We use cookies
This website uses cookies in order to improve your browsing experience. Read more on our cookie policies.
Corrupted, yet intact
Mathieu Segers
20 November 2023

On human rights, Franco-American traditions and the Europe of European integration

What follows is an excerpt from The Origins of European Integration: The Pre-history of Today’s European Union, 1937–1951, by Mathieu Segers, from Cambridge University Press. It is a history of why and how European integration came to pass.

Eventail plié by Duvelleroy (1878) Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris (public domain)

It was during the International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life held in the Palais de Chaillot in Paris from 25 May to 25 November 1937 that Pablo Picasso’s Guernica was first displayed. And it was on the steps of this same Parisian palais some ten years later — on 9 December 1948 — that the French-Jewish jurist René Cassin (1887–1976) signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the name of France. In so doing, Cassin enabled humanity to rise from the ashes of its fierce and lethal struggle against totalitarianism, fascism, and war. On that historic occasion, he proclaimed the following:

Our declaration is the most vigorous, the most essential of protests of humanity against the atrocities and oppression which millions of human beings suffered throughout the centuries and more particularly during and between the two last world wars. In the midst of this torment, heads of state, Pres. Roosevelt, Pres. Benes, both no longer with us, proclaimed the meaning of this crusade, and in the name of France, then imprisoned and gagged, I had the honour at the international conference held at St James Park on 24 Sept 1941, to join my voice to theirs, in order to proclaim that the practical consecration of the essential liberties of all men is indispensable to the establishment of a real international peace.

This boiled down to a renewal of « the French Republican tradition », which had been severely « injured » by the war and the Vichy regime but which still remained « intact ». Cassin himself phrased this as follows: all of Vichy’s reforms « are built on sand, as long as the enemy occupies our country ». During the war, the proto-government of the « Free French » — established under the leadership of General Charles de Gaulle in London after the fall of France in May 1940 — embodied this continuity.

From a more general European perspective, this moral and historical anchoring of France’s adherence to the UDHR, so aptly and lucidly summarised by Cassin in 1948, reflected the extent to which the post-war European nation-states were institutionally embedded in the wider West, its ideals of freedom, and its practical politics of multilateralism. This wider West was a Christian world, as had been stressed so penetratingly and consistently by leading voices in the Catholic French resistance, such as the US-exiled Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain and the clandestine journal Témoignage chrétien, which was rooted in a trans-European ecumenical network. During the war, church voices like these had prepared the ground for a transnational and interconfessional understanding of human rights as a « spiritual project », which went beyond « the logic of secular political taxonomies ». As Sarah Shortall has highlighted, Maritain gave a comprehensive summary of this approach in his contribution to the 1947 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation report on the philosophical grounds for human rights, which was produced in the run-up to the UDHR. In this text, Maritain claimed that « the declarations of the eighteenth century » ought to be completed « by a statement of the rights of man, not only as a human and a civic personality, but also as a social personality » — a call that harked back to statements of Maritain from the early 1940s that emphasised « the social rights of the working person », the need to complement civil and political rights with the right to a fair wage, unemployment benefits, and the right to organise in trade unions. This work by Maritain was a crucial element in the backdrop against which the Vatican, after the war, had been adapting to the « legal-moral language » of human rights, even up to the point at which the Catholic Church adapted it as its own in the form of « Christian human rights ». Of course, this also was part of the growing partnership between Pope Pius XII and the American government in their increasingly joint (Christian) battle against communism.

It was no coincidence, however, that this reconciliation of state and individual, of moral values and practical policies, came from France and was brought about by Cassin, the father of the UDHR. This megaproject, which more than anything would develop into the soul of the post-war West, did not come as a bolt from the blue — it was the fruit of decades of zealous thinking, drafting, and work. Cassin, who was responsible for the full draft of the UDHR, had been a dedicated delegate to the League of Nations from 1924 to 1938. Having served as a soldier in the First World War, Cassin knew what it was that he was working so hard to achieve. Following the end of that war, he founded the French Federation of Disabled War Veterans. From that base, Cassin developed into a dedicated legal-political advocate for peace and social rights, soon forming the Union Fédérale, a pacifist political organisation for war veterans. During the Second World War, Cassin was at the intellectual epicentre of the Free French government in London promoting French wartime interests by keeping alive France’s republican tradition and its universal outlook. In 1968, Cassin received the Nobel Peace Prize for his lifetime’s work.

Back in 1930, at the Academy of International Law in The Hague, Cassin began outlining his vision of how best to stifle « the pretensions of state sovereignty » : by establishing « a new system » that juxtaposed the law of domicile with the law of citizenship, arguing that each had « merit as a basis of political rights » and stressing the non-uniqueness of nationality. According to Cassin, it was jurisprudence that had to follow events and not the other way around. In interwar Europe, which had fallen under the spell of ideological struggles, it was therefore paramount « for the pendulum to move back towards the claims of domicile over nationality ». This implied a fundamental « commitment to internationalism » to protect « vulnerable minorities stalked by powerful nationalist movements in states worried about their ethnic composition ». He also stressed the need « to establish the standing of the individual within international law itself ». Cassin’s argument was in line with the Declaration of the International Rights of Man adopted by the Institute of International Law in New York in October 1929.

Crucially, Cassin did not believe that nationality had to be abolished as a principle of law but rather that it needed an antidote to prevent it from being taken to the extreme (for example, in the case of totalitarianism). In his strategy of complementing the state with international institutions in order to improve its functioning — in this case in the domain of justice — Cassin was on the same page conceptually as his compatriot Jean Monnet, the planner and functionalist in the Mitrany tradition. He was also very close intellectually to activist welfare state economists like William Beveridge when it came to postulating the essential how and why of international cooperation between the nation-states of the twentieth century. Another striking resemblance between these men was their deeply felt urge to translate lofty goals into the practice of policy as rigorously as possible yet without neglecting « constitutional ethos ». The translation of ideals into practical and legal structures was deemed crucial in the effort to safeguard the credibility of those ideals — or, in the phrase often used in those days, « to win the peace ».

This broad move towards a more functionalist approach in the politics of international cooperation united jurists, policy planners, and economists behind what became a shared liberal assignment for the post-war West. This assignment crystallised in the wider historical context mainly constructed by the Americans during the Second World War, in which the Wilsonian ambition « to make the world safe for democracy » had not died but had taken on more tangible institutional forms of international organisation. The most notable manifestation of this ambition was probably the post-war construction of an international and European legal order. Indeed, the post-1950 process of European integration and establishment of a « social market economy » was a constantly evolving component of this process of becoming « embedded » in the international legal order based on human rights, including social and economic rights. This legal embedding took its cue from the « Four Freedoms » that President Roosevelt had outlined on 6 January 1941 — freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear — to prepare his country for more involvement in the Second World War, as « no realistic American can expect from a dictator’s peace international generosity, or return of true independence, or world disarmament, or freedom of expression, or freedom of religion — or even good business ». Roosevelt’s famous speech embodied the American war spirit of the time. Even those who loathed Roosevelt’s New Deal, such as the founder of the Time and Life magazines Henry Luce, urged the US government to assume the mantle of world leadership and be « the powerhouse of the Ideals of Freedom and Justice ». They urged Roosevelt to come to the rescue of the United Kingdom and more generally to create an « American Century ».

It was shortly after making this famous speech that Roosevelt met secretly with Churchill in August 1941 off the Newfoundland coast to forge an Anglo-American wartime alliance, giving birth to what came to be known as the Atlantic Charter. In the Charter, the United States and the United Kingdom declared that: (1) both countries would not seek territorial gains, (2) territorial adjustments must be in accordance with the wishes of the peoples concerned, (3) all people had a right to self-determination, (4) trade barriers were to be lowered, (5) global economic cooperation and social welfare were to be promoted, (6) the signatories would work towards establishing a world free of want and fear, (7) the signatories would strive for freedom of the seas, and (8) aggressor nations would be disarmed and there would be a common disarmament after the war.

While the Atlantic Charter was significant largely for its securing of American support for the United Kingdom in the war, the concept of the Four Freedoms offered a durable and solid moral foundation on which to base transnational institutions and structures aimed at protecting the fundamental rights of individuals in the nation-states of the West. At the regional level, it also paved the way for new trans-European institutions for the furthering of fundamental rights (initially as an exclusive task of the Council of Europe, founded in 1949, as a follow-up to The Hague Congress of 1948, but later defined in greater detail in the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, as drafted in 1950 by the Council of Europe).

All in all, this embedding of Western Europe’s future in the moral framework of the promotion of human rights — inspired by universal ideals, put into practice on the European continent, and shouldered by the Americans — was a prerequisite for an additional, and equally demanded, embedding of Western Europe’s liberal order in the social security of the (national) welfare state. This further cushioned Western Europe’s corrupted and traumatised, yet intact, nation-states. In the same year that Roosevelt proclaimed his Four Freedoms, Luce heralded the « Atlantic Century », Roosevelt and Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter, and the English Anglican Archbishop William Temple introduced the notion of the welfare state into the British public discourse. All these public statements contrasted a liberal post-war world of democratic welfare states with the German warfare state and the bleak outlook of German hegemony over Europe. Alongside the emerging American engagement with the future of the free world, this functioned as a crucial source of inspiration in the drafting of plans for post-war welfare states by the governments in exile in London.

These new twentieth-century ambitions of the Western world were developed in response to both the First and Second World Wars. The victorious (Anglo-Saxon) states of the West were leading this broader transatlantic and trans-European development. Their undertaking was realistic and credible, because it rested on broadly shared geopolitical, political, material, and moral interests in the West, which also enabled the respective national narratives of the West to become part of a shared grand narrative. At the core of this grand narrative was the synthesis of the two great modern democratic traditions of the Enlightenment: the French and American Revolutions of the late eighteenth century. This synthesis came about under the pressure of two world wars over the course of the first half of the twentieth century, and it maintained the duality that characterises both republican traditions: intense patriotism and a ferocious form of universal idealism. This was precisely what Cassin had managed to reconcile in his guiding draft of the UDHR. Translated into universal terms from an emotionally appealing Western — essentially Franco-American — grand narrative, the UDHR embodied a new conception of modernity that was indispensable for creating a pluralist yet coherent democratic order in the post-war world. Indeed, as Jay Winter summarises: « the only way to restore French political culture, [René Cassin] believed, was to restore its international standing as the carrier of the central messages of the French Revolution. And at the core of those ideas, at their very heart, was the concept of human rights. »

It was this same underlying grand narrative that enabled Western Europe to unlock a future of international cooperation, spawning the embryonic beginnings of what would become the Europe of European integration.

Cassin cited in Jay Winter, Dreams of Peace and Freedom: Utopian Moments in the Twentieth Century (Yale University Press, 2006), chapter 4. This statement by Cassin, by the way, contained an apt summary of the « spiritual » Western Union which the British minister of foreign affairs, Ernest Bevin, tried to launch that same year.

Jay Winter and Antoine Prost, René Cassin and Human Rights: From the Great War to the Universal Declaration (Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp.85 and 146ff; see also Peter Lindseth, Power and Legitimacy: Reconciling Europe and the Nation-State (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Cassin cited in Andrew Shennan, Rethinking France. Plans for Renewal, 1940–1946 (Oxford University Press, 2001 [1989]), p.55.

Sarah Shortall, Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics (Harvard University Press, 2021), p.134.

Maritain quoted in Shortall, Soldiers of God, pp.134–5.

Giuliana Chamedes, A Twentieth-Century Crusade: The Vatican’s Battle to Remake Christian Europe (Harvard University Press, 2019), pp.237–41.

Winter, Dreams of Peace and Freedom, ch. 4.

Eric Roussel, Jean Monnet (Paris: Fayard, 1996), p.914.

Peter Lindseth, Power and Legitimacy: Reconciling Europe and the Nation-State (Oxford University Press, 2010); Peter Lindseth, « Equilibrium, Demoi-cracy, and Delegation in the Crisis of European Integration », German Law Journal, 15:4 (2014), pp.529–67; Koen van Zon, « Assembly Required: Institutionalising Representation in the European Communities », Ph.D. thesis, Radboud University, Nijmegen, 2019, pp.49–50.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 6 January 1941, « The Four Freedoms », in Andrew J. Bacevich (ed.), Ideas and American Foreign Policy (Oxford University Press, 2018), pp.230–5.

Henry Luce, « The American Century », in Andrew J. Bacevich (ed.), Ideas and American Foreign Policy (Oxford University Press, 2018), pp.235–42; Philip Gassert, « The Spectre of Americanization: Western Europe in the American Century », in Dan Stone (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Postwar European History (Oxford University Press, 2014), p.186.

The Atlantic Charter, 14 August 1941.

The Council of Europe was founded on 5 May 1949 by the Treaty of London, when the statute was signed by ten states: Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Turkey and Greece joined three months later. Paul-Henri Spaak was elected as the first president of the assembly.

Ernst Hirsch Ballin, Emina Cerimovic, Huub Dijstelbloem, and Mathieu Segers, European Variations as a Key to Cooperation (Cham: Springer, 2020), p.37; Poul F. Kjaer, « The Transnational Constitution of Europe’s Social Market Economies: A Question of Constitutional Imbalances? », Journal of Common Market Studies 57:1 (2019), pp.147–8.

Nationaal Archief, Dutch National Archives, The Hague (DNA): 2.21.408 (Nalatenschap Beyen), B.,71, « Anglo-American Relations in the Post-War World », Yale Institute of International Studies, May 1943; William O’Reilly, « Genealogies of Atlantic History », Atlantic Studies 1:1 (2004), pp.69–72 and 74.

See DNA, 2.21.408 (Nalatenschap Beyen), B., 71; Ido de Haan, « The Western European Welfare State beyond Christian and Social Democratic Ideology », in Dan Stone (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Postwar European History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p.301; Winter and Prost, René Cassin and Human Rights, p.143; Jorrit Steehouder, « Constructing Europe: Blueprints for a New Monetary Order 1919–1950’ », Ph.D. thesis, Utrecht University, 2022, pp.108–9 and 118.

See William O’Reilly, « Genealogies of Atlantic History », pp.67 and 78.

Winter, Dreams of Peace and Freedom, ch. 4; see also Or Rosenboim, The Emergence of Globalism: Visions of World Order in Britain and the United States, 1939–1950 (Princeton University Press, 2017), p.8.