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Learning about WW2 lead me to a current event question about German policy

Learning about WW2 lead me to a current event question about German policy

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I am a student currently learning about the atrocities that Nazi Germany committed in the 1940's. Some of the well-known and worst ones are the concentration camps and horrific experiments, but they violated human rights in so many other ways that I had not heard about such as murdering ally POWs and even their own officers for failure or for just about any other reason. They stepped all over the innocent countries around them, breaking many treaties and violating every rule of war. They did this all in the name of the mad concept of a perfect race. Then, when they were defeated, they tried to hide their crimes by burning all the evidence.


My question is that in light of this, you would think that it would take at least a century until they would be in position to lecture other nations on human rights. As I watch the news today, I see the same nation telling the US, the UN, and the EU that they should stop violating the rights of refugees, minorities, etc. and be more like Germany. I know that there are still people alive today that are WW2 veterans, holocaust survivors, an even original Nazis.

How is this not hypocrisy of ludicrous proportions? What am I missing?

Thanks in advance!

Well functioning societies usually turn the page when they realize that they did something wrong or that their enemies did; they bury the hatchet and look towards the future instead. In this spirit, part of ending a war usually involves a large degree of forgiveness of the general population and most or all of its leaders.

What more, (West) Germany has been a vibrant democracy with a deep attachment to human rights since WW2, and a notoriously tolerant one at that. (In case searching for counter-examples of hate groups or human rights abuses crosses your mind, yes it's not perfect but keep context in mind: several US states had racial segregation enshrined in law until the 60s.) For all of Germany's flaws in welcoming immigrants and refugees, other countries have plenty of good lessons to learn from what it's been doing since WW2, and Germany is (IMO) thus entitled to some clout.

World War II

When Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, the United Party split. Hertzog wanted South Africa to remain neutral, but Smuts opted for joining the British war effort. Smuts’s faction narrowly won the crucial parliamentary debate, and Hertzog and his followers left the party, many rejoining the National Party faction Malan had maintained since 1934. Smuts then became the prime minister, and South Africa declared war on Germany.

South Africa made significant contributions to the Allied war effort. Some 135,000 white South Africans fought in the East and North African and Italian campaigns, and 70,000 Blacks and Coloureds served as labourers and transport drivers. South African platinum, uranium, and steel became valuable resources, and, during the period that the Mediterranean Sea was closed to the Allies, Durban and Cape Town provisioned a vast number of ships en route from Britain to the Suez.

The war proved to be an economic stimulant for South Africa, although wartime inflation and lagging wages contributed to social protests and strikes after the end of the war. Driven by reduced imports, the manufacturing and service industries expanded rapidly, and the flow of Blacks to the towns became a flood. By the war’s end, more Blacks than whites lived in the towns. They set up vast squatter camps on the outskirts of the cities and improvised shelters from whatever materials they could find. They also began to flex their political muscles. Blacks boycotted a Witwatersrand bus company that tried to raise fares, they formed trade unions, and in 1946 more than 60,000 Black gold miners went on strike for higher wages and improved living conditions.

Although the 1946 strike was brutally suppressed by the government, white intellectuals did propose a series of reforms within the segregation framework. The government and private industry made a few concessions, such as easing the industrial colour bar, increasing Black wages, and relaxing the pass laws, which restricted the right of Blacks to live and work in white areas. The government, however, failed to discuss these problems with Black representatives.

Afrikaners felt threatened by the concessions given to Blacks and created a series of ethnic organizations to promote their interests, including an economic association, a federation of Afrikaans cultural associations, and the Afrikaner Broederbond, a secret society of Afrikaner cultural leaders. During the war many Afrikaners welcomed the early German victories, and some of them even committed acts of sabotage.

The United Party, which had won the general election in 1943 by a large majority, approached the 1948 election complacently. While the party appeared to take an ambiguous position on race relations, Malan’s National Party took an unequivocally pro-white stance. The National Party claimed that the government’s weakness threatened white supremacy and produced a statement that used the word apartheid to describe a program of tightened segregation and discrimination. With the support of a tiny fringe group, the National Party won the election by a narrow margin.

World War Ii

World War II also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from September 1, 1939 to September 2, 1945. The war conflicts began earlier, it involved the vast majority of the world’s countries. They formed two opposing military alliances, the Allies and the Axis. It was the most widespread war in history, and directly involved more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. In a state of total war, the major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, erasing the distinction between civilian and military resources. The Allies leaders were Joseph Stalin from Russia, Franklin D. Roosevelt from United States of America, Winston Churchill from Great Britain and Chiang Kai-Shek from the Republic of China. The Axis leaders were Adolf Hitler from Germany, Hirohito from Japan and Benito Mussolini from Italy.

Before the war, there were a few events that occurred. The first one was the Invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Before the war began, the invasion of the Ethiopian Empire was committed by the armed forces of the Kingdom of Italy, which was launched from Italian Somaliland and Eritrea. The event resulted in the military occupation of Ethiopia and its annexation into the newly created colony of Italian East Africa in addition it exposed the weakness of the League of Nations as a force to preserve peace. Both Italy and Ethiopia were member nations, but the League did nothing when the former clearly violated the League’s Article X. Germany was the only major European nation to support the invasion. Italy subsequently dropped its objections to Germany’s goal of absorbing Austria.

The Second event was the Spanish Civil War in 1936 to 1939. When the civil war broke out in Spain, Hitler and Mussolini lent military support to the Nationalist rebels, led by General Francisco Franco. The Soviet Union supported the existing government, the Spanish Republic. Over 30,000 foreign volunteers,

known as the International Brigades, also fought against the Nationalists. Both Germany and the USSR used this war as an opportunity to test in combat their most advanced weapons and tactics. The Nationalists won the civil war in April 1939 Franco, now dictator, remained officially neutral during World War II but generally favored the Axis. His greatest collaboration with Germany was the sending of volunteers to fight on the Eastern Front.

The third event was the Japanese Invasion of China. In July 1937, Japan captured the former Chinese imperial capital of Peking after instigating the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, which culminated in the Japanese campaign to invade all of China. The Soviets quickly signed a non-aggression pact with China to lend materiel support, effectively ending China’s prior cooperation with Germany. From September to November, the Japanese attacked Taiyuan as well as engaging the Kuomintang Army around Xinkou and Communist forces in Pingxingguan. General Chiang Kai-shek deployed his best army to defend Shanghai, but, after three months of fighting, Shanghai fell. The Japanese continued to push the Chinese forces back, capturing the capital Nanking in December 1937. After the fall of Nanking, thousands of Chinese civilians and disarmed combatants were murdered by the Japanese in that invasion.

The fourth event was the Soviet and Japanese border conflict. During 1930 to 1939, Japanese forces in Manchukuo had border clashes with the Soviet Union and the Mongolian Republic. The Japanese doctrine of Hokushin-ron, which highlight Japan’s expansion, was favoured by the Imperial Army during this time. The Japanese defeat at Khalkin Gol in 1939, the ongoing Second Sino-Japanese War and ally Nazi Germany pursuing neutrality with the Soviets, this policy would prove difficult to maintain. Japan and the Soviet Union eventually signed a Neutrality Pact in April 1941, and Japan adopted the doctrine of Nanshin-ron, promoted by the Navy, which took its focus to the south, eventually leading to its war with the United States and the Allies

The fifth event was European occupations and agreements. In Europe, Germany and Italy were becoming more aggressive. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria, again provoking little response from other European powers. Hitler began pressing German claims on the Sudetenland, an area of Czechoslovakia with a predominantly ethnic German population. Later, Britain and France followed the counsel of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and conceded this territory to Germany in the Munich Agreement, which was made against the wishes of the Czechoslovak government, in exchange for a promise of no further territorial demands. Soon afterwards, Germany and Italy forced Czechoslovakia to cede additional territory to Hungary and Poland annexed Czechoslovakia’s Zaolzie region.

During the war, in Europe, occupation came under two forms. In Western, Northern, and Central Europe Germany established economic policies through which it collected roughly 69.5 billion reichmarks by the end of the war, this figure does not include the sizeable plunder of industrial products, military equipment, raw materials and other goods. Thus, the income from occupied nations was over 40 per cent of the income Germany collected from taxation, a figure which increased to nearly 40 per cent of total German income as the war went on.

In the East, the intended gains of Lebensraum were never attained as fluctuating front-lines and Soviet scorched earth policies denied resources to the German invaders. Unlike in the West, the Nazi racial policy encouraged extreme brutality against what it considered to be the “inferior people” of Slavic descent. Most German advances were thus followed by mass executions. Although resistance groups formed in most occupied territories, they did not significantly hamper German operations in either the East or the West until late 1943.

In Asia, Japan termed nations under its occupation as being part of the Greater East Asia Cooprosperity Sphere, essentially a Japanese hegemony which it claimed was for purposes of liberating colonised peoples. Although, Japanese forces were originally welcomed as liberators from European domination in some territories, their excessive brutality turned local public opinion against them within weeks. During Japan’s initial conquest it captured 4,000,000 barrels of oil left behind by retreating Allied forces and by 1943 they were able to get production in the Dutch East Indies up to 50 million barrels, 76 per cent of its 1940 output rate.

During the war, there were a lot of advanced technology aircraft used for reconnaissance, as fighters, bombers, and ground-support, and each role was advanced considerably. Innovation included airlift and strategic bombing. Anti-aircraft weaponry also advanced, including defenses such as radar and surface-to-air artillery, such as the German 88 mm gun. The use of the jet aircraft was pioneered and, though late introduction meant it had little impact, it led to jets becoming standard in air forces worldwide.

Advances were made in nearly every aspect of naval warfare, most notably with aircraft carriers and submarines. Although aeronautical warfare had relatively little success at the start of the war, actions at Taranto, Pearl Harbor, and the Coral Sea established the carrier as the dominant capital ship in place of the battleship.

The aftermath of World War II was the beginning of an era defined by the decline of the old great powers and the rise of two superpowers: the Soviet Union and the United States of America. Allies during World War II, the USA and the USSR became competitors on the world stage and engaged in the Cold War, so called because it never resulted in overt, declared hot war between the two powers but was instead characterized by espionage, political subversion and proxy wars. Western Europe and Japan were rebuilt through the American Marshall Plan whereas Eastern Europe fell under the Soviet sphere of influence and eventually an “Iron Curtain”. Europe was divided into a US-led Western Bloc and a Soviet-led Eastern Bloc. Internationally, alliances with the two blocs gradually shifted, with some nations trying to stay out of the Cold War through the Non-Aligned Movement. The Cold War also saw a nuclear arms race between the two superpowers part of the reason that the Cold War never became a “hot” war was that the Soviet Union and the United States had nuclear deterrents against each other, leading to a mutually assured destruction standoff.

Women in World War Two

As in World War One, women played a vital part in this country’s success in World War Two. But, as with World War One, women at the end of World War Two , found that the advances they had made were greatly reduced when the soldiers returned from fighting abroad.

At the end of World War Two, those women who had found alternate employment from the normal for women, lost their jobs. The returning soldiers had to be found jobs and many wanted society to return to normal. Therefore by 1939, many young girls found employment in domestic service – 2 million of them, just as had happened in 1914. Wages were still only 25p a week.

When women found employment in the Civil Service, in teaching and in medicine they had to leave when they got married.

However, between the wars, they had got full voting equality with men when in 1928 a law was passed which stated that any person over the age of 21 could vote – male and female.

The war once again gave women the opportunity to show what they could do.

Young mothers with young children were evacuated from the cities considered to be in danger. In all, 3.5 million children were evacuated though many went with a teacher. As young children were normally taught by females, many of those who went with the children were women. The fact that women were seen to be the people who taught the youngest was something that had been going on for years.

As in World War One, women were called on to help on the land and the Women’s Land Army (WLA) was re-formed in July 1939. Their work was vital as so many men were being called up into the military.

In August 1940, only 7,000 women had joined but with the crisis caused by Hitler’s U-boats , a huge drive went on from this date on to get more women working on the land. Even Churchill feared that the chaos caused by the U-boats to our supplies from America would starve out Britain.

The government tried to make out that the work of the WLA was glamorous and adverts showed it as this. In fact, the work was hard and young women usually worked in isolated communities. Many lived in years old farm workers cottages without running water, electricity or gas. Winter, in particular, could be hard especially as the women had to break up the soil by hand ready for sowing. However, many of the women ate well as there was a plentiful supply of wild animals in the countryside – rabbit, hares, pheasant and partridges. They were paid 32 shillings a week – about £1.60.

WLA women sawing wood in winter

In 1943, the shortage of women in the factories and on land lead to the government stopping women joining the armed forces. They were given a choice of either working on the land or in factories. Those who worked on land did a very valuable job for the British people.

Many women decided that they would work in a factory. They worked in all manner of production ranging from making ammunition to uniforms to aeroplanes. The hours they worked were long and some women had to move to where the factories were. Those who moved away were paid more.

Skilled women could earn £2.15 a week. To them this must have seemed a lot. But men doing the same work were paid more. In fact, it was not unknown for unskilled men to get more money that skilled female workers. This clearly was not acceptable and in 1943, women at the Rolls Royce factory in Glasgow went on strike. This was seen as being highly unpatriotic in time of war and when the female strikers went on a street demonstration in Glasgow, they were pelted with eggs and tomatoes (presumably rotten and inedible as rationing was still in) but the protesters soon stopped when they found out how little the women were being paid .The women had a part-victory as they returned to work on the pay of a male semi-skilled worker – not the level of a male skilled worker but better than before the strike.

The Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS):

During the Blitz on London women in voluntary organisations did a very important job. The Women’s Voluntary Service provided fire fighters with tea and refreshments when the clear-up took place after a bombing raid. The WVS had one million members by 1943. Most were quite elderly as the younger women were in the factories or working on farms and were too exhausted to do extra work once they had finished their shift. The WVS also provided tea and refreshments for those who sheltered in the Underground in London. Basically, the WVS did whatever was needed. In Portsmouth, they collected enough scrap metal to fill four railway carriages……..in just one month. They also looked after people who had lost their homes from Germans bombing – the support they provided for these shocked people who had lost everything was incalculable. When the WVS were not on call, they knitted socks, balaclavas etc. for service men. Some WVS groups adopted a sailor to provide him with warm knitted clothing.

A WVS tea van at a bomb site

The Auxiliary Territorial Service:

In the military, all three services were open for women to join – the army, air force and navy. Women were also appointed as air raid wardens.

In the army, women joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). Like soldiers, they wore a khaki uniform. The recruiting posters were glamorous – some were considered too glamorous by Winston Churchill – and many young ladies joined the ATS because they believed they would lead a life of glamour. They were to be disappointed. Members of the ATS did not get the glamour jobs – they acted as drivers, worked in mess halls where many had to peel potatoes, acted a cleaners and they worked on anti-aircraft guns. But an order by Winston Churchill forbade ATS ladies from actually firing an AA gun as he felt that they would not be able to cope with the knowledge that they might have shot down and killed young German men. His attitude was odd as ATS ladies were allowed to track a plane, fuse the shells and be there when the firing cord was pulled……By July 1942, the ATS had 217,000 women in it. As the war dragged on, women in the ATS were allowed to do more exciting jobs such as become welders (unheard of in ‘civvie’ street), carpenters, electricians etc.

The recruiting poster for the ATS banned by Churchill

The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force:

Women who joined the Royal Air Force were in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). They did the same as the ATS (cooking, clerical work etc) but the opportunities were there for slightly more exciting work. Some got to work on Spitfires. Others were used in the new radar stations used to track incoming enemy bomber formations. These radar sites were usually the first target for Stuka dive-bombers so a post in one of these radar stations could be very dangerous. However, the women in this units were to be the early warning ears and eyes of the RAF during the Battle of Britain. For all of this, women were not allowed to train to be pilots of war planes. Some were members of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) which flew RAF planes from a factory to a fighter squadron’s base. There were 120 women in this unit out of 820 pilots in total. The women had fewer crashes than male pilots but they were not welcome as the editor of the magazine “Aeroplane” made clear : they (women ATA) “do not have the intelligence to scrub the floor of a hospital properly.” He , C.G. Grey, claimed that they were a “menace” when flying.

Women were also used as secret agents. They were members of SOE (Special Operations Executive) and were usually parachuted into occupied France or landed in special Lysander planes. Their work was exceptionally dangerous as just one slip could lead to capture, torture and death. Their work was to find out all that they could to support the Allies for the planned landings in Normandy in June 1944. The most famous female SOE members were Violette Szabo and Odette Churchill. Both were awarded the George Cross for the work they did – the George Cross is the highest bravery award that a civilian can get. Both were captured and tortured. Violette Szabo was murdered by the Gestapo while Odette Churchill survived the war.

Women were also extremely important in entertainment. The two most famous female entertainers during the war were Vera Lynn (now Dame Vera Lynn) and Gracie Fields. Vera Lynn’s singing (“There’ll be blue birds over the White Cliffs of Dover” and “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when”) brought great happiness to many in Britain. She was known as the “Forces Sweetheart”. Gracie Fields was another favourite with the forces.

The war in Europe ended in May 1945. At this time there were 460,000 women in the military and over 6.5 million in civilian war work. Without their contribution, our war effort would have been severely weakened and it is probable that we would not have been able to fight to our greatest might without the input from women. Ironically, in Nazi Germany, Hitler had forbidden German women to work in German weapons factories as he felt that a woman’s place was at home. His most senior industry advisor, Albert Speer, pleaded with Hitler to let him use German female workers but right up to the end, Hitler refused. Hitler was happy for captured foreign women to work as slaves in his war factories but not German. Many of these slave workers, male and female, deliberately sabotaged the work that they did – so in their own way they helped the war effort of the Allies.

Text to Text: Comparing Jewish Refugees of the 1930s With Syrian Refugees Today

Today there are more than 65 million displaced people worldwide — the highest number on record since the United Nations Refugee Agency began collecting statistics. Europe faces a humanitarian crisis, with thousands of people fleeing conflicts in Syria and around the Middle East and Africa arriving in Greece, Hungary, Germany and other countries each month. Some European citizens are wary of allowing refugees to enter, citing concerns about security and the economy other countries on the continent have struggled to find the resources and the political will to meet migrants’ and refugees’ needs.

For many observers, today’s challenges also raise uncomfortable historical echoes, as scenes of refugees crowding European train platforms and waiting in grim reception camps recall the events of World War II and the Holocaust. A Times article noted the parallels and asked, “How apt is the comparison between Syrians today and German Jews before World War II, and what can and cannot be learned from it?” In an Op-Ed in August, the columnist Nicholas Kristof argued that “history rhymes” and wrote, “Today, to our shame, Anne Frank is a Syrian girl.”

Mr. Kristof and other writers invoke the fate of Jewish refugees in the 1930s as a cautionary tale about the consequences of indifference and inaction in the world community today. A new documentary film by Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky, “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” offers another historical lens that can sharpen our perspective on today’s crisis. It tells the little-known story of Martha and Waitstill Sharp, an American couple who left behind the safety of their Massachusetts home and their own young children to aid refugees in Europe on the brink of World War II. The Sharps faced a complex and desperate situation with humanity, creativity and courage.

In this Text to Text, we pair a Times article about the historical resonance of Europe’s refugee crisis with an excerpt from “Defying the Nazis” that chronicles the Sharps’s relief and rescue mission in 1939. Together, these texts raise important questions about whether there are “lessons” of history and invite reflection on how individuals and governments choose to respond to those in need.


Even before the beginning of World War II in September 1939, Nazi Germany’s open aggression toward both neighboring countries and people within its borders had sparked a refugee crisis. The German annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938 increased the number of people affected by Nazi restrictions, while at the same time those restrictions intensified to the point that Jews, political dissidents and others were effectively removed from German public life and denied rights, employment and education. Germany’s aggressive steps to expand its borders touched off both an international political crisis, as world leaders scrambled to avoid war, and a humanitarian refugee crisis, as hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people, mostly Jews, sought safety from the Nazis in countries outside the grip of the Third Reich.

Despite an isolationist mood, a suspicions of refugees, and official policies that often discouraged involvement, some Americans felt a sense of responsibility toward European refugees and found ways to act on their behalf. The Unitarian Church — a liberal religion with roots in Christianity — had links to Czechoslovakia and wanted to offer assistance to refugees streaming into the country. Though Germany had annexed Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland region, the rest of the country and its capital remained still free and independent. In January 1939, Unitarian leadership sought volunteers to lead an aid mission in Prague. Seventeen couples had turned down the risky post, but Martha and Waitstill Sharp decided to accept. Just weeks later, after arranging for neighbors to look after their children, ages 8 and 3, they sailed for Europe.

In Prague, the Sharps spent seven months providing food, shelter and medical care to refugees. Just weeks after they arrived, German troops occupied the whole of Czechoslovakia. The Sharps quickly saw the necessity for rescue as well as relief efforts, and mastered the intricacies of emigration procedures, helping refugees find jobs and sponsors abroad and often accompanying them on dangerous border crossings. They were watched by the Gestapo and had to do much of their work in secret. The Sharps went home to Wellesley only when they heard rumors of their imminent arrest. But just a few months later they returned to Europe, this time for another rescue and relief mission in war-torn France. There, Martha led a children’s emigration project that allowed 27 children from dissident or Jewish families to escape to the United States. For their work in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and France, the Sharps have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem — the highest recognition accorded by the state of Israel to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II. They are two of only five Americans to be so honored.

In the aftermath of World War II, the newly formed United Nations moved to set up international bodies and laws to define the status and rights of refugees for the first time. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees was established in 1951 and given a three-year mandate to resolve postwar refugee problems. Sixty-five years later, it still exists, and there are more refugees around the world today than at any time since the end of World War II.

Today’s refugee crisis has its roots in conflicts all around the world. Many of those fleeing to Europe come from Syria, where a brutal civil war that began in 2011 has created nearly 5 million refugees, many of them children. Some of those refugees live tenuously in camps and cities in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon many others, desperate to get to Europe, have risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea in small boats. The crisis has overwhelmed the systems for aiding refugees created in the wake of World War II. Humanitarian impulses and the rights of refugees guaranteed by international law are competing with concerns that the migrants may pose a threat to the security of European countries where they seek asylum. In fact, the refugee crisis and the threat of terrorism have become intertwined in the minds of many Europeans.

Can the history of the refugee crisis of the 1930s help us think about how we respond to Syrian refugees today? The Times article by Daniel Victor’ explores the parallels between today’s Syrian refugees and Jewish refugees before World War II. We pair this news article with a 10-minute excerpt from “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War” that focuses on the Sharps’s efforts to help refugees escape from occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939. Together, these sources complicate our thinking about how individuals and governments define their responsibility to refugees, in the past and the present.

Key Questions

• What are similarities and differences between the refugee crises of the 1930s and today?

• How might examining the history of refugees in the 1930s inform the choices that individuals and governments make in responding to refugees today?

Activity Sheets: As students read and discuss, they might take notes using one or more of the three graphic organizers (PDFs) we have created for our Text to Text feature:

Text 1: “Comparing Jewish Refugees of the 1930s With Syrian Refugees Today,” Daniel Victor, The New York Times, Nov. 19, 2015.

A tweet drawing a historical parallel to the current plight of Syrian refugees drew thousands of retweets this week.

An article in The Washington Post with a similar premise also drew attention in recent days.

They both raised the question: How apt is the comparison between Syrians today and German Jews before World War II, and what can and cannot be learned from it?

Some historians say that, while the two groups are not completely symmetrical, there are lessons to be drawn.

Republican leaders and some Democrats have sought to halt the Syrian refugee program, fearing fighters from the Islamic State could be among the 10,000 migrants allowed to enter the country.

“We cannot allow terrorists to take advantage of our compassion,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin said. “This is a moment where it is better to be safe than to be sorry.”

In 1938, Jews sought to escape Nazi Germany at a time when the United States was struggling through the Great Depression, and Americans expressed similar concern over accepting refugees.

“I don’t think it would meet the part of wisdom,” said Senator Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota, according to the Nov. 5, 1938 edition of The New York Times. “Our conditions here at home prohibit accepting an influx of population.”

Peter Shulman, an associate professor of history at Case Western Reserve University and the man behind the @HistOpinion Twitter account, said most of the responses to his tweet had supported the premise, while others disputed it. Americans were primarily concerned with economics in 1939 while today’s fears are related to safety, many replied.

It’s true that Americans in 1939 were worried about refugees taking jobs. Those who lived through the Depression were overwhelmingly supportive of restricting immigration, Mr. Shulman said.

But safety was also a concern. Jews were associated with a variety of acts and ideas that were seen as un-American, Mr. Shulman said, including Communism and violence.

That caused Jewish refugees to be “extraordinarily, excruciatingly vetted,” said Marion Kaplan, a professor in the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.

“The State Department worried that among the Jewish refugees there would be Nazi spies,” she said. “There was hysteria about fifth columnists coming in with the refugees.”

One area where the two refugee groups do not neatly match, Ms. Kaplan said, is the racial animus they faced both home and abroad. Unlike modern Syrians, Jews in the 1930s “were singled out as the racial enemy, par excellence, in German society,” she said.

And the United States was not entirely welcoming. On top of wanting to preserve jobs, Americans were concerned about Jews “weakening the Nordic or Anglo racial stock,” Mr. Shulman said. “That was a very real concern.”

He added: “You can’t just reduce it to economics or politics. That sort of racial identity was very powerful.”

Text 2: “A Willingness to Act,” a clip from the documentary film, “Defying The Nazis: The Sharps’ War” (10 min. 41 sec.)

For Writing and Discussion

1. How does Daniel Victor’s article compare responses to Jewish refugees in the 1930s with responses to Syrian refugees today? What are some of the key similarities and differences? How do ideas about race and religion shape attitudes to refugees in each example? What other factors play a role?

2. How does the film clip from “Defying the Nazis” connect to Mr. Victor’s article? How does it extend your thinking about the lives of refugees and the fears, hopes and challenges they have experienced? How does it add to your understanding of United States’ policies and attitudes toward refugees in the 1930s?

3. The historian Peter Shulman, interviewed in the article, argued that there are “enough similarities between Jewish refugees in the 1930s and Syrian refugees today to draw a ‘moral connection’ between the two situations.” Do you agree with Mr. Shulman? Why or why not? If yes, how would you describe this “moral connection?”

4. What dilemmas did Martha and Waitstill Sharp face in their decision to leave home and help refugees in Europe? What risks did they take? What do you think motivated them to make a choice to help refugees when that was so at odds with American public opinion and national policy?

5. Many who connect the refugee crisis of the 1930s to the plight of Syrian refugees today emphasize the failure of the United States and other countries to help. The Sharps’s story, in contrast, is about a small group of private citizens banding together to aid refugees. Is their history relevant to the current refugee crisis? How might a story of people who chose to help then inform decision-making about the refugee crisis today?

6. In another Times article, a Human Rights Watch staff member argued, “We all say we have learned the lessons of history, but to be turning away these desperate people who are fleeing a horrific situation suggests that we haven’t learned the lessons at all.” What are the potential benefits of looking for “lessons” in history? What might be some of the challenges or drawbacks? Why is it so difficult to learn and apply the “lessons of history?”

Going Further

1. Contextualizing Today’s Refugee Crisis: Samantha Power is the United States ambassador to the United Nations. Recently, she visited Newcomers High School in New York City to discuss the current refugee crisis with students, all of whom are immigrants to the United States. In this video, a student asks, “Did World War II and the Holocaust change how the United States of America and the world thinks about the refugee crisis right now?” In response, Ms. Power shares the history of the St. Louis, a ship of Jewish refugees that was turned away from United States in 1939.

Based on Ms. Power’s response, what significance does she see in this history? How does hindsight help us understand an event differently from people at the time? According to Ms. Power, how has this history affected the way some individuals and organizations are responding to the refugee crisis today? The lesson “Understanding the Global Refugee Crisis” from Facing History and Ourselves includes more footage of Ms. Power’s conversation with students, with additional readings and questions that contextualize today’s crisis. It invites us to think about the importance of humanizing refugees and suggests that there are small steps people can take to help.

2. Learning from the Sharps’s Mission: The short video “A Willingness to Act” is drawn from Ken Burns’s and Artemis Joukowsky’s documentary, “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” featuring the voice of Tom Hanks as Waitstill Sharp. Facing History and Ourselves’ companion classroom resources invite students to explore what motivated the Sharps’smission, the dilemmas they faced, and the impact of their actions. Three lesson plans for teaching with “Defying the Nazis” incorporate additional clips from the film, activities like historical character maps, which help students identify the forces that shaped the Sharps’s decision to act, and letters from the Sharps’s archive, like this 1940 letter from Martha to her young son, Hastings, where she explains her decision to stay in Europe to help vulnerable children.

3. Gaining Perspective on History: Part of the challenge in drawing “lessons” from history lies in the fact that when we look back at a moment in history, it’s difficult to fully inhabit the perspective of the people who lived at that time and see the world as they did. One way to gain perspective is to read news accounts of events, like the refugee crisis in Czechoslovakia in 1938 or the American debate about accepting Jewish refugees in 1939, that were written at the time the events were happening. The New York Times’s archive contains dozens of stories about the refugee crisis of the 1930s and the United States’ response to it. Below are just a few of those articles.

As you read them, consider these questions: How do the articles portray the crisis and the options available to refugees? What was the range of responses and attitudes to refugees, and what arguments were offered in support of allowing or restricting immigration? What questions would you want to ask the individuals living at the time who are quoted in these articles? What would you want them to understand?

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum project “History Unfolded: U.S. Newspapers and the Holocaust” is another way to gain insight about what ordinary Americans knew and thought about Europe, based on accounts in local newspapers from all over the United States. Its website offers hundreds of articles from newspapers in the 1930s and 1940s. It also invites readers to become “citizen historians” by seeking out and submitting articles from the archives of their own local newspapers.

New York Times coverage of the current refugee crisis is collected on this Times Topics page on Refugees and Displaced People. How do you imagine people reading these articles in the future reacting to what they see? What might you want these future readers to understand about the forces that shape attitudes to refugees today?

4. Considering the Protections Afforded Refugees: The United Nations created the official “refugee” designation in 1951 to encompass individuals who have been forced to flee their countries because of persecution, war or violence. At the time, many believed it was important for international institutions such as the newly founded United Nations to commit to aiding refugees because of the failure to help those fleeing Nazi persecution in the 1930s and 1940s. In this video, Sasha Chanoff, the director of the refugee advocacy organization RefugePoint, explains the distinction between refugees and other migrants and describes the international agreements that govern the rights and treatment of refugees today. What laws and protections are in place for refugees today that did not exist during Europe’s refugee crisis in the 1930s? What do you think these international agreements have achieved? Where do you think they have fallen short?

A New York Times Room for Debate piece in September 2015 asked five scholars and advocates to respond to the question, “What Can Countries Do To Help Refugees Fleeing to Europe?” How do the contributors’ perspectives add to your thinking about what responsibilities governments have to refugees coming from outside their borders? What is the role of empathy and ideals in how countries respond to refugees? What is the role of practical concerns?

5. Aiding Refugees, One at a Time: When they accepted the mission to Czechoslovakia in 1939, Martha and Waitstill Sharp were among the founders of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, a nonsectarian human rights group that is still active around the world. Today, too, even as the refugee crisis has provoked political controversy, individuals and private organizations have found ways to aid refugees. Mothers in the United States called for donations of baby carriers and children’s clothing and delivered them to refugees in Greece. Some Germans greeted arriving refugees at the border of their country with welcome signs in German, English and Arabic. And in Canada, where the government pledged to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees, a private sponsorship program gave people a way to provide essential support and help the government keep its promise.

The articles below highlight some of these efforts. As you read them, consider: How do these stories compare to that of the Sharps? What is the range of actions individuals have taken to help refugees in Europe today? How do these various efforts differ, and what do they have in common? What tools are these individuals and groups using to make a difference? How have people been able to help when they live in proximity to refugees? How have they helped when they are far away? What can an individual or a small group accomplish that a government may not be able to?

Additional Resources

• Border Challenges: Responding to the Global Migration Crisis — a lesson plan to help students explore the global migration crisis, first through maps and photographs, then with a class reading and discussion, and next by way of a research assignment

• Lucify’s “The Flow Towards Europe” — an animated map that draws on data from the United Nations to illustrate the scale and scope of the flow of refugees to Europe

The End in Europe

Within two years after starting the war in Europe with his invasion of Poland in 1939, Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) had subjugated much of the continent, including France after a lightning-fast conquest. Then Der Führer sealed his fate with a poorly thought-out invasion of the Soviet Union.

Joseph Stalin (1878–1953) and the Soviet people did not concede, although they had to overcome initial defeats. Soon, however, the overextended Nazi forces were defeated at Stalingrad and the Soviets began to force them slowly back across Europe. It took a long time and millions of deaths, but the Soviets eventually pushed Hitler's forces all the way back to Germany.

In 1944, a new front was reopened in the West when Britain, France, the U.S., Canada, and other allies landed in Normandy. Two enormous military forces, approaching from the east and the west, eventually wore the Nazis down.


In May 1942, the British Royal Air Force carried out a raid on the German city of Cologne with a thousand bombers, for the first time bringing war home to Germany. For the next three years, Allied air forces systematically bombed industrial plants and cities all over the Reich, reducing much of urban Germany to rubble by 1945. In late 1942 and early 1943, the Allied forces achieved a series of significant military triumphs in North Africa. The failure of French armed forces to prevent Allied occupation of Morocco and Algeria triggered a German occupation of collaborationist Vichy France on November 11, 1942. Axis military units in Africa, approximately 150,000 troops in all, surrendered in May 1943.

On the eastern front, during the summer of 1942, the Germans and their Axis allies renewed their offensive in the Soviet Union, aiming to capture Stalingrad on the Volga River, as well as the city of Baku and the Caucasian oil fields. The German offensive stalled on both fronts in the late summer of 1942. In November, Soviet troops launched a counteroffensive at Stalingrad and on February 2, 1943, the German Sixth Army surrendered to the Soviets. The Germans mounted one more offensive at Kursk in July 1943, the biggest tank battle in history, but Soviet troops blunted the attack and assumed a military predominance that they would not again relinquish during the course of the war.

In July 1943, the Allies landed in Sicily and in September went ashore on the Italian mainland. After the Italian Fascist Party's Grand Council deposed Italian premier Benito Mussolini (an ally of Hitler), the Italian military took over and negotiated a surrender to Anglo-American forces on September 8. German troops stationed in Italy seized control of the northern half of the peninsula, and continued to resist. Mussolini, who had been arrested by Italian military authorities, was rescued by German SS commandos in September and established (under German supervision) a neo-Fascist puppet regime in northern Italy. German troops continued to hold northern Italy until surrendering on May 2, 1945.

On June 6, 1944 (D-Day), as part of a massive military operation, over 150,000 Allied soldiers landed in France, which was liberated by the end of August. On September 11, 1944, the first US troops crossed into Germany, one month after Soviet troops had crossed the eastern border. In mid-December the Germans launched an unsuccessful counterattack in Belgium and northern France, known as the Battle of the Bulge. Allied air forces attacked Nazi industrial plants, such as the one at the Auschwitz camp (though the gas chambers were never targeted).

The Soviets began an offensive on January 12, 1945, liberating western Poland and forcing Hungary (an Axis ally) to surrender. In mid-February 1945, the Allies bombed the German city of Dresden, killing approximately 35,000 civilians. American troops crossed the Rhine River on March 7, 1945. A final Soviet offensive on April 16, 1945, enabled Soviet forces to encircle the German capital, Berlin.

As Soviet troops fought their way towards the Reich Chancellery, Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Western Allies at Reims and on May 9 to the Soviets in Berlin. In August, the war in the Pacific ended soon after the US dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing 120,000 civilians. Japan formally surrendered on September 2.

World War II resulted in an estimated 55 million deaths worldwide. It was the largest and most destructive conflict in history.

Ways that World War II changed the world

Seventy years ago, Victory in Europe Day marked the beginning of the end of World War II. May 8, 1945, also marked the birth of a new international system of norms and ideals, conceived to ensure peace, security and prosperity for all nations.

That order continues to serve global interests through a system of shared institutions and partnerships designed to prevent the atrocities and devastation of the war from ever happening again.

As the war drew to a close, the Allied powers agreed to establish an international body that would be stronger than the ill-fated League of Nations, which failed to prevent the conflict. The charter that established the United Nations was the combined effort of 50 nations whose representatives met at the April 1945 San Francisco Conference.

One outcome of World War II was the establishment of the United Nations. (© AP Images)

With the end of European colonialism in sight, especially in Africa and Asia, smaller nations were ensured a voice, and the United Nations assumed responsibility to promote economic and social cooperation and the independence of formerly colonial peoples.

At the same time, economic organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (today’s World Trade Organization) were created to help open markets and avoid a worldwide depression, like the one that helped set the stage for the war.

In the wake of the Holocaust and other horrific crimes, countries recognized the benefits of a world with established norms and shared values.

The Allies established the International Military Tribunal to prosecute crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity, culminating in the 1945–1946 Nuremberg trials. It was the precursor to today’s International Criminal Court. The shared dismay also helped to create the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1949 Geneva Conventions on protection of military and civilians during war.

Why Did Great Britain Enter WWII?

Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Since Great Britain had pledged military support to Poland if it were attacked by the Germans, it subsequently declared war against Germany on September 3, 1939, hence beginning World War II.

Great Britain had suffered terribly in World War I. As Great Britain and France were keen to do everything possible to avoid a repeat of that conflict, they made an attempt to appease Hitler by allowing aggression against Austria and Czechoslovakia to go unchecked. By the time Germany had begun to mobilize against Poland, it had already successfully taken over both of those nations.

Hitler had much more conquering in mind and his plans for additional land acquisition was not known by the rest of the world. When Hitler signed a pact with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in August 1939, Great Britain was immensely concerned. The pact with the Soviets placed Germany in a position where a war with Poland could be fought on a single front. The German attack on Poland was carried out in rapid fashion and included heavy air bombardments as well as armored land divisions. Polish defense forces were no match, and Great Britain and France felt compelled to come to their aid. World War II had begun.


World War I

► Communism spread among the Soviet Union resulting in the Russian revolution of 1917.

► The Treaty of Versailles blamed the war on the Germans and the German Army was forced to pay $31.5 billion dollars as reparation.

► The empire of Austria-Hungary split their union and formed independent countries of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

► Colonies such as India and Nigeria started asserting their independence.

► There was a Great Depression in America.

► The war lasted for 4 years.

World War II

► The war ended with the victory of the Allies against Germany and Japan in 1945.

► The European economy had collapsed with 70% of the industrial infrastructure destroyed.

► Germany split into two, with East Germany adopting a communist policy and West Germany, a democratic state.

► Japan was under military rule of the United States (temporarily).

► Hitler and his closest associates committed suicide but many associates, especially Hermann Göring was sentenced to life imprisonment for hate crimes.

► The United Nations was formed on 24th October 1945, promising to uphold the peace.

► The duration of the war was of 6 years.

Though the wars spanned four and six years respectively, the consequences they had were severe and lasted for years.


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