Traditionally, four persons are known in English common law: natural born subject; denizen; alien friend; and alien enemy. In his Commentaries on the Law of England (1766) William Blackstone, Professor of English Law at Oxford University, summarised the position of the latter in times of conflict: ‘alien enemies have no rights, no privileges’. The Crown in other words possessed absolute power over alien enemies. When Mussolini declared war in June 1940, Churchill ordered to ‘collar the lot’. Mass internment followed. The precedent had been set during World War I.
On 4 August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. The next day Parliament passed the Aliens Restriction Act, transforming every foreigner born in Germany or Austria-Hungary into an enemy alien. This person was not permitted to send letters; he could not travel more than five miles from the police station at which he had registered; he could not carry a camera, or own a car, a motorcycle, or a carrier pigeon; he was forbidden to obtain military maps or possess a gun. To many, mere registration of enemy aliens did not settle the issue. In the years preceding the war, newspapers had sounded the alarm about nefarious Germans. Since 1870, the British image of Germany had changed drastically. The old stereotype of a nation populated by philosophers, composers, and drunken students, had transformed into one of military brutes, megalomaniac scientists, and spymasters. Germans were considered a dose of bad germs. As early as 1909, papers had reported (imaginary) Zeppelin sightings and warned of the threat posed by an expanding German navy. Lord Northcliffe, owner of both the Daily Mail and the Times, further stoked the fear of invasion, warning that German waiters and barbers lurked at the heart of a hidden spy network.
Pressured by Parliament to arrest all enemy aliens as prisoners of war, British Home Secretary Reginald McKenna initially refused. Internment, he noted, was reserved for those who were military personnel or seen as dangerous to the nation. On 7 May 1915, however, a German submarine torpedoed the British ocean liner Lusitania, killing more than a thousand civilians. Riots erupted in the streets of London and across the British Empire, from Johannesburg to Melbourne. Looters ransacked German bakeries, butchers and pubs. In Liverpool, police had to take citizens of German descent into protective custody. Political resistance to mass internment vanished overnight. Less than a week after the Lusitania’s destruction, the government announced that male enemy aliens – whatever their status or profession – would be rounded up. Many of them had settled years before, some families had been in Britain for generations. Tens of thousands of men were registered and locked up for the duration of the war. In north London, Alexandra Palace became a holding camp for up to 3,000 aliens. Eventually, they were sent to the village of Knockaloe on the Isle of Man which was turned into a complex of wooden sheds housing 25,000 internees. They were not soldiers, but low-grade hostages who were forced to endure their miserable fate and the breaking up of family life. The majority of those interned left Britain after the war or were deported. Many never saw their relations again.
Ironically, some immigrants were amongst the most ardent champions of internment. Emma Orczy was born in Hungary into a noble family. She was fifteen years old when her father took the family to London. She became a blockbuster author. Her novel The Scarlet Pimpernel was phenomenally popular. Between 1906 and 1940, she wrote fourteen sequels to the story. During World War I, Emma showed loyalty to her adopted country by founding the Active Service League, an organisation that urged women to make the following promise: ‘I do hereby pledge … to persuade every man I know to offer his services to the country, and I also pledge myself never to be seen in public with any man who … has refused to respond to his country’s call’. It was up to women to send their men to the trenches. Novelist William Tufnell Le Queux was born in Southwark in 1864, the son of an immigrant from Chateauroux in central France. Educated on the Continent, he became a prolific writer. From about 1905 he was a self-proclaimed patriot and Germanophobe. In 1906 Le Queux wrote for Lord Northcliffe’s Daily Mail a serial titled ‘The invasion of 1910’ (later published in book form). It warned of German atrocities and urged the introduction of compulsory military training. At the same time, politicians and newspaper editors became fixated on the idea that German prisoners in Britain had a pleasant time while British prisoners of war in Germany suffered brutal treatment. Internment deteriorated into organised xenophobia. The impact of such hysteria, which resulted in mass deportation of German civilians at the end of the conflict, would survive well beyond 1918.
Who were the victims? George Sauter was born in 1866 at Rettenbach, Bavaria, and studied art at the Royal Academy in Munich. He moved to London in 1895, having worked previously in Holland, Belgium, France and Italy. He married Lilian Galsworthy, daughter of the writer of the Forsyte Saga, and was appointed Honorary Secretary to the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers during Whistler’s presidency. Having lived in London for two decades but not become a British citizen, Sauter was interned with his son Rudolf (who became an artist in his own right) at the Alexandra Palace in December of 1915 and repatriated to Germany in early 1917. He never returned to Britain. George Kenner was born Georg Kennerknecht on 1 November 1888 in the small town of Schwabsoien, Bavaria. He moved to London in 1910 where he furthered his education at the Lambeth School of Art. With a British partner he set up the art company Waddington & Kennerknecht at no. 73 Farringdon Street. He was interned in May 1915. He was permitted by the camp authorities to use his skills as a professional artist. He created 110 paintings and drawings of his experiences as a civilian prisoner of war. It is the most extensive and moving collection of this nature that has survived. Kenner was transported to Knockaloe in June 1916 and sent back to Germany in a prisoner exchange in March 1919, four months after the Armistice. He never returned to Britain and eventually moved to Cheltenham, Pennsylvania.
Not all internees left Britain altogether. Carl Bartels was born in Stuttgart in 1866 into a Protestant family. He father was a woodcarver from the Black Forest. Having married Mathilde Zappe in 1887, the couple visited Britain on their honeymoon and decided to stay. He settled in Haringey, north London, and soon gained acclaim as a sculptor and woodworker. His reputation was enhanced when he won a competition to design two copper birds for the twin clock towers of Liverpool’s Royal Liver Building. His designs were brought to life by the Bromsgrove Guild of Applied Arts. After the Lusitania tragedy, Bartels was imprisoned at Knockaloe, even though he had been a naturalised Briton for more than twenty years. After the war Bartels was repatriated to Germany and separated from his wife and children. He regained residency in 1931 when his nephew’s employer offered permanent employment. Ironically, his designs were used in the modernisation of the RMS Mauretania, a sister ship of the Lusitania, although the building of the ship was scrapped in 1934. During the Second World War he made artificial limbs for injured servicemen.
The First World War was a watershed moment in the treatment of civilians during times of conflict. In the summer of 1914, concentration camps were a defunct concept. By the end of the war, they stretched across six continents. In only four years, mass detention of innocent civilians had been legitimised all over the world. Every nation has a black era or shameful episode it would prefer to exclude from historical accounts. For Britain, mass internment (and deportation) is one of those occurrences which has barely been acknowledged.