Britain’s Nazi aristocrats
now send you a series of cards that depict our daily life as vividly as possible.”
And so we get a succession of images of soldiers washing, eating, smoking and reading in their dugouts.
Later postcards show beautiful French towns and landscapes, peasants and horses. But in among them are scenes and individuals marked by darker tones. Careful scrutiny of soldiers at rest reveals at least one recruit with his head in his hands, indicating boredom, worry, fatigue or despair.
Weary prisoners-of-war shuffle along with bowed heads. There are destroyed buildings, makeshift graves, injured allies and fallen enemies.
One picture of a colourful village carries a sombre note: “I’m really fed-up with life!!!”
Only a few images depict combat. Those expecting real hardship and carnage should look to the rest of Schubert’s artwork collected here. The black-and-white lithographs he produced in 1917 after being discharged from military service capture the desperate savagery of hand-to-hand fighting and the bleak horror of corpse-strewn no-man’s lands.
The oil painting Auschwitz Triptych included at the end of the book, and created at the end of Schubert’s life, is a three-wing display of gut-churning inhumanity.
However, it is the postcards that predominate and, as such, demand our attention. Fortunately, they also merit our attention.
A hundred years on from the Armistice, these intimate and exquisite mementoes stand as a testament to what Schubert saw and heard, experienced and endured. They showcase his talent, demonstrate his love and enlarge our understanding of a war that was supposed to end all wars.
Back in the day, a Catholic priest called Karl Kruger was a frequent visitor to our family home. Father (later Canon) Kruger told us that he was a convert to Catholicism and that he spent the Second World War in Canada. I was too immature to give his story the hearing it deserved but it struck me even then that he must have been young when the war began.
In later years, Father Kruger served the parish of Christ the King in Grangemouth and its website provides some of the relevant detail. Kruger was the son of Jewish parents and came to Edinburgh at the age of 15 with his brother Hans as refugees from Nazi Germany. Soon afterwards he was picked up on his way to church “wearing his school uniform of Edinburgh Academy” and deported to a detention camp for aliens in Canada.
In his fascinating study of British fascists, fifth columnists, treachery and spying, Tim Tate argues that the treatment of “enemy aliens” is one of the reasons why a book like this has taken so long to appear: “The round-up of thousands of Germans and Italians – many of whom were entirely innocent of any Nazi taint – was unquestionably a shameful period; that hundreds of them died when a ship transporting them to camps in the Dominions was sunk by a U-boat, compounded the tragedy”.
The “unease” surrounding British policy of internment without trial, Tate says, helps explain why the information required to write the book remained classified for so long. The dossiers held by MI5, the Home Office and the Treasury Solicitor’s Department should have been released before the millennium under the 50-year rule or, at worst, under freedom of information after 2000, but they have only recently been made available. This secrecy was underpinned by a false “nothing to see here” narrative which dismissed the idea of a fifth column. Tate contends that there is a lot of see, including three plans to launch a violent fascist revolution involving some of the leading public figures in the land and a series of spying episodes which have only now come to light. He identifies a number of
“familiar names from aristocratic fascist circles”, including the Duke of Buccleuch, who had attended Hitler’s 50th birthday celebration in Berlin in 1939. Later he was earmarked for the Quisling cabinet’s “food and agriculture” brief in the event of a successful coup.
Buccleuch was not the only Scottish connection. The Duke of Bedford, who was to be PM in the putative “Coalition Government of National Security”, also had a Scottish estate. Archibald “Jock” Ramsay was the Conservative MP for South Midlothian and Peebles and his anti-Semitism was “obsessive and overwhelming”. In 1939 he formed “the Right Club”, one of a bewildering array of fascist organisations in Britain but probably the most effective. Within six months “it would penetrate sensitive government ministries, the armed forces, the police and even MI5”.
Our view of British fascism is coloured by the PG Wodehouse character Roderick Spode, seventh Earl of Sidcup and leader of “the Black Shorts”. Bertie Wooster thought Spode was seven feet tall, eventually growing to nine foot seven. By contrast, many of the foot soldiers who were enlisted to help the Nazis seem to diminish as you look more closely. Jessie Jordan, for instance, a hairdresser from Dundee, was at the centre of a Nazi spy network which operated before the war. Described here as “illegitimate and unloved”, she responded to the four-year term imposed on her at the High Court in Edinburgh by saying “the sentence is my medicine and I can take it”. The Dundee Courier described her as a serviceable tool. Many of the other less privileged fifth columnists were similarly serviceable – drunks, fantasists, petty criminals or on their uppers.