How the arts thrived at ‘the University of Barbed Wire’

Simon Parkin’s book about so-called ‘enemy aliens’ interned by the British makes for an informative and engaging read, says Nicholas Jacobs

Thursday, 5th May — By Nicholas Jacobs

Hutchinson Camp_2

Hutchinson Camp in the Isle of Man housed many artists, including Kurt Schwitters

THIS is the too-often shocking story of just one of the 10 internment camps on the Isle of Man which housed some 1,200 so-called “enemy aliens”, mainly Jewish and anti-Nazi Germans who had fled to England, many with help from British organisations, including the Kindertransports, which cruelly excluded the parents of those children.

Some 73,000 adults and children eventually fled Germany, Austria and Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia for England, especially after the so-called “Night of Broken Glass” in November 1938.

But why of the 73,000, some 90 per cent Jewish refugees, who were given refuge here were some 27,000 arrested and put under lock and key in poorly improvised camps not long after arrival?

Soon after Britain declared war on Germany in response to the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, the prize British battleship The Royal Oak was sunk in home waters. This was followed, after the “phoney war” when nothing much happened, in April 1940 by the successful German invasion of Norway and Denmark, the surrender of the Netherlands in May, the traumatic evacuation of Dunkirk and the surrender of Belgium, followed by the catastrophe of the Fall of France in June, and the German occupation of the Channel Islands.

This disastrous series of events, totally unacceptable to a still-imperial Britain, came quickly to be attributed to a “Fifth Column” of home-grown spies working for Germany.

The British ambassador to the Netherlands, Sir Nevile Bland, was convinced of it, and was invited to write a report by Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary. Titled Fifth Column Menace, Bland’s report concluded that “ALL Germans and Austrians, at least, ought to be interned at once”.

He was supported by the popular press, particularly by the notorious Daily Mail journalist G Ward Price, who proclaimed that “every German is an agent”. When Italy entered the war in June 1940, Churchill was asked which Italians should be interned, and replied: “Collar the lot!”

Kurt Schwitters’ painting of journalist Rudolf Olden

One day early in internment, a British officer spoke to the internee Max Perutz, who would go on to win a Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Perutz reminded the officer that he himself was not a prisoner of war, but a Jewish refugee from Nazi oppression. The officer seemed surprised and remarked: “Fancy, many of your people have told me this, but I never knew that there were so many Jews among the Nazis.”

Such attitudes, even if not typical, shows the ignorance the internees could be up against.

Simon Parkin’s The Island of Extraordinary Captives is an unusually full account of the story of the German-speaking refugees and internees begins at the beginning with the shooting dead in November 1938 by Herschel Grynszpan, a young Jewish Pole in Paris, of the German diplomat Eduard von Rath in protest at his parents expulsion from their livelihood in Hanover, and the expulsion of all Polish Jews in Germany.

The Nazi German response was the so-called “Night of Broken Glass”, the violent attack against synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses on November 9-10, 1938. It was from then that the mass expulsion of Jews from Germany and Austria began.

The story of the internment of so-called “enemy aliens” has been told, and told well, many times beginning in 1940, as it was actually happening. As more and more state and public and private papers become available, so the books become longer, so that Parkin’s is substantially the longest.

His way of telling the story is mainly biographical, which makes for easy and attractive reading.

The 17-year-old German-Jewish orphan Peter Fleischmann, whose parents had been killed in a car crash when he was a child in pre-Nazi Germany, longed to be an artist, and had the good luck to be placed in Hutchinson Camp, Douglas, on the Isle of Man.

This camp was rich in artists, including Kurt Schwitters, Fred Uhlman and Ludwig Meidner (who found internment congenial, because he liked the isolation).

After release from internment, Peter Fleischmann, now Peter Midgley to become more English, had an active career in the army, including as interpreter, and ended his life as an artist and art teacher.

Not only were there artists at Hutchinson, but there was a highly active art historian and curator.

Though young, Klaus Hinrichsen carried great authority and befriended and encouraged many artists in Hutchinson Camp. Among other illustrations in this book is a fine portrait of Hinrichsen by Schwitters, otherwise known for his more Surreal and DaDa work, making use of porridge and toothpaste when paint was scarce.

Hutchinson Camp also benefited from having a sympathetic military commandant, Hubert Daniels, who particularly encouraged artistic, musical and in general cultural life in the camp, so that it acquired the name of “The University of Barbed Wire.”

One of the most tragic victims of internment was the brilliant author and journalist Rudolf Olden. His polemic Hitler the Pawn had appeared in English in 1936.

He was released from internment to his home in Oxford in August 1940 and learned that a job was waiting for him at the New School of Social Research in New York.

Reluctantly he boarded the SS City of Benares in Liverpool dock. The boat was torpedoed four days later. Some 260 lives were lost, including Olden and his wife.

The Camp, the Hutchinson newspaper, carried a tribute by Friedrich Burschell, formally a Cambridge don: “Rudolf Olden was one of the outstanding personalities of the German emigration. His loss is irreparable.”

Nor was his the only loss of life in this way. On its way to Canada with “enemy aliens” the SS Arandora Star was torpedoed with heavy loss of German, Austrian and Italian refugee life at the beginning of July 1940.

Many of the German-speaking refugees drowned in this tragedy had survived Nazi camps. Some historians see this catastrophe as marking the end of the policy of internment as hitherto exercised.

Parkin’s book is packed with incident, often dark, but it also contains two heroes, or heroines – the Labour MP Eleanor Rathbone, and especially her little-known friend and colleague, the Quaker Bertha Bracey who, partly working from Friends’ House as the chair of the German Emergency Committee, devoted her life to improving the life of the German-speaking refugees, from Kindertransport to internment camp and beyond.

There is a telling photograph of Bertha Bracey in this book, hiding her face behind her handbag.

The Island of Extraordinary Captives. By Simon Parkin, Sceptre, £20

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