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  • The Evian Conference of 1938 and the Jewish Refugee Crisis by Paul R. Bartrop
  • Rebecca Erbelding*
The Evian Conference of 1938 and the Jewish Refugee Crisis, Paul R. Bartrop (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), xiii + 128 pp., hardcover $69.99, electronic version available.

In the first English-language monograph on the Evian Conference, Paul R. Bartrop, director of the Center for Judaic, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University, argues that the conference should not be dismissed as a failure. It was "successful in achieving what it set out to achieve, namely to enable an exchange of information among the states attending" (p. vii). "This is a story," he continues, "about a joint global effort which had as its main objective the quest to do nothing." Bartrop's book, while providing basic information about the conference and arguing against judgments based on hindsight, suffers from a lack of archival research. The Evian Conference of 1938 is, therefore, a useful first pass, but is unfortunately not an insightful history.

In the wake of the March 1938 Anschluss that brought Austria into the German Reich and marked a new intensification of antisemitic persecution, as tens of thousands of Jews crowded outside the U.S. consulates to join years-long waiting lists, President Franklin Roosevelt called an international conference to address the refugee crisis. Between July 6 and 15, 1938, representatives of thirty-two nations gathered in Evian-les-Bans, France "with the intention of discussing, in depth, the nature of the immigration policies of the invited nations" and "what the options were for accepting refugees from Nazi Germany" (p. vii). Roosevelt did not request—nor did these countries generally offer—an increase in immigration. Instead, most, including the United States, offered sympathy and excuses, citing continued economic hardship resulting from the worldwide depression or a desire not to import "a racial problem" (as the Australian delegate put it) by accepting Jewish immigrants.

In the decades since, the Evian Conference has been included in larger histories of the international responses to Nazism but has not until now been the subject of a sustained study. Bartrop's book joins two other monographs, both also published in 2018: Diane Afoumado's Indésirables: 1938, la conférence d'Evian et les réfugiés juifs, and Evian 1938: Als die Welt die Juden verriet by Jochen Thies. These books emerged around the eightieth anniversary of the conference, at a time, as Bartrop puts it, when readers might easily draw contemporary parallels to the earlier international failure to find solutions to an ongoing refugee crisis.

The Evian Conference is part of Palgrave Macmillan's "The Holocaust and its Contexts" series, and is a short book, fewer than 100 pages of text split into eight chapters. As Palgrave promotes digital downloads, each chapter can be purchased individually; each begins with a one paragraph abstract and concludes with endnotes. The book's conciseness means that it reads as an [End Page 131] extended encyclopedia article. Bartrop includes a summary of the context of the conference, the major players, and the statements they made, but foregoes in-depth analysis. He writes that the book should be a "stimulus for further examination of the Evian Conference" (p. x); this is by no means the authoritative history.

Despite the book's conciseness, Bartrop pushes back against oversimplification. Since historians have written only summaries—often highlighting the lack of tangible outcomes—the public often seems to understand the Holocaust as inevitable after Evian: no country took significant steps to admit refugees, therefore refugees could not find havens, and therefore millions of Jews who could have been saved were killed. This summary removes the onus from the murderers—the Nazis and their collaborators—and places it on the countries unwilling to accept Jewish refugees which, while their inaction is worthy of our condemnation, were not homicidal.

Bartrop addresses such judgments directly, reminding readers "that governments around the world were forced to develop refugee policies in the 1930s without the benefit of knowing about the Holocaust that was to come" (p. 1). His emphasis on context, crucial for any serious scholarly analysis, is welcome. "It is ... heartbreaking," Bartrop concludes, "that...


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