The term ‘enemy aliens’ conjures all sorts of images… however, in time of war, they are people linked with an enemy country, foreigners. At least that’s the idea. However, many who were born in one country and living in another were quite loyal to the ‘new’ country, yet in times of trouble, good friends became distrusted, the worst being expected. During the two World Wars, many of these individuals found themselves imprisoned in camps such as Stobs and on the Isle of Mann.
Even in places geographically far removed from the war, enemy aliens were to be feared. In South Africa, a camp was set up at Fort Napier in Pietermaritzburg, Kwa-Zulu Natal for German nationals, both internees and prisoners of war.
A few South Africans found themselves stranded in other countries on the outbreak of war, or their nationality called into question because they hadn’t become naturalised or, if they had, not changed their surname to something more Anglicised.
One of those who found himself stranded in Britain, was Hermann Kallenbach, a friend of Mahatma Gandhi who travelled with him to Britain shortly before war broke out. Two daughters of the mining magnate, JB Robinson found themselves in Germany on the outbreak of war, but managed to smuggle themselves out – how many were not so fortunate? In South Africa, L Baumann was forced to changed his name after the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania. As a result, his firm also changed its name – to Bakers. Baumann had been in business from 1881. It does not appear he was interned.
For more on internment of enemy aliens in war, visit the Internment Research Centre.
While researchers have looked at the internment of those seen as a threat to society, I wonder if anyone has studied the re-integration of those interned into the society which ostracised them. How long did it take for friendships and trust to be reinstated? Was it the same for those who found themselves under the authority of a new country such as the Boers under Britain in 1902 and the Germans in East Africa and South West Africa in 1918?
Behind the Wire first came to my attention when Stefan Manz displayed the boards at the Novmeber 2018 UNISA Conference on the legacy of the First World War. The main focus of the portable/mobile exhibit is the Stobs Camp in Hawick in Scotland, but that is only used as a platform to discuss the issue of internment for people across the globe. In September 2019, the education pack was adapted for use in South Africa, a project I was directly involved with.
During September, Stefan visited Pietermaritzburg Museum which has Behind the Wire as a temporary exhibition. I was unable to see the exhibition in situ, but had a behind the scenes tour by Assistant Director Wesley Flanagan. According to the website, the exhibition will be open for a year – and is definitely recommended.
One of the highlights for me was access to material I had been ‘keeping an eye open for’ over some years, it had been in a private collection lovingly compiled by an enthusiast. Without his dedication and tenacity, ‘professional’ historians would often not have access to rich material as this proved. These are often the personal stories which add colour and flavour to the official documents many of us use. For a World War 1 exhibition, there should be material and exhibits not seen in public before which is always a good thing.
A rewarding challenge was linking the past with similar incidents over subsequent years allowing for comparisons, and providing a vehicle for developing understanding of how terminology has changed and how similar people are irrespective of their backgrounds. While finding information on the South African xenophobic attacks as well as a current internment camp for people awaiting deportation was enlightening, it was rather disappointing that one of the milder documents had to be left out as despite being of the time, the language used was still felt to be too sensitive for school children, or more significantly that teachers would not be able to mediate its use in an historical context.
There is much to explore in this exhibition and the education packs. To find out more or to see how your country can be included, see here.
Another group looking to work internationally, and with young people, developing on their First World War work is Never Such Innocence. Both projects are highly recommended.
They are all remembered, living and dead.