De Gasperi was born in Pieve Tesino in Tyrol, which at that time belonged to Austria-Hungary, now part of the region of Trentino-Alto Adige in Italy. His father was a local police officer of limited financial means. From 1896 De Gasperi was active in the Social Christian movement. In 1900 he joined the Faculty of Literature and Philosophy in Vienna, where he played an important role in the inception of the Christian student movement. He was very much inspired by the Rerum novarum encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. In 1904 he took an active part in student demonstrations in favour of an Italian language university. Imprisoned with other protesters during the inauguration of the Italian juridical faculty in Innsbruck, he was released after twenty days. In 1905, De Gasperi obtained a degree in philology.
In 1905, he began to work as editor of the newspaper La Voce Cattolica (The Catholic Voice) which was replaced in September 1906 by Il Trentino and after a short time he became its editor. In his newspaper, he often took positions in favour of a cultural autonomy for Trentino and in defence of Italian culture in Trentino in contrast to the Germanisation plans of the German radical nationalists in Tyrol. However, he never questioned whether Trentino should belong to Austria–Hungary and claimed that in the case of a referendum 90% of the people of Trentino would nevertheless choose the popular Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria over Italy.
In 1911, he became a Member of Parliament for the Popular Political Union of Trentino (UPPT) in the Austrian Reichsrat, a post he held for 6 years. He was politically neutral during World War I, which he spent in Vienna. However, he sympathised with the ultimately unsuccessful efforts of Pope Benedict XV (1914–1922) and Bl. Karl I of Austria to obtain an honourable peace and stop the war and mass killing. When his home region was transferred to Italy in the post-war settlement, he accepted Italian citizenship. He however never tried to hide his love for Austria and German culture and often preferred speaking German to his family, many of whom spoke German as their first language.
Opposition to Fascism
In 1919, he was among of the founders of the Italian People's Party (PPI), with Luigi Sturzo. He served as a deputy in the Italian Parliament from 1921 to 1924, a period marked by the rise of Fascism. He initially supported the participation of the PPI in Benito Mussolini's first government in October 1922.
As Mussolini's hold on the Italian government grew stronger, he soon diverged with the Fascists over constitutional changes to the powers of the executive and to the election system (the Acerbo Law), and to Fascist violence against the constitutional parties, culminating in the murder of Giacomo Matteotti. The PPI split, and De Gasperi became secretary of the remaining anti-Fascist group in May 1924. In November 1926, in a climate of overt violence and intimidation by the Fascists, the PPI was dissolved.
De Gasperi was arrested in March 1927 and sentenced to four years in prison. The Vatican negotiated his release. A year and a half in prison nearly broke De Gasperi's health. After his release in July 1928, he was unemployed and in serious financial hardship, until in 1929 his ecclesiastical contacts secured him a job as a cataloguer in the Vatican Library, where he spent the next fourteen years until the collapse of Fascism in July 1943.
Founding Christian Democracy
During World War II, he organised the establishment of the first (and at the time, illegal) Christian Democracy (DC) party, drawing upon the ideology of the PPI. In January 1943, he published "Ideas for Reconstruction" (Italian: Idee ricostruttive), which amounted to a programme for the party. He became the first general secretary of the new party in 1944.
De Gasperi was the undisputed head of the Christian Democrats, the party that dominated Parliament for decades. Although his control of the DC appeared almost complete, he had to carefully balance different factions and interests, especially with regards to relations with the Vatican, social reform, and foreign policy.
When Southern Italy was liberated by the Allies, he became one of the main representatives of DC in the National Liberation Committee. During the government led by Ivanoe Bonomi, De Gasperi was appointed Minister without portfolio and, in Ferruccio Parri's cabinet, he became Minister of Foreign Affairs.