He used to give well-attended shows in illustrious venues: in recent years, the 42-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 ball gowns, no champagne flutes.
Behind Rawicz rose 45 neat Edwardian boarding houses, each of their windows painted a shade of dark blue. In front, on a crescent of wooden chairs, sat a row of army officers. Behind them, in disorderly rows on the grass, sat hundreds of refugees. Beyond the audience, the pianist could see the port of Douglas where the boats were blowing; in the background, a palisade of barbed wire.
This marked the boundary of what was now known as ‘Camp P’ or ‘Hutchinson’, an internment camp which housed many of Europe’s brightest minds – luminaries of the art world, fashion, music and academia – which made up one of the most unlikely prison populations in history.
Camp Hutchinson opened on July 13, 1940, one of several internment centers on the Isle of Man. Eventually, ten were established there to house thousands of German, Austrian and Italian passport holders living in Britain, who, from May 1940, were arrested in a country plagued by espionage fever.
That month, rumors abounded that Nazi sympathizers posing as asylum seekers in the Netherlands had aided the German occupation. With the news from Holland, however, British newspapers began to call for mass internment.
“You don’t realize”, wrote G Ward Price in the Daily Mail, “that every German is an agent”. Most of the refugees spoke heavily accented English, were unaccustomed to British social standards, and would make ineffective spies. It didn’t seem to matter. As 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 they came to this country.
When Hitler learned of Churchill’s internment policy, he reportedly gloated: “Germany’s enemies are now also Britain’s enemies. Where are those vaunted democratic liberties of which the English boast?
“Most British citizens recognized the inherent injustice of mass internment but felt it was nonetheless a justifiable measure. “.
But now, with the risk of a German invasion looking not only likely but imminent, the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, has ordered the arrest of so-called “enemy aliens”, even those who had been living peacefully in the country for decades. decades. Chaotic and sometimes cruel arrests followed, including those of thousands of Jews who had fled Nazi Germany to be imprisoned by the people they trusted – a nightmarish betrayal.
The statute offered no protection. Cambridge donations were halted in a university-wide roundup of international students and faculty, as were dozens of refugee artists who had settled in north London.
Police arrested Emil Goldmann, a 67-year-old professor from the University of Vienna, on the grounds of Eton College. Rawicz and his performing partner, Walter Landauer, were detained in Blackpool, where they had just started a series of revue shows at the Grand Theatre. Each of the Isle of Man camps had its own character. The Peveril camp, which housed British fascists and members of the IRA, was known to be loud and threatening.
Hutchinson, on the other hand, was filled with scholars and writers, painters and poets, actors and sculptors. Among the detainees were journalist Heinrich Fraenkel, who wrote and published a book, Help Us Germans To Beat The Nazis, from inside the camp, and Professor Gerhard Julius Bersu, a world expert on the Vikings. There was the music critic Rudolf Kasztner, and the publisher Walter Neurath, who, after his release, founded the publishing house Thames & Hudson with his colleague Hutchinson’s wife, Wilhelm Feuchtwang.
THE CAMP was also home to more than 20 prominent artists, including 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 called a degenerate by Adolf Hitler. Established artists trained young aspiring painters such as Peter Fleischmann, who later graduated from the Royal Academy of Art as Peter Midgley. As such, Hutchinson became known as “the artists’ camp”.
With so many geniuses, the extraordinary inevitably happened. Shortly after the camp opened, men emerged from their boarding houses with chairs and ladders which they set up around the terraced lawn. They would wave to passers-by and, when they had a small crowd, would start ranting about their specialist topics.
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 roam freely between topics, from Greek philosophy to explorations of industrial uses of synthetic fibers to analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
Before moving to Hutchinson, Bruno Ahrends, an architect who designed Berlin’s highly influential modernist housing estates, had run classes for schoolchildren in a former transit camp.
Recognizing the camp’s illustrious group of teachers, Ahrends approached its commanding officer, a former publicity executive named Captain Hubert Daniel, and asked permission to organize a formal lecture program.
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 administration building. Ahrends dubbed the outfit the “Cultural Department”. But Daniel, having learned that his charges included a considerable number of eminent scholars, insisted that it be known as “Hutchinson University”.
The duties of the Department were wide-ranging: scheduling classes and theatrical performances, arranging the borrowing of books from local and continental libraries, obtaining materials for performers, supplying musical instruments, and arranging the teaching of English. In addition to Camp University, the famous fashion designer and art school teacher Otto Haas-Heye established a textile school.
To support his demands for release, Ludwig Warschauer, a man much hated by the camp artists, who suspected him of being a secret Nazi sympathizer, founded a technical school to teach electrical engineering to young internees. Despite the enviably rich cultural life, depression was rife as inmates awaited news from loved ones and worried about their business in the face of the imminent threat of Nazi invasion.
“Lest this all seem too rosy a situation,” noted Klaus Hinrichsen, “let me assure you that all of this frantic activity was undertaken as a way to distract from the pervasive anger at injustice… the constant worry about women and children being left without a provider… from the lack of communication and, of course, suffering from the cramped living conditions and lack of freedom.”
In the fall of 1940, the tide of public opinion turned and awareness that the authorities had arrested thousands of innocent refugees became widespread. A trickle of releases became a deluge, and by the summer of 1941 most artists and scholars had been released. Other less eminent personalities were forced to wait much longer.
Those who attended Camp University cherished memories of those strange and emotionally chaotic months throughout their lives. “I’ve been to three colleges, and this one was the best,” said Fred Uhlman, a lawyer-turned-artist.
WHILE THE internees had been relatively comfortable, internment was an almost constant misery for most. At least 56 inmates have died on the Isle of Man, some by suicide.
Every government must balance its humanitarian obligations with the need to maintain national security. However, to categorize refugees from Nazi oppression as “enemy aliens” was to invite populist contempt and hatred to those who needed compassion the most. The injustice became evident when thousands of interned men joined the British Army to fight Hitler after the government allowed former internees to be transferred to combat units in 1942.
Many Hutchinsonians were among the 4,000 internees who joined the Pioneer Corps directly from internment camps and participated in the Normandy landings in June 1944. Hutchinson optician Horst Archenhold designed the periscope used to transform Sherman tanks in amphibious craft on D-Day, while Joseph Otto Flatter produced cartoons for the Ministry of Defense propaganda leaflets, of which more than two billion were dropped on Germany.
In the decades that followed, many Hutchinson alumni made substantial contributions to British culture, which was shaped significantly by the artists and thinkers, architects and musicians who had escaped to Britain.
From Glyndebourne Opera House to the Edinburgh Festival, the contributions of these and hundreds of others have continued to bear fruit beyond their lifetimes. A single sentence uttered by Sir John Anderson in the House of Commons on August 22, 1940, months before the release of most of Hutchinson’s internees, provided something approaching an apology: “Regrettable and deplorable things have happened.”
Those in power later recognized that the big mistake was to treat all refugees as enemy aliens but, unlike the United States where the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II was the subject of debate and lamentations, in Britain the subject is seldom recognized. .
The battle between a nation’s responsibility to help those in need and to maintain national security persists in every era, in every generation. In every era, the question remains the same: how far can a democratic society go in the just defense of its values before abandoning them along the way?
Simon Parkin is an author and contributor to The New Yorker. His latest book The Island of Extraordinary Captives (Scepter, £20) is out now. For free UK postage and delivery, call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832 or click here.