The Myth of 1940

Angus Calder

  • Collar the lot! How Britain Interned and Expelled its Wartime Refugees by Peter Gillman and Leni Gillman
    Quartet, 334 pp, £8.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 7043 2244 7
  • A Bespattered Page? The Internment of ‘His Majesty’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens’ by Ronald Stent
    Deutsch, 282 pp, £7.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 233 97246 3

On 16 May 1940, when the German Army had just overwhelmed Holland, police swooped to arrest 3,000 men born in the Reich but now living in Britain. Some were billeted in the offices of the Tote organisation. Queuing for lunch, one detainee saw an army officer brandishing a revolver at a boy:

‘Are you Jewish?’ the officer asked.
‘Yes’, the boy replied.
‘Are there many Jews here?’
‘About 80 per cent.’
‘Damn!’ the officer exclaimed. ‘I knew we’d get the wrong lot.’

Further arrests over the next few weeks brought the grand total of ‘enemy aliens’ interned to over 27,000. Some of these were undoubtedly hostile to Britain’s cause. But the vast majority were certainly not, and included a very great number of Jewish refugees, and some distinguished German socialists and Italian anti-Fascists, besides such oddities as a couple of Scottish miners whose father had been working briefly on the Ruhr when they had been born, and had never regularised their nationality.

While Hitler was setting them plenty of other problems which now seem incomparably more urgent, organising internment on this scale distracted Cabinet, Home Office and War Office. Troops were tied down guarding harmless aliens at a time when Dad’s Army was nightly expecting invasion. Highly skilled refugees whose talents would have enhanced Britain’s war effort wistfully stared at barbed wire on the Isle of Man. While an anti-Fascist ballet was touring South America under British Council auspices, its choreographers and designer were in detention.

Later that year, Penguin published a well-researched and highly indignant ‘Special’, The Internment of Aliens, by François Lafitte, which exposed what had happened as fully as was then possible. By that time, policies had changed, innocuous aliens were being released as quickly as the authorities could manage, and a general disposition to forget about the matter was setting in – not least among former internees now permitted to serve eagerly in the Army and, in some cases, to do important war work. After forty years in which very little has appeared in print on the subject, two new books appear almost simultaneously, each attempting a full account. Both the Gillmans and Ronald Stent have looked at official papers, both have interviewed ex-internees. Yet their work has been less overlapping than complementary.

Peter Gillman is a member of the Sunday Times ‘Insight’ team, and he and his wife, scenting conspiracy in top places, offer a detailed narrative of Government policies in the making. Mr Stent, himself a former internee, knows far less about Whitehall’s workings, and writes less efficiently, but gives a fuller and more inward account of life in Britain’s concentration camps. Where their accounts conflict, one would be hard put to blame either. Confusion and bad conscience in the then Government led to obfuscation, some of it probably deliberate. As Mr Stent observes, ‘statistics on every aspect of the internment story, given from time to time in Parliament by spokesmen of the various Ministries, differ so often that one cannot but wonder about their accuracy’.

Many internees were shifted to camps in the Isle of Man, where detention, for some victims (including, he says, Mr Stent), had incidental compensations. With so many distinguished refugee intellectuals present, a rich cultural life was possible. ‘Universities’ sprang up. Musicians had time to practise, artists improvised paintings and sculptures. The Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, after years of neglect, relished his captive audience: ‘His pièces de résistance, beyond doubt, were sculptures fashioned out of state remnants of porridge, which he assiduously collected from breakfast tables. They had the colour of Danish blue cheese and exuded a faintly sickly smell. Alas, they did not survive long; the mice soon got them.’

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