Whitehall and the Jews, 1933-1948: British Immigration Policy and the Holocaust

Article excerpt

by Louise London. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 313 pp. $59.95.

In March 2000, the publication of a study about British government responses to refugees could not have been more timely. During the previous year and peaking in March of the new millenium, reports about so called "bogus" asylum seekers "swamping" Britain filled the airwaves, flooded televisions, and consumed columns of newsprint. For a time, significant sections of the Labour government and the opposition party (the Conservatives) sought to surpass each other in a rhetoric of vituperative anti-alienism. Admonishing these parties for their vilification of asylum seekers, refugee aid workers and other commentators recalled the record of the 1930s, when it was argued, Britain was a significantly more generous and courteous host to asylum seekers.

Just what the policy of Britain actually was towards (mainly) Jewish refugees during the fifteen year period of 1933 to 1948 forms the core of London's examination. Her conclusions, however, challenge the rosy picture this latter group would like to remember. She argues that while Britain did offer refuge to some Jews, this number was small compared to the amount who attempted entry. Given the direction of current historiography on how liberal democracies reacted to Jewish refugees in the inter-war period (as well as to the plight of Jews during the Holocaust more generally), London's conclusion is not unexpected. What is interesting is her observation of policy as one driven by concerns about what to do with Jews after admittance or rescue. These future considerations inhibited aiding or saving Jews at the time, not only when Jews sought refuge from persecution during the 1930s, but also when news of mass murder was known through both press reports and war-time intelligence. As a result, where refugees were admitted, policies of economic and political self-interest prevailed over humanitarianism. Thus, refugee women were able to enter as domestic servants (thereby solving Britain's shortage of housekeepers), and world-renowned scientists and academics who could contribute to Britain's prestige were selected from their lesser known colleagues. Even the case of nearly 10,000 places for lone children on organized train transports from Europe -- the Kindertransporte -- was a decision, as London gently observes, tempered by the fact that their parents were not allowed to accompany their children to safety. Government officials, afraid of fostering home-grown antisemitism, saw children as likely to assimilate and acculturate into British society more successfully than adults. In addition, children did not need jobs and therefore could not be accused of "stealing" those that British citizens might expect to gain. …