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A Citizenship Crisis: Anglo-German Marriages in First World War London – Lucy Blackburn

The 1870 Naturalisation Act transferred a woman’s right of nationality to their husband’s upon marriage. Thus, in terms of Anglo-German marriages, a British woman became German and a German woman became British. This issue had profound consequences during World War I.[1] Despite German men being the main target for ‘Germanophobia’, women in Anglo-German marriages experienced it too. Wartime legislation placed further restrictions on those with German nationality, including the 1914 Aliens Restriction Act which confined enemy aliens to a five-mile radius and made them register with the police. By September 10, 1914, there were 37,457 Germans registered in the London area.[2] British-born wives of Germans especially resented this because they were treated as the enemy within their own nation.  Yet German-born wives of Britons were not restricted because of their British nationality they acquired on marriage.

There was widespread suspicion that women would willingly side with their German husbands. The British press, both national and local, relished this debate on nationality throughout the war. However, there was far more sympathy towards British-born wives of Germans compared to the outcries of German women marrying British men. The right-wing press, especially, alongside members of the British public held hateful opinions of Germans married to Britons. The British spouse was often depicted as the victim trapped in a marriage with a German. There were also many individuals who wrote into the national papers to state that they believed that those in Anglo-German marriages should be allowed to divorce, or even that the marriages be made illegal. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote to the Editor of The Times explaining that the experience of British wives married to Germans was ‘terrible and unnatural’ and that they should be granted divorce.[3]  This led to a response two days later from an American wife of an Englishman, who claimed that Doyle neglected the fact that these women made vows and that any trouble it had caused made no grounds for divorce.[4] The Daily Mirror also had many of its readers write in, from an anonymous “Briton” who wanted to make Anglo-German marriages illegal to a British soldier who implied that this matter should be down to love and not nationality.[5]

German men of military age were interned during the First World War; women, children, and older men were eligible for repatriation, most of which was voluntary. British women who decided to leave only did so because they believed that they would be treated better in Germany. Nevertheless, that was not always the case. Anglophobia existed in Germany as much as ‘Germanophobia’ existed in Britain. The Sunday Pictorial received letters, in 1918, from British-born wives who had fled to Germany, claiming that they had been ‘very harshly treated since their arrival.’ Women in Anglo-German marriages did not ‘belong’ to either country.[6]

The British public were also very anxious about the idea that German spies were able to roam free. Hence there were calls for the internment of all Germans. Wives of Germans were not trusted either for the fear of them being under their husband’s influence. One article in the Western Mail, reporting on anti-German riots in 1915, described how women chased wives of aliens through Poplar.[7] During the anti-German riots German shops were broken into and looted. The 1915 riots were the worst – due to the sinking of the Lusitania – and pictures of the looting were published in national newspapers. Poorer Germans living in the East End, near the docks, felt a big financial loss through the destruction of their livelihoods.

Furthermore, women married to Germans experienced disadvantages in gaining employment during the war. Employers were often already prejudiced because of the German citizenship these women had. Some employers were even scared of the repercussions they might suffer if they hired a German. Thus these families became poverty stricken because the German breadwinner had been dismissed from work and possibly interned. Families were even, in some cases, forced out of their accommodation. There were stories of extreme poverty including a baby dying of pneumonia at the German Hospital in London because its mother was so poor and she had five other children to feed.[8]

Local Government Boards gave some relief to German families, with those in London entitled to 10s and 1s 6d for every child (increasing to 12s and 3s for each child in February 1917).[9] This suggests the government felt it had a duty to these women, as well as their children, despite their German citizenship. The German government sent money to German-born wives of Germans through the American Embassy. However, women married to Germans still found themselves living in poverty, with little to no savings left. Nevertheless, far more Anglo-German families may have left for Germany if the Government had not financially intervened.

Private charities also existed to provide extra help to those who needed it. Some were Quaker-led, such as the Emergency Committee for the Assistance of Germans, Austrians and Hungarians in Distress (EC). The Committee dealt with 6,800 cases throughout the war in the Metropolitan area alone.[10] The EC had a Meeting House in North London and raised money to financially help the women and children. Despite it being a bleak experience for these women Anna Braithwaite Thomas (who assembled the EC’s reports between 1914 and 1920) described the atmosphere within the Meeting House as a ‘wonderful spirit [which] pervaded this hostility [and] provided haven of rest.’[11]

The First World War had a devastating effect on the German population in London. For four years they were treated as enemy aliens and consequently were scapegoated for any actions taken by Germany. Many families continued to remain in London afterwards, especially those who were in Anglo-German marriages with British-born children, but a vast amount of the German population did leave for Germany or the United States. Perhaps they were in search of a better life, yet it cannot be denied that the ‘Germanophobia’ expressed by the public, press, and government did play its part too.

Image: Bunhill Fields Society of Friends Meeting House off Banner Street, EC1 (wikicommons).

Lucy Blackburn is a Queen Mary University of London graduate and an entrant in the Women’s History Network BA Dissertation Prize 2021. She is now a research intern at a probate genealogy firm.

[1] I use the term ‘German’ to describe both German and Austrian men and women, however the main focus is on those who were from Germany.

[2] J.C. Bird, Control of Enemy Alien Civilians in Great Britain, 1914-1918 (New York: Garland, 1986), p. 203.

[3] ‘British Wives of Germans’, The Times, 23 August 1917, p. 9.

[4] ‘English Wives of Germans’, The Times, 25 August 1917, p. 9.

[5] ‘Briton’s German Wives’, The Daily Mirror, 2 October 1916, p. 5.

[6] ‘A Wicked Scandal: British Women and Children Must Not Be Sent to Germany’, The Sunday Pictorial, 8 September 1918, p. 4.

[7] ‘Women Chase Aliens’ Wives’, Western Mail, 13 May 1915, p. 6.

[8] Gullace, ‘Friends, Aliens and Enemies: Fictive Communities and the Lusitania Riots of 1915’, Journal of Social History, 39:2 (2005), p 358.

[9] Panikos Panayi, The Enemy In Our Midst: Germans in Britain During The First World War (London: Bloomsbury, 1991), p. 260.

[10] Anna Braithwaite Thomas, St. Stephen’s House: Friends’ Emergency Work in England 1914 to 1920 (1920), p. 137.

[11] Ibid., p. 87.