<p class="document-desc moreless">Period postcard of Evian-les-Bains, the site of the 1938 International Conference on <a href="/narrative/6748/en">Refugees</a>.</p>

Emigration and the Evian Conference

In July 1938, a conference of nations met at Evian France, to discuss the “problem” of Jewish refugees fleeing Germany and trying to enter other countries. The Conference had very little impact on the plight of the refugees.

Key Facts

  • 1

    The Evian Conference was convened by the United States, which still had tight immigration quotas passed in 1924.

  • 2

    Although most countries, including the United States, expressed sympathy for the refugees, they also stated numerous reasons for not changing immigration laws or admitting more Jews, desperate to escape Germany.

  • 3

    Even after Kristallnacht four months later, most attending countries did not change their policies to help rescue German Jews.

Evian Conference Between 1933 and 1941, the Nazis sought to make Germany judenrein (cleansed of Jews) by making life so difficult for the approximately 600,000 German Jews that they would be forced to leave the country. By 1938, about 150,000 German Jews, one in four, had already left. After Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, an additional 185,000 Jews were brought under Nazi rule. Many German and Austrian Jews who wanted to leave were unable to find countries willing to take them in. A substantial percentage tried to go to the United States but were unable to obtain the necessary immigration visas. The US Congress had established immigration quotas in 1924 that limited the number of immigrants and discriminated against groups considered racially and ethnically undesirable.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, responding to mounting political pressure, called for an international conference to facilitate the emigration of refugees from Germany and Austria, and to establish an international organization to work for an overall solution to the refugee problem. In early July 1938, delegates from 32 countries met at the French resort of Evian on Lake Geneva. Roosevelt chose Myron C. Taylor, a businessman and close friend, to represent the US at the conference. During the nine-day meeting, delegate after delegate rose to express sympathy for the refugees. But most countries, including the United States and Britain, offered excuses for not letting in more refugees. Only the Dominican Republic agreed to accept additional refugees. This offer came as President Rafael Trujillo sought both to rehabilitate his reputation following his government's massacre of black Haitians in 1937 and to bring white wealth into his country.

Evian Conference fails to aid refugees

The conference attendees created the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees (ICR), charged with approaching "the governments of the countries of refuge with a view to developing opportunities for permanent settlement" and seeking to persuade Germany to cooperate in establishing "conditions of orderly emigration." The ICR received little authority and virtually no funds or other support from its member nations. Its achievements were minimal until September 1939 when the beginning of World War II largely ended all efforts.

Commenting on the Evian Conference, the German government was able to state how "astounding" it was that foreign countries criticized Germany for its treatment of the Jews, yet none of them opened their doors. Although the events of the violent Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass") pogroms of November 1938 were widely reported in graphic detail, Americans remained reluctant to welcome Jewish refugees and the quotas remained in place. Even efforts by some Americans to rescue children failed: the Wagner-Rogers Bill, an effort to admit 20,000 endangered Jewish refugee children, was not supported by the Senate in 1939 and 1940.

Widespread racial prejudices among Americans—including antisemitic attitudes held by US State Department officials—played a part in the failure to admit more refugees. In the midst of the Great Depression, many Americans also believed that refugees would compete with them for jobs and overburden social programs set up to assist the needy.

Discussion Questions

Critical Thinking Questions

  • What pressures and motivations may have driven decisions by the delegates at the Conference? Investigate how countries explained their unwillingness to increase emigration.
  • Why was the conference convened? Did the results address the stated goals of the conference?
  • What obligations, if any, do other countries have to accept refugees of any kind? Is there a special obligation if their lives are endangered? Investigate if currently nations are enforcing or relaxing their regulations when refugees are threatened today.

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