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History is a prison of memory
The migration debate and guilt
While Britain’s politicians struggle to find an answer to the small boats problem, the continent faces its own crisis, with record numbers now landing in southern Italy. Some 8,000 people arrived in one day on the island of Lampedusa, and it seems like it will be increasingly difficult for Europe’s nations to accommodate the numbers.
There was a fashion a few years back for comparing migration on Europe’s southern periphery to the situation facing the late Roman Empire – as opposed to the US, which gets compared to the late Republic – although there are obviously countless competing narratives for that particular decline and fall.
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Yet one historical episode overshadows all others in the popular imagination, and in particular continues to shape our approach to migration. It is the modern world’s foundational story in many ways, its central morality tale - the Holocaust.
This is the subject Roger Moorhouse’s gripping new wartime history The Forgers, which recalls efforts by a group of Poles to acquire fake passports for Jews under Nazi occupation. Moorhouse’s latest is brilliantly told but makes for upsetting reading, often mixed with an inevitable sense of historical frustration that so much could have been prevented. There is redemption to be felt in the individual lives saved by heroism or humanity, yet this is overwhelmed by the statistics of murder.
This sense of frustration is felt most sharply with the 1938 Évian conference, held at the King Edward VII hotel in Évian-les-Bains by Lake Geneva, as told in the opening chapter. It’s hard to read Moorhouse’s account without the historical echoes hitting you, even if the historian might not be attempting to make this point, and it is worth reading to remember why the current migration debate provokes such intense feelings. He writes:
The spike in the numbers of Jews fleeing Hitler’s Third Reich, which had followed the Anschluss with Austria earlier that year, had finally forced the outside world to take notice of their plight. Germany’s Jews had been technically stateless since the promulgation of the Nuremberg Laws of September 1935, which had rendered them merely as ‘subjects’ of the German state, with no citizenship rights. By 1938, around half of the German Jewish population had already fled – mainly to France, Holland and Palestine – but when, following the annexation of Austria, an additional 200,000 Jews fell under Nazi rule, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt called a conference to discuss how the international community should respond to the crisis.
Representatives of 32 nations from Europe and the Americas gathered, with ‘observers from more than twenty voluntary organisations and international bodies, such as the World Jewish Congress and the League of Nations. They were bureaucrats, diplomats and ministers, sent to discuss one of the most pressing issues of the day. Yet they can scarcely have imagined how many individual fates would ultimately hinge upon their deliberations.’
Germany was not invited, for obvious reasons, while both fascist Italy and the Soviet Union declined to attend; Poland and Romania, with their already large Jewish populations and ‘blemished reputations in their treatment of them… were considered unlikely to collaborate in easing the problem.’
Yet despite the illustrious roll call of nations and international bodies, there was a fundamental impediment to action.
For all the pious concern on display, none of the participant nations actually wanted to open their doors to Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany. They were content to express sympathy for the plight of German Jews, and to discuss what others should perhaps do to help, but they were fundamentally unwilling to do anything themselves.
The lead in this approach had been given by Roosevelt. The US president’s invitation to would-be participants had reassured them that no country would be expected to change its existing immigration regulations and no concrete action on behalf of the refugees was being proposed. Rather, the conference was foreseen merely as the start of a dialogue.
Opening proceedings, at 4 p.m. on 6 July, the American representative – Myron Taylor, a bluff New York industrialist and friend of the president – set the tone for much that was to follow. He referred earnestly to the ongoing ‘migration problem’, which, he acknowledged, was ‘increasing daily’, exacerbated by the international economic slump. Yet he refrained from either mentioning the Jews specifically, or explaining why so many of them were so desperate to leave Germany. It was as if a general crisis of migration was afflicting Hitler’s Third Reich, and its cause could not be fathomed.
Taylor then admitted that there was not much that could be done. ‘We must admit frankly’, he said, ‘that this problem of political refugees is so vast and so complex’ that all that was realistically possible for the meeting was to set in motion the long-term processes that might lead to its eventual amelioration. He closed by proudly announcing that the quota of German refugees that the US would accept for that year would be 27,370. The inattentive delegates present might have imagined that that figure represented an increase over previous years. In truth, it was simply an amalgamation of the existing German and Austrian quotas.
This set the tone, and the following day delegates from other countries lined up ‘to praise Roosevelt’s humanitarian vision, to express their profoundest sympathies for the dreadful plight of the refugees, and to explain why their own specific circumstances made it impossible for them to allow any increase in Jewish immigration.’
It’s not hard to see how the modern migration crisis might feel familiar, for as Moorhouse writes:
Belgium, for instance, regretted that it already had a large number of refugees on its territory: the Netherlands, too, stated that it could admit refugees only in ‘exceptional cases’. Sweden’s representative, meanwhile, expressed his regrets that his homeland was ‘not a country of immigration’ and declared hopefully that, ‘if tangible and effective results are to be obtained’, then ‘emigration must be so arranged that it is directed to countries outside Europe.’
It is true that Sweden was not a country of immigration, and nor were most European countries at the time, but in retrospect it also feels feeble. That sense of guilt perhaps explains why in more recent years the country has become the most generous recipient of refugees in the world, if one excludes countries taking in neighbouring populations.
Rather understandably, the Latin American representatives reasoned that, if the Europeans wouldn’t take the refugees, neither should they, and made excuses about needing agricultural workers not urban workers and intellectuals. ‘Messieurs les francais, Messieurs les anglais, Messieurs les hollandaise, it is for you to act first’, the Colombian representative declared.
The event was characterised by skirting around the issue although ‘some representatives were rather more blunt. The Australian delegate, trade minister Sir Thomas White, stated unequivocally that non-British immigration was less desirable for Australia. The country had “no real racial problems”, he explained, and was “not desirous” of importing them.’ The Swiss announced that they would also be imposing ‘very stringent controls’ over migration.
Only one country made any sort of offer, and even this was a bit of a stunt. The Dominican Republic had sent Virgilio Trujillo Molina, brother of its brutal dictator, Rafael Trujillo, who announced that ‘large areas of fertile, well-irrigated land’ would provide ‘specially advantageous concessions to Austrian and German exiles’. Yet even here the small print made it hard for all but a handful to come, and it was essentially a PR stunt for a country which the previous year had killed 20,000 Haitians in the ‘Parsley Massacre’, so called because of the use of shibboleths.
The conference came to an end on Friday, 15 July, closing with British representative Lord Winterton praise for the ‘harmonious conclusion’ of proceedings.
For those present at Évian, the conference appeared to have been broadly satisfactory. The problem of Jewish emigration had been aired and discussed, and a framework had been established to monitor it in the future. The delegates were satisfied: they had played golf, gambled in the casinos and enjoyed a gala supper of sole meunière.
Crucially, no country had been forced to act against its will and the clamour of voices demanding that something must be done had been temporarily stilled. Moreover, with the establishment of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, a mechanism for the eventual alleviation of the suffering of German Jewry had been set up. Little wonder, perhaps, that Lord Winterton would laud the conference’s anodyne resolutions as ‘a very encouraging outcome.’
The delegates were satisfied, because the arrival of Jewish refugees would have been difficult to sell to voters. While anti-Semitism was common, even if far less so in western than in eastern Europe, immigration in general is always unpopular. Until recently, and the shift in attitudes under the Great Awokening, this has even been true of the United States, which had imposed stricter immigration laws in the 1920s reducing numbers from south and eastern Europe.
Yet Americans, for obvious reasons, have always been more generous to immigrants, and it is worth pointing out that, later in the War and when the US public became aware of the persecution of the Jews – although ignorant of its full scale – there was strong support for giving sanctuary. Of course, by then it was too late.
For Jews, the conference was a bitter disappointment, and Golda Meir, present at Évian as an ‘observer from Palestine’, lamented that she watched with ‘a mixture of sorrow, rage, frustration and horror’, and wanted to scream at the delegates that the ‘numbers’ and ‘quotas’ they talked of referred to human beings.
The world’s press was similarly unimpressed.
Time magazine regretted that though ‘all nations present expressed sympathy’ for the Jews, ‘few offered to allow them within their borders’. William Shirer, the American CBS correspondent in Berlin, concurred, expressing his doubt that ‘much will be done’ and lamenting that the British, French and Americans were seemingly unwilling to offend Hitler. ‘It’s an absurd situation’, he noted in his diary. ‘They want to appease the man who is responsible for their problem.’’
‘German newspapers, in contrast, had a field day, pointing out the hypocrisy of the democracies in criticising German actions against people whom they were themselves unwilling to aid. The Nazi Party newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, carried the headline ‘No One Wants to Have Them’, and the Danziger Vorposten even suggested that the conference at Évian had justified German policies against the Jews. Later that year, at the annual Nuremberg rally, Hitler lambasted the democratic world’s failure to help the Jews: ‘No help’, he mocked, ‘just moralising.’
You might even say they were virtue signalling.
Moorhouse concludes that ‘It would be unfair, of course, to criticise the delegates at Évian too strongly. After all, they could not see the future, they could not have known what horrors history had in store for the unfortunates whose fates they had momentarily considered.
‘Nonetheless, their empty sympathies did nothing to ease the situation, and it did not take long for what had become known as “the Jewish question” to return to centre stage.’
The persecution intensified, and after the new Nazi Gauleiter in Vienna, Josef Bürckel, publicly declared that the former Austrian capital was ‘overfilled with Jews’, a renewed panic set in.
In response, some Austrian Jews stormed the British legation, begging for visas, but British officials, though sympathetic, were very limited in their options. Since the Anschluss in March, Britain had tightened its rules regarding the issuing of visas to refugees, imposing a new visa requirement on Germans and Austrians, and banning the issuing of temporary visas.
… some British officials in Vienna – led by the passport control officer (and SIS agent) Thomas Kendrick – decided to bend the rules. Embarking on a humanitarian mission, Kendrick employed a number of tricks to get the desperate out of Vienna; from simply issuing visas to those who did not meet the criteria, to providing false baptismal certificates and even smuggling people out of the country in his diplomatic car. Among those whom Kendrick saved was a young George Weidenfeld, who would go on to found the Weidenfeld & Nicolson publishing house, as well as two brothers, Georg and Johann Schwarz, who, once in Britain, would change their surnames to ‘Kendrick’ in recognition of their saviour. It was estimated that Kendrick and his staff issued as many as 200 identity documents per day that summer.
With this memory, it is easy to see why so many people engaged in supporting migrants today, whether through campaigning charities, sea rescues or political activism to stop the Rwanda plan, feel that they are following in that noble tradition. I happen to think the issue today is quantitatively different in countless ways, and that history rarely repeats itself; some migrants are escaping war, but many more are fleeing conditions of poverty or forms of oppression, and their situation is not comparable to the 1930s. On top of this, the numbers are also vastly different, and likely to lead to further immigration, and this vast movement has already significantly changed our lives, and will continue to do so. But I can also see why the tone of the debate triggers our collective memory, and why we can’t escape from 1938. I can also see that many of the arguments made against refugee settlement today sound like those made at Évian - because they are, essentially.
Some will see footage of migrants arriving and see an invader, while others will see a victim in desperate need; historically, many people have been both. So while the Guardian framed the story of the most recent arrivals through the death of a child, many Twitter accounts see it in a rather different light.
History is a prison of memory, and as Moorhouse writes: ‘Of course, those dealing with the thorny question of Jewish emigration in 1938 and 1939 could not have imagined that Hitler’s Germany would soon seek to exterminate European Jewry. They did not know what horrors were coming. Nonetheless, in the months and years that were to follow, they and their peers would be tested anew. The vast majority of them would be found wanting.’ I can see why many people worry that history might condemn them too.
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