Ursula Hirschmann, the errant European.



By  Benedetta Carlotti



Much has been said about the “founding fathers” of Europe. We talk about their intellectual legacy and revolutionary fervour, but tend to forget about their female counterparts. This is not to say that “behind every great man, there’s a great woman”, but rather to stress the effort made by our political “mothers”. Without them, so many of the socio-political achievements that we cherish today wouldn’t have been possible. This article offers up a brief reflection on the fundamental role played by one of Europe’s founding mothers, Ursula Hirschmann.


Born in Berlin and raised in a middle class Jewish family, Ursula actively rebelled against the conventions of her own social class. This opposition turned into a passionate political commitment. As a young student of economics, she took part in a range of events organised by both the Socialist and German Social Democratic Party. She began to perceive the latter as “a discovery and a conquest”. She went on to join a number of reading and discussion groups that were to lay the foundations for her future political beliefs.


Throughout the 1930s, the sense of general apathy vis-a-vis Hitler’s rise to power lead Ursula to feel increasingly disillusioned with the German Social Democratic Party. As a result, she got involved with communist resistance groups, and was later forced to escape to France with her brother. Her taste for romance supported her throughout her exile, as did the strong belief that the war would have soon been over. This phase of her life represented a turning point in her conversion to the cause of European federalism.


But it was meeting Eugenio Colorni, an intellectual that she had first come in to contact with at university which would profoundly shape Ursula’s experience in France. She followed him to Italy, married him in 1935, and fell in love with “his happy and irreverent way to attack taboos and bring his intellectual freedom into politics.”


Together with her husband, she took part in several anti-fascist initiatives, satisfying her hunger for radical activism in the process. But when Colorni was arrested and exiled to the island of Ventotene, Ursula’s passion and impressive organizational skills helped to transform tragedy in to a unique opportunity. She managed to obtain permission to follow her husband to Ventotene, where the two were able to connect with other anti-fascist intellectuals such as Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi.


In 1941, their intellectual exchanges lead to the drafting of the Ventotene Manifesto for a European Federation, and then the foundation of the European Federalist group. Ursula was fully aware of the implications of the group’s political message. As observed by Altiero Spinelli himself:“ her tendency to translate each ideal commitment into pragmatic actions allowed her to immediately understand the originality of our positions”. She became both a messenger and a mediator for the group, building a net of connections between the island and the mainland with the help of the Spinelli sisters,  Fiorella and Gigliola.


Following her escape from Ventotene and the subsequent death of Ernesto (from whom Ursula had long distanced herself) she arrived in Milan. The city was to become both a site of political turmoil and a place from which love would begin to blossom with Altiero Spinelli.


Together with Guglielmo Usellini, Cerilio, Fiorella and Gigliola Spinelli, Ursula published the first clandestine edition of “European Unity” in 1943. This was to become a key vehicle for the diffusion of federalist thought in an antifascist environment. It was in Milan, in Via Pomerio, that the first meeting for the constitution of the federalist movement was held, leading to the approval of the six cornerstones of Federalist thought that were conceived in Ventotene.


Following her marriage to Spinelli, the couple moved to Switzerland, where Ursula’s political role became even more central. The European federalist movement was gradually internationalized, hosting English, German, French and Swiss participants. This cooperation was enhanced when Ursula moved to Paris, where she worked alongside a number of local federalist movements. In Paris, she took part in (and helped organize) the first international federalist congress which was held in 1945. Altiero Spinelli remembers feeling “astonished by Ursula’s attitude. (…) She was quiet, self-confident, sure of her hosting and organizing capabilities, tenacity and knowledge of Paris”.


Ursula’s political commitment did not end after the Second World War. In 1975, she founded Femmes pour l’Europe (women for Europe), a movement that brought together female representatives from both feminist and political circles and aims to promote gender equality.

I believe very little can be added to Altiero Spinelli’s sweet and composed description of his partner:  “Behind her apparent shyness and uncertainty, Ursula hid exceptional decision-making skills, which she applied to every challenge she faced. Initially I was only able to glimpse her impressive organizational abilities. During the following years, and until her illness defeated her, though, I got to observe the many ways in which she fully accomplished her role of lover, mother of six children, political activist and intellectual”.




Benedetta Carlotti is currently enrolled in a PhD program in political science and sociology at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence. She holds a BA in interpretation and translation from the SSLMIT in Trieste (Institute for the study of modern languages for interpreter and translators) and an MA in political science from the University of Siena. Currently her main research interests lie in the study of opposition to the European Union and how this translates itself within the European Parliament.




Further reading:

- Passerini Luisa, Turco Federica (2011), Donne per l’Europa. Atti delle prime tre giornate per Ursula Hirschmann, Centro Interdisciplinare di Ricerche e Studi delle Donne (CISDE), Università̀ degli Studi di Torino, Torino 2011.

-  Hirschmann Ursula (1993), Noi Senzapatria, Il Mulino, Bologna.

- Braccialarghe, G. (2005), Nelle spire di Urlavento. Il confino di Ventotene negli anni dell'agonia del fascismo, Fratelli Frilli Editori, Genova.

- Spinelli A. (1999), Come ho tentato di diventare saggio, il Mulino, Bologna.




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