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Why a History Lesson About World War II Refugees Went Viral

5 minute read

Peter A. Shulman has been running a Twitter account called @HistOpinion for a few years, sharing information he gleans from public opinion surveys of the past. Normally, ‘viral’ for him means a Tweet gets a few hundred likes, at the most—until this week.

As a cascade of U.S. politicians have spoken against letting Syrians into the country in the wake of the deadly Paris attacks, Shulman thought: We’ve been here before.

Shulman, a historian and associate professor of history at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, tweeted out a chart using data from a 1938 July issue of Fortune about attitudes toward European refugees, many of whom were Jewish and trying to flee Hitler. The resulting tweet, which he posted on Monday night, has more than 4,000 shares and likes, having struck a chord with followers who saw a parallel with modern attitudes about Syrian refugees.

“The situations are not exactly parallel and I’m not saying that they are,” Shulman tells TIME. “But in terms of a heavily politicized, nativist response to a refugee crisis, we have been here before. And the example of Jewish refugees fleeing Europe in the late ’30s is most poignant because we know how it ended.”

In 1938, Fortune, which is owned by the same parent company as TIME, had this to say about the survey results: “So much, then, for the hospitality of our melting pot.”

The situation at the time was often one of all talk and no action, as TIME reported that same year, such as when President Roosevelt invited delegates from 32 nations to meet on the Swiss-French border “to see what could be done to provide new homes for” refugees. “All nations present expressed sympathy for the refugees,” the story noted, “but few offered to allow them within their boundaries.” And, as Shulman showed with a follow-up tweet, that not-in-my-backyard attitude continued to hold strong as the situation in Europe worsened:

As the Washington Post notes in its coverage of the viral tweet, that 1939 data would have been taken well after Kristallnacht—the Night of Broken Glass, when a coordinated attack on Jews took place in Germany and other German-occupied parts of Europe. There would have been no question that the stakes were high for those seeking asylum. “It’s worth remembering this mood when thinking about the current moment,” writes the Post‘s Ishaan Tharoor, “when the United States is once more in the throes of a debate over letting in refugees.”

Though the majority of responses Shulman received on social media expressed shock and disbelief that people felt so strongly against letting refugees into the U.S. at that time, reactions have varied. Siddhant Singh, a 26-year-old who lives in India, says he noticed the statistic and comparison being shared on his Facebook by American friends and appreciated that it was “being shared by people on both sides of the political spectrum.” Erin Davis, a 30-year-old New Yorker whose grandparents survived the Holocaust, says that the tweet made her think of the biblical injunction to welcome the stranger. “We [Jews] were strangers once, too, and even though we’ve been turned away, it doesn’t mean we have to turn others away,” she says. “I think it just promotes fear in a cyclical fashion.”

Shulman says that not everyone, however, has found the parallel edifying. The historian, who is Jewish, says he has heard from people who think the comparison isn’t fair, many saying that there was no threat of violence from Jewish refugees—and he understands that perspective, but disputes it on the facts. As he points out, there was in fact a perceived threat from the 1930s refugees. “There was fear,” he says. “This was certainly expressed in Roosevelt’s government, that hiding among the refugees would be Nazis and they would bring the violence.”

As for his goal in sharing this kind of information, Shulman’s hopes are in line with what any historian might want: that helping people understand the past might prevent what he sees as a repeat of the same mistakes all over again.

“A lot of history scares me, and a lot of the present scares me,” he says. “”You can think about all the other instances of looking back and saying we should have done something different. It’s almost predictable that the next generation will look back and say, it really should have been different. I don’t think it’s too late to do something more this time.”

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