Evian Conference

A 1938 Conference to Discuss Jewish Emigration From Nazi Germany

Picture of Myron Taylor addressing the delegates at the Evian Conference.
Myron Taylor addresses the International Conference on Refugees at Evian-les-Bains. (1938). (Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Administration, College Park via USHMM)

From July 6 to 15, 1938, representatives from 32 countries met at the resort town of Evian-les-Bains, France, at the request of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to discuss the issue of Jewish immigration from Nazi Germany. It was the hope of many that these countries could find a way to open their doors to allow more than their usual quotas of immigrants into their countries. Instead, although they commiserated with the plight of the Jews under the Nazis, every country but one refused to allow in more immigrants; the Dominican Republic was the only exception. In the end, the Evian Conference showed Germany that no one wanted the Jews, leading the Nazis to a different solution to the “Jewish question” – extermination.

Early Jewish Emigration from Nazi Germany

After Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933, conditions became increasingly difficult for Jews in Germany. The first major antisemitic law passed was the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which was set in place in early April of that same year. This law stripped Jews of their positions in the civil service and made it difficult for those who had been employed in this manner to earn a living. Many other pieces of antisemitic legislation soon followed and these laws branched out to touch nearly every aspect of Jewish existence in Germany and later, occupied Austria.

Despite these challenges, many Jews wished to remain in the land that they viewed as their home. Those that did wish to leave faced many difficulties. The Nazis wished to encourage emigration from Germany to make the Reich Judenrein (free of Jews); however, they placed many conditions upon the departure of their undesired Jews. Emigrants had to leave behind valuables and the majority of their monetary assets. They also had to fill out reams of paperwork even for just the possibility of acquiring the necessary visa from another country.

By the beginning of 1938, nearly 150,000 German Jews had left for other countries. Although this was 25 percent of the Jewish population in Germany at that time, the scope of the Nazi’s net widened drastically that spring when Austria was absorbed during the Anschluss.

Additionally, it was becoming increasingly difficult for Jews to leave Europe and gain entrance to countries such as the United States, which was restricted by the quotas of their 1924 Immigration Restriction Act. Another popular option, Palestine, also had stringent restrictions in place; during the 1930s approximately 60,000 German Jews arrived in the Jewish homeland but they did so by meeting very strict conditions which required them to nearly start over financially.

Roosevelt Responds to Pressure

As antisemitic legislation in Nazi Germany mounted, President Franklin Roosevelt began to feel pressure to respond to demands for increased quotas for Jewish immigrants affected by these laws. Roosevelt was aware that this path would meet much resistance, particularly amongst the antisemitic individuals serving in leadership roles within the State Department who were tasked with implementing immigration laws.

Instead of addressing United States policy, Roosevelt decided in March 1938 to divert attention away from the United States and asked Sumner Welles, the Under Secretary of State, to call for an international meeting to discuss the “refugee issue” that was presented by Nazi German policies.

Establishing the Evian Conference

The conference was scheduled to take place in July 1938 in the French resort town of Evian-les-Bains, France at the Royal Hotel that sat upon the banks of Lake Leman. Thirty-two countries named official delegates as representatives to the meeting, which would become known as the Evian Conference. These 32 nations dubbed themselves, “Nations of Asylum.”

Italy and South Africa were also invited but chose not to actively participate; however, South Africa did choose to send an observer.

Roosevelt announced that the official representative of the United States would be Myron Taylor, a non-government official who had served as an executive of U.S. Steel and a personal friend of Roosevelt.

The Conference Convenes

The Conference opened on July 6, 1938, and ran for ten days. In addition to the representatives from 32 nations, there were also delegates from nearly 40 private organizations, such as the World Jewish Congress, the American Joint Distribution Committee, and the Catholic Committee for Aid to Refugees.

The League of Nations also had a representative on hand, as did the official agencies for German and Austrian Jews. A multitude of journalists from every major news outlet in the 32 nations was in attendance to cover the proceedings. Several members of the Nazi Party were also there; uninvited but not chased away.

Even before the conference convened, the delegates of the represented countries were made aware that the main purpose of the conference was to hold a deliberation on the fate of the Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. In calling the conference, Roosevelt reiterated that its purpose was not to force any country to alter their current immigration policies. Instead, it was to see what could be done within existing legislation to possibly make the process of immigration for German Jews a bit more feasible.

The first order of business of the conference was to elect chairmen. This process took up most of the first two days of the conference and much dissension occurred before a result was reached. In addition to Myron Taylor from the U.S., who was chosen as the lead chairman, Briton Lord Winterton and Henri Berenger, a member of the French senate, were chosen to preside with him.

After deciding on chairmen, delegates from the represented countries and organizations were given ten minutes each to share their thoughts on the issue at hand. Each stood and expressed sympathy for the Jewish plight; however, none indicated that their country favored altering existing immigration policies in any significant degree to better address the refugee issue.

Following the representatives for the countries, the various organizations were also given time to speak. Due to the length of this process, by the time most of the organizations had the opportunity to speak they were only allotted five minutes. Some organizations were not included at all and were then told to submit their comments for consideration in writing.

Sadly, the stories they shared of mistreatment of the Jews of Europe, both verbally and in writing, did not appear to make much of an impact on the “Nations of Asylum.”

Conference Results

It is a common misconception that no country offered to help at Evian. The Dominican Republic did offer to take a large number of refugees who were interested in agricultural work, with the offer ultimately being extended to take in 100,000 refugees. However, only a small number would take advantage of this offer, most likely because they were intimidated by the change in setting from urban cities in Europe to the life of a farmer on a tropical island.

During the discussion, Taylor spoke first and shared the official stance of the United States, which was to ensure that the full immigration quota of 25,957 immigrants per year from Germany (including annexed Austria) would be fulfilled. He reiterated the previous caveat that all immigrants destined for the U.S. must guarantee that they are able to support themselves.

Taylor’s remarks shocked many of the delegations in attendance who initially thought the United States would step up to the task at hand. This lack of assistance set the tone for many other countries who were struggling to determine their own solutions.

The delegations from England and France were even less willing to consider the possibility of immigration. Lord Winterton held fast to British resistance to further Jewish immigration to Palestine. In fact, Winterton’s deputy Sir Michael Palairet negotiated with Taylor to prevent two notable pro-Palestinian immigration Jews from speaking -- Dr. Chaim Weizmann and Mrs. Golda Meyerson (later Golda Meir).

Winterton did note that a small number of immigrants could potentially be settled in East Africa; however, the allotted amount of spaces available was practically insignificant. The French were not any more willing.

Both Britain and France also wanted assurances of the release of Jewish assets by the German government in order to aid with these small immigration allowances. The German government’s representatives refused to release any significant funds and the issue did not proceed any further.

International Committee on Refugees (ICR)

At the conclusion of the Evian Conference on July 15, 1938, it was decided that an international body would be founded to address the issue of immigration. The International Committee on Refugees was founded to take on this task.

The Committee was based out of London and was supposed to receive support from the nations represented at Evian. It was led by American George Rublee, an attorney and, like Taylor, a personal friend of Roosevelt. As with the Evian Conference itself, virtually no concrete support materialized and the ICR was unable to fulfill its mission.

The Holocaust Ensues

Hitler took the failure of Evian as a clear sign that the world did not care about the Jews of Europe. That fall, the Nazis proceeded with the Kristallnacht pogrom, its first major act of violence against the Jewish population. Despite this violence, the world’s approach to Jewish immigrants did not change and with the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, their fate would be sealed.

Over six million Jews, two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population, would perish during the Holocaust.