Lest we forget or never knew (TV Review) [The Dunera Boys]

Channel 4 recently showed an Australian-made TV film The Dunera Boys. It is about the conditions suffered by ‘enemy alien’ Jews in internment camps. Working people having spent their lives here and speaking no German, (nor necessarily ever having connection with Germany proper); and middle class and professional people from Germany and Austria (no accident, they were the only refugees that were accepted after 1933) were rounded up and sent to various concentration camps usually among rabid Nazis. This is about one batch, sent on the Dunera to Australia (some, sent to Canada, were less fortunate, and were torpedoed – the Dunera escaped U boats because the British soldiers had thrown suitcases bought in Germany overboard after looting it and the U boats following thought the boat contained German POWS which in a way they did). 

In Australia they were unwelcome, but, interned in the outback, made a little improvised university in their huts while the musicians created an Old Vienna. 

The salient facts of the film were basically true. It was however a falsification of history none the less. The episode (subsequently declared by the producer to be a one-off incident, which is untrue, to avoid criticisms of being anti-British) was part of a deliberate plan. It is shown as a ‘cock-up’ by the British authorities, all a big mistake for which they later apologise but are prevented by the Australian bureaucracy. The British officer thinks they are Nazis and is not ‘fooled by those whiskers’ of the rabbi. To explain this lunacy, we even get a repeat of the absurd war-time propaganda story of how everyone was scared stiff of paratroopers ‘dressed as nuns’ infiltrating (which soon became a standard joke)…  the Australians greet the Jews with stones and bottles since they are thought to be Italians right up to the internment camp and even then… maybe it was the whiff of garlic from the Galician rabbi? 

What are the facts? Nobody was stupid enough to confuse Orthodox Jews with Nazis. The reason for hatred of the German Jews was not the ignorance of anti-Nazis, it was plain anti-Semitism. 

The professional officer class was largely anti-Semitic, exacerbated by pro-Arabism because of their Palestine experience; but their pro-Arabism was because they enjoyed being and mixing with ‘pashas’ and ‘effendis’ while ‘booting the wogs’, not yet into the new age of imperialist decline. A large proportion were pro-Hitler (‘look what he did for the German Army’). A number of upper-class people entering the Services, or re-joining their old regiments, were Fascists; many Chief Constables had given them a tip off that they would be interned and better get quick out of civilian life. 

The staff sergeant types were brutal enough (to British soldiers under sentence as much as anyone); the conditions of internment brought out all the incipient Nazi in them, treating the internees as ‘scum’. Working class attitudes were completely different. The average urban dweller knew Jews, working class and middle class, knew what Nazis were, had experience of fascism and anti-fascism, and politically the workers were in 1940 sold on the idea that the extreme left, anarchists and all, had been right to talk about active armed resistance (at least abroad), and felt (outside the Communist Party which was still pro-Hitler) that Resistance in Europe alone would save them from Hitler. They welcomed anti-Nazi activists, with the same accord as they applauded the incoming Black regiments arriving from Jamaica and Africa, or the Sikhs, marching down the gangplanks. They sympathised with the victims of Nazism. Things have changed, no doubt, but we are talking about 1940. 

The turning point as regards the treatment of Jewish refugees from Germany came when Churchill formed the Coalition and wanted Ernest Bevin in the Cabinet, as a tough hardened union bureaucrat from whom the workers would take draconian measures they would not take from a Tory. He needed a safe Labour seat to get Bevin into Parliament, so Major Nathan obligingly resigned his and went to the Lords. Major Nathan (who wearing another hat, was a leading figure in the Jewish Board of Deputies) put forward the case (placed in the mouth of a major in the TV film, but one of no political importance), for treating Jewish victims of Nazism differently from Nazis – a fact then alien to British Conservatives generally, who thought people who could oppose their country’s lawful government decisions far worse than those who ran it; and to the populists who felt ‘they started the war so let them see what it’s like’. 

An interesting footnote is that we took advantage of this to press Maj. Nathan for British fascists and German Nazis to be divided from German anti-Nazis, including Jews, and British anti-fascists, including IRA, in the internment camps. This of course was logical, but it made nonsense of the whole policy. The new Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, always alive to the political advantages, saw the disadvantages of harassing anti-fascists. 

Generally the deliberate policy of harassing all Germans was ended at that point. But there was no ‘muddle’ or mistake. That is deliberate misrepresentation, designed to convey that it was a ‘war against fascism’ because the enemy happened to be fascist; ageing right-wingers still say with forced incredulity, ‘How can you call me a fascist I fought against fascism’ (ask them if they fought for Soviet Communism from 1941-5!) It was only the irony of events that Hitler turned on his financial backers and that the right wing found itself fighting against its own creation. 

Black Flag 144 1985-11-19