May 2003 Journal

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Learning from the past: Britain’s controls on 1930s Jewish immigration

Lord Moser, former refugee, academic and senior civil servant, was guest speaker at the launch of a paperback edition of Louise London’s extensive historical investigation into government attitudes, policies and controls on the immigration into Britain of Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution in 1933-48. He recalled the warm welcome given to his own family on their arrival in 1936. Nothing could lessen the widely felt gratitude for allowing the entry of 70-90,000 Jewish refugees.

The story of the reality of those years, however, was really rather gloomy, he suggested. Louise London’s analysis shows what happened behind the scenes in Whitehall. Her book reveals “how the official mind [in government] works.” A system of visas was introduced, though it proved unhelpful for Jewish applicants, but public opinion did turn more sympathetic after Kristallnacht in November 1938.

Lord Moser drew three general points from Whitehall and the Jews which had “resonances” for Britain’s present policies towards asylum seekers. First, the then government had “no declared policy” on refugees, but their actions were not very generous. Second, no statistics on the subject were to be published, and, as a consequence, both the magnitude and increase in demand were not quantified. Third, government policies (though undeclared) were originated by need and self-interest, not by humanitarian considerations of saving Jews. Little or no consideration was given as to their potential contribution to the nation.

Lord Moser quoted the book as revealing that the Central British Fund had 500,000 files on Jewish refugees who wanted to get out of Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. It was probable that those who were refused entry into Britain were considerably greater in number than those who did gain entry.

Significantly, those granted admission were not permitted the status of permanent residents, being asked to give assurances that they would not stay. This was a country of relay, not of immigration. Lord Moser regarded this as “A most powerful, central reminder. We were not accepted as refugees who were to live here permanently.” After the war the government, especially Herbert Morrison, did attempt to get them to move on, but the civil service appeared to take a more relaxed view and, in the event, most of the refugees neither moved on, nor returned to their countries of origin.

Clearly it was the Jewish organisations which were “enormously helpful” in guaranteeing the costs of accommodation and sustenance so that there was no call on state provision. Paradoxically, it appeared that official Jewish representative bodies agreed with the government’s contention that an influx of too many Jews into Britain could generate antisemitism.

In conclusion, Lord Moser said that it had fallen to an ill-organised immigration department to manage the situation, but there was happily a useful degree of discretion. In public, as the book reveals, government policy was to be seen as doing a great deal – even if they actually did very little. Lord Moser recommended making today’s administrative system related to refugees more welcoming, something which would go a long way towards easing problems associated with asylum seekers. He recommended the book as an important piece of historical research and valuable as background to today’s issues.

Whitehall and the Jews, 1933-1948, by Louise London, is published in paperback by Cambridge University Press at £21.95.
Ronald Channing

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