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Lesson: From Refugees to Internees


Students will gain an understanding of the context in which German nationals living in Britain, including Jewish refugees from Nazism, were classified as “enemy aliens,” and gain insights about internment from the testimonies of former internees.

Links to Historical Thinking Concepts:

Use Primary Source Evidence – Students analyze documents relating to Britain’s policies regarding German nationals following the outbreak of the Second World War, as well as the testimonies of former internees.

Take Historical Perspective – Students consider the idea of classifying and interning “enemy aliens” from the perspective of the British in 1940.

Understand the Ethical Dimensions of History – Students reflect on Britain’s decision to arrest and intern all German nationals.

Identify Continuity and Change – Students research other groups that have been “enemy aliens” during Canada’s wars. Did the policies change? Did the thinking change?

Reflecting on Refugees

Introduce and discuss the term “refugee” as a class:

  • What is a refugee?
  • What circumstances might cause somebody to flee his or her home?
  • What circumstances might prevent a person from doing so?
  • What are examples of refugees from the present day?

Let students explore this page of the website or pre-assign Reading: Fragile Roots.

Students independently read the document in the “Fragile Roots” dossier titled: “Do’s and Don’ts for Refugees”.

In pairs, students respond to the following questions:

  • What does the document recommend refugees do? Don’t do?
  • Who do you imagine produced and circulated the document?
  • How do you imagine a refugee would respond to the document?
  • What does the document reveal about the society in which it was produced?

Document Analysis: “Enemy Aliens”

Begin by introducing the term “enemy aliens.” As a class, students discuss what they think it might mean.

Introduce contextual information for the outbreak war, the perceived possibility of a German invasion, and anxieties about “fifth columnists,” or spies.

Let students explore this page of the website or pre-assign Reading: “Enemy Aliens.”

Copy and distribute copies of Document: “Refugee from Nazi Oppression Certificate” and Document: “Application for Consideration by Joint Recruiting Board.” Each student should have one document.

In journals, students reflect on what their document reveals about Britain’s treatment of “enemy aliens.” Use the following questions as prompts:

  • What is the document’s function?
  • Who do you think produced and circulated the document?
  • How do you imagine the recipient would have responded to the document?
  • What does the document reveal about the society in which it was produced?

Students work in pairs – each student with a different document – to discuss their journal entries.

As a class, debrief Britain’s policies toward “enemy aliens” as reflected by the documents.

Video Screening: “Collar the Lot”

In pairs (or, as computers access permits, individually or in groups), students view Video: Collar the Lot, which features recollections of former internees about their sudden arrests as “enemy aliens” and internment in Britain. Students should watch the video twice; on the first viewing, students watch and listen carefully, while on the second viewing, students should note the incidents described by the interviewees.

As pairs or groups, students discuss their notes generated in response to the video and consider the following questions:

  • How are the stories of arrest similar? Which one struck you most and why?
  • How long did the individuals believe that they would be interned for?
  • How did the individuals respond to their internment?
  • What were the conditions of the British internment camps?

As a follow up, students read the pages of the website titled “Calling on the Colonies” and “The Line Must Be Drawn Somewhere” to learn about how Canada came to accept the internees, and about Canadian polices toward Jewish refugees at the time.

Class Debate

In early 1940, the British Cabinet debated about whether to intern German “enemy aliens,” including refugees from Nazism.

Stage a debate in the classroom, as a “4 Corners Debate.” Students are to engage in the debate as if is the spring of 1940, when the threat of a German invasion of Britain seemed likely.

Present students with the statement: Britain should intern all German nationals, including refugees of Nazism.

Ask students if they agree or disagree, and to write a paragraph or list of points explaining their opinion. In the meantime, post four signs around the room: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree and Strongly Disagree.

Ask students to stand under the sign that describes their opinion. Allow for debate; encourage students to justify and explain their position; students are able to move between positions.

Debrief the process. Consider how the debate would be different if argued from the perspective of the present day. In the post-debate discussion, consider how shifting historical perspectives affects understanding of the issues.

Extension: Wartime Panics

In March 1940, British Home Secretary Sir John Anderson stated:

“The newspapers are working up feelings about aliens. I shall have to do something about it, or we will be stampeded into an unnecessarily oppressive policy. It is very easy in war time to start a scare.”

Students write a journal response to this statement. They then research other historical or contemporary moments where wartime panic led to the persecution of a particular group. Students describe the perceived threat and the policies or actions undertaken as a response, and formulate a written response defending or arguing against the policies.

From Refugees to Internees
in the classroom


From Refugees to Internees
Students learn about Britain’s classification of refugees from Nazism as “enemy aliens” by engaging with documentary sources, and with internee video testimony about their arrest and internment in England.


Fragile Roots
“Enemy Aliens”


“Do’s and Don’ts for Refugees”
“Refugee from Nazi Oppression Certificate” (160Kb PDF)
“Application for Consideration by Joint Recruiting Board” (225Kb PDF)


“Collar the Lot”

Complete Teachers’ Guide to Enemy Aliens
PDF 7.8 MB

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