By Elke Weesjes

Last November, Peter Shulman, a Case Western Reserve University history professor and curator of the popular Historical Opinion Twitter account, tweeted the results from two different Fortune magazine polls that surveyed trends in American feelings towards refugees escaping Nazism in Europe. The first survey, published in July 1938, asked “What’s your attitude towards allowing German, Austrian, and other political refugees to come into the United States?” Almost 70 percent of those surveyed felt that refugees, the majority of whom were Jewish, should be kept out (Historical Opinion 2015).

The second survey, published in April 1939, revealed that roughly 85 percent of respondents opposed accepting any more refugees than existing immigration quotas permitted. The outcome of the latter was especially surprising because the survey was conducted only five months after Kristallnacht, the widely reported incident in which civilians and Nazi forces brutally attacked Jews, destroyed their property and burned their books during a night of terror across Germany and Austria. Even this violent, well-coordinated, pogrom apparently did not change public opinion (Historical Opinion 2015).

Shulman’s tweets suggested to many people a parallel between attitudes toward Jewish refugees in the 1930s and Muslim refugees today. The tweets quickly went viral, were picked up by news agencies, and caused an uproar. Some people were appalled by the comparisons and pointed out that, unlike modern day Muslims from the Middle East, German Jews were in fact genuine refugees.

This tension begs the question: What makes a refugee “genuine”? According to historian Tony Kushner, people tend to feel that their country should offer asylum for genuine refugees. But they often think in these terms only in hindsight, many years later, while in the present they don’t view them as “genuine” refugees (Karpf 2002). In his book Refugees in an Age of Genocide (1999), Kushner and co-author Katharine Knox observe that, “Of all groups in the twentieth century, Jews who escaped Nazism are now widely perceived as “genuine,” but at the time, they were often treated with ambivalence and outright hostility” (Kushner and Knox 1999).

As the current refugee crisis deepens and extreme right-wing, anti-immigrant, politicians gain traction in Europe and the United States, the parallels between Jewish refugees and their current Middle Eastern counterparts are worth contemplating.1 During the 1930s and 1940s the world did not recognize the moral imperative of Jewish immigration. We all know the consequences of this failure. Many Jewish lives could have been saved if nations had just opened their borders and relaxed their immigration policies. So rather than debating the differences, we must recognize the similarities between the two crises in order to prevent the same mistake from happening again.

The beginning of an exodus

The displacement of Jews from Germany began as soon as Hitler came to power in 1933. The first exiles were mostly political personalities, artists and intellectuals. They took up residence abroad, where they intended to wait until they could return to their homeland. The elderly, women, and children began to follow during the next two years when it became clear that Hitler’s regime wasn’t as short-lived as anticipated (Marrus 2001: 126). Initially, this first wave of refugees, still hoping to return to Germany in the near future, settled in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Austria and other countries on the European mainland. As Nazism expanded into neighboring countries, the refugees abandoned hopes of returning promptly. Staying close to their family and friends became less important. Instead, they chose to go overseas to Britain, Palestine, the United States, and Central and South America (Friedländer 2009)

Images: (L) Arrival of Jewish refugee children, port of London, February 1939. (R) Polish Jews expelled from Germany in late October 1938 © Bundesarchiv

Similarly, the current refugee crisis has been percolating for years. But because the problem had been contained in the Middle East, it went largely unnoticed by the Western world. Since the Syrian conflict started in 2011, millions of Syrians have taken refuge in nearby Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq. Syrian refugees began to seek refuge further afield when it became clear that these countries are falling short in four ways.

First, these countries do not have enough resources and public services to meet the needs of some four million refugees. Healthcare is inadequate. Water and sanitation systems are overwhelmed, there isn’t enough room in schools and hospitals, rents have been driven up, and the social tensions between refugees and natives have been rising. In Lebanon malnutrition among Syrian refugees is pervasive, and outbreaks of infectious diseases have occurred in Iraq and Lebanon. Second, the countries do not receive enough humanitarian aid to resolve the problems. Third, the violence and destruction in Syria that spilled over into neighboring countries, such as Iraq and Lebanon, rendered those countries unsafe. Fourth, Syrians are considered guests and are not granted refugee status in these neighboring countries.2 As such, they are either not allowed to work or can only find low-paying jobs because of high unemployment rates.

Just like their Jewish counterparts, Syrians also have lost faith that the conflict in their home country will soon end, so staying in or near Syria is no longer a priority.

Poverty-stricken refugees

Not all Syrians, however, have the option to seek refuge further afield. Many have spent all their savings, either while staying in Syria where the economy has ground to a halt, or in neighboring countries that lack economic opportunities for refugees. They can’t escape their predicament because they simply can’t afford the expensive journey to the European Union.3

In the 1930s, Jewish refugees similarly found themselves financially destitute. During this period, Germans Jews (a population of 525,000) were being relentlessly worn down by economic oppression. They were stripped of their jobs, civil rights, and, adding insult to injury, they were not allowed to emigrate with their assets. Since most potential host countries wanted some kind of proof of employment or guaranteed financial support from a sponsor, leaving Germany was only an option for people with a financially sound social network abroad. Consequently, only about 65,000 refugees were able to migrate from areas held by the Third Reich between 1933 and 1938 (Marrus 2001: 129)

At that time, emigrating to the United States was particularly difficult because the country, which already had had a strict quota system in place since the 1920s, introduced a long list of restrictive visa regulations in the 1930s. According to these new regulations, compiled and enforced by the State Department, consular officials were expected to assess whether migrants were likely to become so-called public charges.4 Because State Department standards were so strict, anyone who was not independently wealthy was considered likely to become a public charge and was rejected. Other requirements included obtaining a certificate of good conduct from police authorities (USHMM 2016). Needless to say, it was almost impossible for German Jews, who were stripped of their assets and violently persecuted by German police, to meet these criteria.

Images: (L) An Afghan mother comforts her crying child moments after arriving on the Greek Island of Lesvos (R) Many did not make it. Public Domain: Freedom House

As a result of its stringent policies, the United States continually failed to fill the annual quota of immigrants from Germany, which were set in the 1920s at 26,000. Responding to pressure from Jewish leaders, in 1935 President Roosevelt eased procedures somewhat and allowed greater numbers of refugees to immigrate. However, under pressure from Congress and the State Department, which strongly opposed liberalization of immigration, the fundamental policies of restriction remained in force. Further, the numbers never exceeded the original annual quotas: 4,392 in 1933, 5,201 in 1934, and 6,346 in 1935. Between 80 and 85 percent of these were Jews (Marrus 2001: 138).

Today, President Obama, like Roosevelt, is also committed to welcoming more Syrian refugees, although he, too, has been met with much resistance, mainly by Republicans. Just after Obama pledged to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016,

Congress approved legislation making entry even more difficult for refugees (Dinan and Richardson 2015). (That number—10,000, is tiny, compared with, for example, Canada, which plans to take in 25,000, but it is still a huge increase from the 2,000 Syrian refugees who were accepted in the United States last year.)

From problem to crisis

While the number of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany was small in the first five years after Hitler came to power, that changed dramatically in 1938, the year when the Jewish refugee problem reach crisis proportions. In response to Nazi expansionism and escalating persecution of Jews and others, desperate refugees began spilling out of Germany into a Europe that was either unable or unwilling to receive them. In 1938 Germany absorbed Austria and incorporated the Sudetenland—northern, southwest, and western areas of Czechoslovakia inhabited by German speakers. While making these bold strategic moves, the Nazis intensified their crackdown on Jews. Jewish passports were invalidated, Jewish property was confiscated, and Nazi Storm Troopers beat, arrested, and murdered Jews at will (Marrus 2001: 166).

Meanwhile, an even bigger threat to the Jews had occurred further east in Poland, Hungary, and Romania. These countries, with a combined Jewish population of 4.2 million, officially had said that they also wanted to “get rid of their Jews” (Simpson 1938: 618). Following in Nazi-Germany’s footsteps, in order to encourage this process, they implemented anti-Semitic laws that were intended to remove Jews from industrial, commercial, and professional spheres of activity. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews fled, desperately looking for a host country that was willing to take them. Intimidated by their large numbers and concerned about the impact massive immigration might have on their respective economies, western countries hardly welcomed these poverty-stricken Jews with open arms. Quite the contrary; most European countries admitted only small numbers of refugees and tightened security at their borders to prevent refugees from entering illegally. Meanwhile, the United States continued to pursue highly selective individualized admission (Adams 1939).

Closing borders

Over the past few years we’ve seen a similar chain of events. As ISIS militants created a self-proclaimed Caliphate across large areas of Syria and Iraq (as they also spread into other countries), the refugee crisis has deepened and widened. Hundreds of thousands Iraqi refugees, who are fleeing religious and political persecution, have put even more pressure on already stretched refugee camps within their own country and in neighboring countries. Refugees with enough money have joined the exodus to Europe. But rather than liberalizing immigration policies, many countries, especially in Central Europe and the Balkans, have responded by tightening border controls and building fences.

Images: (L) Members of the Hungarian Defence Force install barbed wire on the Hungarian-Serbian border, Aug. 17, 2015, to prevent people from entering the country near Kelebia village in Hungary (R) Refugees sleep in a central square in Athens where hundreds of mainly Afghani refugees have found temporary shelter, Sept. 10, 2015. Public Domain: Freedom House

Already in 2012 Greece built a razor-wire fence to block a short stretch of its border with Turkey—a popular land crossing for refugees—and increased security along the Evros River, which forms the remainder of the border. Because of these barriers refugees were forced to reach more hospitable countries such as Germany, and Zweden, via sea or via Bulgaria. In response to the rising number of refugees attempting to cross the border from Turkey, Bulgaria also constructed a large fence, which was completed in 2014. In the meantime, Hungary began to erect a fence along its border with Croatia and Serbia, diverting the refugee trail farther west into Slovenia. Within the first two months after Hungary closed its borders with Croatia and Serbia, 170,000 refugees crossed Slovenia, a tiny alpine country. By now, even Slovenia has built its own fence, although it hasn’t sealed off its border. Such policies force people to take more dangerous routes, by sea, which effectively put them in the hands of smugglers and subject them to further violence and extortion (Almukhtar, Keller & Watkins 2015).

Status quo

As these new groups of refugees have joined their Syrian contemporaries in fleeing to Europe, the refugee crisis in many places has also turned into a humanitarian disaster. Europe and the U.S. seem paralyzed, just like in the 1930s. There is a lot of talk but a lack of decisive, unified and, above all, timely action. The European Union is divided between east and west, a division embodied by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán. Merkel has championed liberal open-door policies, while Orban, a self-anointed protector of European Christianity, has pushed hardline nationalist policies. Throughout 2015, Germany, Italy and France demanded more concerted policies and more equitable distribution of refugees. But summit after summit dissolved into acrimony, without agreement.

Central European countries such as Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and the Czech Republic emerged as the main opponents accepting more refugees. While Europe’s leaders still can’t decide on a unified policy, European nationalism is gaining traction, especially in Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic. Fences are sprouting up, border controls are getting tighter, and Germany, France, Denmark and even Sweden have re-established border controls. Throughout Europe, those favoring closed national societies are gaining ground against proponents of liberal open regimes. The refugees are the victims of all this indecisiveness.

It is remarkable to see that the same countries that refused to accept Jewish refugees—and later actively expelled them—now join the countries that reject EU proposals for a fair-quota system. Hungary’s Orbán is calling for the refugees to be kept out in order to “keep Europe Christian,” and Czech police ink numbers on the arms of refugees (Mackey 2015; Cameron 2015). The political atmosphere eerily echoes Nazi practices of the 1930s and 1940s. Until recently these countries had been the source of migrants rather than a destination for them. As such, these countries’ populations have remained relatively homogenous (i.e. white and Catholic) and they lack established organizations to help refugees integrate and advocate on their behalf. In fact, Slovakia doesn’t even have a single mosque. In addition, as argued by Bulgarian commentator Ivan Krastev, “many Eastern Europeans feel betrayed by their hope that joining the European Union would mean the beginning of prosperity and an end to crisis, while many government leaders fear that the only way to regain political support is by showing that you care for your own, and not a whit for the aliens” (Krastev 2015).

New Jersey governor and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie, proclaimed that his state would not take in any refugees—“not even orphans under the age of five”

Meanwhile, more than half of U.S. governors have declared they will not accept new Syrian refugees into their states, arguing that they pose too great a risk to national security. One of them, New Jersey governor and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie, proclaimed that his state would not take in any refugees—“not even orphans under the age of five” (Krieg 2015). Presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz have suggested that the U.S. government prioritize Christian refugees, while Donald Trump has called for a total and complete ban on Muslims entering the United States (Gambino, Kingsley and Nardelli 2015).

Public opinion and the rise of xenophobia

This lack of a compassionate public response to the plight of refugees is unfortunately nothing new. In the 1930s people were, by and large, equally unwilling to help refugees in need, even when it became clear that the refugees were in danger, not just economically oppressed and legally marginalized. In Germany the anti-Jewish measures of 1938 coalesced in Kristallnacht, during which 91 Jews were murdered, more than 1,400 synagogues across Germany were torched, and Jewish-owned businesses were looted and destroyed. In addition, 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps (Yad Vashem 2015).

These brutal events were widely reported in the Western media. In the U.S. alone, nearly 1,000 editorials were published on the topic. Yet despite media outrage, basic attitudes and immigration policies, did not change. U.S. politicians, largely reflecting European attitudes and supported by the general public, remained unwilling to welcome more refugees—not even children. Seven months after Kristallnacht, the so-called Wagner-Rogers bill came before Congress. This bill authorized the admission of 20,000 German refugee children under the age of 14 for a period of two years—above and beyond the quota of 26,000 refugees. It stipulated that the newcomers must be supported and properly cared for by organizations or individuals so that they would not become public charges. Despite endorsement by prominent political and religious figures and by leading newspapers across the country, the Wagner-Rogers bill encountered formidable opposition in Congress. It never passed (Friedlander 2009: 128).

Opposition to Jewish refugees in the 1930s should not be understood as timeless bigotry, according to Shulman, the Case Western historian. “With today’s talk of ‘Judeo-Christian values,’ it is easy to forget the genuine alienness and threat to national security these refugees represented,” he wrote in Fortune (Shulman 2015).

These feelings came to light in a number of surveys conducted by Elmo Roper, who examined American public opinion about Jews during the Nazi period. In 1938, for example, 46 percent of the respondents thought that Jews were partly to blame for their own persecution in Europe. A year later, one-third of respondents agreed with the statement that Jews have different business methods and therefore some measures should be taken to prevent them from getting too much power in the business word. Ten percent felt that Jews should be deported from the United States to a new homeland (Welch 2014).

Fast-forward to the latest polls, conducted by the Arab American Institute and released last December, which tracked American attitudes towards Arabs and Muslims. With most respondents holding unfavorable opinions about Arabs and American Muslims, the poll shows that the persistent negative attitudes toward these two communities continue. According to the same poll, a similar percentage of respondents oppose accepting any Syrian refugees (Arab American Institute 2015).

Source: Arab American Institute December 2015

Polls in Great Britain, which also has accepted only a tiny percentage of refugees, show similar results. Public support for allowing Syrian refugees to settle in Britain has slumped after the Paris attacks last November. Forty-nine percent of people believe Britain should be accepting fewer or no refugees (Savage and Horne 2015). Only 20 percent feel it should accept more refugees. And it can always get worse. A recent opinion poll in Czech revealed that 94 percent of respondents believe the European Union should deport all refugees (Britskelisty 2015).

The enemy within

Paradoxically, hostility towards Jews in the United States intensified during WWII. When asked which national, religious, or social groups in the United States were a threat to the country—Jews, Negroes, Catholics, Germans, or Japanese—17 percent of respondents regarded Jews as a menace in 1940. That number increased to 24 percent by 1944. In both these years, respondents felt that Jews were more of a menace than Germans.

What can explain these increasingly large numbers? “A toxic fear for Jewish subversion,” according to Schulman. He wrote: “For decades, Jews had been linked to various strains of un-American threats: socialism, communism, and anarchism, of course, but also (paradoxically) a kind of hyper-capitalism. Many believed that the real threat to the United States lay not from abroad, but within.” In addition, the U.S. government feared that German spies would pose as refugees. With the growing influx of refugees all of these fears became more widespread (Shulman 2015).

This attitude towards Jewish refugees wasn’t contained to the New World. In fact, all of the above charges could also be heard throughout the Old World. Already in 1938, British politician John Hope Simpson5 recognized that this widespread antagonism toward refugees was primarily rooted in anti-Semitism and xenophobia. By October 1941, the refugee question had become moot: Germany decided to refuse any further Jewish emigration (Simpson 1938).

A hideous rhyme

When U.S. soldiers entered the German concentration camp Dachau in 1945, they found thousands of emaciated and sick prisoners and piles of dead bodies. In their state of shock and anger, they rounded up inhabitants of the nearby town and brought them to the camp. The soldiers forced them to confront the horrors that had taken place just a few miles away from their homes. Townspeople reportedly responded by repeating the infamous phrase that has been linked to the Holocaust ever since: "Wir haben es nicht gewusst” (“We didn’t know”).

No one wanted to admit that they knew what was happening to the Jews during WWII, not inside nor outside of Germany. Because admitting that you knew meant admitting that you didn’t do anything to prevent the atrocities. And, as we all should know, there is not such thing as an innocent bystander.

The mass extinction of European Jews did not happen overnight. On the contrary, the legal marginalization, economic oppression, and the subsequent physical persecution of the Jews was integrated in a slowly escalating process that took place in plain sight. In fact, as we’ve seen, the Nazis’ first coordinated attack on the Jews— Kristallnacht—made global headlines. Yet, countries were unwilling to open their borders, even after it was clear that Jews’ lives were in danger. Everybody understood the position of Jews in Nazi Germany, but European governments as well as the U.S. government chose to ignore their plight.

The real lesson here shouldn’t be that European and U.S. leaders didn’t do enough to help Jewish refugees. Rather, the lesson is that we all should ensure that the same thing doesn’t happen again.

Since the end of the war, historians have carefully examined if countries that weren’t occupied by Nazi-Germany, such as the U.S. and Britain, could have saved more Jews. The answer is yes. They could have saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews. But it is always easy to draw conclusions like these in hindsight. The real lesson here shouldn’t be that European and U.S. leaders didn’t do enough to help Jewish refugees. Rather, the lesson is that we all should ensure that the same thing doesn’t happen again.

Mark Twain said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. To be sure, there are some fundamental differences between the Jewish refugee crisis of the 1930s and the refugee crisis today. But one can’t deny that the anti-refugee sentiments and the inability of the West to respond to the crisis today effectively are a hideous rhyme of the plight of Jewish refugees in the years leading up to the Holocaust. We will never be able to redeem ourselves for what happened to the Jews in WWII, but now we have the opportunity to show the world that we’ve learned our lesson.


Adams, Walter. 1939. “Refugees in Europe” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 203, Refugees (May, 1939), pp. 37-44.

Almukhtar, Sarah, Josh Keller and Derek Watkins. 2015. “Closing the Back Door to Europe” The New York Times October 16, 2015 (accessed on January 1, 2016).

Arab American Institute. 2015. American Attitudes Towards Arabs and Muslims (accessed on February 15).

Britskelisty. 2015 “Deport all refugees, demands 94 per cent Czechs, and close the borders” September 2, 2015 (accessed on January 7, 2015).

Cameron, Rob. 2015. “Migrant crisis: Unease as Czech police ink numbers on skin” BBC September 2, 2015 (accessed on January 18, 2016).

Dinan, Stephen and Valerie Richardson “Obama still plans to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees despite Paris terrorist attacks” The Washington Times November 15, 2015 (accessed February 6)

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Mackey, Robert. 2015. “Hungarian Leader Rebuked for Saying Muslim Migrants Must Be Blocked ‘to Keep Europe Christian’” The New York Times September 3, 2015 (accessed on January 3, 2016)

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Savage, Michael, and Marc Horne “Public abandons support for Syrian refugees coming to Britain” The Times November 18, 2015 (accessed on February 6, 2016).

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  1. Both the refugee crisis of the 1930s and the current crisis pertained to a wide range of nationalities, ethnicities, political, and religious minorities, however, this article takes a more narrow focus in discussing the challenges faced by the Jewish and Middle Eastern Muslim segment of these respective crises. 

  2. Turkey signed the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees but with a geographical limitation. Those coming from the east are not recognized as refugees. Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq never signed. 

  3. Smugglers charge anything between 2000 and 5000 dollars to help refugees cross into the European Union. 

  4. Public charge: likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence. 

  5. John Hope Simpson authored several important reports on the refugee crisis of the 1930s, including Refugees: preliminary report of a survey (1938), The Refugee Problem (1939).