Churchill, Refugees, and Aliens
Featured Image: Interned Japanese-Canadians at a road camp on the Yellowhead Pass, on the boundary of Alberta and British Columbia. (Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia Commons)
Excerpted from “‘Collar the Lot: Churchill Wanted to Intern Refugees’” in Winston Churchill, Myth and Reality: What He Actually Did and Said, coming this summer. Hillsdale College Bookstore is taking pre-publication orders at a $15 discount: click here.
“Shocked by anti-Muslim Hysteria? Churchill Wanted to ‘Collar the Lot,’” headlined the Huffington Post in 2015. Attempting to cite a historical precedent to Donald Trump’s views on aliens who claim refugee status, the Post said that “Churchill went even farther. He ordered the internment of tens of thousands of Jewish refugees in England, labeling them dangerous enemy aliens.”1
Today we fear that among refugees from the Middle East there could be deliberately planted terrorists, so in 1940 Britain feared that the Nazis might have agents among the refugees who had fled Germany. The internment of aliens was carried out under pre-war peacetime legislation. The imprisonment of suspects was a wartime measure under Regulation 18B of the 1939 Emergency Powers Act.
Refugees and Aliens
When war began in September 1939, Germans and Austrians in Britain were grouped according to threat level, the Huffington Post stated. This much is true: 600 “high security risks” were immediately interned. The vast majority, over 55,000, were deemed “no risk” and were left alone until May 1940, when Churchill became prime minister. But then the Post adds:
Unwilling to consider which of those foreigners might actually be dangerous, Churchill commanded ‘Collar them all.’ Brushed aside were objections that huge numbers of those ordered interned were Jews who had fled for their lives from the Nazis. The irrational fear was that they might still somehow become a dangerous Fifth Column.2
“I don’t know where to begin,” a historian colleague wrote. “Whether Churchill is charged with philo-Semitism or anti-Semitism seems to depend on whether it is an odd or even day of the month. He’s in good company; the same applies to Franklin Roosevelt. Stories like this are based on such epic levels of distortion and ignorance that a reasoned riposte would far exceed whatever space the Huffington Post allows for response.”3
It would—and fortunately, we have enough space here.
Churchill had more pressing things to think of in May 1940 than which refugees to incarcerate. But those who write such things have no concept of what it was like to live in 1940 Britain, under bombardment and threat of invasion. Unless we were there, we cannot presume to know. That does not prevent us from separating truth from manufactured history.
The number “rounded up”—by MI5, Britain’s domestic security agency—was more than 55,000. Historian Norman Rose put it at 70,000—Germans, Austrians and Czechs. They were not interned because they were Jews, a distinction that hardly occurred to the authorities in the initial wave of panic over the Fifth Column, but because of their nationality. The fears proved to be groundless, but it is understandable that they existed at the time.
Moreover, “collar the lot” or “collar them all” (expressions I have not found in Churchill’s archive but do not dispute the possibility of him saying) had a more benign meaning than alleged. Churchill, Rose wrote, was “convinced that he was protecting them from ‘outraged public opinion.’” It is true that many were appalled at their treatment. “Some committed suicide rather than be confined in British camps. Others were deported. This unhappy affair reached a horrible climax on 2 July when the Arandora Star, carrying 1200 aliens, was torpedoed in the Atlantic, 720 of whom were lost.”4
The round-up, Rose wrote, was “a most unsavoury episode.” That is also true. But consider the situation in Britain then. The intelligence historian David Stafford recalled Churchill’s “ruthless determination to fight on against Hitler. Many of the detained aliens “were passionate enemies of Hitler. But things were so critical that distinctions between friends and enemies could not be drawn.”5 Churchill had no second thoughts, telling the House of Commons on 4 June:
I feel not the slightest sympathy. Parliament has given us the powers to put down Fifth Column activities with a strong hand, and we shall use those powers, subject to the supervision and correction of the House, without the slightest hesitation until we are satisfied, and more than satisfied, that this malignancy in our midst has been effectively stamped out.6
Contemporary documents show that Churchill quickly reconsidered his initial attitude. At the Cabinet meeting of 21 June 1940,
the Prime Minister asked that the War Office should again consider raising a Foreign Legion. Many enemy aliens had a great hatred of the Nazi regime, and it was unjust to treat our friends as foes. Equipment might not be available for such a force immediately, but it could be found in due course. It would be as well to have these men under discipline in the meantime. Their services might be used in, for example, Iceland.7
By August 1940 Churchill and the authorities had recognized their mistakes and reversed the policy. Now the policy was to release as many as possible, and by 1943, nine out of ten of employable enemy aliens were at work. The policy of mass deportation was a blot on the record, but that too was reversed by August. Instead, wrote the historian Paul Addison, “aliens were interned instead in hotels on the Isle of Man, where they led a relatively civilized life, setting up their own university and founding the celebrated Amadeus String Quartet.”8
Challenging Internment Powers
As the war progressed, Churchill increasingly deplored the internment powers of MI5, and scotched attempts to broaden its powers. “Every Department which has waxed during the war is now considering how it can quarter its officials on the public indefinitely,” he said in 1943. “The less we encourage these illusions the better.” Shortly after this, David Stafford wrote, “the Cabinet Secretary commissioned a report which condemned the security service for a lack of proper ministerial control, abuse of its powers and ‘injustices to the public’—especially in the treatment of aliens.”9 Kevin Theakston added: “Although in 1920 [Churchill] had favoured the creation of a single intelligence service, he now rejected this idea, believing that the increased powers of the spy chiefs might be a threat to ministerial control and to parliamentary democracy.”10
“Look what has happened to the liberties of this country during the war,” Churchill lamented to the editor of the Manchester Guardian in October 1943. “Men of position are seized and kept in prison for years without trial and no ‘have your carcase’ [habeas corpus] rights…a frightful thing to anyone concerned about British liberties.”11 He was particularly incensed over the handling of Sir Oswald Mosley, the fascist leader, who had been interned without trial since 1940. Churchill had long been friends with Mosley, a fellow member of The Other Club, but was entirely sincere in his antipathy to imprisonment without trial.
Moseley was released in November 1943. “Was Churchill showing favouritism for a man of his own class, as so many alleged and is hinted at in his complaint about the fate of ‘men and position?’” Stafford asked. “Perhaps. But Churchill also evoked a matter of principle. By now he was personally eager to see the repeal of Regulation 18B, the order permitting such detentions, but his hands were tied by the political realities of his coalition with Labour.”12 Again Churchill was again unequivocal:
The power of the Executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him judgement by his peers for an indefinite period, is in the highest degree odious, and is the foundation of all totalitarian Governments, whether Nazi or Communist….Nothing can be more abhorrent to democracy than to imprison a person or keep him in prison because he is unpopular. This is really the test of civilisation.13
Churchill was even determined to exempt communists from unlawful internment. “In May 1943, Moscow dissolved the Comintern,” Stafford added, but this “had done nothing to shake his anti-Bolshevism. Yet distinct from anti-Communism was the matter of riding roughshod over constitutional proprieties.” When MI5 produced a list of suspected Communists in sensitive positions, and recommended their removal, “Churchill concurred, but he insisted that MI5’s word alone on the guilt of suspects should not be accepted.” He warned that “MI5 tends to see dangerous men too freely and to lack [a] knowledge of the world and sense of perspective.” Thus Churchill arranged for a secret panel to review MI5’s recommendations: “The final say on the employment of suspects would rest with departments and ministers concerned, not MI5.”14
“The charge that WSC ordered Jews detained, as Jews, is absurd,” says David Stafford. “He wanted to detain enemy aliens, i.e., mostly people of German and Austrian nationality. Many were Jews, for obvious reasons. But that’s very different. Certainly too, he quickly began to reverse course. This all happened following the shocking and cataclysmic collapse of France and the Dunkirk evacuation, when invasion and Fifth Column fears were rampant.”15
The myth of a Churchill eager and even anxious to infringe the rights of aliens and refugees reminds us once again of the error critics make when they consider Churchill’s first reaction to a situation, while ignoring his final, considered verdict. In the classic words of William Manchester, he
always had second thoughts, and they usually improved as he went along. It was part of his pattern of response to any political issue that while his early reactions were often emotional, and even unworthy of him, they were usually succeeded by reason and generosity. Given time, he could devise imaginative solutions.16
It was not worth remonstrating with the Huffington Post for its drive-by misrepresentation—hardly the first—of Churchill’s views on alien refugees. It was mainly looking for another way to skewer the eminently skewerable Mr. Trump. Still, it is necessary to reflect on Churchill’s consistent and decisive support of liberty against the depredations of the state, even in wartime, and his anxiety—excluding no reasonable proposal—to bring them to an end as quickly as possible.
Churchill’s actions stand in worthy contrast to those of his allies. After Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt endorsed the forcible relocation and internment of over 125,000 ethnic Japanese, mostly on the west coast. In Canada under Prime Minister MacKenzie King, nearly 21,000 Japanese-Canadians in British Columbia were similarly treated. Three quarters of both groups were native-born citizens.17Anti-Asian policies had long been routine in Western North America. (In Hawaii, where 40 percent of citizens were of Japanese ancestry, very few were interned, though a few agents had sent information to Japan by wireless.) Historians have broadly blamed Canadian and American actions on racism, while in Britain the affected parties were primarily foreign nationals.
3 David Freeman to the author, 24 November 2015.
4 Rose, Unruly Giant, 265-66. Peter & Leni Gillman, Collar the Lot! How Britain Interned & Expelled its Wartime Refugees (London: Quartet Books, 1980), 115-29.
5 David Stafford, Roosevelt and Churchill: Men of Secrets (Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1999), 42.
6 Churchill, “The War Situation,” House of Commons, 4 June 1940, in Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 6, Finest Hour 1939-1941 (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2011), 467.
7 Cabinet Papers, 65/1, 21 June 1940, in WSC-DV15, 391.
8 Paul Addison to the author, 29 June 2016.
9 Stafford, Roosevelt and Churchill, 145.
10 Theakston, Winston Churchill and the British Constitution (London: Politico’s, 2004), 10.
11 Stafford, Churchill and Secret Service (Toronto: Stoddardt, 1997), 255. W.P. Crozier, Off the Record: Political Interviews 1933-1943 (London: Hutchinson, 1973), 138.
12 Stafford, Churchill and Roosevelt, 145.
13 Richard M. Langworth, ed., Churchill By Himself (New York: Rosetta Books, 2015), 102.
14 Stafford, Churchill and Secret Service, 258.
15 David Stafford to the author, 22 June 2016.
16 William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, vol. 1, Visions of Glory 1874-1932 (Boston: Little Brown, 1982), 843-44.