On January 8, 1934, French police found the suspected con man and fugitive Alexandre Stavisky wounded and dying in a chalet in the ski resort of Chamonix. Stavisky died early the next morning in hospital – and his death led to a chain reaction of events that led to the swift resignations of two French premiers, as well as the near-collapse of the Third Republic.
Serge Alexandre Stavisky was born into a Jewish family in Ukraine, on November 20, 1886. Three years later, his dentist father moved the family to France, where they became citizens. Sacha, as the son was called, was educated at the prestigious Lycee Condorcet, but from the beginning of his adult life, he applied his cleverness and sophistication to devious ends.
Stavisky worked as a cafe singer, and managed a number of nightclubs and gambling dens. At the age of 23, he stole the funds of a theater where he was employed, and avoided prosecution only because he parents replaced the money he’d taken. Later, he was involved in a check-forging scheme, and in the establishment of a soup factory that existed mainly to raise capital from investors – with none of its products ever making it to market.
Time and again, Stavisky was arrested, but he nearly always avoided conviction or punishment, in large part because he cultivated relationships with people in high places. His family was also accommodating: In 1926, when his father was called to testify against his son in a case, he shot himself to death.
'Crown jewels' cause chaos
Stavisky’s undoing was the bond offering he arranged for the Credit Municipal, the pawnshop of the city of Bayonne, in the country’s southwest corner. (In France, since the 19th century, pawnbrokers have been run by the state and served as the equivalent of a bank for much of the population.) He raised hundreds of millions of francs, using as collateral a set of costume jewelry that he passed off as the “crown jewels of the late empress of Germany,” and bilking some of France’s biggest insurance companies into buying his bonds. One contemporary account estimated that he pocketed between four and 10 million pounds sterling for himself.
When suspicion turned on him, in December 1933, Stavisky ran, and when police caught up with him, on January 8, 1934, he had already shot himself – or so they said. Stavisky’s death immediately led to widespread suspicion that he had in fact been murdered by the police, who, said the theory, had been ordered to shut him up before he had a chance to testify about his widespread connections in French government circles, from the municipal level up to the national cabinet.
Stavisky’s death set the scene for a showdown between the Radical-Socialist government of Camille Chautemps and extreme right-wing organizations like Action Francaise. Charging the government of being “thieves, pimps of both sexes, and murderous policemen,” the rightists brought thousands of demonstrators to the streets. The ensuing riots, on February 6, which were accompanied by anti-Semitic and monarchist overtones, left 15 people dead.
With public sentiment running against him, Chautemps resigned, as did, almost immediately after, his successor, Eduard Daladier, following the deaths during the Paris protests. Only the formation of a unity cabinet, under Gaston Dumergue, stabilized the situation and prevented complete political chaos.
Twenty colleagues and friends of Stavisky were eventually tried on a variety of corruption charges. They included not only his wife, but also an army general and two members of the House of Deputies. All were acquitted.