban and extra-urban, on all public holidays (Sundays or midweek). Motor boats also had to remain stationary.

The first “Sunday on foot” was the 2nd of December. The ban was valid for everyone, even for the representatives of the institutions and for the President of the Republic Giovanni Leone who in fact, a few days later, to go from the Quirinale to Piazza di Spagna to pay homage to the Immaculate Conception, had an old horse-drawn carriage dusted off. Vehicles of firefighters, police forces, doctors, postal vans, means for distributing newspapers, ministers of worship within the municipalities of residence, cars of the diplomatic corps were exempted. For travel, the Italians could use trains, planes, ships, taxis and vehicles on public lines or with a rental service license. The fines for those who transgressed ranged from 100 thousand lire to one million.

The result was that that first Sunday the central areas of the city were filled with people on horseback, in carriages, obviously on bicycles, on skates or with any extravagant pedal vehicle. There were ox carts, mules, donkeys. The news reports (there was only one then, on the first Rai network) opened with the voice of Lucio Battisti singing “Confusion“(” You just call it an old dirty scam but it’s a mistake, it’s oil “), later replaced by that of Tony Santagata who He sang “Austerity austerity, if you don’t want to walk, buy the donkey.”

That Sunday the Inter-Milan derby was played at the San Siro stadium in Milan, won by Inter 2-1 with goals from Boninsegna and Facchetti. The television images showed a huge line of people on bicycles, on horseback, in crammed carts on their way to the stadium.


Sundays on foot were the most famous measure of austerity, the most folkloristic. It was taken well by the Italians: it was a novelty for many even funny. That Sunday, and then the following ones, few people stayed at home.

However, there were many other restrictions: speed limits were established on roads and motorways: 50 km / h in built-up areas, 100 km / h on normal suburban roads and 120 km / h on motorways. Petrol stations had to close from 12 noon on Saturday to all Sunday. The cost of gasoline rose to 190 lire per liter, that of super to 200; diesel fuel, used by public buses and trucks, was set at 113 lire per liter, while that for heating, agricultural and maritime use increased by 18 lire per kilo, reaching the basic sales quota of 50 lire per kilo. The fuel oil used by industries and power plants reached 20 lire per kilo.

It was the period before Christmas, so a drastic reduction of decorative lighting was decided (practically there were none). No shop signs or shop windows could be lit. In Milan, even the famous neon advertising signs in Piazza Duomo were turned off for the first time. Shops had to close by 7pm, public offices at 5.30pm. Bars and restaurants could not remain open beyond midnight, for theaters and cinemas the closing was triggered at 22.45: the last show was abolished. From 10.30 onwards there was hardly anyone around.

The television programs also ended strictly at 10.45pm. In almost all the houses the lights went out at that time. The news, which until 2 December 1973 had aired at 20.30, was moved to 20, and at that time it has remained up to now on Rai 1. Street lighting was reduced by 40%: in practice, a lamppost on two. Between 9 pm and 7 am Enel reduced the voltage supplied by 7%. The government set the recommended temperature limit at 20 degrees, at most 21.

The embargo of the OPEC countries ended in the spring of 1974, and the energy crisis eased. For a certain period there were Sundays with alternating plates: one day the even plates circulated and the following weekend the odd ones. However, the economic crisis was not reversed. In 1974 inflation rose to 19.1%, in 1975 there was the first recession since the war with a loss of GDP of 3.8%. Italy had definitively emerged from the associated period following the “economic miracle”. There was still no talk of alternative energies and renewables but, if an ecological awareness had not yet developed, many had begun to realize how precarious was a system based on dependence on energy that came to Italy from areas of the world politically unstable.