Every time there is a debate about Western attitudes to refugees, many point to the West’s proud history of helping refugees, especially Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. In fact Western European nations and the USA were anything but welcoming to fleeing Jews. Britain even set up internment camps in Canada to detain German Jews as ‘enemy aliens’, often together with Nazis. Far from today’s failure to welcome refugees being a betrayal of that proud history, it is very much in keeping with it.
The History News Network (HNN) is running a series of articles, adapted from Richard Rashke’s book Useful Enemies: America’s Open Door Policy for Nazi War Criminals, busting some of the myths about Western attitudes to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. I am republishing the first of that series on Pandaemonium. My thanks to HNN and to Richard Rashke.
From Useful Enemies by Richard Rashke
The first time the United States showed its hand in the World War II refugee poker game was at the international, invitation-only conference in Evian-les-Bains, France, in the summer of l938. It was six months before Kristallnacht, Hitler’s first major salvo in his war against Jews, and four months after Hitler annexed Austria (Anschluss). More than 150,000 German Jews had anticipated the murder and mayhem of Kristallnacht and fled Germany in the hope of finding a home elsewhere. After the Anschluss, another 200,000 became either homeless or at risk.
Most of the wandering German and Austrian Jews wanted to settle in Palestine, but the British, who controlled that territory, had set a rigid quota. Great Britain was not about to turn Palestine into a dumping ground for European Jews whom other countries, including the United States, didn’t want. To do so would be to risk yet another Palestinian Arab uprising. As Chaim Weizmann, a Zionist who would later become the first president of Israel, put it: ‘The world seemed to be divided into two parts—those places where Jews could not live and those where they could not enter.’
All eyes were on America. President Roosevelt didn’t relish the spotlight. Most Americans were nervous isolationists who didn’t want to be drawn into someone else’s war, and a large percentage of the working classes and WASP intellectuals were openly anti-Semitic. Roosevelt knew he had to do something. But what?
Ten days after the Anschluss, Roosevelt called for an international conference to address the growing refugee problem, which he saw as much greater than a few hundred thousand homeless Jews. France volunteered to host the meeting at Evian.
The call to action was more political than humanitarian. America was slowly emerging from the Great Depression and, although unemployment was gradually dipping, it still stood at a staggering 19 percent. Roosevelt found himself facing the twin pressures of isolationism and overt anti-Semitism. The later had spiked in the l930s with the advent of a string of anti-Semitic publications and the popular anti-Semitic radio addresses of Charles Coughlin, a Detroit Catholic priest. Father Coughlin had a following of more than forty million, and the Catholic hierarchy made no attempt to silence him.
National polls at the time illustrated Roosevelt’s political dilemma. A 1938 American Institute of Public Opinion poll asked the following question: ‘Should we allow a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany to come to the United States to live?’ Seventy-seven percent said no. Other polls reported that one-third of Americans thought the government should economically restrict Jews, and one out of ten favored racially segregating Jews as well as deporting them.
Many members of Congress and the State Department, including U.S. consulate officials who had great discretionary powers in granting visas, reflected the nation’s anti-Semitism. The Veterans of Foreign Wars opposed the Evian Conference and called for the end of all immigration. And the American Coalition of Patriotic Societies challenged Roosevelt to ‘stop the leak before it became a flood’.
If he sought to admit more Jews into the country, Roosevelt knew he would be pouring kerosene on the embers of isolationism and anti-Semitism, thus running the risk of losing the upcoming presidential election. A consummate politician, Roosevelt called for a high-profile conference. It was a deft slight of hand that would simultaneously make the United States appear humanitarian, offer a sop to Jewish voters, win applause from the majority of Americans for not caving in to international pressure, and discourage the unemployed from staging angry demonstrations. Roosevelt invited thirty-three other countries to Evian. Only Italy and South Africa declined.
To make the Evian conference palatable to countries that opposed accepting Jews, Roosevelt reduced the meeting to a cruel charade even before the first tap of the gavel. His invitation said in part: ‘No country would be expected or asked to receive a greater number of immigrants than is permitted by existing legislation.’ Having said that, the conference challenged participating countries to accept more German and Austrian Jewish refugees either under their quota systems or current immigration laws, something the United States itself was unwilling to do.
A lone New York Times reporter, Anne O’Hare McCormick, sought to challenge Roosevelt, the conference attendees, and the American public. ‘It is heartbreaking to think of the queues of desperate human beings around our consulate in Vienna and other cities waiting in suspense for what happens at Evian’, McCormick wrote with amazing insight and clarity. ‘It is not a question of how many unemployed this country can safely add to its own unemployed millions. It is a test of civilization…Can America live with itself if it lets Germany get away with this policy of extermination?’
McCormick was a voice in the wilderness. The only one who would benefit from the Evian Conference was Hitler.
* * * * *
Evian was little more than a ten-day paid vacation at the Royal Hotel, a luxury resort on Lake Geneva. Casino gambling, pleasure cruises on the lake, outings to Chamonix for summer skiing, five-star dining, mineral baths, massages, golf… In the end, the conference turned out to be historic, but not in the way Roosevelt had anticipated or hoped.
Hitler believed that Western democracies were cowardly and hypocritical. Evian proved him right. The United States did not send a single government official, high or low, to represent it at the conference because it didn’t want to antagonize Hitler. Instead, Roosevelt chose a friend, steel tycoon Myron C. Taylor, and gave him the title of ‘Ambassador Extraordinary Plenipotentiary’. One of Taylor’s mandates was to ban the use of the words German…Hitler…Jew during the conference, to which Third Reich observers had been invited. Roosevelt didn’t want to upset them.
Prior to the conference, the United States and Great Britain struck an under-the-table deal: Britain agreed not to bring up the fact that the United States was not even filling its legal German-Austrian emigration quota, if America would not propose that Palestine accept more Jews. As a result, the word Palestine was added to the list of verboten words. Also verboten would be any mention of the fact that out of its 1938 combined German-Austrian emigration quota of 27,370, the United States had only granted 18,000 visas so far that year. Of course, any Jew from these two countries could apply for a visa at the appropriate U.S. consulate. But there was a hitch. The United States required a certificate of good conduct from the German police from whom the Jews were fleeing.
Ambassador Taylor tried to put a positive spin on U.S. reluctance to admit more refugees. He promised that more German and Austrian refugees would be accepted under the existing U.S. quota and that American consuls would be instructed to make it easier for them to acquire visas. In effect, the United States offered nothing. Taylor was hoping, of course, that other countries with large territories and small populations, like Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, would open their hearts and borders.
One by one the conference delegates took the microphone and repeated the same message as if rehearsed before the conference: We are saturated with refugees and, therefore, regrettably cannot accept any more; we are willing to accept refugees as long as they are agricultural experts (by law there were no Jewish farmers in Germany and Austria); and we already have too many merchants and intellectuals and, regretfully, cannot accept any more (thus eliminating most Jews). Although the underlying anti-Semitism in the country-by-country refusal was unspoken in most instances, it was blatant in the responses of several countries:
● Australia said it currently had no racial problem and was not eager to import one.
● Brazil said it would accept refugees if Christian baptismal certificates were attached to their visa application.
● Great Britain promised to accept refugee children but not their parents out of fear of an anti-Semitic backlash. It did eventually accept nine thousand Jewish children.
● New Zealand noted its policy of admitting only immigrants of British birth or heritage. Since the conference invitation said participating countries were not expected to change their immigration laws, New Zealand said it wouldn’t.
● Switzerland brazenly stated that it had as little use for Jews as Germany had and promised to adopt measures to protect Switzerland from being swamped by Jewish refugees. Switzerland would soon require all German Jewish passports to be stamped with a large Ɉ
None of the Evian attendees seemed to understand the scope of the refugee problem confronting them. It was not just about a few thousand homeless German and Austrian Jews. It was about the soon-to-be millions of homeless non-Jewish refugees who were certain to overwhelm Europe. As one analyst at the time put it: ‘Viewed as a whole … the potential problem is vast and almost unimaginable’.
The conference ended with a resolution to establish a permanent Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees to study the problem and design a framework to deal with it. The only one who thought Evian was a success was Myron Taylor, who reported to the State Department: ‘I am satisfied that we accomplished the purpose for which … the meeting at Evian was called.’
The Evian Conference was a bonanza for the Third Reich. The pro-Nazi German press interpreted it as a tacit approval of the Reich’s handling of the Jewish problem. And Hitler laughed all the way to Auschwitz. Evian only proved what Hitler had suspected all along: He could do anything he wanted to European Jews and the Western democracies would turn a blind eye. To some Jewish observers, Evian had become ‘Hitler’s Green Light to Genocide’.
No one explained the Jewish perception of Evian clearer or better than Golda Meir, a conference observer who would later become prime minister of Israel. In her memoir, My Life, she wrote with great angst:
I don’t think that anyone who didn’t live through it can understand what I felt at Evian – a mixture of sorrow, rage, frustration and horror. I wanted to get up and scream at them all. ‘Don’t you know that these numbers are human beings, people who may spend the rest of their lives in concentration camps or wandering around the world like lepers, if you won’t let them in?’
In sum, the Evian Conference of July 1938 betrayed the Jews who trusted in world humanity, rendered them worse off than before, and opened the door to genocide. As one Jewish analyst put it: The thirty-two countries met, ostensibly, to help the Jews out of the jaws of the German beast; instead they tossed them to the sharks.
Four months after Evian, the Nazis celebrated Kristallnacht, during which thousands of Jewish businesses and shops were destroyed, hundreds beaten to within an inch of their lives, and hundreds more imprisoned and killed. Hitler was right. The world responded to Kristallnacht as it did at Evian—with shock, condemnation, and no action.
The paintings ate, from top down, Feleix Nussbaum’s ‘The Refugee’ (1939); Josef Herman’s ‘Refugees’ (1941); ‘The Last Supper at Evian’ by Fritz Hirschberger (1939); and Samuel Bak’s ‘Alone’.
I had two Jewish friends who escaped Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in early 1939. One had a blind father, and a charity was able to sponsor a small number of blind refugees, priority being given to those with families. The other escaped through a bureaucratic loophole, made possible, as he later discovered, by the fact that his father was having an affair with the wife of someone highly placed.
Why should the acceptance of migrants entail ‘moral diversity’? An absurdity if ever there was one : yet this is what the British people are being required to accept on the back of compulsory mass muslim migration. No-one suggested that somehow, Jews subscribed to an alien value system ruthlessly colliding with human values.
How is it that we find ourselves in the 21st century, still dealing with mountains of corpses and rivers of migrants, all in the name of some god? Was Nietzsche’s memo lost in Secretary Clinton’s server?
The West is complicit in the tumult roiling the Middle East. But how is immigrating those lucky enough to escape compassionate? What of the millions who can’t escape or who remain to oppose the mass murder? The escapees are not, by and large, people with long-held aspirations to join the cultures of the UK or America or Sweden. They are simply people who are tired of starving and avoiding barrel bombs. Absent starvation and terror, they would have never thought to leave Aleppo or Mosul.
There are those in the West who say these refugees aren’t their problem. They are wrong. There are those in the West who say we absolve our guilt by welcoming refugees. They are wrong, too. The evil that drove the Jews from Europe is the same evil driving Syrians from Aleppo and Iraqis from Mosul. It just speaks a different language. Appeasing evil didn’t stop the Nazis and it won’t stop Assad and it won’t stop Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The West cannot outrun evil and it cannot drain its energy by absorbing an endless flow of refugees. Churchill alone among Western leaders understood that in 1940. No Western leader is willing to stand up today and say ‘no’ to the carnage. They content themselves with half measures and proxies in a flaccid effort to contain the problem. That has worked well, hasn’t it?
The reality is that much of the Middle East will fall to Iran with Russia as its superpower enabler. Erdogan would perhaps like to exploit the chaos to resurrect the Ottoman Empire, but he is much too late to the party. The Saudis would like to remain the anchor of the the region, but their oil wealth was a more potent weapon in the last century than in this. They may nuke up with the help of Pakistan and ensure the monarchy for a few more decades, but the 21st century ME belongs to Iran. At this late date I’m not sure that anyone can change that short of WWIII. But that is another consequence of appeasing evil: when finally it becomes unappeasable, it has gained enough strength that it requires mortal battle to stop it.
So yeah, take in another hundred thousand refugees and plop them in ghettos where they are out of sight and out of mind. That will make it all better.
What, in terms of policy, do you mean by standing up to evil? If you mean military intervention (what, how, where?) the precedents are not promising. If you mean something else, what is it?
“If you mean military intervention (what, how, where?) the precedents are not promising.”
The precedents are in fact very promising. The Middle East is restructuring itself after a century of Sykes-Picot. There is considerable mayhem as a consequence. The actors who have committed the military resources and have the will to use those resources to achieve their ends will prevail. But the military intervention is only part of the issue. The other is leadership – within the cultural envelope of the population – to establish and ensure a stable society. This was never the object of Sykes-Picot and it was never the object of Western powers that manipulated regional monarchies in pursuit of oil resources and political advantage.
Now we have intervened in the region militarily and politically, but fecklessly. The Bush invasion of Iraq was hugely destabilizing and unbelievably short-sighted. The Obama missteps in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen have compounded that instability and, to all intents and purposes, ended any hope of the West exerting important influence on the future of the region.
As long as there are those with the will and the ability to use arms and intimidation to achieve their ends, the choice will always be between appeasement and military resistance. Our failure in the West has not been in military intervention when we are in extremis, it has been in not following through after victory. America stood with Japan and with Europe after the Second World War with programs such as the Marshall Plan to help rebuild nations and foster stable societies and workable economies. The success of that effort is obvious. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, we simply divided the spoils. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we shrugged our shoulders and expanded NATO.
We will have to confront authoritarianism as long as it exists. It is, by definition, an existential confrontation. But that is not to say that military intervention is the only weapon in that confrontation; alone it will never be weapon enough. But without it the other weapons are simply platitudes.
So many points here (do you, for instance, imagine that the West has not regularly backed authoritarian regimes, from Saudi to El Salvador?). But you haven’t answered my question, except with platitudes and attitudes. When, where, and how do you want the West to intervene? Should we, for instance, remove the authoritarian regimes of Iran, or Saudi Arabia, or Egypt? In series or in parallel? By what means, and with what plans for the aftermath?
“[D]o you, for instance, imagine that the West has not regularly backed authoritarian regimes”
Of course it has and continues to. Why would you think I imagine otherwise?
“When, where, and how do you want the West to intervene?”
You phrase your question in a way that suggests we should quail at the prospect. Let’s be clear. War is horrific. War fought to win is entirely horrific. But like compound interest, the horror is usually proportional to the latency before paying the piper. Emergent problems are more easily solved than larger, longer term problems.
Iraq is the place to check Iran. I’m not sure we can do that without first checking Syria, or doing them together. This would, of course, be very, very difficult. Opportunities that we had in early 1991 are long gone. The alternatives are to declare the ME outside our scope of our national interest and withdraw, or to continue diddling as our influence in the region and globally erodes. Neither is in our own interests or in the interests of our European allies. I think it safe to say that we no longer have allies in the ME with the conditional exception of Israel.
The United States has fought far too many small wars intended to have limited objectives. I would argue that it is ethically bankrupt to fight those wars. Objectives paid with blood aren’t worth their price unless they are broad and critical. Fighting wars with limited objectives also leaves room for the opponent to achieve some of their objectives. The Korean War is a good example of this. Each limited war, each war fought without the absolute commitment to win, diminishes us and makes future war more likely as our opponents calculate their odds. Winston Churchill was quoted to have said, “If this long story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies, choking in his own blood upon the ground.” War should never be waged unless it is worth that level of commitment to it.
I doubt that the West can marshal the resources to wage that sort of war in the ME. If not, Europe can avert its gaze and make a separate peace with Iran and with the Russians. The United States cannot. The United States cannot be Canada writ large, though a good number of Americans think we should try. For if it does, where does authoritarianism end? Who says, “not one step farther?” Shall Russia reassemble its empire? Shall China cast its shadow over the Philippines, then Japan, then SE Asia, then Australia? Shall Iran establish its hegemony over the Middle East? Yes? No? Do you care? Does anyone? And if you do, what will you do about it?
If every leader were to follow your example, Paul Braterman, who among the historically oppressed would be free today? The Jews in World War 2? Their Israelite ancestors in mighty Pharaoh’s Egypt? Blacks in Lincoln’s America? Bosnians (http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/clinton-recalls-us-role-in-stopping-bosnia-war)? Besides, if you want to talk about the Syrian crisis, you should at least have the decency to actually know what the Syrians themselves are demanding of us, whether those still in the region (https://hummusforthought.com/2016/10/19/whats-behind-stop-the-wars-aversion-to-syria-voices/) or their kinsmen in the diaspora (https://shamrocksheikh.wordpress.com/2014/08/28/chicago-where-art-thou/). As it is, your position — since we can’t help everyone, why help anyone; since we can’t be consistently good, why be good at all — is less of a position than a dodge, born of endless insecurities, if not cowardice.
I find this ad hominem attack unworthy of this website, and the suggestion (from your choice of links) that I am personally responsible ffor the platform policies of the Stop the War Coalition is bizarre. But that is not the point.
I did not say that we should refrain from action. I merely said, and will say again, that it is up to the advocates of action to specify what kind of action they want.
I’ll leave it there
The “advocates of action” have long specified “what kind of action they want.” That you show not the slightest hint of awareness of what they are simply proves my point. As such, I, too, will leave it at that. After all, I never suggested that you are “personally responsible ffor the platform policies of the Stop the War Coalition,” though that you would even arrive at such a defensive conclusion ironically betrays your “endless insecurities, if not cowardice.” Indeed, how very charming it is that you would protest of “ad hominem attack” when countless Syrians have died, are dying, and will continue to die from actual attacks in their homeland, all while you sit comfortably in your home, ponderously pondering and alive.
@ Paul Braterman
“I find this ad hominem attack unworthy of this website, and the suggestion (from your choice of links) that I am personally responsible ffor the platform policies of the Stop the War Coalition is bizarre. But that is not the point.”
Where was the ad hominem? Where did any of Ra’s links suggest that you are personally responsible for anything?
@Windriven, since I have been named, I will reply. And then, to allow discussion to return to mores important themes than who said what about whom, stand aside from this thread. I am aalso announcing that I have stopped following this thread, in case my failure to respond to further attacks is taken as yet more evidence of lack of decency, insecurity, and cowardice.
“Where did any of Ra’s links suggest that you are personally responsible for anything?” Ra wrote: ” Besides, if you want to talk about the Syrian crisis, you should at least have the decency to actually know what the Syrians themselves are demanding of us, whether those still in the region (https://hummusforthought.com/2016/10/19/whats-behind-stop-the-wars-aversion-to-syria-voices/) or their kinsmen in the diaspora (https://shamrocksheikh.wordpress.com/2014/08/28/chicago-where-art-thou/).”
If this does not mean that I am showing a lack of decency in the manner indicated by his links (the first of which is a protest at Stop the War’s choice of speakers) what does it mean?
“Where was the ad hominem?” Ra also wrote, and has since rewritten in a manner that makes it clear that he meant me personally, of my “endless insecurities, if not cowardice”. He does not deny that this is ad hominem, but sneers at me (“how very charming of you”) for complaining of such ad hominem attacks when people are being slaughtered. Ra is entitled to his opinion of me, but this *is* ad hominem and *does* obfuscate the substance of our disagreement. If we do indeed disagree – Ra never answered my question (restated below), and I regret not having had the chance to learn from his insights.
I really wanted to know where, when, and how Ra wanted us (who?) to intervene, but since he writes ‘The “advocates of action” have long specified “what kind of action they want.” That you show not the slightest hint of awareness of what they are simply proves my point’, I must iinfer that he does not deem it necessary to tell us.
Over and out
I understand your position. In the rough and tumble of debate, especially of internet debate, but even within the parameters of academic debate, Ra’s comments would not have upset me had they been aimed in my direction. In any event, I regret that this has interrupted what was an interesting exploration of the role of military intervention, and the responsibilities of Western powers and especially the US, in an unstable region. Perhaps our paths will cross again elsewhere.
Oh, where to begin?
1. “As it is, your position — since we can’t help everyone, why help anyone; since we can’t be consistently good, why be good at all — is less of a position than a dodge, born of endless insecurities, if not cowardice.” That was not an ad hominem. If ex nihilo I had accused you of “endless insecurities, if not cowardice” without first engaging with the substance of your position, then you would have been right to be personally offended.
2. “He does not deny that this is ad hominem, but sneers at me (“how very charming of you”) for complaining of such ad hominem attacks when people are being slaughtered.” Oh, but I do deny and I do so vehemently. While I do very much sneer at you, it is not “for complaining of such ad hominem attacks when people are being slaughtered,” but rather “for complaining of such ad hominem attacks when people are being slaughtered” while such attacks are in fact non-existent (see 1). Indeed, my subsequent sneering (i.e. “how very charming”) was predicated precisely on just that: your privileged tone-deafness of professing harm that is imaginary in stark juxtaposition with actual harm suffered by the Syrians.
3. “I really wanted to know where, when, and how Ra wanted us (who?) to intervene, but since he writes ‘The “advocates of action” have long specified “what kind of action they want.” That you show not the slightest hint of awareness of what they are simply proves my point’, I must iinfer that he does not deem it necessary to tell us.” It is not that I do “not deem it necessary to tell” you; it’s just that none of this is new (http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2013/09/13/how-save-syrians/?printpage=true). That is to say, if you have not had the “decency” to do your due diligence after all this time, I am not so arrogant as to presume that I of all people could finally enlighten you on this matter (http://www.cc.com/shows/the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart/interviews/s6gcz0/hadi-al-bahra-extended-interview). But there you go, for whatever it’s worth.
Have a lovely weekend.
I presume that your comments were directed to Professor Braterman rather than to me. The comment chain in WordPress can be confusing.
That said, thank you for your links. The Ignatieff from 2013 was worth rereading as the motives of the Russians in brokering the sequestration of Syrian chemical weapons is today rather clearer than when Ignatieff wrote his essay.
I’m not convinced that R2P is quite enough, and if it is, just what form that would take in various parts of the ME. I would also be most interested to learn your thoughts on what a stable ME might look like in a generation or two; the target that you think is worth aiming for.
So the thing to do then is to refute the idea that western countries were generous to Jews in danger of their lives in WW2. Today things are quite different (as far as refugees go).
Any willingness to want to offer asylum to genuine asylum seekers, is overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of migrants from all over the world trying to smuggle themselves in on the backs of this crisis.
There were men from Pakistan going to Turkey and mixing in with the Syrians going over on boats to the Greek islands for example.
And look at the scenes in Paris with the police breaking up those campsites in the north of the city.
It looks like mostly African men. Should the Paris authorities be obliged to find housing for all those people?
If they were to put them out in the housing estates, they’d then be accused of dumping people in places where they could be forgotten about. And the next time there were riots in the suburban estates, this policy would no doubt be highlighted as being short sighted and cynical.
This is absolutely heartbreaking.