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The Evian Conference

Martha Sharp Previous The St. Louis Next

United States delegate Myron Taylor delivers a speech at the Evian Conference on Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Evian-les-Bains, France, July 15, 1938. —National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD

Between 1933 and 1941, the Nazis aimed to make Germany judenrein (cleansed of Jews) by making life so difficult for them that they would be forced to leave the country. By 1938, about 150,000 German Jews, one in four, had already fled the country. After Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, however, an additional 185,000 Jews were brought under Nazi rule. Many Jews 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.

During the nine-day meeting, delegate after delegate rose to express sympathy for the refugees. However, most countries, including the United States and Britain, offered excuses for not letting in more refugees. Most countries feared that an increase in refugees would cause economic hardships. With the exception of the tiny Dominican Republic, no country was willing to accept more 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 almost no funds or other support from its member nations.

Commenting on Evian, the German government noted how “astounding” it was that foreign countries criticized Germany for its treatment of the Jews, but none of them wanted to open the doors to them when “the opportunity offer[ed].”

Taking a Stand

The Evian Conference represents an example of when taking a stand fails to result in an immediate change. By calling for the conference, President Roosevelt hoped that the international community would be able to create a plan to help refugees escape Germany and Austria. Although the conference only resulted in minor improvements, such as the Dominican Republic accepting more refugees and the creation of the ICR, the conference did bring international attention to the plight of Jews in Germany and Austria.

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