BRITAIN REACTS TO ANTI-GERMAN RIOTS BY DETAINING GERMAN CIVILIANS
[ 13 May 1915 ]
During the First World War, the British government deliberately played on widespread anti-German and anti-Austrian sentiments. On 13 May 1915, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, aching to receive accolades from a xenophobic press, informed parliament that all German and Austrian civilians living in Britain and aged between seventeen and fifty five would be interned indefinitely. The decision was taken despite the fact that not a single act of sabotage had been recorded since Britain had declared war on Germany and Austria nine months earlier. Older men, women and children would be forcibly deported. Altogether, this necessitated rounding up some 75,000 men, women and children.1
The measures followed several days of widespread destruction and looting of German shops, butchers, artisan workshops and bakeries across the country, whipped up by the anti-German war hysteria of Fleet Street. The bitter jingoism and fanaticism was so intense in East London, that journalist Michael MacDonagh noted in his diary that ‘there is a scarcity of bread… German bakers have been rooted out by the process of their shops being pillaged and wrecked.’2 A crowd in Poplar even refused to spare a bakery who’s owner, a naturalised German, had two sons serving with the British army in the trenches, breaking down its windows with sticks and stones.3
The attacks provided a convenient pretext for the detentions. As the Manchester Guardian explained, German nationals, ‘who hitherto have been allowed their liberty,’ were being ‘interned in order that they may be preserved from mob violence.’4 It was eerily similar reasoning to that given years later by the Nazis, following attacks on Jewish shops and synagogues in November 1938, when the victims were forced into the ‘protective custody’ of concentration camps. In Manchester, the Chief Constable of Police issued orders for the the arrest of every German shopkeeper, while in London thousands of ‘enemy aliens’ were detained at camps at Stratford and at Alexandra Palace in appalling conditions and with inadequate rations which only worsened as the war progressed. By 1918, at Alexandra Palace, the food allocation for interned civilians was cut to a slow starvation level of less than 1,500 calories a day.5
In parliament there was some skepticism over Asquith’s announcement. Not because MPs felt it was too severe, but because they were concerned that naturalised Germans would not be automatically subject to detention or deportation. Lord Robert Cecil, declared that ‘it was impossible to suppose the Germans were not capable of any crime’ and added that he ‘hoped where there was ground for suspicion against a naturalised Geman, he would be treated the same as an unnaturalised German.’ The suggestion that mere suspicion should be sufficient grounds for immediate detention was greeted by a hearty chorus of ‘hear, hear.’6
- ‘Germans to be interned’, Millom Gazette, 14 May 1915, p. 5.
- Michael MacDonagh diary entry, 13 May 1915, cited in Travis Elborough (Editor), Our History of the 20th Century as Told in Diaries, Journals and Letters, Michael O’Mara Books Limited, London, p. 78.
- ‘Anti-German Rioting,’ The Aberdeen Press and Journal, 13 May 1915, p. 6.
- The Manchester Guardian cited in Simon Webb, British Concentration Camps: A Brief History: From 1900-1975, Pen and Sword History, Barnsley, 2016, p. 45.
- Simon Webb, op. cit., pp. 45-50.
- Lord Robert Cecil cited in ‘The Treatment of Enemy Aliens,’ The Leicester Daily Post, 14 May 1915, p. 5.
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