The world’s reaction to the Nazi persecution and murder of Europe’s Jews has long been controversial. Even before the war, democratic governments were criticised for not doing enough to help Jews in Germany. At the initiative of Franklin Roosevelt, the President of the USA, 32 countries met in the Hotel Royal, shown in the photograph, in Évian in France in July 1938 to attempt to agree measures to help the growing number of Jewish refugees trying to leave Germany and Austria. However, the attitude of most delegates was perhaps best expressed by Australia’s representative, Colonel T.W. White.

The Government of the Commonwealth of Australia welcomes the initiative of the President of the United States in calling this Conference for so humanitarian a motive …

The United States and Australia owe their development to migration from the Old World. This is so, and in Australia's case such migration has naturally been predominantly British; nor is it desired that this be largely departed from while British settlers are forthcoming.

Nevertheless, the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia has had very much in mind the problem of foreign migration as well, and a proportion of new arrivals during recent years has been from foreign sources. Realising the unhappy plight of German and Austrian Jews, they have been included on a pro rata basis which we venture to think is comparable with that of any other country...

Under the circumstances, Australia cannot do more, for it will be appreciated that in a young country man power from the source from which most of its citizens have sprung is preferred, while undue privileges cannot be given to one particular class of non-British subjects without injustice to others. It will no doubt be appreciated also that, as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration.

As a result of this unwillingness to take in large numbers of refugees, the conference achieved little. 

Photo: the Hotel Royal, site of the Évian Conference, 1938; National Archives and Records Administration, College Park (public domain)

Speech: Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, Proceedings of the Intergovernmental Committee Evian, July 6th to 15th, 1938: verbatim record of the plenary meetings of the committee, resolutions and reports (Imprimeries réunies de Chambéry, 1938)