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from issue no. 08 - 2004

1954-2004: fifty years after the death of the statesman

De Gasperi and Europe


An interview with Sergio Romano. The background that De Gasperi brought to Europeanism came from his experience as a parliamentarian of the Hapsburg Empire. And that history, those political experiences became, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the coagulating element of the various Italian Europeanisms


by Paolo Mattei


Robert Schuman, De Gasperi and Konrad Adenauer

Robert Schuman, De Gasperi and Konrad Adenauer

Ambassador Sergio Romano has recently published Europe. History of an idea (Longanesi & C., Milano 2004). In it, Romano reinterprets the history of the Old Continent, drawing a geographical and cultural profile, looking at events from the fall of the Roman Empire to the process of integration begun at the end of the Second World War. In those first years of the aftermath of the Second World War the leading actor was Alcide De Gasperi, not only in the reconstruction of his own country prostrated by the war but also in the first steps in the process of European unification. They were steps that the Christian Democrat politician took along with other important figures in Italy and abroad. We talked with Sergio Romano about this important stage in the political work of De Gasperi, the last of his life.

You maintain that the De Gasperi’s experience as a parliamentarian in Vienna is a passage of prime importance for an understanding of his successive political work for Europe. It’s a historical perspective which is not often taken into account when dealing with the Europeanism of the statesman from Trent.
SERGIO ROMANO: The reason why we’ve missed the importance the Vienna Parliament had for the shaping of De Gasperi as politician and of his European commitment can probably be identified in the way which the Great War acted as “filter” for the understanding of that historical period. We perceived the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a sick and decadent Empire, police-ridden and authoritarian. We didn’t understand that within it there were considerable forces laboring to make a multi-ethnic system work, seeking to give a response to the problem of the different nationalities by creating the conditions for peaceful and civil coexistence among various religious and linguistic groups. De Gasperi as a parliamentarian in Vienna during the years in which the Diet of the Hapsburg Empire represented a great constellation of ethnic and national groups, went through that experience, he knew from within the Parliament that attempt to make a multi-ethnic Empire function. All of this was to be most useful to him subsequently when he worked for Europe.
The great multinational project of the Hapsburg empire failed definitively with the Great War…
ROMANO: Yes, but that does not cancel the fact that in the Parliament of Vienna – in which there were Hungarian, Galatian, Czech, Slovenian, Croatian, Romanian, Italian representatives and other peoples still – many important and interesting things were done to keep together that mosaic of nations. There, it was from that experience, - which we, I repeat, have forgotten, ignored, censored – that De Gasperi learned and took with him the ideas with which he was to work profitably afterwards.
Sergio Romano

Sergio Romano

De Gasperi found himself working for Europe with intellectuals of a human and cultural background profoundly different from his own, people like Einaudi, for instance.
ROMANO: The visions came from completely different moulds and cultural trends, that’s true. But this does not mean that they couldn’t converge on a common objective, or in any case go a long stretch of the way together. Something which did in fact happen. The advantage of De Gasperi’s Europeanism was, as I’ve attempted to explain, the European and democratic version of a multinational Empire of which he had had experience. Einaudi started out from other premises. He had seen of the crisis of the Risorgimento State and the failure of Italian nationalism. He, a liberal, an heir of the Risorgimento, was particularly aware of it. Between 1918 and 1920 he wrote some letters to the Corriere della Sera under the pseudonym “Junius” in which he shows his conviction that in order to create Europe there was need of a mesh of economic collaboration between the nations, set out in treaties that would, so to speak, “imprison” – in the most positive sense of the word – Europe in a true and proper federal structure.
Along with Einaudi, other illustrious Italian figures such as Altiero Spinelli, Ernesto Rossi, Carlo Sforza, gave life to the debate on Europe. These intellectuals also had origins and training very different from that of De Gasperi.
ROMANO: Altiero Spinelli, who became a communist at the end of the First World War, believed that he would find in Communism an answer to the nationalism of the European states. He was convinced that the Communist Party would put an end to the disputes among nationalist states. Then, when he realized that Communism had become the ideology of a super-nationalistic state like the USSR, he was very quickly disappointed, and from there began to work out a different form of internationalism which, to be precise, was Europeanism. That change of perspective was due to Spinelli’s acquaintance with a left-wing intellectual of liberal origins, a Whig who had studied with Einaudi, Ernesto Rossi, in fact. Both of them drafted the “Manifesto of Ventotene” – from the name of the Pontine island where they were confined together -, which was read and approved by Einaudi. One sees therefore that the cultural origins of these intellectuals were heterogeneous; not merely a distance in terms of the personality of De Gasperi. He came from the Mazzini-Republican movement, had believed, between 1919 and 1920, that the League of Nations represented a response to the problems bequeathed by the war, and therefore thought of a form of Europeanism modeled on an updated and better thought-out version of the League of Nations … Thus, even though they were people of profoundly dissimilar personal experience and cultural provenance they were at the same time men of great practicality, capable of adapting their political project to the circumstances. And above all they were sufficiently intelligent to understand that when you want to achieve a great idea, you must do so with allies, even those distant in political and cultural background, going with them along the necessary stretch of road. They worked together and they worked very well. Einaudi, Sforza and De Gasperi were the faces of an Italian Europeanism which is not univocal, which does not have one sole characteristic.
What was the European project of De Gasperi?
ROMANO: De Gasperi did not produce an intellectual, theoretical model of Europeanism. When, in the first years after the Second World War, he was to be the leading figure in concrete initiatives aimed at giving body to the first European institutions, he was to put his rich political experience in the service of those projects, as I said. Which has its antecedents in Trento and Vienna. In Trento, between 1905 and 1915, he took on the editorship of the newspaper Il Trentino, founded the local Popular Party, set up cooperatives and institutes of credit that improved the life conditions of the peasants, was elected municipal councilor… In Vienna he became a parliamentarian and acquainted with the Christian-Social ideas of the burgomaster Karl Lueger, much admired by him. Then, after the Great War, he joined the Popular Party and was elected to the Italian parliament … it’s a story we know, but that very story and those political experiences were what De Gasperi brought to Europeanism. And which were to become, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the coagulating element of the various Italian Europeanisms.
De Gasperi speaking at the peace conference in Paris in 1946

De Gasperi speaking at the peace conference in Paris in 1946

The “necessity of Europe” that De Gasperi felt, from where did that derive?
ROMANO: After the Second World War he developed the conviction that no European state was any longer in a position to deal with the problems of reconstruction and the future of the Old Continent. It was at that moment that the political practicality of the statesman from Trento took on a European perspective. A perspective that became particularly efficacious when he met two figures who, with him, become the real European “directoire” after the end of the conflict: Robert Schumann and Konrad Adenauer. The first from Lorraine, the second from the Rhine. All three were Catholics and Christian Democrats, German speaking, coming from border areas in which nationalisms are often tempered by the needs and the virtues of living together.
What features did the three politicians have in common?
ROMANO: Linguistic identity, German, was without doubt important. But that all three of them belonged to a Christian party was fundamental. We must not forget, in this regard, that modern Germany, the Germany of the nineteenth century, after the unification, is the country that gave life to two parties fundamental to the history of Europe: the Socialist Party and the Christian Party. The Socialist Party – in Germany it was called the Social Democrat Party – and the Christian Party – Zentrumspartei, or the Party of the Center – are two models that Germany was to export to all the European countries. Germany was the place in which the two most important political formations in the history of Europe originated, before and after the end of the totalitarianisms. Therefore, for an Italian Catholic like De Gasperi, a member of the Christian Democrats, a relationship with an exponent of the German Zentrum, – of which the modern CDU is nothing but the heir – was a relationship of “kinship”, there was strong solidarity, I’d say there was “consanguinity”. The same was true for Schuman: the “Christians in politics” in France were also children of the Zentrum. These three statesmen, meeting each other, could take for granted knowledge, experiences, values that each one of them had interiorized and about which it wasn’t even necessary to exchange ideas, because each of them knew perfectly what the ideas of the others were.
The work of De Gasperi, then, in a European sense became concrete immediately after the end of the Second World War.
ROMANO: Yes. De Gasperi was seeking an ubi consistam, something around which he could draw up the design for European unity. In the first instance the occasion seemed offered by the Council of Europe. Promoted at a large congress in the Hague in 1948, the Council of Europe was an English invention and, for a certain period, was the object of many hopes. Then De Gasperi was forced to realize that that institution was understood by the English as a large club in which Great Britain would have the leading role. A role through which it would certainly have censored initiatives of a unitary and federal type.
De Gasperi at the constitutent Assembly in 1946

De Gasperi at the constitutent Assembly in 1946

At that point came the French initiatives…
ROMANO: Yes, and it was in fact the French initiatives which “struck the spark”, which set in motion the machinery in which De Gasperi “found himself”, that is the possibility of exercising a determining role. The first great French initiative was headed by Jean Monnet, a “technocrat” capable of organizing multilateral economic cooperation. Monnet, realizing that with the reconstruction of German industry under the Marshall Plan, Germany and France would contest the possession of the coal from the Ruhr, laid a concrete proposal on the table: the European Community of Coal and Steel, which was signed in 1951 by six States and of which De Gasperi became president three years later. Naturally England did not join. Then historical circumstances, which are very important in determining political programs, gave the go ahead to the second important French initiative. When the question of the rearming of Germany was posed, during the Cold War, France had the great merit of proposing the solution to the problem with European criteria, in a European perspective: I am speaking of the European Community of Defense, the CED. The European armies would be integrated and no contingent larger than a battalion would be exclusively national. De Gasperi truly saw the solution to many problems in this idea. He saw the moment to step on the gas.
In what sense?
ROMANO: Perhaps we haven’t sufficiently taken account of the passion with which De Gasperi devoted himself to the project in the last three years of his life, a project which became “his” project. It was he who had a specific article inserted in the Treaty that founded the CED, which provided for the transformation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the European Community of Defense into a Constituent Assembly. Keep in mind that De Gasperi’s project for the transformation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the CED into a constituting body had behind it a formidable unitary instrument: the European Army. The making of the constitution could begin with the creation of the European Army already in place! Had things gone according to the wishes of De Gasperi, this would have meant starting from a very advanced stage in the process of the federalization of Europe. Starting out from that moment many things that we still consider difficult today would have been possible …
Things didn’t go according to De Gasperi’s wishes …
ROMANO: Unfortunately no, because the French, who had conceived the project, buried it in 1954 in the National Assembly by voting against ratification. French policy toward Europe has always been characterized by oscillation between European and nationalist feeling: European if the president is Liberal or Socialist; nationalist if the president is Gaullist. Let’s not forget, however, that Italy also failed to ratify the treaty setting up the CED. The last letters of De Gasperi, written shortly before he died from the small farm in the Trento area to where he had retired in 1954, are heartfelt letters in which he exhorts his companions in Rome and the government to speed up the process of ratification. They are anguished letters in which one sees the premonition of a chance missed. Perhaps, who knows, had Italy ratified before France, things might have gone differently…


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