Emil Schönbaum (1882-1967), the man who guided the ILO’s transition from social insurance to social security / Vladimir Rys

Emil Schönbaum (1882-1967), the man who guided the ILO’s transition from social insurance to social security / Vladimir Rys

We have encountered Emil Schönbaum[1] in the account of the activities of the International Labour Office in Montreal during the Second World War and of the destiny of his friend and compatriot, Osvald Stein, the Assistant Director of the Office who disappeared tragically in December 1943. Indeed, the latter played a determining role in the life of the great actuary, who became one of his closest collaborators.

Beginning of career following the first world war

Born in 1882 at Benesov in Bohemia (part of Austria-Hungary at the time), Emil Schönbaum studied mathematical sciences in the faculty of Philosophy of the University of Prague. Having made Insurance mathematics his field of specialization, he also spent a few semesters at the University of Göttingen. Following the First World War, and shortly after the founding of Czechoslovakia, he received his aggregation at the University of Prague to teach actuarial mathematics and statistics and, in 1923, was named Professor of Actuarial Mathematics.

According to the official biography of the time, it was at the request of the first Czechoslovak President T.G. Masaryk that he turned his attention to the social insurance field, becoming one of the founders of the country’s social insurance system. As of 1921, he assumed a leading role within the Committee of Experts created by the Ministry of Social Affairs to carry out this project; it was at the proposal of this Committee that the first social insurance Law for employees in the event of sickness, invalidity and old age was adopted in 1924. He next held the position of Director of Actuarial Studies and Statistics of the General Pensions Institute and, during the years 1927-1929, worked essentially on the reform of the pension system. During the period from1932 to 1934, his main task was the reform of the social insurance system for miners. As of 1935, and until the end of pre-Munich Czechoslovakia, he presided over the Czechoslovak Social Institute, a consultative organ of the Ministry of Social Affairs bringing together representatives of social sciences as well as social partners.

Entry the ILO and Nazi persecution

His career as an international adviser began at the start of the Thirties when he was solicited, as an expert of the ILO, by the Greek government in order to prepare a financial plan for the new social insurance system. It was at this time that he commenced a close collaboration with Osvald Stein, a member of the Social Insurance Section of the ILO in Geneva.

This collaboration quickly turned into a friendship which was soon to be put to the test. In fact, even before the end of Czechoslovakia and the occupation of the country by Hitler’s armies in March 1939, the situation deteriorated rapidly in the second Republic. Public personalities, leaders of economic life, officials and teachers of Jewish origin were requested to vacate their positions. Emil Schönbaum was no exception and he sought to leave the country.

Fortunately for him, he had good friends outside of the country[2]. It was thanks to Osvald Stein that he received an invitation the following year to accompany, as an expert of the ILO, a reform of the social insurance system in Ecuador. In 1941, it was the Mexican government which entrusted him with the task of preparing technically the country’s first law on social insurance. And in 1942 he could be found in Bolivia engaged in a study with a view to the introduction of a pension insurance scheme for miners. At this time, Schönbaum was sufficiently known and appreciated in the region to permit Stein to submit Schönbaum’s application for the position of actuarial adviser of the ILO in Montreal. This application was immediately accepted by the Director ad interim Phelan, who signed his appointment in August 1942.

Let us point out in passing that, according to his official curriculum vitae, in addition to his Czech mother tongue, he mastered English, French, Spanish and German.

His activities in Latin America and the call of the Czechoslovak government in exile

In his new role and following the frenetic programme launched in the social insurance field by Stein, he travelled considerably in the region visiting Paraguay, Chile and Costa Rica successively. In 1943, he returned to Mexico to lend a hand in setting up the new system of social insurance of which he was one of the founders. At the beginning of the year, it was the Czechoslovak government in exile – whose headquarters were in London – that decided to call upon his services.

With the Beveridge social security plan becoming the programme of the Allies for the post-war period, all governments were exerting themselves to prepare for the future.

It was therefore natural to call upon the country’s best expert to carry out the job of reconstruction in his field. Osvald Stein was not very happy with this development, for he had other plans for his friend[3]. But he accepted it resignedly – “after all, Schönbaum is still titular Director for the Pensions Institute of the Czechoslovak Government, while he is only a temporary official of the ILO.”[4] Schönbaum himself was not very enthusiastic about the idea of leaving for London and took pains to convince all parties involved that he could very well work for the Government while at the same time remaining an official of the ILO. To the extent that it was anyhow he who should have the last word, he won out.

In September 1943 he was appointed as Director of Reconstruction of Social Insurance in the Ministry of Economic Reconstruction of the Czechoslovak Government and, in December, he

received from Osvald Stein, just a few days before the latter’s death, a telegram notifying him of the extension of his contract as actuarial adviser of the ILO until the end of June 1944.[5]

His role at the ILO Conference in Philadelphia

The disappearance of Stein left an immense void in the ranks of the ILO executives responsible during these decisive months for shaping the future of the Organization. Indeed, the preparation of the Philadelphia Conference, foreseen for the beginning of May, was in full swing and social security was one of the major themes on the agenda.

Emil Schönbaum

It was therefore Schönbaum who took over in assuring the correct orientation of the debates by assuming the role of reporter of the Committee on Social Security. To this end, a few administrative problems needed to be solved resulting from his double status. Finally, it was decided to suspend his status of ILO official for the duration of the Conference, to permit him to assume the status of delegate of the Czechoslovak Government.[6]

The way Schönbaum handled his tasks at the Philadelphia Conference was faultless. From the outset the value of his expertise was amply recognized in the speech of the Head of the Czechoslovak Delegation, Vice-Prime Minister of the Government in exile, Jan Masaryk, who wished to commend the father of the social insurance system of his country. The documents discussed under the theme “Social Security:  principles and problems arising out of the war” scarcely allowed the appearance of the tensions which may have existed during the preceding months between the defenders of the insurance model elaborated in ILO Conventions and the partisans of the formula of comprehensive protection encompassing social assistance, presented in the Beveridge plan and strongly supported by Osvald Stein.[7] The game seems to have been played at the level of the terminology used in the different documents. Quite naturally, the topical term, social security, dominated, but it was often perfectly interchangeable with social insurance. It could also be replaced in French by garantie des moyens d’existence translated into English as income security, thus completing the skilful mixture of the new and the old.

Ultimately, just one attempt occurred with a view of blocking the intention of Schönbaum and his colleagues to apply immediately the ideas put forward in the Beveridge plan. It was led by the British Government, doubtlessly in line with the critics formulated initially by Winston Churchill.

When the first report of the Committee on Social Security was presented, Schönbaum pointed out to the assembly that the majority of the Committee had decided to present the basic principles in the form of recommendations; he explained the outline of the report briefly and requested its adoption.[8]

 The Delegate of the British Government, Tomlinson, immediately took the floor to present an amendment proposing that the Committee’s report be sent to Governments for observations and that the subject be placed on the agenda of the next Conference with a view to adopting a Convention. The manoeuvre failed after a brief discussion, with 14 votes in favour of the amendment (of which two governments: the British Empire and Ethiopia, the remainder being composed of the votes of the employers of various countries), 67 votes against and 4 abstentions. Obviously, the momentum of the Beveridge report, with its new vision of peace for the populations and above all those still under arms, strongly dominated the Conference. In any event, the British Government did not insist and the other texts of the Conference were adopted, often unanimously.

It was hence the Recommendation concerning income security that became the main document under this item of the agenda. In making reference to the postulate of social security contained in the Atlantic Charter and in considering that income security is an essential element in social security, the text recommends the unification and extension of social insurance to all workers in the spirit of the Beveridge plan. In so doing, it presents a complete model of the ILO for all branches of social insurance, based on the Conventions adopted in the past. The text is completed by the recommendation concerning measures of social assistance for population categories in need who are not covered by social insurance.

In terms of texts adopted in the form of resolutions, it is the Resolution concerning social insurance and related questions in the peace settlement that represents the most important document, primarily devoted to rights in the social insurance field for displaced persons, to compensation under systems suspended during the war and to problems arising in the wake of a transfer of population or territory. Another text, the Resolution concerning international administrative cooperation to promote social security is interesting to the extent that, oriented towards the future, it refers only once to social insurance. One can even wonder about the motive underlying its adoption. Is there an attempt here to “occupy the terrain” before another organization is created for this purpose, or else to prepare the basis for the establishment of the future ISSA, or was this a new initiative for broadening the field of activity of the ILO? Indeed, the last paragraph proposes “to study the possibility and appropriateness of international or multilateral agreements which would establish bodies responsible for performing common functions, in the field either of finances or of administration.”

End of the mission and return home

The task he had to accomplish for the Czechoslovak Government in exile consisted of preparing the post-war reform of the system of social insurance. He carried it out on time as witnessed by the report published by the ILO in February 1945.28 London did not insist on his transfer and, when Schönbaum requested of his Ministry the extension of his appointment as an adviser of the ILO, this was granted until the end of 1945. Ultimately, it was only at the end of November that Schönbaum took leave of the ILO in Montreal in order to return home.

According to the archives of Charles University in Prague, Emil Schönbaum requested his reinstatement in the Faculty of Natural Sciences in the month of August 1945; this request was immediately granted, accompanied by an invitation to reintegrate his position without delay. However, his return to Czechoslovakia was not marked by a commitment to the reform of social security. Indeed, the Government of President Benes having returned home via Moscow,  the project of reform, inspired by the Beveridge plan and drafted by Schönbaum, became the object of fierce political battles between pro-Westerners and the Communist Party. As a consequence, it was made to wait and, finally, the new law was adopted only three months after the coup d’etat of February 1948. It is no coincidence that at this same time Schönbaum requested of the Faculty a Special leave to undertake a mission in Mexico.

The second exile, with no return

It is hence for the second time in less than ten years that Schönbaum left his country, this time never to return. The archives of Charles University reveal the game with the authorities played by the professor in order to achieve his ends. In February 1949, the university leave is extended in the absence of being able to find another Czech expert to replace him for this mission which was considered to be important politically.

In November 1949 the Faculty noted that the leave was extended again, at the request of the Mexican Government and through diplomatic channels, and decided to hire a substitute to take over his lectures. And it was only in the summer of 1950 that the Communist authorities realized that they had been duped. By that time, Emil Schönbaum and his wife finally obtained Mexican nationality and found a new homeland.

By a letter of 27 September 1950, the Ministry of Education, Science and Arts of Czechoslovakia informed the Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the cancellation of Professor Schönbaum’s contract of employment as of 31

August 1950, given that the interested party could no longer be considered to be politically reliable. Indeed, he had “by his own authority abandoned his post and… no longer performs his teaching activity nor other duties arising from his appointment as a professor. Furthermore, he has demonstrated his hostile attitude toward the People’s Czechoslovak Republic, the Czechoslovak people and the People’s Democratic Government by refusing to return to his homeland… He has thus seriously violated his corporative and professional duties and his duties as a citizen of a people’s democratic State.”29

Thus Emil Schönbaum, in resuming the activities he had carried out during the war, was able to begin a new life at an age where others retire. During a few more years he directed the actuarial services of the Mexican Social Security Institute. Mexico became his second homeland and he is still held in great esteem there, as one of the founders of the national social security system.30

He passed away in Mexico City in November 1967 at the age of 85.



28 Cf. Emil Schönbaum: “A  programme of social insurance reform for Czechoslovakia”, International Labour Review, Vol. 52, No.2, February 1945).

29 Letter in the personal file of Emil Schönbaum in the Archives of Charles University, Prague.

30 Cf. Aguilar Diaz Leal, A.: 1“Profesor Emil Schoenbaum,”  in Revista CIESS (Mexico City) No. 7, Junio 2004.

Emil Schönbaum at the Canadian Mathematical Congress, Montreal, 1945

[1] During the time when he was with the ILO his name was spelt Shoenbaum (without c), probably due to avoid a German connotation.

[2] His younger brother, Karel Schönbaum, legal expert and professor at the University of Prague, did not have the same luck. After a long stay in the concentration camp at Terezin, he was transferred in October 1944 to Auschwitz where he met his death.

[3] Stein was counting on Schönbaum for developing the project designated in the ILO’s files as “European Social Security Administration,” the details of which are unknown to date.

[4] Note from Stein to Phelan of 7 September 1943.

[5] Telegram from Stein to Schönbaum (in Mexico) of 23 December 1943. (ILO Archives).

[6] Letter from Phelan to the Czechoslovakian Ambassador in Ottawa of 3 April 1944.

[7] For the discussion of this question see Sandrine Kott : « De l’assurance à la sécurité sociale (1919-1944. L’OIT comme acteur international ». paper made available on the site of the Centennial project of the ILO, (www.ilo.org) Geneva 2009.

[8] On this occasion Schönbaum paid tribute to the members of Social Insurance Section of the ILO (primarily involved were Maurice Stack and Alejandro Flores) who had put forth an “almost superhuman effort” to produce the documents within the deadline. Cf Proceedings, p. 186.

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