Ahead of our conference and public lecture at Keele University on 22 November to mark the 75th anniversary of the death of History of Parliament founder, Josiah C. Wedgwood, and the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport debate, we hear from Lesley Urbach of the Remembering Eleanor Rathbone Group about Wedgwood’s role in assisting Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe…
Twenty-two days after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933, Josiah Wedgwood, Labour Member of Parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyme, observed in a question to the Home Secretary that
our ancestors allowed the Huguenots to come into this country … without any damage to our country or our reputation. Will he be prepared to give an equally felicitous asylum to the persecuted victims of Nazi terrorism in Germany? (Hansard, 21 Feb. 1933)
On this occasion he asked on behalf of the German socialists who were being persecuted under the Nazi regime. He was told what became a stock answer to such requests, ‘that aliens are only allowed to come in for residence if their settlement here is consonant with the interests of this country’. Wedgwood disagreed strongly with this response, telling the House in July 1933, ‘what we must always put first is a principle based upon humanity and justice. If you put the State first, you can justify any crime in the past and any crime in the future’.
German socialists were not the only persecuted group in Nazi Germany about which Wedgwood addressed Parliament. He first raised the issue of persecuted Jews in early April 1933. He asked the Colonial Secretary to relax the restrictions on emigration to Palestine to provide refuge to persecuted German Jews. For the next ten years, he continued to assert that Palestine was a very suitable place of refuge for Jews from Nazi-controlled Europe, as well as suggesting the colonies as a possible place of emigration. His first contribution on the matter of Jewish refugees being allowed to settle in Britain came during the adjournment debate on 13 April 1933,
Let English people see whether they, too, cannot receive these people into their family to make a home here, and to show that whatever the Prussian Aryan may feel about the Jews, or the peace-mongers or even the Socialists, we in this country realise the value of brains and the duty of hospitality to the oppressed.
On 22 May, he received no answer to his question to the Home Secretary,
is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the position of the Jews in Germany is daily getting worse, and are we to understand that the British Government is going to do nothing to help the people who are being persecuted in Germany to escape from that country?
Two years later Wedgwood asked the Foreign Secretary what action was being considered by the government to deal with the increasing hardships of Jews in Germany.
Joshua Stein comments on Wedgwood’s ceaseless nature in the face of adversity when it came to campaigning on the behalf of Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, which he continued to do until his death in July 1943. The nature of his pleas, however, changed from general requests to help Jews (and socialists) to asking for visas on behalf of individuals as the war drew nearer. His last appeal before the start of the war, for a visa for Frau Lasmann, who was destitute in Poland after being expelled from Germany, was rejected. During the early part of the war he was one of the leaders of the campaign against the internment of refugees from Germany and Austria.
Wedgwood was never likely to succeed in his efforts to persuade the government to allow Jews and socialists refuge in Britain. Britain’s immigration policy, established by the 1905 Aliens Act and the 1919 Aliens Restrictions Amendment Act, ruled out the entry of aliens for permanent settlement and there was no legal obligation for the government to admit refugees. Post-1933, there were several conditions for the granting of refuge including: the applicant’s ability to sustain themselves without recourse to public funds; prospects for re-emigration; and Home Office discretion. The only people allowed permanent entry were those whose presence offered some benefit to the country or people with strong personal or compassionate grounds.
Entry did not become easier as persecution grew in Germany and spread to Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939. However, certain additional categories of people were allowed temporary asylum, such as unaccompanied children and those adults willing to be domestic servants. Britain’s national interests remained a priority ahead of humanitarianism. While Wedgwood believed that their ‘principal duty … [was] to save Jews from the persecution in Germany’ (Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 27 Mar. 1939), it was not, and never became, a central preoccupation of the Government, however passionate his speeches were. The tenacity of Wedgwood’s campaigning for Jewish refugees reflects a dogged determination that is evident in all of his campaigning during his exceptionally active political career. Stein suggests that his persistence helped to establish a climate whereby it became more acceptable to help the Jews.
A Foreign Office official described Wedgwood as being hopelessly unbalanced on the subject of supporting the Jews, while the United Jewry Fellowship referred to him as ‘one of their greatest non-Jewish friends in the British Parliament’ (‘Honoured by Jews’ Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 7 Mar. 1935). His niece C. V. Wedgwood described him in The Last of the Radicals as ‘the man who will take all risks, the man who will never consider any other aspects of the question save that of justice is essential to society. In an old and cautious society such men are rare and precious’. But perhaps the last word should be left with Wedgwood from a letter to his daughter at the end of the 1930s, ‘I shall remain intolerant of cruelty, injustice and error … If the individual “resists not evil”, bows down to power and authority … then only tyrants prosper while civilisation and humanity decay’.
- Joshua Stein, Our Great Solicitor (1992)
- C. V. Wedgwood, The Last of the Radicals (1951)
- Louise London, Whitehall and the Jews 1933-1948 (2000)
- Josiah C. Wedgwood, Memoirs of a Fighting Life (1941)
- Wedgwood’s papers can be found at Keele University Library
Join us at Keele Hall, Keele University on 22 November at 18.45 for our free public lecture (click link for info and free tickets), reception and private viewing of our touring exhibition.
Here you can see the exhibition (funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and its players) at Newcastle-under-Lyme Library.