Syria in the Second World War

Syria in the Second World War

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Syria was part of the Turkish Empire until 1918. The French Army entered Syria in 1922 and expelled the Arab leader Emir Feisal. France claimed that Syria fell into its sphere of influence as defined in the Sykes-Picot agreement.

The Syrians resented the presence of French troops and the Druse Insurrection (1925-27) forced them to withdraw from the capital, Damascus. Negotiations took place and in 1939 the French government promised Syria her independence.

The Vichy government kept troops in Syria during the Second World War. Its position on the Eastern Mediterranean coast made it strategically important for both Britain and Nazi Germany. The Allies also feared that Henri-Philippe Petain would allow the Luftwaffe to establish air bases in the country.

On 8th June 1941 the British Army and Free French forces entered Syria from Iraq and Palestine. After facing tough resistance from the Vichy forces the Allies captured Damascus on 17th June. The armistice was signed on 12th July and pro-British regimes were maintained in Syria for the rest of the war.

The untold Second World War

If you think there's nothing more to learn about the greatest war in history, then think again. So says Max Hastings, whose latest book focuses on aspects of the conflict on which new things still need to be said.

This competition is now closed

Published: November 13, 2011 at 9:33 pm

When I first explored the Second World War in Bomber Command, published in 1979, I never guessed that the period would retain its extraordinary grip on popular imagination into the 21st century. There seems to be three reasons: it was the greatest event in human experience most people see it as that rare thing, a conflict in which good was pitted against indisputable evil and, finally, there appears inexhaustible scope for saying new things.

Even after countless books, films and TV documentaries, it is easy to surprise people with facts familiar to historians but little-recognised by a wider public. I mentioned to a former head of the British army that I had written a new study of the war. “What on earth can you tell us that we don’t know?” he demanded sceptically. I responded by asking him to guess what proportion of Germany’s military dead were killed by the Russians. He suggested 60 per cent. I told him that the true figure is 90 per cent. I asked him what percentage of Allied military casualties were British or American. He said: “Maybe 20 per cent each.” In reality, just 2 per cent were British, and 2 per cent American. The Russians suffered 65 per cent, the Chinese 23 per cent, the Yugoslavs 3 per cent.

Even in the 21st century, new evidence about the war provokes fierce controversy. For instance, some modern Chinese historians claim that as many as 50 million of their people may have perished, instead of the widely accepted guesstimate of 15 million. Estimates of deaths in the 1945 bombing of Dresden have been drastically reduced by recent research, from a figure of 150,000 much-cited a generation ago, to 20,000 or even fewer – far less than perished in the 1943 Hamburg raids or the March 1945 Tokyo firestorm.

Some nations are stunningly ignorant, or wilfully misinformed, about the war. A few years ago writer Kazutoshi Hando, who lived through the war, lectured to a Japanese women’s college. He told me: “I asked 50 students to list countries which have not fought Japan in modern times 11 included America.

Because the Soviet Union ended the war in the Allied camp, not only most Russians but also many westerners fail to recognise that, between 1939 and June 1941, Stalin was Hitler’s partner in aggression, rapist of Finland, Poland and eastern Romania. Soviet oil fuelled the Luftwaffe planes bombing Britain in 1940. At least 350,000 Poles died as victims of Soviet rather than Nazi oppression.

Yet the Soviet Union later joined Britain and America in a supposed ‘crusade for freedom’. Confusing, isn’t it? Many westerners’ view of the war is still dominated by nationalistic perspectives, cherished myths and legends. Everyone knows about the gallant fighters of the French resistance, supported by the British Special Operations Executive. Fewer people appreciate how fiercely French troops fought against the British in Syria in 1941, and in Madagascar and briefly north Africa the following year. The fighter pilot Pierre Le Gloan was a French ace who shot down seven RAF aircraft over Syria in 1941. The writer Roald Dahl, who flew a Hurricane in that campaign, wrote later: “I for one have never forgiven the Vichy French for the unnecessary slaughter they caused.”

Between June 1940 and May 1945, more Frenchmen carried arms for Vichy security forces or the Germans than ever fought for the resistance or the Allied armies. The great majority of the French troops evacuated from Dunkirk to Britain chose repatriation to their German-occupied homeland over serving with General de Gaulle’s ‘Free French’.

We are so accustomed to taking it for granted that our parents and grandparents fought for ‘the good guys’ that it is easy to forget that many people around the world rooted for the Axis, often because they hated the British empire. Winston Churchill stretched a delicate point by telling the House of Commons on 8 December 1941: “We have at least four-fifths of the population of the globe on our side.” It would have been more accurate to say that the Allies had four-fifths of the world’s inhabitants under their control, or recoiling from Axis occupation.

Propaganda created an idea of common purpose among ‘free’ nations (with Stalin’s bloody tyranny having to be given honorary membership of this group) in defeating the totalitarian powers. Yet in almost every country there were nuances of attitude, and in some places stark divisions.

The mercenaries of Britain’s Indian Army remained generally loyal, although some PoWs joined the Japanese. But most of India’s 400 million people saw little advantage in Allied victory if they remained subject to imperial rule. For much of the war, Britain was obliged to use more troops to sustain its internal control of India in the face of militant nationalists than were deployed against the Japanese.

Nehru, later the first and greatest prime minister of independent India, wrote in his British prison cell on the day after Pearl Harbor: “If I were asked with whom my sympathies lay in this war, I would unhesitatingly say with Russia, China, America and England.” But there was a qualification – Churchill refused to grant independence to India, so Nehru asserted: “There is no question of my giving help to Britain. How can I fight for a thing, freedom, which is denied to me? British policy in India appears to be to terrify the people, so that in anxiety we may seek British protection.”

Most Egyptians strongly supported the Axis, believing that its victory would free them from imperial subjection. During riots in 1942, crowds thronged Cairo streets shouting enthusiastically, “Rommel! Rommel!” Anwar Sadat, an army officer who later became Egypt’s president, spent much of the war in a British jail for aiding German agents.

None of this should suggest that I doubt the virtue of the Allied cause: it is simply to show that Churchill and Roosevelt did not have all the best tunes. It does us no harm to be reminded of such blemishes on the Allied escutcheon as the 1943 Bengal famine. At least a million people, and perhaps as many as three million, perished under British rule. Thousands died on the streets of Calcutta, while in the city’s clubs white sahibs enjoyed unlimited eggs and bacon.

Counterfactuals – might-have-beens – must always be treated with caution, but some are fascinating. For instance, I suggest that Hitler might have done far more to persuade the British to surrender in 1940 by not sending the Luftwaffe to bomb them than by doing so. Before the war, many feared an annihilatory air attack which would destroy British society.

The unfulfilled threat of such an assault might have been much more potent than the reality, which turned out to be nowhere near as bad as had been feared. If Britain had been left to stew while Hitler seized Malta and drove the British out of the Middle East, Churchill might have found it very hard to retain the premiership. The old Tory appeasers could have gained traction for a peace negotiation with Germany.

Human experience

Much of my book, however, is about human experience rather than grand strategy. Individuals from scores of nations struggled for words to convey what happened to them between 1939 and 1945, transcending anything they had known before. Many resorted to a cliché: ‘All hell broke loose’.

Because the phrase is commonplace in eyewitness accounts of battles, air raids, massacres and ship-sinkings, later generations are tempted to shrug at its banality. Yet I have chosen it as my title because the words capture what the struggle meant to hundreds of millions of people plucked from peaceful, ordered existences to face ordeals that in many cases lasted for years and which, for at least 60 million, were ended by death.

British and American infantrymen were appalled by their experiences in the 11 months of the 1944–45 north-west Europe campaign. But Russians and Germans fought each other continuously for almost four years in far worse conditions, and with vastly heavier casualties.

Between 1941 and 1944, British and American sailors and airmen served and sometimes perished at sea and in the sky, but relatively small numbers of western Allied ground troops engaged the Axis in north Africa, Italy, Asia and the Pacific. In July 1943, when almost four million Axis and Soviet troops were locked in bloody combat at Kursk and Orel, just eight Anglo-American divisions were fighting in Sicily, scene of the principal western effort against the Nazis.

Many people, soldiers and civilians alike, witnessed spectacles comparable with Renaissance painters’ conception of the inferno to which the damned were consigned: human beings torn to fragments of flesh and bone cities blasted into rubble ordered communities sundered into dispersed human particles. Almost everything that civilised peoples take for granted in time of peace was swept aside, above all the expectation of being protected from violence.

So widespread is a modern western perception that the war was fought about Jews that it deserves to be emphasised this was not the case. Though Hitler and his followers blamed the Jews for the troubles of Europe and grievances of the Third Reich, Germany’s struggle with the Allies was about power and hemispheric dominance.

The plight of Jewish people under Nazi occupation loomed relatively small in the wartime minds of Churchill, Roosevelt and, less surprisingly, in that of Stalin. About one-seventh of Nazism’s fatal victims were Jews, and almost one-tenth of all wartime dead. But at the time the Allies saw their persecution as just one fragment of Hitler’s collateral damage – as indeed Russians still see the Holocaust today.

An important truth about the war, and about all human affairs, is that people can interpret what happens to them only in the context of their own circumstances. The fact that, objectively and statistically, the sufferings of some were less terrible than those of others elsewhere was meaningless to those concerned. It would have seemed monstrous to a British or American soldier facing a mortar barrage, with his comrades dying around him, to be told that Soviet casualties were many times greater. It would have been insulting to invite a hungry Frenchman, or even an English housewife weary of the monotony of rations, to consider that in besieged Leningrad starving people were eating each other, while in West Bengal they were selling their daughters.

Some aspects of wartime experience were almost universal: fear, grief, and the conscription of young men and women obliged to endure new existences utterly remote from those of their choice, often under arms, at worst as slaves. A boom in prostitution was a global phenomenon that deserves a book of its own. The conflict provoked many mass migrations. Some of these were orderly: half the population of Britain moved home during the war, and many Americans took new jobs in unfamiliar places. Elsewhere, however, millions were wrenched from their communities in dreadful circumstances and faced ordeals which often killed them. “These are strange times,” wrote an anonymous Berlin woman on 22 April 1945 in one of the great war diaries, “history experienced first hand, the stuff of tales yet untold and songs unsung. But seen close up, history is much more troublesome – nothing but burdens and fears. Tomorrow I’ll go and look for nettles and get some coal.”

Experiences varied

The nature of battlefield experience varied among nations and services. Within armies, riflemen experienced far higher levels of risk and hardship than support troops. The death rate in the US armed forces was just five per thousand men enlisted the vast majority of those serving faced perils no greater than those of ordinary civilian life. While 17,000 American combat casualties lost limbs, 100,000 workers at home became amputees as a result of industrial accidents.

Only a few national leaders and commanders knew much about anything beyond their immediate line of sight. Civilians lived in a fog of propaganda and uncertainty, hardly less dense in Britain and the US than in Germany or the Soviet Union. Frontline combatants assessed their side’s success or failure chiefly by counting casualties and noticing whether they were moving forwards or backwards. But such indicators were sometimes inadequate: Private First Class Eric Diller’s battalion was cut off from the main American army for 17 days of the Leyte campaign in the Philippines, but he realised the seriousness of his unit’s predicament only when it was explained to him by his company commander after the war.

Even those with privileged access to secrets had only fragments of knowledge in a vast jigsaw puzzle. For instance Roy Jenkins, later a British statesman, decrypted German signals at Bletchley Park. He and his colleagues knew the importance and urgency of their work but, contrary to the impression given in sensational films about Bletchley, they were told nothing about the impact of their contributions.

I have tried to make this the story of ‘everyman’s war’, a bottom-up account. I have focused on experiences of such people as British land girl Muriel Green, elderly Hamburg housewife Mathilde Wolff-Monckeburg, ordinary Soviet soldiers, American sailors and British aircrew, rather than on the big men: Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler. I have focused on events for which there seem new things to be said, at the expense of battles like Normandy and Arnhem, already exhaustively explored by hundreds of writers and indeed in my own earlier books.

Under fire, most focused on immediacies and loyalties to each other. Hopes and fears became elemental, as described by British lieutenant Norman Craig in the desert: “Life was so free of all its complexities. What a clarity and a simplicity it really had! To stay alive, to lead once more a normal existence, to know again warmth, comfort and safety – what else could one conceivably demand? I would never chide circumstance again, never question fate, never feel bored, unhappy or dissatisfied. To be allowed to continue to live – nothing else mattered.”

The likelihood of achieving this simple aim varied immensely from country to country: about 8 per cent of Germans died, compared with 14 per cent of Soviet citizens, 2 per cent of Chinese, 3.44 per cent of the Dutch, 6.67 per cent of Yugoslavs, 4 per cent of Greeks, 1.35 per cent of French, 3.78 per cent of Japanese, 0.94 per cent of British and 0.32 per cent of Americans.

Some 24.2 per cent of Japanese soldiers were killed, and 19.7 per cent of naval personnel. One Soviet soldier in four died, against one in 20 British Commonwealth combatants and one in 34 American servicemen.

There are still a host of untold stories out there about what happened to men, women and children of many nations. Writing All Hell Let Loose, I found myself learning – as I always do – all manner of things that astonished me, even after 35 years studying the war.

Max Hastings is a journalist, historian, author and former editor of The Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard. His latest book, All Hell Let Loose, was published by HarperPress in September 2011.

The Confused Person’s Guide to the Syrian Civil War

In what French President Francois Hollande called “an act of war” against his country, on November 13 several attackers staged a complex assault involving shootings and suicide bombings in Paris that left 129 people dead. ISIS has claimed responsibility, citing France’s participation in the “crusader campaign” against the group. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was unsympathetic, blaming French policy toward his country: “We said, don’t take what is happening in Syria lightly. Unfortunately, European officials did not listen.” France is one of 65 members of the U.S.-led international coalition against the Islamic State, and one of eight that has conducted airstrikes against the group in Syria.

France’s direct combat involvement in Syria is fairly recent having enlisted in international airstrikes in Iraq last year, in September France joined a long list of combatants in Syria’s civil war by bombing an ISIS training camp in the country. (David Graham has more here on France’s campaigns against ISIS and its affiliates in Syria and elsewhere.) That participation seems destined to expand two days after the Paris attacks, France’s defense ministry announced it was conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria, and U.S. officials were reportedly sharing intelligence on ISIS targets with their French counterparts.


Syria’s conflict has devolved from peaceful protests against the government in 2011 to a violent insurgency that has drawn in numerous other countries. It’s partly a civil war of government against people partly a religious war pitting Assad’s minority Alawite sect, aligned with Shiite fighters from Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, against Sunni rebel groups and increasingly a proxy war featuring Russia and Iran against the United States and its allies. Whatever it is, it has so far killed 220,000 people, displaced half of the country’s population, and facilitated the rise of ISIS.

While a de-facto international coalition—one that makes informal allies of Assad, the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Kurds, and others—is focused on defeating ISIS in Syria, the battlefield features numerous other overlapping conflicts. The Syrian war looks different depending on which protagonists you focus on. Here are just a few ways to look at it:


When we asked readers what they wanted to know about the civil war, one asked: “Who are the various groups fighting in Syria? What countries are involved?” By one count from 2013, 13 “major” rebel groups were operating in Syria counting smaller ones, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency puts the number of groups at 1,200. Meanwhile, the number of other countries involved to various degrees has grown including the United States, nine countries have participated in U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS in Syria (though Canada’s newly elected prime minister has vowed to end his country’s involvement in the military campaign) Russia is conducting its own bombing against ISIS and other rebel groups, in coordination with ground operations by Iranian and Hezbollah fighters. This is before you tally the dozens of countries whose citizens have traveled to join ISIS and other armed groups in Syria.

Thomas van Linge, the Dutch teenager who has gained renown for his detailed maps of the Syrian conflict, groups the combatants into four broad categories: rebels (from “moderate” to Islamist) loyalists (regime forces and their supporters) Kurdish groups (who aren’t currently seeking to overthrow Assad, but have won autonomy in northeastern Syria, which they have fought ISIS to protect) and finally, foreign powers.

Many of the parties I place in this last category are fighting or claiming to fight ISIS. The divide among them is whether to explicitly aim to keep Assad in power (Russia and Iran), or to maintain that he must go eventually while focusing on the Islamic State at the moment (the U.S.-led coalition).

In that sense, broadly speaking, Russia has intervened on behalf of the loyalists and the United States has intervened on behalf of the rebels, though the U.S. has tried to only help certain rebels, providing arms and training to “vetted” groups. It’s this contradiction in U.S. goals—America wants Assad to go but is also fighting ISIS, one of the strongest anti-Assad forces in Syria, in defiance of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” principle—that helps answer another reader’s question: “Why is it still so difficult to wrap my own head around our official involvement in the conflict?” Russia’s approach is less sensitive to the differences among rebel groups: It opposes all of them. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov summed it up at the United Nations earlier in October: “If it looks like a terrorist, acts like a terrorist, and fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist, right?”

Airstrike locations are approximate. (Sources: Institute for the Study of War Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation U.S. Central Command Syrian Observatory for Human Rights / Reuters)


What started in Syria has spread to multiple countries—to Iraq, where ISIS has effectively erased part of the border with Syria and taken over a chunk of the northwest to Turkey and Lebanon, which together have taken in more than 3 million of the 4 million registered Syrian refugees to Europe, which has received more than 500,000 asylum applications from Syrians since 2011 and to the United States, which as of this writing has resettled fewer than 2,000 Syrian refugees since 2011 but has pledged to take in 10,000 more over the next year.

(UNHCR World Bank Eurostat U.S. Department of State’s Humanitarian Information Unit / Reuters)


Why did Syria’s protests of 2011, which began in part as a response to the arrest and mistreatment of a group of young people accused of writing anti-Assad graffiti in the southern city of Deraa, morph into today’s chaos? Or as one reader asked: “What are they fighting about?” The protests started after two Arab dictators, in Tunisia and Egypt, had already stepped down amid pro-democracy demonstrations in their countries. Syria’s war is unique among the Arab Spring uprisings, but it is not unique among civil wars generally. Stanford’s James Fearon has argued that “civil wars often start due to shocks to the relative power of political groups that have strong, pre-existing policy disagreements. … War then follows as an effort to lock in … or forestall the other side’s temporary advantage.” The Syrian uprising presented just such a shock, and the opposition to Assad may have seen a short-term opportunity to press for more gains by taking up arms before their Arab Spring advantage disappeared. An International Crisis Group report from 2011 noted that Assad at first responded to protests by releasing some political prisoners and instructing officials “to pay greater attention to citizen complaints,” but that “the the regime acted as if each . disturbance was an isolated case requiring a pin-point reaction rather than part of a national crisis that would only deepen short of radical change.”

Once a war starts, an awful logic often keeps it going, according to Fearon: “Given enormous downside risk—wholesale murder by your current enemies—genuine political and military power-sharing as an exit from civil war is rarely seriously attempted and frequently breaks down when it has been attempted.” Another complication: The Atlantic’s Dominic Tierney, among others, has argued that Assad purposely radicalized the opposition to delegitimize the rebellion, by releasing terrorists from prison and avoiding fighting ISIS.


To paraphrase one reader’s question: When does this end? The political-science professor Barbara F. Walter has pointed out that since the end of World War II, civil wars have lasted an average of 10 years, but that the number of factions involved is likely to prolong this one. Ben Connable and Martin Libicki of the Rand Corporation have meanwhile found that insurgencies tend to end when outside state support is withdrawn, and that “inconsistent or partial support to either side generally presages defeat.” With foreign involvement increasing on both sides, neither is likely to win, or lose, anytime soon.

Syria in 60 Seconds:

Here’s how Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, summarized the conflict:

Syria war: ‘Worst man-made disaster since World War II’

On sixth war anniversary, Syria headed towards ‘perverted version’ of what has been happening in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Six years to the day since protesters poured into the streets of Daraa, Damascus and Aleppo in a “day of rage” against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s uprising turned global war is far from over.

Six years of violence have killed close to half a million people, according to the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, displaced half of the country’s prewar population, allowed the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) to seize huge swaths of territory, and created the worst humanitarian crisis in recent memory.

International diplomatic efforts have repeatedly failed to bring the protracted conflict closer to an end and the growing role of outside actors has changed the nature and trajectory of the war.

The UN estimates the war has pushed close to five million people to flee the country, many of whom have risked their lives seeking sanctuary in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of others exist precariously in tents and tin shelters in Syria’s neighbouring countries.

An entire generation of Syrian children has either been pushed out of school or forced to cope with interrupted curriculums, makeshift classrooms, or unqualified teachers. According to UNICEF, 2016 was the worst year yet for Syrian children. Nearly three million children – the UN estimated amount of Syrians born since the crisis began – know nothing but war.

The country’s healthcare system, particularly in places like Aleppo, is decimated. More than four-fifths of the country live in poverty.

Basic infrastructure, such as the electricity grid, water lines and roads, is in shambles. As of 2015, 83 percent of Syria’s electric grid was out of service, according to a coalition of 130 non-governmental organisations.

On Monday, in an address to the UN Human Rights Council, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein described the war in Syria as “the worst man-made disaster since World War II”.

Zeid added that his office had been refused access to the country and that no international human rights observers had been admitted to places where “very probably tens of thousands of people are currently held. They are places of torture”.

Any form of solution is basically out of the hands of Syrians.

Samer Abboud, Arcadia University

“Indeed, the entire conflict, this immense tidal wave of bloodshed and atrocity, began with torture,” he said, citing as an example the torture of a group of children by security officials over anti-government graffiti in the southern city of Daraa six years ago. “Today, in a sense, the entire country has become a torture chamber, a place of savage horror and absolute injustice,” he said.

UN investigators have accused the government of “extermination” in its jails and detention centres.

Global watchdog Amnesty International said in a report last August that an estimated 17,700 people had died from torture or harsh conditions while in government custody since the beginning of the conflict. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) put the number at 60,000.

Many others have been executed, and far more have simply disappeared. Thousands more have died in prisons run by rebel groups and hardliners like ISIL and groups affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Intervention by regional and global players into what started as an uprising of the people against a repressive government has transformed the conflict into a proxy war as international efforts repeatedly stall.

Russia’s October 2015 military intervention helped prop-up a gutted Syrian army and, with the assistance of thousands of Iranian-backed fighters, has helped put Damascus firmly back in control on the battlefield.

The Russian-backed push on the battlefield culminated in the government takeover of rebel-held east Aleppo late last year, dealing the opposition its biggest defeat of the conflict.

As pro-government forces steadily captured rebel territory over the past year, a series of “local truces” in areas crippled by years of government siege saw the transfer of thousands of fighters and civilians to Idlib, the last opposition-held province in the north. The UN has said the deals amount to forced displacement and are thus war crimes.

Earlier this week, increased bombing in the government-besieged district of al-Waer in Homs, the city’s last rebel-held bastion, pushed rebels and their families to sign on to a similar evacuation deal.

Recently renewed diplomatic efforts to bring an end to war have all but stalled, as a nationwide ceasefire agreed upon by Russia and Turkey at the end of last year falls apart.

Since the start of the year, aid deliveries have slowed to a trickle for hundreds of thousands living under siege, according to a recent report by Physicians for Human Rights. Heavy fighting has increased in recent weeks in strategic areas near Damascus, as government forces push to slice off territories from the last rebel-held stronghold close to the capital.

Rebels boycotted a third round of Russian-led talks in Kazakh capital of Astana, ostensibly aimed at consolidating the shaky truce, over continued violence. And although Astana talks succeeded in paving the way for a fifth round of UN-led intra-Syrian talks late last year, little was agreed upon other than a basic format for future negotiations.

The internationalisation of the war in Syria has left it beholden to outside interests, according to associate professor of international studies at Arcadia University Samer Abboud. “Any form of solution is basically out of the hands of Syrians,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Ultimately, what’s on offer is some kind of containment of the violence, but no effort to really eliminate it,” he said. “But talk about a revolution or a political transition … it’s beyond that now.”

Key rebel backers like Turkey and the United States have narrowed their agendas in Syria over the past year, as government gains on the battlefield erase the prospect of regime change and domestic priorities take precedent.

Ankara, whose troops now occupy a large section of territory in Syria’s northeast, has given up on removing Assad in favour of preventing an armed Kurdish autonomous region on its border.

The US, who ,along with Turkey and the Gulf states, was central to facilitating the armament of what started as a peaceful uprising, has remained a political voyeur since Donald Trump‘s administration came to power.

Instead, it has remained hyper-focused on making shortsighted, tactical gains against ISIL.

Just last week, the Pentagon deployed another 500 marines to Syria and spoke of the possibility of a long-term US presence in the country.

Infighting and a lack of international support have left rebel forces increasingly dependent on groups with hardline religious agendas. And as the government, Turkey and the US, along with their respective allied forces, race to push ISIL out of its self-declared capital in Raqqa, the international agenda in Syria is shifting the narrative of the conflict.

“Syria is headed towards some sort of perverted version of what has been happening in Iraq or Afghanistan… where reconstruction efforts will be forced to exist alongside low levels of violence,” said Abboud.

“The war economy is entrenched … and outside players are reserving their right to do exactly what they want in Syria under the appearance of international consensus.”

Text to Text: Comparing Jewish Refugees of the 1930s With Syrian Refugees Today

Today there are more than 65 million displaced people worldwide — the highest number on record since the United Nations Refugee Agency began collecting statistics. Europe faces a humanitarian crisis, with thousands of people fleeing conflicts in Syria and around the Middle East and Africa arriving in Greece, Hungary, Germany and other countries each month. Some European citizens are wary of allowing refugees to enter, citing concerns about security and the economy other countries on the continent have struggled to find the resources and the political will to meet migrants’ and refugees’ needs.

For many observers, today’s challenges also raise uncomfortable historical echoes, as scenes of refugees crowding European train platforms and waiting in grim reception camps recall the events of World War II and the Holocaust. A Times article noted the parallels and asked, “How apt is the comparison between Syrians today and German Jews before World War II, and what can and cannot be learned from it?” In an Op-Ed in August, the columnist Nicholas Kristof argued that “history rhymes” and wrote, “Today, to our shame, Anne Frank is a Syrian girl.”

Mr. Kristof and other writers invoke the fate of Jewish refugees in the 1930s as a cautionary tale about the consequences of indifference and inaction in the world community today. A new documentary film by Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky, “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” offers another historical lens that can sharpen our perspective on today’s crisis. It tells the little-known story of Martha and Waitstill Sharp, an American couple who left behind the safety of their Massachusetts home and their own young children to aid refugees in Europe on the brink of World War II. The Sharps faced a complex and desperate situation with humanity, creativity and courage.

In this Text to Text, we pair a Times article about the historical resonance of Europe’s refugee crisis with an excerpt from “Defying the Nazis” that chronicles the Sharps’s relief and rescue mission in 1939. Together, these texts raise important questions about whether there are “lessons” of history and invite reflection on how individuals and governments choose to respond to those in need.


Even before the beginning of World War II in September 1939, Nazi Germany’s open aggression toward both neighboring countries and people within its borders had sparked a refugee crisis. The German annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938 increased the number of people affected by Nazi restrictions, while at the same time those restrictions intensified to the point that Jews, political dissidents and others were effectively removed from German public life and denied rights, employment and education. Germany’s aggressive steps to expand its borders touched off both an international political crisis, as world leaders scrambled to avoid war, and a humanitarian refugee crisis, as hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people, mostly Jews, sought safety from the Nazis in countries outside the grip of the Third Reich.

Despite an isolationist mood, a suspicions of refugees, and official policies that often discouraged involvement, some Americans felt a sense of responsibility toward European refugees and found ways to act on their behalf. The Unitarian Church — a liberal religion with roots in Christianity — had links to Czechoslovakia and wanted to offer assistance to refugees streaming into the country. Though Germany had annexed Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland region, the rest of the country and its capital remained still free and independent. In January 1939, Unitarian leadership sought volunteers to lead an aid mission in Prague. Seventeen couples had turned down the risky post, but Martha and Waitstill Sharp decided to accept. Just weeks later, after arranging for neighbors to look after their children, ages 8 and 3, they sailed for Europe.

In Prague, the Sharps spent seven months providing food, shelter and medical care to refugees. Just weeks after they arrived, German troops occupied the whole of Czechoslovakia. The Sharps quickly saw the necessity for rescue as well as relief efforts, and mastered the intricacies of emigration procedures, helping refugees find jobs and sponsors abroad and often accompanying them on dangerous border crossings. They were watched by the Gestapo and had to do much of their work in secret. The Sharps went home to Wellesley only when they heard rumors of their imminent arrest. But just a few months later they returned to Europe, this time for another rescue and relief mission in war-torn France. There, Martha led a children’s emigration project that allowed 27 children from dissident or Jewish families to escape to the United States. For their work in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and France, the Sharps have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem — the highest recognition accorded by the state of Israel to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II. They are two of only five Americans to be so honored.

In the aftermath of World War II, the newly formed United Nations moved to set up international bodies and laws to define the status and rights of refugees for the first time. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees was established in 1951 and given a three-year mandate to resolve postwar refugee problems. Sixty-five years later, it still exists, and there are more refugees around the world today than at any time since the end of World War II.

Today’s refugee crisis has its roots in conflicts all around the world. Many of those fleeing to Europe come from Syria, where a brutal civil war that began in 2011 has created nearly 5 million refugees, many of them children. Some of those refugees live tenuously in camps and cities in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon many others, desperate to get to Europe, have risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea in small boats. The crisis has overwhelmed the systems for aiding refugees created in the wake of World War II. Humanitarian impulses and the rights of refugees guaranteed by international law are competing with concerns that the migrants may pose a threat to the security of European countries where they seek asylum. In fact, the refugee crisis and the threat of terrorism have become intertwined in the minds of many Europeans.

Can the history of the refugee crisis of the 1930s help us think about how we respond to Syrian refugees today? The Times article by Daniel Victor’ explores the parallels between today’s Syrian refugees and Jewish refugees before World War II. We pair this news article with a 10-minute excerpt from “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War” that focuses on the Sharps’s efforts to help refugees escape from occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939. Together, these sources complicate our thinking about how individuals and governments define their responsibility to refugees, in the past and the present.

Key Questions

• What are similarities and differences between the refugee crises of the 1930s and today?

• How might examining the history of refugees in the 1930s inform the choices that individuals and governments make in responding to refugees today?

Activity Sheets: As students read and discuss, they might take notes using one or more of the three graphic organizers (PDFs) we have created for our Text to Text feature:

Text 1: “Comparing Jewish Refugees of the 1930s With Syrian Refugees Today,” Daniel Victor, The New York Times, Nov. 19, 2015.

A tweet drawing a historical parallel to the current plight of Syrian refugees drew thousands of retweets this week.

An article in The Washington Post with a similar premise also drew attention in recent days.

They both raised the question: How apt is the comparison between Syrians today and German Jews before World War II, and what can and cannot be learned from it?

Some historians say that, while the two groups are not completely symmetrical, there are lessons to be drawn.

Republican leaders and some Democrats have sought to halt the Syrian refugee program, fearing fighters from the Islamic State could be among the 10,000 migrants allowed to enter the country.

“We cannot allow terrorists to take advantage of our compassion,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin said. “This is a moment where it is better to be safe than to be sorry.”

In 1938, Jews sought to escape Nazi Germany at a time when the United States was struggling through the Great Depression, and Americans expressed similar concern over accepting refugees.

“I don’t think it would meet the part of wisdom,” said Senator Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota, according to the Nov. 5, 1938 edition of The New York Times. “Our conditions here at home prohibit accepting an influx of population.”

Peter Shulman, an associate professor of history at Case Western Reserve University and the man behind the @HistOpinion Twitter account, said most of the responses to his tweet had supported the premise, while others disputed it. Americans were primarily concerned with economics in 1939 while today’s fears are related to safety, many replied.

It’s true that Americans in 1939 were worried about refugees taking jobs. Those who lived through the Depression were overwhelmingly supportive of restricting immigration, Mr. Shulman said.

But safety was also a concern. Jews were associated with a variety of acts and ideas that were seen as un-American, Mr. Shulman said, including Communism and violence.

That caused Jewish refugees to be “extraordinarily, excruciatingly vetted,” said Marion Kaplan, a professor in the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.

“The State Department worried that among the Jewish refugees there would be Nazi spies,” she said. “There was hysteria about fifth columnists coming in with the refugees.”

One area where the two refugee groups do not neatly match, Ms. Kaplan said, is the racial animus they faced both home and abroad. Unlike modern Syrians, Jews in the 1930s “were singled out as the racial enemy, par excellence, in German society,” she said.

And the United States was not entirely welcoming. On top of wanting to preserve jobs, Americans were concerned about Jews “weakening the Nordic or Anglo racial stock,” Mr. Shulman said. “That was a very real concern.”

He added: “You can’t just reduce it to economics or politics. That sort of racial identity was very powerful.”

Text 2: “A Willingness to Act,” a clip from the documentary film, “Defying The Nazis: The Sharps’ War” (10 min. 41 sec.)

For Writing and Discussion

1. How does Daniel Victor’s article compare responses to Jewish refugees in the 1930s with responses to Syrian refugees today? What are some of the key similarities and differences? How do ideas about race and religion shape attitudes to refugees in each example? What other factors play a role?

2. How does the film clip from “Defying the Nazis” connect to Mr. Victor’s article? How does it extend your thinking about the lives of refugees and the fears, hopes and challenges they have experienced? How does it add to your understanding of United States’ policies and attitudes toward refugees in the 1930s?

3. The historian Peter Shulman, interviewed in the article, argued that there are “enough similarities between Jewish refugees in the 1930s and Syrian refugees today to draw a ‘moral connection’ between the two situations.” Do you agree with Mr. Shulman? Why or why not? If yes, how would you describe this “moral connection?”

4. What dilemmas did Martha and Waitstill Sharp face in their decision to leave home and help refugees in Europe? What risks did they take? What do you think motivated them to make a choice to help refugees when that was so at odds with American public opinion and national policy?

5. Many who connect the refugee crisis of the 1930s to the plight of Syrian refugees today emphasize the failure of the United States and other countries to help. The Sharps’s story, in contrast, is about a small group of private citizens banding together to aid refugees. Is their history relevant to the current refugee crisis? How might a story of people who chose to help then inform decision-making about the refugee crisis today?

6. In another Times article, a Human Rights Watch staff member argued, “We all say we have learned the lessons of history, but to be turning away these desperate people who are fleeing a horrific situation suggests that we haven’t learned the lessons at all.” What are the potential benefits of looking for “lessons” in history? What might be some of the challenges or drawbacks? Why is it so difficult to learn and apply the “lessons of history?”

Going Further

1. Contextualizing Today’s Refugee Crisis: Samantha Power is the United States ambassador to the United Nations. Recently, she visited Newcomers High School in New York City to discuss the current refugee crisis with students, all of whom are immigrants to the United States. In this video, a student asks, “Did World War II and the Holocaust change how the United States of America and the world thinks about the refugee crisis right now?” In response, Ms. Power shares the history of the St. Louis, a ship of Jewish refugees that was turned away from United States in 1939.

Based on Ms. Power’s response, what significance does she see in this history? How does hindsight help us understand an event differently from people at the time? According to Ms. Power, how has this history affected the way some individuals and organizations are responding to the refugee crisis today? The lesson “Understanding the Global Refugee Crisis” from Facing History and Ourselves includes more footage of Ms. Power’s conversation with students, with additional readings and questions that contextualize today’s crisis. It invites us to think about the importance of humanizing refugees and suggests that there are small steps people can take to help.

2. Learning from the Sharps’s Mission: The short video “A Willingness to Act” is drawn from Ken Burns’s and Artemis Joukowsky’s documentary, “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” featuring the voice of Tom Hanks as Waitstill Sharp. Facing History and Ourselves’ companion classroom resources invite students to explore what motivated the Sharps’smission, the dilemmas they faced, and the impact of their actions. Three lesson plans for teaching with “Defying the Nazis” incorporate additional clips from the film, activities like historical character maps, which help students identify the forces that shaped the Sharps’s decision to act, and letters from the Sharps’s archive, like this 1940 letter from Martha to her young son, Hastings, where she explains her decision to stay in Europe to help vulnerable children.

3. Gaining Perspective on History: Part of the challenge in drawing “lessons” from history lies in the fact that when we look back at a moment in history, it’s difficult to fully inhabit the perspective of the people who lived at that time and see the world as they did. One way to gain perspective is to read news accounts of events, like the refugee crisis in Czechoslovakia in 1938 or the American debate about accepting Jewish refugees in 1939, that were written at the time the events were happening. The New York Times’s archive contains dozens of stories about the refugee crisis of the 1930s and the United States’ response to it. Below are just a few of those articles.

As you read them, consider these questions: How do the articles portray the crisis and the options available to refugees? What was the range of responses and attitudes to refugees, and what arguments were offered in support of allowing or restricting immigration? What questions would you want to ask the individuals living at the time who are quoted in these articles? What would you want them to understand?

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum project “History Unfolded: U.S. Newspapers and the Holocaust” is another way to gain insight about what ordinary Americans knew and thought about Europe, based on accounts in local newspapers from all over the United States. Its website offers hundreds of articles from newspapers in the 1930s and 1940s. It also invites readers to become “citizen historians” by seeking out and submitting articles from the archives of their own local newspapers.

New York Times coverage of the current refugee crisis is collected on this Times Topics page on Refugees and Displaced People. How do you imagine people reading these articles in the future reacting to what they see? What might you want these future readers to understand about the forces that shape attitudes to refugees today?

4. Considering the Protections Afforded Refugees: The United Nations created the official “refugee” designation in 1951 to encompass individuals who have been forced to flee their countries because of persecution, war or violence. At the time, many believed it was important for international institutions such as the newly founded United Nations to commit to aiding refugees because of the failure to help those fleeing Nazi persecution in the 1930s and 1940s. In this video, Sasha Chanoff, the director of the refugee advocacy organization RefugePoint, explains the distinction between refugees and other migrants and describes the international agreements that govern the rights and treatment of refugees today. What laws and protections are in place for refugees today that did not exist during Europe’s refugee crisis in the 1930s? What do you think these international agreements have achieved? Where do you think they have fallen short?

A New York Times Room for Debate piece in September 2015 asked five scholars and advocates to respond to the question, “What Can Countries Do To Help Refugees Fleeing to Europe?” How do the contributors’ perspectives add to your thinking about what responsibilities governments have to refugees coming from outside their borders? What is the role of empathy and ideals in how countries respond to refugees? What is the role of practical concerns?

5. Aiding Refugees, One at a Time: When they accepted the mission to Czechoslovakia in 1939, Martha and Waitstill Sharp were among the founders of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, a nonsectarian human rights group that is still active around the world. Today, too, even as the refugee crisis has provoked political controversy, individuals and private organizations have found ways to aid refugees. Mothers in the United States called for donations of baby carriers and children’s clothing and delivered them to refugees in Greece. Some Germans greeted arriving refugees at the border of their country with welcome signs in German, English and Arabic. And in Canada, where the government pledged to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees, a private sponsorship program gave people a way to provide essential support and help the government keep its promise.

The articles below highlight some of these efforts. As you read them, consider: How do these stories compare to that of the Sharps? What is the range of actions individuals have taken to help refugees in Europe today? How do these various efforts differ, and what do they have in common? What tools are these individuals and groups using to make a difference? How have people been able to help when they live in proximity to refugees? How have they helped when they are far away? What can an individual or a small group accomplish that a government may not be able to?

Additional Resources

• Border Challenges: Responding to the Global Migration Crisis — a lesson plan to help students explore the global migration crisis, first through maps and photographs, then with a class reading and discussion, and next by way of a research assignment

• Lucify’s “The Flow Towards Europe” — an animated map that draws on data from the United Nations to illustrate the scale and scope of the flow of refugees to Europe

The Economy During Wartime

During the Second World War, the United States had a centrally planned economy—and the most rapid economic growth in U.S. history. What lessons can we take from the war economy today?

J.W. Mason &squarf Fall 2017 A young woman sells war bonds and stamps and distributes War Production Drive literature, circa 1943 (National Archives)

Destructive Creation: American Business and the Winning of World War II
by Mark R. Wilson
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, 392 pp.

During the Second World War, the United States had a centrally planned economy. Strategic resources were produced in quantities set in Washington, and allocated among end users by the public officials sitting on the War Production Board. Key prices and wages were administered, not left to markets. The large majority of investment was directed, financed, and, in most cases, owned by the federal government. Thousands of private businesses that failed to comply with the planners’ instructions were simply taken over by the government—including some of the country’s largest corporations, like Montgomery Ward. For millions of Americans, the photograph of Ward’s adamantly anti-Roosevelt chairman Sewell Avery being carried from his headquarters by a squad of soldiers crystallized the new relationship between government and capital.

What are we to make of the fact that economic life was “quite completely regimented” (in the approving words of Admiral Harold Bowen) during the war? For novelists of the front lines, it could appear as part of a vast impersonal machine, consuming human lives as means to an inscrutable end. Think of Corporal Fife in The Thin Red Line, watching his transport ship coming under attack by Japanese planes: “A regular business venture, no war at all. It was weird and wacky and somehow insane. . . . It was as though a clerical, mathematical equation had been worked out, as a calculated risk.” For historian Mark Wilson, whose attention is fixed on the home front, there’s no such ambivalence. His new book Destructive Creation is a defense of the management of the war economy by “clerical, mathematical equation,” against those on the right, who attribute wartime production to the genius of private business, and those on the left, who see the wartime state as an engine of profiteering and monopoly. The book is animated by the idea that wartime planning represents a lost model for effective public direction of the economy: “If American policymakers had applied the lessons of World War II mobilization to the toughest challenges of the later twentieth century, people around the world would be better off today.”

The Second World War was certainly an economic success story, in that it coincided with the most rapid economic growth in U.S. history. Much of this growth came not in the recovery from the Depression, but in the post-1940 period, when the country was already more or less at full employment. Between 1938 and 1944, unemployment fell by about 10 million. (This includes people leaving the Works Progress Administration and similar jobs programs.) Over the same period, private employment and military employment each rose by 10 million, implying 10 million new entrants to the labor force—mostly women. At the same time, workers shifted from less productive activities (especially agriculture) to more productive jobs in industry. Industrial productivity—output per hour—also rose rapidly.

Wilson is certainly right that the federal government played a central role in this vast expansion of productive capacity. Even before Pearl Harbor, it was clear to the leaders of the mobilization effort that the peacetime system of allocating industrial inputs by markets was breaking down in the face of a rapid expansion of military production. Materials like steel, copper, aluminum, and rubber were in short supply, exacerbated by hoarding by contractors who wanted to ensure that their own orders were filled. Even more critically, investment in new industrial capacity—after 1940, almost all directed and financed by Washington—could only be decided if future supplies of critical raw materials were known. (There was no point in building a new bomber factory if there wouldn’t be enough aluminum for it to make planes from.) Ad hoc price controls and the crude “priority” system reserving key materials for military use were not enough—an explicit planning process was needed.

Economic planning during the war also led to a broader rationalization of economic life. Much macroeconomic data begins around 1945—it was first collected to aid in wartime planning. The estimates of actual versus potential output that guide so much macroeconomic policy today emerged out of the “feasibility debates” between civilian economists and military planners—a fascinating story barely touched on by Wilson but told in detail in Paul Koistinen’s Arsenal of World War II (2004), which remains the definitive history of wartime economic planning. The same goes for other belligerents. Richard Werner (in Princes of the Yen, 2003) convincingly argues that the planning apparatus that guided Japan’s postwar economic miracle was the product of the war—early twentieth-century Japanese capitalism more closely resembled the freewheeling liberal, market-centered American system than what we have come to think of as the “East Asian model.” Turning back to the United States, it’s clear that much of what the businesses objected to as “red tape” was simply that in order to win government contracts, they had to adopt explicit cost accounting, wage schedules, and other hallmarks of the modern managerial firm.

It’s easy to see the attraction of making the fight against Hitler exhibit A in a broader argument for the public sector. If government planning was essential for developing and mobilizing real resources for the war, why not for its moral equivalents today, such as climate change? Wilson doesn’t explicitly make this argument—his story stops in the 1950s—but it’s safe to say he’d be on board.

There’s plenty of useful material in this book, but its case would be stronger if it were not so narrowly focused on the business-government interface. Wilson offers a comprehensive account of the ways in which public officials interacted with business: as customers, as financiers, as regulators, as rivals for the favors of public opinion. But he has nothing to say about two critical questions that lie, so to speak, on each side of this interface: how the planning apparatus actually functioned, and how American industry was able to generate such big increases in output and productivity. Wartime productivity gains get, literally, one aside (“economies of scale, improving production techniques, or other factors”) tucked into a discussion of how prices were set for military procurement. Similarly, the operations of the planning apparatus—the War Planning Board and its predecessors—gets less than two pages. By contrast, a dozen pages are devoted to how payments were handled on prematurely canceled contracts. Wilson is very interested in how much the government paid for tanks and ships, not so much in how so many of them were produced.

Wilson does not ask, for example, why war production required central planning. It is not an easy question, but one natural place to look for an answer might be the history of industrialization, which in some ways involves similar problems—the more or less rapid redirection of resources from one set of activities to a very different one, in the face of various bottlenecks and coordination problems. As famously argued by the economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron, modern industrialization would have been impossible without a high degree of conscious direction. The simultaneous expansion of many interdependent sectors and industries—along with the public infrastructure they require—is exactly the wrong sort of problem for widely dispersed private decision makers. The large-scale investment in plants and equipment required by both military mobilization and industrialization is often unattractive to private wealth-holders, who put a steep discount on returns far off in an uncertain future. Even the routine coordination of production through the price mechanism can break down in the high-pressure environment of a major redirection of production. In an economy running at full throttle, scarce resources will experience large and disruptive price rises, while private actors will be tempted to hoard key resources and exploit their market power. Giant corporations, starting with the railroads in the nineteenth century, organized themselves internally through central planning, not markets, with salaried managers performing the essential tasks of coordination. It’s no surprise that a government seeking to maximize military production would seek to organize the whole economy the same way.

The fundamental political problem raised by wartime planning is not the extent to which it did or did not affect private profits or competition, but the way it replaced dispersed private authority exercised through markets with centralized (and in principle at least, democratically accountable) authority exercised by the state. If urgent production needs and rapid reallocation of resources require a central plan—if even private businesses recognize this internally—then what claim do private capitalists have to their power and profits? In his opening chapter, on precursors to Second World War planning, Wilson quotes an amusing exchange between U.S. Steel chairman Elbert Gary and Bernard Baruch, head of the First World War–era War Industries Board. Unhappy with what the military was paying for steel, Baruch informed Gary that if prices didn’t come down, the government would simply take the industry over. When an incredulous Gary asked how U.S. Steel could be managed without its top executives, Baruch replied, “Oh, we’ll get a second lieutenant or somebody to run it.” More threatening than taxes, red tape, or even militant unions was the implication of wartime planning that owners were unnecessary to production. During the Second World War, business owners angrily—and correctly—complained that government control of investment, allocation of scarce materials, and prices and wages meant that “the businessman is just a middleman” for the planners in Washington.

This radical content of wartime planning was more clearly recognized by its business and conservative opponents than by the planners themselves, who—a few ardent New Dealers aside—seem to have moved toward more centralized planning as a pragmatic response to the difficulties of ramping up war production. Initially, planners hoped to achieve the vast expansion of industrial capacity required to meet military needs through private investment. They turned to public ownership only when private banks proved uninterested in financing war plants. For business, on the other hand, planning and public ownership was clearly seen as a mortal threat to their prestige and power—a feared and hated rival, or even, Wilson suggests, an enemy on par with the official enemies abroad. Already by 1941, government enterprise was, according to a Chamber of Commerce publication, “the ghost that stalks at every business conference.” J. Howard Pew of Sun Oil declared that if the United States abandoned private ownership and “supinely reli[es] on government control and operation, then Hitlerism wins even though Hitler himself be defeated.” Even the largest recipients of military contracts regarded the wartime state with hostility. GM chairman Alfred Sloan—referring to the danger of government enterprises operating after war—wondered if it is “not as essential to win the peace, in an economic sense, as it is to win the war, in a military sense,” while GE’s Philip Reed vowed to “oppose any project or program that will weaken” free enterprise.

Nonetheless, at the war’s end, about a quarter of the country’s industrial plants, representing the large majority of wartime investment, were owned by the federal government. The disposition of this vast system of public and semi-public enterprises was one of the central questions of postwar conversion while almost all of it eventually passed into private hands, this was by no means a foregone conclusion in 1945. For the remaining New Dealers and their newly empowered allies in labor, these publicly owned factories offered the basis for a permanent expansion of public enterprise, on the model of the Tennessee Valley Authority. (The TVA’s place in the liberal imagination as part of a project of broader social renovation is memorably expressed in Elia Kazan’s 1960 film Wild River.) As the war wound down, Harold Ickes floated the idea that new semi-public corporations should be created to refit the war plants to produce civilian goods and their shares to be distributed to returning veterans.

This was not to be. The success of business owners and their allies in rolling back wartime economic management is the most interesting part of Wilson’s book. By the 1960s the military was more dependent on private contractors not only than during the war, but, arguably, than at any previous point in its history. From the nineteenth century through the 1940s, half of Navy ships were built in government-owned shipyards by government employees. But less than two decades after the end of the Second World War, this capacity was entirely gone and all new warships were built by private contractors. Large public investments in other areas of military production that long predated the war similarly passed into the hands of private owners.

Wilson shows that this enormous rolling back of public production was not inevitable or driven by concerns of efficiency. It was an ideological project pushed by business leaders. Even in the days after Pearl Harbor, as dozens of government-financed and -owned plants were being authorized, conservatives like Senator Robert Taft were determined to ensure that these taxpayer-funded factories would eventually be “returned” to private business—an outcome that would require Congress to be “constantly on guard, and determined to restore a system of privately owned and operated enterprise.” By the end of the war, the conservatives had largely displaced New Deal economists like Eveline Burns and Alvin Hansen, whose National Resources Planning Board had been developing plans for turning the publicly owned war facilities into TVA-style public corporations. Instead, the discussion was dominated by the likes of the Baruch-Hancock report, which took as its starting point that the top priority should be “taking the government out of business.” The 1946 Employment Act, among the crown jewels of postwar Keynesianism, formalized a public commitment to avoid a return to the mass unemployment of the 1930s, but stipulated that full employment was to be achieved only through policies that “foster and promote free private enterprise.”

Perhaps the biggest contribution of Wilson’s book is the case it makes that the dismantling of the wartime planning apparatus was an ideological project aggressively pushed for its own sake. In this sense, the book serves as a kind of prequel to Kim Phillips-Fein’s Invisible Hands (2010), on business efforts to reverse the New Deal. Today, when the role of private owners in production is simply taken for granted, it’s useful to be reminded that at that decisive moment, private ownership was tenaciously pursued as an end in itself.

Bernard Wasserstein was born in London and educated at Oxford University. He is now professor of modern history at the University of Chicago. His books include Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945 (Clarendon Press, 1988), Vanishing Diaspora: The Jews in Europe since 1945 (Harvard University Press, 1997) and Israel and Palestine (Profile Books/Yale University Press, 2004).

Bernard Wasserstein was born in London and educated at Oxford University. He is now professor of modern history at the University of Chicago. His books include Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945 (Clarendon Press, 1988), Vanishing Diaspora: The Jews in Europe since 1945 (Harvard University Press, 1997) and Israel and Palestine (Profile Books/Yale University Press, 2004).

The Spanish Civil War: A Trial Run for World War II

A Mediterranean nation beset by military coup and civil war. A savage struggle marked by atrocities and fanaticism. Proxy war waged by outside nations pumping in men, weapons and money.

Today’s Syria or Turkey? No, it’s sunny Spain, now a peaceful member of the European Union, but eighty years ago the arena for one of the most vicious conflicts in history. The Spanish Civil War of 1936–39 is remembered today as a sort of Second World War-in-training, a playoff game before the championship match between Team Axis and Team Allies a few years later.

The Spanish Civil War began in July 1936 when Francisco Franco led a dissident group of staunchly conservative and Catholic generals, as well as half the Spanish Army, against the liberal, elected Spanish government. What should have been an internal military revolt like the recent attempted coup in Turkey swelled into an international struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, liberalism and conservatism, and communism versus fascism. In the end, fascism won.

In some ways, the Spanish Civil War belongs to a different era. We are accustomed today to slaughter inflicted in the name of God. Back then, the cause was ideology, the disputes over whether the world should be democratic or fascist or communist. Yet in other ways, the conflict seems all too familiar. Like today’s Iraq and Syria, the combatants fought amongst themselves as well as the enemy. The Nationalists were a collection of conservatives, monarchists and fascist Falangists. The Republicans were supported by a bizarre potpourri of socialists, communists, Trotskyites and anarchists, as well as international leftists such as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from America. The “White Terror” of the Nationalists murdered two hundred thousand opponents, grimly dwarfing the fifty thousand or so victims of the Red Terror, conducted by Republican death squads that were led by Soviet NKVD secret police.

The Nationalist rebels were supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy—not just with arms, but with troops and aircraft. German transport aircraft flew Nationalist soldiers from Spanish North Africa to the mainland. More important, Germany dispatched the Condor Legion, a twelve-thousand-strong force equipped with bombers, fighters and tanks. Not to be outdone, Mussolini sent fifty thousand Italians. By comparison, perhaps ten thousand Russian troops might have been committed to today’s Syrian Civil War.

Though the Spanish Civil War is viewed as a proving ground for World War II, that’s not strictly true. The mountainous Spanish terrain precluded the massed tank attacks and deep-penetration mechanized offensives of World War II. But it did provide invaluable experience to Hitler’s military, especially the Luftwaffe. Germany had the chance to test weapons it later used in World War II, such as the He-111 and Do-17 bombers. Legendary Luftwaffe fighter aces such as Adolph Galland and Werner Molders learned their craft in Spanish skies, devising deadly air combat tactics such as the “finger-four” formation. Not surprisingly, Italy didn’t fare quite so well, such as when the Republicans defeated an Italian force at the Battle of Guadalajara.

With typical fascist unity, Franco did not reciprocate Hitler’s generosity. In 1940, with France conquered and Britain fighting alone, the führer attempted to persuade Franco to declare war on Britain. The Spanish dictator successfully fobbed him off, leading Hitler to declare that he would rather endure a visit to the dentist than negotiate with Franco.

For the Republicans, the world turned its back. Some British officials preferred a fascist-leaning Nationalist regime to a leftist one. Britain and France imposed an arms embargo on both sides, but with the Nationalists receiving German and Italian weapons, the freeze only hurt the Republicans (just as the post-1967 British and French arms embargo in the Middle East only hurt Israel, rather than the Soviet-supplied Arabs). Only the Soviet Union would provide weapons and advisers.

Soviet officers also had the opportunity to learn modern combat, though naturally Stalin had his Spanish Civil War veterans executed for fear of ideological contamination. Yet not all the lessons were correct. Top Soviet military leaders concluded that massed armor was ineffective, and that tanks should be dispersed in small packets to support the infantry, a doctrine later smashed by German blitzkrieg tactics.

At times the war veered into the farcical, as when Italian submarines sank neutral ships transporting supplies to the Republicans. Instead of condemning Italy, Britain and France blamed “pirates” (as if Blackbeard was a U-boat commander), and began convoying ships in the Mediterranean.

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Spanish Civil War is its iconic images. We have Pablo Picasso’s haunting painting of the terror bombing of Guernica, Robert Capa’s classic (and now thought to have been staged) photo of the death of a Republican soldier, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.

But who the bell really tolled for was the Western democracies. Hitler and Mussolini had committed jackboots on the ground to overthrow a democratically elected government. Though it would probably not have deterred Hitler’s quest for war, world support for the Republicans would have signaled determination against the rising fascist menace. Yet if Britain and France wouldn’t lift a finger to help Spain in 1936, then why should they fight to save Czechoslovakia in 1938? No wonder Hitler expected the Western powers to stay quiet when he invaded Poland in 1939. The fuse for World War II might have been lit in the hills of Spain.

The Spanish Civil War still leaves us with a question: What price stability? Some believe that we need strongmen like Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad to bring order to the Middle East. There was indeed order in Spain after the civil war. Under Franco’s rule, Spain was mostly peaceful (except for the Basques), and a U.S. ally that hosted American nuclear missile submarines. It was also an authoritarian regime with censorship and political prisoners.

Is Franco the sort of ruler we want for the Middle East today?

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

Image: Spanish Civil War reenactors at Punta Lucero. Flickr/Xabier Eskisabel

Chlorine: the gas of war crimes

On 22 April 1915 the Germans released 168 tons of chlorine gas over a four mile front, in the first gas attack of the war, killing many of the French Zouave infantry in Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images

On 22 April 1915 the Germans released 168 tons of chlorine gas over a four mile front, in the first gas attack of the war, killing many of the French Zouave infantry in Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images

Last modified on Sat 14 Apr 2018 18.56 BST

On 2 August this year I noticed a small piece on the BBC news website about a gas attack in Syria. Accounts of the appalling situation in Syria and new devastating attacks seem to be almost a daily feature in the news. What I found especially depressing about the short item that made the news that day, was the alleged use of chlorine gas. Allegations of chlorine gas attacks have appeared again in the news on 11 August, this time resulting in the deaths of one woman and two children as well as a formal investigation by the UN.

Chlorine, the 17th element in the periodic table, is an industrially important chemical. Among other applications it is used in the dying industry and forms the basis for many household bleaches. But chlorine is perhaps most well known as an addition to swimming pools where, in small quantities, it reacts with the water to form hypochlorous acid that kills bacteria and prevents the growth of algae, resulting in safe, sanitary conditions for swimming.

Chlorine also has a much darker history in conflicts stretching back to the first world war. Its use at Ypres on 22 April 1915 marked a new era in chemical warfare. The possible threat of gas attacks had resulted in a treaty signed in 1899 prohibiting their use. The treaty did not stop the French from launching shells containing a primitive tear gas on German lines in 1914 but their aim had been disruption. The development of chlorine gas attacks were designed to kill. To avoid breaching the words of the treaty, though not the spirit, the pioneer of chemical warfare, Fritz Haber, planned the release of the gas from canisters – no projectiles would be involved.

The theory went that the pale green or yellow gas would be slowly pushed over no-mans-land towards the French lines by the wind. The heavier than air gas would then sink into the trenches. The hope was that the choking fumes would cause panic and chaos. French troops would simply run away and a gap would be left wide open for German troops, wearing gas masks, to advance and gain huge amounts of ground. Yes, there would be casualties, but reluctant German officials unsure of the technology were persuaded into trying Haber’s innovative plan as he claimed it would shorten the war and thereby save countless lives in the long run.

Canisters of chlorine were amassed along a fifteen mile stretch of German lines. When the wind eventually turned in the Germans’ favour (the prevailing wind was from the French trenches towards the German lines) the plan proceeded exactly as Haber had predicted. One hundred French troops died in the attack – a remarkably small number in a conflict that regularly saw the slaughter of thousands. But the Germans failed to capitalise on the gaping breach in French lines. As German troops tentatively advanced behind the gas, they were attacked by Canadian and British troops stationed alongside the French.

In the following months, the Allies also developed methods of deploying chlorine gas and both sides went on to develop even more toxic and devastating chemical agents to unleash on their enemies. Haber’s hopes for shortening the war were hopelessly off the mark. After the first chlorine attack at Ypres, the war would continue to grind on for another three and a half years, and estimates of over a million people are thought to have died as a result of the use of poison gas.

The horrific results of poison gas in warfare have spurred the drafting of various treaties signed since the end of the first world war. Progressive agreements in this area have resulted in the banning of the use of chemical weapons in warfare as well as the production, transportation and stockpiling of these compounds. Sadly this has not brought an end to their use in conflicts.

The use of any chemical weapon is appalling. The indiscriminate nature of poison gas and the harrowing effects produced in the human body seems especially callous and inhumane. Chlorine can attack the body in a number of ways producing devastating chemical burns. A complex series of chemical reactions is involved as chlorine reacts with fats, proteins and other material of the body. Most of the damage is thought to be caused by the reaction with moisture in the body to produce acids. The human body contains a lot of water (we are all between two thirds and three quarters water). Breathing the gas in through the moist areas of the mouth and nose to reach the throat and lungs damages these areas in particular. The eyes can also be corroded. There is no antidote. Only supportive care and treatment of symptoms – supporting breathing, clearing affected areas – is possible. Death can be relatively quick or agonisingly slow, depending on the extent of the damage.

The most recent gas attacks in Aleppo are said to have come in the form of barrel bombs dropped from a helicopter. Medical workers on the ground claim the victims they have encountered show characteristic symptoms of chlorine poisoning. We will have to wait for the UN report for confirmation of what has happened and if chlorine, a relic of a historic and terrible war, really has made an unwelcome appearance in the current conflict in Syria. If the accounts are true then the perpetrators, whoever they may be, have committed a war crime.