April 9, 1872, is the birthdate of Leon Blum, the first Socialist – and Jewish – prime minister of France. Blum actually served in the position on three different occasions, the first time being in 1936-37.
Blum grew up in Paris, the second son of an Alsatian Jewish father who owned a successful silk and ribbon business. Leon studied law at the Sorbonne, and was profoundly influenced by the Dreyfus affair, probably as much for the threat it constituted to the French ideals of justice and equality as for its anti-Semitic nature. Blum joined the Socialist Party in 1904, and became a follower and assistant to its leader, Jean Jaures, who was assassinated in 1914, in response to his attempts to prevent the outbreak of World War I. As Blum became increasingly involved in the party, he also edited its newspaper, for which he continued to write throughout his life.
Blum was first elected as a Socialist member of the Council of Deputies in 1929; in 1935, in response to the rise of Hitler, and the spread of fascism in France, Blum convinced the Communists, Socialists and Radicals to unite in an alliance, which called itself the Popular Front. He became premier after the Front’s victory in legislative elections in May of the following year. His rise elicited strong waves of anti-Jewish sentiment in France; even before his election, he was attacked and beaten by members of a right-wing royalist organization. (One popular political slogan of the time was “Better Hitler than Blum.”)
Once in power, the Socialists established a 40-hour work week and nationalized both the Bank of France and the country’s arms industry. But when Blum changed his mind about supplying arms to the Republicans in Spain during that country’s civil war, instead maintaining France’s neutrality in that conflict, he lost the backing of the Communists. After he also failed to gain support from the Senate for his request for emergency powers to take on France’s economic crisis, he resigned in June 1937.
By the time Blum became premier a second time, for less than a month in 1938, he did ship arms to the Republicans in Spain, something he had always personally supported. But his government fell almost as soon as it took office.
After the Germans invaded France, Blum tried escaping to the country’s south, where he was arrested by forces connected to Marshal Philippe Petain, head of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. He was indicted for treason, but his defense embarrassed the regime to the extent that his trial was called off and he was handed over to the Germans. Beginning in 1943, he was imprisoned in Buchenwald concentration camp, and later at Dachau. Blum was saved from execution only by the arrival of Allied forces of liberation in May 1945.
Following World War II, Blum largely played the role of elder statesman, although he did head an all-Socialist caretaker government for a month, starting in December 1946. He helped arrange for an American loan of $1.37 billion for reconstruction after the war, and he also headed France’s delegation to Unesco.
Leon Blum died at his home outside Paris, on March 30, 1950, at age 77.
Kibbutz Kfar Blum, in the Upper Galilee, was named in his honor, upon its founding, in 1943.
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