“Collar the Lot!” Artists, Aliens and Aspects of Internment in Britain, 1940-41
Early summer 2020-21 marks the 80th anniversary of one of the least well-known and most contentious episodes in British wartime history: namely, the indiscriminate internment, mostly but not only on the Isle of Man, of about 30,000 so-called ‘enemy aliens’ – the vast majority of them already traumatised German- or Austrian-Jewish refugees, both men and women, who assumed that for the moment at least they were now safe.
To be fair, this was a time of real peril, when the ‘Phoney War’ had just ended, the Nazis had occupied the Low Countries and France, the Allies had been forced to retreat at Dunkirk and the possibility of a German invasion of this country must have seemed all too real. In this context, whipping up fear of a possible fifth column, of spies in the ranks of the refugees, must have been all too easy. What’s more, there were a significant number of MPs and other public figures (Eleanor Rathbone, Michael Foot, Kenneth Clark and Bishop George Bell, for example) who protested vigorously at Churchill’s decision in May 1940 to “collar the lot” and did much to help secure the early release of some of the more illustrious internees.
It’s also true that at least in retrospect many of the refugees were surprisingly understanding of the situation and tended to make light of it. (Indeed, for those who had already endured the Nazi concentration camps, the British internment camps seemed relatively benign.) Nevertheless, for many, the experience of unceremoniously being put behind barbed wire in the country that had offered them a safe haven was bewildering and upsetting, to say the very least.
Yet whatever the wrongs and rights of the situation, and against all the odds, creativity flourished – not only because there were numerous talented internees with time on their hands, but because creativity is always an effective way to reassert one’s individuality in circumstances designed to rob people of their sense of self and self-worth. The intellectual life in the camps was rich too – indeed, someone described the Isle of Man in 1940 as the most important university in the world!
Rachel Dickson’s chapter in the Insiders/Outsiders companion volume examines the visual artists’ work in more detail, an excerpt can be read here. Norbert Meyn and his Ensemble Émigré have researched and performed much of the music, often in the form of satirical cabarets, produced behind barbed wire (Hans Gál “What a Life!” + the story of ‘What a Life!’). Those interested in finding out more about the lesser-known camps outside the Isle of Man should take a look at the recent Warth Mills Project, proof if needed that there is still much more research to be done. And for firsthand accounts of individuals’ experiences, the AJR Refugee Voices archive contains a wealth of vivid and poignant information.
Since the experience of internment features in so many refugees’ stories, which continue to resonate into the present, the 80th anniversary of this complex and morally murky episode seems the perfect moment to bring it back into the limelight. Although the present health crisis makes the exact timing of events uncertain, there are all sorts of interesting schemes afoot to do just this. On the Isle of Man itself, Yvonne Cresswell, Curator of Social History at the Manx Museum, is working on several projects designed to alert a wider public to that history; while the recently-established Rushen Heritage Trust is researching the stories of the women interned in Port Erin and Port St Mary, in the picturesque south of the island.
One of these women was Ruth Borchard, who went on to amass a superb collection of self-portraits by British-based artists, a selection of which is on display at the House of Manannan on the Isle of Man until 14 March 2021. Her semi-autobiographical account of being held in Holloway Prison prior to being sent the to Isle of Man, tellingly entitled We Are Strangers Here – written in 1943, but only discovered after her death in 2000 – remains one of the very few memoirs penned by a woman internee. Another was sculptor Margarete Klopfleisch, whose poignant woodcarving Despair was created in response to her experience of internment.
In addition, to coincide with this anniversary, the AJR is planning to install a blue plaque in Douglas, capital of the Isle of Man, as part of a bigger project to commemorate sites of particular significance. As soon as a date for this is confirmed, the plan is to put together a lively programme of related events (talks, guided walks, concerts etc.) to draw both the general public but also of course the descendants of these internees, who seem more intent than ever before to find out more about their families’ early experiences/lives in the UK. In the meantime, the three day conference organized by the Institute of Advanced Studies at UCL, entitled Approaching the History of Internment: Reconsiderations of Wartime Britain and Beyond, which was scheduled for mid-March, will be held at a later date.
Much, therefore, to ponder and to look forward to.
A number of relevant online events organised by Insiders/Outsiders have taken place:
Insiders Outsiders YouTube Channel: Internment
Other online resources relevant to the topic:
Behind the Wire BBC Omnibus programme from 2001, tells the story of refugees from Nazism and long-standing immigrants in Great Britain who in 1940 found themselves reclassified as aliens and held in captivity
Collar the Lot!, BBC Radio 4 programme from 2013, in which actor Tom Conti looks at Italian internment in Britain during World War II
His Majesty’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens Documentary, 1991