The United States and United Kingdom are not known for being particularly welcoming to refugees. In fact, the United Kingdom has recently built a wall to keep those fleeing appalling conditions in Syria and other countries out. And if you’ve seen the meme where Donald Trump compares refugees to Skittles, then you can tell where many conservative US policy makers and citizens stand.
If you missed out on the meme, recently Donald Trump, the American Republican candidate for president, tweeted a picture of a bowl of Skittles. It was accompanied with the text: “If I had a bowl of Skittles and told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.” (sic)
Despite the glaring grammar errors, Trump makes a bold statement that isn’t a new sentiment. Many in the United Kingdom and United States are scared of allowing in Syrian refugees, despite seeing the horrible conditions they live in, fearing ISIS will plant terrorists within their ranks.
What many don’t realize is that this was the topic du jour in the United Kingdom and United States back in the mid-to-late 1930s and early 1940s. Hindsight is 20/20, and most of us now view not allowing Jewish refugees fleeing impending genocide into our countries as a callous and cruel error. But at the time, many were concerned with the exact same issues as they are today; only Skittles had not yet been invented to create the analogy.
Both countries were fearful that allowing Jewish refugees onto our soils would mean that Nazi spies would plant themselves amongst them, trawling the United States and United Kingdom for information and attacks. And what resulted in this thinking? The needless loss of 6 million Jewish lives, in addition to the superfluous loss of several million non-Jewish lives.
Notoriously, the United States denied entry to the ocean liner St. Louis in 1939, sending most of its passengers back to Europe, and many to their deaths.
We might look back and think the fears were unfounded, but in 1942, a man named Herbert Karl Friedrich Bahr boarded a boat filled with Jewish refugees making their way through Sweden. Bahr was accused of receiving $7,000 from the Gestapo to pose as a refugee in order to “steal American industrial secrets.” As he was correctly identified as a Nazi spy, this rhetoric was used to deny even more Jews, and non-Jews fleeing from the Nazi dictatorship, their ability to emigrate.
The US ambassador to France built on the rhetoric of “dangerous refugees” by stating that France fell to the Nazis partially because of so-called “spies posing as refugees.”
President Roosevelt even uttered the absurd claim at a press conference that many Jews had been coerced into spying for the Nazis—a claim that has never had any basis in truth.
He said to those present, “Not all of them are voluntary spies. It is rather a horrible story, but in some of the other countries that refugees out of Germany have gone to, especially Jewish refugees, they found a number of definitely proven spies.”
The United Kingdom was perhaps a little bit more sympathetic to the refugee plight, but it still wasn’t enough. Prior to 1938, Jews could emigrate to the United Kingdom, providing they had an offer of employment and a guarantee of a certain sum of money. This was to ensure that they didn’t “live off the government,” a fear that continues in the United Kingdom today. Many adults were able to secure employment, but often it was completely out of their field and by the grace of a friend or relative. A doctor from Vienna might have been relegated to the position of nanny or housemaid in order to satisfy the Home Office. For many, it would take years before they could practice their actual profession again, and those were the lucky ones.
Between 1938 and 1940, the United Kingdom took in 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austria and northern Poland in what was known as the Kindertransports. Worried parents sent their children into the arms of strangers, knowing that separation would ensure a future for their child. The parents were not allowed into the country mostly due to fears of both Nazi spies as plants and fear that they would take the jobs of the English. It goes without saying that the majority of the 10,000 children were left orphaned. Those who weren’t often held resentment toward their parent or parents who returned or had been in England so long that their home country now felt completely foreign. Many expressed, and still do as adults, the sentiment that although they appreciate their parents’ sacrifice, in many cases, they would have preferred to die with their parents than have been separated in such a manner.
Although the current refugee crisis is somewhat different than that of the one that took place in WWII, it still carries echoes from the past.
Renowned Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt (who will be the subject of the upcoming film Denial) says of the current situation, “Simplistic kinds of answers—close all the doors to refugees, or welcome everyone—are dangerous, and ultimately counter-productive.”
So while Donald Trump might think he’s getting a great point across, it is simply one that repeats itself through the annals of history. Only this time, he gets to do it via Twitter.
Anna Scanlon is finishing up her PhD in History at the University of Leicester. She makes a living as a freelance writer for several websites, including New Life Outlook where she discusses her struggle with lupus SLE. She is the author of three YA books:Unravelled, The Remnants and Children of the Most High. Anna also runs the lifestyle and veganism blog and accompanyingYouTube channel Anna in Wonderland:
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