'Enemies' who fell in love with their adopted country

By Helen Fry, August 9, 2012
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The issue of "enemy aliens" and identity raises some unique and often unexplored perspectives. At the outbreak of war in September 1939, the refugees who had fled Nazi Germany and Austria were classified as "enemy aliens" and, as such, had a number of restrictions imposed upon them by the British authorities.

Very quickly, they wanted to assimilate into their new society. There was a sense even at that time that there would be no going back to the country of their birth once Hitler was defeated. This intense feeling, so early, was the first step on the way to their feeling British and, in their minds, they had effectively severed their German identity for a new one.

They adopted Britain long before Britain adopted them. This went hand-in-hand with a strong desire to give something back to the country that had saved them.

However, many of them unexpectedly found themselves behind barbed wire in internment camps in the "invasion scare" of the summer of 1940.

But, although they felt deeply mistrusted, their loyalty to Britain remained unquestioned.

After release from internment, and during the course of the war, over 10,000 German-speaking refugees made the ultimate sacrifice by being prepared to die for their adopted country. They enlisted in the British forces and for them this was the decisive step to becoming "British".

They donned the British army uniform and swore allegiance to George VI and his descendants. Now they felt totally British and no longer German, even though they did not receive British nationality for at least another six years. Many served in dangerous operations behind enemy lines, fought on the frontline and carried out clandestine work for the British Secret Service.

As war drew to a close, the "enemy aliens", whether in uniform or serving in civilian life, had one aim - to legally become British nationals. They then went on to serve their adopted country with unstinting loyalty and made an unprecedented contribution to British society in commerce and industry, science, the arts and civic life.

Shadows of a former life and loss of family members in the Holocaust continue to haunt them. Yet with one eye to their German past, many admit that, while they became British and feel totally so, they could never become "English".

There is no sense of regret in their comment but a recognition that being British is broader and different to being English. In my experience as a historian to the Jewish refugee community, it is true that, even after 70 years, they can make a damn good mug of coffee, but not a decent cup of tea. Does that say something about identity?

Dr Helen Fry is a historian and biographer who has written more than 20 books, including Churchill's German Army, Music & Men, Freud's War, From Dachau to D-Day, and Inside Nuremberg Prison. She will speak at ‘From Poland to Polo in Three Generations?’ a seminar on identity at the LJCC from August 20 to 23. To book, call 020 8457 5000

Last updated: 10:37am, August 10 2012