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  • Why We Watched: Europe, America, and the Holocaust
  • Kirsten Fermaglich
Why We Watched: Europe, America, and the Holocaust. By Theodore S. Hamerow. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2008. 576 pp. $35.00 (cloth).

In Why We Watched, historian Theodore Hamerow grapples with one of the central questions historians have asked about the Nazi genocide in the twentieth century: Why did the democratic nations of the West not intercede in the murder of millions of Jews during World War II? How could a crime now agreed to have been one of the greatest of the century have taken place while the rest of the world looked on?

In order to answer this question, Hamerow first provides a chapter titled "The Siren Song of Emancipation," noting the ways that Jews were never truly made into equal members of European societies, despite the promises of emancipation in the nineteenth century. This chapter provides the grounding for the author's central argument: that it was the rise of racial anti-Semitism—the fundamental insistence that Jews as a racial group posed a "Jewish question" to the Western nation-states—that led so many Western democracies to watch quietly as Jews were murdered in the millions.

In the chapters that follow this first one, Hamerow provides readers [End Page 209] with an extensive tour through European and American attitudes toward Jewish refugees during the 1930s. His book provides a valuable discussion of world anti-Semitism, noting the similarities and differences between the debates over Jewish refugees in Eastern Europe, Britain, and France, and in the United States, Canada, and Latin America. This worldwide perspective is a satisfying one for students of United States history: too frequently, authors who address the subject of American inaction during the Holocaust do so in a vacuum, without any reference to the activities of other nations throughout the world. Hamerow's careful and detailed exploration of the fruitless debates over admitting Jewish refugees to Eastern Europe, Britain, France, and the United States offer the reader a good chance to understand the upsurge of worldwide racial anti-Semitism in the 1930s.

Hamerow's narrative then shifts to the "unending" debate over Jewish refugees in the United States during the run-up to the war, a subject he explores at length (p. 183), with descriptions that will be familiar to anyone well versed in the literature on the subject. He depicts American public opinion in the 1930s remaining firmly opposed to lifting the immigration quotas from the 1920s. Quotas effectively strangled Jews' hopes for emigration as their persecution in Europe deepened in the late 1930s, and Hamerow notes effectively throughout his book Americans' continued resistance to altering those quotas at all. His attention not only to public opinion polls but also to testimony at Congressional hearings and the statements of elite Americans like H. G. Wells and Eleanor Roosevelt suggests the depth and range of anti-Semitic sentiment in the United States. The author notes too the moderate opposition to quotas and support for emigration that emerged in American liberal circles, among Americans like Smith College president William Allen Neilson and Nation editor Freda Kirchwey, but he highlights this opposition's fundamental paralysis in finding avenues for rescue and its unwillingness to defend Jews as Jews: "They supported persecuted Jews because persecuted Jews were living proof of the fundamental evil of totalitarianism" (p. 270). He argues, moreover, that a "Jewish hush-hush policy" led moderate Jews with any access to power to silence more militant Jewish groups who appeared "too Jewish" in their protests and who might spark greater domestic anti-Semitism in the United States or greater world anti-Semitism among other nations. The fear of growing anti-Semitism, just as much as actual anti-Semitism, lurks throughout the pages of Why We Watched, shadowing the moves of liberals and Jews, and pushing them into ineffectual silence.

In the end, Hamerow offers the provocative and disturbing suggestion [End Page 210] that the Western democracies did nothing to save European Jews because they themselves shared the same fundamental assumptions and preoccupations as did Nazi Germany: they, too, perceived the Jews as a "question" in their societies for which...