Books: Nazis still make news - Why the world didn't care enough

David Cesarani on Allied prejudice; The Myth of Rescue: why the democracies could not have saved more Jews from the Nazis by William D Rubinstein, Routledge, pounds 18.99
Since the early 1980s, most historians have agreed that the democracies did not do enough to save Jews from Nazi persecution and genocide. Some have claimed that the Jews of the Free World let down their own people. According to Bill Rubinstein, all are wrong and guilty of hindsight. The democracies operated immigration policies which favoured the Jews, while during the war succour could only come from Allied victory. Does this revisionist version of history withstand scrutiny?

Rubinstein is selective in his choice and interpretation of evidence. For example, he rejoices that on the eve of war Britain had accepted over 50,000 Jews from Central Europe. True, but between 1933 and early 1938, only 11,000 reached these shores, and then because they brought advantage to the country or had someone to guarantee them a job. Only after the brutal treatment of German and Austrian Jews during 1938, which shocked British opinion, were immigration controls relaxed and 40,000 Jews admitted. Around 9,000 of these were children who were allowed refuge temporarily, because they would not compete on the labour market. Their parents were condemned to remain in Nazi hands.

Rubinstein rightly cautions that during the 1930s no one could have foreseen that this meant death. But the Third Reich already discriminated massively against the Jews and, on occasion, permitted them to be murdered. What kind of "generosity" requires the death of 90 people, and the detention of 10,000 more, to persuade immigration officials that more latitude is desirable?

Rubinstein tries to convince readers that citizens in western countries liked Jews so much in the 1930s that they couldn't possibly have wanted to keep them out. He cites polls that showed how much people deplored Nazi anti-semitism, which is not the same thing. A Gallup poll in Britain showed that 26 per cent of people would not admit more Jewish refugees under any circumstances; 84 per cent would "with restrictions". Rubinstein dismisses this as evidence of "cognitive dissonance".

He asserts that once the Final Solution started, Hitler would have thwarted any efforts to release Jews, but does not quote from a single German archive to support his claim and almost entirely ignores internal Nazi debates. On this shaky basis he rubbishes the rescue efforts of the few courageous people in Britain and America who did try to stir the conscience of the world and mocks historians who have had the temerity to express a judgment on the matter. Some corrective to the aspersions cast on the Allied leaders for their policy between 1942 and 1945 is necessary, but Rubinstein delivers an apologia.

The Jews were indeed "prisoners" of the Nazis, although they could and did try to escape. Thousands were turned back at the Swiss border, but Rubinstein does not explain why the Allies did little to encourage Switzerland to take more, as demanded by campaigners. It is disgraceful that he does not mention Denmark once. The Danes successfully organised the evacuation of 7,500 Jews to Sweden in October 1943. New research even suggests that by then Himmler was content to eject Jews from the Nazi realm and may have won Hitler's acquiescence. Nor does Rubinstein mention Bergen-Belsen, which was established on Himmler's orders, and with Hitler's knowledge, to hold several thousand Jews for ransom or exchange.

In the nastiest part of this deplorable book, Rubinstein strains to diminish the achievements of Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest in Autumn 1944. He points out that Wallenberg arrived after the deportation of Hungarian Jews by rail to Auschwitz had ended. The 120,000 Jews left in Budapest merely had to face death marches and attacks by fanatical anti-semitic militiamen. Wallenberg may have handed out 4,500 protective passes, but he can't be assigned the credit for saving Jews from Auschwitz. Anyway, Charles Lutz, the Swiss representative, distributed 7,800 passes.

Amid this pedantry there are important points: the Allies have been unfairly criticised for their reaction to the slaughter of the Jews when they could have done little to stop it, and Jews have engaged in exaggerated self- laceration. Accepting this does not entail rejecting the overwhelming evidence that Allied condemnation of the Nazis was mealy-mouthed and their exploration of rescue possibilities was grudging. If Jews in the Free World were reduced to pathetic bluster we want an explanation for their isolation, not derision. This book tramples over a subject that calls for sensitivity like a blind elephant in a room full of prostrate babies.

Rabbi Hugo Gryn, an Auschwitz survivor and a wise voice on such matters, used to say: It's not that the world didn't care, they just didn't care enough. He taught that it is never impossible to save lives if you care to, and it is worthwhile saving a few. We need books that ask why genocide occurs and why the world repeatedly lets it happen, not books that blame the victims for their fate and seek every possible excuse for why those who could have helped chose not to do so.