Issue 182 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review

World War 2: 50th Anniversary

A helping hand to Hitler

Fifty years ago, news of the full horror of the concentration camps began to filter out of Germany as invading troops advanced. Henry Maitles reveals the collaboration of Western governments with the Nazi regime and its attacks on Jews
Sweeping up after the pogroms of Kristallnacht
Sweeping up after the pogroms of Kristallnacht

The Second World War was, we are constantly told, a war for freedom and democracy. The truth is somewhat different. In particular, the attitude of the Western democracies before and during the war to the persecution of Jews that culminated in the Holocaust was racist and defined by self interest. Sections of the British establishment from 1929 onwards saw Nazi Germany as the major danger to British interests worldwide. But before then there was a significant pro-German lobby which saw Hitler and the Nazis as a positive feature.

Why did more Jews not flee from the persecution in Central Europe when they still had the chance? Some historians claim that there were tremendous ties of homeland and family which meant that 'abroad for the great majority of the population was a remote and vague landscape.' But this ignores the experience of Central and Eastern European Jewry in the 20th century, which was one of mass emigration. Some 4 million Jews left Central Europe between 1880 and 1930.

The main reason why Jews did not flee in greater numbers was the attitude of the Western democracies and their immigration controls. The atmosphere of hostility towards Jewish immigration was central to creating a feeling of hopelessness for potential migrants. Britain sent a number of refugees back to Germany where it was Nazi government policy to put returnees in concentration camps. The British government's own figures are quite startling. A total of 484 were sent back in 1933, 378 in 1934, 365 in 1935, 412 in 1936, 438 in 1937, 489 in 1938 and 191 in the first six months of 1939. When a small number of Jews fled by air to Britain after Germany occupied the city of Memel in March 1939, those without the necessary papers were put on the next plane back to Europe.

The signals given out were clearly designed to discourage Jews from fleeing west. The British government wanted to bring to Britain those Jews 'eminent in science, technology, art, music etc' and not 'persons likely to seek employment, agents and middlemen, minor musicians, commercial artists, the rank and file of doctors, lawyers, dentists: The test for admission was 'whether or not the applicant is likely to be an asset to the UK: In July 1939 a foreign office official claimed that 'a great many...are not in any sense political refugees... Many are quite unsuitable as emigrants and would be a very difficult problem if brought here.'

British policy dovetailed nicely with some of the extremist statements in the House of Commons by the strident anti-immigration lobby. As early as March 1933 there was a Commons debate on Jewish immigration. Conservative MP Edward Doran asked the prime minister if he would be taking any extra measures to prevent alien Jews from Germany entering Britain. Doran claimed that:

Doran returned to this theme a month later. He asked whether the home secretary was aware that 'this invasion of undesirable aliens is causing resentment and grave concern in this country, and can he see his way to give them notice to quit before serious trouble develops?' In May 1935 Lord Winterton said there were certain 'vocal and influential sections of opinion in this country, such as trade unions, Jewish organisations and the Labour Party' which kept criticising Hitler and the Nazis, despite the fact that he believed the German people were going from strength to strength.

There was pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic and antiimmigration sentiment among many of the British establishment. Admiral Sir Barry Domville was very sympathetic to Hitler. In 1935 he wrote:

One of Stanley Baldwin's advisers, Thomas Jones, was of the opinion that the British ambassador to Germany, Sir Eric Phillips, should be replaced by a man able, 'to enter with sympathetic interest into Hitler's aspirations'. Possibly his advice was taken when Neville Henderson was appointed ambassador to Germany in May 1937. He wrote in the Times that, 'far too many people have an erroneous conception of what the National Socialist regime really stands for. Otherwise they would lay less stress on Nazi dictatorship and much more emphasis on the great social experiment which is being tried out.'

Lord Halifax visited Hitler on behalf of the British government in November 1937 and told him that there were certain people in Britain, such as the Church and the Labour Party, who criticised the Nazis, but they 'were not fully informed', and that Hitler had performed, 'great services...by preventing the entry of communism' into Germany, thus barring, 'its passage further west.'

The author of a book titled I Know These Dictators called for more understanding of Hitler who he claimed had a 'human, pleasant personality... Fondness for children and dogs is regarded by many as evidence of good nature. This is a strong trait in Hitler's character.'

The British government could not publicly endorse these views but privately did all it could to ensure that not too many Jews were encouraged to leave central Europe.

Jewish refugees looking for a safe haven
Jewish refugees looking for a safe haven

Western governments used the Evian Conference of 1938 to send an unmistakable message to Eastern European governments and the Jewish populations that Jewish immigrants and refugees would not be accepted by Britain, France or the US. The British delegation to Evian was told that it would be 'desirable that the results of the meeting should not act as an incentive to these [Central and Eastern European] governments to increase the pressure on their Jewish minorities.' There was to be no welcome for refugees. The Australian delegate, TW White, stated that, 'as we have no racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.'

Britain was not alone in this policy. For the US, with the added barrier of the Atlantic Ocean, tight immigration policy between 1932 and 1938 led to a net outflow in migration. Immigration statistics reveal a dramatic change in policy in the 1930s. Between 1820 and 1933 more than 37 million immigrants entered the US. From 1933 to 1943 only 341,567 citizens (Jewish and non-Jewish) from Germany and its allies were permitted to enter.

The Jewish vote had switched dramatically to the Democratic Party from 1928 onwards and by the mid-1930s the bulk of America's 4,770,000 Jews were loyal to Roosevelt and the New Deal. During the Depression the Roosevelt administration steered a course between strong restrictions on refugees and liberalism. This might be strong on rhetoric yet it offered little in real help. A bill which would have eased the harsh immigration laws by allowing in an extra 20,000 German-Jewish children failed in Congress in 1939. Less than 500 German Jewish children were allowed in to the US between 1938 and 1939.

France was the obvious haven for refugees before the war. But during 1938 the French government passed a series of laws imposing harsh restrictions on immigrant entry. Following the Kristallnacht pogroms of November 1938 in Germany the French border police sent back escaping Jews to a destination of concentration camps in Germany. France was the only major Western government not to publicly criticise Germany for the pogroms. When Von Ribbentrop, Hitler's foreign minister, visited Paris in 1938, two Jewish ministers were not invited to the state banquet, presumably in case they were an embarrasment to this leading Nazi.

It is easier now to see why more Jews did not flee westwards--there was no country willing to take them. Finland, for example, introduced stringent controls after the Evian Conference, refusing transit to Austrian Jews with the necessary papers for US immigration and ordering the ship back to Germany. Three refugees committed suicide by throwing themselves overboard rather than return to the waiting arms of fascism.

Even during the war the attitude of hostility to Jewish refugees was evident. In 1943 there was a proposal from Sweden that, if Britain and the US were willing to pay the costs and agree to looking after them after the war, there was the possibility of 20,000 Jewish children being released from Central Europe to Sweden. Private money was available but the State Department in the US was not enthusiastic. One official noted that, 'any rescue concentrating on Jewish children might antagonise the Nazis and prevent other possible cooperative acts.' The US did not want to antagonise the Nazis in the middle of the war! The proposal was dropped.

As the war went on and the Holocaust intensified, the Western Allies refused repeated requests to bomb either the crematoria in the death camps or the railway tracks leading to the camps. For the ruling classes of the Western democracies dead Jews were better anti-German propaganda than live ones.


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