Thursday, 4 August 2016
The Enemy in England
Part IX of the series ‘England in Arms’.
By W. Lacey Amy
From The Canadian Magazine, January 1918.
It is not inconsistent, though it is unfortunate, that those characteristics which, in time of peace, are counted to a nation’s credit, in time of war oft-times stand to its disservice and mischief. Bound into the very foundation on which the British Empire was built, close, indeed, to its keystone, is tolerence; just as, sooner or later, the first crumbling breach in the walls of German resistance will show where intolerance has been so prominently fixed. But as even a virtue, uncontrolled, may approach a vice, so Britain’s (especially England’s) acceptance of the widest application of tolerance, in a time when little counts but the life of the nation and the sternest support of those great principles which focus only in the defeat of an inhuman foe, has become to it in certain stages of the war a menace it should not have risked. And yet it is so much easier to moralize than to follow the straight path of virtue as demanded by the altered conditions of war that history is not apt to sum up England’s part in the war as a careless disregard for the sensible precautions that consider only victory.
Behind England’s calm tolerance of the enemy in its midst stand the principles of government that have held together an Empire more diverse than ever before was bound together even by the thinnest threads. The ancient Romans, whose dominion was more ambitious but infinitely less effective and extensive, never attempted the feat of welding such confusion of tongue, such diversity of character, such uncongenial spirits as Great Britain has governed without serious strife for generations Necessarily it had perforce to be a government of indulgence, of concessions, of licence. To weave into one fabric the Scotsman and the Indian and the Chinese, and the hundred distinct units of a hundred corners of the world, imprinted that on the English character which has made him a cosmopolite. It has opened his mind to a thousand vagaries of individual belief. It has opened his hand to the puny communities of distant sections which would have been beneath the notice of any other nation. It has opened its doors to the world’s refugees—which means not alone the world’s downtrodden but its criminals, its outcasts, its great unwanted. And with the unlimited opening has grown up an intolerance of intolerance, a firm reputation of the closed corporation, in national as in commercial life. Only in his private life does the Englishman cling to the barriers.
England became a haven, built in those principles. The Anarchists of France and Spain and Italy found a home there; the Nihilists of Russia fled there before the sword of unrelenting Czarism; the political outcasts of a score of countries swarmed to the little island that refused to give them up to the avenging hand of their own countries. And, more dangerous than all, the spies of the nations that train spies as a feature of the national system, found there their mart of exchange, their delving ground, their most profitable source of the information which might some day be used against the country that gave them shelter. It has always been presented as the best justification of this attitude that the Anarchist and the political exiles who harbour there have thrown aside their dangerous tenets in their relationship to England. But it is a defence which has been repudiated more often than has been made public and from which countries friendly to Great Britain have suffered almost without protest. When Winston Churchill turned machine guns on the foreign criminals of a street in East-End London he was but laying the foundation for an enlightenment which has been spreading over England since the greatest war in history revealed new national principles. But tolerance died hard. Indeed, it is not dead, though the Empire pays for it in human blood.
One must let these truths penetrate in any examination of the treatment that has been meted to the enemy alien in England. No nation, and especially not England, can throw aside the principles of generations that have built up such an Empire. Add thereto the sporting instincts of the Englishman, the desire to give even the most powerful and menacing enemy the privileges of open combat, and there opens up something of the reasons behind the leniency which met the German and the Austrian and the Turk who had found their homes in the British Isles. Consider therewith, too, the freedom of action which these foreigners enjoyed for so long that they had been able to make themselves powers in the land, hacked by the official support of their own governments, aided by the co-operation of a million fellow-countrymen in other parts of the world. These men had wormed their way into the very national framework, of finance and industry and commerce, even into politics. They had stormed society with gold and kingly honours. They had married their sons and daughters to English daughters and sons, often, it is certain, merely in pursuit of the common aim of influence. They had won or purchased staunchest friends, in civil as in political life. They held many of the imposing properties which commanded respect and subservience as ancient rights. In the House of Commons were ardent defenders whose honesty has never been impugned, as well as a few others whose motives might well be questioned.
So that when the war broke out they had behind them the English wall of tradition, the firm support of influential friends, the trust of the powers who alone could curtail their liberties, and the pride of the Englishman who disdains to excite himself over any peril. They were many times entrenched.
To the man on the street it would seem to be the part of wisdom instantly to protect the nation against the machinations of the enemy resident. But the man on the street finds the way to action long. Canada, as well as England, has been indulgent to the German in its midst. The politician is bound by different views, by different motives and necessities. It happened that in the British House at the outbreak of war the Home Office was under one whose sympathies were loyal enough but more actively tolerant. Indeed, the head of the office has at all times concerned himself with the enemy alien and his rights and protection more than is agreeable to the public and to his fellow Ministers. It may be more the fault of the estimated duties of the office than of the man himself. With the declaration of war nothing was done to control the spy. Evidences of his handiwork were not only suspected but revealed in a score of cases. Prominent Germans, known to be in the favour of the Kaiser, were afforded their customary liberties. Enemy firms whose interests were wholly German were permitted to conduct their businesses along the usual lines. England, with its eyes firmly fixed on the star of its lofty principle in entering the war, was far above the crude pettiness of individual coercion and limitation. Glowing speeches, that might have sounded well in history had Great Britain won the war during the first four months, were delivered by the page to convince the public that we were waging war on Kaiserism, not on the individual German. It sounded well, but the public was going by sight not by sound. And in the meantime the individual German in many cases was doing his utmost for Kaiserism.
The state of public opinion early in the war drove the resident Germans and Austrians by the hundred to take out naturalization papers; and, according to the law, there was nothing to prevent. The Schmitzs became plain Joneses, and the German signs on the fronts of scores of shops gave place to good old British names without changing proprietors. Protest by the press was met by lifted hands of helplessness. The announced determination of the German rulers to exact retribution from those Germans who did not remain true to their homeland, the declaration that a German could secure naturalization in a foreign country without affecting his German nationality, had no effect on the stand of the authorities.
Only when the Zeppelins in early 1915, dropped death on innocent Britons and friendly foreigners did the public take the course of events into its own hands. Each raid was followed by rioting in the East-End of London that threatened much more than the destruction of a few German shops or injury to a few Germans. To hold the mob in check the Government was forced to take steps to intern 20,000 Germans and Austrians throughout England. In haste the internments were decided upon, but it was noticeable that only the uninfluential Germans were touched, with here and there one of note to make the total bulk large. The relegation to private life of the Prince of Battenberg from his position of authority in the navy early in the war was but one of these act’s of pandering to public clamour without realizing the justice of the protest. At the time the internments commenced there was established an Advisory Committee whose duties have apparently been to find ground for excusing prominent Germans from internment, not to intern. In all the list of angry queries which have been thrown at the Government by enthusiastic Britons in the House, there are remarkably few replies pointing to internment upon the advice of this committee, while every German at large has been protected by its reported findings. All over England well-known Germans went about their daily work, not quietly and inoffensively, but boastfully. Many instances have been quoted of a sneering ridicule of their enemies. “They can’t intern me” has been hurled by impudent Germans in the face of angry fathers whose sons have died through the release of information that can have been obtained only through spies.
In the time of Asquith the German in England fared exceedingly well. Only after persistent pursuit by the press was he interned, and from his comfortable quarters in Donnington Hall or in the other elaborate quarters where he was semi-controlled, he looked out upon an England disturbed and suffering from a war that inconvenienced him little. He was clothed and fed and waited upon as few Englishmen. His wife was paid an allowance of from five to ten shillings a week more than that allowed the wife of the British soldier fighting in France. His business was run for him, either by an English deputy who paid him the profits, or he was permitted occasional freedom to oversee it. In the two years and more of the Asquith war Premiership scarcely a German business was closed down, although hundreds of them were theoretically under control. Asquith’s lax methods made action repugnant, in spite of the constant protest of an influential press. To be sure Enemy Trading Acts were introduced, intended to prevent enemy profit, but there was nothing to prevent a Briton carrying on the business and piling up the profits to be paid the German proprietor after the war is over. Many of these German firms even secured large contracts from the Government at the expense of the British firms.
The entry of Lloyd George into the field promised more than it effected. He found himself faced by a people more intent on the noise of protest than an effective action to satisfy that protest. They saw and resented the freedom of the enemy in the country and to some extent backed the steps necessary to curtail it; but the ways of the country intervened, and had it not been for papers like the Northcliffe press there would have been little more done than to intern a few powerless merchants who had thus far escaped. Then, too, the Court of Appeal came to the protection of the German. Taking advantage of the laws of the land—laws he would have laughed at in his own country—many a German secured his liberty. The Court of Appeal declared that a German at large in England is not an enemy alien, and debts were collected on the strength of it. Lloyd George did, without delay, place in internment several of the best known Germans whose immunity hitherto had been a matter of marvel and whose brazenness threatened a popular uprising. But always there was evident a desire more to appease the public than to effect a public benefit. From the beginning the coercion of German subjects and naturalized Germans has been with a view to exercising official control as little as possible.
The Home Office, driven by a group of influential Britons whose sympathies from the first have been with Germany, has undertaken the care of the German resident, and Lloyd George’s administration has altered this attitude little. Official appeals were sent all over the country for firms to engage interned aliens. There was, no doubt, the excuse that it would save the expense of internment, but there was far more the danger that these men, who had been considered dangerous enough to look away from the public, would be able to resume most of their former activities and opportunities for evil; and there was the subtle folly of securing good jobs for a foe whose relentless style of warfare placed them beyond more than mere human consideration. The move was discounted from the first by the indignant refusal of employers to throw open their shops to the enemy.
A committee had been formed early in the war for the benefit of the alien enemy, its funds provided by some of the best known naturalized Germans, German admirers and pacifists. In the list were included such significant names as Haldane, Beit, a prominent Government Official, and the Cadbury Brothers. The influence of the latter was great. As the proprietors of two London daily papers, they had been insistently declaring from the first rumours of war that it was impossible, that Britain misunderstood Germany; and ever since, as Quakers, they have been edging towards peace at every stage where such a word dare be mentioned. Public disgust expressed itself most effectively when a county Prisoners of War Committee returned Mr. B. Cadbury (these are the Cadburys of cocoa fame) the five pounds he had contributed, on the ground that they could not accept it in the face of a personal contribution of £750 and a firm contribution of £1,500 to the funds for interned and uninterned aliens. This pro-enemy committee was constantly at work endeavouring to ease the lot of the enemy alien, soliciting work for him, purchasing luxuries denied our prisoners in Germany, and generally presenting his case to the authorities and the public.
The matter of German businesses walked the same uncertain course under the new Premier. Here and there a German business that had been much in the public eye was closed, but until the press took up a case nothing was done to it. The English manager of Bradstreet’s, German born, continued to sign the firm’s letters, although theoretically supplanted, until the folly of it was exposed in the press. Of the German banks which had been closing for almost three years one was finally wound up. But in this act, too, was evidenced the unduly favourable treatment accorded the enemy. In strict British fairness, debts owing the German firms were set against their own debts; yet it developed that, while the British debtor was forced to pay 20s. on the pound, the British creditor received only 13s. 4d. The German debts, incurred when the mark stood at 20.40 per £, were paid at an existing rate of 30.45, although at the moment there might be sufficient assets to pay at the full rate; and no one seemed to be able to state how the rate was established.
Failing to find places for the interned Germans in British firms, many were allowed freedom to reopen or manage their former businesses. Others were freed for no apparent reason but that they might resume their former methods of life, living on their incomes. Here and there Germans who had been interned reappeared in their old haunts without public explanation. For some of these someone had gone bail, others were allowed out for a sort of holiday, and still others were released on the word of influential friends or for unknown reasons. The lot of those left in internment continued to be comfortable. At the time when the country was rationing itself, the Germans in Donnington Hall and Alexandra Palace were allowed much larger food supplies, and only when protest was made in the House was a change introduced. To-day, when thousands of homes are unable to secure coal through transportation difficulties Alexandra Palace is amply stocked. An example of superlative kindness to the German is that in Donnington Hall there are 115 servants to wait on 389 German officers.
And still there were at the middle of 1917 about 22,000 Germans and Austrians at large, less than half of them women; and at the last returns given in the House several thousands were living in areas that are called prohibited, where the most valuable information is obtainable. One prominent German purchased recently through his son an estate within a mile of a hill commanding a wide view over the sea, and in the House it was stated that he had been already fined for trading with the enemy and his son for showing a bright light at night. An uninterned German was arrested with important secret military documents and an officer’s kit bag in his possession, with German calling-up papers in his pocket. A celebrated Austrian painter has only now been taken into custody (his case was fought out before the advisor committee), although he became naturalized only after war was declared and at the time a letter of his in friends in Austria told of his reluctance to seem thus to repudiate the land of his birth, as well of his enmity to “the predatory Serbian nation”. A German was shot by an officer for intrigues with the latter’s wife, after the police had known for months of his origin and his association with a woman executed as a spy. Two foundations of German monks were until recently allowed complete freedom in England. On the very day the papers announced a fine of £100 against a British engineer for attempting to purchase without a permit a pistol for experimenting, the English Consul-General for Montenegro arrived at a summer resort in England with an Austrian valet who had been exempted from internment by the Home Office. Several German women have been found doing service in the homes of British officers. The British wife of an interned German was recently lightly fined for attempting to purchase an aeroplane seating four and capable of flying to Germany. As there are many German escaped officers still at large the affair assumed a serious aspect.
Even the Government itself seemed disposed to do its best in its own departments for the Germans. In the central telegraph office were, at one time since the middle of 1917, eight men, in addition to Belgians, not British-born. A young man who claimed exemption from military service on the ground that his parents were German was found employed in a Government telegraph office, through which the most important secrets passed, although substitutes offered themselves. The assistant constructor at an important dockyard was the son of a German father and had visited Germany shortly before the war. A naturalized German was permitted to live close to a large aerodrome. The Minister of Blockades appealed for the exemption of a young German on its staff—and the tribunal granted it. A man of German descent was appointed British Commercial Attaché at The Hague, although his brother had already been convicted of disloyalty, and only the persistent outcry of the press obtained his dismissal after the Government had once refused to yield to public indignation.
Indeed, from the first it has been a constant struggle between the public and the Government or certain powerful interests in the Government. The latter have steadily refused to take the steps necessary to overcome the spy evil until they were forced to it by the people; and even the English people have endured what few other countries would permit. Now and then some public body with sufficient Power to make itself heard has acted. School trustees have dismissed their pro-German teachers, and won their cases when the law was appealed to. At least one university rid itself of two or three German professors after the German names attracted public attention. The guardians of a specially fitted hospital refused to accept more German wounded when they found that their entire main building was filled with 1,700 Germans, while in the annex were a thousand British. As the apparatus provided was unexcelled in England, the guardians claimed that its benefits should be more largely open to British wounded.
In all this favouritism to the Germans were bound up the energies of the pacifists and conscientious objectors. In public meetings before their friends, in their own press, in the House of Commons, the most was made by these men of fair treatment to the enemy, their idea of fairness being favouritism. Every month or two a question was asked concerning complaints about the food at the internment camps, although the rations were superior to that which was allowed the British soldier. No complaints seem to have been made at the camps themselves, but there were always friends in the House anxious to forestall rationing. The same influence that rendered the British blockade so ineffective until the United States acted was at work from the beginning of the war to protect the enemy alien in England. While Great Britain was allowing to percolate through its blockade net the very essentials of life in the enemy countries, is was also handing out to German prisoners and to the interned treatment not accorded our own soldiers at home and not expected or asked for our interned in Germany. But the question of the blockade included other issues that hound Great Britain’s hands, releasing them only when the United States stood behind it at the source of supplies. What tempers one’s sympathy with the difficult position Britain finds herself in in supplying neutral countries is the fact that food was even being shipped to South America.
Yet it is not for Canada to criticize. England’s pacifists have never been allowed the freedom of expression enjoyed by a few traitorous spirits in Canada; nor has such political use been made of pro-Germans in England as has characterized political operations in Western Canada. The handling of enemy aliens is theoretically simple of plan and action, but in the everyday life of a nation, even at war, there are interests and influences that seem willing to sacrifice the country to the worst of foes.
The next article of this series will be “The Human Side”, describing the marvellous work for the welfare of the distressed in England.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.