The Island of Extraordinary Captives

Simon Parkin

Britain’s own role in the practice of incarcerating 'aliens' is examined in a new book.
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The Island of Extraordinary Captives

Marjan Rawicz surveyed the crowd gathered on the terraced lawn in front of his grand piano. Rawicz was used to giving well-attended performances at illustrious venues: during the past few years the forty-two-year-old musician had become an international celebrity. A frequent guest of kings and presidents, he had come to Britain to perform for the Prince of Wales. For today’s outdoor concert, however, there were no tuxedos or ballgowns, no flutes of champagne.

Behind Rawicz rose a backdrop of forty-five neat, Edwardian boarding houses. The buildings were curious looking. Each window was painted a shade of dark blue and etched with drawings of zoo animals, unicorns, and characters from Greek myth. Viewed from outside, the pictures, which had been scratched into the paint with razor blades, glowed menacingly with the light of the brothel-red lightbulbs indoors.

In front of Rawicz, on a crescent of wooden chairs, sat a line of army officers. Behind the uniformed men, in untidy rows on the grass, sat hundreds of refugees. Beyond the audience heads, Rawicz could see Douglas harbor where boats pottered and chugged; in the middle distance a palisade of barbed wire. This perimeter marked the boundary of what was now known as ‘P camp’, or ‘Hutchinson’, an internment camp that housed many of Europe’s most brilliant minds – luminaries from the worlds of art, fashion, media, and academia – who together made up one of history’s unlikeliest and most extraordinary prison populations.

Hutchinson camp opened on 13th July 1940, one of a clutch of internment camps situated on the Isle of Man, a site ideally suited for imprisonment, being sufficiently far from the neighbouring coasts. Ten camps were established on the island to house thousands of German and Austrian passport holders living in Britain, who, from May 1940, were arrested in a country gripped by spy fever.

Rawicz on the left

That month rumours abounded that Nazi sympathisers posing as asylum seekers had assisted paratroopers in the German occupation of the Netherlands. 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. With the news from Holland, however, British newspapers began to carry the clarion call for mass internment. ‘You fail to realise’, G. Ward Price wrote in the Daily Mail, ‘that every German is an agent.’ Most refugees spoke thickly accented English, were unaccustomed to British social norms and would make ineffectual spies. This didn’t seem to matter. As the politician Herbert Delaunay Hughes wrote 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.’ 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?”

Most British citizens acknowledged the injustice inherent in mass internment but felt that it was nevertheless a justifiable measure. The Home Secretary, John Anderson, was opposed to mass internment, a position that he hoped to hold, he wrote, ‘unless the war begins to go badly’. But now, with the risk of a German invasion to Britain appearing not only likely but imminent, the newly instated Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, ordered the arrest of the so-called ‘enemy aliens’, many of whom had lived peacefully in the country for decades. Chaotic and sometimes cruel arrests followed including those of thousands of Jews who had fled Nazi Germany only to be imprisoned by the people in whom they had staked their trust – a nightmarish betrayal.

Status provided no protection. Cambridge dons were arrested in a university-wide round-up of international students and professors, as were scores of the ‘degenerate’ artist refugees who had settled around Hampstead Heath. The police arrested Emil Goldmann, a sixty-seven-year-old professor from the University of Vienna, on the grounds of Eton College. Rawicz and his performing partner, Walter Launder, were detained in Blackpool, where they had just begun a run of revue performances in the Grand Theatre.

Each of camps on the Isle of Man had its own character, often reflecting the temperament of its inmates. Peveril Camp, which housed British fascists and members of the IRA, was boisterous and threatening. Hutchinson, by contrast, was filled with academics and writers, painters and poets, actors, and sculptors. Inmates included the journalist Heinrich Fraenkel, who wrote and published a book, ‘Help Us Germans To Beat The Nazis’, for the publisher Victor Gollancz, from inside the camp, and Professor Gerhard Julius Bersu, a world expert on Vikings. There was the music critic Rudolf Kastner, and the publisher Walter Neurath, who, following his release, eloped and founded the publishing company Thames & Hudson with the wife of his Hutchinson colleague, Wilhelm Feuchtwang.

Through happenstance the camp was also home to more than twenty eminent artists. The roster included Paul Hamann, a sculptor who had made life-masks of well-known English figures, including Winston Churchill’s wife Clementine; Ludwig Meidner, considered by many to be the greatest of all German Expressionists; and Kurt Schwitters, the pioneering Dadaist artist in front of whose “degenerate” work the failed painter Adolf Hitler had once posed, sarcastically. As such, Hutchinson became known as “the Artists’ Camp.”

With such a high concentration of luminaries, the extraordinary inevitably occurred. Shortly after the camp opened some men emerged from their boarding houses carrying chairs and ladders which they set up around the terraced lawn. They beckoned passers-by, and, when they had a small crowd, began to hold forth on their specialist subject. Soon the lawn was filled with speakers and their various audiences, like, as one observer put it, a scene from ancient Athens. A listener could wander freely between subjects, from Greek philosophy to explorations of the industrial uses of synthetic fibres to explications of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Kurt Schwitters

Before he transferred to Hutchinson, Bruno Ahrends, an architect who designed Berlin’s highly influential modernist housing estates, had organised lessons for the schoolboys in a previous transit camp. Recognising the illustrious group of teachers in the camp’s midst, Ahrends approached the camp commandant, a former advertising executive named Captain Hubert Daniel, and requested permission to organise a formal schedule of lectures. Daniel, known as ‘Danny’ to his friends, offered Ahrends and his assistant Klaus Hinrichsen, a young art historian, a room on the first floor of the camp’s administration building. Ahrends christened the outfit the ‘Cultural Department.’ But Daniel, having learned that his charges included a considerable number of eminent academics, insisted that it be known as ‘Hutchinson University.’ The Department’s remit was wide-ranging: programming lessons and theatrical performances, arranging the borrowing of books from local and mainland libraries, securing materials for the artists, supplying musical instruments for performances, and the organising the teaching of English at all grades of knowledge. As well as the Camp University, the celebrated fashion designer and art school professor Otto Haas-Heye established a school of textiles in the camp, while, to support his petitions for release, Ludwig Warschauer, a man much disliked by the artists in the camp, who suspected him of being a secret Nazi-sympathiser, founded a technical school in one of the houses to teach younger internees electrical engineering.

Despite the camp’s enviably rich cultural life depression was rife as the men waited for news of their loved ones, worried about their businesses, and the looming threat of Nazi invasion. “Lest this all sounds too rosy a situation,” Klaus Hinrichsen 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…  the constant worry about wives and children left without a provider… from the lack of communication and, of course suffering from the cramped living conditions and the lack of freedom.

In the autumn of 1940, the tide of public opinion turned and the realisation that the authorities had arrested thousands of innocent refugees became widespread. A trickle of releases became a flood and, by the summer of 1941, most of the artists and academics had been freed. Other, less eminent individuals were made to wait far longer. Those who attended the Camp University treasured the memories of those strange, emotionally chaotic months throughout their lives. “It was the best university I had ever attended,” said Fred Uhlman, a lawyer turned artist. “I have been to three universities, and this was the best one.”

While the internees had been relatively comfortable, internment was a near-constant misery for most, one that, as the Oxford academic Paul Jacobstahl, wrote caused a “trauma”. At least fifty-six internees died in internment on the Isle of Man, some to suicide. Every government must balance its humanitarian obligations with the need to uphold national security. To categorize refugees from Nazi oppression as “enemy aliens,” however, was to invite populist scorn and hatred upon those in most need of compassion and represented a moral failing on a national scale.

The perversion of the episode was revealed when thousands of the interned men joined the British army to fight Hitler after, in 1942, the government allowed former internees to transfer to fighting units. Many Hutchinsonians were among the four thousand internees who joined the Pioneer Corps direct from internment camps and participated in the Normandy landings in June 1944. The Hutchinson optician Horst Archenhold designed the periscope that was used to turn the Duplex Drive Sherman tanks into amphibious craft on D-Day, while Joseph Otto Flatter produced cartoons for Ministry of Defence propaganda leaflets, more than two billion of which were dropped over Germany.

In the decades that followed, many Hutchinson alumni made substantial contributions to British culture, which was shaped in meaningful ways by those artists and thinkers, architects and musicians who had escaped to Britain. From the Glyndebourne Opera House to the Edinburgh Festival, the contributions of these and hundreds of other former internees continued to pay dividends beyond the frame of their lifetimes.

Only a single sentence spoken by Sir 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.” Those in power later acknowledged that the great mistake was treating all refugees as enemy aliens, but unlike in the US, where the internment of Japanese citizens during the Second World War has been a subject of ongoing debate and lament, in Britain the subject is rarely acknowledged.

Simon Parkin is a British author and a contributing writer for the New Yorker. His latest book is The Island of Extraordinary Captives: A True Story of an Artist, a Spy and a Wartime Scandal.

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