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Can history help us manage humanitarian crises?

People frequently ask whether the study of history can help in managing humanitarian crises. This question is particularly timely given the massive outflow of refugees from Syria and the problems of admitting large numbers of refugees to other countries, including the United States. Millions of refugees overwhelm normal administrative, legal, and political procedures.

We have no option but to use past events, since we lack sufficient knowledge or instincts to solve present problems without any frame of reference. But different people will select different episodes, and they will come to understand them to different degrees. Those who speak confidently of a single lesson of the past most often mislead their audiences.

Nonetheless, there is some merit in the popular saying usually misattributed to Mark Twain, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” The mastermind of the 13 November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian of Moroccan origin, who had traveled to Syria and returned surreptitiously to a Europe in the midst of a refugee crisis. The self-proclaimed Islamic State’s ability to exploit confusion and chaos in Europe set off alarm about refugees generally, a concern that quickly spread to the United States. Those who had studied the history of refugee movements knew that in some ways this was reminiscent of the events of mid-1940.

The sudden German conquest of France in May-June 1940 shocked many outside observers. They concluded that a conspiracy lay behind the French collapse, and the Nazis, as (alleged) masters of subversive methods, were obvious suspects. William Bullitt, the outgoing US ambassador to France, told a Philadelphia audience that more than half the spies captured in France were refugees from Germany. There was little evidence to support this claim, but Bullitt could pass as an expert.

A few years earlier, the Spanish Civil War had given rise to the term Fifth Column. In addition to four contingents of nationalist military forces fighting to overthrow the Republican government, there was a fifth element—secret nationalist supporters within Madrid, who would rise up at the appropriate moment. In mid-1940 American authorities quickly concluded that a Nazi Fifth Column already was operating in the US, and that Jewish refugees were part of the problem. Some believed that Jews would do whatever was in their financial interest. Others thought that the Nazis were coercing Jewish refugees to serve as spies through threats to shoot their relatives still in Germany. According to polls, almost half of the public feared a Fifth Column in America.

"Appreciate America Stop the Fifth Column" by U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“Appreciate America Stop the Fifth Column” by U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Fifth Column scare in a presidential election year led to a series of decisions in the State Department to cut immigration radically—mostly by throwing up new security barriers and bureaucratic requirements. Within a short time any visa applicant with close relatives in totalitarian countries—Germany, Italy, and the USSR—was considered a security risk. Among those caught by new barriers in 1941 was Otto Frank, who sought American visas for himself and his family. The Franks lived in Amsterdam, but they still came under the immigration quota for their native Germany, and there was room for them under the German quota. But despite having a high-level friend within the Roosevelt administration, they could not manage to overcome the obstacles. After the Nazis intensified persecution and began to deport Jews from the Netherlands, the Franks went into hiding in the house on the Prinsengracht, and Anne Frank produced her now famous diary. In 2007 the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research commissioned me to write the story of the Franks’ efforts to obtain visas.

In late November 2015, (without my involvement) Elahe Izadi from the Washington Post drew on my research to suggest a parallel between American reaction to the threat posed by Syrian refugees and American reaction to Jewish refugees in 1940–1941.

Studying the past is useful in various, subtle ways. It helps us to know that current problems often are variants of earlier ones. It gives us some sense of what has not worked in the past. It can help us understand the intellectual and emotional reactions of people in earlier eras, and that understanding can allow us to deal more carefully with immediate pressures. Bringing past studies of refugees together with present concerns thus allows us to see in clearer light.

In a peculiar way, the current refugee crisis also helps us grasp the past better. I used to struggle to convince people that fears of a Nazi Fifth Column were real and not simply a cover for anti-Semitic prejudice. (Of course, a substantial number of the fearful, such as William Bullitt, were antisemitic, too.) After the current terrorism in Paris, it is not hard to imagine even larger fears in 1940. It is a coincidence and an irony that events in France set off both backlashes against refugees. Perhaps the United States will succeed this time in screening refugees individually.

Only a handful of Nazi spies posing as refugees made it to the US. So, is this 1940 all over again? Large numbers of Jews could not simply walk away from a Nazi-dominated Europe. A European Union with relatively open borders has problems very different from those of the nation-states of World War II Europe, and the threat from the Islamic State is real, not imaginary. History does not repeat itself; it merely rhymes.

Excerpted from the introduction to Holocaust and Genocide Studies‘ special virtual issue on refugees.

Image credit: “Syrian refugees strike in front of the Budapest Keleti railway station” by Mstyslav Chernov. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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