“They bind our hands and then complain that we do not make use of them.” –Moses Mendelssohn
When Europe fell into the First World War, German Jews were enthusiastic about the war effort. They were eager to do their part to bring Germany to victory, and excited to prove themselves as Germans. Some elements of German Jewish society went so far as to call World War I a “Jewish war,” as Germany’s primary enemy was Russia, and German Jews opposed Russian treatment of their coreligionists.
It seemed that non-Jewish society was finally ready to respond in kind; even Kaiser Wilhelm declared, “I recognize no parties anymore, but only Germans.” But by 1916, public opinion turned once more against the Jews as the military effort failed to yield German victories. In October 1916, the War Ministry took a count of the number of Jews in the military, implicitly accusing German Jewry of cowardice and national disloyalty.
At the end of World War I, a civil conflict called the November Revolution (November, 1918-August, 1919) resulted in the replacement of Germany’s imperial government with the Weimar Republic. The November Revolution gave rise to the “Dolchstoßlegende,” the “stab-in-the-back-myth.” The stab-in-the-back-myth was the notion, widely held in right-wing Weimar circles, that Germany did not lose World War I, but was undermined and betrayed from within by civilian groups on the home front—such as Communists, Socialists, Jews, and Catholics—with presumed extra-national loyalties.
While the right-wing elements of Weimar society blamed primarily Communists and the Social Democratic Party (the SPD) for the loss of the War, more mainstream elements of Weimar society drew on age-old money-related stereotypes of Jews to scapegoat them for post-war hyperinflation. This said, the Adolf Hitlers of the Weimar political world were the exceptions, not the rule.
And then came 1933.
When the Nazis came to power, they made the stab-in-the-back-myth an integral part of their official history of the Weimar Republic. The blame which right-wing political elements once placed primarily on Communists and the SPD were appropriated by Nazi propagandists in keeping with Hitler’s fanatical anti-Semitism. Thus, the stab-in-the-back-myth was recast; it was now the Jews, with their extra-national loyalties and their international contacts, who had colluded with the Bolsheviks to bring down the German Empire from within.
Armed with recurring German anti-Semitic tropes and the recast stab-in-the-back-myth, between 1933 and 1938 the Nazi government persecuted the Jews, robbing them of their livelihoods, forcing them out of the civil service, public sector work, and cultural production. They instituted a boycott of Jewish businesses in 1933, and barred Jewish men from the workplace in 1938. Nazi legislation made it impossible for Jewish teens to attend high schools, and uncomfortable for Jewish children to attend elementary schools. These are examples from the legal side of the process put in place to transform German Jews from citizens into outcasts; each legal change was aided socially by non-Jewish society.
This transformative process was a long, drawn out one, so drawn out, in fact, that German Jews were not able to see the dangers it posed to them; it took Kristallnacht—a government sponsored, as opposed to popularly incited, pogrom—and the resulting arrests of Jewish men for German Jewry to see the precariousness of their lives in Germany.
The Nazi government rolled out their anti-Jewish legislation with one goal in mind: to make life so unpleasant for German Jewry that they would have no choice but to leave. However, in that policy was the assumption that the rest of the world would be totally down with absorbing those ~half million German Jews. The rest of the world was not, in fact, down with that.
The Nazis came to power in a world stricken by Great Depression. The governments of nations with the ability to receive Jewish refugees feared that the refugees would take away jobs from their citizens and add to the welfare rolls. Even when the worst of the Depression was over, immigration policies remained tight.
At first, many German Jews fled to nearby Western European nations which liberalized their immigration policies out of the belief (shared by the émigrés) that the Nazi regime would soon fall and the refugees would return home. However, they lost hope that such would be the case after the Anschluss. As a result, German Jewry began to look overseas rather than next-door.
The United States government accepted more refugees than other countries: a quarter million between 1933 and 1945. However, the United States had the capacity to accept far greater numbers than it did. The primary reason the United States could not live up to its potential was the quota system, created in 1924. Had the quotas been completely filled between 1938 and 1941, 206,000 German refugees could have entered the United States. The American Congress did not widen the quotas because of popular hostility towards the notion, fueled by Depression-induced nativist sentiments, domestic anti-Semitism, and fears that German Jewish immigrants might be German spies.
Great Britain opened its doors only to those Jews able to enhance Britain’s intellectual, cultural, and business capital. Its restrictive policy was due to a combination of the global economic crisis, domestic xenophobia, and social anti-Semitism. In all, Britain accepted approximately 70,000 refugees, in addition to the 10,000 German Jewish children whom arrived via the Kindertransports. However, Britain did allow a large number of Jews in on visitor’s visas. In 1939 the British government passed the White Paper, which stipulated that Jewish immigration to Palestine was to be limited to 15,000 per year until 1944, letting in approximately 75,000 Jewish refugees.
The British Commonwealth members (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, and Newfoundland), more concerned with maintaining their Christian, Anglo-Saxon composition than with saving lives, admitted only a combined total of some 13,000 Jewish refugees.
Latin American Republics, desiring to maintain domestic racial composition, changed their policies to effectively bar Jewish emigration after 1938; Brazil did so by requiring baptismal certificates for all émigrés, and Bolivia simply made anyone of Jewish blood ineligible for entrance into the country. In all, approximately 17,500 Jewish refugees were able to emigrate to Central and South America.
In a 1938 move perceived by Canada as nothing more than an American “exercise in public relations,” President Roosevelt called the Evian Conference—an international conference to be held on July 6, 1938 at the Hotel Royale in Evian-les-Bains, France—to address the refugee problem. He invited twenty-nine European and Latin American nations, the Dominican Republic, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, in addition to thirty-nine private organizations. The Union of South Africa, Poland, and Romania attended as observers, Ireland and Luxembourg weren’t invited (though Ireland did crash), the Soviet Union assumed that the conference was a Trotskyist plot, and Switzerland refused to allow the conference be held within its borders. Germany was not invited. Of all the attendees, only the Dominican Republic committed itself to taking a substantial number of refugees.
The Evian Conference accomplished none of its goals, and its failure confirmed to the Nazi government its view that the Jews were indeed an unwanted people.