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Refugees from Germany
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Refugees line up outside the American consulate in Marseille, France, 1941.

The Nazi persecution policies and the Second World War created one of the worst refugee crises of modern times. Even before the Second World War had started, political opponents of the Nazis in Germany and German Jews caused a refugee crisis. The occupation of countries throughout Europe by the German military deepened this crisis.

Extremist ideas – an approaching disaster

The extremist ideas of the Nazis led many to fear what would happen to German society in general and to their families in particular if the Nazis would come into power and make good on their promises. Especially the small Jewish community that had been in Germany for centuries was worried by the Nazi campaign of hatred. As soon as it became clear that the Nazis had won the 1932 elections, many people started to think about leaving their homes for new shores.

When the Nazis came into power they started persecuting political opponents and Jews. This led to the first waves of refugees who became frightened they would be arrested or even worse. About 40,000 Jews left Germany after the Nazi victory. This was almost 10% of Jewish population of Germany. Most went to neighboring countries. The majority of Jews stayed, hoping for better times.

Deciding to stay

For many it was a difficult decision to leave Germany, no matter how bad it got, because it meant leaving the place they were born, raised and the place they loved. It meant leaving one’s home and work (and the income it provided). In some cases it meant leaving all one’s friends and relatives behind. It was also not said that Hitler would ever be able to fulfill his promises or that his party could remain in power very long. After all, Germany was a modern country with a long rich history. This storm would also blow over.

You had to have money and connections to leave the country. At a time when there was a great deal of poverty, most Germans concerned about the future simply did not have the money to leave.

Deciding to leave

As the 1930’s progressed it became increasingly clear that Hitler might indeed succeed in fulfilling his promises. Hitler banned all political parties and became a dictator. The Nazi government controlled all the media and more and more people were being arrested. Political opponents and Jews that had the ability to leave started to do so. But countries like the United States and Great Britain were very reluctant to let in Jewish refugees.

A conference took place in Evian France in 1938 to talk about the wave of Jewish refugees, but none of the nations present, including the United States, was willing to do more than they were already doing to help the Jews of Germany.

Things became increasingly ominous for the remaining German Jews. On January 30, 1939, Adolf Hitler made the following remarks:
"Today I want to be a prophet again. If international finance Jewry within Europe and abroad should succeed once more in plunging the peoples into a world war, then the consequence will be not the Bolshevization of the world and therewith a victory of Jewry, but on the contrary, the destruction of the Jewish race in Europe." [applause]
These comments also made it clear that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis would not stop their persecution of Jews at the German border.

For a few more years, until October 1941, German policy officially encouraged Jewish emigration. It then became illegal to leave the country. At this time, the number of Jews in Germany had dwindled to 163,000, about 30% of the original population. Very few of these people survived the Holocaust.

Famous refugees

Many famous people also had to leave Germany in the 1930’s as refugees. The list below lists some Nobel Prize winners who had to leave:
  • Max Born - Nobel Prize for Physics (in1954)
  • Albert Einstein - Nobel Prize for Physics (1921)
  • Bernard Katz – Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine (1970)
  • Elias Cannetti - Austrian refugee - Nobel Prize in Literature (1981)
  • Thomas Mann - Nobel Prize in Literature (1929)

The world famous psychologist Sigmund Freud and his daughter also had to flee the Nazis.

US refugee policies

The US government and the overwhelming majority of American citizens were against allowing more German Jews into the country, even after Kristallnacht. Though almost 100,000 German-Jewish refugees left Germany for the United States in the 1930s, the US policy was at all times very restrictive. The US had quotas for the total number of immigrants that could enter the country. At no time during the 1930s and 1940s was the government willing to increase the quota to help save German-Jews. In fact, some quotas were never filled. It was not until January 1944 that President Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board to facilitate the rescue of refugees.
Photo credit: USHMM, courtesy of Hiram Bingham.
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This day in history
Today: 11 December 2018
Then: 11 December 1941

Germany and Italy declare war on the United States; the U.S. respond in kind.

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