We’ve been on holiday in America. Again raising the question ‘How does a country full of such interesting people elect a parody Twitter account as President’?

The logistics of the trip left us in Washington on the day we were to fly home. In the middle of a Government shutdown. Washington is pretty much a company town. When the Government shuts down, then the City (or at least the eclectic collection of Government and civic institutions and museums that make up the charmingly titled ‘National Mall’) shuts down too. The one exception was the Holocaust museum, sited in a suitably sober building just off the Washington Monument. With only a couple of hours before we had to go to the airport, we couldn’t take in more than a fraction of the museum, and so, following advice, we took a guided tour of the ‘America and the Holocaust’ exhibition, which explores what Americans knew about the atrocities in Nazi Germany; when they knew it; and how they responded. It’s a fascinating and disturbing exhibition. Take a look at the excellent online version at: https://exhibitions.ushmm.org/americans-and-the-holocaust/main

Its disturbing because of the striking parallels between then and now. For instance there is a whole strand about ‘America First’, consciously revived by Trump to describe his foreign policy. Its more than just a slogan. Underlying its usage both then and now is the sense that human rights elsewhere should not overly concern us. That this is more than just a lifted slogan is illustrated by the response to the Saudi regime following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the ongoing war in Yemen. It’s a bad thing, but Hey! Arms sales!

I was, inevitably, drawn to the response to refugees. In November 1938, just a couple of weeks after Kristalnacht, The American Institute of Public Opinion published two opinion polls:

“Do you approve or disapprove of the treatment of Jews in Germany?” (Approve 6% Disaprove (94%)

“Should we allow a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany to come to the United States to live?” (71% No, 21% Yes, 8% No Opinion)

That’s a divide mirrored in modern day America, and in modern day Britain. We know bad stuff happens, and we know its wrong, but its more important to keep foreigners out.

Why? Well, on the one hand, America was struggling with endemic racism. Jim Crow was still in full effect. Jews were just a different kind of undesirable. Added to this was a fear that they would be German spies or sympathisers, echoing the modern fear that refugees are, in fact, IS sympathisers in disguise. In both cases no evidence. Prejudice and suspicion suffice.

Then, as now, it proved easier to mobilise people around the safety of children, but as now it proved difficult to turn this into action. The extensive section taken from the exhibition website recalls both the struggle of the Dubbs amendment in the UK and American attempts to make the regularisation of ‘DREAMers’ – Latino children born in the US but without citizenship – conditional on funding a wall (since, it turns out, Mexico won’t pay).

“In February 1939, Democratic senator Robert Wagner of New York and Republican congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts introduced legislation in Congress to admit 20,000 German refugee children under the age of 14 over a two-year period. The bill specified that the 10,000 children per year would enter the United States outside the existing restrictive immigration quota laws.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt backed the Wagner-Rogers Bill, the first time that she publicly endorsed any pending legislation as first lady. Despite Mrs. Roosevelt’s urging, FDR never officially commented on the proposal to admit refugee children.

Senator Robert Reynolds, a Democrat from North Carolina and a vocal opponent of the bill, had recently proposed banning all immigration for ten years or until the nation solved its unemployment problems. His compromise, a five-year total ban on all immigration in exchange for passing the child refugee bill, was rejected.

The American people agreed with Reynolds: 66 percent of Americans polled in January 1939 opposed expanding immigration to aid the refugee children. The Wagner-Rogers Bill never made it to a vote in Congress.”

Finally (and again I’m going to resort to a lengthy quote from the website) an incident that is chillingly repeated on an almost daily basis in Europe.

“On May 13, 1939, the German transatlantic liner MS St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba, carrying 937 passengers, most of them German Jews. When the ship arrived in Havana, the passengers learned that the landing certificates they had purchased were invalid, and the Cuban government forced the St. Louis to leave its harbor. As the ship sailed toward Miami, passengers sent telegrams to loved ones and public officials in the United States pleading for assitance. But they did not have entry visas, and the US government did not allow the passengers to land.

After the St. Louis passengers failed to find refuge in the Western Hemisphere, the ship sailed back to Europe. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee aid organization worked with the US State Department to persuade four countries—Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium—to admit the passengers. One year later, many of the refugees found themselves living under Nazi occupation again, after Germany invaded multiple western European countries. Of the 937 St. Louis passengers, 254 were murdered in the Holocaust.”

History does not repeat itself, as Mark Twain may have said, but it rhymes.

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