• Email
  • Print

Mean Spirits

Britain and the Jews of Europe 1939-1945

by Bernard Wasserstein
Oxford University Press, for the Institute of Jewish Affairs, 389 pp., $17.95

In a well-known work on the Eichmann trial Hannah Arendt perversely floated the notion of the banality of evil. What seems to lie behind this idea is that Eichmann was no more than a dim little man whose crimes were simply a byproduct of the daily official routine to which it was his duty as a bureaucrat to attend. But bureaucrats are also human beings, and part of what makes a human being is the capacity to make choices, and specifically moral ones. Contrary to Miss Arendt’s glib phrase, choices of this kind can never be banal. If they were, we would not, every time we hear or read about the Nazi treatment of the Jews, feel intimately and profoundly devastated. The horror which Nazi actions will continue to inspire arises in part from our inability to fathom, and fully account for, their monstrousness. The malice which, without the shadow of a provocation, and for no seeming advantage, diligently and relentlessly destroyed the happiness, security, and lives of whole multitudes will always be matter for awed puzzlement. None of its manifestations can possibly ever be judged banal.

The multitudes who were thus hounded to their deaths were citizens or subjects of states on which they had a legitimate claim for protection. This they were in most cases denied. Fellow-feeling was generally stilled, the Jews were isolated from other citizens and made into aliens and outlaws. The achievement in these countries of a Rechtstaat, the result of centuries of civility, supposed to restrain the violence of lawless appetite and secure for all undisturbed enjoyment of the fruits of their labor, was by the devilry of the Nazis suddenly destroyed. Poles, Hungarians, Rumanians, Slovaks, Croats, Italians, Frenchmen (both men in authority and ordinary people) became in this the accomplices of their conquerors, and were tainted with their evil. Such was the bitter culmination of a European development which at its inception a hundred and fifty years earlier had seemed full of promise—the promise of a new social contract to bind the inhabitants of a country into one political community, in which religious belief or ethnic origin would have no bearing on the citizen’s rights or his duties.

A merciful Providence prevented the stain of this abomination from spreading to the English-speaking world, where relations with the Jews are not burdened by the memory of those unspeakable crimes and of the murder of trust between neighbors and fellow citizens. But the fate of the Jews on the European continent could not but concern, in a variety of ways, the British government (which for a time stood alone in facing the triumphant Nazis), and the US government as well. How the British (and to a lesser extent the American) government reacted to the Jewish predicament is the subject of Dr. Wasserstein’s lucid, comprehensive, indeed exemplary, account.

The Nazi war on the Jews began in 1933, and it created a stream of refugees which went on swelling during the Thirties as the Germans annexed Austria and the Sudetenland and extended their control over the remains of Czechoslovakia. By September 1939 some 50,000 refugees had been admitted to Great Britain. The outbreak of war of course created a new situation. British policy on refugees had to be strictly subordinated to security considerations, and still more strictly subordinated to the overriding aim of winning the war. For a variety of reasons, the authorities decided to bar the admission of refugees from enemy-controlled territory. It was feared—and the fear was a reasonable one—that enemy agents might in this way be smuggled into the country. It was also feared that an increase in the number of alien Jewish refugees would increase anti-Semitism in Great Britain. On the evidence that Dr. Wasserstein presents, this fear counted a great deal with Herbert Morrison, the then Home Secretary, who judged it wiser not to exacerbate these sentiments and thus risk an increase in social tensions at a time when the population was anyway under great strain.

Also, after the French debacle, there was fear of an imminent German invasion, and this led to a great official and popular scare about the so-called fifth column which it was believed had greatly helped in securing the swift German victories on the continent. Enemy aliens, most of whom were actually refugees from Nazi persecution, were indiscriminately interned and some were even transported to Canada and Australia. But shortly afterward public protests and private representations led to these measures being in great part rescinded and most of the internees were released.

But, as Dr. Wasserstein shows, this was by no means the whole picture. When every allowance is made for security considerations, for the anxiety not to add to the burdens of a beleaguered, densely populated island, and for the desire not to exacerbate popular antipathies and resentments, it remains the case that the Jews were treated with a harsh and punctilious strictness which allowed for no compassion at all for victims who were known to be the special target of the Nazis’ absolute malevolence. Thus, in contrast to the prohibition on the entry of Jewish refugees (as being enemy aliens or, as one official put it, merely “racial refugees”) after the declaration of war, preparations were made in 1940 for receiving up to 300,000 Belgian and Dutch refugees. These did not in the event arrive, but it was never suggested that their place could be taken by Jews. Again, inquiries addressed to colonial governors only yielded the conclusion that in a very extensive empire there was room only for a mere handful of refugees.

It is not as though what was happening to Jews under Nazi domination was unknown to the Allies. Reports about deportations to the east, about the special murder squads, about the gas chambers were not tardy in reaching them, as Wasserstein makes clear. And he shows that they were received with a certain amount of skepticism, as coming, to use the expression of a Foreign Office official, from “these wailing Jews.” Yet enough evidence accumulated by 1943 for the British and American governments to be moved, by public pressure and agitation, to call a conference to consider what could be done to bring succor to these unfortunates. The conference met at Bermuda in April 1943, but after “ten agreeable days of discussion,” as the report of the British delegates put it, nothing substantial was accomplished. In a letter to Anthony Eden, the head of the British delegation, a junior minister in the Foreign Office, explained some of the reasons why the results were so meager:

We are [Richard Law wrote] subjected to extreme pressure from an alliance of Jewish organisations and Archbishops. There is no counter-pressure as yet from the people who are afraid of an alien immigration into the country because it will put their livelihood in jeopardy after the war. I have no doubt in my own mind that that feeling is widespread in England, but it is not organized so we do not feel it. In the United States, on the other hand, there is added to the pressure of the Jewish organizations the pressure of that body of opinion which, without being purely anti-Semitic, is jealous and fearful of an alien immigration per se. And in contradistinction to the position at home that body of opinion is very highly organized indeed. The Americans, therefore, while they must do their utmost to placate Jewish opinion, dare not offend “American” opinion.

There is no need to add anything to Law’s words in order to account for the unwillingness of both the British and American governments to relax in any way the ban they had imposed on the entry of refugees into their territories during the war. This actual policy imparts an air of odiousness to their frequent public declarations of sympathy for the Jews and solicitude for their fate. What makes these declarations even more odious is that the Allies were utterly unwilling to allow foodstuffs to be sent to the inmates of ghettos and concentration camps. The reason given was that this would breach the blockade which formed an essential part of the war against the Axis powers.

However, as Dr. Wasserstein reveals, the sacrosanctity of the blockade did not prevent the Allies from supplying the entire food needs of the population of Axis-occupied Greece from 1942 until the end of the war. Up to 35,000 tons of foodstuffs per month were permitted to be sent to Greece. In contrast the International Red Cross was allowed to send no more than a total of 4,500 tons for the use of inmates of concentration camps between 1943 and 1945. This difference in treatment, heinous in its callousness and its inexplicable partiality, is one of the most striking points made in Wasserstein’s book.

From time to time, particularly in the later stages of the war, the Nazis and some of their allies floated schemes for the exchange of Jews against dollars or supplies of one kind or another. Of these the most famous was that connected with the mission of Joel Brand which Eichmann despatched from Hungary, and of which Dr. Wasserstein gives a full account. Such schemes were naturally viewed with great suspicion by the Allied authorities. There was the fear that negotiations would be used by the Nazis for driving a wedge between the Anglo-Americans and the Soviets. There was also understandable reluctance to supply the enemy with resources that would increase his ability to wage war. There were, again, legitimate doubts about the bona fides of both agents and principals, and of their ability to make good their promises.

But other considerations entered into the reluctance or the plain refusal to countenance such schemes, as Wasserstein’s account of an episode in Rumania shows. In 1943, it was thought that the Rumanian government might be interested in allowing, against payment of a per capita departure tax, 70,000 Jews, who had been transported in 1941 to Transnistria, to leave. The Foreign Office and the State Department had misgivings about giving in to blackmail of this kind which might, in the words of a Foreign Office telegram, “open up endless process on the part of Germany and her satellites in South-Eastern Europe of unloading, at a given price, all their unwanted nationals on overseas countries.”

However, Jewish pressure in Washington was successful in persuading Roosevelt to approve a scheme whereby $170,000 would be paid by American Jewish organizations into a blocked account in a Swiss bank. Against the credit of these blocked dollars Jewish merchants in Rumania would make available Rumanian currency to finance the exchange. The scheme was, however, held up because of strenuous British objections relating to issues other than the blockade. As the Ministry of Economic Warfare explained to the US Embassy in London, the Foreign Office were “concerned with the difficulties of disposing of any considerable number of Jews should they be rescued from enemy-occupied territory.” Seventy thousand refugees would be “almost if not quite impossible to deal with.”

The evidence in Wasserstein’s book, then, justifies the impression that both officials and political figures, aware of the catastrophe which was engulfing the Jews of Europe, yet displayed a strong reluctance to help, and a striking absence of goodwill. In one remarkable episode, moreover, the officials must be said to have shown positive ill-will and, by using the arts of obstruction which the members of any paper-pushing organization so easily master, actually managed to nullify the clear instructions of their political superiors. On July 7, 1944, Churchill, responding to a request from Weizmann, asked for an investigation of the feasibility of bombing Auschwitz, where at that time the Hungarian Jews were being systematically murdered, and Eden conveyed this request to the Secretary of State for Air.

After some toing and froing between the officials in the Foreign Office and the Air Ministry, the latter decided, some five weeks later, that they needed exact topographical details to enable them to judge whether the operation was feasible. The Jewish Agency, being informed on August 18 that these details were required, supplied them on the same day. However, a Foreign Office official, Ian Henderson, decided that the idea of bombing Auschwitz was “fantastic and should be dropped.” He therefore took it upon himself to shelve the matter and not send the plans and information to the Air Ministry. Ministers were not told of the decision which their officials had taken without authority, and which amounted to a clear circumvention of the prime minister’s orders. Whether the bombing would have been feasible, or whether it would have accomplished anything, is here beside the point.

The official British attitude to the fate of European Jewry was throughout powerfully, even decisively, influenced by considerations relating to Palestine. Immediately before the outbreak of war, a White Paper had imposed severe restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine. A total of 75,000 Jews would be admitted in the following five years, and unless the Arabs were prepared to allow it, no further immigration would take place. The White Paper, and its immigration provisions in particular, remained the bedrock of British policy in Palestine throughout the war. The calculations which led to the adoption of, and the persistence in, such a policy may be exemplified by a memorandum of Eden’s circulated to a Cabinet Committee on Palestine in September 1944:

Obviously, if British interests in the Middle East are so important that we cannot afford to alienate the Arabs, it is essential to find some policy in which the Arabs can be expected to acquiesce even if it means the strict control of Jewish immigration into Palestine.

Even when it was first proposed, the policy described in Eden’s memorandum could have been criticized as resting on two muddled premises: first, that the “Arabs” were an undifferentiated entity toward which it was possible to adopt a single policy, and this policy, if successful, would do away with difficulties in Iraq, the Levant, Egypt, and elsewhere; and second, that British interests in the Middle East, great as they admittedly were, could be made safe if only the right policy were found and applied in Palestine. These assumptions were uncritically, indeed blindly, accepted by officials in Palestine and in the Colonial Office, and by almost all ministers, Churchill being a notable exception. The Palestine administration, and the Colonial and Foreign Offices therefore devoted their great resources and considerable ingenuity to preventing Jews from leaving Europe lest they might succeed in reaching the shores of Palestine.

So successful were they that by the end of the war admissions to Palestine fell considerably short of the numbers allowed in the White Paper. The best known episode connected with the strict and uncompromising application of this policy is that of the yacht Struma which left Constanza in December 1941 carrying 769 refugees and arrived in Istanbul after a three-day voyage with her engine broken down. This miserable affair, which ended when the ship was towed out to sea by the Turks two months later and sank in obscure circumstances with only one refugee surviving, is set out in detail by Dr. Wasserstein.

The case of the Struma, though only one of a number, was particularly horrific, and may be considered as a landmark in the worsening relations between the Jews of Palestine and the Palestine Administration. The Turks behaved with utter callousness. Among British officials and ministers two stand out for humanity, in which their colleagues showed themselves, even when allowance is made for the grimness of the times, to be signally deficient. One was Oliver Harvey, Eden’s private secretary, who agitated for a change in policy, writing in a minute: “Can nothing be done for these unfortunate refugees? Must H[is] M[ajesty’s] G[overnment] take such an inhuman decision? If they go back they will all be killed.”

The other was the British Ambassador in Ankara, Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, who ventured to tell the Turks that he did not like their proposal to send the ship back into the Black Sea: “If the Turkish Government must interfere with the ship on the ground that they could not keep the distressed Jews in Turkey, let her rather go towards the Dardanelles. It might be that if they reached Palestine, they might despite their illegality receive humane treatment.”

This language dismayed the officials in the Colonial Office, one of whom, S.E.V. Luke, wrote in a minute that the ambassador, with his “absurdly misjudged humanitarian grounds,” had spoiled the whole effect, exactly when the Turkish government was showing signs of “being ready to help frustrating these illegal immigrant ships.” Another, E.B. Boyd, lamented that Knatchbull-Hugessen had failed to avail himself of “a heaven-sent opportunity” to have these people sent back to their port of origin.

In Wasserstein’s account, one of those who was most adamant in treating refugees with utmost harshness was the High Commissioner in Palestine, Sir Harold MacMichael. He held the unshakable belief that the White Paper policy was absolutely necessary, and that unless it was carried out strictly and punctiliously the Arabs of Palestine would pose a threat to security. Even at the time this judgment could have been seriously questioned, since the Arab rebellion of 1936-1939 had been ended not by the concessions which the White Paper made, but by military operations which had broken the power of the rebel bands. The Arabs of Palestine, again, were leaderless, and in no position by themselves to embark on a new rebellion. MacMichael did greatly fear the consequences of transgressing the White Paper, and this fear governed his actions; but when all allowance is made, there remains in his actions a residue of meanness which sometimes borders on the monstrous.

In 1944, for example, the Jewish Agency suggested to the Colonial Office that in order to save some Hungarian Jews from slaughter they could be issued with fictitious documents of Palestine citizenship (holders of which the Germans seemed to treat somewhat less barbarously). The Jewish Agency was prepared to give a written promise that no claim to Palestine citizenship would subsequently be made on the strength of these documents. The Permanent Under-Secretary at the Colonial Office received this suggestion sympathetically. On being consulted MacMichael expressed “grave misgivings” at “so demonstrable an act of bad faith” which might shock the Germans and make them unwilling to contemplate exchanges between German civilians and Palestinians. He was also unwilling to put any credence on any undertaking by the Jewish Agency “formal or otherwise” not to claim Palestine citizenship for the holders of these false documents.

In another instance, MacMichael’s behavior deserves to be called dishonorable. In July 1940, arrangements were being made to evacuate Polish soldiers from southeastern Europe to Palestine. The High Commissioner cabled to the Colonial Office to “suggest that only non-Jews be regarded as acceptable,” adding that he had “reason to believe that [the] Polish authorities would be willing to arrange that only non-Jews should come to Palestine.” In dogged pursuit of his policy, MacMichael was, then, not above inciting, and making use of, the anti-Semitism for which official Poland was widely known, at the expense of Allied soldiers subject to the same dangers as their Christian comrades. Together with the refusal to relax the blockade to send food to the inmates of concentration camps (in glaring contrast to the way in which Greeks under German occupation were treated), this incident is the most shocking of those described in this book.

The picture which Dr. Wasserstein gives is thus an ugly one. In his diary Sir Alexander Cadogan (who was head of the Foreign Office during the war) voices his suspicion that Sir Samuel Hoare would have been, in case of defeat, a capitulationist and a collaborator. Some of the figures paraded here before us give rise to the same kind of speculation, so mean-spirited do they seem. Others, though not lacking in courage, give the impression of a hide-bound narrow-mindedness which passes over into stupidity. A few figures stand out for their generosity, humanity, or plain decency, Churchill being pre-eminent among them. Lord Cranborne, who was briefly Colonial Secretary in 1942, infused into his department a “new and somewhat more compassionate spirit.” A temporary civil servant in the Refugee Department of the Foreign Office, R.T.E. Latham, a brilliant legal scholar who died young, is a striking contrast (as may be seen from his minutes) to his colleagues in their callousness, cynicism, and occasional, ghastly, flippancy.

It must, of course, never be forgotten that the Nazis were the root-cause of the evil. Their slime spread in ever-widening ripples and tainted not only those whom they occupied or dominated, but also some of their opponents. Dr. Wasserstein concludes by remarking that there is some truth in saying that if Britain’s record on the Jewish question was unimpressive, that of other countries was often far worse. “But,” he adds, “it was not by the standards of others that a lone and justifiably proud Britain chose to fight without allies in this her ‘finest hour.”’

Letters

The Banality of Evil’ March 20, 1980

  • Email
  • Print