Or does xenophobia cause war? That’s a “chicken and egg” sort of question. The fact is, fear of “the other” had already prevailed in pre-World War I European society—even in more liberal polities such as Britain—later manifesting itself in various ways throughout the conflict. In Britain, nationalism had been heightened by decades of imperial and naval rivalry with Germany. This, coupled with apprehension at surging immigration from Germany and Eastern Europe, stoked fears of the “strangers in our midst.” In the crucible of war, those fears would underpin unprecedented legislation curtailing the rights of aliens who had resided in Britain largely without incident before 1914.
At 11:00 p.m. on 4 August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany following the latter nation’s invasion of neutral Belgium. Shortly after the announcement, King George V emerged with the Queen on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to a cheering crowd. One day later, on 5 August, Parliament enacted the Aliens Restriction Act, targeting the activities and movement of all resident aliens. No alien was permitted either to enter or leave Britain. In addition to being required to register at a local police station, they were barred from traveling more than five miles from their home without a permit, banned from residing in specific areas or owning firearms, and prevented from altering their names to make them more British sounding (as the Royal Family would do in 1917). The Defense of the Realm Act (DORA), followed on 8 August, giving the government the prerogative to control print media through censorship, suspending habeas corpus and imprisoning anyone suspected of interfering with the war effort or assisting the enemy.
Britain was now a “surveillance state.” By the end of August 1914, and upon the recommendation of the General Staff earlier that month, alien residents of military age—those between the ages of seventeen and forty-two—from “enemy” nations such as Germany and Austria were rounded up by the police and held on suspicion of being spies. Those swept up included both long-time residents of Britain as well as relative newcomers on business or travel. Fear of spies and possible internal dissent fomented by “enemy aliens” led one extreme xenophobe to suggest that all German-born men in Britain be “exterminated.” That outrageous call, plus a wave of anti-German riots throughout Britain in October 1914, prompted Britain’s Liberal prime minister, Herbert Henry Asquith (1908-1916), to decide that the internment of “enemy aliens” would protect both Germans from acts of violence and the British public from any potential military danger.
The rapid round-up of “enemy aliens,” however, posed a serious problem for British authorities. Where could they quickly accommodate the thousands of suspected men? (Women, children not of military age, clergy, physicians, and men unfit for military service were exempt.) Temporary shelters, disused factories, and holiday camps were placed at the government’s disposal. Their suitability as internee housing, however, paled in the face of the rapidly increasing numbers of men to be confined. With the sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania by a German submarine in early May 1915, followed by another round of xenophobic riots called the Lusitania Riots, Prime Minister Asquith chose to commit to a more comprehensive internment policy, one that was intent upon establishing more permanent camps.
There are few remaining historical records detailing the existence of the men who endured life as internees from the beginning of the war until their release in 1919. Fortunately, a twenty five year-old German “alien internee,” Willy Wolff, left a handwritten German diary (later translated into English) that chronicled his arrest in September 1914, temporary confinement in a disused wagon factory, and finally, his internment in Knockaloe Camp on the windswept Isle of Man from September 1915 until 1919.
An inhospitable, desolate place with a circumference of about three miles and enclosed by 695 miles of barbed wire, Knockaloe held over 22,000 men in July 1916. Wolff, dispatched before the war by his German textile firm to a British counterpart near Manchester, described in great detail the strict camp regulations, the disdain with which internees were treated, and the monotony of life behind barbed wire. Life was austere; beds consisted of straw upon wooden planks, the huts had little or no heat, washbasins and toilets were inadequate, food was rationed, meager, and often unappetizing (tinned meats, weak broths with questionable leftovers, stale bread), changes of clothing were infrequent, and stiff penalties were prescribed for infractions, including solitary confinement. Wolff and fellow internees subsisted on news from camp-approved newspapers, occasional packages from home, and infrequent visits from Swiss delegates, finding some relief in social, sports, and hobby clubs.
Wolff was neither a criminal nor subversive. His only crime, if one could call it that, was being a foreign citizen in a country at war with his birthplace. He was a victim of the fact that the First World War provided unprecedented opportunities for states to act upon, or cater to, an already prevalent xenophobia.
Image Credit: “British Empire Union post-World War I poster.” Public Domain via the Library of Congress.
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