In the 140th anniversary year of his birth on April 9, 1872, the French Jewish statesman Léon Blum is more timely than ever. In April, during France’s latest presidential election, Les éditions Albin Michel reprinted a short exhortatory text, “In Order to be a Socialist,” which Blum wrote in 1919 when he was 42. It was dedicated to his son Robert and in stately, decorously literary prose – Blum also published a book of his thoughts on the 19th century author Stendhal – counsels young people to be optimistic civic activists.
This kind of resolve displayed at the conclusion of World War I’s butchery would come in handy later when ex-Prime Minister Blum faced the further challenge of imprisonment, followed by a Nazi-ordered show trial in Occupied France. The notorious Riom Trial, named after the city in central France where it was held in 1942, would also include among its defendants the Jewish politician Georges Mandel, who would later be murdered by the French collaborationist milice. Seventy years on, the trial has been commemorated by attorney and author Jean-Denis Bredin, onetime law partner of Robert Badinter. “Infamy: the Riom Trial,” out from Grasset in May, is a concisely cogent historical overview, worthy to set beside Bredin’s previous compelling studies of the French Jewish polemicist Bernard Lazare, the wartime trial of French Jewish statesman Pierre Mendes-France, and the Dreyfus Affair, of which only the last-mentioned has been translated into English so far.
Having been allowed at age sixteen to witness part of the 1945 trial of Marshal Pétain, Bredin has a close connection to the events of the war and its aftermath. He cites at length Blum’s “superbly written” speeches in response to the surreal charges of having, as leader of France’s Popular Front government in the 1930s, caused the war between Germany and France by being militaristic. Bredin explains how while remaining “always courteous and smiling” when addressing his French judges, Blum “put the trial itself on trial.” Although the testimony of Blum and fellow defendants was censored before it reached the newspapers, the Nazis got wind of the prosecution’s complete failure and had the trial cancelled. Even Benito Mussolini mocked the Riom Trial as a “farce typical of democracy.” Yet Bredin stresses its tragic context as well as its ultra-Gallic flavor, asking whether “this parody of justice instigated by the Vichy government in its eagerness to dishonor democracy might be, sad to say, an ordinary physiognomy of France?”
Watch a presentation of Léon Blum’s “Pour être socialiste” by philosopher André Comte-Sponville, who wrote the preface for the new reprint of Blum’s text here.
Earlier this week, Austin Ratner wrote about Hillel sandwiches and patricide, photography, and Audrey Hepburn. His first book, “The Jump Artist,” is the winner of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog series. For more information on the series, please visit:
It goes against my convictions as a novelist to characterize any person as either a demon or a hero; human nature isn’t so simple. It’s the fascist psyche that adores such black-and-white categories: good or bad, Aryan or Jew, friend or enemy, worthy of life or of extermination. But even in a psychologically mature piece of fiction, there are protagonists and antagonists and what divides them from one another in “The Jump Artist,” is precisely their degree of maturity of thought — i.e., their ability or inability to think in a nuanced, non-binary way. Karl Meixner, a fascist, had a lot of trouble thinking that way. Philippe Halsman’s attorney in the second trial, by contrast, refused to see the world in the polarized terms that would later dominate the politics of Grossdeutschland.
Some heroes of Jewish history are better known for their deeds than for their personalities, like Sylvain Lévi, president of the Alliance israélite universelle until his death in 1935. A great expert on Eastern religion, literature and history, who co-authored a dictionary of Buddhism and taught Sanskrit at the Sorbonne, Lévi has been little remembered as a man.
That’s because in 1940, when the Germans invaded Paris, Lévi’s widow Désirée destroyed private papers which might be “compromising.” Scant surviving material was seized by the Nazis and only resurfaced in 1990 in Russian archives, having been seized in turn from defeated Germany in 1945. Readers of 2007’s “Returned From Russia: Nazi Archival Plunder in Western Europe and Recent Restitution Issues,” published by the Institute Of Art And Law know the complex mechanics of such rediscoveries, but for Lévi, it meant private letters were once again known to exist.
These missives, to his nephew and to the recording secretary of the Alliance israélite universelle, have just been published in Paris by Éditions Honoré Champion, edited by Roland Lardinois et Georges Weill. What emerges is a picture of a ferociously disciplined mind, as would be expected from a scholar who made pioneering inroads into Nepal, India and Tibet before 1900.