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  • Bureaucratic Response to Human Tragedy:American Consuls and the Jewish Plight in Vienna, 1938–1941
  • Melissa Jane Taylor (bio)

In the period following the German annexation of Austria, the American consulate in Vienna found itself in the difficult position of responding to a refugee crisis while facing pressure from the Department of State to enforce restrictive immigration policies. Under the leadership of Consul General John Wiley, American consuls worked to maintain the letter of the law while providing as many qualified applicants as possible with immigration visas. Wiley's "middle ground" allowed consuls to fulfill their bureaucratic tasks and advance in their careers as Foreign Service officers while displaying compassion in their interactions with visa applicants. Despite frequent tensions between the Department of State and the Vienna consulate, and an institutional "mindset" that discouraged sensitivity to local conditions, American consuls consistently filled their visa quotas.

Frederick Reinhardt was a young American vice consul serving in Vienna in the summer of 1938. Already overburdened by the rising tide of visa applications, Reinhardt fell ill and had to undergo an emergency appendectomy. Attending at his bedside was Irena Wiley, wife of Consul General John Wiley, who recalled in her memoir Reinhardt's first words after he came out of anesthesia. She wrote: "When Freddy opened his eyes he spoke in German, in a voice of deep sadness, 'I am terribly sorry, but it is impossible for me to give you a visa to the United States.'"2 Irena Wiley's recollection illustrates that in Vienna at that time, the immigration crisis was foremost in Foreign Service officers' (FSOs) minds.

American Foreign Service Officers in Vienna after the Anschluss

In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler's plan to expropriate and expel European Jewry touched off a refugee policy crisis in the United States.3 As ever more stringent restrictions were being placed on Jews in Greater Germany,4 American consular officials were under pressure to limit immigration. In their effort to "protect" the United States, these officials rejected vast numbers of visa applications. As a result, most Jewish visa applicants never saw American shores. [End Page 243]

Though the Department of State established policy and regulated its implementation, individual consuls made the final decisions regarding visa issuance.5 The Vienna office was one of four American consulates that issued visas in Greater Germany following the Anschluss (annexation of Austria). Several factors made Vienna unique in terms of residents' prospects for emigration: residents' experience of the Anschluss and the expressions of antisemitism that ensued; the size of the city's Jewish community; the presence of the Zentralstelle für jüdische Auswanderung (Central Office for Jewish Emigration);6 and the American consuls' implementation of immigration policy. This study will examine the ways in which the American consuls in Vienna interpreted the complicated and often ambiguous immigration policies emanating from Washington during this critical period. In addition, it will explore the consuls' interactions with the Department of State and the applicants' interactions with the consuls as each group navigated the bureaucratic immigration system.

Antisemitic policies enacted over the previous five years in Germany were implemented in the Ostmark (annexed Austria) within a few short months after the Anschluss.7 While German Jews had faced gradually increasing pressure to emigrate, Austrian Jews experienced a sudden and drastic change. On April 30, 1938, in response to the annexation, the United States combined the German and Austrian immigration quotas (25,957 and 1,413, respectively), for a total of 27,370 for Greater Germany. As a result of the way in which the visa allotments were divided among the four consular offices, Austrian Jews' chances for immigrating to the United States now increased substantially.8 At the time, more than 185,000 Jews lived in Austria, constituting 2.8 percent of the total population. Ninety percent of these Jews—approximately 170,000—lived in Vienna, where they constituted just over nine percent of the city's population.9 Vienna was home to the largest Jewish community in German-speaking Europe,10 and it had the third-largest Jewish population—after Warsaw and Budapest—of all European cities.11 Most Austrian Jews understood that they needed to leave; consulates...


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