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Albert Thomas Edit Profile

diplomat , director , journalist , politician

Albert Thomas was a prominent French Socialist and the first Minister of Armament for the French Third Republic during World War I. Following the Treaty of Versailles, he was nominated as the first Director General of the International Labour Office, a position he held until his death in 1932.

Background

He was born at Champigny-sur-Marne on 16 June 1878.

Education

In 1898, he entered the École Normale Supérieure, where he studied history and won a travelling scholarship which enabled him to visit Russia. Other educational distinctions followed, including degrees in literature and history at the University of Paris.

Career

Like a number of men of his generation at the École normale, Thomas was attracted to Socialist politics. He joined the French Socialist party (SFIO) and, with his mentor Jean Jaurès, edited several Socialist journals. Elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1910, Thomas called for the SFIO to abandon its refusal to participate in bourgeois government coalitions. A decade before, while studying at the University of Berlin, Thomas had defended the Socialist "renegade" Alexandre Millerand against German Socialists who condemned such participants in bourgeois cabinets. Militant colleagues accused Deputy Thomas of personal ambition in seeking such changes.

The outbreak of World War I produced the political opportunity Thomas had sought. Premier René Viviani formed a union sacrée government in which Socialists took Cabinet positions; and Thomas called on French workers to rally to the defense of the nation. In May 1915, Thomas himself still under police surveillance as a potential subversive accepted the post of undersecretary of state for munitions. His appointment came at a time when all of the belligerents were facing shortages of ammunition. Moreover, it reflected the National Assembly's desire to limit the authority of Minister of War Millerand, who seemed too willing to defer to military desires on all matters concerning the war.

From the first, Thomas vowed "to organize and use to the maximum all of the resources of the country" to achieve victory. He met France's labor shortage by importing workers from France's empire and from foreign countries; he also drew large numbers of women into the work force. Despite the opposition of military leaders, Thomas shielded male workers in vital industries against conscription.

Thomas was alive both to the immediate needs of the war effort and to the possibilities wartime conditions offered to set the stage for future reform. His policy of paying high wages helped prevent industrial unrest, and it also furthered Thomas' long-held desire to better the conditions of France's factory workers. He welcomed the wartime consolidation of French industry under state supervision; this too seemed a step toward a restructured postwar society.

In December 1916, Thomas was appointed to the new post of minister of munitions, which merely reflected the importance of duties he had been per-forming since May 1915. In early 1917, however, Thomas saw his wartime service take a new turn: he was appointed special ambassador to Russia, replacing Maurice Paléologue. Thomas was charged with solidifying the wartime alliance and, if possible, promoting a new Russian offensive. He found an ally for the latter goal in Aleksandr Kerensky, who was emerging as the strongman of the provisional government in Petrograd. But otherwise his mission brought failure. The Russian government's call for peace "without annexations or indemnities" clashed with France's determination to recover Alsace- Lorraine. Soviet leaders sought to gather Socialists from all the warring countries at Stockholm to press the belligerent governments to make peace. Thomas tried, without success, to substitute a meeting of Socialists from the Allied nations alone.

Thomas' moderation was out of step with events in France as well. French Socialists were splitting over the refusal of Alexandre Ribot's government to permit them to attend the Stockholm gathering; this, in turn, reflected the larger strains on the union sacrée brought on by the horrors of the war and the example of the Russian Revolution. Thomas returned to France to find his party unwilling to see him continue as minister of munitions. He reluctantly resigned on September 12, 1917, rather than serve alongside Ribot. Two months later Thomas hoped to form a new government and to return Socialists to the Cabinet. But the premiership went instead to Georges Clemenceau.

Thomas participated in the Peace Conference at Versailles, where he drafted the now forgotten portions of the peace treaty that dealt with labor organizations and the rights of workers. He abandoned his seat in the Chamber of Deputies in 1921 to direct the International Labor Bureau of the newly founded League of Nations. Thomas was the epitome of the moderate Socialists in many European nations who rallied to meet the needs of the war effort only to find themselves at odds with more militant elements on the political Left. He died in Paris, May 7, 1932.