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The fate of refugees from Nazi Germany in Britain

Hilde Marchant, star reporter for the Daily Express, heard the story from a sailor. At first she didn’t believe it. Two nights earlier, the sailor explained, he had been standing on the deck of a ship loaded with British nationals headed to England, and watched as a confetti of parachutes drifted into Rotterdam harbour.

Dangling from each silhouetted disc, the sailor insisted, were German soldiers dressed, not in Nazi uniforms, but skirts and blouses. Each carried a submachine gun. When the disguised paratroopers landed, another witness claimed, men and women working as cleaners and servants emerged from basements and back doors wearing German uniforms. These traitorous individuals, the witness said, had come to Holland claiming to be refugees from Nazi oppression, sleeper agents posing as asylum seekers.

On 13 May 1940, three days after the invasion of the Netherlands began, the Daily Express published Marchant’s story under the headline “Germans dropped women parachutists as decoys”. Peppered throughout Marchant’s story was the term “fifth columnist” – one that, a short time before, would have been unrecognisable to most readers. Marchant was one of the first people to adopt the phrase, coined during the 1936 Spanish civil war as shorthand for traitors poised to support an enemy invasion from within. British newspapers had begun to refer to fifth columnists after the German invasion of Norway in early April 1940, when reports circulated that spies had been installed in the country to aid the German invasion. By the time Marchant’s story ran, there wasn’t a reader in Britain unaware of the term, or the notion that a similar network of duplicitous immigrants might lurk in their own towns and villages.

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The story’s claims of treachery were, it would later transpire, exaggerated. But the image of the double-crossing immigrant proved indelible, and not only among the readers of newspapers. The British envoy to the Dutch government, Sir Nevile Bland, had also witnessed the landings of the German paratroopers just before he escaped via ship. When Bland reached London the day after the Express story ran, he drafted an eyewitness report. The account, titled Fifth Column Menace, was vivid and fearful. No matter how “superficially charming and devoted” they appear, Bland wrote, every German or Austrian in Britain is “a real and grave menace”. When the signal is given to invade Britain, Bland continued, “there will be satellites of the monster all over the country who will at once embark on widespread sabotage and attacks on civilians”. Britain, Bland concluded, “cannot afford to take this risk. ALL Germans and Austrians, at least, ought to be interned at once.”

Bland’s feverish report was widely distributed in Whitehall. A copy reached King George VI, who summoned the home secretary, Sir John Anderson, for a meeting at Buckingham Palace. “You must take immediate action against political fifth columnists and other enemies of the state,” he told Anderson. “Men and women.” When the report’s claims were broadcast by the BBC, they had an immediate and transformative effect on the British public’s attitude towards refugees, and Jews in particular, which until now had been broadly characterised by fragile tolerance.

Before May 1940, not a single person interviewed by the polling group Mass Observation suspected refugees to Britain of espionage, or suggested that they should be interned. Up until then, only 569 individuals had been interned, either through MI5’s initial roundups or as the result of mandatory tribunals where senior judges had tested the loyalties of tens of thousands of asylum seekers. Some critics had always maintained that the home secretary’s policy had been too feeble. In April 1940, after the German occupation of Norway made an invasion of Britain seem possible, Col Henry Burton, Conservative member for Sudbury, asked members of the House of Commons if it would not be “far better to intern all the lot and then pick out the good ones”. This view had spread through the Conservative back benches and now, with the news from the Netherlands, the newspapers carried the clarion call for mass internment.

“Act! Act! Act! Do It Now!” blared a Daily Mail article by G Ward Price, on 24 May. “All refugees … should be drafted without delay to a remote part of the country and kept under strict supervision.” “You fail to realise,” Price wrote, “that every German is an agent.” A widespread ignorance of the true numbers of foreigners to whom Britain had offered asylum hastened the change in public attitudes. A poll asked British citizens to estimate the number of refugees who had come to Britain from Nazi Germany in the previous six years. Respondents put the number at anywhere between 2 and 4 million. The true figure was just 73,500.

Hysteria had overcome logic. Most refugees spoke thickly accented English, were unaccustomed to British social norms and would make ineffectual spies. Fifth columnists, if they existed, were far likelier to come from the ranks of British fascists. (On 23 May police arrested Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, and about 35 of his followers, individuals who would have likely supported Hitler’s invasion of Britain from within.) As the Labour politician Herbert Delaunay Hughes wrote, pseudonymously, at the time: “It is lamentable how quickly people seem to have forgotten who exactly the refugees are and how it is that they came to this country.” Most British citizens acknowledged the injustice inherent in mass internment, but felt that it was nevertheless an appropriate, justifiable measure. “You can’t say which is good and which bad,” said one respondent to a May poll in which half of those interviewed favoured the internment of all enemy aliens. “Some of them is very nice people, but it’s safest to pull them all in.”

In the early hours of 5 July 1940, the British police came for Peter Fleischmann, a young German Jewish refugee. He had narrowly avoided the Gestapo’s moonlit roundups in Berlin two years earlier. At that time a kindly police officer had knocked on the gates of the orphanage that was Fleischmann’s home, and warned that the Nazis were coming for him. When he was three, Fleischmann’s parents had drowned in an accident while driving by the Wannsee lake. The couple had been writers for an anti-fascist newspaper. Fleischmann later learned the car’s steering had been tampered with – their deaths apparently an act of political sabotage.

Now it seemed the Gestapo wanted to wipe him out, too. Fleischmann fled to the south of the city and hid in the basement of his family’s former housekeeper. When the first Kindertransport was arranged to bring children out of Germany, Fleischmann – a few weeks shy of his 17th birthday – just qualified for rescue. On 1 December 1938, alongside a brood of the city’s Jewish orphans, he embarked the train at the Anhalter Bahnhof railway station, watched by orphanage staff and a few Gestapo officers, who had come to observe the children, with their unpatriotic dark hair and brown eyes, making their pioneering journey.

In Britain, Fleischmann, who dreamed of becoming a professional artist, was taken in by the owners of a Manchester business that specialised in colouring old photographs of young soldiers who had died in the first world war. They provided him with employment and a room in their home in Prestwich. The hours were long, and the conditions – a basement filled with rats and shadows – insalubrious. But the work might, he reasoned, provide the experience he needed to return to art school.

In Whitehall, however, ongoing discussions soon derailed Fleischmann’s humble plans. Starting in November 1939, the government had established nationwide tribunals to test the loyalties of foreign passport-holders living in Britain. More than 50,000 individuals, including Fleischmann, had been classified, as a result, as refugees from Nazi oppression. After the invasion of Holland, however, the state began to debate whether these displaced men and women, many of whom had lost their livelihoods, homes and possessions, should be imprisoned anyway, without trial.

Winston Churchill, during his first cabinet meeting as prime minister, agreed to the internment of all male “enemy aliens” between the ages of 16 and 60 currently living in coastal counties in Britain. This “protected area” was where, in the event of Nazi invasion, a spy could cause most harm. Men were to be interned regardless of the refugee status bestowed on them several months earlier. The following day, on Sunday 12 May 1940, Scotland Yard’s fleet of motorcars roared out of police headquarters. Many of the officers dispatched to make the day’s arrests had been unaware of their task until they arrived at work that morning. By the end of this first mass roundup, around 2,000 refugees had been taken into custody and handed to the military authorities for internment.

Anderson, the home secretary, was opposed to mass internment, a position that he hoped to hold “unless the war begins to go badly”. Earlier in the year he wrote to his father of the danger posed to justice by national paranoia: “In wartime … people are easily worked up; a spy scare can be started at any time as a ‘stunt’.” Now with German troops in France, the threat of enemy invasion looming, and newspapers stewing with reports of fifth columnists (even the Manchester Guardian had added its voice to the chorus calling for mass internment, stating: “No half measures will do”), he was forced to concede that there were “various bodies and groups of persons in this country against whom action would need to be taken”, including refugees. Throughout May, the protected area expanded from coastal counties inland, until no one in Britain was safe from the threat of immediate arrest and indefinite internment based on their nationality, ethnicity, religion or political beliefs.

Internment was in the best interest of the internee, Churchill argued, since “public temper in this country would be such that such persons would be in great danger if left at liberty”. This argument precisely echoed that made by the Nazi officials to justify the arrest of the party’s political opponents. In a speech delivered in March 1933, shortly after the opening of Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, Heinrich Himmler reasoned: “I felt compelled [to make these arrests] because in many parts of the city there has been so much agitation that it has been impossible for me to guarantee the safety of those particular individuals who have provoked it.” The Nazis used a euphemism for this category of arrest – Schutzhaft, or protective custody – a term that could now be applied to Britain’s own policy towards Jews. For those individuals who had survived and fled the Nazi concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald, now interned by their supposed liberators, it was a befuddling injustice. When Hitler learned of Churchill’s internment policy, he reportedly gloated: “The enemies of Germany are now the enemies of Britain, too. Where are those much-vaunted democratic liberties of which the English boast?”

Having allowed the popular press to whip up jingoism and hatred, instead of taking an enlightened lead, the government now used “public opinion” as justification for strict measures. Among Londoners “some sort of neurosis had taken grip”, the art historian Klaus Hinrichsen noted. “Anyone who was German was considered a Nazi.” On Sunday 4 June 1940, Churchill, who had been prime minister for less than a month, addressed the House of Commons to announce the government’s new powers of arrest – “the powers to put down fifth column activities with a strong hand”. Churchill acknowledged that the orders would affect “a great many people … who are the passionate enemies of Nazi Germany”. There was, he said, nothing to be done. “I am very sorry for them,” he added, “but we cannot … draw all the distinctions which we should like to do.”

Status and class, those twin armaments of privilege, provided no protection. Nazism had pushed a wave of luminaries toward Britain. Now these Oxbridge dons, surgeons, dentists, lawyers and celebrated artists were taken into custody. The police arrested Emil Goldmann, a 67-year-old professor from the University of Vienna, in the grounds of Eton College, Britain’s most elite school. At Cambridge University, dozens of staff and students were detained in the Guildhall, including Friedrich Hohenzollern, also known as Prince Frederick of Prussia, a grandson of Queen Victoria (who, while interned, received food packages from Fortnum & Mason allegedly paid for by the royal family). That year’s Cambridge law finals nearly had to be cancelled because one of the interned professors had locked away the exam papers, and taken the key.

In the early hours of 5 July, a black maria pulled up at the Prestwich home of Albert and Gertrude Ripkin, who had taken in Peter Fleischmann and given him work. Fleischmann awoke to the sound of knocking. Albert was not yet up, so Fleischmann opened the door. The officer’s instruction was curt and urgent. “Get your clothes. Come with us.” Neither soldier nor criminal, Fleischmann, one of 90 aliens and refugees arrested by Salford police that morning, was denied the civil rights that even convicts enjoy: no charge, no trial, no bail.

None of his story mattered: not the fact he had been orphaned and made homeless by the Nazi regime, nor the fact that he had been brought to England as a destitute child, nor that he had been carefully interviewed by one of the most senior judges in the land and deemed to pose no security risk to his adoptive country. In this new reality, subject to the British government’s panicked measures, only Fleischmann’s nationality – the same nationality that the Nazis hoped to strip from all German and Austrian Jews – mattered. Buffeted along a twisted road by the winds of history, Fleischmann was, once again, rootless, unwelcome, homeless.

Across the country, internees were sent to various transit camps to await dispatch to more permanent camps. Fleischmann, like most of those arrested in north-west England, was sent to Warth Mills, a massive, decaying, derelict cotton mill that cast a brutish silhouette on the Lancashire horizon. Its proprietors had been forced by recession to abandon the premises a few years earlier. The site had been abandoned in haste: the floor, a mixture of cobbles and wood, was viscid and slippery with old machine oil, the smell of which mixed with the acrid stench of the canal that ran alongside the building, and stuck in the throat. Transmission belts hung like nooses from rafters. Crankshafts, partly dismounted, dangled at Damoclean angles. Clumps of rotting, mouldy cotton decorated the floor. Spiders ruled the shadows. A series of cast-iron columns crowned with intricate Corinthian capitals, high up in the vaulted murk, supported a glass roof, the sole source of light inside the building, which was pocked with broken panes that let the drizzle in.

The building, three storeys tall at one section, had sat empty and dampening until the British army moved in on 5 June 1940. The first internees arrived seven days later. They’d had ample time to take in their new home’s thuggish frontage. From Bury station they had been marched the four miles or so along Manchester Road towards the mill. It was a walk of shame; hostile onlookers watched as they were paraded in front of the public as prisoners.

“To be marched like a bloody prisoner of war, with people watching … that really hurt,” recalled Peter Katz, a pastor in his mid-50s, who had been one of the first arrivals. “I felt degraded.” By the time Fleischmann arrived, the place was packed. Inside, a phalanx of British soldiers under the command of a retired officer, Maj Alfred Braybrook, sat behind a row of tables, ready to check the men’s belongings. The internees lined up behind ropes. Each man smelled the stench of disinfectant and listened to the sounds of captive men while he waited to be called forward. When Fleischmann’s turn came, he approached, and a private grabbed his bag and tipped the contents on to a table. As the soldier sifted Fleischmann’s belongings, a seated officer thumbed through his wallet. Fleischmann assumed the men were searching for any items that might be used as weapons, but it soon became clear that anything of value was in danger of confiscation. Just as the Nazis had systematically robbed many of these men of their valuables, so the British officers now took chocolate, cigarettes, writing paper and typewriters, distributing these items among themselves in full view of their prisoners.

The confiscation of razor blades was justifiable, and a case could possibly be made for the seizure of gold sovereigns to preclude black-market trading. Other choices seemed indefensible: watches, books, medicine. One soldier took insulin from a diabetic. For some internees, this was a familiar experience. Many had passed through holding camps at Ascot and Kempton Park, also overseen by Braybrook. At Kempton Park, a young tailor, Kurt Treitel, lost his watch and all his money to larcenous soldiers.

The breach of privacy revealed not only what each internee had considered sufficiently important to bring with him during the harried moments of his arrest, but also the range of vocations represented among the captives. Doctors watched, bewildered, as the soldiers pocketed their stethoscopes. Academics argued that they should be allowed to keep their textbooks. Artists pleaded to keep their drawing paper. For many of the men, this ransacking crowned a brief period that had devastatingly transformed their view of Britain, and their place within it. “[We] went around breathing injustice and feeling very sore about all kinds of things,” wrote Hirsch Uri, who was arrested alongside a number of other young Orthodox Jews, most of whom had come to England via the Kindertransport. “Since gloom only serves to increase one’s loquacity, [we] soon became unbearable to ourselves.”

Some men at Warth Mills had already experienced great drama in their escapes to England. Two days after the outbreak of war, Gotfried Huelsmann had successfully crossed the Germany-Netherlands border disguised as a greengrocer, driving a van filled with vegetables. To be interned by the country he considered an ally, after such acts of derring-do, was hurtful; to be robbed by those in whom these men had staked their trust, unthinkable. “I remember very clearly – and this was the dominating thought – the feeling of insult,” noted Claus Moser, who later became chair of the Royal Opera House. “The whole operation was panicky and cruel.”

In Warth Mills, 2,000 internees shared a single bath, and 18 water taps – a limitation that quickly forced almost every man to give up on shaving, and encouraged some to rise as early as 4am to avoid the mass hustle for the facilities. Laundry could be washed in an empty room, but, without soap or drying facilities, clothes and blankets often emerged as dirty as before. There was no sewerage system, and the lavatories amounted to 60 buckets housed outside, beneath an oblong tent. As the day progressed, the stench became unbearable. The latrines became so choked that, towards the end of the day, men would simply relieve themselves in a quiet corner.

Conditions in the camp were considered, by the numerous German doctors among the inmates, to be a liability for the spread of disease. They wrote and co-signed a memorandum of complaint to Braybrook. Simon Isaac, a former professor at the University of Frankfurt who had overseen makeshift hospitals on the Russian Front, wrote that he had never seen a place less fit for the accommodation of human beings. To be imprisoned in a building “not even fit for beasts”, as another internee wrote, had a profound effect on the men’s view of the country that had offered them sanctuary. “Many [have] ceased to believe in the British spirit of humanity which before they had acclaimed,” he continued.

The indignities of isolation from friends and relatives, meagre food rations, wet straw mattresses, lice and inadequate sanitary arrangements led many internees to draw parallels between the mill and the Nazi concentration camps from which they had fled. A former member of the German Foreign Office, held in the mill, claimed conditions were much worse than those of the notorious French prisoner of war reprisal camps he had seen in the first world war, where captured men were kept in cold, brutal conditions and subject to epidemics of typhoid and cholera. According to an official Ministry of Information report, two men, both of whom had previously been incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps, died by suicide.

After a week spent at Warth Mills, Fleischmann was transported to one of the more permanent camps, 10 of which were situated on the Isle of Man, where women and children were also interned. When he reached the island, Fleischmann’s home was “P” Camp, or “Hutchinson”, where about 1,200 internees were billeted in requisitioned boarding houses that bordered a picturesque square, with views leading down to Douglas harbour. After the indignities of Warth Mills, Hutchinson had a bucolic quality, which, depending on an individual’s temperament, at times felt like something akin to a holiday camp.

Rather than squander their time in detention, the men worked to turn the camp into a cultural centre. Professional actors staged productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Of Mice and Men. Feted musicians performed concerts on the lawn. Oxbridge academics delivered lectures on a vast range of subjects, while the many celebrated artists in the camp produced and exhibited works of art in various disciplines. The journalists and editors published a fortnightly camp newspaper, featuring news, articles, fiction and illustrations. Thanks to the efforts of campaigners such as the MP Eleanor Rathbone, and the Quaker Bertha Bracey, chair of the Central Department for Interned Refugees, the internees were provided with books to open an impromptu library (Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca proved to be the most borrowed titles), a table tennis table, and, in time, a shop where they could buy supplies, and even alcohol.

Their captors allowed the internees to establish a hierarchy of governance, a trick developed by the British army to facilitate the colonisation of indigenous groups. Still, Hutchinson’s commandant, a former advertising executive named Hubert Daniel, was a benevolent overseer. At the urging of his wife, a frustrated artist, Daniel provided materials and studio space for the artists in the camp, and even hired a grand piano for an outdoor matinee performance by the interned musician Marjan Rawicz. The artists soon established a semi-exclusive artists’ cafe, housed in a laundry room extension, with food provided by an interned Austrian pastry chef. With its whitewashed walls and bubbling paint, water taps and washboards, the venue lacked the sophistication of the continental cafes the men were used to, but the room was sizable and, when some trestle tables, chairs and stools had been arranged inside, provided a relatively comfortable space for afternoon meetings, conversation and performances by, among others, the famed Kurt Schwitters, the most famous of Hutchinson’s artist internees, who recited his dadaist poetry.

For Fleischmann, who had no ties to the outside world, Hutchinson provided the artistic education that had been cut short by the Nazis. Schwitters taught him life-drawing and how to mix paint from ground brick powder. The sculptors Paul Hamann and Georg Ehrlich showed him how to dig clay while out on an escorted walk in the local hills and smuggle it back into the camp. The sculptor Ernst Müller-Blensdorf showed Fleischmann how to carve blocks of firewood.

In later years, everything of which Fleischmann had dreamed since he was a young aspiring artist at the orphanage would come true. Under his adopted name, Peter Midgley, he would be accepted into the Royal College of Art. He would graduate with first-class honours, the top fine art student in his year, rewarded with the RCA’s prestigious Rome scholarship. He would become a professional artist, securing commissions to create works for a number of British government departments, universities and the Royal Navy. Nothing bettered the training he received at Hutchinson, however. “Everything thereafter,” he later said, “was just a recap.”

Despite the cultural experience, depression was rife throughout the camp, as the men waited for news of their loved ones, worried about their businesses and obsessed over freedom. “Lest this all sounds too rosy a situation,” Klaus Hinrichsen, the art historian, who was secretary of the Hutchinson Camp University, later noted, “let me assure you that all these frantic activities were entered into as a means of distraction from the ever-present anger at the injustice of being interned … the constant worry about wives and children left without a provider and under almost nightly bombardment in London and other towns … from the lack of communication and, of course suffering from the cramped living conditions and the lack of freedom of movement.”

In the autumn of 1940, the British government released a white paper outlining several categories under which internees could apply for release. Those who were too young or too old, too infirm, or who already had permits to work in positions of national importance could apply to be freed. Artists, writers and musicians were not included until later revisions, and had to prove they had achieved distinction in their chosen field. (As Helen Roeder, secretary of the Artists’ Refugee Committee, put it to the director of the National Gallery: “Do you think [the criteria could] be stretched to include the poor souls who have been too busy being hunted to achieve distinction in the arts?”)

With hindsight, many internees recognised that they had been relatively comfortable and safe and, apart from the criminal abuse experienced at Warth Mills, their treatment was fair. For most, internment was a near-constant misery that, as the Oxford academic Paul Jacobsthal wrote, caused a “trauma”. At least 56 internees died in internment on the Isle of Man, many to suicide. And while Peter Midgley’s life was transformed by the people he met during internment, the episode also triggered feelings of rejection and abandonment that haunted his dreams. Once or twice a year he would experience the same recurring nightmare: he was back in the camp; everyone around him was released until, finally, he was the last one there, permanently forsaken.

Every government must balance its humanitarian obligations with the need to uphold national security. To categorise refugees from Nazi oppression as “enemy aliens”, however, was to invite populist scorn and hatred upon those in most need of compassion in wartime, and represented a moral failing on a national scale. Few went as far as Tristan Busch, a former internee who described the British policy as a “war crime” in his memoir, but it is indisputable that the hasty measures heaped unhappiness and anguish upon thousands of people already enduring the ordeal of fleeing their previous lives. Only a single sentence spoken by John Anderson in the House of Commons on 22 August 1940, months before most of Hutchinson’s internees were freed, provided something approaching an apology: “Regrettable and deplorable things have happened,” he said, as if the cruelties of internment had been the result of natural phenomena, and not a series of deliberate choices.

In May 2021, the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, issued a formal apology to the more than 30,000 Italian Canadians declared “enemy aliens” during the second world war – 600 of whom were sent to internment camps. There has been no equivalent attempt to repair the damage by the British authorities in failing to distinguish between refugees and “enemy aliens” – a dehumanising term that, in 2021, the US government pledged never again to use. The battle between a nation’s responsibility to help those in need and to maintain national security persists in every age, every generation. The notion of the refugee who is not who he or she claims to be is an enduring story that can be easily used to justify institutional cruelty or overreach. While the context and detail shifts, the debate remains the same, as does the potential for history to repeat itself. Each successive generation must answer the same question: how far can we go in the rightful defence of our values without abandoning them along the way?

 Simon Parkin