EVIAN CONFERENCE , conference of 32 nations convened but not attended by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on July 6–14, 1938, at the Hôtel Royal in Evian on the French side of Lake Geneva to consider the plight of refugees – the euphemistic way of referring to the Jewish question. The conference was convened against the backdrop of the German incorporation of Austria in March 1938, which sparked a massive exodus of Jews to any country willing to receive them. Convening the conference was the first American government initiative regarding refugees.
The Evian Conference was conceived by President Roosevelt as a grand gesture in response to mounting pressure in the United States to do something about the refugee problem. The call for the conference was greeted warmly by the American Jewish community but it also triggered a hostile reaction from American isolationist and anti-immigration forces. Thomas Jenkins, one of those who wanted to restrict immigration, accused the president of going "on a visionary excursion into the warm fields of altruism. He forgets the cold winds of poverty and penury that are sweeping over the one third of our people who are ill clothed, ill housed, ill fed." American Jews and their allies were pressing the admission of greater numbers of immigrants. Restrictionist forces kept reminding the president of the Depression, of the domestic agenda, and of the need to put America first. Roosevelt sought to balance both concerns, to assuage but also not to provoke. Walking such a political tightrope hampered any effort to pressure the international community. Internationally, Romania flatly refused to attend; it wanted to get rid of its Jews, not to import new ones, and Switzerland spurned an invitation to host the conference.
The very invitation to the conference gave an indication of its reluctance to act. Attending countries were assured that "no country would be expected to receive more immigrants than were permitted under existing laws." Nor would any government be expected to subsidize refugees: all new programs would have to be funded by private agencies. American isolationists were assuaged by the understanding that U.S. quota system for immigrants would not be touched. Britain was told that Palestine would not be on the agenda. Two days after Roosevelt's announcement of the Evian Conference, Hitler issued a characteristic statement:
I can only hope that the other world which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews] will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We on our part are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.
The United States delegation was not headed by the president or the vice president, nor by Secretary of State Cordell Hull or Undersecretary Summer Welles. Instead, Roosevelt nominated Myron C. Taylor, a businessman who was one of his close friends. Great Britain also sent a special delegation. The other nations used their diplomats in the region. Foreign leaders got the message. The French premier told his British counterpart that the American president was acting to soothe public opinion. Under these circumstances, little was expected or accomplished.
For nine days the delegates met at the Hôtel Royal, along with representatives of 39 private relief agencies, 21 of them Jewish. The world press gave the event extensive coverage.
Delegates from each country rose in turn to profess their sympathy with the plight of the refugees. They also offered plausible excuses for declining to open their countries' doors. Britain had no room on its small island and refused to open Palestine to Jewish refugees. The United States spoke abstractly about "political" refugees, using the euphemism to glide over the fact that most of the refugees were Jewish. It would fill its quota, but do no more.
The Australian delegate was more candid. "We don't have a racial problem and we don't want to import one," he said. For Canada, still in the midst of the Depression, "none was too many." Canada would, however, accept farmers – small comfort for the urbanized Jews seeking to leave Germany. Colombia's delegate could not resign himself to believe "that two thousand years of Christian civilization must lead to this terrible catastrophe." In any case, his country could offer nothing. The Venezuelan delegate was reluctant to disturb the "demographic equilibrium" of his country. No Jewish merchants, peddlers, or intellectuals were wanted in Venezuela.
Holland and Denmark were ready to extend temporary asylum to a few refugees. Only the Dominican Republic made a generous offer to receive Jews. In the end, however, few came. Even though an inter-governmental group was established at Evian to coordinate policy, the tidal wave of refugees soon overwhelmed the few offers of assistance. The German Foreign Office viewed the conference with considerable interest and sensed in it a vindication of its own attitudes toward the Jews:
Since in many countries it was recently regarded as wholly incomprehensible why Germany did not wish to preserve in its population an element like the Jews … it appears astounding that countries seem in no way anxious to make use of these elements themselves now that the opportunity offers.
At that point in time, the announced policy of Nazi Germany was the emigration – forced or otherwise – of the Jews. The Evian Conference demonstrated that forced emigration would not work since no country – or groups of countries – were willing to receive the Jews in numbers adequate to make Germany "judenrein." As events unfolded, the Jewish problem became more acute but four months later when the events of the November pogrom of *Kristallnacht triggered a tidal wave of Jewish emigration and over the course of the next two years as Germany invaded country after country, more and more Jews came under its control and the problem of what to do with the Jews became ever more acute, ever less solvable by means of emigration.
H. Feingold, The Politics of Compromise: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust (1970); H. Feingold, Bearing Witness, How America and Its Jews Responded to the Holocaust (1995); D. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews (1984); D. Wyman, Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis (1985).
[Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]