Aristide Briand (March 28, 1862-March 7, 1932), while at the height of his influence within the League of Nations, attended a dinner in Geneva where the guests were given menu cards on which was printed a cartoon depicting the statesmen of the world smashing a statue of Mars while Briand, alone, talked to the god of war trying to convince him to commit suicide1. The cartoon caught not only Briand’s main objective in public life – the elimination of war in international relations – but also his method: his penchant for personal diplomacy, his renowned persuasiveness, and his habit of attacking the heart of a problem rather than its symbols or symptoms.
Born in Brittany, Briand was endowed with a heritage containing something of the peasant, something of the aristocrat, and a good deal of the Breton. His father, a prosperous innkeeper, sent him to school in Saint-Nazaire and then to the Nantes Lycée. There he was warmly befriended by Jules Verne, then rising to fame as a novelist and inventor. In A Long Vacation, a novel for youngsters, Verne describes a thirteen-year-old boy named «» Briant, he says, was audacious, quick at repartee, a good chap, somewhat untidy, « intelligent but so unwilling to waste good time studying that he was usually in the last quarter of his form. Occasionally he would spurt into a period of concentrated work, and then his quick understanding and remarkable memory helped him outstrip the rest.»2. Throughout his life Briand read little but listened intently, never prepared a speech but was, by common acknowledgment, the leading French orator of his generation; he understood everything, so it was said, but knew nothing.
Although Briand studied law and established a practice, he preferred the profession of journalism to that of law. He wrote for Le Peuple, La Lanterne, La Petite République, and collaborated with Jean Jaurès in founding L’Humanité, a socialist paper. A supporter of the labor-union movement, Briand emerged as a leader in the French Socialist Party after a speech at a congress of workingmen at Nantes in 1894. He found his true calling in politics, however, when, at the age of forty, he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1902. In the next thirty years he was premier of France and a cabinet minister innumerable times3.
He achieved recognition almost immediately as the moving force of the commission that prepared the law separating church and state. He guided the legislation through the Chamber and in 1906 was appointed to administer the law itself as minister of public instruction and worship in Sarrien’s cabinet. He was retained in this post when Clemenceau formed a government later in that year, was given the justice portfolio in Clemenceau’s next government, and in 1909 became premier for the first time.
Briand tended to be a political loner. In 1906 when he joined Sarrien’s «» government, he was expelled from the Socialist Party. As premier he broke the railway workers’ strike in 1910 by the novel expedient of mobilizing the railway workers who were still subject to military service. Since he never formed a political party, he survived because of his power of imagination, his mastery of procedure, his talent in oratory, and his understanding of people, especially of the common man.
Briand, the enemy of war, was forced by the irony of events to lead his nation during World War I for eighteen critical months from October, 1915, to March, 1917. He devised and, despite opposition from the French general staff, resolutely supported a plan, ultimately a successful military venture, to strike Turkey, Bulgaria, and Austria through Greece; he strengthened the French high command; he helped to obtain a new ally in Italy.
Briand was not a member of the Clemenceau government which conducted the negotiations for France at Versailles after the war. When he resumed as premier in January of 1921, retaining for himself the portfolio for foreign affairs, he tried to obtain a settlement of the reparations issue; represented France at the Washington Arms Conference; and negotiated a security pact with Lloyd George at Cannes in 1922, resigning when he failed to obtain its ratification.
Recalled to the foreign ministry by Painlevé in 1925, Briand now entered upon five and a half years of highly successful diplomacy. The first success was at Locarno. Briand seized upon Stresemann‘s offer of a pact of mutual guarantee and nonaggression, showed Austen Chamberlain how this proposal would fit into his concept of regional, collective security pacts, and during the conference itself, established the atmosphere of informal amiability that eventually brought understanding. On October 16, 1925, Briand, as foreign minister, initialled and on December 1, as premier, signed the Locarno Pact, which included various treaties and guarantees: four arbitration treaties between Germany on the one hand and France, Belgium, Poland, and Czechoslovakia on the other; two treaties between France on the one hand and Poland and Czechoslovakia on the other; Germany’s western boundaries were guaranteed, the Rhineland was to be demilitarized, war was renounced except in extraordinary circumstances, and Germany was to join the League of Nations. Locarno embodied the Briand spirit – the humanization of politics.
With Locarno as a model, Briand sought to extend the arbitration concept to the United States, proposing in 1927 that France and the United States join in renouncing war as « instrument of national policy» Frank B. Kellogg countered with the suggestion of a multilateral rather than a bilateral treaty, and on August 27, 1928, at the Quai d’Orsay, fifteen nations signed the Pact of Paris, or Kellogg-Briand Pact, for the renunciation of war. In the next year Kellogg joined Briand in the ranks of Nobel Peace Prize laureates.
The last major proposal Briand offered to the world was his sweeping concept of a European Union outlined in a memorandum to twenty-six nations in May, 1930. In September the proposal was presented to the League of Nations, but when Briand was not reappointed to the foreign ministry after Premier Laval’s resignation in January, 1932, the proposal languished.
On May 13, 1931, Briand lost his bid for the presidency of France, but with his vital resiliency and equable temperament, he did not lose a day at his office in Quai d’Orsay.
Briand occupied the French foreign office longer than any diplomat since Talleyrand. A moral force in post-World War I politics, he sought to substitute trust for suspicion, law for international disorder, mankind’s betterment for human destruction. Yet he tempered his ideals with a Gallic sense of reality; he would, for example, hedge an idealistic conception with precautions in case it should fail.
Briand died quite unexpectedly on March 7, 1932; he was buried at Cocherel, his country retreat.
|Aubert, Alfred, Briand. Paris, Chiron, 1928.|
|Baumont, Maurice, Aristide Briand: Diplomat und Idealist, translated by Birgit Franz. Göttingen, Munsterschmidt, 1966.|
|Chamberlain, Sir Austen, Down the Years. London, Cassell, 1935. Chapter 12 is a study of Briand.|
|Daniélou, Charles, Le Vrai Visage d’Aristide Briand. Paris, Figuière, 1935.|
|Elisha, Achille, Aristide Briand: Discours et écrits de politique étrangère. Paris, Plon, 1965.|
|Hermans, Jules, L’Évolution de la pensée européenne d’Aristide Briand. Nancy, Idoux, 1965. Contains a bibliography and the full text of « Projet d’Union Européenne»|
|Jules-Bois, « Briand: Member of Twenty-one French Cabinets», Current History, 31 (1929) 529-535.|
|Kolb, Annette, Versuch über Briand. Berlin, Rowohlt, 1929.|
|Ludwig, Emil, «», Political Quarterly, 3 (1932) 381-397.|
|Pensa, Henri, De Locarno au Pacte Kellogg: La Politique européenne sous le triumvirat Chamberlain-Briand-Stresemann, 1925-1929. Paris, 1930.|
|Sieburg, Friedrich, «», Foreign Affairs, 10 (1932) 572-588.|
|Suarez, Georges, Briand, sa vie, son oeuvre. 6 tomes. Paris, Plon, 1938-1952.|
|Thomson, Valentine, Briand: Man of Peace. New York, Covici-Friede, 1930.|
1. Noted by Emil Ludwig in «Briand», Political Quarterly, 3 (1932) 393.
2. Jules Verne, A Long Vacation, translated by Olga Marx (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1967), p. 28.
3. See Jules-Bois (Selected Bibliography) for his list of offices held by Briand from 1906 to 1929, with details of dates and names of premiers involved.
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