Aug 2007 Journal

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Internment: the sequel

The wartime internment of many thousands of Jewish refugees by the British government (see last month’s issue of the AJR Journal) probably arouses more heated and divergent reactions than any other single event in the history of the refugees in Britain. Since the 1980s, the facts about internment have been made widely known by historical studies, such as those of Peter and Leni Gillman and Ronald Stent, and are no longer the subject of much dispute. Instead, it is the conflicting views of internment that have taken centre stage in more recent years.

Even in the immediate aftermath of internment, the judgments passed on it varied greatly. Many of the younger internees - single men - soon came to recall the months spent on the Isle of Man almost as a kind of enforced holiday to which they reconciled themselves once they had accustomed themselves to it. Older refugees, concerned about their families, found the anxieties and frustration of detention harder to bear; some experienced serious mental crises. They found it far harder to put the experience of internment behind them.

But in the post-war years the great majority of the refugees developed a remarkably forgiving attitude to internment, which went hand in hand with a strong sense of loyalty to Britain and of pride in their association with their adopted homeland in its wartime defiance of Hitler. Some refugees went so far as to defend internment as an understandable measure not incommensurate with the national emergency facing Britain in 1940; it was impossible for the British authorities to be certain that there were no German spies among the refugees, they argued, so the unprecedented national emergency justified the internment of them all. For Leo Kahn, writing in AJR Information of September 1960, the experience of internment on the Isle of Man paled into insignificance when compared to the Nazi camps: ‘It was a great shock at the time. Now that we have lived through the perils of total war and have had to bear the unspeakable horror of Hitler’s Final Solution, this affair of our internment seems trivial enough. Was it not rather ridiculous to take it as seriously as we did?’

More common among refugees was the view that internment was a misconceived, unjust and stupid measure taken in panic and implemented inefficiently, but that events had soon caused the British government to reverse its policy and that relatively little serious damage had been done - even when the nation was fighting for survival, British liberalism had reasserted itself. Many refugees had been astounded to learn that the House of Commons had debated internment for nearly six hours on 10 July 1940, with the Nazi onslaught on Britain imminent, and debated it again on 22 August 1940, as German bombs fell on London. The outraged opposition to internment among liberal sections of British opinion was expressed by such champions of the refugees in parliament as Victor Cazalet, who called internment ‘this bespattered page of our history’, Josiah Wedgwood, and, above all, the tireless Eleanor Rathbone.

This view of internment as ending in a triumph of British liberalism is epitomised by Judith Kerr’s semi-autobiographical account of the internment of her brother, the future Sir Michael Kerr, in her book The Other Way Around, the sequel to When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. The parents in the book, desperate to secure the release of their son, write to the editor of a newspaper that had published an article sympathetic to anti-Nazi émigrés. They are astonished to receive a reply from the editor personally, informing them that he had been so moved by their letter that he had passed it on to the Home Secretary, who had promised to look into their son’s case immediately – and this as newspaper headlines were ominously proclaiming ‘Invasion Barges Massing in Channel Ports’. With his son’s release now assured, the father exclaims admiringly: ‘The English really are extraordinary. Here they are, threatened with invasion at any moment, and yet the Home Secretary can find time to right an injustice to an unknown boy who wasn’t even born here.’ The injustice of interning an innocent Cambridge student in the first place is forgivingly glossed over.

Other refugees retained a sense of severe and lasting bitterness. Walter Eberstadt, who later served with distinction as an officer in Normandy, was a student at Oxford when he was interned. Though he was impressed by the way in which the government had been brought to abandon an unjust policy, internment permanently coloured his view of Britain and contributed to his post-war decision to emigrate to America: ‘Still, since internment I have felt different about the English. No doubt it was my fault that I had foolishly fancied that a few years at public school and a year at Oxford had made me part of them.’

The judgments passed on internment by modern historians, often left-wing academics strongly critical of British government policy, differ sharply from those of the majority of the refugees, including most of the internees themselves. When F. I. Wiener returned in 1957 to Hutchinson Square, his place of internment 17 years previously, he described his time there in an article in AJR Information with humour and affection, concluding: ‘What has been the final judgment on that time? Few were really hurt and deeply offended, most accepted internment as a necessary evil, a government screening operation. From this point of view internment on the Isle of Man was just an inconvenience.’ For this, he and Leo Kahn were accused by David Cesarani and Tony Kushner, editors of the volume of essays The Internment of Aliens in Twentieth Century Britain (1993), of ‘sanitizing internment into a jolly jape’.

The implication here was that the refugees had refused to face up to the truth about internment, fearing to confront the reality of their treatment by the British government. Carefully avoiding any serious analysis of why the process had been instituted by the British state, the refugees had deliberately refrained from any criticism of Britain and the British government. In the view of Cesarani and Kushner, articles like Kahn’s and Wiener’s demonstrated the refugees’ reluctance to criticise British policy, for fear of reawakening the slumbering forces of British antisemitism and xenophobia.

This arguably falls into the error of imposing the historical model of Anglo-Jewry onto the refugees from Central Europe, a model dominated up to 1945 by Anglo-Jewry’s overriding fear of arousing antisemitism. Hailing mostly from Tsarist Russia, Anglo-Jewry had had little experience of successful assimilation in its lands of origin, whereas the Jews in the German-speaking countries had known over a century of gradually advancing integration; some of them maintained even after 1933 that Hitler’s rise to power was an unaccountable lapse into barbarism on the part of an otherwise highly civilised society. Consequently they did not believe that gentile societies were irremediably infected by vicious antisemitism – Britain less than most - and they were not prey to a consuming fear of it.

In reality, the underlying issue here was not the rights and wrongs of internment, but two contending views of Britain as a homeland to immigrant groups. Historians like Kushner and Cesarani do not believe that internment was a temporary aberration from the mainstream of British liberalism. For them, it stood in an established tradition of repressive hostility to small and defenceless minorities at times of war and crisis, exemplified by the Aliens Act of 1905 aimed at Jews from Eastern Europe, the internment of ‘enemy aliens’ in the First and Second World Wars, the detention of Arab suspects during the first Gulf War, and the anti-terrorist measures adopted since 2001. Behind the complacent fiction of Britain as a generous haven for the persecuted, they perceive a series of illiberal and discriminatory measures taken against ‘alien’ immigrants and minorities.

Refugee commentators, by contrast, mostly saw internment as a passing and exceptional episode that was rapidly overturned once public opinion had reverted to its traditional values; an underlying sense of fair play and tolerance had, they believed, reasserted itself, overcoming the illiberal prejudices that had led to the initial injustice. Their view of Britain was conditioned by confidence in its democratic institutions and trust in the basic decency and humanity of its people. Given the gulf between these two views, it is hardly surprising that the refugee historian Ralph Blumenau adopted a tone of mild bafflement when reviewing Cesarani and Kushner’s volume for AJR Information:

And yet it seems to this reviewer that there is something awry when the book makes illiberalism and injustice so much more central than the idea, conveyed by so many Jewish ex-internees, that in the end they were more impressed by the liberalism and fairness which ended their ordeal. This reviewer is inclined to align himself with the quotation in the book from Lord Beloff: ‘The reaction of the refugees themselves proved considerably more understanding than that of the historians who were not even born at that time, or were infants then.’


Anthony Grenville

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