The Role of Holocaust Memory and the European Refugee Crisis

By Alex Wittmann

Nazi Germany’s discriminatory anti semitic laws resulted in a Jewish refugee issue in Europe in the 1930s. The Jewish refugee persecution of the 1930s can be used as a comparison in the unwillingness of Populist governments in Europe to accept Syrian Refugees of today.

To understand the comparison, we must delve into the 1930s. Nazi Germany had enacted the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935 which had set the tone for the place of Jews in Germany. It was the begining of ruthless discrimination which stripped German Jews of citizenry and set the stage for legal distiction between a German and a Jew. The reception of the rest of Europe to Jewish Refugees fleeing discriminatory Nazi laws was not a very sympathetic one. There were strong anti immigrant policies had by other European countries unsympathetic to the plight of the German Jews. Given the escalation of the refugee numbers, there were initiatives to find solutions. The Evian Conference of 1938 was convened to establish a commitment for countries to accept refugees. Unfortunately strong antisemetic and anti immigrant policies in the rest of Europe did not result in any change in attitude. As there is in Europe of the 2010s, there existed in Europe of the 1930s an anxiety towards Refugees consisted of stereotyping combined with outright racism, fueling anti immigrant policies. This is why the comparison of anti semitism and Jewish refugees of the 1930s can be linked to the Refugee crisis of today.

One may think that a modern, interconnected Europe has learned from the past. European countries who are members of the UN are bound to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. EU members are also bound to the EU’s immigration quotas which expect them to accept a certain amount of refugees. Unfortunately in the face of a massive influx of refugees that arrived in Europe from Syria, there has been a significant Far Right Populist backlash to the arrival of refugees. Much like Europe of the 1930s, we are seeing a similar scenario where there are European countries which have once again turned their back on those fleeing persecution. Much like the way the Jewish refugees of the 1930s were stripped of citizenship and denied entry into other European countries, we see the same attribution of being “citizenless” used by anti immigration Populist countries in Europe to excuse themselves from accepting refugees. A common far right sentiment in Europe today is to say that one only gets rights if they are a citizen or part of a nation. This alone is bogus, refugees are granted rights under the UNHCR. Much like the 1930s, we see the excuse of being citizenless as justifying anti immigration. In the 1930s, there existed the fear of refugees as threatening to society, it is prevalent today. For example, Italy’s far right Minister of the Interior had proposed a plan to increase deportations by criminalizing Europeans that help migrants to “safe stay facilities.” Far Right governments do these things out of the fear that illegal immigrants threaten the security and identity of Europe. That concept is not entirely dissimilar to the 1930s, where not just in Germany, but around Europe the threat of European security and identity was used as an excuse not to accept Jewish refugees. Some of this anti immigrant right wing nationalism is more prevalent in countries such as Poland and Italy because these countries have not been able to come to terms with their anti semitic history unlike Germany. Under decades of communism, Poland had ethnic nationalist sentiments that had been repressed. Today, they have burst open with a Right Wing Populist government which governs on an anti immigrant ethnic nationalist platform.

Based on memory of the Holocaust and the way that the Jewish refugees were treated by neighbouring European countries, it is clear why parallels can be drawn to the Jewish refugee experience with that of the Syrian refugee experience. Countries such as Germany have come a long way from their Nazi past and have taken a leadership role in accepting refugees and asylum seekers. It must be made clear however that the backlash to multiculturalism and immigration in Europe are signs that ethnic nationalism which existed during the years of Fascism in the 1930s remains a powerful force behind policy in Europe today.

Sources Cited

“Learning from the Holocaust to Address Today’s Refugee Situation.” European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, January 26, 2018.

Nuremberg Race Laws. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Accessed November 24, 2019.

Stone, Dan. “On Neighbours and Those Knocking at the Door: Holocaust Memory and Europe’s Refugee Crisis.” Patterns of Prejudice 52, no. 2/3 (May 2018): 231–43.

Trilling, Daniel. “Five Myths about the Refugee Crisis.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, June 5, 2018.

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