This week we present you a second guest blog from one of the attendants of the IHRA conference on refugee policies from 1933 to the present day:

Dealing with Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany
By Dr. Susanne Heim

While refugees from Nazi Germany initially were received with compassion in the neighboring states the climate changed after it became obvious that the influx of refugees would not stop and they would not be able to return to Germany anytime soon. Due to the global depression and high unemployment, refugees were largely regarded as a problem for the local labour market in most of the potential receiving countries.

The liberalisation of immigration policy was unpopular and opposed especially by the middle classes who feared the new arrivals as competitors. Consequently, the first steps taken against them involved access to the job market. Step by step France, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Belgium introduced measures to ensure their control over foreign labour requiring working permits or forcing peddlers to apply for a license.

The measures introduced had one overarching rationale: to stop, or at least to curb, undesired immigration as quickly as possible. However, usually authorities refrained from sending refugees back to Germany once they had managed to escape.

Dr. Susanne Heim

Immigration into the United States was limited by a quota system admitting no more than 25.000 Germans per year. However, apart from the year 1939 the quota was never filled. More effective than the quota system were the informal orders to the consuls to investigate very strictly whether a potential immigrant was likely to become a public charge and should thus be kept out of the country.

Over the course of 1938, and particularly after November, flight became more difficult and more chaotic, forcing those who attempted to flee to take illegal and often dangerous routes out of the country or to pay huge amounts of money to traffickers.

From October 1938 on the passports of Jews had to be marked with a red J an the front page. This made it easy for the border guards to identify Jewish emigrants – and keep them out of the country.

Correspondingly, competition for the few remaining possibilities for official emigration intensified, as did pressure from the Gestapo in their efforts to force the remaining Jews out of the country.

In the countries of refuge consuls as well as border guards were instructed to do what ever possible to keep Jews out of the respective country. US consuls in Germany and Austria were ordered to assess the applicants’ moral and financial standing and often discouraged potential applicants from applying in the first place.[1]

Seen on the whole, responses of Europe and the U.S. to the refugee movement of the 1930s were rather short sighted and nationalistic, defending control over one’s own territory and economy and eager not to confront the Germans. This did not only mean a lack of solidarity among the European countries as well as with the refugees. It also meant to leave the initiative with the Germans who forced the Jews to leave Germany and the neighbouring states to deal with them.

But the failure to deal with the refugee crisis on a political level other than “defending one’s own nation” even damaged the democratic substance of the European nation: by militarizing their borders, forcing refugees to take illegal and dangerous routes to save their lives, treating them as criminals and establishing camps which turned into prisons the democratic countries adopted more and more the methods of the totalitarian states.

[1] McDonald Stewart, Refugees from Nazism, 9, 65.

Dr. Susanne Heim is the scientific coordinator of the multi-volume documents edition “Judenverfolgung 1933-1945”. Her publications include Architects of Annihilation, with Götz Aly (2003) and Fluchtpunkt Karibik. Jüdische Emigranten in der Dominikanischen Republik, with Hans-Ulrich Dillmann (2009)

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