By Dr. Ervin Birnbaum
August 13, 2008
In its confrontation with the West, Iran is using the Nazi playbook circa 1938. The Iranians have been boycotting, stalling, and sidestepping every attempt to halt their nuclear program.
So far the UN has failed to come up with a satisfactory answer to the threat, and the Six-Nation Meeting in Geneva last month, which for the first time included a high-level U.S. official, Undersecretary of State William Burns, failed to persuade the Islamic Republic to halt its uranium enrichment program.
As if the five European powers and the U.S. were the ones not fulfilling their obligations, the chief Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili, declared at the meeting: "Iran is calling on the Western powers to resume the dialogue."
In other words, the good guy, Iran, is calling on the bad guys, led by European Union envoy Javier Solana, to give up their recalcitrant ways, pleading with them to "resume the dialogue."
Hitler reborn. The bad guy turning to the good guy with an earnest appeal to finally consider becoming good - just as the Anschluss (German annexation) of Austria in March 1938 was, as the Germans had it, not the invasion of a sovereign state in the heart of Europe but the rectification of the "evil" of Versailles.
The year 1938 was both eventful and chilling, witness to not just the Anschluss but also to the Munich Agreement, Kristallnacht - and a conference held from July 6-15 at Evian, France, one of the most significant meetings of all time concerning the Jewish people.
The world has been doing its best to forget the Evian Conference of 1938. Thus the great Grand Larousse Encyclopedique of France speaks about the beauty of the place (as do other encyclopedias) but only mentions a conference held in March 1962 to mark the signing of a French-Algerian accord.
The Encyclopedia Britannica (1982 edition) also makes mention of the latter event - "In 1962 a ceasefire agreement between the French government and the provisional government of Algeria was concluded in Evian" - but ignores the 1938 conference that in effect decided the fate of the Jews.
The Schweitzer Lexicon does touch on the Evian Conference of 1938, "called at [President] Roosevelt's initiative after Hitler's march into Austria, to find a suitable solution to the German and Austrian refugee problem." Note, however, that the Jews are not mentioned at all.
In March 1938 Hitler staged his sensational march on Austria, with all the clatter and terror, pomp and circumstance, of which the Nazis were consummate masters.
I was a child growing up in nearby Czechoslovakia, but I remember vividly that watershed event in our lives. It was a Friday afternoon. The radio in our home was tuned to Vienna. The news was unambiguous. German troops were marching into Austria. As the troops advanced on Vienna, Hitler made his birthplace, Braunau, the first stop and touchingly placed flowers on his mother's grave.
By late afternoon, Hitler was on his way to the Austrian capital. My father broke away from the radio and ordered us to the synagogue. For the first time in my recollection he left the radio on for Shabbat. After we returned from services and made a hasty Kiddush on the wine and blessing over challah, all attention was again focused on the reports emanating from our radio.
At about eight p.m. the chancellor of Austria gave his final radio address: "Because we did not wish to spill German blood, we have ordered the Austrian army to offer no resistance. I take leave of the Austrian people with a German farewell and the greeting: God protect Austria."
It was around midnight that Hitler's motorcade entered Vienna. The bells of the city's revered St. Stephens' Church pealed hymns of warm welcome. Delirious crowds cheered, shouted, and cried in rapture.
The German-speaking Austrians, humiliated by the breakup of their extensive empire at the end of World War I, released pent-up frustration in a rapturous welcome of the Fuhrer who dared to abrogate the Versailles Treaty.
The Anschluss added to Hitler's Reich more than 200,000 Jews, to whom all Nazi anti-Jewish legislation was promptly applied, and at an accelerated pace. The complete ruin of Jewish life in Austria came a month later when all Jewish holdings and individual wealth above $2,000 were confiscated by the Nazis.
The world watched the goings-on and barely uttered a sound. There were some formal protests and a bit of tongue-clicking on the part of leading statesmen and diplomats at the League of Nations, but nothing more.
On March 16, The New York Times noted: "This afternoon the Jewish quarter of Leopoldstadt was invaded by triumphant crowds that called families from their houses and forced them to kneel and scrub the pavements shouting 'Perish Jewry,' 'Out with the Jews!' "
Two days later the Times described storm troopers "entering Jewish-owned shops and carrying off whatever goods they fancied as well as money, and going into private homes and demanding large sums of moneypersonal jewelry and other valuables."
The number of suicides among Viennese Jewry rose to some 200 a day. The Jews found the ground opening up under their feet with no hope of escape as Italy, Switzerland and Czechoslovakia simultaneously closed their borders to Jewish refugees. All this was reported in the world press.
In the wake of the reports about the humiliation and suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis, President Franklin Roosevelt called for an international conference to address the matter. Plans for the meeting were announced on March 22, ten days after the Anschluss.
Hitler's response was immediate and full of scorn. Addressing himself to the "other world" - the non-Nazi, civilized world - he said: "I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals, will at last be generous enough to convert that 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."
It took a full three and a half months to organize the conference at Evian, a luxury resort on Lake Geneva, though all the while the newspapers were reporting shocking episodes of Jewish humiliation on virtually a daily basis.
No one caught more clearly the impact of the moment than Anne O'Hare McCormick, who wrote in The New York Times on July 4, the eve of the Evian Conference: "It is heartbreaking to think of the queues of desperate human beings around our consulates in Vienna and other cities waiting in suspense for what happens at Evian. It is not a question of how many unemployed this country can safely add to its own unemployed millions. It is a test of civilization. Can America live with itself if it lets Germany get away with this policy of extermination?"
We ought to emphasize here that this was not 1944, or 1942, or even 1940. It was 1938, and an article in The New York Times spoke of the policy of extermination being formulated by the Germans against the Jewish people. The tip of the iceberg had begun to emerge above the waves; those who were ready to face facts with a grain of realism could tell. The indicators were unmistakable.
The conference at Evian opened on July 6 with the declared purpose of seeking a solution to the problem of the refugees who wished to leave Germany. Thirty-two nations participated. There was much flamboyant rhetoric. Locations such as Kenya, British Guiana and Madagascar, whose places on the map most of the participating delegates would have had difficulty pinpointing, were generously proposed for refugee settlement - always territories belonging to another party.
Australia, with vast, unpopulated areas, announced: "As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one."
France stressed that it had reached a saturation point and could not bring in refugees.
The Peruvian delegate pointedly remarked that the United States had given his country an example of "caution and wisdom" by its own immigration restrictions.
Central American states issued a joint statement saying they could accept no "traders and intellectuals."
Brazil actually declared that every visa application would have to be accompanied by a certificate of Christian baptism.
Canada was prepared to accept only experienced agricultural workers ( a designation that conveniently exempted all but a handful of Europe's Jews).
Britain, while prepared to accept Jewish children (some 9,000 eventually arrived there) 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 U.S. 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, made with the full knowledge that the Germans at the time viewed the Jews as 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 [herself] from being swamped by the Jews," he declared.
The consequences of the Evian Conference, the avowed purpose of which was to help Jewish refugees, were disastrous. Among other developments, all German passports of Jews were henceforth stamped with a large red "J," further curtailing the already limited freedom of Jews to move about.
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."
Hitler was triumphant. Had he not challenged the democratic world, when the Conference was first proposed, that it be generous enough to convert its claims of sympathy for the Jews into practical aid? Had he not declared, as noted above, that "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"?
The German Danziger Vorposten wrote, "We see that one likes to pity the Jews as long as one can use this pity for a wicked agitation against Germany, but that no state is prepared to [admit] a few thousand Jews. Thus the Conference serves to justify Germany's policy against Jewry."
Another newspaper, the Nationalsozialistische Parteikorrespondenz,stated that Evian had confirmed "the danger that world Jewry constitutes."
But it was not government policy alone that led to the rejection of the Jews at Evian. Popular opinion - particularly the deeply ingrained anti-Semitism of the masses - influenced and even drove the actions of the decision-makers.
In England, to cite just one country, the British Medical Association declared that "no member of the medical profession wishes to see the country inundated by émigrés," while the Evening Standard editorialized, "It is felt by many people that we hear too much about the trouble of the Jews. They shout too loudly. They make too insistent a demand upon the compassion of the world. Compassion they get - and deserve - but annoyance is apt to accompany it."
Evian was a definite turning point in modern Jewish history. By the time the Conference took place, the Nazis had persecuted the Jews for six years. There were economic boycotts. There were book-burnings. Jews were deprived of their wealth and financial security. They were fired from their jobs. They were declared second-class citizens with dubious protection by law. They were forbidden to sit, shop, and visit in certain places, to employ Christians and associate with them. There was physical harassment as well as occasional attacks.
But there were no mass deportations and large-scale brutal assaults on a countrywide basis against Jewish residents. These began after Evian.
Evian clearly signaled the world's indifference to the fate of the Jews. No nation was ready to extend a helping hand to the drowning Jew when it actually would have been a rather easy thing to do. The reasons offered were in some cases no less despicable than the refusal itself - We don't want a racial problem; We don't need those traders and intellectuals (in other words, those parasites); We have as little use for them as has Germany.
The signal to the Germans was unmistakably clear: The international community may on occasion issue a formal protest and pay lip service to Christian charity, but underneath the mask of humanitarianism and compassion, the Western world does not want to be troubled by Jewish concerns. Mankind has no interest in the fate of the Jews.
After Evian, the Nazis understood their hands need not be tied by fear of reaction from the civilized world. They caught the consenting nod of the U.S., of England, of France, of Switzerland - of the 32 countries that had met ostensibly to extract the Jews from the jaws of the German beast but instead ensured their consumption.
The Germans began their relocations and deportations of Jews not long after Evian, and Kristallnacht, the Nazis' first concerted large-scale anti-Jewish atrocity, occurred within a few months of the Conference. The Jews undoubtedly would have been better off without Evian. Without the nations of the world stating so forthrightly that they were essentially uninterested in saving Jews, the Germans would not have known just how empty and shallow were the international declarations of support and sympathy for their Jewish victims.
With Evian, all confusion and uncertainty evaporated. Nazi Germany was given the green light. This was the true meaning of Evian. What counts is not what the planners of the Conference said they wanted to achieve, but rather what the Conference actually did achieve: It utterly betrayed the Jews who had placed their trust in civilized humanity.
Dr. Ervin Birnbaum, a leader on the Exodus 1947, is founder and director of Shearim Netanya, the first outreach program to Russian immigrants in Israel. He has taught at City University of New York, Haifa University and the University of Moscow; served as national superintendent of education of Youth Aliyah and as the first national superintendent of education for the Institute of Jewish Studies; and, at the request of David Ben-Gurion, founded and directed the English Language College Preparatory School at Midreshet Sde Boker.