Evian Conference
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Anti-Semitism & Holocaust

The Evian Conference - Hitler's Green Light for Genocide

Chapter 1 - Why Was The Conference Called?

Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933 and between then and 1937 about 130,000 Jews fled from Germany.  At that time refugees were allowed to take some of their property with them and there were not many problems with resettlement in other countries.

Hitler's campaign against the Jews was gradual as he did not want to offend public opinion in Germany or invite international reaction.  There would also be a danger that if he acted too quickly it might cause economic hardship in Germany as the Jewish community held positions of influence in the financial world.

From Hitler's rise to power in 1933 Jews were victimised by beatings and killings, which happened on a regular basis.  A one-day boycott was organised against "Jewish domination" and despite protests from several countries this was used as a forerunner for a permanent boycott to ruin Jewish businesses.  Between 1933 and 1937, 125 anti-Jewish laws were enacted. Boycott of Jewish shops - 1933

Jews were banned from civil service posts, hospitals, courts, government, educational and cultural life and sport.  Jewish books were publicly burned, and Jewish shops and offices were marked with a "J" or "Jude."  In September 1935 Nuremberg Laws cancelled Jewish citizenship and made illegal marriages or sexual intercourse between Jews and Aryans.  It was believed by many Jews, and in countries watching Hitler with concern, that the Nuremberg decrees would at least give Jews a legal and permanent position even if it were a subservient one in Nazi Germany.  However, Hitler had also warned in his Nuremberg speech:

"If this arrangement for a 'separate secular solution' broke down, then it might become necessary to pass a law handing over the problem to the National Socialist Party for 'final solution'."1

Anti-Semitic handbooks were given to teachers and Jews were blamed for everything that had gone wrong in German society.  Frequent arrests brought fear and resulted in around twenty suicides each day.

Hitler threatened and promised violence against Jews in speeches and in Mein Kampf. His attitude to them and their future under his regime is summed up in a private talk with Major Josef Hell in 1922 when he said that if he won power the annihilation of Jews would be his first and foremost task.  He continued, "Once the hatred and the battle against the Jews are really stirred up, their resistance will inevitably break down in short order.  They cannot protect themselves and no one will stand forth as their defenders."2

FDRIt was eleven days after Hitler annexed Austria that President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the USA decided to call a conference as it was now going to cause the additional problem of Austrian Jews being expelled from their homeland.  Switzerland was unwilling to host the conference, as they did not want to alienate Hitler. They also were embarrassed, as they too had begun to restrict immigration of Jews from Germany and Austria. It was decided that the venue should be Evian-les-Bains on the shores of Lake Geneva in France.  Thirty-three countries including Britain, her dominions, and her colonies, Scandinavian and other European and Latin American countries were also invited.  Some countries, which would have liked to be included, were not invited, including the Republic of Ireland, which eventually did attend, and Luxembourg.  Poland and Rumania were rejected, as they were not regarded as likely countries of Jewish immigration but they, and the Union of South Africa sent observers to the conference.  Henry Feingold says that Portugal's exclusion proved a serious mistake, as the main hope for the majority of resettlement at one time was Angola, a Portuguese colony3

Germany was not invited to the conference on the advice of American Secretary of State, Cordell Hull because he felt  it would be better to find a solution to the refugee problem "than to negotiate with the felon about his misdeeds."4 Hitler glibly remarked at an election speech in Königsberg that he would willingly let Jews leave "even on luxury ships."5  He made no comment however about relaxing laws on the transfer of capital and property which was the main obstacle to their migration.

It was made clear to the participating countries that none would be asked to increase their quota of refugees but that solutions to the Jewish refugee problem would be discussed.  However, Roosevelt recommended that his Consular Service remove unnecessary red tape for visa requests from those wishing to emigrate from Germany and Austria and to give these cases more sympathetic handling at US consulates.  This immediately increased the numbers of immigrants into the US which, before then had not reached anywhere near the legal annual German quota of 25,957.6

Britain was agreeable to co-operate with the conference but was concerned that Palestine, which it ruled under a League of Nations Mandate, might be suggested as a recipient country for refugees.  This would cause problems with the Arabs, whom they wished to appease in order to prevent another Arab uprising that took place in 1936 against Jewish immigration to Palestine, and a revolt against a three-way partition of the country in 1937.  Britain therefore insisted that Palestine be left off the list of receiving countries for refugees.  Palestine unlike other countries before the war did not have unemployment but had a labour shortage.  The country was prosperous due to the Zionists who were chiefly responsible for the boom.

The Christian churches in Palestine also had an influence on British policy towards Jewish emigration.  They too wanted to appease the Arabs who made up a large proportion of their congregation. They also wanted to preserve their own position and influence in the Holy Land.  The idea of partitioning Palestine, they also felt, would reduce opportunities for Christian missionary work and other activities.7   In a letter to The Times signed by the Bishop of Jerusalem and other church leaders on behalf of the Anglican Church it was denied that Palestine was capable of solving the European Jewish problem.  The letter also stated that since huge numbers of Jewish immigrants had arrived there in 1935 "Palestine had known no peace."8

The Roman Catholic Church did not support the immigration of Jews to Palestine or the Balfour Declaration that declared it a Homeland for the Jews.  In a letter dated 22nd June 1943 to Myron Taylor, President Roosevelt's special emissary to the pope, A.G. Cicognani, special representative of pope Pius XII said:

"It is true that at one time Palestine was inhabited by the Hebrew Race, but there is no axiom in history to substantiate the necessity of a people returning to a country they left nineteen centuries before …… If a 'Hebrew Home' is desired, it would not be too difficult to find a more fitting territory than Palestine.  With an increase in the Jewish population there, grave, new international problems would arise."9

Much of the British Press was also opposed to Jewish immigration to Palestine.  In 1933 the Daily Telegraph approved the statement of the British delegate to the permanent Mandates Commission that 'quite definitely, the Palestinian Government's immigration policy was, and must be, wholly unaffected by the situation of the German Jews.'10 The Times maintained that the problem of Palestine had to be separated from the situation of the Jews in Europe, "…..It is painfully obvious that Palestine alone cannot meet the needs of the Jewish Community in the Reich."11

The Daily Telegraph commented:

"On one side stands the Zionist demand for the fulfilment of the Balfour Declaration and the League Mandate, the provision of a National Home for the Jews, where, in an increasingly inhospitable world, they may come and settle as of right ….. on the other ….. the policy, which demands the permanent cessation of Jewish immigration and an independent Arab Palestine.12 Synagogue Burns During Kristallnacht

Even after the devastating Crystal Night the editorial of Great Britain and the East stated :

Humanitarianism and the Jews

"….. the connection between persecution and Palestine, is sentimental and coincidental ….. At the risk of being accused of lack of humanitarian feeling we say explicitly that British obligations in Palestine cannot forever or even temporarily be influenced by the malefactions of certain European States towards their Jews."13

The attitude of the American Government to the Palestinian issue can be summed up in a telegram from Myron Taylor to Cordell Hull, Secretary of State, and Sumner Welles saying, "….Later in the day. Dr. Goldmann arrived and presented the case for Palestine with a strong recommendation that I receive Dr. Weizmann before the Evian meeting. I replied that I could not give him an immediate answer and discussed the position with Palairet who said that his government would naturally prefer that this meeting should not take place.  I said there would be opportunity for Dr. Weizmann to present his case privately at Evian if he so desired and that I would not see him before the conference met.14

Chaim Weizmann says of Palestine, "In those days before the war, our protests, when voiced, were regarded as provocations; our very refusal to subscribe to our own death sentence became a public nuisance, and was taken in bad part.  Alternating threats and appeals were addressed to us to acquiesce in the surrender of Palestine."15

Another British concern was that the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, suggested by President Roosevelt, would replace the League of Nations.  The League had not been successful in helping refugees as it was starved of funds and had little power.  It's President, James Macdonald said in his letter of resignation, "When domestic polices threaten the demoralization and exile of hundreds of thousands of human beings, considerations of diplomatic correctness must yield to those of common humanity. I should be recreant if I did not call attention to the actual situation, and plead that world opinion, acting through the League and its Member-States and other countries, move to avert the existing and impending tragedies."16  For example, between 1933 and 1938 130,000 Jews had left Germany, 43,000 had gone to Palestine and 55,000 to North America and the South American republics, but 32,000 were still refugees.

Britain was also pessimistic regarding the outcome of the conference unless the USA took a lead, or 'the meeting would be chiefly occupied with passing the buck'17 S.A. Waley, who was Jewish and a principal assistant secretary involved with finance, was also not optimistic saying, "I am afraid that the Evian Conference is bound to be somewhat of a fiasco.  Few governments seem likely to promise to take more refugees than they are doing at present, or to commit themselves to any definite number.  The conference seems, therefore, likely to do no more than express platonic sympathies and to set up an Intergovernmental Committee, which does not seem likely to serve any useful purpose, and may do actual harm by hampering the activities of the new high commissioner."18

The British Ambassador Neville Henderson writing to Lord Halifax said that attacks on Germany would only worsen the situation of the persecuted and that the best policy for British delegates at Evian was to make the reception of German and Austrian Jews in England dependent on the amounts of property they were allowed to export as an incentive to the German government, who strongly desired to get rid of the Jews, to relax the stringent capital export tax.  He concluded, "I would deprecate an attitude by the British delegation as regards Germany's policy towards the Jews however uncivilised and deplorable, it is, in the Chancellor's eyes, is Germany's own business, even though she will probably be the greatest sufferer in the end19 When told of Henderson's views, Lord Winterton gave the assurance the he and the British delegates would bear in mind the need to avoid provoking the Reich government.  He went on to say that the Evian Conference proved that the German Government's policy of financially ruining and expelling its Jewish population raised 'questions of world-wide importance' and that the German government itself should make some contribution towards a solution of the problem."20

The Australian government accepted the invitation to attend the conference on the condition that Britain would also attend. If they did not, according to the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, 'Australia would be subject to criticism if the invitation was refused, especially as the need for increased population for Australia has been recently and consistently stressed by government and other spokesmen."21

The Minister for the Interior, J. McEwen pointed out in a Cabinet discussion on 8 April 1938 that the current policy on Jewish refugee immigration was that the Jews were

'…..highly intelligent as a class and usually made a success at whatever occupation or business they follow, but in view of their religious beliefs and strict rules as regards marriage, they remain a separate race and this failure to become properly assimilated in the country of adoption appears to create difficulties in any country where they form a considerable proportion of the population."22

In a further memorandum McEwen recommended:

'If it were decided to limit the number of Jews to be granted permits to enter Australia it would appear desirable to give preference to Austrian and German Jews because of the greater need, and because they have become more assimilated in European ways, say, than the Jews of Poland where they have practically formed a state within a state.'23

Australia's very negative attitude to the immigration of Jews resulted in the decision of the Cabinet in June 1938 to allow only 300 landing permits each month to be granted to Jews with a preference given to Austrians and Germans. 

An example of the attitude of the Canadian Government to Jewish Refugees is that of a senior Canadian official who, when asked after the war how many Jews would be allowed into Canada, said, "None, is too many."24

Canada had a tight immigration policy from the 1920s as they wanted to restrict the numbers of those deemed lest desirable and only those who had the funds to set up and sustain themselves were welcome.  A number of Canadian officials in high positions in the government were anti-Semitic, including the Prime Minister Mackenzie King and Frederick Blair, Director of Immigration who said, "Canada was in danger of being flooded with Jewish people…" unless he ensured that they were kept out and believed they conspired with their relatives already in Canada to get themselves admitted.  He would deny being anti-Semitic believing he was only being realistic about Canada's immigration policy.25   Evian

It was hoped by three new Jewish MPs and the Jewish community of Canada that the new Liberal government of 1935 would modify the strict and harsh laws of the Conservative Bennett government regarding immigration.  However it was decided that no exceptions would be made for German Jews unless they had enough money to set up successful farms – they would not be allowed in under any circumstances.26

Canada was further restricting Jewish immigration when President Roosevelt suggested the Evian Conference. They therefore feared that, according to Irving Abella and Harold Troper, once the Canadians had committed themselves to attending the conference they 'would be expected to do something to alleviate the refugee problem. This situation caused great anxiety to Prime Minister Mackenzie King as it meant "admitting numbers of Jews."  These fears were strengthened by Under-Secretary of State Skelton, who warned that the publicity generated by the conference would likely result in strong "domestic pressure" in Canada to do something "for the Jews."  King feared a violent reaction from Quebec to any admission of Jewish refugees as almost all French–language newspapers had warned the government against allowing European Jews to immigrate to Canada. Le Devoir asked "Why allow in Jewish refugees?…..The Jewish shopkeeper on St. Lawrence boulevard does nothing to increase our natural resources."  Abella and Troper go on to say that this was mild in comparison with vicious anti-Semitic remarks made regularly in other Quebec newspapers and French-Canadian politicians such as H.E. Brunell who said that Jews caused "great difficulties" wherever they lived.27

The Jewish Congress was afraid of an anti-Semitic backlash and alienating the government. Its role was therefore to monitor Jewish opinion and try to prevent outrage and demonstrations or meetings that would attract adverse publicity.

The Canadian government's slow response in replying to the invitation to attend the conference was an indication of its reluctance to be present.  They further emphasised their disquiet when Skelton made it clear that Canada's participation at Evian should not be construed by anyone to imply that a Canadian initiative was on the agenda. He also argued that accepting refugees might be counter-productive to Jewish people themselves as they might be subjected to persecution. Countries with unwanted minorities should not be encouraged to think that if they ill treat these minorities that they can absolve themselves of responsibility by expecting other countries to open their doors to refugees.28

American Jews were overjoyed at Roosevelt's initiative and responded with wires and letters informing him of their delight.  Jewish organisations united, where previously they had disagreed on the Zionist demand for a Homeland in Palestine. Those in possible resettlement countries offered to assist destitute Jews arriving from Germany and Austria without capital if they were allowed to immigrate.

Various motives have been attributed to President Roosevelt for calling the conference.  These include his genuine concern for the Jewish people who were being persecuted and were in a critical state if they could not find refuge in another country.  Michael Blakeney cites Time as believing that the proposal was designed to express in a practical way American disapproval of Germany's annexation of Austria. Newsweek thought it was part of the Administration's plan to divert public opinion from isolationism to more 'active opposition' to 'international gangsters'.29 It may also have been that he was responding to pressure from the huge American Jewish lobby who naturally wanted safe havens to be found for their fellow Jews of Germany and Austria who would otherwise be in desperate straights. According to Henry Feingold, Rabbi Stephen Wise, President of the American Jewish Congress, for whom the President held a great deal of affection, was instrumental in influencing his decision. It may also have been a subtle attempt by Roosevelt to change public opinion to the growing menace of Nazism or Jane Addams' theory that increased immigration helped the economy.30 Ben Cohen, a White House confidant, told an official of the Intergovernmental Committee that, if and when negotiations with Germany failed, the world would regard the Nazis as the villains.31   Richard Breitman points out that President Roosevelt estimated that the total number of potential refugees was ten to twenty million.32  He could have abandoned the refugee issue as there were important defence and foreign policy issues to be dealt with.  However, he divided the problem into long term and short time concerns.  The long time aim was a huge resettlement strategy, which could continue throughout the war but could not be acted upon until its end.33  A less admirable motive was attributed to him that he did not want to have to increase or liberalise the USA immigration laws and hoped to persuade other countries to take the responsibility for the refugees. Cordell Hull said the real purpose of the conference was to give the United States the initiative "to get out in front and attempt to guide the pressure primarily with a view toward forestalling attempts to have immigrations laws liberalized."34  Roosevelt  said to Judge Lehman, "It is my hope, that the narrow isolationists will not use this move of ours for purely partisan objectives – but no one can tell."35 Restrictionist leader Thomas A. Jenkins had criticised Roosevelt saying he had gone "on a visionary excursion into the warm fields of altruism.  He forgets the cold winds of poverty and penury that are sweeping over the 'one third' of our people who are ill clothed, ill housed, ill fed."36

Breitman sums up President Roosevelt's attitude to the refugees by commenting "…FDR had at least made clear that he regarded the refugee issue as a matter of international humanitarianism….Roosevelt could claim that he had placed the United States in a humanitarian role on the refugee issue, at least symbolically. But he could also be content that he had neither tampered with the nation's restrictionist policies, nor cost himself the votes of the millions of Americans who continued to oppose the admission of refugees."37 Evian

Feingold concludes that whatever Roosevelt's motives were, the timing of the conference was clearly that of the President's choosing, and was made against the background of a worsening refugee situation.38 Roosevelt also made up his own mind regarding who would represent the USA at the Evian Conference and decided on his personal friend Myron C. Taylor who had been head of the United States Steel Company to be in charge of the delegation. Taylor was given the title of Ambassador Extraordinary Plenipotentiary to emphasise the importance of the conference.  Sumner Welles had suggested that the Secretary of State, Frances Perkins (Minister of Labour), George Messersmith (temporary Assistant Secretary of State) and himself make up the delegation, giving it the importance of rank but the President may have thought a delegation would be too powerful. Sumner Welles, an Undersecretary at the State Department, had a real concern for the welfare of the refugees and Feingold says that it was his drive and organisational skills were central to the President's initiative. However, he was also concerned about the reaction of Restrictionists and his tentative agenda for the conference noted that the US "could not change its immigration laws and expected no one else to do so."39

S. Adler-Rudel who attended the conference says that an unofficial Jewish delegations from Palestine who discussed the Agenda for the conference with James G. Macdonald while travelling to Evian concluded that even Macdonald, one of the leading American delegates had no clear idea about the method, duration or intended results of the conference.  He himself had a conversation with Myron C. Taylor and others that led him to the conclusion there was only a slight hope of success.  He says  "All those anxiously following the developments became increasingly aware that no constructive plan had been worked out and that the entire Conference was in fact little more than a feeble improvisation."40

Go to Chapter 2 - The Evian Conference And Its Proceedings
©2001 Annette Shaw
Introduction     Chapter 1     Chapter 2    Chapter 3    Chapter 4    Conclusion
Anti-Semitism & Holocaust      Christian Action for Israel

1               Max Domarus (ed.), Hitler: Reden und Proklamationen 1932-45, Würzburg 1962, I 537 cited Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987), pp484-5.

2               Institut für Zeigeschichte, Munich; quoted in Wistrick, Hitler's Apocalypse, pp31-2, cited  ibid, p483.

3               Henry Feingold, The Politics of Rescue, (New Jersey  Rutgers University Press, 1970), p27.

4               Ibid, p27.

5               New York Times, 27 March 1938, p25, cited Feingold, Politics of Rescue, p27.

6               S. Adler-Rudel, "The Evian Conference and the Refugee Question", The Leo Baeck Institute Year Book, Vol. X111, (London, Horovitz Pub. Co., Ltd., 1968),  p237.

7               Foreign Relations of the United States, Vol.11, Britain, The Commonwealth, Europe, Near East and Africa, (Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1955)

8               The Times, 22 September 1938, p6.

9               Jerusalem Post, 9 July 1999, Jerusalem, p6.

10             Daily Telegraph, 31 October 1933, cited Andrew Sharf, The British Press And Jews Under Nazi Rule, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1964), p183

11             The Times, 3 November 1938, p15.

12             Daily Telegraph, 7 February 1939, cited Sharf, British Press, p183.

13             Great Britain and the East, 17 November 1938, cited ibid, pp183-4.

14             Telegram from M. Taylor to Sumner Welles, photocopy, Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. VI,  (Jerusalem, 1970), p988.

15             Chaim Weizmann, Trial and Error, (London, Hamish Hamilton, 1949), p498.

16             Norman Bentwich, The Refugees from Germany, cited Adler-Rudel, p268.

17             Makins Minute, 9 June 1938, cited Sherman, Island Refuge, p104.

18             S.D. Waley to Sir Frederick Phillips, memorandum, Evian Conference, 17 June 1938, cited Louise London, Whitehall and the Jews, 1933-48,(Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000), p88.

19             Henderson to Halifax,  July 4, 1938, FO 371/22529, W 8887/104/98, cited  Sherman, Island Refuge,  p 113.

20             Winterton to Halifax, July 8, 1938, FO 371/22530, W 9531/104/98, cited ibid, p113.

21             W.R. Hodgson memo to Minister, Dept. of External Affairs, 6 April 1938, CRS A981, cited Michael Blakeney, Australia and the Jewish Refugees, 1933-48, Kent, Croon Helm, 1985), p123.

22             Dept. of Interior Memo, 7 April 1938, CRS A434,50,3,41827, cited  Blakeney, pp123-4

23             McEwan, Memo to Cabinet 25 May 1938, CRS A433, 43.2146, cited ibid, pp123-4.

24             Irving Abella & Harold Troper, None Is Too Many, Toronto, Lester & Orpen, 1982),  Preface, p1X.

25             Ibid, pp5-8.

26             Simon Belkin, Through Narrow Gates, pp66-9; I.R. File 54 782/4, Blair Memo for file, 20 January 1936, cited Abella & Troper, p15.

27             See, for example Brunelle's speech in the House of Commons, House of Commons debates, 1 (1939)305, cited ibid, p18.

28             NA, RG84, File 842, OOPR Refugees, King to Simmins, 28 June, 1938, cited Abella & Troper, None Is Too Many, p27.

29              Blakeney, Australia and the Jewish Refugees, p127.

30              Feingold, Politics of Rescue, p23.

31             See Herbert Pell to Moffat, 10 September, 1938, Houghton Library, Harvard, cited Richard Breitman, & Alan M. Kraut, American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, 1933-1945, (Blooming and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1987), p61.

32             White House Press Release, copy of FDR's speech to the IGCR officers, 17 October 1939, copy in Hopkins Papers, Box 118, Refugee Problems, FDRI, cited Breitman & Kraut, p76.

33             Breitman & Kraut, American Refugee  Policy, p76.

34             NA, State Department Records, File9000-1/2:840-8, Memorandum on Refugees, 1938, cited  Abella and Troper, None Is Too Many, p16

35             FDRL/OF 3186, FDR to Herbert Lehman,  March, 28, 1938, cited Feingold, Politics of Rescue, p23.

36             CR, 775th Cong., 3rd Session, XXL111, part 4, p4227, 28 March 1938. cited ibid, 24.

37             Breitman & Kraut, American Refugee Policy, p230.

38             Feingold, Politics of Rescue, p24.

39             Evian Proceedings, Preface, 8. cited ibid, p27.

40             Adler-Rudel, Leo Baeck Institute Year Book, p240

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