German Left-Wing Exiles to the UK

A very small group of anti-Nazis escaped to Britain and even fewer settled here. While around 55,000 people fled Germany in 1933 alone, only about 2000 came to the UK: Britain gained from Germany’s loss; amongst the refugees were a galaxy of leading scientists and many cultural figures. But, out of the roughly 10,000 political refugees who fled in 1933, probably only a few hundred active anti-Nazis of any political hue came here.

The largest group were the Communists: the group especially hunted in the first months of Nazi rule. But even up to 1939, only about 200 German Communists were allowed into Britain and only around 1000 Communist refugees from all across Europe. Few Communists fled Germany as early as 1933/ 1934, and then the more popular destinations were Prague and Paris, not foggy insular Britain, lying on the edge of the world, speaking a very foreign language, with a strange culture, and too far away to facilitate clandestine organising in Germany .

Communists and ‘fellow travellers’ did succeed in building a number of small –faction-ridden- exile organisations here which functioned as a focal point as well as -in theory- providing a basis for clandestine intervention in Germany. But the line of the British CP, following the advice of the Comintern, was not to develop fraternal relationships with the exile group organisations and, although some clandestine contact did occur, the British CP does not appear to have taken up the political issues raised by its refugee comrades.

Even fewer Social Democrats arrived here. Although a larger organisation, the Nazis did not target them in the same way plus there was a belief that as long as you kept your head down, it would all pass, so few active anti-Nazis remained in the SPD. Despite a few attempts, unlike the Communists, they failed to build any sort of lasting refugee organisation up till 1939. They too were deeply divided in their analysis of past and future, which further isolated them from the British Labour Party.1 Indeed, a handful of German trade-union refugees were thrown out from the SPD in exile because of their criticism of the SPD’s leadership’s continuing backwardness in coming forwards.2 (See the biography of Fritz Bieligk for one example.)

A handful of refugees from other left organisations: SAP, ISK, ISK and Neu Beginnen (see ‘Anti-Nazi Germans’ for more detail) also got into the UK, most famously Dora Fabian who worked with the SAP (see separate biography). These tiny groups of exiles generally supported a united front policy, which the leadership of both the SPD and KPD tragically failed to do in the years immediately after 1933.

The refugees who arrived after Krystalnacht in November 1938 were different: they were far more likely to be escaping anti-Semitism rather than being avowedly anti-Nazi, though some of the earlier refugees had been ‘historically Jewish’ and some of the post-1938 influx fled primarily as anti-Nazis. Some of the later refugees included here are however a different group: refugees who had been active ‘underground’, had been held in concentration camps or, in one case, because they had initially gone to the USSR.

Here, a minority of the refugees were politically active. The deeply divisive ‘Third period’ policy of the KPD up till roughly 1936 and the highly sectarian SPD precluded members of these groups working together here, just as had been the case in Germany. Even when the KPD adopted the Popular Front policy around 1936, members of the SPD exile group by and large refused to have anything to do with them. And the handful of refugee comrades from the tiny organisations who had been committed from early on to some sort of United Front strategy were far too few to bring about collective anti-Nazi cooperation.

In addition, all the political refugees were heavily circumscribed by the government’s ban on political activities. Their fear of being thrown out was kept well alive by the government’s system of only offering short-term visas which might not be renewed if there was evidence of political involvement. Indeed, Helmut Goldschmidt, the first leader of the exiled SAP group here, was deported in February 1934 after he had been overheard speaking at a political meeting.3 The early low numbers of Communist exiles were also in part a consequence of MI5, the Home Office and the British immigration authority’s hatred of German Communists and desire to keep them out.

And as will also be seen in the separate mini-biographies, the internment of ‘enemy aliens’ from 1939/40 had a seriously limiting effect, not just because it physically removed the refugees but because it filled refugees with terror, especially as Communists were especially likely to be sent to Canada or Australia. Bear in mind that this was a group who had already fled repression once, in some cases escaping from Germany by the skin of their teeth. Being interned by their ‘host’ nation and even more so, sent to the Dominions, must have shaken them profoundly.

Also, the political groupings were all infiltrated by spies, mostly German, some of whom had been left activists in Germany, who provided information for the British government. Their motives were mixed but for many, it was a way of ingratiating themselves with the government so as to increase their chances of being allowed to remain. More serious were the spies for the Gestapo, such as Wesemann.4

Mi5 tried to place its spies in the different anti-Nazi refugee groupings. The most infamous case was that of Claud Sykes who penetrated the Karl Otten group Otten who was in fact himself suspected of spying for the Nazis was eventually recruited to the British security services, which was to become the SOE!

In addition, there had been a history of collaboration between the German and British secret services prior to 1933 which however continued after the Nazis seized power. They were united in their hatred of communism. For example, Wilhelm Koenen, a KPD deputy in the Reichstag, had been refused entry to the UK in 1932, though admitted in 1938. MI5 then bombarded the Home Office with memoranda about the danger of allowing in men such as Koenen, who should be interned forthwith. These people weren’t real refugees but Comintern agents!5

Just an aside: the British government missed a trick. In marginalising the refugees, they cut of an invaluable potential source of information about attitudes amongst the German civilian population and the level of resistance, which they, more than anybody else, knew the details of.

Many of the people I have included here did not stay in the UK but either went on to the US, generally in pursuance of their careers, or back to Germany, usually E Germany. Whilst most of the KPD exiles referred to here wanted to return to Germany after the war had ended (unlike those who had fled because of anti-Semitism), for a few, the combination of the first Soviet trials, the attack by Comintern forces on the anarchists etc in Spain and the increasingly visible bureaucratised nature of the Communist movement caused them to start to drift away (a process arguably accelerated a few years later by the Stalin-Hitler pact of 1940).

A handful of the refugees did stay in the UK. But why did more not stay? Most of them had in the years they lived here got jobs and some had families. On the other hand, Germany was in ruins. But living in a ‘borrowed’ land is never easy. The new language does not roll of ones tongue. There is a strangeness to living in a foreign land: their anti-Nazi activities were rooted in a different soil. Germany was also the enemy which meant (as I discovered in other research) that some people, especially women stuck at home, felt themselves always as the outsider. But, I suspect, more than anything, these comrades had already risked their lives trying to stop Nazism. That is what gave their lives meaning. Now they saw a new beginning in which to build a socialist Germany.

These brief biographies concentrate on are those who left Germany for explicitly political reasons, not ‘just’ because of anti-Semitism, though in some cases that may have contributed. Because of this focus, I have not considered anybody who came over who was too young to have already been politically active, even if they then became so in the UK (Lord Dubs being on example). I have also made choices and have preferred people who were active at a grass roots level rather fleeing as a result of holding bureaucratic positions in left organisations or because they were to later become famous. I have only included people who fled because of their cultural stand when they were also active anti-Nazis: in the Germany of the 1920s and early 1930s, cultural activities were often understood as inseparable from politics. I am very well aware that I have included a disproportionate number of men but, whatever the complex reasons, very few women refugees appear to have made it to the UK.

While many of the more famous refugees have by now been well documented, what appears to still be missing is any collective account of the experience of exile for the ‘ordinary’ man or woman here.

This work builds on the book written by Steve Cushion and me on German anti-Nazi refugees, the vast majority of whom did not live to see the fall of the Nazi regime. Here are details of a few who did.

1 It was assumed/hoped that the SPD would win the first elections after Nazism fell and that therefore the relationship between the SPD leadership in exile and the British Labour Party was crucial. But the Labour Party was divided over the SPD’s earlier almost non-existent anti-Nazi role. Moreover, this was a period when disarmament still had a strong appeal on the left. And the SPD in exile was itself profoundly split. The issues were varied, for example, how far Nazism was a product of economic forces and whether, after the war, the SPD should stand for Germany’s unilateral disarmament.

2 Brinson: Autobiography in exile, in ‘German-speaking Exiles in Great Britain’, Volume 3 edited by Ian Wallace, James M. Ritchie.

3 Brinson and Dove,41. It is suspected this was the handiwork of Weseman, the Gestapo spy, doing the British Government a ‘favour’

4 It’s a different story but anybody interested in the many spies on the refugees, go to Brinson and Dove: A Matter of Intelligence. It has been suspected- though never proved- that spies for the Gestapo had a hand in Dora Fabian’s death.

5 Brinson and Dove, A Matter of Intelligence, 91-93