Barbed Wire University and The Island of Extraordinary Captives

Dave Hannigan and Simon Parkin unearth artistry of WWII prisoners on Isle of Man

The island of Simon Parkin's The Island of Extraordinary Captives (Sceptre, 475pp, £20), which gave rise to the title of Dave Hannigan's Barbed Wire University (Rowman & Littlefield, 209pp, £21.95), is the Isle of Man. This was the location of Hutchinson Internment Camp during the second World War, where some 1,200 German and Austrian refugees who fled to Britain before and at the outbreak of the war were interned by the British government.

In all, around 30,000 of the 73,500 refugees who fled Nazism from those countries were interned after sections of the British media whipped up national paranoia about a network of Nazi spies lurking among them. An example of the paranoia is the case of a man detained by police because of a diary entry, “exchange British Queen for Italian Queen”. He was a beekeeper and, far from a fascist plot, was “planning to overthrow only the tiny monarch that ruled his hive”, according to Parkin.

Part 1 of Parkin’s book tells how Peter Fleischmann, 16-year-old aspiring artist and orphan since age five, got from Berlin to Britain and how he ended up being interned; after all he’d been through, that he should have been classed an “enemy alien” and arrested would be laughable if it weren’t so shocking.

Part 2 recounts life in Hutchinson camp where, fortunately for the internees, the commander was a humane, empathetic man. By chance, the camp contained many highly intelligent and accomplished people, among them  painters, sculptors and graphic artists, as well as dozens of writers, journalists and academics. What began as spontaneous lectures (experts standing on chairs in a type of Hyde Corner situation) turned into an organised weekly lecture schedule, theatre and music performances and lessons for younger internees.


Fleischmann was fortunate to end up in Hutchinson; Nazism robbed him of his artistic training but there he found “a community of mentors far beyond his means or imagination” (Parkin). He received life-drawing lessons from renowned Weimar avant-garde artist Kurt Schwitters; the teenager’s natural talent was soon evident and other mature artists took him under their wings. It was the making of him, he later wrote.

Mass internment came to an end late in 1940 but release of internees was extremely slow; bizarrely, it was based on how useful they could be to Britain’s war effort and not on their innocence. Then it was extended to “artists of distinction”, which gave many in Hutchinson hope. But Fleischmann belonged to the “unsponsored case” category and his only hope of release was to get a place at a British art college. Having work shown at a camp art exhibition was followed by numerous applications, but it took many months before the Artists’ Refugee Committee secured a place for him.

Fleischmann’s release was followed by compulsory military service, but eventually Peter Midgley, as he’d changed his name to, became an enormously successful artist. He was among many Hutchinson alumni who “made substantial contributions to British culture” after the war, according to Parkin.

If Parkin tells a lot of Fleischmann’s story, Hannigan does likewise for art historian Klaus Hinrichsen, who fled Lübeck for England and was the main chronicler of Hutchinson Camp. Indeed, he became a kind of cultural officer and de-facto head of the barbed-wire university, which housed more than 30 lecturers and professors, mainly from Oxford and Cambridge, some of international reputation.

Hannigan provides more biographical details on the various internees, in some cases devoting full chapters to individual artists, such as Kurt Schwitters and Hellmuth Weissenborn, as well as to lawyer, lecturer and writer Rudolf Oden and lawyer and wine importer Fritz Hallgarten. There are particularly interesting chapters on musicians such as Maryan Rawicz and Walter Landauer (who featured on Eamon Andrews’s This Is Your Life on the BBC in 1961), and on the writers Heinrich Fraenkel and Richard Friedenthal.

The latter, who managed to hang on to his typewriter through various internment camps, became unofficial Hutchinson Camp typist. This later proved valuable, when Friedenthal published a novel called The World in a Nutshell, based on the inmates’ lives.

Ironically, given the hysteria sections of the British media had whipped up about Nazi spies infiltrating the refugees, only one was actually unmasked – and even he was, as Hannigan puts it, only “technically speaking, a spy”. Of both books’ coverage of this shadowy figure, Parkin’s is the more comprehensive.

Both books summarise the postwar lives of many internees, Hannigan more succinctly. Both authors make impressive use of new archive material, of letters, diaries and memoirs, and Parkin particularly calls on a wide range of contemporary newspapers and some interviews. Fred Uhlman said the reason he wrote a memoir of his internment was that it was “part of the English history of the war”. Hannigan and Parkin deserve praise for shining such revealing light on that forgotten history.