Richard Holbrooke is Vice Chair of Perseus LLC and was U.S. Ambassador
to the United Nations from 1999 to 2001 and Chair of Refugees International from
1996 to 1999. This article was adapted from his introduction to Diplomat Heroes
of the Holocaust, by Mordecai Paldiel.
Imagine that you are a consular officer in the middle of a diplomatic career that you hope will lead to an ambassadorship. There are two rubber stamps on your desk. Using the one that says "APPROVED" would allow the desperate person sitting in front of you to travel to your country legally. Using the other stamp, which says "REJECTED," could mean consigning that person to prison or even death.
It sounds like a simple choice, but there is a catch -- a very big one. The person in front of you is Jewish, and your boss has told you to devise ways not to use the "APPROVED" stamp. Your government does not want these people -- these people waiting outside your office, milling around in the street, hiding in their houses -- in your country. Approve too many visas and your career will be in danger. Follow your instructions and people will probably die.
What would you have done if you had been faced with this situation in 1940? Or if you faced a version of the same situation today featuring, say, refugees from Iraq?
In a movie, the hero would stare out the window, the music would swell, and he would do the right thing (like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, with the famous "letters of transit"). But in the real world, there are few heroes in such situations. Government service is based on the well-founded principle that career officials must follow instructions, lest anarchy prevail. But what happens if those instructions have horrible, or even fatal, consequences -- and not heeding them means jeopardizing your career?
We mocked the defense of many Germans after World War II when they said that they were just following orders or did not know about the death camps. But a similar rationale was used by an overwhelming majority of non-German diplomats in Europe during the 1930s to deny Jews entry into their countries. For every diplomatic hero, there were hundreds of consular officials who played
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