Altiero Spinelli

Italian political theorist Altiero Spinelli (1907–1986) is considered a key founding father of the European Union. A witness to two massive wars involving all of Europe, Spinelli believed that if the nations of Europe answered to the same federal government, they would no longer go to war with each other. Jailed in his youth for protesting Italy's fascist government, he co-authored a draft manifesto for the integration of Europe and dedicated himself to the cause of unification, living to participate in the first decade of the European parliament.

Ayouthful witness to the rise of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, Altiero Spinelli joined his country's Communist Party as a teenager as a way to oppose Mussolini's oppressive nationalist government. He was imprisoned for criticizing the government at age 20, spending the next 16 years as a political prisoner. During the first decade of his imprisonment, he read voraciously, furthering his political education and his knowledge of history. Spinelli became disillusioned with communism with the rise of Stalin in Russia, a bloody reign of terror, and instead became enamored of federalism, the unification of member states under one government. During the latter part of his internment, on an island off the coast of Italy, he and a fellow prisoner authored a proposal outlining such a unified Europe. This draft, written on cigarette papers, was hidden in a false-bottomed tin canister and smuggled out of the prison, where it was copied and distributed among resistance groups around war-torn Europe. Released from custody in 1943, Spinelli became a professor, political theorist, and memoirist as well as an influential politician.

Altiero Spinelli

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Grew up amid Political Turmoil

Spinelli was born in Rome, Italy, on August 31, 1907. His father, a vice consul for the Italian government, soon moved the family to South America, returning to Rome in 1912, the same year Spinelli entered elementary school. By high school, the teen was actively interested in politics, partly because of his father's influence, but mostly because of the deteriorating political situation in Italy. He was drawn to a socialist platform arguing that a freely elected government should be responsible for the basic well-being of all its citizens. In contrast, the fascists taking over his country favored a nationalist view, saying that citizens should be loyal to the state's ideology, with no disagreement. Fascism required a dictator, aided by devoted loyalists; those disagreeing were imprisoned or killed.

Spinelli and other socialists were appalled at the direction their country was taking, believing that things could only get worse under Mussolini. In 1924, after graduating from high school, the 17-year-old enrolled in law school at the University of Rome. He immediately joined a communist student group, attracted to their active opposition to Mussolini, now well on his way to becoming dictator. Spinelli became one of the Communist Party's area leaders, in the process, starting his career as a journalist by producing articles radically opposing Mussolini's National Fascist Party.

Known as “Il duce” (“the leader” ), Mussolini was not an easy target. He headed the OVRA, a secret police force dedicated to ferreting out opposition by imprisoning and killing those who opposed his totalitarian fascist agenda. By 1925, Mussolini had dropped any pretense of democracy and established himself as a dictator, a position he would hold until his death in 1943. Spinelli's outspokenness in 1927 led to his arrest, and he was tried and sentenced by a government tribunal. He would spend the next 16 years in a series of Italian prisons, concluding his confinement on the prison island of Ventotene, together with hundreds of other political dissidents.

Used Years in Prison to Study Federalism

Spinelli put his years of confinement to good use, studying history and politics as well as reading what news he was allowed to access. He studied the classics of federalist literature, including writings by founding American thinkers such as Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. He also studied anarchist philosophy, which emphasizes individual rights, and arguments for world government as a remedy for the evils of war. Spinelli cared deeply about freedom and democracy, which, ironically, were some of the founding tenets of communism. However, communism under Josef Stalin, Communist Party leader of the Soviet Union since 1929, had taken a form similar to that in Italy, with secret police, bloody purges, and the oppression of ordinary citizens. Spinelli also considered the weaknesses of the supposedly “good” governments of Europe, nation-states in which misunderstandings led to conflicts which caused war and suffering for themselves and their allies.

Through his studies, Spinelli came to believe that the best remedy against war was structured cooperation: the individual nations of Europe should answer to one federal government. He and fellow prisoner Ernesto Rossi, a professor, put their heads together to sketch out what a united, federal Europe would look like. Housed at that point on the prison island of Ventotene, off the coast of Italy, they called the document that resulted The Ventotene Manifesto. Neither man suspected at the time that it would provide the basic framework for the modern European Union.

Meanwhile, outside Spinelli's prison cell, World War II raged on, instigated by Nazi Germany. Italy was an ally of Germany and thus was a target of the allied forces led by the United States and Great Britain. Spinelli and Rossi viewed this conflict, the second major conflagration occurring in their lifetimes, as ample evidence for their argument. They thought that the countries of Europe, after a hoped-for conclusion to the war, would be open to the idea of unification and less invested in their separate national identities. After all, nations and their boundaries were fluid: they formed, were dissolved, and were otherwise redrawn many times over the centuries. It might be the time for those in Europe to be dissolved.

Huddled together, Spinelli and Rossi composed their manifesto, writing the text on a series of cigarette papers and hiding it from inquisitive guards in a tin canister with a false bottom. When it was complete, they found a way to smuggle the canister and its secret contents outside the prison, where it was delivered to their friends Eugenio Colomi and Ursula Hirschmann on the mainland. Colomi and Hirschmann transcribed the manifesto, typing its text on regular paper and made copies for distribution to resistance groups around Europe. The brave fighters in these groups, while risking their lives to undermine their Nazi occupiers at every possible turn, wondered what they would be facing in a post-war world.

Helped Found European Federalist Movement

With the invasion of southern Italy by Allied forces in 1943, Spinelli was released from his long captivity. He, Rossi and several others now convened in Milan, meeting in secret and forming the European Federalist Movement (Movimento Federalista Europeo). They declared their intention, following the war, to put an end to extreme nationalism by developing a scheme in which European nations would voluntarily link themselves so tightly together that it would be in their best interest to cooperate. World War II was still ongoing, however, and Spinelli made his way to Switzerland for the duration.

Active in the European Federalist Movement after the war, Spinelli quickly became disillusioned; despite the shallow and symbolic actions of the European nations, they retained their status as independent countries. He continued to push the cause of European federalism forward, however, working within Italy's Socialist Party. He became a key advisor to Italian Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi during the formation of the European Defense Community in 1952. Involving West Germany, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, this plan did not come to fruition when France backed out. However, Spinelli's ideas were carried forward to other initiatives.

When Spinelli rejoined the Italian Communist Party in the late 1960s, it had disassociated itself with the Soviet model and now closely honed to his beliefs. The party was glad to have a hero and luminary within its ranks, and it supported his membership in the European College of Commissioners in 1970, followed by the democratically elected European Parliament in 1976. In each of these positions, Spinelli's agenda remained unchanged: he would continue to advocate for the integration of Europe.

Created Legacy as a Passionate Strategist

The European Parliament proved Spinelli with a forum for promoting an integrated Europe. He wrote and argued passionately for the cause while realizing that the governments of Europe would not willingly lessen their power and blend into a unified whole. On July 9, 1980, he gathered together eight like-minded members of parliament, carefully drawn from various political groups, for a meeting at a Strasbourg restaurant called the Crocodile. This “Crocodile Club” continued to meet and grew in size and determination, within a year including almost half the parliament. They put forth a motion to set up a committee to write a proposal for a new treaty among the nations, one Spinelli hoped would lead to authorization of the European Parliament as a constituent assembly capable of drafting a federal constitution which could then be ratified. Although the effort was undermined, Spinelli's ideas nonetheless gained ground.

Spinelli knew his time was winding up, and that his final treatise on the subject, The Strategy for Achieving European Union, was his best argument for a reality he would probably not live to see. The treaty he fought for, the Draft Treaty Establishing the European Union, was accepted by the European Parliament on February 14, 1984, with a resounding majority. Various governments succeeded in undermining the treaty over the course of summit meetings, but it marked another success in implementing his goal. Spinelli re-launched a new initiative in the spring of 1986, but he died a few days later, on May 23, in a clinic in Rome at age 79.

Even decades after his death Spinelli's vision of a truly federal, united Europe had yet to be realized. The European Union, despite its shared currency (the euro) and common market, contained separate governments that frequently fell short of political unity. In 2010, the Spinelli Group was formed, its mission to marshal a network of citizens, politicians, and non-government organizations (NGOs) toward the realization of Spinelli's vision: a truly united Europe.


Battling for the Union: Altiero Spinelli, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 1988.


Journal of Common Market Studies, March 2009, Andre Glencross, “Altiero Spinelli and the Idea of the U.S. Constitution as a Model for Europe,” pp. 287–295.


Grand-Place Europe online, (December 30, 2017), “Altiero Spinelli: His Life and Work.”

National Committee for the Celebrations of the 100th Anniversary of the Birth of Altiero Spinelli, (December 30, 2017), E. Paolini, “Altiero Spinelli.”

Recon Project online, , (January 2007), Augustín José Menéndez, “Altiero Spinelli: From Ventotene to the European Constitution.”

Spinelli Group website, (December 30, 2017). □

(MLA 8th Edition)