Meet the guy 1930's France hated more than Hitler
One of the dirty secrets of history is that a lot of the countries that were invaded by Germany in World War II were not particularly good at resisting against the Nazis. France has done a particularly good job at selling itself as a country full of anti-fascists that was teeming with insurrection from the moment Hitler entered the country until the moment he was forced out. But before the Nazis rolled into Paris, the right wing of Paris could be heard chanting a somewhat terrifying slogan: “Better Hitler than Blum.”
Most Americans would likely mishear the name Léon Blum as Leo Bloom. I promise, they’re two different people: Leo Bloom was the anxious accountant played by Gene Wilder in The Producers, while Léon Blum was one of the 20th century’s coolest guys you’ve never heard about. The latter Blum was the French Jewish Socialist who was briefly the Prime Minister of France.
Blum originally came to prominence as a writer when, in 1905, he published a pamphlet titled “On Marriage” that argued for the sexual liberation of women. He was roundly mocked by the right who spent the rest of his life calling him a girl (because let’s be honest, a lot of the right is comprised of 10-year-old boys), but he never stopped being an advocate for women’s rights.
After WWI (which, as a Socialist, he opposed) he became the ideological leader of France’s Socialists, who split from the more radical Communists. The Communists wanted to have a violent revolution similar to that of the Bolsheviks in Russia. But Blum believed that socialism was impossible without democracy, and predicted (70 years ahead of time) the collapse of any dictatorial communist government.
Later, in 1934, French right-wing fascists began rioting in Paris in what could easily have turned into a coup against the French Republic, but Blum helped rally the Communists and Socialists together, forming what was called the Popular Front, to keep the Fascists out of government. In 1936 (pushed along by a right-wing assassination attempt against Blum), the Popular Front won, and Blum became France’s first Jewish Prime Minister, as well as its first Socialist Prime Minister.
He would only be in office for a year, but in that year, he instituted the 40-hour work week, paid vacation for workers, and collective bargaining rights. His term was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War, though, which caused major problems: Blum was a supporter of the Spanish Republicans against the Fascists, but he couldn’t publicly support them without destroying his fragile coalition, so he resigned in 1937. He’d done one other fateful thing during his reign: he’d nationalized the country’s military industries, which interrupted the production of armaments a mere two years before the start of the War.
Since he was Jewish, Blum was arrested by the Vichy government, who blamed the fall of France on the very convenient Jewish shoulders of Léon Blum. During his trial, though, he took the opportunity to attack Vichy for collaborating with the Nazis, while simultaneously urging his friends and Allies (and Roosevelt) to support the resistance efforts of Charles de Gaulle. The Nazis were furious, and ordered Vichy to stop the trial without a verdict, and instead, Blum was shipped to Buchenwald.
Through a mixture of luck and the fact that Blum was more valuable to the Nazis as a hostage than as a corpse, Blum survived the War with relatively few scars, and went on to become Prime Minister again briefly to help with the reconstruction of France.
Strangely, Blum is not recognized as a hero of WWII in the West. I hadn’t even heard of him until a couple of weeks ago while listening to an iTunesU French History course. In a mythological sense, he’s got the same story as an archetypal hero: he was called to service more or less against his will, he was put through a series of tests, faced a darkest hour, and returned, wiser, battered, but ultimately triumphant after his trials.
And he stood for all the good things! He was opposed to fascism, he was opposed to anti-Semitism, he believed in the common humanity of all, he supported women’s liberation before it was particularly fashionable, and he shunned violence. He was an international hero for any century.