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Alexandra Palace as a concentration camp

Several London cemeteries feature strikingly cheap-looking memorials erected by the local authorities above the mass graves of civilian victims – mainly air raid casualties – of the twentieth-century World wars, but perhaps the most economical-looking monument of all, in the Great Northern London Cemetery in the London Borough of Barnet, is one erected by the British central government and has an inscription in German: Hier ruhen die genannten 51 deutschen Maenner die waehrend des Weltkrieges in Zivilgefangenschaft gestorben sind. (Here rest in God the named 51 German men who died during the World War in civil imprisonment.) It is the principal surviving relic of the time when, during the 1914-1918 War, Alexandra Palace was a concentration camp for male enemy aliens of military age. In the first months of the war more than 50,000 German, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish nationals resident in Britain were arrested and by the time of the Armistice in November 1918, after selective repatriations and releases, there were still 24,500 men in internment. They included, allegedly, a former colonel in the British Army, and a Church of England clergyman, as well as novelist John Galsworthy’s nephew Rudolf Sauter. Some of them were men (or the sons of men) who had come to England to avoid military service in Germany. Internment was a totally unlooked-for and horribly traumatizing experience – conditions were nothing like as bad as the notorious concentration camps in South Africa during the Boer War, let alone Belsen and Dachau during the Second World War, but it was still imprisonment for an indeterminate term at the hands of people whom the internees had regarded as neighbours and colleagues, and more than four-fifths of them opted to be repatriated after the war; in addition more than four hundred of the 4,300 who asked to remain in Britain were expelled. 1. Alexandra Palace, north London’s famous festival and entertainment complex in which up to 3,000 internees slept in rows of plank beds in the Great Hall and two other large halls, was reportedly ‘considered as the best non-paying camp in England.’ 2. There were of course armed military guards, but by the end of 1917 they had been reduced in number and patrolled only outside the barbed wire perimeter. Each internee had a pillow and three blankets and could have a fourth blanket if he asked: in fact there was more of a problem with the huge sleeping rooms being too warm, owing to lack of ventilation, rather than too cold.3. The German camp leader told U.S. Embassy officials in November 1916 that ‘he and his fellow interned were satisfied with the treatment, food and accommodation, and he knew of no complaint in connection with them.’ 4. This was not the view of an internee repatriated some months earlier, who told the authorities in Germany that for ‘civilized men the toilet arrangements were outrageous’, the washing facilities ‘unappetizing’ (unappetitlich) and the frozen imported meat they were provided with uneatable. 5. There were protests when the camp administration introduced horse meat as a substitute for beef, and in the final year or so of the war, when the whole country suffered from food shortages (though not as severely as Germany in the same period) hunger and physical depletion put an end to the formerly flourishing camp football club. (By this stage daily calory intake was calculated to be 1489.) Eighty, and later four hundred gardening plots were allocated, and there was an active Concert Society, but an Amateur Theatrical Society was found to suffer from ‘a lack of talent. . . . Most of the productions were very commonplace’, and it soon faded out. 6. Unlike the Prisoner of War camps of the 1939-45 period celebrated in so many stiff-upper-lip British movies, where the prisoners were predominately under twenty-five years of age and drawn from the officer class, Alexandra Palace housed large numbers of middle-aged men torn unexpectedly from the bosoms of their (mainly English-speaking) families, and forced to live in conditions of over-crowding and lack of privacy which nothing in their previous lives had prepared them for. In a volume of verse entitled Songs in Captivity published after the war, Galsworthy’s nephew Rudolf Sauter evoked the sleeping conditions in the Great Hall: A monster morgue – a dismal vault, this, framed in dusk! . . . . And ranks on ranks of living corpses on their planks, still dripping cold and miserable with thoughts that never halt . . . . And by day of course there was that constant reminder of imprisonment: Wire, barbed wire! – A dour and monstrous serpent round our lives. And we’re like creatures mesmerised; it glares at us, all day, malignant, sour. As on the Western Front, the ugliness could occasionally be seen as having a strange beauty: Wire – In Winter-time the snow comes writhing down to perch on it in great festoons. White-tented, now, the distance marches in a bit. 7. But of course the mortality rate – less than one per cent counting all the internees who passed through the camp – was nothing like that on the Western Front, and in general they were not too much disturbed by the air raids on the inner London suburbs a couple of miles to the south: The Zeppelins – they are attacking us; Kingsland Road is alight, Stoke Newington is burning. Did you not hear the guns? 8. 1. J.C. Bird, Control of Enemy Alien Civilians in Great Britain 1914-18 (New York 1986) p.197. See also Panikos Panay, ‘An Intolerant Act by an Intolerant Society: the Internment of Germans in Britain during the First World War’, in David Cesarini and Tony Kushner eds. The Internment of Aliens in Twentieth Century Britain (London, 1993) at p.53-75 and Anna Braithwaite Thomas et al. St Stephen’s House: Friends’ Emergency Work in England 1914 to 1920 (London, 1933) p.43-65 by W.R. Hughes. 2. The National Archives, Kew, FO 383/469/28772 report by a Swedish official 7 Jan 1918. Whereas in the Second World War Switzerland assumed the responsibility for protecting the interests of civilian and military prisoners in belligerent countries, in the First World War much of this was also undertaken by the U.S.A. (previous to American entry into the War in 1917) and Sweden. 3. The National Archives, Kew, FO 383/33/67335 US Embassy report 26 May 1915; ibid. FO 383/237/55152 French official report 17 March 1916. 4. The National Archives, FO 383/164/226983, US Embassy report 10 Nov. 1916. 5. The National Archives, FO 383/164/181944, official complaint by Max Cogho 6 July 1916, forwarded by US Embassy. 6. Rudolf Rocker, Alexandra Palace Internment Camp in the First World War, 1914 -1918 (private: reproduced from typescript c.1918) p.22-3 7. R.H. Sauter, Songs in Captivity (London, 1922) p.42, ‘Night in the Big Hall’, and p.26-7, ‘Barbed Wire’. 8. F.S. Flint, Other Worlds: Cadences (London, 1920) p.54 ‘Zeppelins’. In this period, with no pharmaceutical remedies for septicaemia or infectious fevers, mortality from sudden illness was much higher than it is today; on the other hand internees suffering from incurable long-term disorders such as cancer or T.B. were often repatriated via the Netherlands and did not therefore spend their last days alive behind barbed wire.
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