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The league of Human Rights in the 20th century

The league of Human Rights in the 20th century

From the Great War to the Popular Front

There were those who saw the extreme severity of the military courts at the beginning of World War I as a revenge against civilian justice and the decree without appeal that overturned the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus. From the fall of 1914 to the spring of 1915, special court martials repeatedly ordered men to be sent before firing squads "as examples," to the point that a law put a stop to them in April 1916. During the summer that followed, the League emphasized that military justice was "unanimously criticized", and during the mutinies of 1917, it stood behind the Socialist MPs who called for limits to the convictions of the mutineers. After the war, the League notably investigated the drama of Souain, and the execution of four corporals in March of 1915. In 1928, it contributed to the adoption of a law that created a special military court authorized to review the verdicts of every non-permanent court martial, even when the Court of Cassation declined to review them. Nicolas Offenstadt has shown that these campaigns were, for the LHR, "a veritable question of identity"; some also saw in them the rehabilitation of the League after its participation in the united front against Germany during World War I. This stance was criticized by Séverine, who recalled having permanently acquired, during the Affair, "a taste for the bold statements that have earned us the honor of unpopularity."

The popularity of the League stemmed from its defense of the victims of court martials, and helped it to recover its Dreyfusard-era legitimacy in order to contribute to the perfection of the Republican model. In the 1930s, its unwavering pacifism and diverging opinions over the opportunity to condemn the Moscow show trials weakened the League, despite its role in the creation of the rallying of the people that, after the riots of February 1934, paved the way for the victory of the Popular Front. Leon Blum, one of the founders of the League, was already committed to changing political democracy into social democracy. The anti-fascist members of the League were opposed to the policy of non-intervention in Spain; however, speaking at the League's congress in 1937, the Prime Minister stated that it was "in hesitating to throw itself into the lists (to save Republican institutions, the ultimate guarantee of human rights) that the League had failed in its mission, and had betrayed the ideas of its founders."

The League's members and goals

Although the the LHR numbered nearly 52,000 members in 1912, and twenty years later could count 180,000 active members, its numbers dropped sharply in the decades that followed. Starting in 1922, the communists forbade membership in the League and, after 1945, the influence of the French Communist Party and the organizations it controlled undermined a new development of the League. By the end of the 1950s, there were no more than 10,000 members, and between 5,000 and 10,000 in the 80s and 90s. Nevertheless, its anti-colonialist struggle, its shared activities with the International Human Rights Federation, and its support of the Rights and Freedom Committee within the military-founded by the lawyer Henri Noguères, League president from 1975 to 1984-gave a real role to the LHR and its publications (Après-Demain, founded in 1957, and Hommes et Libertés, which appeared in 1977). This role was influential in the elimination of special courts and military jurisdictions, all of which disappeared in the 1980s, with the exception of servicemen on operations.

As far as the defense of individual liberty was concerned, the spirit that guided Victor Basch-president of the first provincial section of the League in Rennes, and president of the League from 1926 until his assassination in 1944-remained alive: that of a "small number who, eternal spoilsports, say to people and to situations that they will not allow them to remain immobile."


1933, anti-Semitism alerts!

Hommes & libertés Oct.-Dec. 2004