The world stood by as the Holocaust began. Have we made the same mistake with Burma?

World View: Diplomats have unique  freedom of action - and  sometimes this is crucial

Related Topics

Robert Townsend Smallbones was an exemplary British diplomat who earlier this year was posthumously awarded the British Holocaust Medal, in recognition of the number of German Jews he saved from the death camps by giving them British visas. But could he have done more?

The question is prompted by an exhibition opening on Monday at Berlin’s Centrum Judaicum on the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, which gathers the impressions and dispatches of a host of foreign envoys present in Germany in November 1938 as the “catastrophe before the catastrophe” exploded around them.

Mr Smallbones liked the Germans. They are “habitually kind to animals, to children, to the aged and infirm”, he told the Foreign Office. “They seemed to me to have no cruelty in their make-up.” So, when well-orchestrated Nazi mobs began burning synagogues, smashing shops and homes and throwing Jews into concentration camps, it was an ugly shock. In Frankfurt, he wrote, Jews were forced to kneel and place their heads on the ground. When some of them vomited, “the guards removed the vomit by taking the culprit by the scruff of the neck and wiping it away with his face and hair”. These Jews were later taken to Buchenwald and some beaten to death.  

Many other envoys conveyed their disgust to their bosses back home. It was “mediaeval barbarism”, “a disgusting spectacle”, they wrote. “The scope of brutality,” wrote a French diplomat, was only “exceeded by the [Turkish] massacres of the Armenians”.

Nor could the diplomats be in any doubt about the desperation of Jews to leave Germany: 1,000 of them took refuge in the Polish embassy in Leipzig. The US consul-general in Stuttgart reported: “Jews from all sections of Germany thronged into the office until it was overflowing with humanity, begging for an immediate visa.” But despite the eloquent horror of the envoys, nothing happened. Washington was the only country to recall its ambassador. No country broke off diplomatic relations. No sanctions were imposed. Nor did other countries act on the clear information that Germany’s Jews were in mortal danger. The wealthy nations were no more generously disposed to the wretched of the earth in 1938 than they are today.

The result was that the Nazis got away with Kristallnacht. The outside world failed the test. As the historian Raphael Gross writes, the Nazis “felt like pioneers who had just successfully entered new territory”.

November 1938 appears one of those occasions when diplomatic activity could have made a real difference: a united reaction from the outside world would undoubtedly have been condemned as “interference” but it could just have halted “the catastrophe after the catastrophe”. 

As the BBC comedy Ambassadors shows, diplomats have unique freedom of action, hobnobbing with the ruling caste but also able to build bridges to the oppressed. And sometimes this is crucial. In Burma, during the decades of military rule, the willingness of British envoys to go out on a public limb in support of the democratic opposition was vital in showing the Burmese that the tyrannical status quo was considered intolerable outside the country.

The converse is also true. The Pope, as Stalin pointed out, has no divisions, but the status of Pope Pius XII during World War Two was enormous. So when he refused to publicly denounce the persecution of Roman Jews by the occupying Nazis it was easy for the Germans to conclude that mass deportation would meet no serious impediment from the Church.

Sometimes strategic hopes have to be sacrificed to the emotions of the moment, when they are as strong as those produced by Kristallnacht. Burmese Buddhists attacked and killed Rohingya Muslims in race riots in June 2012, just as Aung San Suu Kyi was beginning her charm offensive in the West. Everywhere she went, the priority of governments was to make her welcome, so it passed with little comment that she had failed to condemn the anti-Rohingya pogrom.

The violence has continued sporadically ever since, while Ms Suu Kyi has yet to denounce it convincingly. It should have been made clear right at the start that this was something the West would not tolerate. Now it may be too late.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Welsh Year 6 Teacher required in Barry

£100 - £110 per day + Plus travel scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job:...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Welsh Teacher Year 2 required in Caerphilly

£100 - £105 per day + plus Travel Scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job:...

Year 4 Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to work in ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Pro-democracy protesters fill the streets in front of the Hong Kong government offices on a third day of the Occupy Central campaign  

Hong Kong protests: Why are we obsessed with the spread of democracy abroad when ours is failing?

Amit Singh

Daily catch-up: ugly buildings, fighting spirit, and a warning on low pay

John Rentoul
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?