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

Share
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

Recruitment Genius: Customer Accounts Executive

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Administrator / Secretary - South East

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time Administrator/Secreta...

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: a duchess by any other name is just wrong

Guy Keleny
A teenage girl uses her smartphone in bed.  

Remove smartphones from the hands of under-18s and maybe they will grow up to be less dumb

Janet Street-Porter
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor