Enemy Aliens?

'Collar the lot!' Fifty years ago this summer in Britain, an exotic miscellany of foreign refugees, academics and Italian restauranteurs were rounded up for internment in response to Churchill's famous injunction. Colin Holmes explains the policy, the pressure of the times and their aftermath.

The Second World War began in September 1939 but the sense of imminent danger on the Home Front did not take hold in that first year of the war. It was in 1940 rather than 1939 that the fear developed of Britain falling to Germany.

By the summer of 1940 the German armed forces had swept through Western Europe and Scandinavia. 'Another year! another deadly blow! another mighty Empire overthrown! ', Wordsworth had written in his November 1806 as the French Revolutionary armies swept across Europe. In 1940 Britain had to contend with the withdrawal from Dunkirk, the subsequent sustained German military assault during the so-called 'spitfire summer' and the blitz on British cities. It was a time of dangerous uncertainty: a scent of the feverish atmosphere in Britain at that time can be absorbed from George Orwell's The Lion and the Unicorn, with its dramatic and haunting first sentence, 'As I write highly civilised human beings are flying overhead trying to kill me.'

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