The Evian Conference and Kristallnacht, 1938

The world was faced by the involuntary migration of hundreds of thousands of destitute German Jews from the Reich in 1938. Roosevelt called an international conference to try to resolve the situation. Roosevelt hoped international outrage at Nazi anti-Semitism would translate into burden sharing. He believed burden sharing would reduce the numbers of Jewish refugees each country would need to take to resolve the challenge. However Hitler’s racial views were commonplace in the 1930s. Virtually no country believed Jewish immigration was beneficial. Political pragmatism trumped moral duty. This delighted Hitler, confirming his belief that western democracies were pusillanimous. Emboldened, Hitler annexed Sudetenland in September,1938, and unleashed Kristallnacht in November, just four months after the conference took place. The Evian Conference was an unmitigated disaster for the world because Roosevelt didn’t provide robust leadership.

Anti-Semitism was commonplace in the 1930s. The difference between Hitler’s anti-Semitism and that of other countries was that he made it was government policy. There was nothing like the 1936 Nuremburg Laws elsewhere. French, American and British anti-semitic attitudes informed decision-making. There were informal barriers but these were ad hoc as opposed to being legitimatised by government. Many believed that Jews belonged to a shadowy foreign nation-state and were untrustworthy. The French Dreyfus Affair, 1894, is a startling example of this belief. French Jews were literally felt to be different, notwithstanding compelling evidence to the contrary. French anti-Semitism became Nazi during the Vichy years*. French police over-achieved in hunting down Jews for deportation showing that the intellectually blind Dreyfus Affair had taught no lessons.

Like the Nazis, the USA had racial laws. American racial laws segregated the African-American population from the dominant white population. Segregation was purposefully used to deny opportunities in education and social mobility. American racial laws led to black segregated units in the US military fighting for Jewish rights in the Second World War. When Nobel prize winner Albert Einstein was initially denied a visa into the USA this had a whiff of anti-Semitism**. The all-American upper-class Jew, Robert Oppenheimer, who was a world-class physicist, rose in the academic world because of sheer genius. The chair of his department was Raymond Birge. When Oppenheimer tried to appoint Robert Serber, an outstanding physicist, Birge said, “One Jew in the department is enough”***. The 1924 Quota Act was designed to limit inward immigration of certain groups, amongst which were European Jews, as the world found out during the highly publicised St Louis Incident, 1939.

Britain and the British Empire were more important than both France and America. Controlling about a quarter of the earth’s landmass with the vast open spaces of Australia and Africa, positive political leadership from London could have resolved the crisis. But it wasn’t to be. The British too had negative attitudes towards Jewish immigration. British hypocrisy led them to offer hand-wringing excuses about their inability to provide a haven for involuntary migrants. In a typical reply in a debate about refugees, Neville Chamberlain said the British Empire was entirely unsuitable for European refugees****.

His Majesty’s Government consider that there is no territory in the Colonial Empire where suitable land is available for the immediate settlement of refugees in large numbers, although in certain territories small-scale settlement might be practicable.

The case of Australia is especially lamentable as in the immediate post-war period their government financed inward immigration expanding their population with two million immigrants in 20 years*****.

Naturally Hitler pounced on the hypocrisy of the western democracies saying, “I can only hope and expect that the other [outside] world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.******” . Western hypocrisy emboldened him and four months after Evian he unleased Kristallnacht on the Jewish population. Hitler knew he could literally do anything to his Jewish population and it was quite safe to ignore any threats. Evian was a total disaster.

The Evian Conference was a doomed attempt at solving an unfolding tragedy. Roosevelt called the conference to off-load a problem where the USA and Britain were plumb centre. Naturally there was a feeling that ‘we will, if you will’ leading to unseemly buck passing. The Evian Conference was not only a disaster for Germany’s Jews but also for the world, as Hitler rightly saw weakness which turbocharged his malevolence. The annexation of Sudetenland, a ‘domino’ in the march to war, and Kristallnacht could be said to be a direct consequence of Evian.

*For Dreyfus see

For Vichy France and French persecution of the Jews see

** J Edgar Hoover the director of the FBI was anti-Semitic and was willing to see Einstein suffer in Nazi Germany after Jewish scientists were sacked from their academic positions. Hitler also created the concept ‘Jewish science’, which he felt was a perversion of true Aryan science. For Einstein’s visa problems see

***Ray Monk Inside the Centre: The life of J Robert Oppenheimer p259 Needless to relate Birge didn’t say this to Oppenheimer as this was part of the background noise of American anti-Semitism: pusillanimous. Serber subsequently was a crucial participant in the development of the atom bomb.

****Hansard HC Deb 21 Nov. 1938; this was repudiated by Lord Marley HL Deb 14 Dec 1938

***** See Australia’s population increased from 7.4M in 1945 to 11.4M in 1965 mainly due to inward immigration.

****** Michael Green Hitler p220


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