Of use to the nations: National interests and Jewish refugee industries

Of use to the nations: National interests and Jewish refugee industries

Trisha Oakley Kessler (University College Dublin) discusses how the arrival of Jewish refugees in the UK and the Irish Free State was portrayed and their economic contribution assessed.

Questions of national identity and national interests are driving new directions in economic and political discourse with promises of wall-building and tougher border controls to keep the stranger out. As we negotiate Brexit and a new American President, this blog considers how the pursuit of national interests determined the fate of Jewish refugee industrialists fleeing the consequences of nationalism and antisemitism in the 1930s.

From 1935 onwards, as Jewish organisations struggled to guarantee the upkeep of rising numbers of refugees, they looked to new approaches to facilitate settlement. To counter rising concerns that these ‘aliens’ were taking British jobs, the presence of Jewish refugees was negotiated through a lens of being of use to the British nation.[1] A new focus on the benefits Jewish refugees could offer the nation, in terms of new manufacturing expertise to create new industries, gathered momentum. The notion that refugees could advantage British national interests in terms of creating employment appealed to Whitehall with its concerns about economic disparity and rising unemployment in certain depressed areas.

British consulates were used to inform Jewish industrialists that visas were available in exchange for settlement in specific locations. It was a power, Herbert Loebl argues, that the Home Office did not possess.[2] Guided by the Special Areas Act 1934, industrialists were steered to four areas in need of economic rejuvenation: South Wales, West Cumberland, Central West Scotland and the North East of England. Exhaustive attempts by appointed commissioners to entice native industrialists to relocate from London and other cities to these areas had failed, even with the offer of purpose-built factories on new trading estates, with low rents. However, the prospect of safe settlement with the opportunity for business renewal was a lifeline to Jewish refugee industrialists and by 1939 over 300 industries had been established. The arrival of refugee industries with new manufacturing skills offered a diversification of industries, which was welcomed in Scotland and Wales.[3]

Northern Ireland, even though it faced huge unemployment issues, was not included in the Act. It was, argues Philip Ollerenshaw, a decision forced by Unionists concerned to avoid any admission of a failure to advance the industrial success of the region.[4] Yet, the prospect of refugee industries benefitting the province prompted the government of Northern Ireland to adopt its own approach. In August 1938 The Jewish Chronicle informed its readers that the government of Northern Ireland was prepared to give the greatest possible aid to refugees who were willing to establish new industries in its province.[5] Offers of free sites, exemption from rates and financial aid was generous and mirrored the amendments to the Special Areas Act in 1937.

As the excesses of Nazi Germany filled newspapers, the presence of Jewish refugee industries was narrated through a lens of refuge. This generosity of sanctuary was understood by communities to have been ‘repaid a thousand-fold’ by the considerable employment opportunities created by these industries.[6] Furthermore, a discourse of Germany’s loss and Britain’s gain was promoted in recognition of the new specialised manufacturing processes arriving with these new industries.[7] This powerful narrative  helped Jewish refugee industrialists find inclusion within the communities they arrived to, even though they were isolated from the larger refugee communities in London.

In the case of the Irish Free State, Fianna Fáil’s economic nationalist approach to industry limited the number of employment permits given to Jewish refugee industrialists. By 1940, an estimated 8 new factories had been established by refugees. Eamon de Valera’s promise of a national solution to Ireland’s economic problems advanced an economic nationalist narrative that had deep roots within Ireland’s formative struggle for independence. It was a powerful discourse that drove Fianna Fáil’s electoral successes in 1932 and 1933. Committing the country to a native industrial drive supported by protectionist measures de Valera called for a wall of protection to allow foreign technologies and ideas into Ireland to aid the nation but not the stranger, who for too long had taken employment from the Irish nation.[8]

Yet, by 1935-36, Fianna Fáil’s industrial drive was struggling to expand. A need to manufacture new commodities persuaded the Department of Industry and Commerce to respond to a memorandum from the Council of German Jewry in 1936 regarding the possibility of Jewish refugee industrialists contributing to the Irish economy.[9] Decisions regarding settlement were governed by Fianna Fáil’s policy of import substitution, which drove the requirements of Irish industry. A policy of reducing a dependence on British imports determined the fate of refugee industrialists. As rising numbers looked to the Irish Free State, those considered offered specific manufacturing processes that were new to Ireland. Refugee proposals were refused if they posed any competition to existing Irish industries. Those that were successful as in the case of new hat industry that created over 600 jobs for workers in Galway, Castlebar and Longford, offered manufacturing skills and production capabilities to supply the nation with Irish made hats.

The arrival of these Jewish refugee industrialists was presented through a lens of serving the larger Irish project of nation building. As foreign experts they were narrated as conduits of modern industrial processes in the transference of new skills to Irish workers. An urgency to present these factories and their products as Irish offered no room for any engagement with the notion of these industrialists as Jewish refugees. As a consequence they were concealed in an Irish industrial narrative that celebrated the success of Fianna Fáil’s expanding industrial drive to provincial Ireland.

During a period when Jewish refugees were desperately searching for sanctuary, settlement was determined by their use to the nations. After 1938 when Whitehall adopted a more humanitarian response with the Kindertransport and a loosening of visa restrictions, settlement for industrialists continued to be steered by the Special Areas Act. In the case of the Irish Free State, settlement was determined by stringent criteria governed by a pursuit of an Irish-Ireland for industry and very few were given visas. 

[1] Tony Kushner, The Holocaust and the Liberal Imagination, London: Blackwell, 1994, 90-115.

[2] Herbert Loebl, ‘Refugees from the Third Reich and Industry in the Depressed Areas of Britain, in Second Chance – Two Centuries of German-speaking Jews in the United Kingdom – ed., Werner Mosse, 1991, 387.

[3] Antony Glaser, ‘Jewish Refugees and Jewish Refugee Industries’ in Ursula Q. Henriques, The Jews of South Wales: Historical Studies, University of Wales Press, 1993, 177-201

[4] Philip Ollerenshaw, ‘War, Industrial Mobilisation and Society in Northern Ireland, 1939-1945’ in Contemporary European History, Vol.16, No 2 (May 2007), 173.

[5] Jewish Chronicle, August 19, 1938

[6] ‘How Refugees help Lancashire’ Weiner Library, S36 073,

[7] Sir Samuel Hoare, ‘Refugees, their contribution to English National Life’, London, February 6, 1939. Weiner Library, S119

[8] Eamon de Valera, “Economic Policy,” Dáil Éireann, July 12–13, 1928 and “The Unemployed,” Dáil Éireann, April 29, 1932, in Maurice Moynihan, ed. Speeches and Statements by Eamon De Valera, 1917-1973 (Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 1980), 153–162, 203–209.

[9] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Archives: Ireland, DFA/2: pre 100 Series 2/994

Trisha Oakley Kessler is a PhD candidate at the School Of History, University College Dublin. Her research uses the prism of Jewish refugee industries to explore how protectionism shaped Irish society in the 1930s.

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