History Is Better Than Punditry

A great benefit of therapy is that you begin to see many more options in your life. I would typically come into a session with a problem where I only saw one or two ways out and my therapist would help me see many possibilities. I would think I had to respond this way or that way to an obnoxious person and my therapist would help me see I might be best served by not responding at all.

Similarly, a great benefit of reading history is that you learn new ways of understanding the present. There’s a right-wing trope these days that we live in unprecedented times of restrictions on our freedom, but when you read history, you soon see that almost everything that is supposedly unprecedented about our current cancel culture, Big Tech collusion and Corona Virus restrictions have happened before and that there are certain circumstances that are likely to give rise to this repression. It’s not an aberration, for example, for journalists to cheer on censorship of their competitors.

The primary reason I did not react with rage to Covid restrictions like most right-wing pundits did is that I read a book by Paul Barry about the 1918 Spanish Flu, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. I don’t know how anyone could learn about how that respiratory illness devastated the world a century ago and still believe that individual freedom in the face of such a challenge was the important thing. After reading that Paul Barry book, I concluded that a collective response might make more sense.

The biggest difference between me and other dissident right livestreamers is that I read more books and therefore I’m less susceptible to the hysteria that comes from watching videos that reinforce your prejudices. I know people who got taken in by crackpot Ivor Cummins who propounded that if you had a previous corona virus, like 80% of the population, you would be immune to this one, and that deaths by Covid-19 cost but one year of life.

I am a structuralist. It’s the structure of reality and the shifting nature of power that shapes how individuals act. I see individual freedom as circumscribed by genetics, context and events. For example, our policies towards China won’t be profoundly affected by who is in charge of America and China. Personalities don’t matter as much as structure for international relations. The structure of our great power rivalry dictates that America pivots to Asia and away from Europe to confront the rise of China.

According to Wikipedia:

In sociology, anthropology, archaeology, history and linguistics, structuralism is a general theory of culture and methodology that implies that elements of human culture must be understood by way of their relationship to a broader system. It works to uncover the structures that underlie all the things that humans do, think, perceive, and feel.

Alternatively, as summarized by philosopher Simon Blackburn, structuralism is: “[T]he belief that phenomena of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations. These relations constitute a structure, and behind local variations in the surface phenomena there are constant laws of abstract structure.”

I similarly have a situational and structural understanding of ethics — the situation, the context, the structure, determines the moral absolute.

If you are unread, you might think that the Jewish establishment in gentile countries always favors more refugee intake. Not so. According to the 2006 book Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism, “By [1938] British officialdom had liberalized the admission of refugees, much to the consternation of the Anglo-Jewish establishment, which advocated restrictive admissions policies.”

After I read history, I find punditry increasingly shallow. I gain a greater understanding of America in 2021 by reading a Thucydides or Gibbon or Machiavelli than by watching Fox News.

Even the most individualist of peoples, such as the Anglos, turn collectivist under pressure.

In a crisis, the people often wish that the governing powers would crack down harder. Perhaps Trump erred politically in not asking for Americans to make more sacrifices to overcome Corona.

Your nation and state can change dramatically without any discussion or vote due to circumstances.

Detaining dissidents and putting them in concentration camps is normal in a time of crisis, and often it is the popular will of the people that supersedes the judgment of the elites.

Pundits just give opinions, which are worthless. History is real. The pundits who recommended invading Iraq in 2003 paid no price, and those opposed to the invasion, in general, gained no glory. Pundits are just hookers. They earn a living by servicing a segment of the population, reassuring them that they are right and their opponents are wrong. Pundit income and power comes from pleasing a specific crowd that wants to hear certain things, regardless of whether or not these opinions are true.

Here are some highlights from the great 2020 book Britain at Bay: The Epic Story of the Second World War, 1938-1941:

* ‘An island fortress, England is fighting a war of redemption not only for Europe but for her own soul. Facing dangers greater than any in her history she has fallen back on the rock of her national character.’ 1 So ends Arthur Bryant’s English Saga , first published in November 1940. English Saga is a millenarian ode to a people in peril. It went through twelve printings during the war and launched its author on a profitable career writing sentimental historical potboilers for a mass audience. 2
English Saga, needless to say, is Shire Folkery from start to finish. Bryant’s Englishmen and women are shy, modest, gentle souls, with ‘a sense of justice and an invincible love of decent and legalised dealing’ and a ‘temperamental inability to nurse a grudge’. Collectively, their only defect is their parochial lack of interest in events beyond their limited island horizons, and their tendency to overlook dangers from overseas for too long. 3 ‘Wanting nothing but peace’ in the inter-war years, Bryant argued, ‘the British people assumed, in their insular, hopeful way that everyone else felt the same.’ They ignored the distant rise of fascism as something which was no concern of their own. ‘Easy-going, preoccupied’ with ‘pacific hopes,’ they stumbled unhappily from appeasement to war in 1939, and then wasted the eight months of the Phoney War’s false calm through the same ‘fatal indecision’ that had marked the 1930s more generally. 4 He went on:
It was not till the Germans had struck with their full force at the Netherlands and sent France reeling that Britain awoke to the magnitude of her task […] only to the enduring character of her people, made manifest on the Dunkirk beaches and the skies above the Channel and the Kentish weald, could Britain look for deliverance. 5
This emphasis on national vulnerability – an enthusiastic embrace of it, even – was in stark contrast to the propaganda that had been published before May 1940. Writers then had sought to emphasise Britain’s material strength: above all, its place at the hub of a mighty commercial empire commanding the world’s greatest concentration of people, resources and wealth. The Ministry of Information’s November 1939 pamphlet Assurance of Victory touted the British Empire’s advantages in population, territory and industrial production over the Third Reich, guaranteeing its readers that ‘this war will expose the fatal weakness of the Nazi structure […] the immense staying power of democracy is the final guarantee of Allied triumph’.

* So as far as propaganda was concerned, then, it was time for Powerhouse Britannia to be replaced by Plucky Little England: the island fortress, tiny but lion-hearted, alone but undaunted, defiant even in defeat. Where physical strength had failed on the continent, now history, landscape and national character would be mobilised in defence of the homeland. Rifles and bullets might be in short supply, but there were plenty of cultural munitions in reserve to draw on. As the Daily Mirror cartoonist Zec reminded his readers on 19 June, quoting Swinburne beside an illustration of Britannia staring down the aggressor:
All our past proclaims our future;
Shakespeare’s voice and Nelson’s hand,
Milton’s faith and Wordsworth’s trust
In this our chosen and chainless land,
Bear us witness: come the world against her,
England shall yet stand. 10
The Ministry of Information film Britain at Bay , written by J. B. Priestley and released in the immediate aftermath of Dunkirk, took up this theme of reassuring historical continuity: ‘For nearly a thousand years, these hills and fields and farmsteads of Britain have been free from foreign invasion,’ it began. Arcadian rhythms and images of the pastoral Home Counties countryside accompanied Priestley’s soothing Shire Folk narrative of doughty innocents. The British were ‘as easy-going and good-natured as any folk in the world’, asking ‘for nothing belonging to others’; all they wanted was ‘to be left alone to do what we like with our own’.

* Noël Coward, on a propaganda tour of Australia, reminded his audiences that the threat of a German landing was only a shocking thought ‘for those of us who forget that England has thriven on invasion, not once but dozens of times’. 13
Indeed, to hear Coward tell it, it was almost as though Hitler had fallen into a cunning trap by conquering France as swiftly and effortlessly as he had. For now the British, ‘with a sigh of relief’, according to the News Chronicle’s Philip Jordan, had been unshackled from their useless continental partners, and were free to fight the kind of battle they had fought so often and so well in the past. They could now engage the Nazis on historical ground of their own choosing.

* …this notion of ‘aloneness’ was complicated by the existence of the Empire. 15 To be sure, propagandists acknowledged it, but mostly as an afterthought. Britain at Bay , after its unhurried reflections on the ‘island fortress of a thousand years of peace’, mentions in passing that ‘alongside us are men from the ends of the Earth – from our great Dominions’. But while the Empire certainly mattered a great deal to Britain’s material ability to keep fighting in 1940, it was far too weak an ingredient in the national imagination to play anything more than a subordinate role in that year’s emotional drama. 16 Stark geographical facts militated against its relevance. When the Luftwaffe’s bombers were just a few minutes’ flying time from Dover, how much consolation was there to be gained by a reminder that New Zealand, 11,500 miles away, was standing by the motherland? The existence of the Empire also raised embarrassing questions about why this easy-going people, who just wanted to be left alone, had somehow managed to conquer one fifth of the world’s land surface. The historical myth-making of 1940 necessarily marginalised Britannia overseas. This was a story of a stocky, inward-looking island race.
It was also a story that marginalised the Scots, Welsh and Irish. The defeat of France in 1940 turned the Second World War into far more of a specifically English drama than the First World War had ever been.

* Despite all those propaganda invocations about British steadfastness, the crisis of May–June 1940 was a moment of anxiety in high government circles about whether the people really would stand fast if the Germans landed. We tend to think of the Nazi conquest of the west as a military disaster, which of course it was, but at the time it also seemed to be a disaster for democracy. A whole way of organising political life had been tested and failed. The Netherlands had collapsed in less than a week, Belgium in less than three, France after barely a month. The German advance had been preceded by panic as millions of refugees had taken to the roads, hampering the Allied armies’ efforts to confront the enemy. Hitlerian totalitarianism had triumphed.
There was no clear evidence that the British would behave any differently from the Dutch, Belgians or French if their turn came… The fact that no Fifth Column activity could be discovered anywhere in the UK perversely became one more piece of evidence of how dangerous it was.

* Churchill on 14 July spoke of ‘traitors that may be found in our midst’ – agents of a so-called ‘Fifth Column’ who might take the opportunity of invasion to aid enemy forces and act as saboteurs behind the lines. Within days of the start of the German offensive in the west, newspapers in London and Paris had been full of stories of enemy paratroopers dressed in fake uniforms and costumes (especially nuns’ habits) and pro-Nazi French, Dutch and Belgian civilians sniping at Allied troops and assisting the invaders. 37 ‘Cato’s Guilty Men later proposed that ‘Fifth Column treachery’ was one of the key reasons for the German victory. 38
There is not the slightest evidence any of this was true.

* All of this seemed to suggest that the democracy itself could not be trusted in a crisis. 44 Only by abandoning the ‘present rather easy-going methods’ of national life and adopting a set of restrictions ‘which would approach the totalitarian’ could Britain survive a Nazi onslaught, the Cabinet was warned by Chamberlain on 18 May. 45 The legal apparatus for such a siege dictatorship was established four days later, when a new Emergency Powers (Defence) Act was passed by the Commons in its entirety in just two hours. This was an extension of the existing emergency legislation passed at the outbreak of war which now gave the government almost unlimited authority to regulate people, property and capital without the need for parliamentary scrutiny. As the new minister for labour later observed, it made him ‘a kind of Führer with powers to order anybody anywhere’. 46 A Treachery Act passed the same day made it a capital offence to assist the enemy’s military operations or to hamper Britain’s own.
As the Times put it, the Emergency Powers Act ‘comes near to suspending the very essence of the Constitution as it has been built up in a thousand years. Our ancient liberties are placed in pawn for victory.’ 47 A slew of regulations soon circumscribed even the most quotidian features of the British citizen’s life. It was unlawful to ‘endeavour to influence […] public opinion in a manner likely to be prejudicial’ to the war effort, to take part in a strike, to withhold information about an invention or patent if the state demanded it, to hold an unauthorised procession, to put out flags, to operate a car radio or to put icing on a cake (wickedly wasteful of sugar). Chamberlain hoped that public opinion would back these restrictions; but if not, recalcitrant non-cooperators could be drafted into a compulsory labour corps under prison discipline. 48

* If anything, the government was criticised for not giving the public enough of a martial role. In July, 15 million copies of an invasion advice leaflet, Stay Where You Are , were distributed to every home in Britain. As the title suggests, its main message was to warn people not to clog up militarily vital roads by fleeing from German forces. But it also cautioned those stouter hearts who might be thinking of taking a pot shot at the enemy themselves: ‘[set] a good example to others. Civilians who try to join in the fight are more likely to get in the way than to help.’

* Ordinary Britons were in much greater physical danger by July 1940 than they had been during the Phoney War. Their morale seemed paradoxically all the better for it. The New Yorker ’s London correspondent Mollie Panter-Downes wrote that ‘this country appears to be asking for and getting the self-sacrificing gestures of everyday life which the totalitarian governments have enforced on their people for years.’ The drama of air attack and possible invasion had at last given the war a revivifying psychological intensity absent throughout the dreariness of its first eight months: every man his own Achilles now, every woman her own Hippolyta. Wartime sacrifices and restrictions ceased to irritate as they had previously done with the sense people now had of being characters in a great national epic – something that might be frightening in the immediate moment, but which they would be able to look back on with pride.
Reading about the Dunkirk evacuation from her Barrow-in-Furness home, housewife Nella Last felt that ‘I forgot I was a middle-aged woman who often got tired and had backache. The story made me feel part of something that was undying and never old […] somehow I felt everything to be worthwhile, and I felt glad I was of the same race as the rescuers and rescued.’ 64 According to the author Verily Anderson, then a twenty-five-year-old First Aid Nursing Yeomanry volunteer, ‘even the very colours of the summer seemed heightened, the sky bluer, the clouds whiter, and the darkness darker’. 65 Panter-Downes suggested that the manufactured contrivances of the West End theatre were struggling to compete with this new melodramatic reality:
What is happening on the stage of history is so tremendous that most thinking people find it difficult to take their eyes off the real thing […] the footlights are already up and the orchestra is swinging into the somber and terrible overture.

* But even the most bumbling LDV militiaman was walking around with live ammunition, and with guest lecturers like General Ironside encouraging recruits to shoot first and ask questions later, it’s not surprising that tragedies mounted up. 72 Two Home Guard sentries fired on a car in Romford, Essex, when the driver failed to hear their demands to halt because of a noisy exhaust: one of those inside was killed and another four wounded. The coroner dismissed the shooting as ‘perfectly justified’. On one single night (4 June) four motorists in different locations across the country were killed. 73 A trigger-happy sentry wounded and almost shot dead Flight Lieutenant James Nicolson, RAF Fighter Command’s only Victoria Cross winner during the Battle of Britain, when the badly burned pilot landed in a field after bailing out of his Hurricane. 74 Well-meaning its members may have been, but the Home Guard proved far more of a threat to life and limb in the United Kingdom than Göring’s Fallschirmjäger division ever did.

* Sir John Simon’s 1938 prophecy that rearmament and war would turn Britain into ‘a different kind of nation’ seemed to have come true. Moreover, it had happened with a remarkable lack of discussion or opposition. ‘A united nation feels no hesitation or misgiving’ about the abandonment of its personal freedoms, insisted the Times when the Emergency Powers Act was rushed through Parliament: ‘the temporary surrender [of liberties] is made with a glad heart and a confident spirit.’ 75 That was not altogether true. There would be resistance to some of the more controversial powers the government had acquired for itself. That said, the assault on other values, particularly the presumption of innocence in law and the protection of minorities, inspired rather less sympathy.
The very British right to grumble out loud produced an early skirmish in this conflict over liberties. Regulation 39BA, introduced in June 1940, made it a criminal offence, punishable by up to a month in prison, to circulate ‘any report or statement relating to matters connected with the war which is likely to cause alarm and despondency’. It was announced at
the same moment the Ministry of Information launched a ‘Silent Column’ campaign that condemned spreading rumours and gossiping about the war effort. 76 The government was not shy about using its new power. By late July there had been over seventy prosecutions. A tradesman in Yeovil was jailed for thirty days for saying ‘Hitler will be here in a month’. A Bristol septuagenarian earned himself a week in prison for claiming that the Swastika would soon fly over Parliament.

* There was much less public concern provoked by the mass incarceration without trial of British citizens, which began on the morning of 23 May with the arrest of Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF). 84 Under Defence Regulation 18B, the Home Secretary could detain indefinitely anyone of ‘hostile origin or associations’ or who had recently committed ‘acts prejudicial to the public safety’. Anyone so interned had a right of appeal to an advisory committee, but they were not allowed to know who had recommended their arrest, or why.

* Along with Mosley, some of the more notable detainees were: Admiral Barry Domvile, a former Director of Naval Intelligence; Harry St John Philby, father of Times correspondent and KGB spy Kim; and the Conservative MP Archibald Ramsay, one of the leaders of the anti-war group the Right Club, who just two weeks earlier had complained in the Commons to the Home Secretary about the ‘Jew-ridden Press’.

* This was justice of a rather blunt sort, then. But it was popular. ‘Precautions that should have been taken years ago are now being applied to the Judas Association (British Branch),’ the Daily Mirror exulted the day after Mosley’s arrest. 90 The BUF had always existed on the margins of respectable politics only, and the outbreak of war had turned its leader into a hate figure: he had been almost lynched when he had tried to campaign in the Middleton and Prestwich by-election a few weeks earlier. 91 Mass Observation found the public’s approval to be almost universal. ‘Some people thought of it as a real achievement or victory – at least we have conquered one enemy in our midst.’ A few commented on the troubling precedent of arresting someone for having unpopular views rather than for any definite crime: ‘He’s a pretty miserable fellow, but on the other hand it does mean the end of all political liberty,’ one critic said. 92 The disquieted generally kept their thoughts to themselves, however. Ex-BUF member Anthony Heap, a clerk at Peter Robinson’s department store in Oxford Street, wrote in his diary on the night of 24 May that
the great democratic sham [is] exposed for what it’s worth […] our pro-Jewish, pro-Communist government knows the game is up and [this is] their last mean, vicious, desperate act of revenge before the Germans come here and kick the skunks out, assuming they haven’t scuttled to America before that happens […] poor Mosley has to pay the price of real patriotism. I’m downright ashamed to be an Englishman today.

* The experience of the roughly 26,000 ‘enemy aliens’ of German and Italian citizenship arrested between May and July 1940 offers a rather different kind of story, one in which the government’s instincts, for once, were more liberal than those of the public. 95 At the outbreak of war, about 75,000 holders of German passports were resident in Great Britain. The majority were refugees or exiles from the Third Reich, many of them, of course, Jewish. The wartime government’s attitude towards them showed restraint at first.

* Much of the Fifth Column hysteria of May–June 1940 was directed towards foreigners generally, and enemy aliens specifically. When Sir Nevile Bland, the former British minister to The Hague, returned home after the surrender of the Netherlands, he told a lurid story, subsequently given an airing on the BBC, of German- and Austrian-born traitors betraying the Dutch – the infidelity of domestic servants, a long-standing middle-class obsession, being given special emphasis. Even ‘the paltriest kitchen maid’ of German origins, Bland warned, ‘not only can be, but generally is, a menace’. They might be ‘superficially charming and devoted’, but such people represented a ‘real and grave menace’, for ‘when the signal is given, there will be satellites of the monster all over [Britain] who will at once embark on widespread sabotage and attacks on civilians and the military indiscriminately’. 103 The Sunday Express warned its readers on 19 May about a Fifth Column plan to ‘paralyse Britain’ upon receiving word from Hitler – to ‘seize power stations and broadcasting stations, sabotage railways, telephone exchanges […] spread false information and create panic’. Some of the plans for this plot, which the paper alleged had been just discovered by the Security Service, were ‘in the possession of Germans living here’. 104
Spy fever brought on by Blitzkrieg nerves can, then, explain much of what happened in May and June 1940. But it would be overly generous to say that that was all there was to it. The fact is that the British press had been agitating that the government ‘get tough’ with enemy aliens long before the spring crisis. The experience of the Irish in Britain during the IRA’s S-Plan campaign had already illustrated how prevailing public anxieties could easily find an expression in crude xenophobia. Within a month of the war breaking out, the Daily Mail was already warning of ‘aliens in our midst’ plotting treachery. 105 Frustration with the lack of progress in the war in early 1940 had provoked bouts of stories about grasping, disloyal foreigners with mysterious sources of overseas money. The Sunday Express told of 30,000 German émigrés – ‘the nucleus of a Fifth Column’ – snatching up vital government war contracts. 106 By April 1940 agitation for mass internment was growing. The Sunday Dispatch blamed ‘namby pamby humanists’ in Whitehall for stalling. 107
Sir John Anderson had noted the increasing press agitation with disquiet. ‘The newspapers are working up a feeling about aliens,’ he had written back in March. ‘I shall have to do something about it, or we may be stampeded into an unnecessarily oppressive policy.’ 108 The Home Office quietly reserved accommodation for up to 18,000 potential detainees, even though it regarded such a plan as illiberal and militarily pointless. 109 With the start of the German offensive on 10 May, even the ‘respectable’ press joined in the clamour for internment. The Cabinet reviewed the issue the following week. A paper drafted by Anderson, Attlee and Greenwood argued that there were ‘strong objections to wholesale internment’ on grounds of practicality and justice. But the War Office continued to press for its imposition. 110 Churchill formed a Security Executive led by the former secretary of state for air, Lord Swinton, to root out the truth behind the Fifth Column threat. Unlike Anderson, who suspected that stories such as Sir Nevile Bland’s were gossipy embroideries, Swinton was convinced that a powerful Fifth Column existed in Britain as it had on the continent, and that only wholesale internment would suppress it. 111 Reluctantly, Anderson gave in.
The onset of mass internment was, in part, the culmination of a general feeling of mistrust and resentment that the public had been directing against German refugees ever since Hitler had come to power. The British memory of refugee aid in the 1930s has, of late, become rather self-congratulatory. This is thanks to the rediscovery in popular culture of the Kindertransport evacuations of about 10,000 children, mostly from Germany and Czechoslovakia, in 1938 and 1939. 112 The Kindertransport undoubtedly saved many young lives. Sir Nicholas Winton, the stockbroker who helped organise the programme, was rightly hailed as a hero when he reluctantly emerged into the public eye in the 1980s.
What the ‘triumphalist narrative’ of the Kindertransport tends to obscure, however, is that it took place in the face of a thoroughly hostile environment for refugees. 113 Throughout the 1930s the 1919 Aliens Act had been used to limit the number of German citizens given refuge in the United Kingdom. The government, under no legal obligation to assist refugees from the Third Reich, was particularly insistent that none of them should be a drain on state funds. Private charitable organisations that wished to sponsor refugees had to agree to strict terms, including a £50 deposit for each child (well beyond the means of most families) and a pledge that it would financially maintain anyone over the age of sixty for life. 114 Many Jewish Germans had been impoverished by confiscatory Nazi laws and no longer had any means to support themselves. A private fund set up by the former prime minister Stanley Baldwin and a Czech refugee fund organised by the lord mayor of London each raised half a million pounds, and the Council for German Jewry about the same amount. But that money was rapidly exhausted. 115 The Kindertransport children travelled unaccompanied by their parents because the government would not let the parents in.
British refugee policy in the 1930s evolved amid widespread parliamentary and press hostility. Refugees were said to be interlopers, stealers of jobs, benefit scroungers. The British Medical Association refused to recognise the credentials of German doctors for fear of professional competition. The Daily Mail warned that ‘misguided sentimentalism’ about the plight of refugees in the Third Reich would lead to ‘the floodgates [being] opened […] we should be inundated’. The trade unions were opposed. 116 The true loyalties of aliens in Britain were said to be to their home nations. Winston Churchill warned in Parliament in July 1937 that ‘there may be 35,000 or 40,000 Germans or Italians in this country at any given moment’, all of whom were receiving political instructions from their overseas governments: ‘nothing like this has ever been seen before.’

* But plenty of popular resentment survived even Kristallnacht . A month after the Nazi pogroms the home secretary received a delegation of back-bench Tory MPs unhappy about the volume of Jewish refugees entering Britain. 122 In February 1939 the king, disturbed by reports that German émigrés were illegally entering Palestine, wrote to Lord Halifax expressing the hope that ‘steps are being taken to prevent these people leaving their country of origin’. The foreign secretary promptly asked the British ambassador in Berlin to urge Hitler’s government to prevent the ‘unauthorised emigration’ of Jews. 123 Halifax himself later admitted that he had ‘always been rather anti-Semitic’. 124 An attempt to start an imperial settlement scheme for German Jews outside of Palestine got nowhere thanks to problems with cost and objections from colonial administrators (Kenya’s governor was willing to accept the ‘right type’ of Jew, but thought their presence on a large scale would be an ‘undesirable feature’ in his colony). 125
In June 1939 the scurrilous anti-Semitic magazine Truth , surreptitiously run by Chamberlain’s party fixer Sir Joseph Ball, was still complaining that London was ‘crawling with foreign undesirables’ and that ‘one of the mysteries of this present time is how the refugees who are pouring into Great Britain manage to present such a well-fed, well-dressed, and cheerful – not to say arrogant – appearance’. 126 By July, with the Danzig crisis deepening and charity organisations running out of money, Chamberlain reluctantly announced that the government was willing to re-examine the question of whether it should defray costs of emigration and settlement (though ‘I don’t care about [Jews] myself’, he reminded his sister.) 127 On the brink of war, according to a Gallup survey, seven out of ten Britons thought that refugees ought to be allowed to enter the UK. But almost all of those who agreed added the proviso that there ought to be ‘restrictions designed to safeguard British workers and taxpayers’, making the commitment a rather shallow one.

* popular anti-Semitism, always widespread but hitherto too impolite to be expressed too loudly in public, had been given a new respectability by the press’s obsession with the Fifth Column. It had become ‘quite the done thing’ to speak your dislike of Jews out loud.

* Italy’s declaration of war on 10 June 1940 generated a wave of popular anger previously unseen even against the Germans. Mussolini’s craven opportunism in turning against the Allies at their moment of vulnerability seemed especially contemptible. This anger in its most visceral form was directed against the Italian émigré community in Britain. Italian-owned restaurants, fish-and-chip cafés and ice-cream parlours in Liverpool, Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and London’s Soho district had their windows smashed. Some were looted. The worst violence was in Scotland. Mobs rampaged through Italian districts in Glasgow, Clydebank and Edinburgh. Much of this was economic envy masquerading as patriotism, the work of ‘hooligans’ rather than concerned citizens, according to Home Intelligence. 134
The Hotel Review had already complained of ‘the excessive Italianisation’ of the British hotel industry. The war, it said, ought to see such foreign encroachment ‘checked and eliminated’. Now the Italian Duce had done disgruntled fish-and-chip merchants a great favour by allowing them to smash up the competition’s premises and see their rivals interned, all while wrapped up in a Union Jack.

* Britain’s experiment with the mass indiscriminate suspension of habeas corpus was largely over by late 1941. It is hard to know exactly what to say about it. On the one hand, it compares quite well with the US government’s treatment of Japanese-Americans, which would begin after Pearl Harbor. The United States interned five times as many people for far longer – most were not released until the end of the war – and was much less discriminating about whom it interned. Tens of thousands of US citizens of Japanese ancestry were interned, without any tribunal process, an injustice that had no analogy in Britain. 147
On the other hand, the mass internment of enemy aliens in 1940 was a policy that the Home Office embarked on not because it felt it was necessary or fair – it knew it was probably neither – but because it had been pressed into it by a confederacy of outraged special interests (MI5, the press, the trade unions) that were pandering to fashionable prejudice and an obsession with spies and traitors. 148 The best one can say about the whole unhappy episode is that its noblest feature was its brevity.
It was certainly freighted with irony. Henry Prais, who eventually had a distinguished career as a professor of modern languages, had come to Britain from Germany in February 1939 as a teenager. When war broke out, he tried to enlist in the British Army but was turned down. The following July he was interned and sent first to Prees Heath camp in Shropshire, and later to Onchan on the Isle of Man. He was eventually released in December 1940. He looked back on his involuntary sojourn with fatalism. ‘From 1936 onwards you had become so accustomed to an insecure existence that you did not find injustice surprising,’ he remembered afterwards. ‘You were conditioned to the fact that life was going to be insecure from then on.’ When he was released, the police gave him a form to fill out which, among other things, asked him if he had ever been in prison. ‘November–December 1938: Buchenwald, on the charge of being a Jew. July–December 1940: Onchan, on the charge of being a German.’

* British air intelligence concluded in an August 1941 report that ‘no town in England has suffered a breakdown in morale’. 87 Psychiatrists such as Edward Glover, who had been deeply pessimistic about civilian responses to air attack, confessed that, after all, ‘there has been no outbreak of war neuroses in the civilian population. Such signs of panic […] never assumed a serious form.’ 88 The London clinic that Glover had established at the outbreak of war to deal with traumatised air-raid victims closed for lack of patients. 89 His colleague P. E. Vernon contrasted the ‘imperturbability of the majority of the population’ to the shell shock of the First World War trenches. 90 Despite all the pre-war fear about ‘deep shelter mentality’, there was only one recorded case, in Ramsgate, of a group of Blitzed civilians refusing to emerge from their underground tunnel sanctuary for days on end.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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