Colleague and biographer of Robert Schuman
by DAVID PRICE. © 2005.
Chef-de-Cabinet of Robert Schuman as Prime Minister of France (1947-8) and as Foreign Affairs Minister (1948-53).
On 14 August 1942, Robert Schuman demonstrated two opposite but essential qualities of politics to Robert Rochefort: realism to look unblinkingly at the bad and then at the good and the potential for good. Schuman had just escaped from imprisonment in Germany. He had reached what was then the ‘Free Zone’ of France. The government had moved from Paris to Vichy. He had been welcomed at the frontier ‘in the name of France’ by Robert Rochefort, the Sub-Prefect of Montmorillon, near Poitiers.
Schuman, a one-man intelligence service, described the ‘nightmare portrait’ of what was happening in Germany. He may have been the first former member of the French government, or politician of any stripe, to reveal the facts. He spoke of the systematic mass exterminations: machine-gunning of Jews and Poles in front of ditches, of the massacre of all people in entire zones, men women and children, as reprisals against Russian fighters; of cannibalism and starvation in the Russian prisoner camps. Two million Russian prisoners had died. Dutch intellectuals had been hanged and Nazis had forced the Dutch to commit this act, assembling them to watch the crime. Then he gave figures of Germans dead on the Russian front, the wounded too, and the numbers of how many Germans were rendered homeless in the Rhineland by Allied bombing.
Rochefort and his friends were left with no illusions about the future under a Nazi boot. However the powerful realism and statistical capability of Schuman had calculated another conclusion. ‘I can assure you all, my friends, even at this moment, Germany has already lost the war.’ Germany was at the height of its power, but he was correct there too.
Rochefort never forgot this first meeting with Robert Schuman. It changed his life spiritually. Some days later Rochefort found himself in difficulties as he was resisting gross injustice under the Vichy regime. Schuman dropped everything to help him. He congratulated him on not lying despite the seriousness of the outcome. Schuman had got through Gestapo interrogations without lying and later as Prime Minister he told Rochefort: ‘One should never lie, even in politics.’ He wrote to Rochefort: ‘We are all instruments however imperfect of Providence who uses us to accomplish grand designs that surpass our own powers. This certainty obliges us to have a great deal of modesty but confers on us a peace of mind that we cannot always justify from our personal experiences of the time when we consider them from a purely human point of view.’ Within days Schuman had to go into hiding again for his life as the Germans invaded the ‘Free Zone’.
After the war, Rochefort was called to work on the personal staff of Pierre Pflimlin, then Minister of Health. Schuman was then Minister of Finance. In 1947 when he became Prime Minister, Schuman made Robert Rochefort his chef of staff.
It was France’s most difficult post-war period. Nationalists and Gaullists wanted to destroy the Fourth Republic and redraw France’s borders by taking over entire provinces of Germany. The large Communist party fomented trouble inside and outside parliament. Schuman excluded them from his broad-based democratic ‘third way’ government. They wanted to subvert it from within and destroy it by insurrectional strikes on the streets. Schuman’s government saw democracy was established and the French Republic was saved.
For multiple reasons, Robert Rochefort became a specialist in the refugee
problems. He represented France at the United Nations in USA and Geneva.
At the origin of the UN High Commission for Refugees, he was convinced
that the institution was necessary not just for the postwar years but for
the future where he foresaw continuing problems. In spring 1950 while other
members of the Schuman team established the bases for lasting European
peace in the first Community, Schuman sent Rochefort on a mission to the
Near East to explore the means for peace.
From his inside position and knowledge of the Schuman government, Rochefort wrote his insightful biography of Schuman. His own spiritual experience allowed him to present some aspects of Schuman’s hidden inner life that motivated his politics of peace. He wrote this book during the Fifth Republic when defamations and antagonism to Schuman and his European work had reached a stage of paranoia. Adenauer was forbidden by the Gaullist Government from attending Schuman’s funeral. It remains a lasting contribution and among the best biographies of one of France’s greatest sons.
Today thanks to the dedicated Schuman team, Europe has risen from the ashes. It thrives in lasting peace and prosperity. It embraces 25 sovereign nations and more press to join its democratic union.
Robert Rochefort by his own sensitivity and devotion to the task of the time made his own lasting contribution. Besides his biography of Schuman, Robert Rochefort published several other books. This included poems, a book on Kafka, letters to his wife Françoise, a Journal, and a book on the Bible approach to Christ. He wrote of Schuman and their common experience: ‘Good and evil march together, evil follows good in its shadow, but the last word belongs to God who draws good from evil.’
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