Leon Blum

Leon Blum

Leon Blum was born in Paris, France, on 9th April, 1872. The son of Jewish parents, he studied law at the Sorbonne where he was converted to socialism.

After leaving university Blum worked for Jean Jaures. Rejected for military service by the French Army in the First World War, he entered the Chamber of Deputies in 1919. Blum became leader of the Socialist Party and in 1924 supported the government of Edouard Herriot.

Concerned by the emergence of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, a group of left-wing politicians, led by Blum, Edouard Daladier, Maurice Thorez, Edouard Herriot, Daniel Mayer formed the Popular Front in November 1935. Parties involved in the agreement included the Communist Party, the Socialist Party and the Radical Party.

The parties involved in the Popular Front did well in the May 1936 parliamentary elections and won a total of 376 seats. Blum, leader of the Socialist Party, now become prime minister of France. Blum therefore became the first Jew in France history to hold this post.

Once in power the Popular Front government introduced the 40 hour week and other social reforms. It also nationalized the Bank of France and the armaments industry.

In July, 1936, José Giral, the prime minister of the Popular Front government in Spain, requested aid against the military uprising led by Emilio Mola, Francisco Franco and José Sanjurjo. Blum agreed to send aircraft and artillery. However, after coming under pressure from Stanley Baldwin and Anthony Eden in Britain, and more right-wing members of his own cabinet, he changed his mind. Blum now called for all countries in Europe not to intervene in the Spanish Civil War.

The Communist Party, that up to then had supported the Popular Front government, now organized large demonstrations against Blum's policy of non-intervention. With the left-wing in open revolt against the government and a growing economic crisis, Blum decided to resign on 22nd June.

Once in opposition Blum campaigned for France to end its nonintervention policy. On 13th March 1938 Blum returned to power as prime minister. He immediately reopened the frontier with Spain to allow vast amounts of military equipment to enter the country. Blum now came under considerable pressure from the right-wing press and political figures such as Henri-Philippe Petain and Maurice Gamelin. On 10th April 1938, Blum's government fell and he was replaced by Edouard Daladier as prime minister.

When the German Army invaded France in May 1940, Blum escaped to southern France but Henri-Philippe Petain ordered his arrest. Along with Edouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud he was tried in February, 1942, for betraying his country. He was handed over to the Germans who held him prisoner until 1945. Leon Blum died on 30th March, 1950.

Primary Sources

(1) Leon Blum, speech in the House of Representatives (6th December 1936)

Our foreign policy has been inspired by two simple principles: the determination to place France's interests above all others, and the conviction that France has no greater interest than that of peace, the certainty that peace for France is inseparable from peace for Europe. All the groups in the majority, and I am sure the whole House, are in agreement on these principles.

I shall not accuse anyone of trying to push us directly or indirectly toward war. Everyone in France wants peace. Everyone is equally ardent in expressing this wish, and I have no doubt, equally sincere. Everyone understands that neither war, nor consequently peace, can today be contained within national borders, and that a people can only preserve itself from the scourge by contributing to preserve all others from it.

However, gentlemen, despite this fundamental agreement, I am obliged to remark that our questioners have been rather discreet in praising us. Most of the opposition speakers, and first and foremost my friend Paul Reynaud, have come forward in turn to claim that because of the composition of the majority and the demands of our domestic program we are condemned, in the international sphere, either to self-contradiction or to impotence. And furthermore, on what may be the gravest of current issues - it is certainly the most emotional - the Spanish question, our common desire for peace nonetheless leaves us in disagreement, in practice, with one of the groups of the majority, the group made up by the Communist party.

I have dealt with this question elsewhere. I have never spoken of it before the House. Although, in reality, I have nothing to add to the declarations of my friend Mr. Yvon Delbos (Radical-Socialist Party), with whom I have always shared the most loyal and affectionate sense of solidarity, the House will no doubt permit me to furnish some personal explanations. I repeat, as was said by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, that as far as we are concerned, there is only one legal government in Spain, or, to put it better, only one government. The principles of what might be called democratic law coincide in this respect with the undisputed rules of international law.

I recognize that France's direct interest includes and calls for the presence of a friendly government on Spanish soil, and one that is free of certain other European influences. I have no hesitation in agreeing that the establishment in Spain of a military dictatorship too closely bound by links of indebtedness to Germany and Italy would represent not only an attack on the cause of international democracy, but a source of anxiety - I do not wish to put it more strongly - for French security, and hence a threat to peace. In that respect, I agree with the argument that Mr. Gabriel Peri (Communist Party) presented to the House. In fact, I deplore that such an obvious truth was not perceived from the start by all of French and international public opinion, and that it has been obscured by Party passion and resentment. Let me add - and I do not think that anyone in this House will pay me the insult of being surprised - that I do not intend for a single moment to deny the personal friendship tying me to the Spanish socialists, and to many republicans: it still attaches me to them, despite the bitter disappointment they feel and express about me today.

I know all that. I feel it all. And to take this sort of public confession through to its conclusion, I shall add that since 8 August, a certain number of our hopes and expectations have in fact been disappointed; that all of us were hoping that the noninterference pact, which we had put into effect in advance, would be signed more promptly; that we were counting on the other governments' keeping more closely to their commitments. The policy of noninterference, in many respects, has not produced all we expected of it. True. But, gentlemen, is that a reason to condemn it? Here we must, all of us, make a very thorough analysis.

If it is true that in the name of international freedom, and in the name of French security, we must at all costs prevent the rebellion on Spanish soil from succeeding, then I declare that the conclusions reached by Mr. Gabriel Peri and Mr. Thorez (Communist Party)do not go far enough. It is not enough to denounce the noninterference agreement. It is not enough to reestablish free arms trade between France and Spain. Free arms trade between France and Spain would not be adequate aid, far from it. No! To assure the success of Republican legality in Spain, we would have to go further, much further. We would have to take a much greater step.

In conditions such as we have them at present, the truth of the matter is - and events have proved it - that the arming of a government can really only be done by another government. To be really effective, aid must be governmental. This is true from the point of view of materials, and from the point of view of recruitment. It would have to include, by way of equipment, levying arms from our own stocks, and byway of a sign-up of volunteers, levying troops from our units.

(2) A member of the Labour Party, Emanuel Shinwell initially argued that the British government should give support to the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. He wrote about his views in his autobiography, Conflict Without Malice (1955)

When the Spanish Republican Government was formed in 1936 the news was received enthusiastically by Socialists in Britain. Many of the new Government members were well known in the international Socialist movement. The emergence of a democratic regime in Spain was a bright light in a gloomy period when war had raped Abyssinia, and Germany had repudiated the Locarno Treaty. On the sudden outbreak of civil war in July, 1936, Socialist movements in all those European countries where they were allowed to exist immediately took steps to consider whether intervention should be demanded.

The Fascist attack was regarded as aggression by the majority of thinking people. Leon Blum, at the time Prime Minister of France, was greatly concerned in this matter. As political head of a nation which was bordered by Spain he had to consider the danger of some of the belligerents being forced over the border; as a Socialist he had a duty to go to the help of his comrades, members of a legally elected Government, who had been attacked by men organized and financed from outside Spanish home territory.

In Britain, although the Government was against intervention, the Labour Party had to face the strong demands from the rank-and-file for concrete action. The three executives met at Transport House to consider the next move, and I was present as a member of the Parliamentary Executive. We were largely influenced by Blum's policy. He had decided that he could not risk committing his country to intervention. Germany and Italy were supplying arms, aircraft, and men to the Spanish Fascists, and Blum considered that any action on the Franco Spanish border on behalf of the Republican Government would bring imminent danger of retaliatory moves by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany on France's eastern flank. As a result of this French attitude Herbert Morrison's appeal in favour of intervention received little support. Although, like him, I was inclined towards action I pointed out that if France failed to intervene it would be a futile gesture to advise that Britain should do so. We had the recent farce of sanctions against Italy as a warning.

(3) Leon Blum, speech (July 1941)

When Hitler and Goebbels talk of organising Europe, when the French 'collaborators' echo their words, we know what they mean and what they want. In present realities their European Order is nothing but the utilisation of all European resources, the extraction and extortion of all we have, for the benefit of the Axis, and their so-called organisation of Europe is no more than the future total enslavement of Europe by the Nazi regime. Thus the same words are used with diametrically opposed meanings. When we talk of a European Order, we are thinking not of war but of peace; when we talk of European organisation, we are thinking not of a common subjection to the domination of a tyrant, but of the federation of free and equal nations, of a League of Nations! Let us not be afraid to admit that the ideal of 1919 was a fine one. It is cheap and easy today to mock at the League, but if we have the courage to ignore the mockery, we must agree that we shall yet have to return to the same inspiration.

As it was conceived at the end of the last war by all the great democrats of both hemispheres, the League of Nations was a noble and magnificent creation. I believe this to be true despite its failure, which I do not seek in any way to minimise or excuse. I remain convinced, despite its failure, that it would still be sufficient and able to impose respect for international order among those political societies that gave it birth. Its failure, moreover, was something from which the world will have to learn its lesson. The League of Nations, created by the Treaties of Versailles, failed because great powers like Russia and the United States, whose support was essential, were outside it from the start. It failed because its founders, trying to disarm suspicions here and fears there, did not dare give it the instruments and the living strength that it needed to function properly. It failed because it was not itself a great sovereign power, distinct from national sovereign powers and greater than they; because it had neither the political authority nor the material force to enable it to carry out its decisions and impose its will on national states; because its powers were too restricted and too intermittent to allow it to cover the same fields of activity as national sovereign states.

It would be easy to quote arguments and facts in support of each of these reasons. If we take the antithesis of each of them, we shall have outlined the principles which must be applied this time in order to have a living and effective international organisation. All the powers, and particularly America and Russia, must be parties to the new covenant.

The international body must have the institutions and powers it needs to do what it is created to do; in other words it must be boldly and openly set up as a super-state on a level above the national sovereignties, and that, in turn, means that the Member States must have accepted in advance as much limitation and subordination of their particular sovereignties as this superior sovereign power requires.