Paul-Henri Spaak

Paul-Henri Spaak

Spaak, photographed in 1957.
Prime Minister of Belgium
In office
20 March 1947  11 August 1949
Monarch Charles (Regent)
Preceded by Camille Huysmans
Succeeded by Gaston Eyskens
In office
13 March 1946  31 March 1946
Monarch Charles (Regent)
Preceded by Achille Van Acker
Succeeded by Achille Van Acker
In office
15 May 1938  22 February 1939
Monarch Leopold III
Preceded by Paul-Emile Janson
Succeeded by Hubert Pierlot
Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
In office
16 May 1957  21 April 1961
Preceded by Hastings Ismay
Succeeded by Dirk Stikker
President of the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community
In office
23 July 1952  1 January 1954
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Alcide De Gasperi
President of the United Nations General Assembly
In office
31 March 1946  20 March 1947
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Oswaldo Aranha
Personal details
Born Paul-Henri Charles Spaak
(1899-01-25)25 January 1899
Schaerbeek, Belgium
Died 31 July 1972(1972-07-31) (aged 73)
Braine-l'Alleud, Belgium
Political party Belgian Workers' Party
Belgian Socialist Party
Alma mater Free University of Brussels

Paul Henri Charles Spaak (25 January 1899 – 31 July 1972) was an influential Belgian politician and statesman also considered as one of the founding fathers of the European Union.

A member of an influential Belgian political family, Spaak, he served briefly in World War I and rose to prominence after the war as a tennis player and lawyer, becoming famous for his high-profile defence of an Italian student accused of attempting to assassinate the Italy's Crown Prince in 1929. A convinced socialist, Spaak entered politics in 1932 for the Belgian Workers' Party (later the Belgian Socialist Party) and gained his first ministerial portfolio in the government of Paul Van Zeeland in 1935. He became Prime Minister of Belgium in 1938 and held the position until 1939. During World War II, he served as Foreign Minister in the Belgian government in exile under Hubert Pierlot, where he negotiated the foundation of the Benelux Customs Union with the governments of the Netherlands and Luxembourg. After the war, he twice regained the position of Prime Minister, first for under a month in March 1946 and again between 1947 and 1949. He held various further Belgian ministerial portfolios until 1966. He was Belgium's Foreign Minister for 18 years between 1939 and 1966.

Spaak, a convinced supporter of multilateralism, became internationally famous for his support of international cooperation. In 1945, he was chosen to chair the first session of the General Assembly of the new United Nations. A long-running supporter of European integration, Spaak had been an early advocate of customs union and had negotiated the Benelux agreement in 1944. He served as the first President of the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe between 1949-50 and became the first President of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) between 1952 and 1954. In 1955, he was appointed to the so-called Spaak Committee studying the possibility of a common market within Europe and played an influential role in preparing the 1957 Treaty of Rome which established the European Economic Community (EEC). He received the Charlemagne Prize the same year. Between 1957 and 1961, he served as the second Secretary-General of NATO.

Retiring from Belgian politics in 1966, Spaak died in 1972. He remains an influential figure in European politics and his name is carried, among other things, by a charitable foundation, one of the buildings of the European Parliament, and a method of negotiation.

Personal background and life

Paul-Henri Spaak was born on 25 January 1899 in Schaerbeek, Belgium, to a distinguished Belgian family.[1] The Spaak family originated from Bohuslän in Sweden. His grandfather, Paul Janson was an important member of the Liberal Party. His mother, Marie Janson was a socialist, and the first woman to enter the Belgian Senate, and his father, Paul Spaak was a poet and playwright. Another noted members of his family included his uncle, Paul-Emile Janson, who served as Prime Minister of Belgium from 1937 to 1938 and his niece, Catherine Spaak, a movie star,[2][3]

Paul-Henri Spaak and his wife Marguerite Malevez had two daughters: Antoinette Spaak, the first Belgian woman to lead a political party, the Democratic Front of Francophones, and a son, the diplomat Fernand Spaak. After death of Marguerite in August 1964, he married Simone Dear in April 1965. His brother was the screenwriter Charles Spaak. His niece was the actress Catherine Spaak, and one of his grandsons is the artist Anthony Palliser.

During the 1940s, during his time in New York with the United Nations, he also had an affair with the American fashion designer Pauline Fairfax Potter (1908–1976).

Early life and formation

During World War I, Spaak attempted to join the Belgian Army but was captured by the Germans and spent the next two years in a German prison camp. At the end of the war, Spaak was released from captivity and entered the Université Libre de Bruxelles, where he studied law. During the same period, Spaak was also a tennis star, and played for the Belgian team in the 1922 Davis Cup.[4]

After receiving his law degree, Spaak practised law in Brussels, where he "excelled in defending Communists charged with conspiring against the security of the realm", including Fernando de Rosa, an Italian student who attempted to kill Crown Prince Umberto of Italy during a state visit by the prince to Brussels.[2]

Belgian politics

He became a member of the Socialist Belgian Labour Party in 1920. He was elected deputy in 1932.

In 1935 he entered the cabinet of Paul Van Zeeland as Minister of Transport. In February 1936 he became Minister of Foreign Affairs, serving first under Zeeland and then under his uncle, Paul-Émile Janson. From May 1938 to February 1939 he was Prime Minister for the first time. In 1938, he allowed Herman Van Breda to smuggle the legacy of Edmund Husserl out of Nazi Germany to Belgium through the Belgian Embassy in Berlin.

Spaak (left) with Paul Van Zeeland in 1937

In social policy, a number of progressive reforms were realised during Spaak's first premiership. An Act of June 1938 “increased the functions of the National Society for Cheap Houses and Dwellings and empowered it, under State guarantee, to contract a loan of 350 million francs,” while a Royal Decree of July 1938 laid down the rules of applying the provisions of a Holidays with Pay Act passed in 1936 to agricultural, horticultural and forestry undertakings. An Act of the 20th of August 1938 amended and supplemented a Holidays with Pay Act previously passed in 1936 by extending its coverage to all undertakings, whatever their number of wage earners, as well as to home workers. The Act also removed a previous requirement in which a wage earner had to work for at least a year with the same employer in order to earn an annual holiday. An Act of the 8th of July 1938 amended the miners' old-age, invalidity and survivors' insurance scheme by increasing the benefits payable to invalids, aged persons and widows already in receipt of a pension, while also significantly widening the conditions for the grant of invalidity pensions. An Order of the 25th of August 1938 prohibited the use of so-called motor spirit “for greasing, cleaning (hands) etc.,” while a Royal Order of the 27th of August 1938 fixed normal weekly hours of actual work in the ship-repairing industry in Antwerp at 42 hours “distributed over the seven days of the week.” A Royal Order of the 27th of December 1938 extended the scope of an eight-hour Act passed in June 1921 to cover technical staff employed in cinemas, and a Royal Order of the 22nd of December 1938 amended the entries in the second column of the schedule (list of occupations) which was now brought into conformity with Convention No.42, and added “in the case of pneumoconiosis, sand-blasting processes in iron and steel foundries.[5]

When he was minister for Foreign Affairs of Belgium, Spaak adhered to political independence of his country. After the German invasion and the defeat of the Belgians and the French armies, he had to leave France to cross the pro-German Spain in the false bottom of a truck along with the Belgian prime minister, Hubert Pierlot, to get in Portugal and London. During World War II, he was minister of Foreign Affairs of the Belgian Government in exile in London. Thanks to this government at the head of the Belgian military reorganised in Britain and the forces of the Belgian Congo, Belgium was recognised by leading free nations, which allowed him to emerge as a military and economic power with the victories of Abyssinia and participation in the liberation of Europe, as well with the Belgian merchant fleet escaped capture by Germany which will supply, during all the war, strategic agricultural and mineral products of Congo. And by the action of Spaak, Belgium was the first nation to recognise, in 1942–43, General de Gaulle and the French Committee as the only justifiable representative of France.

After the war, he was minister of Foreign Affairs under the subsequent ministers Achille Van Acker and Camille Huysmans. He was twice appointed Prime Minister as well, first from 13 to 31 March 1946, the shortest government in Belgian history, and again from March 1947 to August 1949. During his last government, two important pieces of housing legislation were enacted. The De Taeye Act of 1948[6] organised fiscal rebates, credit facilities, and premiums for social dwellings built either on private or public initiative, while the Brunfaut Act of 1949 established a central budgeting organisation for governmental social housing policy, shifted the financial burden of infrastructural works to the state, and organised the financing of the two National Housing Societies.[7] A bill on war damage, agreed in October 1947, stipulated that owners of homes damaged by the war and took their initiative to restore them were entitled to compensation.[8] In 1948, voting rights for women were introduced.[9] An Act providing for the establishment of works councils was promulgated in September 1948,[10] while a school building fund was set up that same year “to supply the material needs of secondary education.”[11] Also in 1948, the multilateral school was introduced.[12]

Various measures were also introduced to improving working conditions in mines. A decree of September 1947 introduced the compulsory establishment of mine safety services and safety and health committees in all mines, while another Decree issued that same month revised and expanded the provisions related to hygiene installations, medical examination, rescue, and first aid.[13] Automatic indexation of 95% of wages was provided from 1948 onwards,[14] while women were provided with access to the magistracy from 1948 onwards.[15] In December 1948, an Act was passed that replaced the National Society for War Orphans with the National Society for Orphans, Widows and Ascendants of War Victims.[16] Various measures were also introduced to improve working conditions in the mining industry. From June 1947 onwards, all young workers under the age of 18 became entitled to three weeks' annual paid leave, while workers between the ages of 18 and 21 entitled to at least a fortnight. In September 1947, Orders were promulgated providing for the supervision of health and hygiene in mines, surface mines and quarries.[17] In June 1948, legislation was introduced that doubled holiday remuneration for workers,[18] and in August 1948 a law was passed that introduced nonconfessional moral instruction in secondary education.[19]

He was again foreign minister from April 1954 to June 1958 in the cabinet of Achille Van Acker and from April 1961 to March 1966 in the cabinets of Théo Lefèvre and Pierre Harmel.


Spaak gained international prominence in 1945, when he was elected chairman of the first session of the General Assembly of the United Nations. During the third session of the UN General Assembly in Paris, Spaak apostrophised the delegation of the Soviet Union with the famous words: "peur de vous" (afraid of you).


Spaak photographed receiving the Charlemagne Prize in 1957

Spaak became a staunch supporter of regional co-operation and collective security after 1944. While still in exile in London, he promoted the creation of a customs union uniting Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg (see Benelux). In August 1949, he was elected President of the first session of the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe. From 1952 to 1953, he presided the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community, and from 1950 to 1955 he presided the European Movement.

In 1955, the Messina Conference of European leaders appointed him as chairman of a preparatory committee (Spaak Committee) charged with the preparation of a report on the creation of a common European market. The so-called "Spaak Report[20] " formed the cornerstone of the Intergovernmental Conference on the Common Market and Euratom at Val Duchesse in 1956 and led to the signature, on 25 March 1957, of the Treaties of Rome establishing a European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). Paul-Henri Spaak signed the treaty for Belgium, together with Jean Charles Snoy et d'Oppuers. His role in the creation of the EEC earned Spaak a place among the Founding fathers of the European Union.

When, in 1962, France, under de Gaulle, attempted to block both British entry to the European Communities and undermine their supranational foundation with the Fouchet Plan, Spaak working with Joseph Luns of the Netherlands rebuffed the idea. He was a staunch defender of the independence of the European Commission. "Europe of tomorrow must be a supranational Europe," he declared. In honour of his work for Europe, the first building of the European Parliament in Brussels was named after him.

Belgian Africa

During Spaak's final term as Belgium's Foreign Minister he presided over Belgium's granting of independence to Burundi following the assassination of Prince Louis Rwagasore, the country's first elected prime minister. Despite allegations of Belgian involvement in Rwagasore's murder, Spaak appealed to the Belgian King not the grant Rwagasore's convicted murder a pardon.[21]


In 1956, he was chosen by the Council of NATO to succeed Lord Ismay as Secretary General. He held this office from 1957 until 1961, when he was succeeded by Dirk Stikker. Spaak was also instrumental in the choice of Brussels as the new seat of the Alliance's headquarters in 1966.

It was also the year of his last European campaign, when he played an important conciliatory role in resolving the "empty chair crisis" by helping to bring France back into the European fold. In 1957, he received the Charlemagne Award, an award by the German city of Aachen to people who contributed to the European idea and European peace.

On 21 February 1961, Spaak was presented with the Medal of Freedom by US President John Kennedy.[22]


Paul-Henri Spaak retired from politics in 1966. He was member of the Royal Belgian Academy of French Language and Literature. In 1969, he published his memoirs in two volumes titled Combats inachevés ("The Continuing Battle", literally, "unfinished fights"). Spaak died aged 73, on 31 July 1972 in his home in Braine-l'Alleud near Brussels, and was buried at the Foriest graveyard in Braine-l'Alleud.


Paul-Henri Spaak, nicknamed "Mr. Europe", left such a legacy behind, that he was the main motive for one of the most recent and famous gold commemorative coin: the Belgian 3 pioneers of the European unification commemorative coin, minted in 2002. The obverse side shows a portrait with the names Robert Schuman, Paul-Henri Spaak and Konrad Adenauer, the three unifiers of Europe.

In the election for De Grootste Belg (The Greatest Belgian) Spaak ended on the 40th place in the Flemish version and on the 11th place in the Walloon version.


Paul-Henri Spaak conferred the Charlemagne Prize in 1957.

National Honours

Foreign orders



See also


  1. "Paul-Henri Spaak." Almanac of Famous People, 9th edition. Thomson Gale, 2007.
  2. 1 2 "Profile: Paul-Henri Spaak". The Observer. UK. 13 January 1946. p. 6.
  3. "Catherine Spaak Is Wed". The New York Times. 5 August 1972. p. 13.
  4. McFadden, Robert (1 August 1972). "Paul-Henri Spaak is Dead at 73; An Architect of European Unity". p. 1.
  7. Growth to Limits. The Western European Welfare States Since World War II by Peter Flora.
  8. Nicholas Bullock; Luc Verpoest (2011). Living with History, 1914 - 1964: la Reconstruction en Europe Après la Première Et la Seconde Guerre Mondiale Et Le Rôle de la Conservation Des Monuments Historiques. Leuven University Press. pp. 263–. ISBN 978-90-5867-841-6.
  9. Jad Adams (2014). Women and the Vote: A World History. Oxford University Press. pp. 290–. ISBN 978-0-19-870684-7.
  13. SAFETY IN COAL MINES VOLUME I: Organisation on the National and International Levels, International Labour Office, Geneva, 1953
  20. "Spaak report". Retrieved 2013-12-30.
  21. afrika focus — Volume 28, Nr. 2, 2015 — pp. 156 -164, The murder of Burundi’s prime minister, Louis Rwagasore, Guy Poppe,
  22. "President John F. Kennedy Presents the Medal of Freedom to Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Paul-Henri Spaak, Oval Office, White House, Washington, DC, 02/21/1961". OPA - Online Public Access. National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved 4 July 2014.

Further reading

Primary sources

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Paul-Henri Spaak.
Political offices
Preceded by
Paul-Emile Janson
Prime Minister of Belgium
Succeeded by
Hubert Pierlot
Preceded by
Achille Van Acker
Prime Minister of Belgium
Succeeded by
Achille Van Acker
Preceded by
Camille Huysmans
Prime Minister of Belgium
Succeeded by
Gaston Eyskens
New office President of the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community
Succeeded by
Alcide De Gasperi
Diplomatic posts
New office President of the United Nations General Assembly
Succeeded by
Oswaldo Aranha
Preceded by
Édouard Herriot
President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
Succeeded by
François de Menthon
Preceded by
Hastings Ismay
Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Succeeded by
Dirk Stikker
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