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opinion | Timothy Snyder

Warnings from another refugee crisis

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called on the bloc to accept 160,000 migrants. Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times


The last world war began amidst a refugee crisis.

As the Nazi regime oppressed German Jews, neighbors such as Denmark refused to accept them. When Germany absorbed Austria, its Jews tried to flee. Some had Polish passports, so Poland rescinded citizenship from Polish Jews who lived abroad. Germany, home to other Polish Jews, responded by deporting them to Poland. One son of a deported family shot a German diplomat, which the Nazis used as the pretext for Kristallnacht, the national pogrom of November 1938.

When Germany dismantled Czechoslovakia in 1939, its Jews lost their citizenship. A new Slovakia denied Jews rights and property, and then deported tens of thousands to a German camp known as Auschwitz. Slovak leaders asked for assurances that these Jews could not return, thus making their own citizens into doomed refugees. Another part of Czechoslovakia was granted to Hungary. Budapest did not recognize Jews on these lands as citizens, and deported them — to the Soviet Union, right when Germany was invading it. SS officers treated the presence of these people as a reason to shoot more than 20,000 Jews.

Matters were similar in France. After defeat by Germany in 1940, the new French government aspired to remove foreigners. Most easily eliminated were Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, since Germany was willing to murder them at Auschwitz. The French government depatriated thousands of Jews with French citizenship so that they, too, could be sent to Auschwitz.


As in France, so elsewhere in Europe: For Jews to be murdered, they first had to be separated from the state, to become refugees who had nowhere to return. Lest we be too complacent, we should remember that the United States did almost nothing to help.

In discussions of refugees today, the French right neglects to mention how exclusion led to murder the last time around. Denmark seems unreflective as it closes its borders to refugees from Germany — for a second time. When the Czech police write numbers on arms, or Hungarian leaders call for barbed wire, or when a Slovak politician presents the Second World War as an example of tolerance, important lessons have been missed.


History shows that people driven from their country sometimes return, bringing useful experience. Charles de Gaulle was a refugee in Britain, and he returned to rebuild republican France. During the communist period, refugees from Eastern Europe were accepted in the West. Some of them, or their sons and daughters, came back to lead democratic governments. Is the leader of a future free Syria among the children taking their first look at Europe? Only if they like what they see.

Here in Munich, volunteers flock to aid refugees. There is no question that the Germans, at least, have drawn some lessons. It would help if more Europeans were aware of the past. This would help to ensure that refugees were treated with dignity and settled throughout Europe.

But Europe, even acting in the best of faith, will not solve the crisis alone. Russia must learn that foreign policy is not about building refugee factories. Its intervention in Ukraine has generated two million displaced people. Now its army supports a Syrian ruler whose government is responsible for most of the four million refugees.

And the United States would have to think broadly about global responsibility. The conflict in Syria was brought by climate change: five years of unbearable drought. People will flee from south to north, on both sides of the Atlantic, so long as global warming continues. On this, America has been the problem, and could be the solution.


Our politicians look no better than European ones when they shirk global responsibility and speak instead of building walls.

Timothy Snyder is professor of history at Yale University. His book “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” was published last week.


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