How Jewish refugees worked for the war effort

Hugo Dachinger used old newspapers to create artworks of life under internment as an enemy alien dur

Hugo Dachinger, who found a new home around Hampstead's emigre community, used old newspapers to create artworks of life under internment as an enemy alien during WWII - Credit: Courtesy of Ben Uri Collection/Hugo Dachinger estate

While there are several books about those who fled to Britain from Nazi Europe, this is the first which focuses on how important German speaking refugees were in wartime propaganda.

Around 80,000 German speaking refugees had arrived in Britain by September 1939 - many settling in and around Hampstead. Their willingness to contribute to British propaganda is all the more remarkable given the ‘hostile environment’ they inhabited. The British public, and a significant section of the establishment, viewed all Germans as having a collective responsibility for Nazism.

And in 1940, Churchill introduced mass internment of ‘enemy aliens’ which led to the incarceration of around 30,000 German-speaking refugees, including many of the main characters in this book. Another ‘problem’, voiced in the corridors of the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Information (MoI) was the need to avoid ‘Jewish-run’ organisations or ‘Jewish intellectualism’.

Working for The War Effort is published by Vallentine Mitchell

Working for The War Effort is published by Vallentine Mitchell - Credit: Supplied

Established in September 1939, The Ministry had control over propaganda and direct links with several refugee groups. Chapters here detail the German language newspaper: die Zeitung, broadcasting, refugee artists and film. Their purpose was to appeal to two audiences: Germans in Europe, and German-speaking refugees in the UK, including the roughly 400,000 POWs, during and after the end of the war. A chapter on Government political warfare shows how indispensable the German refugee speakers were to black propaganda projects.

Martin Miller

Photograph of Martin Miller. in role of Adolf Hitler c. 1940, - Credit: courtesy of Martin Miller and Hannah Norbert-Miller Archive, Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies

While we assume propaganda was directed at Germans, one Hampstead-based refugee, Peter Smolka who got a job working for the MoI took charge of the ‘Anglo-Soviet Liaison Section’. It was tasked with carrying out British propaganda towards the Soviet Union and publicising the Anglo-Soviet Alliance in the UK. Both were accomplished through a stream of pamphlets and broadcasts. After the war, it was established Smolka had been a Soviet mole.


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There were numerous German-speaking refugee organisations. Two of the most important were based around Hampstead. One, the Free German League of Culture (FGLC) was established in September 1939, with Alfred Kerr as its President. It was nominally a non-party anti-Nazi cultural organisation, though in practice it came to be dominated by Communists and, under its umbrella, organised political as well as cultural events. Kerr wrote to the MoI and the Home Office offering the considerable services of leading artists, writers and academics, but the offer wasn't followed up, one suspects, because of the Security Service’s suspicions against anything ‘Communist’.

Ernst Hermann Meyer

Ernst Hermann Meyer, c. 1949. - Credit: courtesy of Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenoganisationen der DDR, Bundesarchiv Berlin-Lichterfelde. 

One of the dominant figures, Jurgen Kuzcinski, was indeed a stalwart member of the German Communist Party, and lived in Hampstead with his large family. Another leading member, the famous musician Ernst Hermann Meyer, who lived in Parliament Hill, promoted a series of well-attended concerts by exiled German and Austrian musicians.


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The other committee - for German Scholars in Exile -  was headed by Fritz Demuth (it was later named after him), along with Professor Max Born (soon to live in Hampstead). Its initial aim was to help refugee academics find jobs, but it increasingly emphasised the promotion of ‘English interests’ and provided the Government with much useful data as well as lists of over 60 German refugee experts in industry and banking. Contacted to vouch for the Committee's reliability, The Hampstead Police Station sanctioned its activities.

Charmian Brinson and Richard Dove's book provides us with a valuable history of how German speakers, far from supporting their homeland, assisted with propaganda against their country of birth on behalf of the British state. Perhaps the Ham&High could organise a walk for us to remember and celebrate them?

Working For The War Effort: German-Speaking Refugees in British propaganda during the Second World War is published by Vallentine Mitchell.

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