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.
What Louise London has done, by sifting through the archives of government and Cabinet papers, is to reveal the internal debates which lay behind British policy toward the refugees. The British, sixty years later, are inclined to congratulate themselves for welcoming this influx of foreign fugitives and for offering them a home. London reminds her readers that this version is largely a comforting myth, as far as officialdom was concerned. The basis for policy was often callous and unimaginative; the execution of policy was often reported in stereotypical anti-Semitic terms. This does not, I repeat, reflect some notional “British identity” or even the movements of public opinion. But it does not make happy reading.
Each phase of refugee policy was discrete from its predecessor. But several underlying considerations, almost instincts, recur in most of them. First, the Jews should not be allowed to settle in Britain; that would lead to increased anti-Semitism which might get out of hand and create public order problems. They must be moved on as soon as possible. Second, the government and the taxpayers should not be required to spend a penny on the refugees; an applicant would only be admitted if private Jewish organizations guaranteed to pay his or her costs while in the United Kingdom. Third, the Nazis must be persuaded, politely, to allow Jews to take their property with them. Nobody wanted destitute Jews. Fourth, any move to expel Jews from the Reich by force must be prevented at all costs, and mass expulsions must not lead to an increase in the grants of visas for refugees. This was because Poland and Romania might get the message that they could safely expel all their Jews and that the democracies would take them all in. That prospect—not any possibility of genocide—was the Home Office’s ultimate nightmare.
Palestine policy mattered surprisingly little. At first, after Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, the British government took a relaxed view of the Jewish refugee problem, assuming that most of them could be shipped straight to Haifa without touching British soil at all. After the Arab riots of 1936, the scene changed and the 1939 White Paper introduced the condition of Arab consent for Jewish immigration. Palestine was no longer an excuse for having no refugee policy. Until then, the pragmatic British had relied on the rule that the more refugee policies and boards and conferences you had, the more refugees you would get.
The sort of nonpolicy that now developed was based on the idea that British Jews would pay for the refugees and do much of the administrative work, while the Home Office did the policing (keeping Polish and Russian Jews out, while trying to stop German Jews entering Britain as “visitors”). This partnership worked smoothly, thanks to the cooperation of Otto Schliff, the Frankfurt-born stockbroker who dominated the Jewish voluntary sector, and to funding provided by the Rothschild family. While trying (ineffectively) to move the refugees on to other countries, the British carried out some discreet cherry-picking of the incoming academic talent; a low-temperature physics team from Breslau, for example, was reassembled in England and granted special rights of residence.
The Anschluss of 1938 smashed this cozy system overnight. To the horror of the government, Schliff and his colleagues gave notice that they could no longer guarantee the costs of the new outrush from Vienna. Reluctantly, the Home Office agreed to a visa requirement for German/Austrian immigrants, which in turn means “pre-selection”—desperate queues outside consulates, acres of new paperwork, crass interrogations. Chaos soon prevailed. Orders to keep everyone out except for “desirables” and to make the desirables sign promises to reemigrate proved futile. Passport officers became hysterical and screamed abuse at the wretched applicants. An enormous backlog of visa applications began to build up. Bureaucratic trench warfare broke out between the Home Office and economic policymakers trying to steer selected Jewish refugee industrialists into areas of high unemployment. “These unfortunate German Jews get up to all sorts of dodges in order to gain a footing in this country,” a senior civil servant commented.
By now, even the Home Office knew that most Jewish refugees who managed to reach Britain were going to stay there; “temporary” admission was an illusion. When the Czechoslovak crisis broke in the fall of 1938, the immigration policymakers simply dug in and tried to keep out as many people as they could. The visa backlog had now risen to 10,000. Even Otto Schiff—on behalf of the Jewish voluntary helpers—suggested ending admissions altogether until the refugees already in Britain had either been assimilated or had emigrated.
Poor Schliff! At the end of each page of this book, the reader has to allow for hindsight. It can’t be repeated too often that nobody, not even the Nazi leadership itself in 1938 and 1939, knew what was in store for the Jews of Europe a few years later. And foreigners shared with German Jews an inability to see in the events of the 1930s the flarepath leading to unthinkable extremism and genocide which now blazes at us from our own version of history. For contemporaries, each eruption of savagery seemed to produce a kind of calming-down in its wake, as if some poison had been voided from the system. It was always possible to argue that the worst was now over.
Possible, that is, until Kristallnacht in November 1938. The great pogrom and Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 swung public opinion around. The British turned away from appeasement and prepared themselves for war. The government did not want this abrupt moral conversion but could not resist it, and a more generous refugee policy was one of its consequences. Here Louise London’s study of Cabinet maneuvers breaks into fascinating unknown territory. Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister who had been so craven with Hitler over the Sudetenland crisis, turns out to have insisted on a new deal for Jewish refugees. Why? He was himself casually anti-Semitic in the English middle-class style, writing in a letter to his sister that “no doubt Jews aren’t a lovable people; I don’t care about them myself, but that is not sufficient to explain the pogrom.”
London discards any notion that he underwent some Pauline change of heart; it was, she thinks, simply that he had never given any thought to the Jewish plight before. Now he pushed his odious home secretary, Samuel Hoare, into widening and simplifying admissions and put his own obstinate energy into realizing the Kindertransport scheme which was to bring almost eight thousand unaccompanied Jewish children to Britain on the eve of war. For the first time, the Home Office consented to the use of state funds to finance the immigration of destitute Jews and anti-Nazis fleeing from the wreckage of Czechoslovakia. And yet even now, with war plainly imminent, it remained departmental policy to discourage would-be emigrants from leaving their countries and to block Nazi plans for mass expulsions of Jews (Eichmann was impatient to clear Jews out of both Vienna and the new “Bohemian Protectorate”). A Home Office committee noted in July 1939 that “any suggestion of substantial financial assistance from Great Britain to Jewish emigration from the Protectorate would play straight into the hands of the Gestapo and would be far more likely to encourage persecution and terror than avoid it.”
Did those bureaucrats really believe what they were writing, or were they merely seeking to save money and keep penniless Jews out of Britain? Perhaps it scarcely matters. What they could never have believed, because it was so far beyond credibility, was that even brutal expulsion by the Nazis was the last chance of survival left for Jewish families still living in Prague or Brno.
By now, the elements of an international system had been put together for coordinating policy toward the refugees. The British inevitably resented this, foreseeing interference with the sovereign freedom of action of His Majesty’s government. However, they were obliged to participate, in order to preserve good relations with the United States and to avoid wounding criticism. The most memorable parts of Louise London’s book are her accounts of the shocking, inimitable British technique for joining international bodies in order to reduce them to impotence. They practiced this technique at the Evian and Bermuda refugee conferences, and above all with the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees established in 1938 by the League of Nations. London writes:
The main use to which government put the IGC was…negative; it would support nothing except action by the IGC; the IGC achieved nothing, so nothing was done. Thus it turned out that, for British purposes, a key function of the IGC was to contain both the size of the refugee problem and the demand for refuge and to do so merely by existing, rather than by acting…. The largely illusory prospects of intergovernmental action proved effective in helping the government to resist public pressure for humanitarian aid to Jews during the two periods when it was most intense.
I would recommend these passages to any State Department official trying to understand British diplomacy during the post-Yugoslav wars—and to European Union commissioners at Brussels who are uneasy about the Foreign Office line on political integration.
As Louise London records again and again, one of the strongest concerns shared by Home Office policy-makers and the Jewish worthies who worked in partnership with them was their fear of British anti-Semitism. Opening the refugee door too wide might provoke it, they supposed. So might any public criticism of government policy by Jewish leaders. Immigrants arriving from the Reich were counseled to show gratitude and keep a low profile. The result of this was that those who protested most effectively against the injustices and discrimination inflicted on refugees (like the infamous mass internment order in 1940) were almost all Gentiles. But this self-censorship was already an old story in Britain’s Jewish communities.
In 1935, a young but already established novelist sent her fourth manuscript to the publisher Victor Gollancz. Like him, Betty Miller was Jewish: born in Cork in 1910, she came from an immigrant family with Eastern European roots. Her father, a prosperous tobacconist, had started life in Lithuania; her mother’s family had emigrated from Poland to Sweden. After a spell in Ireland, they moved to London in 1922. Betty, an amazingly talented girl, decided at seventeen that she wanted to be a writer and by the age of twenty-five she had already published three novels. All were witty, vigorous fictions about the contemporary English scene, and Gollancz happily published the second and third of them. The fourth novel, however, was different. For the first (and, as it turned out, the last) time, Betty Miller wrote about the Jewish experience. The original title of this manuscript was Next Year in Jerusalem. It was a study, clever and deeply pessimistic, of English anti-Semitism and of the moral sacrifices implied in assimilation.
She was totally unprepared for Gollancz’s reaction. He turned the book down flat. The reasons are not recorded, and not known to Jane Miller, the author of the helpful and intelligent preface to this new edition. But Betty Miller, by now married with a small son, was “devastated.” It seems most likely that Gollancz saw the novel as terrifyingly provocative. To him, it probably seemed not only an attack on the solid English assimilation of his own family but a tactless outburst against the English at precisely the moment—two years after Hitler’s assumption of power—when their tolerance and hospitality were most needed. The consequence of his rejection was that she was reluctant to write again until several years later. She wrote two more novels and, after World War II, a much praised study of Robert Browning. Her Jewish novel was finally published (as Farewell Leicester Square) by Robert Hale in 1941, at a time when Jew-hatred was hardly a surprise to anybody.
It is the story of Alec Berman, son of a Brighton tobacconist, who escapes from his family to become a film director. The father is a testy Lithuanian patriarch, the mother patient, downtrodden, and exploited, Alec’s brother a flashy, good-natured sensualist. From his childhood, Alec is obsessed with a feeling that he is lacking something, an assurance and authenticity which he can only find in the middle-class English world around him. Overcoming his own shyness, he goes to call on a tweedy English film magnate to beg for a job and at the door encounters his children,
moving with the unconscious assurance of young animals under the sun…. It was at that precise moment, for the first time, that something new, the sense of racial distinctness, awoke in him…. A sudden knowledge of the difference between these two, who could tread with careless assurance a land in which every sense was theirs; and himself, who was destined to live always on the fringe: to exist only in virtue of the toleration of others….
Alec gets the job; he becomes a rich and fashionable filmmaker; he marries one of the “young animals,” the boss’s daughter. He meets “civilized” English anti-Semitism—the things that are not said rather than the things that are—and learns to shrug it off. But this novel, which is also a subtle love story, ends in his defeat. He has taken authenticity and “careless assurance” to his bed, even fathered a son by her. And yet it won’t work for him. Wherever he goes he finds himself an outsider. The rejection is not really “theirs,” the refusal of a snobbish Gentile world fully to accept him. The rejecting force comes from within himself, and at the end of the book he recognizes—with deep relief—that he must accept his Jewishness and give up the struggle to become what he can never be.
No wonder Victor Gollancz hated this novel. Today, it is strange to read it because it was written on the other side of so much history, so many new norms of political correctness, so much desperate polemic against phantoms like “the self-hating Jew.” Betty Miller, tirelessly ferreting out psychological truths, passes satirical judgments on Jewish families which today would make most publishers’ hair stand on end. But to her, in the innocence of 1935, these remarks seemed merely noncontroversial and honest. She also wrote on the other side of a big change in literary taste, in a profuse, Art Deco sort of prose which does not spare the reader a character’s thought or a soda siphon’s hiss. But all this matters less than her piercing intelligence, the sharpness of observation which makes the reader know that she has got it right, that this was precisely how a certain southern English world talked and thought in the 1930s.
There is even a butler in the cast. A lame war veteran, devoted to the young “confirmed bachelor” who is his master, he is “a wizened kindly Cockney in a grey alpaca coat” who wheels the roast-beef trolley and pours the beer and picks up the discarded grapefruit rinds with “a short hand with the small, stunted nails of the labourer.” Even Alec Berman must have realized that he could never make that grade, however hard he tried.
March 29, 2001