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from issue no. 05 - 2006

Between Republic and Constituent Assembly


The referendum of 2 June to decide between Monarchy and Republic. The election and the deliberations of the Constituent Assembly. The first De Gasperi governments and a country to reconstruct.The promulgation of the founding Charter of the State


by Giovanni Sale S.J.


In the background photo, a demonstration for the Constituent Assembly in Turin in October 1945; Corriere della Sera of 6 June 1946, La Voce Repubblicana of 9 October 1947, a manifesto of the Italian Socialist Party of Proletarian Unity and one of the Christian Democrats, a photo of Nenni, Ruini, Vernocchi, De Gasperi and Togliatti at the time of the first 
De Gasperi government (10 December 1945-13 July 1946)

In the background photo, a demonstration for the Constituent Assembly in Turin in October 1945; Corriere della Sera of 6 June 1946, La Voce Repubblicana of 9 October 1947, a manifesto of the Italian Socialist Party of Proletarian Unity and one of the Christian Democrats, a photo of Nenni, Ruini, Vernocchi, De Gasperi and Togliatti at the time of the first De Gasperi government (10 December 1945-13 July 1946)

On 2 June 1946 the electorate was summoned by the government of National Unity to vote on two fundamental questions concerning the new order of the State: the decision on the much debated institutional problem (Monarchy or Republic) and the election of a Constituent Assembly, charged with drafting the founding Charter of the new State. The referendum, as we know, went for a Republic, with around two million votes more than those for the Monarchy. The result was much challenged by the pro-monarchy political forces who questioned both its legitimacy and its validity. This gave rise to varied recourses presented by them to the Court of Cassation [the Supreme Court], which on 18 June reaffirmed the 10 June declaration of the Minister of the Interior and hence validated the vote in favor of a Republic: all this delayed for more than a week the change of institutional regime, something that went through not altogether painlessly. The outcome of the referendum, however, highlighted the deep division of the country from the political, social and cultural points of view: alongside the Italy of the north, prevalently republican and politically more “progressive”, there was that of the south prevalently monarchic and politically more “conservative”. The Prime Minister, Alcide De Gasperi, had prophesied such a result during a conversation of 21 May 1946 with the nuncio to Italy, Monsignor Francesco Borgongini Duca: «The southern part of Italy up to just above Rome will vote in favor of the Monarchy in a proportion of 70%, out of a population of 18 million; whereas in the rest of Italy the proportion will be 70% for a Republic out of 22 million people, hence the latter will have a sure majority» (archive of Civiltà Cattolica).
Instead the “political poll”, that is the election for the Constituent Assembly, reproduced to some extent that of the administrative elections in Spring. The Christian Democrats were confirmed as the largest political party in the country (8,012,355 votes), followed by the Socialist (4,674,977 votes) and by the Communists (4,287,054); the sum of the two left-wing parties, however, was greater, if only by a little, to the Christian Democrat vote taken alone. The voters – women were allowed the vote for the first turn – had rewarded the so-called mass parties, which were also those that had fought in the Resistance and that were now called by the voters to draft the new constitutional Charter. The election result was viewed as very positive by the Christian Democrats (DC) and by the Vatican hierarchies, while the parties of the left (linked by a “pact of unity of action”) interpreted it, on the contrary, as an unexpected defeat. The efforts they had made in the electoral campaign, both through very efficient organizational means, and by employing very considerable economic means received from abroad, in particular from the Soviet Union, had in fact been enormous and given them hope of a matching electoral result. The defeat was particularly bitter for the Italian Communist Party (PCI), that had been the party most active in the partisan struggle and most influential in the Committees of National Liberation. It not only gained fewer votes than the opposing party, the Christian Democrats (104 seats against the 207 of the DC), but was even overhauled by its Socialist ally (115 seats), that so became the leading left-wing party. Thus the election defeat led to a shake-up within the PCI and hence to criticism by the more radical wing of the party, headed by Secchia and Longo, of the soft line of “progressive democracy” towards socialism adopted by Togliatti from the time of the first government of National Unity (1944). Despite criticisms of Togliatti, the leaders of the PCI realized that, at least for the moment, it was not possible to change political strategy, because that would have ended in isolating the PCI in the spectrum of democratic forces, so condemning it to becoming a party of opposition. All the more so since Stalin did not intend to back the Italian Communists in an eventual revolution-uprising aimed at imposing socialism on Italy, both because Italy – according to the Yalta Agreement – did not come within the Soviet sphere of influence, and because such a thing would have provoked, as it did in Greece, a prompt reaction from the Anglo-American Allies whose armies were still in Europe, with the risk of triggering another war that at that moment the USSR was not able to conduct. The decision adopted by the leaders of the PCI was to continue for the moment with the experience already gained in the governments of National Unity and, at the same time, to intensify the political/trade-union struggle throughout the country so as to win over to the party the majority of the working-class world, as well, naturally, as wide sections of the middle classes, who in the recent elections had voted for the DC. In a word the PCI organized itself, at one and the same time, as a party of government and a party of struggle, that is of opposition. This ambiguity certainly did not help towards the stability and unity of action of the new ministerial arrangement, headed by De Gasperi, and it was for long months, in reality up to the exclusion of the Left from the government in May 1947, the cause of perennial collision between the President of the Council and Togliatti and a source of instability for government action.

The inaugural session of the Constituent Assembly in the Chamber of Montecitorio on 25 June 1946

The inaugural session of the Constituent Assembly in the Chamber of Montecitorio on 25 June 1946

The institutional offices and the De Gasperi administration
Immediately after the elections began the “large-scale manoeuvres” among the larger political parties to decide the main institutional questions, such as the election of an interim Head of State, the chairmanship of the new Constituent Assembly, as well as, immediately after, the formation of the new government. «As for afterwards, that is, under the Republic,» De Gasperi confided to the nuncio to Italy, « a government of three has been suggested to me: the presidency of the Republic for me, the post of President of the Council for Nenni or Romita…. The Foreign Office for the Communists; but I don’t feel like being a president of the Republic: I don’t see a Nenni as head of government and very much less a Togliatti, subtle, but more “perfidious”, at the Foreign Office. Rather I would try to uncouple the Socialists from the Communists by proposing the presidency of the Republic for the former, and me remaining where I am. If they were uncoupled, the Communists wouldn’t enter the Cabinet: but can it be managed? I ask: “Can’t the Christian Democrats together with the monarchic parties face the Left?”. Answer: “Yes! We’d have enough arithmetically to hold up, barely, barely, but we couldn’t last”» (archive of Civiltà Cattolica). At De Gasperi’s own suggestion, the political leaders proposed entrusting the presidency of the Constituent Assembly to the Socialist Nenni; he, however, preferred to decline the offer in favor of Saragat, considering it to be more useful for the moment for his party to join the new republican government, in the hope of gaining a key ministry, as in fact happened. The Constituent Assembly set to work on 25 June, with the election of its president in the person of the Socialist Giuseppe Saragat, who was succeeded, not long afterwards, by the Communist Umberto Terracini.
As for an interim Head of State the Left, in particular the Socialists, had proposed the candidacy of Benedetto Croce. That was not looked on well by the Holy See: Croce in fact was the most representative spokesman in Italy for the idealist-immanent thinking against which the Catholic Church had been fighting bitterly for so long. Electing him as president of the Republic meant affirming in capital letters that Republican Italy was coming into being under the banner of the anti-Catholic liberal tradition, and that at the moment when the Italian people had given the majority of its votes to a party of Christian inspiration. Furthermore it would have meant disavowing the pacification between State and Church of 1929, against which Croce had fought in the Senate, and rejecting the basic principles sanctioned by the Lateran Pact. For his part De Gasperi resolutely opposed Croce’s candidacy (as also that of Nitti, proposed by the Communists), and he did so to gratify the Vatican and also because it had been proposed in order embarrass the Christian Democrats, and he proposed the names of Orlando and De Nicola. On 28 June the Constituent Assembly elected Enrico De Nicola as interim Head of State. He had been president of the Chamber of Deputies from 1920 to the 1924 and in 1943 the enlightened and prudent adviser of Vittorio Emanuele III during his brief sojourn in Salerno. In the end, after the insistence of Premier De Gasperi, he decided to accept the candidacy. It was accepted and voted by all the parties in the political spectrum, on condition, however, that his mandate would cease as soon as the time-span for interim office ended.
After the appointment of the interim Head of State, Prime Minister De Gasperi’s government resigned. President De Nicola gave the task of forming the new Cabinet to the outgoing Prime Minister, who was also the leader of the party that had won the recent political elections. So the second De Gasperi government came into being, backed by the three large mass parties, Christian Democrats, Socialist and Communists, and by the Republicans; the distribution of ministries did not this time, however, follow the criterion of “parity” – as in past Committee of National Liberation governments – but was made on the basis of the election vote obtained by the individual parties. It was, that is, the first political government of the post-war period. Apart from the office of Prime Minister De Gasperi took the Ministry of the Interior also and, pro tem (up to the signing of the peace treaty) the Foreign Office: afterward it was to go to Nenni. The Communists obtained four ministries, among them that of Grace and Justice (Gullo) and that of Finance (Scoccimarro); the Socialists had the same number of ministers. The remaining ministries were assigned to the DC (Gonella went to Public Education). Togliatti, as has been said, preferred to remain outside the government, despite De Gasperi’s wish, to run his party.
The first large problem the new government had to face was that of the post-war economic crisis: inflation, in fact, had begun soaring again, reaching a peak of 35% that year, while vital goods, starting with bread, were beginning to get scarce on the home market. The war aid granted by the Allies (UNRRA) began to diminish with the result that the Italian population was preparing for a very hard winter from every point of view. The parties of the Left, instead of helping the government in its desperate efforts to improve the economic situation, went out of their way to sharpen the political clash, repeating at rallies and in the party newspapers that the responsibility for the worst of the economic crisis lay with the free-market policy followed by the government which was starving the workers by keeping down wages (thus reducing domestic consumption) so as to facilitate the Confederation of Industry and large capital – and proposing to replace them with unworkable policies for a planned production on the Soviet model. Such policies as this, of “two-way traffic”, backed in particular in those months by the PCI – which was presenting itself, that is, as party of government and as the same time as party of struggle and of opposition – if it was of no help in getting the country out of the serious economic and social crisis, certainly helped Togliatti’s party to regain the leadership of the labour movement in Italy. By using this political tactic as a lever he managed in fact to give to his party – beaten and morally dejected by the recent electoral clash – a new dynamism and, by acting on two opposing fronts, hold the government to ransom, in important questions of foreign policy also.
In this period (in early January 1947) De Gasperi’s first visit to the United States took place. From the government of that rich and powerful country he hoped to obtain economic aid and backing in the controversial problems concerning the Peace Treaty: the visit was very useful from the political point of view and laid the bases for the future economic aid that the American government was shortly to lend Italy. Meanwhile, however, in Italy the political situation was quickly deteriorating: the “American journey” of the President of the Council contributed to exacerbating the clash between Communists and Christian Democrats. After the Republicans withdrew their support from the government (19 January), De Gasperi resigned and was again charged by the Head of State with forming a new administration. The third De Gasperi government was practically a re-serving of the previous, with more restricted political backing, but with some novelties in the distribution of the ministries.
The second De Gasperi government (13 July 1946- 
20 January 1947), backed by the three large mass parties and the Republicans

The second De Gasperi government (13 July 1946- 20 January 1947), backed by the three large mass parties and the Republicans

The composition of the new government was settled in the first two days of the month of February 1947: the DC were given six ministries, the main ones in fact, and the other six went to the Left (three to the Communists and three to the Socialists). The PCI had to give up the Finance Ministry – unified with the Treasury and entrusted to the Christian Democrat Campilli – while they continued to hold the Justice Ministry, entrusted again to Gullo. Into the new tripartite government came two Independents: Gasparotto at Defense and Sforza, coming from the world of diplomacy, at the Foreign Office. The Ministry of the Interior was instead entrusted to the Christian Democrat Scelba. In fact the latter – apart from giving the Foreign Office to an Independent – was the big novelty of the new Cabinet: it was, in fact De Gasperi’s intention to keep public order under control through this minister. He was worried, as were many Christian Democrats, by the fact that a large part of the State Police was not under the control of the public authorities but of branches of the left-wing parties. Scelba at that moment seemed the right man to bring back under the control and authority of the State all the sectors of public safety (too bound up with the overhang from ideological opposition), something that from the start of the following months he did with determination. The attitude of the Holy See – always punctually informed on complex political national events through the channel of the Nunciature to Italy – was of great distance during the government crisis. The diary of consultations kept by Civiltà Cattolica annotates on this matter: «As for the Italian situation», Father Martegani reported «the Holy Father said he wanted to remain out of it entirely, unless the interest of religion demanded otherwise, in which case he was willing to show the same intransigence displayed to President De Nicola on the keeping to the Lateran Pact and on other matters in the new Italian Constitution that interest the Church directly». This meant that the Holy See had no intention of entering the debate among the political parties on the questions of the formation of the new Cabinet; its interest at that moment was solely in guaranteeing that the new coalition respected the rights of the Church; it knew in fact that while the DC was in charge of the government it would have nothing to fear from the public powers.
The new government (the second tripartite and the third led by De Gasperi) swore loyalty to the interim Head of the Sate on the morning of 2 February, while the presentation of the government’s program to the Constituent Assembly for a vote of confidence was deferred till after the election of the new president of the Assembly, which occurred on 8 February in the person of Umberto Terracini. Immediately afterwards, Prime Minister De Gasperi presented the outline of the new government’s program to the Assembly and insisted on Italy’s need to sign the Peace Treaty, postponing till later, when the normalization of international relations would permit, the question of reviewing its more punitive clauses. The Treaty, after more than a few institutional meanders, was signed in Paris for Italy by Ambassador Meli Lupi di Soragna, on 10 February, as planned, while a ten-minutes silence was held throughout the country in protest. On 2 February, confidence in the third De Gasperi administration was voted almost in a whisper. It was a short administration; it was considered by historians and political observers as a simple government of transition, even if not in the minds of those who backed it. It lasted only three months (from 2 February to 13 May 1947): but in that brief lapse of time momentous events occurred in the politics of Italy and of the world that were strongly to influence the destiny of Europe, and not only Europe, for almost fifty years. It was in this period in fact that the international crisis that had been simmering for some time suddenly flared and the politico-strategic clash between the United States and the Soviet Union became fully evident: now began the period of the “Cold War” between the two superpowers.

The necessary constitutional compromise
The provisional draft of the Constitution prepared by the “Commission of 75” and afterward revised by the “Committee of 18” was brought before the Constituent Assembly for discussion and approval on 4 March 1947. President Terracini set out the agenda as follows: general discussion of the structure of the constitutional Charter; scrutiny of the ten headings of which it was composed (four of the first part concerning the «rights and duties of citizens», and six in the second regarding the «ordinance of the Republic»); finally, examination of the individual clauses. The general discussion concluded on 12 March with a speech by the chairman of the “Commission of 75”, the Honorable Ruini, while that on the headings, begun on the 13th, finished on 21 March. In the arduous debate the more able spokesmen of the political forces made their mark: both the men of the liberal old guard, and the new leaders of the so-called “mass parties”, the more gifted jurists and intellectuals present in the Constituent Assembly: among others, Calamandrei, Mortati, Croce, Marchesi, La Pira. After that debate went on to scrutiny and approbation of the individuals clauses. This phase began on 22 March and ended, after the long summer break (from 22 July to 10 September), on 22 December, when the definitive text was voted, and came into force on 1 January 1948.
Two somewhat contrasting tendencies took shape in the Constituent Assembly about the model of the Constitution to be adopted: the representatives of the old pre-Fascist governing class proposed a type of “short” Constitution, on the model of the Albertine Statute, that aligned itself with the old institutions of the liberal tradition, as if Fascism, the war and the freedom struggle, had been simple events, or almost insignificant parentheses, in a recent past that was in some way to be repressed and forgotten. Instead the representatives of the big mass parties that had fought the Resistance and who were at that moment in charge of the country, proposed a type of “long” Constitution, that was in some way also a break with the country’s institutional past and which was to include the great ideals of freedom which had been the reason for fighting the dictatorships, and the basic principles of their political vision. It was thus that the Catholics brought into the new constitutional Charter their sensitivity to human rights, to safeguarding the family and to other intermediary organisms at the institutional level (local autonomies and administrative decentralization), while the parties of the Left brought their sensitivity to the problems of the world of work and of the development of civilian society; they, too, were the most convinced supports of the model of “parliamentary democracy” with a system of two chambers on a par. On this matter the Christian Democrats worked to moderate the excessive “parliamentarism” of the Left and then to forestall the danger of any form of Jacobinism in the Assembly; the Vatican instead would have preferred the adoption of a form of government that would confer more power on the President or on the head of the government so as to assure more stability to the government of the country.
Father Martegani, at that time editor of Civiltà Cattolica, to whom the Pope had spoken about the delicate question, gives us precise, if compressed, information on the desiderata of the Holy See as regards the Constitution: « The Holy Father had said that the Honorable De Nicola had had assurances from the parties mainly on three points, by which the official audience [that is of the Head of State by Pius XII, on 31 July 31 1946], which turned out very cordial and pleasant, had been conditioned: they were the keeping of the Lateran Pact, the two-chamber system and freedom of the judiciary. The Honorable De Nicola had also expressed the desire that all the bishops renew the oath of loyalty to him, presented already to the King of Italy… As for the future Constitution the Holy Father’s wish is that, apart from respect for the Lateran Pact, there be nothing in the new Statute that conflicts with those Pacts; as for the general declarations, simple references would be enough, albeit it would have been better if the principles of the Concordat had been given there in full» (archive of Civiltà Cattolica). For the Holy See it was, in fact, of vital importance for the future of the Church in Italy not only that the Concordat be included in the new constitutional Charter, but that the latter, in matters that touched on the religious and moral life of the person and of the family, not move away from Christian principles. It therefore did everything in those first months of life of the Constituent to make the Catholic deputies aware of its point of view on questions of religious interest. The Christian Democrat leaders, on their part, wanted there to be full agreement on these matters between the line that the party would defend in the Assembly and the official line of the Holy See: indeed De Gasperi thought it wise that the Christian Democratic deputies to the Constituent Assembly be helped in their work by a theologian and a Canon Lawyer, without them, however, having any official position. In fact a rupture on such matters between the Christian Democrats and the Holy See at that moment would have been grave especially for the former: it would have frustrated its patient works of bringing the Catholic world together in the ranks of the DC, at the same time exposing the party to open abjuration or mistrust by the Vatican hierarchies. And the Christian Democratic leaders didn’t want that at all.
In early October 1946 Pius XII gave the Jesuits of Civiltà Cattolica the task of helping the Holy See in formulating and laying out the Catholic point of view on the subjects of moral and religious interest with which the Constituent Assembly would deal. In particular they were to advise on what it was possible to ask the secular authority in matters of common interest, in full respect of the rights of the Church and of international regulations. For the whole duration of the deliberations of the Assembly the Holy See was very concerned to make Catholic deputies «aware» of its point of view, and not only on subjects of religious interest. It should be remembered, however, that there were questions – not many in actual fact – on which there was a difference of outlook between the Holy See and the Catholics in the Assembly, and others on which there was no shared purpose among the Christian Democrats there. It is a fact, however, that the contribution made by the Vatican hierarchies (through the Catholics in the Assembly) to the work of drafting the new constitutional Charter of the Republic was notable and sometimes also valuable; often it contributed to moderating and softening, on some important questions of social order, the “radical tone” that the political forces of Right or Left aimed to give them.
For long months the constitutional deliberations were pushed ahead by the political forces – even if with some inevitable friction that grew with the passage of time – with a notable sense of responsibility and with great determination. The most active phase of the work coincided with the so-called period of “forced cohabitation” among the parties of the “triarchy”, in power, even if with various fortunes, from June of 1946 up to May of 1947: it was in that period, in fact, that the more important and contentious parts of the constitutional text were discussed, those, that is, of a more ideological and programmatic character. The type of Constitution that was in the end approved was much shaped by this «constituent compromise» among political forces as different as were the Christian Democrats of De Gasperi and the Communist Party of Togliatti. But the synthesis that was wisely worked out, between such different traditions and ideologies, is praiseworthy and makes the Italian Constitution one of the most open and advanced of those promulgated in those years. The presence in it of «preceptive norms» and of «programmatic norms» marked the dividing point between what had to be done immediately and what instead the political action of the government should address in the future.
 Ambassador Antonio Meli Lupi di Soragna signing the Peace Treaty for Italy in Paris, 10 February 1947

Ambassador Antonio Meli Lupi di Soragna signing the Peace Treaty for Italy in Paris, 10 February 1947

Naturally this sort of Constitution was much criticized, already in the Assembly, above all by the parties that were not a part of the “triarchy”, both on the Right and on the Left, which denounced it as a compromise among parties and among classes. The Liberals, apart from criticizing the type of Constitution adopted by the Assembly, considered the inclusion of «programmatic norms», that is of precepts of a political character, useless in that – to use the words of Vittorio Emanuele Orlando – the founding Charter of a State should not deal with the future, but only with the present. They then criticized the «openly ideological» character of the new Constitution, its avowed and blatant «anti-Fascism», whereas a simply «non-Fascist» text would have been preferable, one more technical and less doctrinaire. The answer that Togliatti made in the Constituent Assembly to the Liberals’ objections was very strong. The starting point, the Communist leader said, was awareness of the bankruptcy, on the historical and social planes, of the liberal ruling class which had been incapable of opposing the advent of Fascism and the national catastrophe that resulted. For that very reason – he continued – it was necessary to create a constitutional Charter that gave guarantees for the future, so as «what had happened once could not repeat itself». Therefore it had been decided to create «not a non-Fascist, but an anti-Fascist Constitution». In answer then to the accusation, levelled from several quarters, that the Constitution was the outcome of a compromise among parties, he said that the intention was that of creating «unity» among the moral demands most represented in the country, and that was why they had striven to «identify what might be common ground on which different ideological currents and policies could come together»; and this had been found, he concluded, in the «human and social solidarity» professed by the Left and by the forces inspired by Christianity.
The most hard fought and laborious phase of the Assembly’s work was debate and approval of the single articles: here in fact the political forces, in particular those of the “tripartite” group, made all the weight of their political influence be felt, striving, however, not to nullify the work done by the Assembly up to that moment. The so-called constituent compromise, aimed at the start at active collaboration among the larger political and moral forces of the country, on the basis of which the work of those members of the Assembly entrusted with drafting the founding Charter of the State had begun, and in good measure continued, was in that phase severely tested. If it did not come to a direct clash or to a break among the political forces it was also due to the realism and farsightedness of the more prominent political leaders, more interested in keeping up relations of collaboration and agreement with their political counterparts than insisting on principles dear to their own ideological tradition.


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