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.