The ignored lessons of Evian 1938

DISPLACED SYRIANS walk in a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Suruc in January 2015 (photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
DISPLACED SYRIANS walk in a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Suruc in January 2015
(photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the 1938 Evian Conference, whose purpose was to discuss the plight of the increasing numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution by Nazi Germany. There, hardly any places of refuge were offered to the half million Jews from Germany and Austria. The anniversary of this failed event has drawn scarce attention. Yet there are important actual lessons – and not only historical ones – to be learned from its failure.
The 10-day conference could not take place in Switzerland, as the government feared upsetting Hitler. Instead, it was held a few kilometers from the Swiss border in the French resort town of Evian on Lake Geneva. When I visited Evian in 2017, there was no indication of the past conference. This summer, during a symposium, a plaque was finally presented to Evian’s Royal Hotel to be placed close to the 1938 conference’s rooms.
The conference was the initiative of US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt; 32 countries participated in the discussions. Rhetoric dominated and hardly any solutions were offered by the various democracies and dictatorships. The Australian delegate who spoke on the second day said that his country did not have a racial problem. The underlying message was clear: Australia believed that it would create a racial problem if it let a significant member of Jews immigrate. After the war, Australia did, however, let in many Holocaust survivors who went on to make significant contributions to the country.
Of all the countries present at the conference, it was only the small Dominican Republic ruled by dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo whose representative concretely offered refuge to a number of the Jewish asylum seekers. Trujillo’s government had massacred 8,000 to 12,000 Haitians in an ethnic conflict. A German Jew who came to Haiti, the neighboring dictatorship on the same island, is quoted as saying, “When a murderer saves your live, you still have to be grateful to the murderer.”
Had the persecuted Jews been spread proportionately over the countries present, they would have at most represented 0.2% of their respective populations. Financing the exodus from Germany and Austria was also not an insurmountable problem.
To put this in perspective with modern events, the refugees let in by Germany during the past three years, represent about 2% of the country’s population. It might be offensive to some, yet it is true that Jewish refugees have made larger contributions to those countries which accepted them before the Holocaust and caused less problems than part of the recent immigrants to Germany. A segment of those do not even want to integrate.
The main characteristic of the Evian conference was pervasive rhetoric. In the current century, antisemitism has substantially increased and is increasing further. This is not only the case in Europe but also in the United States and Canada. Most of the reactions by the leaders of democracies to this hate mongering is once again rhetoric. The current lack of practical solutions to antisemitic incidents stress the importance of the existence of Israel. The Zionist idea is nowadays again demonstrating its relevance.
As populism and nationalism increase in Europe, the generosity of Israel’s Law of Return becomes even clearer. Israel continues to welcome Jews to immigrate even if they may have publicly opposed its policies and are unlikely to contribute to its society in future.
Some of the few articles devoted this year to the Evian conference suggest that the many asylum seekers admitted into Germany and Sweden are proof that Western Europe has learned from the 1938 conference failure. This is a false conclusion. A large part of the recent immigrants come from Muslim countries where antisemitism is part of the culture promoted by political and religious leaders, the media and many others of their elite. All polls available show that the percentage of antisemites among Muslim immigrants is substantially higher than among native populations.
Is this distorted lesson of the Evian conference letting in more antisemites? The greatly reduced post-Holocaust European Jewish population is now increasingly subjected to antisemitism and violence.
The main actual lesson from Evian is more likely to be in line with what Winston Churchill said in the Commons in 1947.
“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
The hostile voting patterns concerning Israel of EU countries, including Germany, at the United Nations are only a small reflection of contemporary democracies failing Israel and occasionally even discriminating against it.
Indeed, those who think that Israel should rely exclusively on the support of democracies are greatly mistaken. Because of this conclusion and the other above-mentioned reasons, the failure of the Evian conference should take a much more central place in Jewish and Israeli discourse.
The writer is the emeritus chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, and the International Leadership Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.