Evian is not just a bottled water company. And the town of Évian-les-Baines in France on the south shore of Lake Geneva is not just a location for luxury hotels. It’s also the location where, in July 1938, the first international effort was ever made (or feigned) to alleviate a refugee crisis.
The crisis was the Nazi treatment of Jews. The representatives of 32 nations and 63 organizations (plus some 200 journalists covering the event) were well aware of the Nazis’ desire to expel all Jews from Germany and Austria, and somewhat aware that the fate that awaited them if not expelled was death. The decision of the conference was essentially to leave the Jews to their fate. (Only Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic increased their immigration quotas.) The decision to abandon the Jews was driven primarily by anti-Semitism, which was widespread among the diplomats in attendance and among the publics they represented.
These nations were represented at the Évian Conference: Australia, the Argentine Republic, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, United Kingdom, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, France, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Ireland, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Italy refused to attend.
Australian delegate T. W. White said, without asking the native people of Australia: “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.”
The dictator of the Dominican Republic viewed Jews as racially desirable, as bringing whiteness to a land with many people of African descent. Land was set aside for 100,000 Jews, but fewer than 1,000 ever arrived.
In The Jewish Trail of Tears The Evian Conference of July 1938, Dennis Ross Laffer concludes that the conference was set up to fail and put on for show. Certainly it was proposed by and chaired by a representative of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt who chose not to make any serious efforts to aid Jewish refugees, before, during, or after the conference.
“Popular support was reflected in various newspapers,” writes Laffer. “Foreign correspondent, columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Anne O’Hare McCormick described the ‘heartbreaking’ scenes of long lines of Jews seeking visas from U.S. Consulates abroad while ‘waiting in suspense’ for the outcome of the Evian Conference. She believed that the issue facing America and the world was not how many ‘unemployed’ could be added to the national rolls of the unemployed. Rather, the world faced a fundamental ‘test of civilization.’ Could America accept the moral guilt, McCormick asked, if Germany was allowed to continue with its blatant ‘policy of extermination’ of the Jewish people?”
America chose the moral guilt, although it avoids awareness of it. America’s Coast Guard chased a ship of Jewish refugees away from Miami. America’s State Department turned down the visa application of Anne Frank’s family. America rejected the Wagner-Rogers bill to admit more Jewish and non-Aryan refugees, but passed the Hennings Bill to allow unlimited numbers of British Christian children into the Land of the Free. A June 1938 Gallup poll found that seventy-two percent of Americans believed “we should not allow a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany into the U.S.”
“Hitler responded to the news of the conference by saying essentially that if the other nations would agree to take the Jews, he would help them leave: “I can only hope and expect that the other 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.”
This is how Walter Mondale has described the hope represented by the Évian Conference: “At stake at Evian were both human lives – and the decency and self-respect of the civilized world. If each nation at Evian had agreed on that day to take in 17,000 Jews at once, every Jew in the Reich could have been saved. As one American observer wrote, ‘It is heartbreaking to think of the … desperate human beings … waiting in suspense for what happens at Évian. But the question they underline is not simply humanitarian … it is a test of civilization.’”
Of course, with German expansion in the years ahead, the number of Jews and non-Jews subject to murder by the Nazis would grow to much more than 17,000 times 32.
A report suggests that “the fact that the Evian Conference did not pass a resolution condemning the German treatment of Jews was widely used in Nazi propaganda and further emboldened Hitler in his assault on European Jewry leaving them ultimately subject to Hitler’s ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question.’” The U.S. Congress also failed to pass such a resolution.
Kristallnacht came in November 1938. And “in his Reichstag speech of January 30, 1939, Hitler used the world’s reluctance to absorb Jewish refugees to legitimize the Nazi program of expulsion:
“‘It is a shameful spectacle to see how the whole democratic world is oozing sympathy for the poor tormented Jewish people, but remains hard-hearted and obdurate when it comes to aiding them — which is surely, in view of its attitude, an obvious duty. The arguments that are brought up as excuses for not helping them actually speak for us Germans and Italians. For this is what they say:
‘1. “We,” that is the democracies, “are not in a position to take in the Jews.” Yet in these empires there are not even ten people to the square kilometer. While Germany, with her 135 inhabitants to the square kilometer, is supposed to have room for them!
‘2. They assure us: We cannot take them unless Germany is prepared to allow them a certain amount of capital to bring with them as immigrants.’”
The idea that the problem at Évian was ignorance of the Nazi agenda — were any scholar to make such an argument — would be undone by the minutes of the Bermuda Conference of 1943, held when government officials certainly knew about the genocide underway. The outcome of that conference, held by the U.S. and U.K. was the same as the one at Évian.
Here’s another analysis of the forces at work, one that rings true today: “The key issue, generally neglected in accounts of the conference, was greed. The Nazis would not allow Jews to take property out of Germany. The would-be host countries would not admit Jews who did not have any capital. Most delegates made speeches deploring Nazi discrimination against Jews, but in some cases these speeches fronted for openly anti-Semitic policies and sentiments. The conference agreed to create an intergovernmental committee on the problem, which did practically nothing. The Nazi government gloated over the isolation of the Jews.”
This is how the Nazi newspaper Voelkischer Beobachter reported on the conference:
“In accordance with their democratic ideology and political tendencies, the official statements made by the representatives of the United States, France and – to a lesser degree – England, made noises of moral outrage over the liquidation of the Jewish problem in Germany. At the same time, however, England and France were so reserved when it came to declaring readiness to accept more emigrants, that the representatives of other states, who did not wish to speak out at all at the outset, found the courage to express one after the other their reluctance to permit new Jewish emigration.
“The European countries did this, while pointing to the fact that they had reached the point of saturation; the south Americans spoke unanimously of the agricultural structure of their countries which permitted the emigration of farmers, not of merchants and city intellectuals. Some of them, as for example the representative of Brazil, let it be understood that Jews often would enter disguised as farmers, only to move to the city at the earliest opportunity.
“The representative of the British Dominions made excuses based on the situation of the labor market (Canada), the wish for a uniform population (Australia), or the danger of increasing anti-Semitism. It seems, therefore, that the United States alone can be considered a target for Jewish emigration of any significant proportion. In his opening speech, the American representative pointed out the now combined immigration quota for Germany and Austria (approximately 27,000 per annum). Beyond this, most of the delegates are convinced, and the Swedish representative said so openly today, that a real solution to the Jewish emigration problem can only be solved on a territorial basis, in which the Jews will be among themselves and where, besides the German emigrants, within time also millions of Polish and other Jews can be settled. The English representative referred to the African colony of Kenya in this respect, but all this was dependent on present developments. Other colonial powers did not mention their colonies at all (France, Belgium) or they have declared that they were not fit for white settlers (Belgium, Holland).”
Meanwhile, “Central American states issued a joint statement saying that they could accept no ‘traders and intellectuals.’ Brazil said that every visa application would have to be accompanied by a certificate of Christian Baptism. Canada was prepared to accept only experienced agricultural workers. Britain, while prepared to accept Jewish children (some 9,000 eventually arrived), was not willing to accept their parents, because ‘a sudden rush of Jewish refugees might arouse anti-Semitic feelings.’ The United States would not go beyond its usual annual German immigration quota of 25,957 — although it had allowed only a total of 27,000 German Jews to enter in the six years between Hitler’s rise to power and the Evian Conference. Inexplicably, the US Government demanded of the Jews desiring to migrate to the United States certificates of good conduct from the German police, a cruel and inhuman demand, in the full knowledge that the Germans at the time viewed the Jews worse than vermin. The Swiss representative, Dr. Heinrich Rothmund, spoke about the threatening refugee inundation of Switzerland. Three or four thousand Jewish refugees had already crossed the frontiers. Rothmund reported. ‘Switzerland, which has as little use for these Jews as Germany has, will herself take measures to protect Switzerland from being swamped by the Jews,’ he declared. As a result of the Swiss stand, the Conference, whose avowed purpose was to help Jewish refugees, had a disastrous consequence. All German passports of Jews were henceforth stamped by a large red ‘J’, further curtailing the already limited Jewish freedom to travel. When Nazi observers at the Conference returned to Berlin they told Hitler: ‘You can do what you like with the Jews, nobody is interested in them.’”
Jessie Wallace Hughan, founder of the War Resisters League, was, as Lawrence Wittner tells us, very concerned in 1942 by stories of Nazi plans, no longer focused on expelling Jews but turning toward plans to murder them. Hughan believed that such a development appeared “natural, from their pathological point of view,” and that it might really be acted upon if World War II continued. “It seems that the only way to save thousands and perhaps millions of European Jews from destruction,” she wrote, “would be for our government to broadcast the promise” of an “armistice on condition that the European minorities are not molested any further. . . . It would be very terrible if six months from now we should find that this threat has literally come to pass without our making even a gesture to prevent it.” When her predictions were fulfilled only too well by 1943, she wrote to the U.S. State Department and the New York Times: “two million [Jews] have already died” and “two million more will be killed by the end of the war.” She warned that military successes against Germany would just result in further scapegoating of Jews. “Victory will not save them, for dead men cannot be liberated,” she wrote.
Nicholson Baker adds: “Anthony Eden, Britain’s foreign secretary, who’d been tasked by Churchill with handling queries about refugees, dealt coldly with one of many important delegations, saying that any diplomatic effort to obtain the release of the Jews from Hitler was ‘fantastically impossible.’ On a trip to the United States, Eden candidly told Cordell Hull, the secretary of state, that the real difficulty with asking Hitler for the Jews was that ‘Hitler might well take us up on any such offer, and there simply are not enough ships and means of transportation in the world to handle them.’ Churchill agreed. ‘Even were we to obtain permission to withdraw all the Jews,’ he wrote in reply to one pleading letter, ‘transport alone presents a problem which will be difficult of solution.’ Not enough shipping and transport? Two years earlier, the British had evacuated nearly 340,000 men from the beaches of Dunkirk in just nine days. The U.S. Air Force had many thousands of new planes. During even a brief armistice, the Allies could have airlifted and transported refugees in very large numbers out of the German sphere.”
Now the world seeks to forget this entire tragic and shameful story, including the Évian Conference: “Thus the great Grand Larousse Encyclopedique of France speaks about the beauty of the place (as do other encyclopedias) and mentions solely the Conference of March 1962, which dealt with the signing of a French-Algerian accord. Its most significant conference of all times, that of 1938 is not mentioned. The Schweitzer Lexicon does indeed mention the Evian Conference, held 6 to 15 of July 1938, ‘called at F.D.R.’s initiative after Hitler’s march into Austria, to find a suitable solution to the German and Austrian refugee problem.’ Note that Jews are not mentioned at all! The Encyclopedia Brittanica (1982 ed.): ‘In 1962 a ceasefire agreement between the French Government and the provisional government of Algeria was concluded in Evian.’ The 1938 Conference is not mentioned at all by the august encyclopedia. Obviously, the Evian Conference of 1938, one of the most significant conferences of all times determining the fate of the Jewish People, seems to be swept under the rug by the world, which does its best to forget it.”
And to repeat it, endlessly. U.S. and Western immigration policy is an extended Évian Conference. Only it’s worse. Now the U.S. and its allies are significantly responsible for many of the horrors the refugees are fleeing. But the bogeyman Fox News warns of is not enormous suffering in Yemen or Syria. It’s open borders. Meanwhile, the most common justification for the military spending and the wars that create the crises is, of course, Adolf Hitler.