Great European of the Week: Alcide De Gasperi

Responsible for most of Italy’s post-WWII reconstruction, Alcide De Gasperi is also considered a forerunner in the process of European integration. Emanuele Barbarossa presents the charismatic figure of this Italian politician on the 60th anniversary of his death.

Alcide de GasperiAlcide De Gasperi, Italy’s first post-war prime minister, often described as an austere man, was born on 3 April 1881 in Pieve Tesino, near Trento, Italy. Situated in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time, his region saw him politically active before his university years in Vienna, where he became deputy in the Austrian Parliament (1911). As a member of the party Unione Politica Popolare del Trentino, he represented his small community among the large and diverse amalgam of cultures found within the empire. His journey towards a more global and multinational vision of political life had just begun.

A conservative Catholic, De Gasperi’s sympathy for the Christian ideology is testified, among others, by his early work in relation to the newspapers La Voce Cattolica, in 1905, and Il Trentino, the year after. As editor, he constantly expressed his support for cultural autonomy for his region, against the attempts of Germanisation by radical nationalists of Tyrol (he would successfully lead Trentino Alto-Adige/South-Tyrol towards autonomy in 1946 via the Gruber-De Gasperi Agreement). Although De Gasperi remained neutral during WWI, he supported the Vatican’s efforts to end the conflict.

Upon annexation of the Trentino region to Italy, De Gasperi obtained Italian citizenship, and in 1919 he co-founded the Italian People’s Party (Partito Popolare Italiano – PPI), inspired by Catholic social teaching. The party split a few years after Mussolini had come to power and the Duce‘s leadership resulted in episodes of violence and intimidation against PPI. De Gasperi was arrested in 1927 with the accusation of anti-fascist activities, and was released only through the intervention of the Catholic Church, which gave him asylum until the collapse of fascism. In January 1943, he drafted the manifesto of the Christian Democratic Party, which he secretly founded following the PPI’s ideology.

At the end of WWII he served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and then as Prime Minister in eight consecutive governments (1945-1953), setting a record of political longevity in the history of Italian democracy. During the “De Gasperi era”, Italy adopted a republican Constitution (1946) and signed a Peace Treaty (1947). However, the Cold War would soon cast a shadow over Europe. Under the threat of an increasingly influential Soviet Union, De Gasperi managed to create closer ties with the West. He owed most of the support received from the US to his ability of constructing an anti-communist barrier without undermining the new-born democratic system. While being committed to boost the economy through the Marshall Plan, the prominent politician also secured his country’s membership to NATO.

From the inception of the European project, Alcide De Gasperi promoted a peaceful and united Europe, convinced that the future should be built on compromise, respect for freedom, and the patient application of the democratic method. A strong supporter of the Schumann Plan, in the last years of his career he often met with its initiator and the former German Prime Minister Konrad Adenauer, in order to create a common coal and steel market between the six founding states. The European Coal and Steel Community, founded in 1951, was soon recognised as a peace initiative, and De Gasperi took part in all its phases, culminating in his election as President of the Assembly in May 1953. In addition to these achievements, he helped organise the Council of Europe and sustained the idea of a common European defence policy.

Although the signature of the Treaties of Rome took place three years after his death (1957), De Gasperi’s inspiring force behind the construction of the European Economic Community was extensively acknowledged. In his vision of a united Europe, states would not be replaced; rather, they would complement each other and cooperate to heal the wounds of the war. In his own words:

“Europe will exist, and none of the glory and happiness of each nation will be lost. It is precisely in a wider society, in a more powerful harmony, that the individual can assert himself and fully express his own genius” [1].


[1] From a speech to a roundtable organised by the Council of Europe in Rome, 13 October 1953.

Image courtesy of Biografieonline.it, released under Creative Commons.

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