for A whilenow, we’ve been wanting to write an entry dedicated to René Cassin (Bayonne, 1887 – Paris 1976).  A huge historical figure, he played a fundamental role in the fight against fascism, and in writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  But he also played an important role in the History of the Basques, and not only because he was born in Bayonne.

Today, the day we celebrate the signing of that Declaration by the General Assembly of the United Nations, on December 10, 1948 in Paris, seemed the perfect time to do so.

We are always reminded that René Cassin was French and Jewish, and ignored are the facts of where he was born and his family’s history.  This is quite common among many Basques whose national origin his hidden (even wrongly, as is the case with Benjamin de Tudela, the Navarrese of Jewish ethnicity) behind a nationality that more interesting for the authors in charge of writing the history of France and Spain.

His family lived in Bayonne for many, many years, perhaps since the time of their expulsion from the Kingdom of Navarre.  Many of the Jews who lived there moved north when they were expelled, usually on their way to Bordeaux.  On passing through Bayonne, many families decided to stay, undoubtedly thanks to the similarity of customs and language (Basque) between Navarre and Labourd.

As an active defender of democracy and an avowed anti-fascist, in July of 1940 he joined the resistance in London, paying heed to General de Gaulle’s call to fight against the Nazis in favor of the liberation of France.  He was a member of the Free French Government, and in 1944, he was named the vice president of the Council of State.  Meanwhile, many of his family members were killed for being Jews.

As a member of the Free French Government is how this Northern Basque became one of the signers of the first international agreement written in Basque, and the first document in which the government of Free France and an institution which represented the Basques, the National Basque Council in London, signed an agreement between equals, the Franco-Basque Pact.

We’re reminded of this on the website dedicated to the Auxiliary War Navy of the Basque Country (Euzkadi) in Gipuzkoakultura:

On May 17, 1941, at 4:30 in the afternoon, the document was signed at the headquarters of the French Council at Carlton Gardens nº 4.  René Cassin, Maurice Dejean, Commander Escarrá, and Elene de la Souchère signed for France, and José Ignacio de Lizaso and Ángel Gondra for the Basque Council.  The agreement was undersigned by Cassin and Lizaso.  Copies were made in French, Spanish, and Basque.

The pact itself was of enormous historical importance since, for the first time, a French authority recognized an organization representing the Basque people as an entity in public law.  Moreover, it was the first international agreement signed in Basque.  As a curiosity, it should also be noted that both signers were Basques, as René Cassin, the future Nobel Peace Prize winner, had been born in Bayonne

General de Gaulle played a key role in getting that signed.  We’ve already spoken about how the man who would become the President of France paid homage to the Basques in the Gernika Batallion in 1945 after the liberation of Point de Grave:

On Sunday, April 22, 1945, General de Gaulle landed at Grayan aerodrome, accompanied by the commander of the French Forces in the West, General de Larminat; he went to the control center of Colonel de Milleret and carried out a review of the troops; he stopped before the Basque flag and saluted it for a long time; soon after, he told Kepa Ordoki: “Commander, France will never forget the effort and sacrificed made by the Basques to free our land.”  Twelve war crosses were given to the Basque combatants.

As for the signing of the Franco-Basque agreement, he also had some words full of symbolism, as the agreement was ratified via several telegrams exchanged between Manuel de Irujo and General de Gaulle:

On May 26, Irujo sent it to de Gaulle, who was by then in Cairo, and on May 30, de Gaulle replied via telegram to Irujo, stating that “the collaboration of our two people is an important element in the fight against a common enemy, and for the triumph of national freedom around the world.”  Simultaneously, on May 27 and 28, the UK Foreign Office and the US embassy were notified of the signing of the agreement and its content.

It is also true that, once the common enemy had been defeated, the French (and British, and American) governments forgot all the effort and collaboration given by the Basque republicans, and left them under the control of the criminal Francisco Franco for over 30 years.

But today, December 10, is a good day to remember that a Northern Basque is the father of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and he actively participated in the signing of the first international agreement in Basque in history.  It’s very symbolic that that first agreement was signed by two Basques, one representing the Basque government, and another the French: two exiled governments who fought to survive totalitarianism.

Since 2003, the Basque Government has awarded an annual prize on this day bearing the name of this universal Basque.  This year, the prize was awarded to the Basque platform for the suit against the crimes of Francoism.

Biografía de Rene Cassin

Marina Vasca (Gipuzkoakultura) –    – Euskadi


En mayo de 1940, el Gobierno Vasco en el exilio tenía su sede en París. La invasión alemana de Francia tuvo para él repercusiones muy importantes. Por una parte, el lehendakari José Antonio Agirre desaparecería al quedar atrapado en Bélgica y habría de pasar más de un año hasta que volviera a reaparecer, después de escapar a América. Por otra parte, los consejeros del Gobierno tuvieron que pasar a la clandestinidad en Francia y los que finalmente pudieron salir de allí llegarían a América después que lo hiciera el propio presidente. La sede de París sería ocupada por los alemanes y entregada después al Gobierno franquista.


23 octobre 1941. René Cassin, commissaire à la Justice et à l’Instruction publique, au quartier général de la France Libre à Londres.
October 23, 1941. René Cassin, commissioner for Justice and Public Instruction, at the headquarters of Free France in London.

Last Updated on Dec 20, 2020 by About Basque Country

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