Tragedy at Évian
How the world allowed Hitler to proceed with the Holocaust
Big Sky Publishing, 2020
Paperback 456pp RRP $34.99
Reviewer: Kevan Sanderson, July 2021
On July 6th, 1938, delegates from 32 democratically governed nations including Australia, met in Evian-sur-les-Bains, France for the purpose facilitating emigration of political refugees from Austria and Germany. Tragedy at Evian has been written after reviewing recently-released, highly-classified documents from the US Department of State and tries to be two books in one. Although each participating country’s viewpoint is presented, the information appears to be heavily weighted towards the USA viewpoint.
In the first part, which comprises two-thirds of the book, Matthews presents the case that the Evian Conference, by failing to provide a solution for Jewish immigration from Germany and Austria, caused the Holocaust. Matthews fundamentally contends that the Holocaust could have been prevented if the delegates at the Conference had shown more compassion, but his arguments fail utterly.
The Evian Conference remit was the issue of around 570,000 Jews in 1938, in Germany and Austria, who were being pressed to leave those countries. The book suggests this number could easily have been assimilated by the participating nations if each allowed 18 000 Jews entry; however it shows no evidence that such an assimilation would have prevented the ultimate toll of the Holocaust. Matthews references documents to show that neither the individual countries nor the League of Nations itself were enthusiastic about attending the Conference, and in fact, because of the Conference, no country was prepared to make substantive changes to their existing immigration policies. However, it should be noted that even so, over half of those German and Austrian Jews were able to leave before the onset of the Second World War. Furthermore, most estimates number the Holocaust dead at over 12 million. The scale of the Holocaust was so far beyond the terms of reference of the Evian Conference, indeed even beyond its or the world’s imagination, it is naive to think they would, or even could, have come up with a workable solution.
The final third of the book chronicles the efforts, often heroic and always dangerous, of individuals and private organisations to assist Jewish immigration in this period. It recounts, country by country, stories of those that defied the Nazis to aid Jewish refugees. This section does make for interesting reading although one gets the feeling, they are summaries from other sources and primarily used by Matthews as filler.
I found a couple of nagging and recurring annoyances. The author repeatedly uses 6 million for the number of Holocaust deaths. This refers only to Jewish deaths, whereas most estimates suggest that over twice this number fell victim to the Holocaust - more than half of which were not Jewish. The second is that the author conflates the pre-war immigration question and the post-war knowledge of the Holocaust and the issue of a Jewish homeland which muddies the waters, and by implication, blames Evian for not solving two of the major problems which are still unsolved and confront the world today, the book trivializes the difficulties of international cooperation over immigration. Matthews imputes, but does not substantiate, sinister anti-Semitic motives to the Conference delegates at both personal and national levels. I fear the author has tended to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts, that is, presentism.
Matthews claims Tragedy at Evian is not an academic text, and I agree because the author’s main contention is far from proven. At the same time, it reads like an academic text. In other words, it is not light reading, being a very dry, chronologically presented item-by-item and country-by-country description of the politics and the lead-up to the Conference itself.
Appendices include the full text of the Special Report to President Roosevelt by his Special Ambassador to the conference, Myron C. Taylor, and the Final Resolution of the Conference; the former being an interesting view of the US conclusions and the latter being an example of a bureaucratic ‘No Decision’ decision.
Ultimately, however, the book fails on a number of levels, as a compelling argument and as a good read.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.