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May 2010 Journal

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Friends of the ‘enemy aliens’

In all the many obituaries, tributes and other articles in the media devoted to Michael Foot since his death on 3 March 2010, hardly any mention has been made of his forthright support of the refugees from Hitler who were interned by the British government in the early summer of 1940. Though Foot was barely 27 years old at the time, he was a prominent feature writer for the London Evening Standard, thanks to the patronage of the paper’s owner, Lord Beaverbrook, who appointed him editor of the paper in 1942. On 23 July 1940, Foot wrote a trenchant article attacking the stupidity and injustice of the internment of the refugees from Nazism, who had every reason to hate Hitler and to rally to the Allied cause. ‘Why not lock up General de Gaulle?’, he concluded caustically.

As is well known, Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria fleeing racial persecution formed the great majority of those interned, though the detainees also included non-Jewish political refugees, as well as Italians and people of other nationalities suspected of sympathy for the Axis powers. When Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, the Jewish refugees of German nationality (who included Austrians after Austria’s incorporation into Germany) perforce became ‘enemy aliens’. At first, the government took no action against them, beyond having them appear before tribunals that assessed the degree of risk they posed to Britain; the overwhelming majority of them were allocated to Category C, indicating that they posed no danger.

With the Nazi invasion of France and the Low Countries in May 1940, however, government policy changed, in response to an increasingly vociferous press campaign that demanded the immediate internment of all refugees in the light of Britain’s perilous military position. In May 1940, male ‘enemy aliens’ living in designated ‘protected areas’ on coasts exposed to invasion were interned; this was followed a few days later by the internment of men classed by the tribunals as Category B. On 25 June, the government ordered the internment of men in Category C, which entailed the rounding up of around 13,000 more refugees. Some 4,000 women were also detained, before the policy of internment was abandoned. During July 1940, that policy was comprehensively discredited in the eyes of the public by events like the sinking of the liner Arandora Star, which was carrying internees to Canada, by a German U-boat, with heavy loss of life.

Contributors to the Evening Standard, alongside Michael Foot, included the great cartoonist David Low, born in New Zealand and creator of such unforgettable figures as the dyspeptic and reactionary Colonel Blimp and the image of the stolidly unadventurous Trades Union Congress as a carthorse. Blimp was to undergo an unexpected transformation in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s unforgettable film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), where the inimitable Roger Livesey portrayed the reluctant conversion of the old warrior to modern methods of prosecuting the war against Hitler, with the able assistance of Anton Walbrook (himself a refugee from Nazism, as was Pressburger) and the young Deborah Kerr.

Low had long been a committed anti-Fascist and an advocate of a more robust stance towards Nazi Germany than Chamberlain’s ill-fated policy of appeasement. His most famous cartoon appeared in the Evening Standard in response to the signing on 23 August 1939 of the pact between Hitler and Stalin, one of the great diplomatic surprise packets of modern times, which signalled the imminent outbreak of the Second World War and sounded the final death knell for appeasement. Entitled ‘Rendezvous’, the cartoon depicts Hitler and Stalin greeting each other with much bowing and scraping over the corpse of a murdered Poland, the pact’s most obvious victim. ‘The scum of the earth, I believe?’, intones Hitler by way of greeting to his fellow dictator, while Stalin responds with the endearing words ‘The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?’ Both men carry concealed weapons, and the transparent insincerity of their protestations of friendship highlights the cynical Realpolitik behind the pact.

Low’s opposition to Fascism, and his aversion to Stalinist Communism, was fuelled by an instinctive sense of justice and a strong feeling of sympathy for its victims. He too did not remain inactive in the face of the internment of the innocent and defenceless ‘enemy aliens’. The Evening Standard of 19 July 1940 carried a cartoon by him, divided into two parts by strands of barbed wire. To the left, behind the wire, stand the disconsolate internees, sober, reflective and sometimes bespectacled men with the dark suits and intellectual air that characterised the refugees from Hitler in the public mind; forlornly, they gaze out across the wire towards the freedom of which they have been incomprehensibly deprived. The injustice and idiocy of their internment as supposed enemies of Britain is underlined by Low’s description of them as ‘German & Italian enemies of Nazism and Fascism’.

To the right, outside the wire, appear a number of manic-looking figures who march around in a demented parody of right-wing militarism; Low calls them ‘our own total-minded Little Hitlers’. Clad in trench coats and bowler hats or black top hats and black jackets, they sport placards bearing such slogans as ‘suppress the press’ and ‘death for fool talk’. One man, with the regulation clipped military-style moustache, squats down to squint at the internees through the lower strands of the wire, for all the world like a dog snarling at its prey. There is even a woman, with the mountainous bosom and the flat, pill-box hat that bespeak the right-wing patriotic fanatic, who carries a placard demanding ‘lock up all foreigners’. In the left-hand bottom corner of the cartoon, a small girl looks on in bewilderment. She asks the adult accompanying her ‘Which are the dangerous ones we have to keep behind barbed-wire, uncle?’

The remarkable change in public opinion towards the internment of ‘enemy aliens’ that occurred in July/August 1940 was largely the achievement of the friends of the refugees in Parliament and the media. Under wartime conditions, and especially in the emergency situation of summer 1940, it was far from easy for pressure from outside government to effect a change in official policy towards a little-regarded group like the refugees from Hitler. But there were in the House of Commons a number of determined supporters of the refugees bent on righting the glaring injustice of internment. Pride of place among these fighters for justice and liberty must go to Eleanor Rathbone, the Independent MP who sat for the Combined Universities. Her contribution was so great that it will form the subject of next month’s front-page article.

Among the other MPs who supported the refugees, three names are most often cited. Particularly impassioned as a champion of the refugees was Colonel Josiah Wedgwood, Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, who was a consistent supporter of refugee causes, during the period of their immigration into Britain before 1939, during the internment crisis, and during the desperate attempts to rescue Jews from the Nazis after 1939; his death in 1943 was a severe loss. A tireless worker on behalf of the Jews, including those seeking entry to Palestine (then under British mandate), Wedgwood was a genuine radical with a strong moral conscience.

The Conservative MP for Chippenham, Major Victor Cazalet, was another outspoken critic of internment; in the House of Commons, Cazalet memorably described internment as ‘a bespattered page of our history’, thus providing Ronald Stent, a refugee and internee, with the title of his important study of internment (1980). But Cazalet came from a very different political background to Wedgwood; at the time of the Spanish Civil War, he had been a strong supporter of General Franco, though he swung behind Churchill in his uncompromising stance against Hitler. In 1938 he had visited Vienna, where he was moved to action by the desperate situation of the Jews trapped there by the Anschluss. Cazalet died in 1943, in the aircraft crash in Gibraltar that also claimed the life of the Polish leader General Sikorski.

Commander Oliver Locker-Lampson, Conservative MP for Birmingham Handsworth, invited Albert Einstein to Britain in September 1933, following the Nazi takeover of power in Germany; this enabled Einstein to make a memorable speech at an event held at the Royal Albert Hall in support of Jewish academics persecuted by the Nazis. Locker-Lampson was at first sight an improbable ally of the refugees: he was an outspoken enemy of ‘Bolshevism’ and a staunchly right-wing advocate of ‘cleaning out the Reds’. Nevertheless, he intervened repeatedly in Parliament to press the cause of the refugees; it speaks for his humanity that on 25 July 1940 he questioned the Home Secretary, Sir John Anderson, over the case of Professor Fritz Mayer, a refugee who had committed suicide when the police arrived to detain him. Along with Henry Graham White, Liberal MP for Birkenhead East and a close contact of the AJR during its earliest years, these men deserve a place in the memories of the refugees from Hitler and their descendants.


Anthony Grenville

next article:AJR Annual Report 2009