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Book Notes: Britain and the Jews of Europe 1939-1945, Bernard Wasserstein

John P. Fox

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Britain and the Holocaust Britain and the Jews of Europe 1939-1945? Bernard Wasserstein, Clarendon Press, Oxford/ Institute of Jewish Affairs, London, 1979, 389 PP-&gt; Bibl., Index, ?7.95. It is a pity to have to say that Dr Wasserstein's study of those aspects of British foreign policy during the Second World War which affected the Jews of Europe must be read with some care. He obviously intends to prove a case' in that area of the Holocaust debate which is concerned with the so-called 'misdeeds' of the Allied nations; they (it is argued) must also be held responsible for the Final Solution or Holocaust, notwithstanding the fact that the first and final responsibility for that crime rests with Nazi Germany. Since Dr Wasserstein blurs many of the issues involved, relating them (justifiably or not) to the Holocaust, implicitly or explicitly, the reader should bear in mind that the systematic extermination of European Jewry did not begin until the invasion of Russia in June 1941. Until then nothing indicated to those in Whitehall or elsewhere, including some in the Nazi leadership, that extermination would be the Nazi form for the 'Final Solution' of the Jewish question in Europe. Contrary to his inferences in the Preface (p.vi), British policy makers were not confronted by any choice between the 'priorities' of Jewish survival in Europe and decisions to be taken in British policy, certainly during 1939-41. This incorrect assump? tion provides a false framework for the reader. The 'fate' of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe (and that of other civilians) simply did not enter into account and could hardly be an 'issue' in British foreign policy. The only issue involving the Jews was the maintenance of the White Paper policy on Palestine and how to cope with those few Jewish refugees from Nazism who attempted to breach that policy. The consequences of those attempts makes for harrowing reading in Chapter 2, 'Sealing the</page><page sequence="2">166 Book Notes Escape Routes', but, contrary to Dr Wasserstein's intention, one really must separate such events from the Holocaust itself, certainly until 1941 and especially 1942. Dr Wasserstein is hardly more accurate when he implies that the policy of 'extermination not emig? ration' was somehow forced upon the Nazi leader? ship because Britain, not Germany, 'sealed' the escape routes: 'that the great majority of Jews failed to emigrate was primarily due to the extreme reluctance of all countries to admit them' (p.45). The development of Nazi Germany's Jewish policies after September 1939 was not contingent upon developments of British policy. Nor were the Nazis concerned with 'Jewish emigration' per se. From 1939-40 the Gestapo and Adolf Eichmann were only concerned with continued Jewish emigration from Germany itself, the expulsion, of the Jews from the rest of Europe being preserved until after the war, such a solution in any case being contingent upon a German victory. But even if the Jews had to remain in Europe, since they were not allowed to emigrate elsewhere, why did they have to be deliberately done to death by the Nazis? Had Dr Wasserstein not been so intent on trying to prove a case of British 'inhumanity' and instead had written a more carefully thought out analysis which distingushed the pre-Holocaust period from that of the Holocaust itself, he would have seen - and therefore brought out with far more effect - that after 1942 a different situation and points of interpretation arise with the implementation of the process of extermination and Allied knowledge of this from 1942. Only from then can the controversy over Allied restrictive immigration policy, and its consequences for those few Jewish refugees attempting to breach it, be joined legitimately to the controversy about the general attitudes of the Allies towards the Jews and the lack of a so-called 'rescue' of the Jews. From 1942 one can legitimately ask: now that the Allies knew of the Final Solution, what did they do about it, and was their response sufficient? Yet in turn it becomes necessary to ask something else: what were the Allies capable of doing in a situation of total war? Within the context of Allied military operations during 1943, of Ger? many's own effective 'sealing of all escape routes', and above all of the intensity and haste of the extermination process, it really is a non sequitur to talk of 'significant relief not being offered to the Jews, and the non-efficacy of 'Allied rescue efforts' (p.221). Dr Wasserstein seems not to have grasped or at least not to have accepted the fact that it was not the objective of the Allies to get the Jews out of Europe, but to 'save' them (and others) by achiev? ing a speedy military victory over Nazism. One misses the crux of Britain's attitude to the Jews within Europe - nationals of the European states - if this point is glossed over and instead more attention paid to the undeniable attitude of reserve with which Britain approached the schemes of 'rescue' for Romanian and Hungarian Jewry (which in any case were hardly straightforward) mooted in 1942 and 1944. It cannot be denied that Britain was concerned about anything upsetting her Pales? tinian policy. But only if one ignores the fact that the Allies aimed for a speedy and total destruction of Nazism in order to restore a semblance of pre-Nazi European society, with the Jews of Europe remain? ing as European nationals, can one's hands be thrown up in horror over Britain's concern with Palestine. In the event, Nazi Germany refused to sanction the departure of these countries' lews (pp.249, 266). Two particular instances in the book tend to confirm one's suspicions about Dr Wasserstein's more general intentions, and even his methodo? logy. Inexplicably he fails to mention, and therefore to develop in his account in Chapter 4 of British (Gentile and lewish) knowledge in 1942 of the process of extermination, that Jewish represen? tations for mention of Jewish sufferings in Allied Declarations on German atrocities were not simply for the purpose of propaganda. He fails to make it clear that the Allied Declaration of January 1942 (p. 16 5) placed among the principal war aims of the signatories the punishment, through the judicial process, of those guilty and responsible for acts of violence against civilian populations. Jewish repre? sentatives therefore recognized - as Dr Wasserstein has not - that what was being prepared for was the post-war prosecution of war crimes committed by the Nazis, and the Jews wanted - and finally procured - special mention of Nazi crimes against the Jews. In fact, their efforts produced a unique change in international law. Dr Wasserstein's failure to develop this important theme is all the</page><page sequence="3">Book Notes 167 more surprising since he refers frequently to my article on this subject ('The Jewish Factor in British War Crimes Policy in 1942', The English Historical Review XCII, no. 362, January 1977). The second instance concerns his treatment of the British reaction to Jewish Agency requests to bomb Auschwitz. Regrettably, Dr Wasserstein has occasionally allowed a false impression to emerge which only the addition of omitted passages from minutes and letters and the removal of surprisingly ill-informed polemical remarks can correct. A great deal of misunderstanding would have been avoided, in some published reviews at least, had he stressed that in July and August 1944 only a feasibility project about bombing Auschwitz was being discussed, whose initial materialization was to be a photographic reconnaissance. He is wrong in stating that around 18 August Foreign Office officials decided to 'block further action' (p.315) and that this episode showed 'the ability of the British civil service to overturn ministerial deci? sions' (p. 316). Even from his account, and certainly from the omitted parts of documents, it is clear that the onus of decision-making was placed firmly on the shoulders of the permanent officials by Chur? chill and Eden, and they had the responsibility, when pursuing the feasibility project, of making recommendations of policy matters for final appro? val by the Minister. From the beginning of August as well, the Air Ministry looked to the Foreign Office for a decision on political grounds, i.e. whether reports that deportations of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz had ceased now changed the situation. A great deal is made of the fact that the Foreign Office failed to pass to the Air Ministry topographi? cal data about Auschwitz, but such delivery was conditional upon a political decision approving further preparatory steps being taken, which might or might not have finally led to Auschwitz being bombed. Dr Wasserstein allows a hint of sinister machination to emerge with his comment that the officials now 'considered how best to dispose of the matter' (p. 315). More correctly, the officials had the responsibility of deciding upon a course of action, which in any case some of them thought long overdue. The book contributes to the Holocaust debate, with a great deal which makes for uncomfortable reading, and the documentation confronted Dr Wasserstein with a daunting task. Nevertheless, for me it is a flawed study, not least of all for the surprising number of polemical and often mislead? ing remarks. The serious omissions and misunder? standings which occur in his treatment of 1942 and the bombing of Auschwitz episode make one wonder what else could be found upon closer examination. This book is far from being the final word on the subject - for all its dependence on the documents - and in the final analysis it can only be seen as a pioneer work. John P. Fox</page></plain_text>