Fist Of History

Posts Tagged ‘1939’

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


Locarno Treaties and Rehabilitating Post World War I Gemany

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014


Gustav Stresemann (1878-1929) was probably one of the most influential German politicians shaping the new interwar face of Germany, Stresemann was almost solely responsible for transforming post-World War I Germany from an international pariah nation into one that was welcomed back into the “fold of nations” by the mid-1920s.  Stresemann for a brief period served as the Chancellor of Germany in 1923, but his real strength was working as Germany’s foreign minister from 1923 until his death in 1929.  Stresemann focused Germany’s post-war foreign policy on conditional acceptance of the Versailles Treaty of 1919, with an emphasis on lowering Germany’s level of payment on its war reparations to lower levels and normalizing Germany’s relationship with Western Europe in an effort to end the stigma Germany was operating under just after World War I.  This stigma, and second-class status, was best exemplified by the occupation of the German Ruhr by France between 1923 to 1925.  (For a failure by German to pay its war reparations on time, France occupied the Ruhr to forcibly seize payment in goods.)  After the same periods hyperinflation and economic dislocation in Germany Stresemann was focused mainly on getting Germany back to a position where it would be treated like any other European power and could focus on the more critical tasks ahead of it, rebuilding and stabilizing.

Locarno, Gustav Stresemann, Chamberlain, Briand

Negotiated in 1925 and signed in December of that year, the Locarno Treaties were a series of agreements between Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, and Great Britain in which Germany renounced any intention to modify its western border and renounced any claims to territories it formerly held in Western Europe that had been ceded under the Versailles Treaty of 1919.  This was considered a major breakthrough and paved the way for Germany to join the League of Nations in 1926, an organization originally founded in part to provide an international response to future aggression and war – basically although never stated an anti-German expansion international political body.  The Locarno Treaties also reaffirmed that in any border disputes with Czechoslovakia or Poland Germany would turn to an international tribunal to settle the issues rather than war.  France reaffirmed its defensive treaties with Czechoslovakia and Poland and a new era of peace in Europe was hailed, with Germany now being treaty as a partner in ensuring stability in Europe.


The dark side of the Locarno Treaties though was how Stresemann very carefully refused to include any mention of acceptance by Germany of its eastern borders as final – the shared borders with Czechoslovakia and Poland in particular, Stresemann was also careful to emphasize that there would be no “Eastern Locarno” while he was foreign minister.  The other signatories to the Locarno Treaties were, at least on the surface, understanding of Germany’s goal to adjust its eastern borders, as long as the adjustment was undertaken “properly.”  Until his death Stresemann focused his efforts upon maintaining good relations with Western Europe but also in working with the German government in anticipation of a re-alignment of Germany’s eastern borders.  This is particularly useful due to the fact that it shows the policies of Nazi Germany, although more extreme, were an extension of the framework of relations that had been laid by Stresemann, and Hitler’s plans to seize territory east of Germany and modify the terms of the Versailles Treaty in regards to Poland and Czechoslovakia have older ideological roots in German government.  (Probably Hitler’s most unique ambition in his initial foreign policy was his Anschluss with Austria in March 1938.

Many like to think that Hitler’s foreign policy ambitions sprang from his own odd mental process, however evidence indicates Hitler, with his ambitions to the east and his goals for renouncing the Versailles Treaty’s territorial shifts, has a foreign policy that is merely a faster implementation of plans already in place by his predecessors.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the Locarno Treaties, Gustav Stresemann, and the Occupation of the Ruhr.  Section from The Weimar Republic by Eberhard Kolb.

Keep Calm and Carry On

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

An interesting internet meme, and now popular product, is to modify the text from the first sign in the row, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” with modifications to reflect whatever the creator feels would make that sign adorable.  Personally I enjoy the modification of history and its being used in new ways but I find the general reaction to this poster – that it is somehow adorably British – at odds with the dark nature of these three posters.  The green one and the blue one were used during the early part of World War II, in an effort to promote public calm and stability in what was felt by many as the impending German-induced air apocalypse upon British cities.  The unused red poster, you see, was designed to be deployed in the anticipated smoking rubble of British cities after the German air campaign leveled them.  Now the key thing I need to point out here is that I am not discussing the actual devastation wrought upon London and other British cities during the Blitz, that was a campaign of bombing that the British people endured, discovered they could survive it, and pushed through.  No what I am discussing here is the nearly numbing terror the British government, and much of the population felt, in 1939 regarding the impending destruction of British cities by German air attack.

The terror in 1939 was that any air attack on British cities would result in the absolute destruction of those cities, with millions dead and vast swatches of the city destroyed and uninhabitable.  The prevailing theory in 1939 among many in the British government was that air raids would be horrifically destructive, that wars would be won or lost by shattered cities and a haunted populace unable to resist any further.  These theories stemmed from the earlier ideas of an Italian military general and theorist named Giulio Douhet, (whom more shall be spoken of in a future entry), who argued that airplanes carrying bombs would make other forms of war obsolete.  The theory was that their ability to make any area the front lines of battle, and their capacity to theoretically ruin a nations ability to fight, were felt by Douhet and others as the keys to victory in a modern war.  For those who are particularly attentive you might notice how some of this sounds familiar…

That’s right, the fears of 1939 Britain were actually quite similar to the worries during the Cold War of the United States (and the Soviet Union) about the impact of bombing attacks upon their cities using nuclear weapons.  Now with the power of hindsight we know that aerial bombardment was simply not that destructive with World War II technology used in the battlefield, so the poster that is now an amusing relic can be looked upon as a bit silly and overly dramatic.  However, and this to my eye is the most interesting twist, although the British didn’t know it their concerns were actually not that far off the mark had Germany used a new weapon added to its potential arsenal in 1937 – tabun and in 1939 sarin nerve gases.

These new weapons, still being developed by Germany in quantities sufficient to be used in battle, were the pinnacle of chemical weapons technology in the 1940s and years ahead of anything the Allied powers had in their chemical arsenals.  Had Germany chosen to use these weapons in its bombing campaign against Britain the effects would have been potentially devastating – each of those agents was incredibly lethal and potent – modern nerve agents capable of causing severe injury or death with only minute levels of exposure.  Combine that with the lack of any effect defense by the targeted cities, and the lack of any Allied means of wrecking equivalent damage, and you had a weapon that might have changed the course of the war.  Interestingly enough it was fear by Germany of retaliation by the Allies, specifically worry they had similar agents, that prevented them being used.  When you think on that also remember that this was in good part due to Hitler personally ordering that these weapons not be used – both from his experiences in World War I when he was gassed and because of his fear of what these weapons could do to his own cities if used against Germany.

So enjoy the poster “Keep Calm and Carry On” but remember it was not meant as an adorable way to keep Britain’s upper lip stiff – it was meant to reassure a population after the anticipated reduction of their entire city, and hundreds of thousands if not millions of their colleagues wiped away in a massive bombing attack, were expected as a very real result of the war.

Sources: Wikipedia entry on the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster series.

World War II Weirdness – Panzer Zug!

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

Meet the Panzer Zug, also written Panzerzug, otherwise known as the “German Armored Train.”  This fascinating rolling battle unit was used by the Wehrmacht as part of its military campaigns in the East to deal with roaming partisan forces and also to provide mobile support for troops in the field.  What makes this particular military innovation interesting, beyond the oddness of its existence, is how the Wehrmacht came to re-embrace the use of the armored train.

Prior to the outbreak of World War II the armored train had been abandoned as a military concept, they were seen as powerful mobile weapons platforms however they were considered too vulnerable to disruption by enemy action.  (The whole “destroy the tracks and the train just sits there” problem.)  The German military high command had completed dismissed the armored train as a tactical until until Germany invaded Poland in 1939.  What caught the German high command’s interest was the fact that in direct battle German forces were unable to defeat the Polish armored trains being used in Poland’s defense.  Granted the German military was able to halt the trains effectiveness by destroying track but in direct combat the Polish armored trains beat back German attacks and provided a really surprisingly effective burst of heavy fire support at the least expected points in a battle.

There are numerous early conflicts between the German military and Polish military in which the battle would be progressing as expected, German units advancing as Polish units fell back, and then from out of the woods would come this massive armored train, firing shells everywhere, machine guns blasting at German units, and anti-aircraft guns smacking attacking fighters out of the way.  The train rapidly rolled up, fired a bunch of rounds, and then raced away.  When Germany later invaded the Soviet Union they found armored trains to be surprisingly useful on the Eastern front, mobile battle platforms that could rapidly move up to deal with partisans and other lightly armed forces in the German rear.

Many German armored trains were captured Russian or Polish armored trains that were repaired and pressed back into service with the Wehrmacht.  In each case they were heavily armored and equipped with heavy weapons, the Germans attempted to make each train as self contained as possible so that it could roll along and deal with firefights swiftly on its own.  Sadly the trains fell out of use as the Russian army advanced in 1944 onwards, but they still played a minor role in the conflict.  I intend to research them in greater detail but for now, enjoy the oddness!

I love this image in particular, taken on a German armored train and those silhouettes are individual tanks smacked by the train.

Also if you are really interested check out this old German warm film of an armored train in action – enjoy the adorable scout car sent out in front of it to make sure everything was clear.

Sources: Wikipedia entry on armored trains, Wikipedia entry on armored trains in Poland, Website on Panzerzug 10b, and Operatives, Spies, and Saboteurs, The Unknown Story of the Men and Women of WWII’s OSS by Patrick O’Donnell

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