Farewell Leicester Square
Could a Jew become an English butler? Or was this, perhaps, one of those mysteries in which training could never be a substitute for the right genetic stuff? As fugitives from Nazi Germany pressed into British consulates all over Europe during the Thirties, passport clerks challenged them to show talents which made them worthy of a visa to the Sceptred Isle. On such fatuities, human lives could depend.
In June 1939, the British Home Office attempted to tighten the rules limiting the admission of refugees from Nazi Europe. One loophole, instinctively kept open by the sort of people who ran Britain sixty years ago, was for foreigners prepared to work as domestic servants. This ridiculous exception was to save the lives of thousands of German and Austrian Jews applying for visas, above all the lives of women. But, Louise London writes,
The British Passport Control Officer in Paris, G.W. Courtney, doubted the suitability of many applicants. He cited the case of an upper middle class doctor, who, on being told that his proposal to work as a tutor did not constitute domestic service, announced that he would work as a butler. “This,” Courtney declared, “is absurd, as butlering requires a lifelong experience.”
Louise London’s account does not tell us whether a man ended his life in the gas chambers because of some Wooster’s veneration for the paradigm butler. It does, however, confirm that a part of Britain’s governing elite and bureaucracy lived in a dream world, insulated against many realities. The achievement of her careful, engrossing book is to show how “the official mind” worked when faced by the developing and changing challenges of the Jewish tragedy after 1933. These challenges, as London shows, were not only generated by the series of sudden events in the Reich or in Nazi-occupied Europe which demanded reassessment of British policies: the Anschluss with Austria, Kristallnacht, the fall of Czechoslovakia, the ultimate recognition in wartime that a program of total extermination was under way. This was also an internal struggle: the Home Office, above all, beating off entreaties to be more generous from other departments (the Treasury, especially), from parliamentarians like the irrepressible Labour MP Eleanor Rathbone, from Jewish organizations, and from British public opinion at large.
Whitehall and the Jews has to be read in a context, against a contemporary landscape which has both foreground and background. The foreground is twenty-first-century British policy toward immigrants and asylum-seekers (London is a lawyer specializing in immigration cases). Although Robin Cook, as foreign secretary in Tony Blair’s government, proclaimed in 1997 that under New Labour there would be an “ethical dimension” to British foreign policy, the Home Office (under Jack Straw as home secretary) has maintained a strikingly mean treatment of immigrants, apparently intended to have popular appeal. Louise London clearly has an eye on this apparent continuity with Home Office and Cabinet attitudes in the 1930s and 1940s:
Our response to others teaches us to understand ourselves. The analysis of …