The Second World War in Europe is often presented as a war against fascism though this is conflated with a war against the nations of Germany and Italy and by default with Germans and Italians. The VE day celebrations today will be presented as those of a nation united against the Nazis. However, numerous anti-fascist Germans or Italians were interned in poor conditions in the UK whilst the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, although interned, was better treated and released early.
Upon the declaration of war on 3rd September 1939, some 70,000 UK resident Germans and Austrians became classed as ‘enemy aliens’. Many of them were refugees from fascism and committed anti-Nazis. Despite Britain having built the first concentration camps in the Boer war in South Africa at the turn of the century, these internments did not share the horrors of these camps. There was no mass starvation or death of the inmates due to disease.However, the internment of ‘aliens’ was (like the mass internment of Japanese citizens in the USA) draconian, arbitrary and based more on nationality than ideology. Section 186 of the Emergency Powers Act 1939 allowed the Home Secretary to detail persons “whose detention appears to be expedient…that is to say those whom he has reasonable cause to believe to be of ‘hostile origin or association’”. The Labour Party (Sidney Silverman and Herbert Morrison in particular) despite being in coalition government expressed anxieties about these measures. The new powers and subsequent actions were manifestations of the xenophobia and racism of many of the British public, some of whom believed that the country was “swarming with refugees”. One Limehouse docker said “Some of them aren’t even Jews, they are just damn dirty foreigners”.
Many arrests were made in the first 48 hours of the order’s enactment and people were held in very unsanitary conditions at Olympia and then at Butlins at Clacton. All enemy aliens went before special tribunals to determine whether they were to be interned or not. There were three categories:
- A: Those of whom there was serious doubt – who should be interned
- B: An intermediate group who faced some restrictions
- C: Those who were exempt from all restrictions
In the first few months of the conflict known as the ‘phony war’ 400 men and 200 women were interned as category A. Following the debacle of British action and withdrawal from Norway, the public began to seek scapegoats for the defeat; scaremongering about the presence of ‘Fifth Columnists’ was rife at this time. At the war cabinet of 3rd May 1940 Churchill recommended that all Germans, Italians, Czechs plus Belgian and Dutch refugees along with British fascists and communists should be interned. On the 12th May all 16-70 year old ‘aliens’ living in Britain’s coastal strip were interned – some 2,000 people. Some were held in tents on race courses with buckets for toilets, others behind an eight foot high barbed wire fence in a scarcely completed housing estate, sleeping on straw paillasses, with only cold water, no towels and little toilet paper. Forty percent of the internees were over 50 and many were unfit for internment.
All Category B ‘aliens’ were now interned, first the men then the women. This included British born women who were married to ‘aliens’. Being female made you the property of the man rather than of the nation of your birth. Internees were mainly held in hotels on the Isle of Man. 4,000 people were arrested in three weeks, including 300 Britons of Italian descent that had been in Britain for most of their lives. One man had been born in Constantinople, which at the time of his birth was Italian, yet he was still interned. Some internees were sent to a derelict cotton mill where there were 18 water taps for 500 men and no lighting.
The anti-Nazis interned included: Dr Franz Borkenau, historian and sociologist, Dr Martin Freud (son of Sigmund), John Heartfield the photo-montagist, Dr Otto Neurath (who escaped from Holland in a rowing boat, was picked up by a British destroyer and promptly interned) and Kurt Schwitters the Dadaist painter. These and others less eminent were interned by the British State to whom their nationality meant more than their anti-fascism.
The government then decided to deport the internees, Churchill was strongly in favour. In July 1940, in a bitter irony the ship Arandora Star was torpedoed in the Atlantic with a loss of 712 Italian, 476 German and 79 British internee lives. Many of these were anti-fascist refugees. Members of the Irish Republican Army in the north of Ireland were also detained as part of the measures.
On the other hand, if you were a British fascist your treatment was better; there was no evidence to show that the 18b (political) detainees had to endure the barbarous conditions faced by many ‘enemy aliens’. 747 people of this category were detained because of their membership of the British Union of Fascists (BUF). However, not all BUF members were interned; for example, Viscountess Downe (a friend of Queen Mary) was not, although three of her workmen were.
Most of the interned fascists although better treated than the ‘aliens’ were not living in luxury. The majority were interned on the Isle of Man. Diana Mosley was interned in Holloway prison and complained about the lack of bathing facilities. She (an aristocratic daughter of pro-fascist Lord Redesdale of the Mitford family) was a cousin of Clementine Churchill. So these were not merely the connections of being the landed gentry, but of personal familial bonds. Tom Mitford (Diana’s brother) dined with Churchill and put to him her view that the Mosley’s should be interned together. Sometime after they were; in a little house inside Holloway Prison where they were allowed to cook their own meals and be visited by their son Nicholas, who could stay talking long into the night.
It was however the early release of Oswald Mosley, which most revealed the functioning of the loyalties of class and friendship in the dominant order. Diana had encouraged her mother to go to see Clementine Churchill to raise the family’s concerns about Mosley’s health. As a result Churchill asked for medical opinions about him. Medical advisers concluded that his phlebitis required his release in November 1943 and claimed that he was seriously ill. Churchill telegraphed Herbert Morrison about this, stating: “MOST SECRET, I HIGHLY APPROVE YOUR ACTIONS.”
There were immediate protests with a demonstration of 30,000 in Trafalgar square for this “appeasement of a fascist” and there were strikes and workers’ protests. Arthur Deakin of the Transport and General Workers Union pointed out that when Gandhi was at death’s door, he was not released, but Mosley was. Mosley went on to live until December 1980. Mosley’s release led to a larger public outcry than any other during World War Two. The Ministry of Information noted: “The Government is accused of letting down the Forces who are fighting to break what Mosley stands for”.The ‘Mass Observation’ survey noted that after he was released 87% of their street survey disapproved. A 26 year old member of the RAF said: “The fascist minded Tories have worked it again – another sign that the political truce and national government was a farce”. A letter to the Daily Herald stated: “My comrades fighting fascism are disgusted at the decision to free Mosley. The decision is an insult to the workers”.
Interestingly the “Mosley Papers” covering his internment and release were kept closed beyond the 30 years at The National Archive (Public Record Office). At the time, I was part of a campaign to have them opened, because we suspected they might reveal further aristocrats with sympathy for Mosley. At an inaugural meeting, of the ‘Release Mosley Papers Campaign’ organised by the East Ends News in Bethnal Green Town Hall in 1983, Jonathon Guinness brought his mother over to meet the organisers. She wanted the names of her (fascist) friends who had a cushy war whilst she had been interned to be revealed. Amongst our group were some veterans of the historic Cable Street fight against Mosley’s blackshirts in 1936. Lady Diana held out her hand, in a white lace glove. The Cable street veteran refused to shake it and clasped his hands behind his own back! When some of the papers were released I reported that a warder in Holloway overheard a conversation whereby “Mr Mosley admitted that Hitler had in fact, appointed him to be a sort of co-leader in England”.
The internment of ‘enemy aliens’, including anti-fascists shows that the war was not primarily anti-fascist; your nation of birth (or of your husband’s birth) mattered more than your ideological loyalties. The early release of the Mosleys and the mass opposition to it demonstrated that class within nation was equally important. The British aristocracy protected their own, fascist or not.
-  It has been estimated of the more than 154,000 Boer and African civilians interned in British camps during the Boer war around 26,000-28,000 Boer and at least 14,000 Africans died of malnutrition and disease. The majority of victims were of children under the age of 16. [Back...]
- Mass Observation File Report 79, 25 April, 1940. [Back...]
- INF 1 282, 25 November, 1943 [Back...]
- Daily Herald, 27 November, 1943. [Back...]
- Sunday Times, 18 December, 1983. [Back...]
- This article is based on research in Di Parkin, “Nation, Class and Gender, the myth of National Unity in WWII” PhD thesis, London School of Economics, 1987. [Back...]