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The Remains of der Tag

Farewell Leicester Square

Betty Miller
London: Persephone Books, 309 pp., £10.00


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 British reactions to minorities and outsiders shows how British identity is created and interpreted…. The story of the refugees is not only a chapter in the history of the Jews—rather, the plight of the Jews and the British response to it are necessary starting points for an understanding of British values.

This at once raises the only serious problem with this otherwise excellent book. What does London mean by her use of the word “British”? She writes:

The fact is that Britain did not welcome the refugees with open arms…. This book, while respecting memories of British efforts to help Jewish refugees before the war, places the humanitarian elements of policy within their context—a context of self-interest, opportunism and an overriding concern with control.

The author’s own parents were Jewish refugees to Britain, and her Austrian mother was one of those admitted because she was prepared to work as a domestic servant. Honorably, Louise London admits that they had expressed nothing but praise and gratitude to the country which had taken them in. Nevertheless, as these quotations show, she does come dangerously close to identifying the views and values of the British public with the views and values which can be read from the files of government departments.

This sort of conflation makes for bad history. It would take some temerity on the part of a historian to attribute—say—British policy in Greece after 1944 or in Palestine after 1936 to the thought-waves of some essential British identity. It’s true that London does recognize that her approach is questionable, and she writes about “heartfelt [British] public reactions to the revelation of the Nazi conspiracy to murder European Jewry.” But she insists that “British policy-making, while hardly populist, was not a conspiracy perpetrated on an unsuspecting public. It was, in the end, an expression of the values of the society that produced it.”

I am not sure what this means. It is perfectly true that the British in the 1930s were, in general, placidly xenophobic and disposed to anti-Semitism (though not to fear of Jews). But the fact that they disliked Jews did not prevent them from feeling a much greater dislike of what Adolf Hitler was doing to the Jews of Germany and Austria. (These refugees were to re-learn something which their predecessors had discovered over many centuries: that those who rescue Jews almost always do so not out of love for them but out of hatred for their persecutors.) One lesson which London’s book seems to demonstrate, perhaps without intending to, is that British public emotion was the force that frequently drove the bureaucracy to be more generous than it had wished to be. Especially after the war began in 1939, there were subjects on which the government was able effectively to steer and even create public opinion. But opinion about the treatment of European Jews and other immigrants was not one of them. This is a matter on which cabinets and home secretaries in particular were traditionally distrusted. There have been times when British voters have been more hostile to immigrants than their government, as well as times—like the 1930s and 1940s—when they have been more tolerant, but on balance this distrust has been good news for human rights. The wisest maxim is that a British government treats immigrants as it would treat its own citizens if it dared.

The other context for this book—background rather than foreground—is the wider Historikerstreit of the last thirty years over “Allied guilt for the Holocaust.” Did covert anti-Semitism help to frame immigration controls and quotas in Western Europe and America that effectively left millions of Jews trapped in Nazi Europe? Did the same prejudice block rescue plans which appeared in the course of the war, culminating in suggestions to bomb Auschwitz or the railroad lines leading to it? These questions prompted what is now a vast literature; its most influential works, arguing that the Allies were grossly complicit by omission, are probably those by David S. Wyman (for example The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941–1945, published in 1984). Rebuttals soon appeared. The Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer has been the most prominent scholar to criticize the “Allied guilt” thesis in its most extreme forms. The counter-blast materialized in 1997 with William D. Rubinstein’s The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews from the Nazis.

Rubinstein, in a pugnacious, often overexcited, but sometimes devastating book, defends not only the British government and the Roosevelt administration but (like Bauer) the much-execrated Jewish organizations and rescue committees in Britain and the United States. On the pre-1939 refugee question, he is dramatic:

There cannot be the slightest doubt that a consensus exists among virtually all historians of this subject that particularly high barriers existed to Jewish refugee emigration, resulting in the needless deaths of tens of thousands of German and other Reich Jews…. So universal is this consensus that challenging it would appear to be the historiographical equivalent of demonstrating that the sun revolves around the earth.

But this Galileo of Holocaust studies goes on to prove, to his own satisfaction, that the “needless deaths” interpretation is “almost the exact opposite of the truth.” “Fully 72 percent of German Jews escaped before emigration became impossible,” he writes. Given the restriction on all immigration throughout most of the world in that period, this was not a failure by the democracies but “constituted one of the most successful and far-reaching programs of rescue of a beleaguered and persecuted people ever seen up to that time.” The assumption that the democracies reduced their refugee intake as war approached is the reverse of what happened. Indeed, if war had broken out in 1942 rather than 1939, “it seems very likely that virtually every single Jew in the Nazi Reich would have emigrated to safety….” Rubinstein adds the obvious pointthat the overwhelming mass of Hit-ler’s Jewish victims did not live in the Reich at all, but in countries whose Jewish populations saw no reason, until it was too late, to abandon their homes and flee into exile. Allied co-responsibility for their fate therefore does not arise, unless we believe that Allied bombing or the parachuting of sabotage teams could have prevented the last phases of the Holocaust. And that Rubenstein emphatically does not believe.

Louise London mentions Rubinstein’s book only once, cautiously. It is a pity that, writing so soon after the publication of The Myth of Rescue, she does not engage with its arguments apart from a remark that they are “not always underpinned by archival evidence.” On the facts, there is often common ground between London and Rubinstein. She seems skeptical about whether Auschwitz and its rail links could or should have been bombed. Her view about the British role in other wartime “rescue” schemes is critical but pessimistic: more should often have been done, but nothing that could have been done would have made more than a marginal difference or saved many lives. On pre-war refugee policies, on the other hand, the two historians offer figures whose implications are very different, although they cannot be tested against each other. Rubinstein has his “72 percent” figure for the proportion of German Jews who “escaped” (to where?). London, in contrast, states that the Central British Fund for the Relief of German Jewry (CBF) had between 500,000 and 600,000 files on individual cases by the outbreak of war in 1939. She sets that against the presence of 60,000 to 70,000 Jewish refugees in Britain at that date and deduces that only about one entry application in ten was granted. “The conclusion cannot be avoided: escape to Britain was an exception for a lucky few; exclusion was the fate of the majority.”

This leaves a few questions open, all the same. If we accept the CBF figure (these were presumably informal inquiries about the possibility of refuge as well as files about existing applications for entry), then most inquirers plainly did not enter Britain. But if “exclusion” covers only those who formally applied for visas or landing permits, then the picture changes. In the first half of 1939 alone, Britain issued some 90,000 permissions to enter the country to Germans and Austrians (most of them Jewish refugees). And by then many consular officials abroad (though not the butler-fixated Mr. Courtney in Paris) were issuing British visas almost on demand, tens of thousands of which were never used because their bearers escaped to some other destination.

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