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Alcide De Gasperi's Humanistic Vision of the European Union
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-07-12 09:31:52
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          “Faith sustains us; and optimism, where a great political and human ideal such as
            European unification is to be attained, is a constructive virtue.”

                                                                                                             --Alcide De Gasperi
                                                                                                                     (Achen, 1952)

The words above encapsulate the European spirit of Alcide De Gasperi. Most historians and scholars consider the statesmen Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer and Alcide De Gasperi the four most significant visionary founding fathers of the European Union. Sadly, some sixty years later, one detects on the political horizon of the current EU (now composed of 27 nations as compared to the 6 original founders sixty years ago) some unimpressive uninspiring political midgets half clowns and half villains who far from being competent and able to confront the present EU economic-political crisis and lead the people of the United Europe back to the original vision of its founding fathers, may be presiding over its dissolution. One senses an ominous nostalgia for the good old ways of rabid xenophobic nationalism of some seventy years ago.

Indeed, those who forget their history are bound to repeat it, and perhaps it is high time to recall once again the vision and inheritance of those legendary founding fathers. I’d like to dwell on one in particular: Alcide De Gasperi, the statesman who represented Italy at the founding of the Union in the early 50s, informing and nurturing the spirit that forged European integration, the very opposite of the present prime minister who is a moral and political embarrassment. 

De Gasperi was born in Trentino, an Italian-speaking region that formed part of the Austro-Hungarian empire before the First World War. In 1911 he was elected to represent Trentino in the Vienna parliament. In so doing, he represented a minority within a vast multinational
and multicultural grouping of nations within the Austro-Hungarian empire. After the First World War, he once more became a member of parliament, this time the Italian one, Trentino having become part of Italy. Like Schuman, De Gasperi came from a border region that experienced particularly acute suffering during the wars in Europe. This experience marked him for life, and  helped him to form the conviction that: “the lesson that all Europeans can learn from their tumultuous past is that the future will not be built through force, nor through desire to conquer, but by the patient application of the democratic method, the constructive spirit of agreement, and by respect for freedom. (Speech on the award of the Charlemagne prize, 24 September 1952, Aix-la-Chapelle).

To understand what made De Gasperi tick one must grasp that his commitment to Europe was also rooted in his deep faith and guiding principles. As a committed Christian, he opposed all forms of totalitarianism. As Chairman of the parliamentary group of the Italian People's Party, he opposed the rise of the fascist party. In 1927 he was imprisoned for his participation in the Aventin movement. Sentenced to four years in jail, he was released after sixteen months when the Church intervened, but was then forced to withdraw from political life for fifteen years, and worked as a junior employee in the Vatican library. But from 1943 he was to occupy various ministerial positions, and continued to oppose the powerful Italian Communist Party.

De Gasperi responded immediately to Schuman's call for an integrated Europe, and worked closely with the latter and with Konrad Adenauer and Albert Schuman. After the allies entered Rome in June 1944, as the unchallenged leader of the Christian Democrats he became Minister for Foreign Affairs and later the first Prime Minister of the new Italian Republic. While Italy was still at war, he resumed diplomatic relations with many countries. In 1945, De Gasperi was given the task of organizing a government of national unity. The head of several governments between 1945 and 1953, he chose, despite the strong influence of the Communist Party, to take Italy into the Atlantic Alliance, to participate in the Marshall Plan and, from 1949, to join NATO. He enabled Italy to regain its rightful role and place. For De Gasperi, gaining a firm foothold in the Western camp and European integration were two parallel paths. Military alliances had to respond to the needs of the post-war period, the Soviet threat and the essential redefinition of power relations. European integration was something much worthier and much more noble, that would lead to a community of peace and ideals: “we are aware that we must save ourselves, that we must save the heritage of our common civilization and secular experience. Because while it is true that the Atlantic Pact covers a large part of the world, it is equally true that in this world, Europe has within it the most ancient sources and the highest traditions of civilization” (Ibid.).

As far as his vision of a united Europe, his approach was simple. The ultimate objective was peace - peace within Europe. Europe had to get rid of, once and for all, of the seeds of conflict and disintegration that existed within her: “it is essential for Europe to defend herself against a disastrous heritage of civil wars - the cycle of attack and counter-attack, of a desire for dominance, a greed for wealth and space, of anarchy and tyranny that has been the legacy of our history, otherwise so glorious. What hope can we offer to the younger generations in the aftermath of the Second World War? An absolute ethical vision of the nation with its trail of conflicts and demands or, rather, a quest for a higher expression and a wider fraternal solidarity?

What path must we take in order to maintain that which is noble and human in national strengths, whilst coordinating them in the search for a supranational civilization that can balance them, represent them and make them part of an unstoppable tide of progress? We can achieve this only by imbuing national strengths with the common ideals of our history and by allowing them to operate in the sphere of the variety of magnificent experience of common European civilization. We can achieve this only by creating a meeting point where these experiences can come together so that we may take the best of them and thus create new ways of living together, inspired by the aim of greater liberty and greater social justice. It is on the basis of this association of national sovereignty, founded on democratic constitutional institutions, that these new ways can flourish.”(Ibid.).

De Gasperi was convinced of the existence of a desire for European unity, a unity that he saw as already present in people’s minds, but lacking in material expression: “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. (Speech to a round table organised by the Council of Europe in Rome, 13 October 1953). De Gasperi’s constant worry as regards achieving this unity was the ongoing institutional challenge of preserving national identities and avoiding the creation of a hierarchical relationship between the Member States. Herein lie the key and the secret to the success of the European project: “we must seek union only where it is necessary or, rather, where it is essential. By preserving the independence of all that forms the basis of the spiritual, cultural and political life of each nation, we safeguard the natural bases of our life together'. (Ibid.) The only way of ensuring balance in the system was through a built-in guarantee, i.e. by institutions responsible for jointly supervising shared resources. But these institutions must be energized with new life: “If we restrict ourselves to creating shared administrations, without a higher political will invigorated by a central body in which the wills of nations come together, are fully expressed and come alive in a higher framework, we risk the possibility that compared with the various national strengths, this European venture may seem cold and lifeless – it could even at times appear a superfluous and even oppressive extravagance, like the Holy Roman Empire at certain moments in its decline.’(speech to the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe, Strasbourg, 10 December 1951). A higher political authority was thus essential. It would bring “greater cohesion and increased responsibility” (Ibid.).

It is important to point out that the goal of the construction of Europe was never purely economic
, as some maintain. It was the product of a more overarching aspiration that, for De Gasperi and Schuman and Aidenauer, drew  on Christian teachings on fraternity, social questions and unity: “Christianity has an active and constant moral and social influence. It is expressed in the law and social action. Its respect for the free development of the human person and its love of tolerance and fraternity are reflected in the quest for social justice and international peace. But these principles cannot operate without peace. In peace the spirit of cooperation will truly flourish.”(Ibid.). Europe should develop, then, on the basis of these great principles: ‘the fundamental aim of European unity must be to preserve our democratic way of life and our traditions of civilization and freedom, and to strengthen our free national institutions” (Speech to the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe, Strasbourg, 16 September 1952).

De Gasperi’s message may be summed up in a few words: the objective of European integration must always be the search for peace, solidarity and fraternity among European peoples.  Alcide De Gasperi visionary message remains relevant today. He always believed that it was the Union’s destiny to grow: “this circle where six countries are already grouped together must remain open so that, as in nuclear attraction, other countries may join or come closer”. (Ibid.). Indeed, the motivations of the founding fathers were rooted in a higher order, independent of material and national interests. As De Gasperi put it: “to unite Europe, we may have to destroy more than we create: to discard a world of prejudice, a world of fear, a world of resentment. What it took to create a united Italy, where every town had learnt to hate its neighbour over long centuries of servitude! The same thing will be needed to create Europe.”(Ibid.)

De Gasperi drew from faith the motivation for a fierce defense of Christian values in the service
of freedom. As he expressed it: “Christianity is at work, perpetually at work, in its moral and social effects. It can be seen in law and in social action. Its respect for the free development of the human being, its love of tolerance and brotherhood are reflected in its work of distributive justice in social matters and in international peace. However, we cannot put such principles into practice without peace; it is in peace that the spirit of cooperation will gain its full impetus.”( September 1952 in Aachen). As an international statesman, he played a highly constructive role and he is credited with having had the insight to understand the role that could be played by parties with Catholic leanings. Christianity could be a cement of sort that could transcend the centripetal forces of cultural diversity.

The Atlantic Pact represented for De Gasperi not only a military-based defense alliance, but also an instrument of political and economic cooperation. In the political structure his pro-European vision had the crucial element which could lend Europe a close and organic unity. “It is necessary to overcome national interests as forms of social selfishness” stated De Gasperi. Indeed, his roots, his culture and his religious background were the raisons d’être for his particular sensitivity to supranational matters. He found the same religious background in two statesmen who, with him, laid the foundations for European unity: Schuman and Adenauer, both Catholics and activists in Christian Democrat parties. But De Gasperi probably had a more delicate role, taking on the function of mediator between the other two, who represented countries divided by almost a century of war. He shared with Adenauer a strong dislike of extreme nationalism, from either the right or the left. For both, the unification of Europe represented the principal foreign-policy objective: this was regarded as the only way to protect Western and Christian civilization against totalitarian forces and, at the same time, to give Europe a leading role in the world.

De Gasperi’s great merit was really that he acted courageously and positively to build, in addition to a common defence, a political Europe which would not replace the individual Member States, but would allow them to complement one another. According to De Gasperi’s vision, the Europe of the Six was only a beginning, a first step through which it was possible to explore new ways to enable a wider European union to be created. He was fully aware that this union should not remain isolated, but should have links with the rest of the world. The pro-European strategy advocated by De Gasperi met with unanimous and warm approval. De Gasperi offered us a testimony of faith in the powers of good and of peace. Indeed, the European Union will only find its cultural identity and its very soul when it manages to remember its origins as expressed by the vision of its founding fathers. The people are starving for such a vision. Neither economic prosperity nor soccer games will fill that vacuum.  

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James Woodbury2011-07-13 03:25:23
I had not known that De Gasperi was born in Trentino. It may help account in part for his undoubtedly Italian but also supra-Italian perspectives and openness to the idea of Europe, of which he was a founding father. On a somewhat different topic, one wonders if James Joyce,al-so a onetime resident of Trieste, derived his known interest in and approval of Vico from his friendship in Trieste with Italo Svevo?

Emanuel Paparella2011-07-13 15:37:28
Indeed James, you are quite right, “campanilismo” was alien to De Gasperi’s mind-set; the same can be said for Italo Svevo (Aron Schmitz was his real name) who was also born in Trieste under Austrian rule. Svevo met Joyce in Trieste in 1907 when Joyce was working for Berlitz and tutoring Svevo in English there. In fact it was Joyce (twenty years younger than Svevo) who got Svevo the first attention as an unappreciated writer. That Joyce knew Vico there is no doubt; he is clearly mentioned in Finnegan’s Wake, and several scholars have pointed out that the character of Bloom in Joyce Ulysess has quite a few of the psychological characteristics of Italo Svevo. Whether or not Svevo also knew Vico and transmitted that knowledge to Joyce, I do not know, but it is more than plausible. Thanks for the feedback.

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