The role of Osvald Stein (1895 – 1943) in the history of the ILO / Vladimir Rys

The role of Osvald Stein (1895 – 1943) in the history of the ILO / Vladimir Rys

“One of the most eminent of the first generation of international civil servants” – such was the tribute paid to Osvald Stein by his ILO contemporaries. Readers of the Message may recall an article devoted to the tragic story of his death by Robert Nadeau in an earlier issue of this publication. But a more detailed assessment of the importance of his work for the organization is still lacking. The purpose of this article is to fill this gap, taking into account the results of more recent research concerning the historical evolution of social security.

For some years now, Osvald Stein has occupied a place in the history of the international development of social security for two reasons.

Firstly, as the last pre-war Secretary-General of the organization which was the forerunner of the International Social Security Association (ISSA), known by the name of the International Conference of Mutual Benefit Societies and Social Insurance (Conférence internationale de la mutualité et des assurances sociales – CIMAS).[1]

On the other hand, within the ILO, he is recognized as the one who knew how to draw a benefit from the displacement of its working centre from Geneva to Montreal in 1940. Indeed, it was thanks to his effort, which earned him a promotion to the rank of Deputy Director, that social insurance was able to be established solidly in the South American continent.

This image is starting to be enriched as a result of research published during recent years. Thus, in a study devoted to the birth of the ISSA in 1927,[2] Cédric Guinand unveiled the magnitude of the efforts deployed by officials of the ILO and, in particular, the intensity of the negotiations conducted by Osvald Stein resulting in the founding of an international organization of administrators of sickness insurance.

Almost concurrently, Sandrine Kott analysed the history of the ILO’s activity in the social insurance field in an innovative approach emphasizing the individual role of officials behind the façade of the organization’s official policy and suggested that it was indeed Osvald Stein who had “played a pivotal role” within the Social Insurance Section[3] and, consequently, in the formation of the official doctrine of the ILO in the sector. It is therefore with this enhanced image of a personality for several reasons exceptional that we can approach his biography.

 His youth in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the beginnings of his professional career

Osvald Stein was born on 20 July 1895 at Litomyšl in Bohemia. Very little information is available concerning his family which moved shortly thereafter to Valašské Meziříčí in north-eastern Moravia where the young Osvald passed his baccalaureate at the Classical College in 1913. On the eve of the first world war the family moved to Vienna. According to the archives of the ILO, he studied economics, mathematics and law in Prague and in Vienna. In 1917 he recevied a doctorate in law from the University of Vienna and was conscripted immeditely thereafter by the Austro-Hungarian army and sent to the Russian front.

At the very beginning of his engagement, he suffered a serious wound to the spinal column and spent a year in Russia as a prisoner of war.

After the armistice, he was repatriated to Vienna and offered employment by the Ministry of Social Affairs to work in the service dealing with problems of wounded prisoners of war. He then applied for the position of social attaché at the Embassy of Austria in Prague and, in 1922, joined the ILO.  As recounted by Sandrine Kott,[4] Osvald Stein was chosen personally by the chief of the Social Insurances Section of the ILO, Adrien Tixier, from a list of five candidates, on the basis of his exceptional skills. Assigned primarily to the war disabled service, he committed himself rapidly to other activities connected with the drawing up of international conventions in the social insurance field.

Through his technical skills and his great aptitude as a negotiator, Osvald Stein made a major contribution to the work of the ILO at that time. His role in the founding of the organization which was the precursor of the ISSA, outlined below, was part of that commitment.

 Certain of his activities exceeded the strict delineation of the organization’s work programme. Hence, he published articles in specialized journals, delivered conferences on commercial and social insurance at the International Law Academy of the Hague and participated in numerous international missions in this sector.

One of the most difficult tasks politically was the solution of problems concerning the pensions of miners following the attachment of the Saarland to Germany in 1935. Moreover, he held the office of Honorary Secretary of the International Association of Veterans as well as that of Secretary of the Insurance Committee of the International Law Association.

His true role in the birth of the ISSA remained unknown for a long time. In one of the booklets periodically recounting the official history of the ISSA,[5] Osvald Stein is mentioned for the first time on the occasion of his nomination as Co-Secretary (along with his hierarchical chief Adrien Tixier) and, starting in 1932, as the sole Secretary, of the International Conference founded in 1927. The text refers, on the one hand to the wish of Albert Thomas to obtain the support of managers of sickness insurance, at the national level, for the ratification of his conventions and, on the other hand, to the need of the latter to count on the ideological and material support of the ILO. It is under the influence of the work of the annual conference of the ILO, having on its agenda the first convention on sickness insurance, that a certain number of influential personalities of this branch are said to have decided upon the establishment of an international organization of its administrators. Naturally, omitted is the founding myth to the effect that it was the fact of not having the right to speak as delegates to the ILO conference that led the managers to create their own international organization. All this proves to be somewhat reductive and we are indebted to Cédric Guinand for the discovery of the long road which led to the accomplishment and recognition of the considerable effort deployed by the ILO, and more particularly by Osvald Stein, in arriving there.

Without lingering on the historical antecedents of this project, we will nevertheless take note of a Swiss initiative led since 1926 by the Health Department of the canton of Basel, in order to establish an international platform for the sickness insurance institutes of Switzerland, Germany and France. Because this proposal did not concur with the viewpoint of the ILO, the latter despatched Osvald Stein to Berlin in December 1926, to convince the German representatives of the disadvantages of the Swiss plan. This mission was successful, as well as a series of others carried out the following year for the same purpose.

It should be noted that the creation of the International Association of Physicians in 1926 lent an urgent character to this action of the ILO. In fact, the aims of this professional organization “diametrically opposed to the proposals of the ILO” concerning compulsory sickness insurance in particular, required an immediate reaction.[6]  It was thus that after several months of intense activity, on the occasion of the annual conference of the ILO held in Geneva from 25 May to 16 June 1927, with the first International Convention on Sickness Insurance on the agenda, the conditions were combined for convincing the administrators of several European countries of the necessity for joint action, under the leadership of the ILO.

Osvald Stein

The official history of the ISSA mentions Osvald Stein for the second time on the occasion of the termination of the CIMAS Secretariat in Geneva in 1940 by his colleague, R.A. Métall. The text specifies that Stein was one of the officials transferred to Montreal during that same year, with the following comment: “He inspired the formation of the Inter-American Committee on Social Security in December 1940, with the intention of promoting the development of social security in the Americas as he had done in Europe.” [7]

His activities in Canada

Osvald Stein was not a stranger to the American continent at the time of his transfer to Canada. In fact, he had attended the first regional conference of the Member States of the ILO in America at Santiago, Chile in 1936 and had drawn up for this conference, on the basis of international standards in force, a Social Insurance Code for the Americas.

This document, adopted unanimously, was the milestone of a new era in the evolution of social insurance for Latin America in particular. The text was revised on the occasion of the second Regional American Conference in 1939 at Havana (Cuba). Osvald Stein also played a determining role in the creation in 1940 of the Inter-American Social Security Committee at Lima, an initiative which was to result in the convening of the First Inter-American Conference on Social Security in 1942 at Santiago Chile. To give effect to its decisions, the Conference created a Permanent Inter-American Committee on Social Security which immediately requested the Director of the ILO to name Osvald Stein as Secretary-General.

In parallel with this activity at the regional cooperation level, Osvald Stein was also toiling, on the spot, on the promotion of the social insurance schemes of various countries. Accordingly, in 1940, he designed for Bolivia a plan for the introduction of a social security scheme. In 1941, he advised the government of Chile on the reorganization of its system. In 1942, he carried out missions in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay.

At the beginning of 1943, he visited Mexico to advise the government concerning the enforcement of its new social insurance scheme. And again one month before his death, he went to Venezuela to offer assistance concerning the administration of the sickness and accident insurance scheme. Osvald Stein thus rendered very important services to the institution for its development in the region.

As for his role at the level of developing the official doctrine of the ILO on social security, we have already mentioned the pivotal role attributed to Osvald Stein for his activity within the Social Insurance Section prior to the Second World War. This role was strengthened further during his sojourn in Canada, when he was promoted to the rank of Deputy-Director of the ILO. According to the study of Sandrine Kott, “the ILO was largely excluded from the elaboration of the important orientations relating to social security during the years 1941-1942.”[8]  Indeed, neither the Atlantic Charter, signed on 4 August 1941, nor the Beveridge report, published in November 1942, take account of ILO conventions.

The author analyses the evolution of the ILO’s position during this period and underlines the organization’s attachment to the tripartite contributory social insurance model which is “at the very foundation of its identity”[9] and is manifest in the months preceding the publication of the Beveridge report.

However, in the course of 1943, under the influence of Osvald Stein, the ILO suddenly changes its position in favour of the Beveridge report, in spite of the reluctance expressed in certain British political milieux. “This almost euphoric conversion of Stein and soon of the entire Organization to the Beveridge model should be read in the context of the expected defeat of Nazism which opened the perspective of a new organization of the world. … Osvald Stein no doubt perceived in the worldwide reception of the report an opportunity to revive the ILO as an international actor and to make of it the artisan of an internationalization of social security.”[10]

In the end, it was not overly difficult, during the period leading to the ILO Conference in Philadelphia in 1944, to integrate the insurance policy principles commended by the Organization into the concept of social security inspired by the Beveridge report. After all, the latter initially envisaged only a unification of social insurance schemes and a broadening of the social guarantee offered to the population. The task begun by Osvald Stein was completed by his colleague and compatriot Emil Schönbaum, actuarial adviser of the ILO, who assumed the function of rapporteur of the Social Security Commission of the Philadelphia Conference.

The abrupt ending of a brilliant career

The article by Robert Nadeau, already mentioned, recalls that, according to the Canadian police, Osvald Stein died from an accident which occurred on 28 December 1943, toward 6 o’clock in the morning, on descending from the train at Rigaud, a suburb of Montreal. However, few of his colleagues believed in this official version and several theories were formulated as to the violent causes of his death. Certain individuals suggest that, profiting from his numerous journeys in the American region, Osvald Stein had assumed the task of courier between allied governments for transporting ultra-secret documents. Hence, he could have been liquidated by agents of other powers engaged in the war. According to another theory, he could have been the victim of NKVD agents operating in Canada at the time.

In this regard interesting information has been unveiled recently by research undertaken in the archives of the ILO. In her article “Spies at the ILO”, (see Jaci Eisenberg: “Spies at the ILO”, in Friends Newsletter, ILO, No. 49, 2010).

An American academic, Jaci Eisenberg, calls attention to the fact that, a few weeks before his death, Osvald Stein was in contact with the Embassy of the USSR in Ottawa, through his collaborator, Hermine Rabinovitch, mentioned in 1946 during the investigations of the “Gouzenko affair” as a member of the Swiss network Rote Drei spying in favour of the Soviet Union. According to an internal inquiry of the ILO, it was at the request of Stein that Rabinovitch, who analysed Soviet documentation for him, had proposed to the Embassy that it cooperate with the ILO by providing it more frequently with a greater volume of reports and periodicals.

Stein was purportedly convinced at the time of the need for Soviet support for ILO activities in the post-war world. Could this contact have drawn the attention of USSR agents to his non-official activities?

It seems appropriate to conclude this note by recalling the tributes paid to Osvald Stein by the ILO world of the time. The essence is contained in the minutes of the 92nd session of the ILO Governing Body which took place at the end of April 1944 during the Philadelphia Conference.

In his report to the Governing Body, the Director Edward Phelan spoke of the hundreds of telegrams and messages received by the Office from all parts of the world.

He mentioned one that referred to Osvald Stein as a great ambassador of social justice. The representative of the Mexican government recalled the service rendered to the numerous Latin American countries and regretted the loss of the true apostle of social security. The governmental delegate of China expressed his regrets over his disappearance at the very moment when thought was being given to inviting him to his country to organize a social insurance scheme there. For the spokesman of the Employers’ Group, there was no doubt that Osvald Stein had become “the greatest living authority on social insurance”.

He was not only a man of profound technical knowledge, but also of broad and statesmanlike views.” The representative of the Workers’ Group, in expressing his appreciation for the services rendered to the ILO, emphasized that they were services rendered to the entire world.

At the end of this account, a question repeatedly comes to mind. What error did he commit, this man of exceptional intelligence, to end his life with his body cut in half by the wheels of a coach? An unlikely slip on a chance step down from an overheated train, an impromptu meeting  with an unknown individual which would have miscarried with unforeseeable consequences, or simply disregard for the danger involved in his clandestine activity in time of war?

Perhaps the opening of the secret files in London, Washington or Moscow will someday provide us with the answer.

[1] Obituary published in the International Labour Review, February 1944, p. 142.

[2] Cédric Guinand: “The creation of the ISSA and the ILO” in International Social Security Review, No. 1, 2008.

[3] Sandrine Kott : “De l’assurance à la sécurité sociale (1919-1944). L’OIT comme un acteur international.” Geneva, 2009 (p.12).Paper made available on the site of the Centennial Project of the ILO, (

[4]  Kott, op.cit., p. 11.

[5]  In the service of social security : The history of the International Social Security Association 1927 to 1987, ISSA, Geneva , 1986 (p.15).

[6] Report of Osvald Stein on his mission to Berlin on 10.12.1926 quoted by Cédric Guinand, op.cit., p.87.

[7] ISSA, op.cit., p.19.

[8] Kott, op.cit., p.25.

[9] Ibid, p.26.

[10] Ibid, p.27 – 28.

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