Fist Of History

Posts Tagged ‘1938’

MS St. Louis and Syrian Refugees

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

SS_St_Louis_Meme_Yeah!So this is doing the rounds on Facebook these days and within the online community, for me this is a perfect example of why context is so critical to properly understanding history.  Let’s start with the immediate, the facts as listed on the meme are correct, the MS St. Louis did indeed sail to Florida as part of its trip, it was technically turned away from Florida, and up to half those on board might have died in the Holocaust.  However between these facts are some key tidbits that need to be considered.

First the ship was originally traveling to Cuba, with its load of Jewish refugees, who were planning to enter Cuba under legally acquired tourist visas.  These visas had been provided by Cuban diplomatic officials in Germany, however the Cuban government changed its mind and rejected the visas during the ships trip over the ocean.  There are several reasons for the Cuban change of heart, mainly though it was most likely due to concerns about the impact waves of European Jewish immigrants would have on Cuba’s economy.  Most of the immigrants had no intentions of staying in Cuba but saw it as a step on a longer path to gaining entry to the United States.

SS_ST_LOUIS_CartoonUpon departing Cuba the MS St. Louis departed Cuba and sailed nearly to Florida, reportedly within sight of the lights of Miami.  The MS St. Louis was escorted by two United States Coast Guard vessels, and their purpose there is ambiguous.  Some historians contend they were there to prevent the ship attempting to land or beaching so that the Jewish refugees could then climb onto U.S. soil.  The U.S. Coast Guard contends that the ships were there to ensure safety for those on board.  The truth probably contains both.  The MS St. Louis then attempted to land in Canada, but was turned back.

Returning to Europe its captain, Gustav Schroder, along with others was able to negotiate non-German points of departure for his passengers into four European nations, Great Britain, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands.

GSchroederAntwerpThis is where the first point of context becomes important – these events took place between May to June 1939.  World War II had not yet broken out, with Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939.  In fact the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 wouldn’t be signed until August 1939, so France and Great Britain in June 1939 anticipated that in the event of a war the Soviet Union could be swayed to their side, which would make a German triggered war unlikely.  (A view backed up by Hitler’s reluctance to invade Poland until the Soviet Union was brought to their side.)

So in June 1939 the events of the MS St. Louis looked like a win for the Jewish refugees aboard.  They hadn’t had to go back to Germany, they all had safe homes, and the crisis had been averted.  It wasn’t until 1940 that three of the four nations taking them in were conquered by Germany and not until 1942 that most of the refugees on the MS St. Louis died.

CalvinCoolidgeimmigration3Furthermore the restrictions against Jewish immigration into the United States were based on a 1924 Immigration Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by Calvin Coolidge with the racial theory goal of keeping the United States a mono-racial nation.  (Specifically on the idea that Nordic Europeans were key.)  The law was based around quotas of immigration assigned based on the U.S. population in 1890.  It was a solidly racist law but it also set up the barriers that impacted the refugees in 1939.

Key issue though, Germans were actually on the preferred list of immigrants.  In 1939 the problem was that the United States has a list with a multi-year waiting period for immigration visas from Germany, the list had both German Jews and non-German desperate to enter the United States.  Allowing in the refugees on the MS St. Louis would have bumped others further up in the list back.  The U.S. administration under Roosevelt was also opposed to allowing Jewish refugees into the country and put up unofficial barriers, for racist/ethnic reasons.

fdr_cigaretteEven United States President Franklin Roosevelt was unwilling to waive the rules and allow the passengers of the MS St. Louis to land, he was considering his pending run for a third term in 1940 as President and the strong domestic concerns about immigration.  The U.S. was still in the Great Depression in 1939 and although the economy was recovering the citizens of the U.S. were not ready to welcome masses of immigrants who they feared would compete for scare jobs.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-1987-0928-501,_England,_Jüdische_Flüchtlingskinder_cropWhich was an issue, as appeared in the Evian Conference of 1938 at which no real resolution appeared to the growing potential Jewish refugee crisis due to Nazi policies in Germany.  The Dominican Republic at that conference had agreed to take on 100,000 Jewish refugees but the MS St. Louis for unknown reasons made no attempt to avail itself of that offer in 1939.  More critically, Hitler when speaking on the conference stated:

“I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”

In other words had the United States taken in the refugees it would have invited a potential flood of Jewish refugees from Germany, shipped over by the Nazi government, on the assumption that if the U.S. would bow to taking in one shipment, they would take in more.

Now the Syrian Refugee Crisis is its own unique situation – it is due to a multi-part war, persecution, and desperation.  Using an analogy to the Jewish refugee crisis of 1939 makes for a fine emotional “sound bite” but it doesn’t really link, and more critically, the meme at the top does not really teach a valid lesson on a very complex issue.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on the MS St. Louis, the Evian Conference, and US Immigration Act of 1924, a BBC article on the voyage of the MS St. Louis, entries in the United States Holocaust Museum on the MS St. Louis and the US Policy towards Jewish Refugees


1940 France Ardennes Forest Breakthrough – a.k.a. why didn’t the French see it coming?

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014


So the above image captures a general perception held by many, how could France, a modern military power in 1940, rely upon a forest to stop the largest armored assault in history – in many sources the French defense in 1940 is treated as a textbook example of a nation failing to properly understand the potential of German tanks and in the common teaching of the war the above joke is treated as a serious point of military history.  The conventional wisdom is “France was expected a retread of the attack through Belgium and Germany totally got the drop on them by punching through the forest which France stupidly relied on as am impenetrable barrier against tanks.”  The first thing to explain is that France, and Great Britain’s expectation of a retread of the German World War I invasion plan through Belgium was actually pretty reasonable, it was the plan the Germans were working with up until late February 1940 and the plan favored by most of the German military leadership.  (For perspective the invasion of France, Belgium, and Holland started on 10 May 1940 so a two month major change of plans was uncommon for a major military offensive.)  The original German plan was basically the World War I invasion plan beefed up with tanks and aircraft, however the problem was that the German high command, in anticipating the French and British response, expected high German causalities and the offensive winding down with the German army holding about half of Belgium.  Enter the German general Eric von Manstein with his crazy “up the center” plan to invade France.


Manstein (pictured above) suggested the famous thrust through the Ardennes forest as the major offensive effort, breaking through the French army at that location, and then pouring troops through into the open territory behind French lines and trapping the Franco-British combined armies that had moved into Belgium behind a fast moving German military movement.  The reason the rest of the German military leadership disliked this plan was it was incredibly risky, had the French facing the German military breakthrough mustered any of the following three things:  massed tank formations to crush the German armored columns, massed successful air offensive against the German leading tank formations, or French infantry with sufficient anti-tank artillery to contain the breakthrough.  Now Manstein could feel confident the first two would not happen, for reasons outlined below, but the last item was the one that was uncertain, bluntly put it would not take much French infantry with proper anti-tank weapons to delay the German breakthrough for long enough for the French and British to realize “Oh crap, attack up the center, shift reserves there” and then the brilliant lightening stroke would have turned into a nasty mess with Germany’s fine military suddenly caught in a trap of its own making.


Furthermore the French military command actually did see the offensive potential of a German breakthrough in the Ardennes forest, battles had been fought there in World War I and as early as 1938 the French high command understood the Ardennes was not sufficiently strong as a barrier to prevent German tank offensives without “special preparations in advance.”  The military commander of the French forces in World War II, Marshall Maurice Gamelin (pictured above) argued prior to the war that not only was the point that Germany later smashed through defensively weak but pushed to have it re-enforced in defense.  Specifically the town of Sedan, considered a linchpin defensive point, was found by multiple French military leaders to be insufficient to prevent a serious attack.  The problem was an easy solution was not present – building heavy fortifications would be expensive and arguing that the Ardennes was sufficient as a defensive point also helped deter French politicians from requiring the massive Maginot line be extended into the region, which would have siphoned off French economic resources for other military improvements that the French military leadership thought more critical – such as more advanced aircraft and more armor.

So what happened when Germany invaded and why, even knowing the danger in advance, did France fail to properly stem the German attack through the Ardennes forest?  That’s a story for a second installment next week…

Source:  Wikipedia articles on Manstein Plan, Battle of France, and the Battle of Sedan, the book Strange Victory by Ernest May


Sudetenland Crisis – 1938 versus Sevastopol Crisis – 2014 (Opinion)

Monday, March 24th, 2014


Ah nationalism and ethnic identity, the devil of an issue that continually causes separations and wars between various competing groups of humans, as most recently seen by the situation in the Ukraine and Sevastopol in 2014.  When something like this happens people most often attempt to pull an analogy from history and the one currently springing to mind most often between the current Sevastopol Crisis is the Sudetenland Crisis of 1938.  Most people provide a context by briefly going over the events of 1938 and then jumping immediately into linking Putin to Hitler in that both appear to be making territorial modification demands and insisting on a chunk of a sovereign nation based on shared linguistic and cultural roots.  Unfortunately though that comparison starts to bump into some problems when you dig into the details.  Specifically you have to look at the root causes behind what happened in the formation of Czechoslovakia in 1919 and the conflict between Wilson’s Fourteen Points and national identity and how that linked to the crisis.  (Aspects of which are not as clearly present in the current Ukraine situation to my eye.)

Czechoslovakia was formed in 1919 from various pieces of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire by the terms of the World War I peace settlement, specifically the Treaty of St. Germain, which lumped the region settled by three million ethnic Germans as part of the new Czechoslovakian state.  [The reasons for this are complicated but it boils down to the original territorial borders of the Crown of Bohemia which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.]  The Sudetenland Germans wanted to be merged with the new state of Austria instead and to potentially eventually merge, with Austria, into forming a new Greater Germany, an outcome Great Britain, France, and the United States refused to consider for mostly realpolitik reasons.  From 1919 through till 1938 the Sudetenland Germans had a love/hate relationship with the newly formed republic of Czechoslovakia, settling down in the 1920s to a grudging acceptance of the status quo but as the 1930s rolled around, and the global Great Depression shattered old political outlooks, more extreme political views gained pull.  The gentleman pictured above, Konrad Henlein, in 1933 with the rise of Nazism in Germany formed a new pro-German movement in the Sudetenland called the Sudeten German Home Front.  This group gained political support and began a five year project of agitation, with ongoing German support, to push for initially decentralization in the Czechoslovakian state and, later, separation and incorporation into Germany to end “Czech oppression of the Sudetenland Germans.”

Anschluss sudetendeutscher Gebiete

History fortunately provides us with excellent hindsight in some cases and we can now safely say the Czech oppression was not as bad as Henlein argued, it was a conflict of cultural development and Czech language and culture being shoved into the Sudetenland region to form a more unified national cultural sense.  The Sudeten German Home Front however engaged in armed rebellion, uprisings, terrorist attacks, and worked to provoke a crisis in 1938 at Hitler’s bequest to hopefully force Czechoslovakia to give up the region for its economic benefits to the Nazi state.  (Pictured above some of the “home militias” of Sudetenland enjoying the hospitality of their fellow Sudeten Germans.)  In September 1938 the crisis came to an end when France and Great Britain forced Czechoslovakia to give up the Sudetenland, by refusing to fight to support Czechoslovakia due to Hitler offering a “reasonable” settlement of taking the Sudetenland gradually.  (The loss of territory was not only an economic blow to Czechoslovakia but also cost them a wonderful array of fortifications in the mountainous border of the region.)


So how does this compare to 2014?  On the surface it seems similar, complete with “spontaneous Crimean militias” appearing to gain control of Sevastopol that are pretty openly backed by the Russian government and regional splits based on ethnic and linguistic differences.  However I’d argue that the comparison breaks down somewhat when you look at the history of the Ukraine, it has a long history of being treated as a semi-sovereign nation in the twentieth century and as a linked territory it has a history stretching back for centuries.  It’s ownership over Sevastopol has a muddied history but any territorial claim has a muddied history when you dig back far enough.  The current split in the Ukraine rests upon, to my eye, an issue of future economic orientation and political orientation, a division based on long-standing regional issues that is coming to a head.  (One scholar I saw interviewed argued that there is no “Ukraine” and never has been, an interesting argument but one that can also be applied to many nation-states depending on how you slice them.)

Hitler in 1938, although engaging in a blunt grab for power and economic gain, at the heart of his complaint had a spark of validity.  He was trying to regain territory occupied by people who had wanted to rejoin Germany since the end of World War I and felt they were ethnically, linguistically, and culturally German.  This was a drive that was maintained for nearly twenty years and rested upon a treaty of settlement that was only reluctantly agreed to by the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time.

Source:  Wikipedia entry on Sudetenland Germans and The Second World War, A Short History by R.A.C. Parker

Great New England Hurricane of 1938

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

In the great tradition of the argument that history repeats itself, and in nod to the surge in storm photos circulating with the landfall of Hurricane Sandy, it seemed as good a time as any to pass on the legacy of another great New England storm, the Hurricane of 1938 (nicknamed the Long Island Express because our ancestors were witty.)  The storm built up between 10 September to 20 September 1938 and came ashore on 21 September 1938.  It basically pummeled New England for a few days, racing along the coast and particularly pounding Long Island, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.  (New York City got a glancing smack and some rather severe flooding.)

The hurricane today is considered a Category 3 hurricane and cost between six to eight hundred lives.  It also destroyed a total of 57,000 homes and caused a total, in 2012 dollars, of $4.7 billion in damage.  It also knocked out power for much of the reason, sunk or wrecked 3000 ships, tore up local railroads, and smashed up forests throughout the region.  It was up to that point one of the most powerful storms to hit New England and remains, to the present day, one of the most powerful hurricanes to hit the region.  Damage was reportedly still visible in some wild areas as late as 1951 and a few island communities were so badly destroyed that they were abandoned.

On a weird note it also had an impact on the movement of the US strategic gold reserves into Fort Knox, in 1938 the US government was busy shipping gold reserves from all over the East Coast of the United States to Fort Knox for safe-keeping in its new mega-strongbox.  The hurricane hit in the middle of some of these shipments, stranding them at train depots, the government was able to resume gold shipments once the storm flooding subsided.

Two final thought to close on though – first I particularly like the last image above because that building is being burned intentionally to clear the way for newer construction.  Badly damaged in the hurricane it needed to be removed, and because people rebuild after major storms.  Second the hurricane of 1938 came at a time of economic hardship for the United States, the Great Depression, (technically the second surge of that economic downturn from 1937-1939 but lets not quibble), a time when the US economy was weak, people were out of work, and the resources to deal with a crisis like this were less than are present today.  Yet the people of the United States overcame the destruction then and I believe we’ll do so again.  Hurricane Sandy coming ashore is being greeted by many pundits and commentators as a great fist slam into the economy, and in the short term it well may be.  But in the long term, people rebuild, the regroup, and they come out often ahead after such a disaster.

Sources: Wikipedia entry on the Great Hurricane of 1938, History channel on the Hurricane of 1938

Hitler – Time’s Man of the Year, 1938

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Boom!  For those not familiar with this story it is potentially a bit startlingly to learn that Adolph Hitler, Chancellor and later Leader (Fuehrer) of Germany was Time’s “Man Of The Year” of 1938.  A story ran in early 1939 explaining this choice and, online, when you read about this many people spin it as a sign that people at the time didn’t realize what Hitler was, or how it shows Time was trying to glorify Hitler, and if you image search you will see the above as the cover.  Except, it’s not true, for several reasons, first the image above is not actually the cover image for this issue of Time, instead they ran this cover:

Now it is a small image unfortunately and it was a busy cover but basically on the left and right side are lesser figures supporting/benefiting from the Nazi regime, Hitler in the center playing an organ, and above the organ a circular wheel of death and torture.  Not exactly a subtle commentary on the Nazi regime at the time.  Furthermore those who cite this event usually don’t actually read the article Time wrote about Hitler – they could have titled this honor accurately – “Hitler – Time’s Man of the Year, 1938 – because he is an unbelievably huge asshole.”  Check out some direct quotes from the article:

A generation ago western civilization had apparently outgrown the major evils of barbarism except for war between nations. The Russian Communist Revolution promoted the evil of class war. Hitler topped it by another, race war. Fascism and Communism both resurrected religious war. These multiple forms of barbarism gave shape in 1938 to an issue over which men may again, perhaps soon, shed blood: the issue of civilized liberty v. barbaric authoritarianism…

It was noteworthy that few of these other men of the year would have been free to achieve their accomplishments in Nazi Germany. The genius of free wills has been so stifled by the oppression of dictatorship that Germany’s output of poetry, prose, music, philosophy, art has been meager indeed…
These two are just samples – read the whole thing if you have time – the author insulted everything he could about Hitler, even his appearance and upbringing.  What is more shocking though is that this also shows Americans in 1939 were well aware of the dangers Nazi Germany presented – Time outlined Hitler’s ambitions, dangers, and brutal violence in this article.  So if you bump into this bit of fun trivia in the future, and the person talks about how it shows that “no one realized the danger of Hitler” or “it shows how the press supports dictatorships and the reactionary right” just remember that no, this article was devoted to telling the world why Hitler was the key figure of 1938 – he was the world’s biggest dick.

Sources:  Time Archive,,9171,760539-1,00.html