July 21, 1999
Mark Henderson reports on how Anthony Eden feared trouble in Palestine if prisoners were freed
While rejecting the plan, he hoped the Germans "will abstain from exterminating these people"
Britain blocked secret US plan to save Belsen Jews
BRITAIN blocked a secret American plan to save thousands of Jews from Nazi concentration camps by exchanging them for expatriate German nationals in Latin America, government papers released yesterday disclose.
Anthony Eden, then the Foreign Secretary, rejected the 1944 proposal to repatriate Germans in return for the freedom of Jews with South American passports held in Nazi-controlled Europe, because he was concerned that the freed Jews would emigrate directly to Palestine and stir up trouble for Britain, a Foreign Office document shows.
Eden was also worried that the return of able-bodied Germans, many with technical expertise, might bolster Hitler's war effort at a key stage.
The documents, at the Public Records Office, were originally marked to be closed until 2021, but were released yesterday under the Open Government Initiative.
Britain's refusal to contemplate the exchange plan provoked outrage in Washington, where politicians were anxious to save as many Jews as possible from the Nazis after the release of malnourished and emaciated prisoners from Bergen-Belsen in a similar civilian swap. Diplomats had noted the many Germans interned or under effective house arrest in Latin American countries, and that thousands of camp inmates were Latin American citizens or dependants, and on July 14, 1944, proposed an exchange to Britain.
Eden, however, was unimpressed, fearing that a large influx of South American Jews into Palestine could upset the delicate balance between Jews and Arabs in the protectorate, which was under British mandate. "Most of the holders of these documents (Latin American passports) are of Jewish race who have been accepted as immigrants to Palestine, and the passports are good for a journey thither provided the holders succeed in leaving enemy or enemy-occupied territory," he wrote in November 1944 to Gordon Vereker, the British Ambassador in Uruguay.
"In these circumstances it appears doubtful that it will ever be possible to carry out the exchange envisaged by the United States Government."
Eden expressed his hope, however, that "the German Government will abstain from exterminating these people and will keep them in camps open to outside inspection" if it was made aware that they might at some point be bartered for Germans.
British diplomats in South America also quibbled with the lists of German citizens suitable for repatriation prepared by the United States. "All of them are capable of rendering services to Germany if in that country," Vereker wrote. "Many have qualities that would render them of considerable value to Germany. For instance, it seems absurd to suggest sending to Germany . . . highly trained employees of the German bank who otherwise are languishing here doing nothing but draw their pay."
Vereker added: "Any such action would certainly be misunderstood and give rise to all sorts of ideas that we have gone all soft and sentimental over the Germans." In February 1945, the American State Department was so exasperated by British stalling that an emotional memo was sent to London.
"The department has received most distressing reports regarding physical conditions of the unfortunate persons from Bergen-Belsen camp who were released in the latest exchange of civilians, and it will be noted that five of them died of malnutrition during a short period after their arrival in Switzerland. A sixth has died this week.
By the time Lord Halifax, British Ambassador in Washington, copied the note to Vereker, progress in the war had in any case made the plan "of academic interest", according to a diplomatic document. But the Americans felt certain its failure cost scores of lives.
Ironically, after the war, Britain's diplomats in South America found themselves frustrated by US obstruction of plans to expatriate "obnoxious Germans".
George Ogilvie Forbes, the British Ambassador to Venezuela, remarked on the "indifference" of Americans to the plans even though "the elimination of obnoxious Germans from this territory really concerns the US much more than Britain". He added: "It is very unsatisfactory that the British policy here should be doomed to follow in the wake of a policy so weak and inconclusive as to seem insincere."