E. Schöck-Quinteros u.a. (Hrsg.): Keine Zuflucht. Nirgends.

Keine Zuflucht. Nirgends.. Die Konferenz von Évian und die Fahrt der St. Louis (1938/39)

Schöck-Quinteros, Eva; Loeber, Matthias; Rau, Simon
Aus den Akten auf die Bühne 15
Anzahl Seiten
466 S.
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Frank Caestecker, Universiteit Gent

This book is the result of a research project by Eva Schöck-Quinteros and her colleagues in the History faculty of the University of Bremen. Together with her students, she collected a large number of archival documents related to the flight of Jews from Germany, original sources documenting efforts of states to provide asylum to the persecuted or, more frequently, to keep these refugees out. Added to these documents from public authorities are documents from refugee aid organizations, newspaper reports and private correspondence of individual refugees. Central in the reconstruction of the historical record are the Evian Conference (July 1938) and the famous story of the St. Louis, one of the so-called “Jewish ships” the Nazis used in the late 1930s to dump the no-longer-wanted German citizens in any country overseas. The book is a spin-off of a historical theatre project which received the 2018 award of the contest “Theater macht Geschichte” from the German foundation „Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft“ (EVZ).

The book starts with three studies of how nation-states handled the flight from Nazi Germany. These case studies on France, Switzerland and Australia summarize the findings of the experts in the field, respectively Vicky Caron, Jacques Picard and Paul Bartrop, who in the 1990s scrutinized how the authorities in each of these countries developed a refugee policy. The archival documents mainly illustrate the state policy of these countries. These refugee policies existed as private-public hybrids, as refugee aid groups catered to the material needs of the refugees whom the state had authorized to stay. In the European countries, the authorities and refugee aid organizations envisioned that the stay of most refugees from Germany would only be temporary. Giving temporary asylum would enable these transit refugees to leave for a final destination overseas. These case studies point out the importance of the Evian Conference for refugee policy in the 1930s. The Evian Conference in July 1938 was the last attempt to find an international solution for the refugee crisis before the outbreak of the war. Representatives of 32 states were invited by US president Franklin Roosevelt in order to deal with the humanitarian havoc caused by Eichmann’s antisemitic policy of pushing Jews out of Austria after the Anschluß. While numerous states paid lip service to the idea of international negotiation to provide a solution to the problem of refugees from Germany, the Evian Conference demonstrated a lack of collective political will. The Evian conference is very well represented in this collection by the inclusion of the most salient discussions that occurred during the conference (pp. 165–204), but even more so by diplomatic reports and the dramatic reports of the refugee aid organizations. These internal documents are supplemented by an overview of press coverage.

The unwillingness of the community of nations, including Roosevelt’s own United States, to commit at Evian to sharing the burden of the humanitarian disaster which Germany had caused meant that the authorities in the countries bordering Germany realized that their transit refugees had nowhere to go. From the summer of 1938 onwards the authorities of the European states, even the so-called liberal ones, became ever more afraid of becoming magnets, implying that the policy of the most restrictive state set the tone, ultimately initiating a chain reaction of border closures. This tragic episode is hardly documented in this book except for a letter by Gertrud Baer, a German feminist in exile in Switzerland, describing the refugees stuck in the no man‘s land between the German border and that of an inhospitable neighboring state. Instead, the book focuses on the strategy of the Nazis in 1939 to force German Jews to leave for overseas. The Gestapo organized numerous steamship voyages bearing Jews with dubious or non-existent travel documents, who were to land wherever the authorities might permit. The St. Louis was the most famous of these voyages, but it was by no means the only example. The book documents many of these voyages with archival documents of the shipping companies, the refugee aid committees and the authorities of the destination countries, which were mostly unwilling to provide asylum. One of the last series of documents refers to the life stories of German Jews on the St. Louis. The fate of this group is amply documented mainly through the efforts of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The book finishes with the July 1938 appeal by the socialist MP Ricardo Latcham in the House of Parliament of Chile in that his country should generously offer asylum to the victims of Nazism.

The editors are to be applauded for bringing aspects of the by now well-researched history of the refugees from Nazi Germany to a broad audience at a time when the legacy of this humanitarian disaster, the international refugee regime around the Geneva Convention, is under siege. Juxtaposing the harsh voices of the past denying asylum to refugees with the life stories of these refugees is a strong combination. The selections of Evian and the St. Louis as focal points for understanding refugee policy can be criticized, as for example the book could have paid more attention to how in 1938 liberal European states resorted to push backs and forced returns rather than to how the countries overseas closed their harbors for refugees. These hideous actions against individuals, albeit to a certain extent documented by historians have trickled down much less in public history than Evian and the St. Louis. The latter have been extensively researched and this book does not strive to further historical research, but rather to communicate the findings of historical research to a broader audience. The translation of Spanish and French documents into German are part of this effort of bringing historical findings to the German public.

Documentary publication can find an appreciative audience. Historians of the Holocaust have proven this with the recent “Edition Judenverfolgung” edited by Susanne Heim and the 26 volumes of selected documents edited by Henry Friedlander and Sybil Milton in the 1990s. In contrast to both these publications, the documents in this edited volume are accepted at face value. There is no critical analysis of the documents, and even when there are obvious mistakes in the documents the editors do not correct them. For example, on page 340 the president of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Paul Baerwald, writes that “Mr. Gottschalk of Holland has promised on behalf of his government to take 250 refugees of the St. Louis [...] MCT is still making efforts to find places for them […]. He is in touch with Holland, but is not very hopeful”. The editors could have added in a footnote that Mr. Gottschalk was not from Holland, but Belgium. Also, the selection of documents could have been pursued a bit further. For example, the ultimate decision by the French, Belgian, Dutch and British authorities to finally accept the passengers of the St. Louis is not well documented. The initial British reluctance to accept what they considered a dictate of the Nazi authorities could have received more attention. By the summer of 1939, the British had developed a proactive refugee policy and passively accepting those the Nazis kicked out was felt to thwart their resettlement policy. The actual selection of passengers destined for each of the four receiving countries could also have been more developed, as it caused considerable acrimony on board the St. Louis in Antwerp harbor. Every official delegate wanted to skim the cream of the refugees in order to take in those who had the best prospects to leave their country swiftly for overseas.[1] A selection of documents even more attentive to the interests involved could have yielded even more insight in the real world of the time.

This documentary publication mainly brings home the message of the need for a humanitarian policy, but a viable refugee policy has to consider more than a desire to do good. Refugee policy should be understood as part and parcel of decent behavior of states, but in order for refugee policy to survive at critical junctures it should also be strongly embedded in an international regime that accepts burden-sharing by the community of responsible states.

[1] Frank Caestecker / Bob Moore (eds.), Refugees from Nazi-Germany and the liberal European states, 1933–1939, Oxford 2010, pp. 299–301.

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