Commentary Magazine

Britain and the Jews of Europe 1939-1945, by Bernard Wasserstein

Onlookers & Participants

Britain and the Jews of Europe 1939-1945.
by Bernard Wasserstein.
Oxford University Press and the Institute of Jewish Affairs. 389 pp. $17.95.

The theme of this book—albeit unspoken—is guilt. But not the immeasurable guilt of the principals. The master killers of modern Germany are virtually absent from the story Bernard Wasserstein has to tell. Hitler, Goering, Himmler, Heydrich, Eichmann, and the rest appear only fleetingly. The great army that served them with such efficiency and (to use a word much favored in our times) sincerity—the Einsatzgruppen and the death-camp crews; the French policemen who did the Gestapo’s work so diligently; the Polish and Ukrainian nationalists who cut down the stragglers and escapees from ghetto and camp; and so on clown the list—all these are on the margin of the present story. Collectively, they and their purposes are the given data, the fixed point to which the actions of others refer. And in any event, their record is now well known, if perhaps still not fully understood.

What is less well known and understood hardly at all is the record of those who were onlookers while the Jews of Europe were put to death. These were a mixed lot; the Wehrmacht officers who looked the other way; the half-hearted collaborators of Nazism; the neutrals; the Arabs who played a crucial, if silent, role because it was on their behavior that the decisions of others turned; the Allied powers actively fighting the Germans; and, finally, from their corner of the ring, those Jewish public figures who were fortunate enough to be beyond the grip of Germany—Zionists and anti-Zionists, in Palestine, in free Europe, and in the United States.

This book is about just one class of such onlookers, the British. More particularly, it is about the British government. Other classes are referred to, but only briefly and insofar as they impinge upon Wasserstein’s main subject (a matter to which I shall return). What we are presented with is a professional historian’s meticulous account of British policy constructed principally out of materials furnished by British officialdom itself, namely, the archives of the Foreign, Colonial, War, and Home Offices, the Cabinet Office, and a number of lesser, outlying branches of the British machinery of wartime government. And since the British civil service operates to a very notable extent on the basis of written memoranda, dispatches, and minutes, and the standard of clear and precise written English that has traditionally obtained within it is very high, the results are extraordinary. For, quite apart from improved understanding of the subject, we are provided with an unusual insight into the minds and mores of the men concerned—statesmen, civil servants, diplomats, soldiers, colonial administrators, and so on. And beyond that, there runs through all the documents that Mr. Wasserstein has so scrupulously analyzed an instance of the eternal tension between the dictates of private morality and the dictates of raison d’état quite as acute as the human mind and the modern experience can ever have provided.



The problem which the German war against the Jews set the British was a complex one, and hindsight and the superior perspective of a later generation should not be allowed to simplify it. Some time passed before the full dimensions and intensity of that war were thoroughly understood. Some of those involved did not want to grasp them until it was all over. The fear that special and explicit sympathy for the Jews might somehow spoil the clear outlines of the fight against tyranny, and serve to confirm Goebbels’s line that the war was being fought in the Jewish interest, was genuine, even if we, today, may think it misplaced. Equally genuine, if equally misplaced, was the fear of a rise in anti-Semitic feeling in Britain itself if too many Jews were admitted to the island. The question of whether it was politically and militarily expedient and, indeed, proper to treat with the Germans directly (or even indirectly) on the matter of the Jews while the war was raging (exchanging Jews for trucks, as the Gestapo suggested in the most notorious case) was not easily answered. Least of all were the professionals of Whitehall the men to answer it with imagination and breadth of spirit. Where and when the British were inclined, however cautiously, to be helpful, they found themselves alone. No support worth mentioning accrued to them from any other quarter, least of all from those which mattered most: the United States (until the change which came very late in the day) and the Dominions. But above all, there was Palestine. There, as recently as 1939, policy had at last been set in the famous White Paper, and the broad strategic considerations from which it stemmed seemed to be more valid and necessary than ever once war had begun. In any event, it was a policy the British government (a few mavericks apart) was determined to maintain.

The two interlocked bases of the White Paper policy were (a) a de facto end to large-scale Jewish immigration, and (b) an end to any promise or prospect whatsoever of the Jews being granted political autonomy. Cleaving to this policy, the British tended to fight all efforts to bring escapees and refugees from Europe into Palestine and to do so with great determination and often with astonishing ruthlessness. (One must say “tended” because flashes of humanity did light up the dark from time to time.) The logic that underlay this fight is clear. Immigration, as Jews, Arabs, and Englishmen all realized, was the key to, and the condition of, future Jewish independence. To allow the Jews to multiply was, in effect, to concede the fundamental issue embedded in the problem of Palestine. The Arabs would not have it; and the British believed that if they surrendered the Jews to the Arabs they would gain the latter for themselves.

Hence the establishment of an end to immigration as the cornerstone of British policy on Palestine, and indeed, in some respects, on the Middle East; and hence the corollary that to allow immigration was to acquiesce in the public destruction of that policy. This the British would not do; and to defend the policy and fight the attempt to establish Palestine as a recognized haven, every kind of weapon was called into play at one time or another, ranging from brute diplomatic pressure on Balkan countries controlling the principal escape routes so long as such pressure could be exerted, to naval interception of refugee ships. When all else had failed and some rotten hulk, loaded to the gunwhales with starving, stinking, and sick men, women, and children, did manage to run the gauntlet to the Palestine coast and could not be put to sea again because it was obvious it would founder, the people in it might be deported elsewhere, on a fresh ship, even at great expense and inconvenience, but only so long as they did not remain in Palestine itself. Then further ugly scenes would follow when, as might happen, the people resisted:

[The police] brought out over a hundred of the first batch of people, all of them wounded, completely naked. . . . The remaining young people walked, quite naked, pushed from behind by the British police, until they reached the lorry, and they were then flung into it. . . . Many of the old men fell on the ground and kissed it. They pleaded with tears before the police officers . . . to have pity on them, that they had already passed through Dachau and Buchenwald. And the officers paid no heed to them. . . . A British military officer turned very pale, and left the place in anger.

But why Palestine at all? Because, apart from any consideration of sentiment, there was nowhere else to go for the masses who could have been saved while Germany still stayed its hand (up to the end of 1941 or thereabouts), and for a substantial number even later. As the Evian and the Bermuda conferences and a thousand minor statements, incidents, and inquiries showed abundantly, no haven would be available for them anywhere if the Jews continued to rely upon the generosity of others. Palestine was denied them, too; nonetheless it was only in Palestine and for Palestine that there was consistent pressure from anyone to allow them in. But the source of the pressure was the Zionist organization; and in these circumstances, effectively, perhaps fatally, the cause of European Jewry came to be linked with the cause of Zionism in practice as it had always been linked (so far as the Zionists were concerned) in theory.



To the fairly prevalent dislike of Jews and to the fundamental lack of interest in their fate which colored the thinking of most of those who came to be concerned with these matters within the British official family, there was now added an intense political opposition. And thus it was but a step to an entrenched belief that Jewish pressure on behalf of the actual and potential victims was itself politically inspired, and could therefore be discounted. When the head of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency protested the decision to send away the survivors of the Patria (blown up in Haifa by the Haganah to prevent its enforced departure to Mauritius), the High Commissioner lashed out at him:

These people are refugees and the British government is going to take care of them, but not in Palestine. They will probably be much better off in the place to which they will be sent than they have been for years under Nazi rule. [But] to you all this is something political.

So it was, up to a point. British interests, as understood and defined in Whitehall and by its proconsuls overseas, ran counter to the Jewish national interest, as understood and defined—not, of course, by the government of the Jews, for there was none, but by the only group within Jewry that had taken it upon itself to speak for all the people. It is this clash of interests and purposes which makes the case of the conduct of the British during the war one of enduring historical interest and importance and so poignant. That and, of course, the cruel consequences for the refugees—noted by Whitehall, to be sure, but hardly ever considered fully.

In this the British were not alone. The record of other Western, free societies is a poor one too. In some ways it is poorer than the record of the British who, when all is said and done, admitted many more Jewish refugees proportionately than did the Americans, or the Canadians, or the Australians, or any of the major nations of Latin America into their lands. But while what the Americans and the rest have to answer for—if indeed it is agreed that they have to answer for anything—is that they sat on their hands during most of the war, the British, in contrast, went so far as to oppose the evacuation of Europe and thus were something more than mere bystanders. Driven by what they took to be state interest, they came to play an active, contributory role of their own in the cumulative event we are accustomed to call the Holocaust, full comprehension of their actions often being blocked off for them by a superlatively smooth bureaucratic style:

What is to happen to these wretched creatures when they are driven back into the open seas, it is rather difficult to imagine [wrote Sir John Shuckburgh of the Colonial Office]. They must go somewhere, but I can think of nobody who would be in the least likely to take them in. However, these are days in which we are brought up against realities and we cannot be deterred by the kind of pre-war humanitarianism that prevailed in 1939.

Perhaps, given their training and deep-seated habits of mind, their very talent for administration depended on this ability to think through a problem selectively, paying detailed attention to some aspects, skating easily over others. Be that as it may, in the end the British were wrong on their own terms and on all counts. It was all in vain. The dream of perpetual Arab acquiescence in their hegemony, always insubstantial, evaporated. Even the Jews got their independence, eventually.



May one then conclude that straightforward decency and charity would have served them as better guides to policy than cold-blooded raison d’état? Not necessarily. It could be argued with greater force that with respect to the Jews, as in many other respects, one source of the weakness of British policy—of the implementation of policy, at all events—lay in the fact that they did try, after their fashion, to partake of both models of thinking and be guided by both classes of criteria. They did admit some 60,000 Jews into Palestine between 1939 and 1944. They did allow some Jewish military units to be formed. They did not push all the refugees back. There were always divided councils and mixed feelings within the Cabinet. Where there was irritation in Whitehall at some diplomat’s deviation from set policy on “absurdly misjudged humanitarian grounds,” there were also complaints of having to do the Colonial Office’s “dirty work” and of pursuing a policy which savored of “real malice against the refugees, more worthy of our enemies than of us.” In brief, there was more than one mood; and Whitehall was never entirely consistent. Perhaps one may see that as a virtue of a sort. It may be worth noting, too, that the evidence presented against Whitehall in this book is all of Whitehall’s own making, freely available to anyone who cares to read the files in the Public Record Office at Kew. Is this a sign of innocence; or of arrogance; or of a certain caste’s inability to understand the deeper implications of its own thinking and of its own actions; or merely of a belief in following rules? Virtue again, of a sort?

The British official world is the subject of this investigation, and the results are of great interest, even fascination; but in the end, its concern is with the Jews. Never had their weakness, disunity, and isolation cost them so dear as in World War II. Never had the old forms of self-help, intercession, and ransom—shtadlanut and pidyon shevuim—proved so horribly inadequate. Never did the effort to break out of the old mold and finally emancipate the Jews seem so right and timely. Yet in the light of the present study, there cannot but arise the question whether those so earnestly dedicated to the liberation of the Jews by new, more forceful, more systematic, and more lasting means had not, by their entanglement in a fight with the British, only contributed their mite too to the sealing off of the roads out of Europe.

Yet was there an alternative policy for the Zionist leadership to pursue? And to press the matter further: was there, could there have been, an alternative leadership to that which the Zionists provided? Certainly, none was in evidence. Indeed, not even all the self-styled Zionists were prepared to fight for the cause of European Jewry by means other than the old ones. As late as December 1942 Stephen Wise still hesitated to ask Roosevelt to do more than receive a delegation and “speak a word of solace and hope” to them. It took Morgenthau, the outsider, to dare to do more. But that was toward the end when most of the damage had been done.

Such questions, while well beyond the nominal scope of Bernard Wasserstein’s important book, are inescapable upon reading it. So too is the thought that in many respects it was the early years of the war that were decisive for the fate of European Jewry. What was lost then and what was saved through the bitter, probably ineluctable fight with the British is now beyond calculation, to be sure. What is evident is that within the greater circle of tragedy there was a smaller one, and that it too must be accounted for some day and studied for what it may have to teach us.

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