Immigration and The Holocaust: Debunking The Myth
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September 17, 2003

[Also by Robert Locke: Is Population Transfer The Solution To The Palestinian Problem – And Some Others?]

It's the standard canard against immigration reform: the last time this country had immigration under control (1924-65), it caused the exclusion of Jewish refugees—who ended up exterminated by the Nazis. Therefore (though this would not follow even if this premise were true) restrictions on immigration are immoral.

Because of the understandably strong emotional associations, this myth is highly effective. It must be debunked forthwith.

The first thing to get clear is this: no matter what else may be true, six million is not the number of people who could have been saved.

The reason is simple: most of the victims were residents of Poland, the USSR, and other Eastern European states that only became killing grounds after the German invasions of 1940-1. After these invasions, there was no way the victims could have escaped these countries. Before, there was no way to know that the Germans would win and be able to start their horrors.

We have to judge the Allied policy by what was known at the time—not by what we know in hindsight. The Jewish populations of these countries could hardly have been expected to say in 1935: "Germany is about to attack, win the war, and start exterminating us. Therefore we wish to emigrate." Nobody knew that, or could have known, at the time.

The historical record shows that some people indeed suspected what was coming. But more people thought the Nazi madness would be confined within the traditional limits of the European experience, or that the whole thing would burn itself out and die down.

The proof: there were Jews voluntarily returning to Germany as late as 1938.

Furthermore, no receiving country could have been expected to take such speculations seriously as grounds for granting an entry visa. How would we feel about being asked to accept the entire population of Seoul, Korea as refugees today in order to save them from the North Korean nuclear strike of 2005? And what if there is a nuclear strike in 2005? Will we be responsible for their deaths?

According to Sir Martin Gilbert's Routledge Atlas of the Holocaust, the numbers of Hitler's Jewish victims break down roughly thus:

Poland: 3,000,000 victims
USSR: 1,000,000  
Czechoslovakia: 217,000 (including the Sudetenland)
Hungary: 200,000  
Bessarabia: 200,000 (currently in Moldova and Ukraine)
Lithuania: 135,000  
Bukovina: 125,000 (currently in Romania and Ukraine)
Holland: 106,000  
Transylvania: 105,000 (in Hungary)
France: 80,000  
Rumania: 40,000  
Other conquered countries: 327,000  
Total for conquered countries: 5,537,000  
Which leaves:    
Greater Germany 160,000 (includes post-Anschluss Austria) 

(I have used the conventional six million figure and Gilbert's 5.7 million estimate interchangeably because the difference does not affect the force of my argument.)

The USSR constitutes an especially clear case of why most of the victims would not have been saved by an American open-door policy. The simple reason: the USSR did not generally grant exit visas. The very act of asking for an exit visa, individually or collectively, would have been considered a treasonous act, likely to bring down the wrath of the Stalinist state on the head of whatever poor unfortunate, or ethnic group, had the temerity to try.

In consequence, the only plausible case for rescue-by-immigration is for the Jews of Germany itself and Austria. After 1933 (1938 in Austria's case) they were under the rule of a government whose hostility was unconcealed. Many of them certainly wished to emigrate to America. Enough of them succeeded (137,000) that to this day one can see the elderly remnants of a German-Jewish population in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan.

To be fair, there is evidence that some non-German European Jews—especially Poles but some others too—would have taken the chance to emigrate before WWII, just out of rational fear. But the most this would mean, based on quantitative estimates made by people I have talked to whose relatives were among them, is that perhaps the total number of potential rescuees should be as high as half a million.

The general argument stands: we are not talking about six million victims who could have been saved.

So could the Jews of Germany and Austria have been saved if they had been allowed to emigrate to the U.S?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, they would have been saved if they had been allowed to become immigrants. But no—they could also have been saved if they had been allowed to become refugees. Which is not the same thing.

Let's clarify this distinction: an immigrant moves to a country permanently and becomes part of the society of the receiving country. A refugee moves to a country temporarily and remains a foreigner. Often, this distinction is expressed by the physical sequestration of the refugees in refugee camps. These exist to this day in Pakistan, Lebanon and other countries.

What should have happened in the Nazi era is that the international community should have set up refugee camps where these people could wait out the war and either go back to Europe, or to Israel, at war's end. But there was no compelling reason why they should have come to the United States permanently (with the obvious exception of a few exceptional talents like Albert Einstein and Leo Strauss.)

Setting up refugee camps, of which there were hundreds after WWII, would not have been that hard. Indeed, it was done, albeit insufficiently. For example, the British set up camps in Cyprus to intern 50,000 Jewish refugees they caught trying to get into Palestine illegally. (They probably should have let them go there, but that is another issue.)

In 1938, a conference was held at Evian in France by the various allied powers to discuss what to do about the problem of Hitler's unwanted Jews. They made nice humanitarian statements but did nothing. In retrospect, this was the key moment of failure.

To be absolutely scrupulous, the historical record contains a few hints that there might have been some possibility of saving some Holocaust victims even after the German victories of 1940-1. There is evidence suggesting that, as late as 1941, elements in the Nazi government were willing to consider deporting Germany's Jews, perhaps in exchange for money, rather than exterminating them. And there are examples of consular officials of other countries who helped Jews escape. But this just proves that the refugee option should have been pursued even after the war began—not that immigration to the U.S. was the answer.

But wouldn't it have been somehow terribly mean to stick these poor people in refugee camps rather than allowing them into America?

Sorry, but no. To allow foreigners to immigrate to one's country is a profound decision to share finite civic resources in an intimate way. It is essentially a free gift to the immigrant and is a much higher level of transaction than merely accommodating refugees. It is not an obligation.

On the other hand, helping people who are under threat of extermination is what any decent nation would do—just as a decent person would throw a life-saver to a drowning man. But he need not invite him to come and live in his house forever after.

So the problem in World War II was a failure of refugee policy, not immigration policy. The attempt to make an issue of immigration is ex-ante politics

It follows that the Allies certainly deserve some blame for not having set up refugee camps—but that's it.

America is certainly not blameworthy for having refused Jewish immigration prior to WWII. And it is certainly not responsible for six million deaths, as some have implied.

While I'm sorry to have to be so firm, I can't helping pointing out that all these events transpired during the Depression years of the 1930s, when a third of America was living in poverty, and then during the early 1940s, when a substantial part of the population was drafted and sent off to fight.

So I can't be convinced that refugee camps would have been inordinately worse than what Americans were going through. I know it's not a pleasant life. But given that 300,000 Americans died fighting World War II, I cannot consider it unfair.

How does my argument apply today? There is even less reason to subordinate immigration policy to carte-blanche humanitarianism:


  • There are too many hot-spots and too many refugees in the world for the U.S. to take them all in.



  • The legitimate right not to be killed by tyrants can be met by housing refugees in camps.


  • There are usually closer and more appropriate places for the refugees than the U.S. Why, for example, are North Koreans being sent here when there exists such a place as South Korea?


Bottom line: refugee policy should not be used as a humanitarian excuse to increase immigration.

And it is an insult to the victims of the Holocaust to make them pawns of the cheap-labor lobby.

Robert Locke (email him) is a former associate editor at (archive here).

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