The anti-German riots of 1915

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Bigotry does not always need deep roots. When it suits the interests of the state or of the rich, it can be summoned into being quickly. One of the worst race riots in British history occurred a little more than 100 years ago; their victims were a group of people who had never been previously been treated as any sort of racialised other – German civilians living in England after the outbreak war in 1914.

The war enabled grifters to make themselves rich by performatively attaching themselves to the conflict, even as they lived their normal lives hundreds of miles from the fighting. The worst of the jingos was Horatio Bottomley, the owner of John Bull magazine. In his columns, Bottomley allowed no distinction between Germany as a state and her people, even as increasing numbers of the latter were demonstrating their opposition to war. He told his readers all Germans were evil even those who had no connection to the fighting: “If by chance you should discover one day in a restaurant that you are being served by a German waiter, you will throw the soup in his foul face, if you find yourself sitting at the side of a German clerk, you will split the inkpot over his vile head.”

There could be no restraint against the Germans: “War is the eagle’s business, with neck outstretched and beak stern for combat, with talons outspread ready to fasten in the back of the foe and never lose hold until every drop of blood has dripped from the quarry.” In Bottomley’s view, this was not a matter of nationality alone, but one of race. A person born in England to a German father and an English mother was outside the British race. They too had no right to remain in Britain – and no right to live.

Where prejudice came from

Britain and German had never previously been at war. Up until the 1890s, Germans had been the largest group of migrants to the UK from the Continent. As late as 1914, around 100,000 Germans lived in the United Kingdom. Whole areas of life saw British and German people correspond and co-operate: science, literature, socialism, sport, music.

The historian of Anglo-German antagonism, Paul Kennedy, has spoken of British and German elites “drit[ing] steadily apart” between 1900 and 1914 over the former’s imperial conquests, and the latter’s economic competition. The press targeting of Germans had begun even before the war began with stories of Teutonic spies exploring the southern coast, and novelists including William Le Queux and HH Munro imagining a German invasion. The ground had been prepared for increased military spending – and for anti-German xenophobia.

Race riots

Bottomley’s campaign reached its height in mid-1915, following the sinking on 7 May of the passenger ship HMS Lusitania, in which 1,198 people died: 785 passengers and 413 crew. Many of the crew were from Liverpool. The first attacks occurred there on the evening of the sinking, with crowds of people smashing up the shop of businesses with German-sounding names: Fischer’s, Dimler’s, and Deeg’s.

Bottomley’s response to these attacks appeared in John Bull on 15 May. He proposed that German people in Britain should be made to wear badges. The German civilians should be deported. If that was impossible, he urged his readers to wage a blood feud, “You cannot naturalise an unnatural beast – a human abortion – a hellish freak. But you can exterminate it.” Nor was this call for genocide a mere linguistic flourish. Bottomley had put careful thought, into the mechanics of mass killing, “I would put in the field an army of Zulus and Basutos and other native and half-civilised tribes – and let them run amok in the enemy’s ranks. I would give them all the asphyxiating gas they wanted.”

John Bull was the best-selling weekly news magazine in Britain. “On the same day that Bottomley’s article appeared,” writes Panikos Panayi, the historian of the Anglo-German community, “riots broke out through the country.” Germans were attacked in Poplar, in Deptford, in Keighley and in Crewe. British nationals with German-sounding surnames found themselves having to advertise their Englishness in the press. “I, William Andrew Utz,” one such announcement read, “am a British-born subject. I was born at 42 High Street Poplar … I have been in the business of a butcher for many years, following my father in his long-established shop at the said 42 High Street Poplar.”

Smithfield porters hung signs from their necks: “No business transacted with Germans.” In Poplar crowds swarmed into the houses of those suspected of harbouring Germans. Bankers gathered on the steps of the Stock Exchange where a mass meeting passed a motion: “No Germans must be left in the City of London.”

Fostering hatred – and resisting it

The press was not alone in encouraging hatred. Brigadier-General Crozier wrote in 1915 of how army training had to be used, to break the widespread anti-war instincts of new recruits: “I, for my part, do what I can to alter completely the outlook, bearing and mentality of over 1,000 men … blood lust is taught for purposes of war in bayonet fighting itself and by doping the minds of all with propagandic poison. The German atrocities (many of which I doubt in secret), the employment of gas in action, the violation of French women and the ‘official murder’ of Nurse Cavell all help to bring out the brute-like bestiality which is so necessary for victory. The process of ‘seeing red’, which has to be carefully cultured if the effect is to be lasting, is elaborately grafted into the makeup of even the meek and mild… The Christian churches are the finest blood lust creators which we have and of them we make free use … The British soldier is a kindly fellow … It is necessary to corrode his mentality.”

Others, meanwhile, were fighting for a world without racism or war. East London was the base of the Sylvia Pankhurst and the suffragette left. The Women’s Dreadnought complained of unnamed newspaper magnates “fill[ing] their columns with articles intended to inflame the populace to anti-German riots, articles which consume ignorant, nervous, excitable people with a suspicious terror that transforms for them the poor Hoxton baker and his old mother into powerful spies, able at will to summon fleets of Zeppelins.” Two members of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes who had married German men found their homes under attack, while another member was hurt in her efforts to stop the rioting.

In West London, libertarian socialists organised a communist kitchen, deliberately staffed by both French and German workers. The unemployed themselves peeled potatoes, prepared the vegetables, and washed dishes, pots and pans. According to one regular diner, Rudolf Rocker, “It was wonderful to see German and French workers engaged together in this common work of help, while over on the continent millions of German and French proletarians were killing each other on the orders of their governments.”

[This is a taster for my new book, Horatio Bottomley and the Far Right Before Fascism, which will be published by Routledge on 24 November].

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