January 30, 2003

The wealth of nations


It has been 70 years since the day Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. It has also been seven decades since the initiation of the process of industrial extermination that mowed down the lives of 6,000,000 people, an unparalleled tragedy recognized throughout the world as the Holocaust.

Many of the survivors owe their good fortune to persons who, facing the greatest risks, helped them avoid a certain death. Among them, the figure of ”Harry” Bingham is worth mentioning.

Hiram Bingham IV(l903-l988) was the Vice Consul of the United States in Marseilles, a city controlled by the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. From 1940 to 1941, contradicting express orders from his government, he dispatched visas that saved more than 2,500 Jews and Adolf Hitler’s political enemies.

Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Andrew Breton and Leon Feuchtwanger were some of those who eluded death thanks to Bingham. According to ”Foreign Service”, a magazine edited by the professionals of the foreign service of the United States, The State Department had issued a series of internal directives restricting immigration. For example, refugees had to prove their financial solvency in order not to become a ”public burden”, the pubication stated in its June 2002 issue.

Bingham’s rebellion, in open confrontation with the State Department’s instructions, caused him to be punished and transferred to Argentina in l94l on the direct order of the Secretary of State, Cordell Hull.

Bingham’s diplomatic career came to an end when he tried to involve the United States in the United Nations’ search for escaped Nazi war criminals in Latin America. The official answer to his suggestion was his transfer to Havana, an assignment he did not exactly consider a promotion, after having served his country for more than twenty years.

Forgotten, he spent the rest of his days until his death in l988 in his home in Connecticut.

Finally, on June 27, 2002, Secretary of State, Colin Powell, presented a posthumous award to Bingham in a meeting held by the Association of the Foreign Service of the United States.

On that occasion, the chief of American diplomacy said ”We honor the memory of Harry Bingham IV, who risked his life and career to help more than 2,500 Jews and others persecuted who were on the Nazis’ death lists, escape to the United States from France”.

Two cases, two attitudes

However, while Bingham ignored the orders of his chiefs, the business attache of the Argentine Embassy in Berlin, Luis H. Irigoyen, washed his hands of approximately one hundred (l00) Argentine citizens finally killed in concentration camps, despite the efforts of high-ranking Nazis to try to save them, according to Goñi.

Nevertheless, Irigoyen’s name has been on a list, absolutely undocumented, entitled ´´Diplomats that saved Jews during the Second World War´´, promoted during the last book fair in Buenos Aires. In addition, Roberto Levillier, first director of the Argentine School for Foreign Service, appears together with Irigoyen. The list was prepared by The Commission for the Clarification of the Activities of Nazism in Argentina (CEANA), an organization of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in whose building a bronze plaque generously recalls both functionaries.

Those who indeed contributed documents and not merely biographical sketches without any suitable value, such as those provided by the Argentine Foreign Ministry, are Carlos Escude and Andres Cisneros in ”General History of Argentine Foreign Relations”, a monumental work of research in l4 volumes.

In a chapter dedicated to ”Nazi activities in Argentina”, the authors state: ”The German Embassy in Argentina made an effort to cultivate intellectuals, professionals, and Argentine functionaries in their vision of the ”New Germany”. In the middle of l936, a Commission for Intellectual Cooperation was founded, made up of l9 outstanding pro-German Argentines, among those they emphasized were Gustavo Martinez Zuviria; Nobel Prize winner in biology, Bernardo Housay; the Dean of the Buenos Aires Law School, Juan P. Ramos; the rightest politician, Matias Sanchez Sorondo; doctors Gregorio Araoz Alfaro, and Mariano Castex; and historians Ricardo Levene, Carlos Ibarguren, and Roberto Levillier.

Two cases, two attitudes. In the first, a government issued immoral orders. One of its officials refused exact obedience from the beginning, and is exonerated. Years later, other officials take on the responsibility for errors committed, recognize the correct behavior of the person punished, and reward him with honors.

In the second, a government also behaves unethically, and its officials promptly follow perverse orders. Some time later, a new group of public servants not only do not accept their predecessors mistakes, but places them without any justifiable proof, at the same level as honest officials that, in some cases, gave their lives to help others.

The wealth of nations is not only the result of accumulating capital, but above all, a precious benefit that important countries obtain and preserve by looking at their past, directly and without shame, regardless of how atrocious it may have been.

There were also similar directives as the issued during Hull’s administration, in Argentina, such as ”secret number ll”, signed by Chancellor Jose Maria Cantilo, discovered and quoted by the Argentine researcher Uki Goñi in his book, ”The Real Odessa”.

* Jaime Krejner is Professor of Education Sciences and Professor of Biblical Hebrew, Chair of History of the Ancient Orient UBA.