- Mixing It: Diversity in World War Two Britain by Wendy Webster
By Wendy Webster. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018
Attempting to reshape the well-worn and regularly rehearsed British history of World War Two is a significant challenge, but one that Wendy Webster aims to do with Mixing It. In her own words she sets out to “offer a new way of seeing Britain at war,” to illustrate the diverse demographic resident on British shores between 1939 and 1945, and the significant input it had to the Allied victory.1 Mixing It also captures the history of British responses to this “multinational” (29) juncture. Webster argues that tolerance of foreigners by the indigenous population was highly variable. It differed between individuals and communities, in public and private, and over the duration of the war. Webster suggests that the degree of variability was influenced by three factors. The speech and language used by visitors to Britain and in British wartime propaganda publicly highlighted a “foreign-ness” that could then be manipulated alternatively to both denigrate and celebrate (16). Adherence to, or flagrance of, what Webster calls “sexual patriotism” was used by people to variably criticise the romantic and sexual behaviour of British women with foreign men (17). The contrasting appearance of foreigners in military uniform and civilian attire also impacted on British reactions to, and interactions with, them (18).
A loose chronological thread runs through the publication. To prevent the book from “becoming a long list of different nationalities” (8), and to facilitate the portrayal of categories of foreigner present in Britain, Webster defines her own thematic chapters. These document the individual stories of alien residents interned in Britain at the start of the war, refugees, prisoners of war, neutrals such as the Irish, service-people and civilian workers from the British dominions and colonies, and Allied military personnel from across Europe and the Atlantic. The author deploys an impressive combination of quantitative, photographic and qualitative material to evidence the sheer numbers of visitors who came to Britain, the disparate places they came from, the geographical locations where they stayed and the variety of reasons for their arrival. The grand narrative laid bare in Mixing It aggregates the histories of more than twenty different nationalities and ethnic groups who came to Britain during World War Two and beyond. Hence, Webster effectively demonstrates the rich multifariousness of the people who spent time in Britain during the war. The book’s structure also facilitates the demarcation of the broader shifts in tolerance that Webster argues are relevant to the visitors’ experiences of living amongst the natives. She recovers the divisive nature of British tolerance, for example, through the enduring use of established stereotypes (185), and in addition, neatly draws out the complexity of loyalties and identities facing “enemy and neutral nationals [who] contributed to the British war effort” (89). Willy Hirschfield’s reflection on belonging is one from a plethora of personal stories. As a German Jewish refugee, he finally found his way into the Royal Armoured Corps in 1943. Interned at the beginning of the war, he was deported to Australia and then returned to Britain to join the Pioneer Corps in 1941, before finally getting the transfer to the unit he wanted (149).
Webster’s concepts and ideas are introduced in a structured way and easily assimilated. A rich tapestry of juxtaposed and contrasting individual experiences bring the book alive and sustain engagement. The distinctive and innovative chapter on wartime speech, language and audio is a particular gem (165–95). Webster has perceptively examined the choice of particular words and sounds used by, for example, film makers and members of the public to suggest how British society “heard” foreignness and how this reflected the changing nature of ongoing hostilities. The author skilfully presents the evidence so that it speaks for itself. This makes the book thought-provoking, requiring the reader to draw their own conclusions about the historical “so what.” I would, however, have liked to have heard more about the relevance of the changing shifts in public opinion towards foreigners during this time, and more broadly, how...