Three scenes from London life. 1) Westminster in 1999, when the tidal wave of ‘bogus asylum seekers’ that would break across tabloid front pages was just a gentle swell on the horizon. A House of Commons standing committee is discussing the Government’s proposal to replace welfare benefits (of around £46 a week) with a system of food vouchers worth £35 a week. ‘Many asylum seekers come from communities where wealth may be stored in jewellery,’ explains the Home Office minister Mike O’Brien, ‘and it is right for us to take account of that wealth.’
‘Is the minister suggesting,’ asks Diane Abbott MP, ‘that asylum seekers should sell their jewellery, perhaps their wedding rings, as an alternative to the Government meeting its moral and international responsibilities to provide a reasonable level of support?’
When O’Brien replies, ‘I certainly am suggesting that,’ a Tory back-bencher is heard to mutter: ‘You’ll be wanting the gold fillings out of their teeth next.’
2) The David Irving libel trial in February. Reading from the transcript of an interview with Irving on Australian television, Richard Rampton QC, barrister for the defence, asks why Irving had said that the idea of black men playing cricket for England made him feel ‘queasy’.
Irving: My reply to him on air was, what a pity it is that we have to have blacks on the team and that they are better than our whites.
Rampton: Why is that a pity?
Irving: It is a pity because I am English.
Rampton: Are they not English too?
Irving: Well, English or British, are you saying?
Rampton: I am saying that they are English. Most of them are born here, just as all the Jews in England were born here, most of them.
Irving: Are we talking about blacks or Jews now?
Rampton: It does not matter. They are all English.
3) A traffic jam in North London. To pass the time, my daughter and I start to argue about whether having been born here makes her English. On her mother’s side her grandparents were Greek refugees; on her father’s side, American Jews, themselves the descendants of the ‘economic migrants’ of the 19th century. My daughter agrees with Rampton, and however much I argue to the contrary remains convinced that she is, as she puts it, ‘an Englander’. I am too fond of her to make use of the fact that she is, unknowingly, undercutting her case by using Yiddish. Besides, she is only four years old.
When Diane Abbott asked whether asylum seekers should be forced to pawn their wedding rings, she may have thought her question was rhetorical – like Rampton’s dismissal of the notion that being born here doesn’t make you English. (Surely he knows that under Margaret Thatcher’s 1981 Nationality Act, being born here doesn’t even make you British.) But something besides wishful thinking links these episodes – a more disturbing set of associations thrown into high relief by another scene, this time in Dover, when customs officers opened the back of a lorry and found the bodies of 58 Chinese refugees piled against the back door. Press accounts said that the officers concerned would receive counselling and be allowed several days’ leave.
Pulling corpses off the back of a lorry is nasty work, even when the deaths are intentional. Between December 1941 and May 1942 the Nazis used three specially adapted lorries to kill 97,000 Jews near the village of Chelmno in Poland. These vehicles were prone to breakdowns, but according to Christopher Browning, the author of The Path to Genocide and an expert witness at the Irving trial, the real problem was with the men. Browning cites a Nazi medical report describing the crews as suffering ‘enormous emotional and health injuries’ and complaining of headaches after each unloading. Indeed, the desire to spare the Einsatzgruppen such stresses was one of the reasons behind Himmler’s decision to shift to stationary, purpose-built gas chambers.
For several months Britain has been in the midst of a Holocaust revival. From the daily coverage of the Irving trial, to David Edgar’s dramatisation of Gitta Sereny’s Albert Speer at the National Theatre, to the newly opened gallery at the Imperial War Museum, public awareness of the fate of European Jews is probably greater now than at any time in recent memory. The one place it hasn’t penetrated, however, is the current debate about Britain’s treatment of refugees. If it had, those politicians who profess to be ‘shocked and saddened’ at the death of 58 illegal immigrants might find the rest of us more sceptical when they suggest that the way to avoid such tragedies is to make it even harder for refugees to enter this country. As Louise London’s Whitehall and the Jews 1933-48 reminds us, we have been down that road before.
Assumptions about Britain’s response to the Holocaust fall into two distinct – and diametrically opposed – schools. In 1945, Viscount Cranborne, Parliamentary Under Secretary to the Foreign Office until 1938, and Secretary for the Dominions from 1943 to 1945, assured the House of Lords that Britain had done more than any other country to help the Jews. ‘This comfortable view has proved remarkably durable,’ says London, ‘and is still adduced to support claims that Britain has always admitted genuine refugees, and that the latest harsh measures against asylum seekers are merely designed to exclude bogus applicants.’ Nor is the Left, always on the look-out for a stick with which to beat the Government, immune to nostalgia for a supposedly more generous past. Cranborne’s assertion came in response to Viscount Samuel, who had accused the Government of condemning the Jews, ‘not as Jews, but by means of immigration restrictions ... Out of that vast reservoir of misery and murder, only a trickle of escape was provided.’ Bernard Wasserstein examined this claim in some detail in Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939-45 (1979), as have numerous historians on both sides of the Atlantic since then.
On the numbers alone, Britain’s accusers appear to have the better case. Compare the 500,000-600,000 files on families and individuals seeking refuge in the archives of Britain’s main Jewish organisations with the 80,000 refugees actually admitted. Clearly, this is not a question of a glass anywhere near half full. And as London points out, even the Kindertransports had their grim aspect. Of the 7482 children given refuge here by the end of August 1939, London writes: ‘Admission saved the children’s lives. Exclusion sealed the fate of their parents.’
In addition, there are many instances in the documentary record when Whitehall’s reluctance to admit refugees is expressed in language whose brutal frankness crosses over from callous indifference to outright anti-semitism. In April 1943, for example, the Cabinet Committee on Refugees, meeting on the eve of the Bermuda Conference, felt compelled to point out that ‘the Jewish element in the population of Poland was proportionally higher than was healthy.’ At the time this observation was made, more than three quarters of Poland’s Jews had already been murdered. That December, R.A.M. Hankey of the Foreign Office minuted his objection to an American request to allow funds to be sent to rescue 70,000 Romanian Jews: ‘I suspect the real object of the scheme is financial – Jews in Europe getting out into dollars while there is yet time!’ In July 1944, when Jewish groups in Britain begged that something be done to save their brethren in Hungary – and when both they and the British Government had every reason to know the fate of deported Jews – Herbert Morrison told Eden that it was ‘essential that we should do nothing at all which involves the risk that the further reception of refugees here might be the ultimate outcome’.
London is the daughter of Jewish refugees, but her book is not a parochial indictment. As she points out, Britain’s ‘softly softly’ approach to Nazi anti-semitism in the 1930s was supported by prominent British Jews, including Sir Herbert Samuel, who opposed a boycott on German goods. The fear that allowing too many Jews into Britain would trigger anti-semitism here was shared by Whitehall mandarins and the Board of Deputies. It was Chaim Weizmann, after all, who claimed that Jews ‘have proved they are an insoluble element’ in European society. When, after the Anschluss, Britain reintroduced a visa requirement – forcing refugees to apply before entering Britain – the move was endorsed by Otto Schiff, on the grounds that Austrian Jews ‘were largely of the shopkeeper and small trader class and would therefore prove much more difficult to emigrate than the average German who had come to the United Kingdom’.
In the spring of 1933 Schiff and Neville Laski KC, head of the Board of Deputies, sent the Government a guarantee that no refugee would become a burden on public funds: ‘All expense, whether temporary or permanent accommodation or maintenance, will be borne by the Jewish community without ultimate charge to the state.’ But when it came to Austrian Jews the guarantee was made conditional. And when Czech Jews started fleeing in the wake of Munich, ‘Jewish organisations in Britain refused to take responsibility for refugees from Czechoslovakia.’ Schiff’s Council for German Jewry ‘resisted, to the last, all pressure to get directly involved in arranging the entry of Czech Jews. This made it certain that relatively few would obtain refuge in Britain.’
For the most part, London tells a story without heroes. She praises Eleanor Rathbone, the Christian MP whose Parliamentary questions about Government inaction made her the scourge of the Refugee Department, and puts in a good word for Sir Herbert Emerson, High Commissioner for Refugees, who emerges as an energetic and resourceful advocate of assistance. She also displays a great deal of sympathy for civil servants, often cast as Hitler’s witting accomplices, especially in Zionist accounts. ‘The strength of the belief of Home Office civil servants that ministers were wrong to insist that refugees should be required to leave after the end of the war is shown,’ she writes, ‘by the effort they put into arguing the case that the only proper course was one of allowing the absorption of refugees who wished to remain.’ Even Neville Chamberlain gets credit for expanding asylum provision after Kristallnacht.
The only conspicuous villain in her account is Herbert Morrison, whose determination to keep the Jews out of Britain didn’t end with VE day. Despite Civil Service advice, Morrison ‘clung to the view that at the end of the war the Home Office should require all refugees to depart, not even excepting those who had voluntarily served in the Armed Forces, and that those refugees who could not emigrate could be repatriated’. London’s main interest, however, is in policy, not personalities. And here what she has to say is a salutary corrective both to the view that Whitehall anti-semitism was primarily to blame for Britain’s failure to do more and to those who feel that there has been a lamentable falling off in compassion towards asylum seekers since the Second World War. She makes it clear that ‘by the 1930s the United Kingdom’s tradition of granting asylum to refugees had been relegated to the background. Still the source of much national pride, the humanitarian tradition had little impact on practice and had been largely superseded. The inter-war system of immigration control contained no trace of any legal obligation to admit refugees.’
From the 1905 Aliens Act onwards, London argues, admission to Britain has depended on the government of the day’s perception of British interest. During the Nazi period ‘humanitarian aid to the Jews was assigned much lower priority than, for example, the maintenance of severe restrictions on alien immigration to the United Kingdom ... Thus, while the particulars of refugee policy varied according to the everchanging circumstances of the Jews, its limits were defined by self-interest.’ In other words, there may have been times when, either because of public pressure or out of a need to keep the Americans (who had Jewish voters to worry about) onside, it was necessary to appear to act, but the limits on what might be done were never questioned, at least not within Whitehall.
When Anthony Eden said, ‘We should avoid any reproach that we are not doing all we can to rescue these unfortunate people,’ London explains that ‘the object was not to rescue Jews but to avoid the reproach that Britain was not doing all it could to rescue Jews. The priority, therefore, was to reduce public pressure for action and avoid criticism of inaction.’ Which is why the April 1943 Bermuda Conference on Refugees, a disaster from the point of view of the refugees and their advocates, ‘was seen as a success for British policy. The conference decisions provided a rationale for refusing to act on demands for rescue. They also enabled the Government to appear to be trying to ameliorate the position of refugees.’
It is impossible to read London’s book without a mounting sense of déjà vu. Take out the word ‘Jews’ and put in its place ‘Romanys’ or ‘Ethiopians’ or ‘Kosovars’ or ‘Bosnians’ and you have the essence of New Labour’s asylum policy. The 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees is often seen as an act of reparation on the part of governments that spectacularly failed to save the Jews. But it is important to remember – a point that London doesn’t stress – that it was also an artefact of the Cold War, which brought its own countervailing pressure to bear on the national interest. That pressure is now gone, and Jack Straw is able to tell an EU conference that the Convention should be changed so that asylum seekers are allowed to submit their claims before they enter Europe. If all the current protections are kept in place, this might be a welcome step. But it is more likely that the Government means to screen asylum seekers in their place of origin – with the same hostile intent that forced Austrian and Czech Jews to apply for visas. Why else would the Tories – though they object to Straw’s willingness to work through European institutions – be so supportive? That his own grandmother – a German Jewish refugee – might have been kept out by such a policy is no more of a restraining influence on the present Home Secretary than it would have been on his predecessor, himself the son of a Jewish refugee.