The welcome given to refugees from fascist Europe is part of our fond nostalgia for Britain's role in the Second World War, nestling in our imagination next to images of evacuees clutching teddy bears, and milkmen picking their way through bomb rubble during the Blitz. But there is a darker side to this story. Then, as now, there was great suspicion, resentment and fear towards new arrivals, much of it kindled by the tabloid press. Then, as now, politicians dealt with a reluctance to accommodate refugees by hiding behind bureaucratic hurdles and obfuscation.
Many of the 10,000 Kindertransport children who arrived here in the late 1930s have warm memories of the kindness they were shown, but half a million refugees were refused entry and most of them died as a result. And those who were accepted found their troubles far from over. While Britain fearfully awaited invasion in 1940, 30,000 Jews were interned as 'enemy aliens' and some were sent off to the colonies on dangerous and sometimes fatal voyages. Nor were Jews the only refugees clamouring for the thin gruel of public sympathy. Those fleeing fascism and civil war elsewhere in Europe found that whether they were met with kindness or hostility depended on the locals' political affiliations and newspapers of choice.
Interweaving personal testimonies with historical sources, Paul Dowswell casts a fresh eye on the wartime era, painting a vivid picture of what life was really like for Britain's refugees.