In my previous post I wrote about the disturbing experience of visiting Vught Concentration Camp just outside ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands. Run by the SS, Vught served as a transit camp for Jews before they were transported east to the death camps.  But also incarcerated in the camp were large numbers of Resistance activists and fighters, many of whom were executed by firing squad at a woodland site just outside the camp.

On the morning I visited Vught the news was dominated by the first shots in the referendum campaign which will determine, in June, whether the UK remains a member of, or leaves, the European Union. Confronted at Vught by the stories of members of the resistance imprisoned or murdered there, I recalled that one of the overlooked origins of European integration emerged from within the wartime Resistance movement.Ventotene is a small island off the west coast of Italy between Rome and Naples. First used as a prison during the Roman Empire, Mussolini chose the island as an internment camp for Italian antifascists, many of whom were communist intellectuals. Among the wartime inmates on Ventotene were Ernesto Rossi, a professor of economics, and Altiero Spinelli, radical journalist, member of the Communist party and lifelong advocate of European federalism. Spinelli had been arrested for anti-fascist his dissident journalism in 1927 and sentenced to a total of 16 years in prison.

The fascist police file on Altiero Spinelli
The fascist police file on Altiero Spinelli

With a group of other prisoners, Rossi and Spinelli began to discuss the ideas of the American federalists and develop their vision of a post-war federation of European states which would prevent future military conflicts and the rise of totalitarian states.

Ernesto Rossi
Ernesto Rossi

In June 1941 the Ventotene Manifesto was finally agreed among the prisoners and, written on cigarette papers and concealed in the false bottom of a tin box, it was smuggled off the island. It was circulated clandestinely within the Resistance and adopted both as the programme of Movimento Federalista Europeo, founded by Spinelli after the island was liberated by the Americans, and at conference in Geneva on 20 May 1944 as the Manifesto of the European Resistance.

Confined on Ventotene island, between 1937-43
Confined on Ventotene island: a photograph made between 1937-43

The Ventotene Manifesto began with a critique of the totalitarian states which brought Europe to ruin, transforming nation-states into military powers whose aim was to dominate others seen as a threat. Totalitarianism had developed out of the ideology of nationalism, resulting in the loss of civil liberties and in political,   economic and military power being concentrated in a the hands of a narrow elite.

Ventotene ManifestoThe manifesto declared that ‘Germany’s defeat would not automatically lead to the reformation of Europe according to our ideal of civilisation.’ Both liberal democrats and the Communist parties would, for different reasons, be unsuited to the task of creating a truly liberated post-war society.

Moreover, ‘Should the struggle remain limited within the traditional national boundaries, it would be very difficult to avoid the old uncertainties’.  Federalists must seize the opportunity presented by postwar turmoil to argue for the establishment of a ‘European Federation’:

A free and united Europe is the necessary premise to the strengthening of modern civilisation, that has been temporarily halted the totalitarian era.

Ernesto Rossi, Altiero Spinelli and other authors of the Venotene Manifesto
Ernesto Rossi, Altiero Spinelli and other authors of the Venotene Manifesto

Three years later, in Geneva, the Draft Declaration of the European Resistance Movements began with this ringing assertion:

The peoples of Europe are united in their resistance to Nazi oppression. This common struggle has created amongst them a solidarity and unity of interests and aims which demonstrate their significance and value by the fact that the representatives of European resistance movements have come together to draft this declaration expressing their hopes and aspirations regarding the future of peace and civilization.

The declaration continued, ‘These aims cannot be achieved unless the different countries are willing to give up the dogma of the absolute sovereignty of the State and unite in a single federal organisation’, before setting out the benefits that accrue from the creation of a federal Europe:

European peace is the keystone in the arch of world peace. During the life time of one generation Europe has been twice the centre of a world conflict whose chief cause was the existence of thirty sovereign States in Europe. It is a most urgent task to end this international anarchy by creating a European Federal Union.

Only a Federal Union will enable the German people to join the European community without becoming a danger to other peoples.

Only a Federal Union will make it possible to solve the problem of drawing frontiers in districts with a mixed population. The minorities will thus cease to be the object of nationalistic jealousies and frontiers will be nothing but demarcation lines between administrative districts.

Only a Federal Union will be in a position to protect democratic institutions and so to prevent politically less developed countries becoming a danger to the international order.

Only a Federal Union will make possible the economic reconstruction of the Continent and the liquidation of monopolies and national self-sufficiency.

Reading these documents now makes clear the extent to which European federalism in the 1940s was a revolutionary and innovative political idea. The words seem utopian, yet it is also apparent how much of the federalists’ dream came about in the slow but steady progress of European integration in the decades after the war.

The Federal Union must be based upon a declaration of civil, political and economic rights which would guarantee democratic institutions and the free development of the human personality, and upon a declaration of the rights of minorities to have as much autonomy as is compatible with the integrity of the national States to which they belong.

The Federal Union must not interfere with the right of each of its member States to solve its special problems in conformity with its ethnic and cultural pattern. But in view of the failure of the League of Nations, the States must irrevocably surrender to the Federation their sovereign rights in the sphere of
defence, relations with powers outside the Union, international exchange and communications.

The Draft Declaration of the European Resistance asserts that the future Federal Union must possess these essential features, some of which we can recognise – or half-recognise – today:

(1) A government responsible not to the governments of the various member States but to the peoples, who must be under its direct jurisdiction in the spheres to which its powers extend.

(2) An army at the disposal of this government, no national armies being permitted.

(3) A Supreme Court acting as authority in interpreting the Constitution deciding cases of conflict between the member States or between the member States and the Union.

Altiero Spinelli pictured in the European Parliament
Altiero Spinelli pictured in the European Parliament

After the war, Rossi and Spinelli remained forthright advocates for the European Federalist Movement, and Spinelli became an important figure in the development of European integration, becoming an MEP in the first elections to the European Parliament in 1979. Once ensconced in Strasbourg he established informal meetings in the Crocodile restaurant to campaign for wide-ranging reforms in the Community institutions. The ‘Crocodile Club’ bloc of MEPs aimed to push the EEC towards democratic statehood, and their greatest achievement was the Draft Treaty establishing the European Union adopted by the European Parliament in February 1984 which paved the way for the creation of the Single Market in 1986 and the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.

Memorial plaque on the wall of the town hall in Ventotene
Memorial plaque on the wall of the town hall in Ventotene

Today many of the ideals expressed in the Ventotene Manifesto ideals and the Draft Declaration of the European Resistance are taken for granted: free movement across borders, respect for democracy and human rights, military cooperation and common policies on foreign affairs, judicial matters and so on.

In 2012, Neal Ascherson gave a lecture at the London Review of Books which was also published on the LRB website. In it, unusually for a British writer, he argued that historians of 20th century Europe have overlooked or forgotten this whole episode, which he calls the ‘Resistance Spring’. The European Resistance, he insisted, was an upsurge not just of defiance against fascist occupiers but of hope and idealism for the future:

It mobilised men and women in nations all over the continent. It produced programmes for social justice and change, at first strikingly similar in different countries. Its texture, or context, was national-patriotic, and for that reason it quite clearly belongs in the sequence of national upheavals which began with 1848 and culminated – for the moment – in 1989.

Indeed, while the technocratic model of the European Union derives from the wartime vision of men like Jean Monnet and Robert Schumann, the wartime resistance movements adopted a far more radical vision of a postwar federal Europe.  That vision originated in a document drawn up on the Italian island of Ventotene by three men, Altiero Spinelli, Ernesto Rossi  and  Eugenio Colorni, who had been interned on the island along with some 800 others opposed to Mussolini’s regime.

The consistent elements in Resistance thinking about the shape of postwar Europe were, first, that the prewar order in these nations – forms of liberal capitalism – had failed to defend democracy or national independence. Their collapse was partly due to the corruption, verging on treason, of the prewar elites; indeed, some of their members had collaborated with the Nazi occupiers. So liberation must involve sweeping institutional and social change.

The second element, common to Resistance programmes from Poland through Italy or Greece to France or the Netherlands, was that change would be achieved through state-directed, social welfare forms of democracy which were ‘socialistic’ but far from the Soviet model. There would be democracy with ivil liberties, steeply progressive taxation, a planned economy, public health insurance and widespread nationalisations of industry, finance and transport.

Ascherson’s Resistance Spring begins in about 1943 and to peters out by about 1948. By then, the Cold War was taking shape and forcing new allegiances. The Soviet Union directed Western Communists to end wartime solidarity and break with former allies in social democratic, liberal or Christian Democratic movements.

Instead, what emerged from the technocratic model of European integration that followed the initiative of the French government in the Schuman Plan of 1950 was a top-down Europe managed by international technocrats. The Resistance idea that ‘the people of Europe’ should play an active part or be consulted was not entertained. After all, Ascherson remarks quite rightly, a European people did not exist: ‘Maybe one day it would, making possible a true American-style federation based on democracy. But there was no point in waiting for that.’

It would be nice to think that the boys and girls in the forest were dreaming of a European economic community as they waited for the next parachute-drop of weapons. But they weren’t. They were fighting to liberate their countries. Old-fashioned patriotism drove them, the longing to free and then cleanse and rebuild their violated nations.

But perhaps the real reason why today those 1940s Resistance ideals seem so unrealistic lies in Ascherson’s observation that since 1989 two forms of social order have died in Europe: the Communist system of the Cold War era, but also the state-regulated, social democratic, welfare state order developed in the nations of Western Europe after 1945. ‘One of these deaths should gladden the soul’, he says. ‘But the second should trouble it.’

Could it be that if the European Union is to survive the multiple crises it presently faces – refugees and the possible collapse of Schengen free movement across borders, Greek debt, economic stasis, possible Brexit – European leaders might find it worthwhile to look at the Ventotene Manifesto and its objectives if they want to revive the dream of its founding fathers?

Sunny and peaceful: Ventotene
Sunny and peaceful: Ventotene today

See also


2 thoughts on “Visions of a federal Europe: Ventotene and the ‘Resistance Spring’

  1. There have been no major conflicts in western Europe since the formation of the EEC. The relaxation of a political border mentality has neutralised the poison of nationalism until very recently. With the rise of right-wing sensibilities is it any coincidence that in this country at least, the Humanities – crucially including the subject of History – have been sidelined, in the push to ‘raise standards in education’? How is it that children are taught the dangers of fascism in the 20th century, yet grow to adulthood following populist right-wing political leaders in our own time – or is modern history no longer taught in neo-liberal Britain?

    1. ‘Modern history is no longer taught in neo-liberal Britain’: when I in further education I taught a course in European Studies for adult students preparing to go to university. Some went on to study for degrees in European Studies, Modern Languages or Geography. At the time (in Liverpool) there were four European Studies degree courses to choose from. All have now gone. The same has happened nationally – and courses in languages and geography have seen major cutbacks in FE and HE. It’s like a pulling up the drawbridge mentality. The EU has been a great achievement, but I fear that its identification now with neoliberal economic policies and a remote decision-making process will mean that Britain votes to leave in June.

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