Review: Barbed Wire University: The Untold Story of the Interned Jewish Intellectuals Who Turned an Island Prison Into the Most Remarkable School in the World (Dave Hannigan)

In 1940, Britain gave in to hysteria and fear, rounded up Germans who were in the country, assigned them a classification ranging from not a real threat to extreme threat, and put them into internment camps – just as the US would do with Japanese-Americans later. They did this even for those people who had been in England for decades, and even if they a) posed no real threat and b) were contributing to the British war effort.

On the Isle of Man, that resulted in one of the most remarkable collections of intellectuals at the Hutchinson Camp. Writers, musicians, educators, artists, journalists – all were kept on the island, behind barbed wire.

The book details many of the more well-known internees, and how they made their way to England as Hitler’s grip on Germany tightened. Often, those escapes were made under dangerous circumstances and many came after a first meeting with the Gestapo, to ensure there wouldn’t be a second.

We get to see the day to day lives of those locked up for no good reason, and the lengths some would go to keep creating their art behind the wire. To keep themselves busy, they also began what could only be called one of the best universities in the world: the experts among them gave talks on their particular expertise, and demand for something – anything – to do was so great, they would often give the same lecture multiple times to meet demand.

The end of the book highlights some of the internees, where they landed once released, and how they went about the remainder of their lives.

The narrative is compelling while not being overly stuffy, and the book is impeccably researched. It’s an excellent addition to WWII history, and a history not told nearly enough.

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Rowman and Littlefield, Lyons Press, and NetGalley for the reading copy.

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