FDR and the Jews by Richard Breitman and Allan J Lichtman: This world, the next world and the New Deal

During the late 1930s, American Jews quipped that there were, in ascending order of perfection, “Dos velt, jenner velt und Roosevelt” – this world, the next world and the New Deal. To Jewish immigrants and their children, President Roosevelt offered oppor

FDR and the Jews
Richard Breitman and Allan J Lichtman
Harvard University Press, 464pp, £22.95

During the late 1930s, American Jews quipped that there were, in ascending order of perfection, “Dos velt, jenner velt und Roosevelt” – this world, the next world and the New Deal. To Jewish immigrants and their children, President Roosevelt offered opportunities for modest prosperity and unprecedented social mobility. Although born a Protestant patrician, he was known to have Jewish acquaintances and had fought electoral battles alongside Catholics and Jews. He appointed a Jewish treasury secretary in the shape of Henry Morgenthau Jr, recruited bright, young Jews to run new government agencies and nominated Felix Frankfurter to the Supreme Court.

Yet, at the first international Zionist congress after the war, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver denounced Roosevelt for betraying the Jewish people. Silver was, admittedly, pro- Republican and nurtured a feud with Rabbi Stephen Wise, a Roosevelt loyalist he deposed from the leadership of the Zionist Organisation of America. Even so, it was a stunning turnabout of the reputation of a man whom one Jewish leader had dubbed “the modern Moses”.

The critique sharpened in the 1960s with the advent of ethnically assertive Jews who despised what they perceived as their parents’ timid conduct. These self-styled “New Jews” obsessed over FDR’s record on the immigration of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and wartime rescue schemes. Seeking answers, Jewish and non-Jewish historians locked horns over the same limited body of evidence, much of it ambiguous. Roosevelt committed little to paper and tended to say whatever a particular audience wanted to hear, while subtly avoiding any firm commitments.

In 1987, Richard Breitman and Alan Kraut contributed to the controversy with Ame - rican Refugee Policy and European Jewry 1933-45, a singularly balanced explanation of why it had been so hard for Jews to enter the United States. Now Breitman, this time with Allan J Lichtman, has applied the same forensic skills and ruthless objectivity to Roosevelt’s specific contribution.

Breitman and Lichtman identify four phases of Roosevelt’s relationship to Jewish issues. During his first term, 1932-36, his main concern was passing the legislation necessary to secure economic recovery. He refused to condemn Nazism when Hitler came to power and did little to relax the strict immigration controls he had inherited from his predecessors. At a time of mass unemployment and rising anti-Semitism, he preferred not to use up political capital fighting Jewish battles, even if he abhorred National Socialism and was distressed by the fate of Germany’s Jews.

After his triumphant re-election, he felt more confident. The “second Roosevelt” wrestled with racist officials in the state department and denounced anti-Semitism. He backed efforts to relax visa controls, with the result that 83,000 German Jews reached the US between 1937 and 1940, compared to 18,000 between 1933 and 1937. After the German annexation of Austria, he defied the state department by triggering a conference on the refugee crisis and was the only head of state to recall his nation’s ambassador from Germany after the pogrom of November 1938.

Roosevelt promoted the search for places where Jewish refugees could settle and leaned on Latin American countries to be more open. He delighted American Zionists by expressing regret when Britain reneged on the promises made to the Jewish people in the Balfour Declaration. Then again, it was a lot easier for him to demand that Britain allow increased Jewish immigration to Pal - estine than it was to challenge his restrictionist Congress.

However, once Europe descended into war, Roosevelt’s priorities changed. He was convinced that sooner or later the US and Germany would slug it out but his determination to arm the democracies and edge America into a belligerent role meant that he could not gift a single advantage to the powerful isolationist lobby. He declined to ameliorate the immigration rules and remained silent about Nazi atrocities against the Jews.

After the US entered the war, Roosevelt believed that only victory would save them. Since Nazi propaganda claimed that he was fighting a Jewish war, he studiously avoided any reference to Jewish persecution. He left sceptical officials to field the burgeoning evidence that the Jews were facing physical extermination and held just one meeting with Jewish representatives devoted to the discussion of Jewish suffering and rescue measures. Breitman and Lichtman comment that: “This cautious wartime Roosevelt was politically and emotionally stingy when it came to the plight of the Jews.” Finally, Morgenthau took on the state department and presented “the Chief” with a plan for what became the War Refugee Board, the body credited with saving between 125,000 and 200,000 Jews.

Breitman and Lichtman conclude that FDR was “neither a hero of the Jews nor a bystander”. On the basis of meticulous research, using many fresh sources, they establish his good intentions beyond any doubt. But by locating his words and deeds in their precise context, they elucidate what was feasible and distinguish when his conduct stemmed from prudence, cowardice or indifference. They do equal justice to the American Jewish leadership with whom he interacted. For good measure, they end by situating FDR in the spectrum of US presidents who have confronted genocide. None has ever placed humanitarian intervention above political advantage or the national interest.

"Roosevelt promoted the search for places where Jewish refugees could settle and leaned on Latin American countries to be more open." Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians

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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster