The lesson of the St Louis
Yesterday afternoon I listened to a radio play which, I presume, was intended to commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE Day, but was relevant to our world as it is today, and perhaps always has been.
It dramatised The Voyage of the St Louis, a German luxury liner which left Hamburg in May 1939 with 900 Jews on board heading for exile in Cuba. The German government had paid for the trip because they knew they could use it for propaganda purposes. For they knew the Cuban government could never accept a ship full of refugees landing on their shores. That would set a precedent for millions more to follow. The Nazis knew every other country in the world would be faced with the same concern. There were millions of Jews in Germany being persecuted by the Nazi regime, and most of them would want to escape the horror life had become and the threat which hung over them. No country could tolerate an influx of several million impoverished refugees.
And so, 900 passengers travelled pointlessly across the Atlantic, hoping for safety which could never come. The Cubans suggested the Americans should take them, but the Americans had enough migrants of their own. Once the ship was forced to return to Germany the Nazis could ridicule the rest of the world for its concern for people it didn’t want either. The passengers were only saved by gestures made by neighbouring countries to divide these refugees between them. Of course, only those accepted by the UK were really saved. The others just had to wait a year until the Germans occupied their countries of refuge.
During the current corona virus crisis the eyes of the world are no longer watching the small overloaded craft putting to sea across the Mediterranean and the Channel, but they’re still coming. Today, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, and Congo are current sources for refugees heading for Europe and the UK. Several countries in South America provide refugees heading for the US. The world still faces the same issue: there are too many people displaced by persecution, war, and famine, heading for countries where they see safety or a better life which would be destabilised in turn if so many refugees came.
The response of prospective host nations is either to encourage the refugees to move on so they become someone else’s problem or to make life for them so difficult only the most desperate might attempt it. The problem with that is twofold: firstly, it assumes the people travelling do so for light reasons and underestimates their genuine desperation, and secondly it can traumatise already victimised people fleeing the most appalling harsh treatment. Deterrence cannot deter those who feel they have no choice. It can only harm those already suffering further.
What is really needed is to turn off the tap at the supply end; to remove the causes which drive people to flee, to create a more equal, more peaceful world, but that cannot be done. If countries are sovereign, other countries cannot tell them whom they will elect or what their policies should be. There is no mechanism for preventing an oppressive ruler tyrannising a section of the population. If there were, how would countries and their people remain free? If countries are not free, how do we stop people in them feeling disadvantaged or oppressed? If countries are not free, will we not finish up with a monotonous political culture throughout the world, and if we have a monotonous worldwide political culture, to where will those who don’t fit flee? Any attempt to solve this at source comes full circle and regenerates the problem anew. The only answer would be to impose a worldwide set of values to which all countries must conform to protect the vulnerable, but such an imposition would deprive misfits of an alternative in which to seek refuge, and there’s no guarantee a worldwide system would be any more secure or any less corrupt than the status quo. Without an alternative vision to challenge it, it could become intolerant and oppressive, and without an alternative there could be no escape from it.
And so we have an almost intractable problem. We cannot force despotic rulers to step down. We can only encourage others to accept our values, and we cannot be sure our values are right for others. Yet, somehow, unless we can encourage a more equitable world, we face the prospect of endless numbers of people who do not fit in their homelands travelling across the world and destablising it, leading to more refugees and expelled misfits, and further instability. Life is hard, especially if we seek easy answers.
Perhaps that is the real lesson. For many people around the world, life is hard, and trying to solve the problem is hard too. And yet, we must hope that somehow a solution can be found, but it isn’t easy.