Churchill on Foreign Aliens: Did He Say, “Collar the Lot”?
Aliens and refugees
(Updated from 2015). The Huffington Post offered an unsubstantiated Churchill quote to describe something then-candidate Donald Trump said about Syrian aliens: “Shocked by anti-Muslim Hysteria? Churchill Wanted to ‘Collar The Lot.'” Compared to Trump’s xenophobia, they wrote,
Churchill went even farther. He ordered the internment of tens of thousands of Jewish refugees in England, labeling them dangerous enemy aliens…. Nationals from Germany and Austria, who were living in England when World War II broke out, had already been assigned to different groupings based on their apparent threat to the UK. Category A were the “high security risks.” All 600 of them were immediately interned.
Those deemed “no-security risk” in Class C included 55,000 refugees from Nazi oppression. The great majority were Jewish, and left free—at first. But then, in the Spring of 1940, France fell. With fear of a German invasion and the entry of Italy into the war, spy fever broke in England. Action was demanded against thousands of “dangerous aliens” living there. Unwilling to consider which of those foreigners might actually be dangerous, Churchill commanded “Collar them all.”
Surely Churchill had more important things on his mind in 1940 than which refugees were dangerous. But let it go. People who write such things have no concept of what it was like to live under the threat of imminent extinction. More important are the questions: Did he actually say this? And what was his attitude toward “undocumented aliens”?
Did Churchill say it?
It’s an open question. Nowhere among Churchill’s 20 million published words (books, articles, letters, papers, government documents) does “collar the lot” or “collar them all” appear. Of course, not everything is published. But a phrase so widely bandied about should have provenance. One possible source I must check is Peter and Leni Gillmans’ 1981 book, Collar the Lot. If it’s a book title, surely they offer a source?
Among works about Churchill, the phrase appears only once: In Churchill: The Unruly Giant, Norman Rose says “collar the lot” was an expression of WSC’s sympathy, not outrage, toward alien refugees:
Britain took action against its own suspect groups. Local Fascist elements, Mosley and others of his ilk, were interned with little regret. But the order also went out to round up “enemy aliens,” mainly German, Austrian, or Czech refugees, once victims of Nazism, now casualties of an ugly strain of collective hysteria. Approximately 70,000 in number, many of whom were Jews, included distinguished academics, scientists, musicians, artists, as well as ordinary folk. “Collar the lot,” instructed Churchill, convinced that he was protecting them from “outraged public opinion.” (265)
“Outraged pubic opinion” is not Churchill’s phrase either, though quite believable. During the First World War, Londoners kicked German dachshunds in the streets. It was as Rose writes, a kind of collective hysteria. The words bear further research, and perhaps a more expansive article.
“Unjust to treat our friends as foes”
Good historian that he is, Dr. Rose does provide footnotes to support his summary. In the official biography, Martin Gilbert lists the groups of particular concern to the War Cabinet on 15 May: Italians; Czech, Dutch and Belgian refugees; British Fascists and Communists. “It was much better, Churchill added,
that these persons should be behind barbed-wire, and internment would probably be much safer for all German-speaking persons themselves since, when air attacks developed, public temper in this country would be such that such persons would be in great danger if at liberty. (Winston S. Churchill, vol. 6, 342.)
A few weeks later,
it was Churchill who sounded a note of caution. “Many enemy aliens had a great hatred of the Nazi regime,” he said, “and it was unjust to treat our friends as foes.” His idea was to form such anti-Nazi aliens into a Foreign Legion, for training, and eventual use overseas, for example, in Iceland. (Ibid., 586.)
Britain detained only 2000 Class A security risks among 70,000 German, Czech, Austrian and other aliens. Certainly, many of the 70,000 were Jews, who had good reason to exit the Greater German Reich. Churchill’s concern that they might become victims of “public temper,” as Rose characterizes it, reflected his sympathy toward oppressed peoples.
“The test of civilisation”
A related question arose after my talk to the Bay Area Churchillians: Did Churchill ever object to Roosevelt’s Japanese internment order? Finding no evidence, I queried Andrew Roberts, who replied: “Not that I know of, either privately or publicly. But we know how he’d have felt.”
Another colleague, Dave Turrell, wrote: “I’d have to suggest that he did not. He favored it when necessary. But, deeply in character, he was eager to end it as soon as possible.”
Indeed Churchill was the first leader to urge an end to wartime restrictions on liberty. In 1943 he ordered the release of the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, who had been interned in 1940. Churchill wrote eloquently:
The power of the Executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him judgement by his peers for an indefinite period, is in the highest degree odious, and is the foundation of all totalitarian Governments, whether Nazi or Communist…. Nothing can be more abhorrent to democracy than to imprison a person or keep him in prison because he is unpopular. This is really the test of civilisation. —21 November 1943; Churchill by Himself, 102
Churchill, as William Manchester wrote, “always had second and third thoughts, and they usually improved as he went along. It was part of this pattern of response to any political issue that while his early reactions were often emotional, and even unworthy of him, they were usually succeeded by reason and generosity.”
Watching police knocking down, macing and arresting peaceful protestors for what amounts to disagreeing with government restrictions on liberty, Churchill’s experience is remindful. Civilization is fragile.
Postscript by Michael Dobbs
Lord Dobbs of Wylie, creator of “House of Cards” and author of what I personally consider the best Churchill fiction, writes: “I dug this out from my novel, Never Surrender, and have used it many times since. It is from Churchill’s ‘fight on the beaches” speech 4 June 1940, Hansard Col. 795. Even during the greatest peril, he gave thought to those unfairly treated. He declared that they had not been forgotten, even thought they had been gravely and unjustly put out.”
The Prime Minister: We have found it necessary to take measures of increasing stringency, not only against enemy aliens and suspicious characters of other nationalities, but also against British subjects who may become a danger or a nuisance should the war be transported to the United Kingdom. I know there are a great many people affected by the orders which we have made who are the passionate enemies of Nazi Germany. I am very sorry for them, but we cannot, at the present time and under the present stress, draw all the distinctions which we should like to do. If parachute landings were attempted and fierce fighting attendant upon them followed, these unfortunate people would be far better out of the way, for their own sakes as well as for ours.
There is, however, another class, for which I feel not the slightest sympathy. Parliament has given us the powers to put down Fifth Column activities with a strong hand, and we shall use those powers, subject to the supervision and correction of the House, without the slightest hesitation until we are satisfied, and more than satisfied, that this malignancy in our midst has been effectively stamped out.