In Ruhleben Camp: Civilian Interment during WWI

In Ruhleben Camp follows the production schedule of the magazine created by prisoners at Ruhleben, an internment camp for British civilians in Germany during WWI. On the day that an issue of the magazine was released a hundred years ago, Marissa Grunes will post highlights from that number and tell part of its story. 

The mass internment of non-combatants during wartime was a disturbing development in the First World War. The idea of the “concentration camp” (as the British then called it) was not new, historian Matthew Stibbe points out in his article “The Internment of Civilians by Belligerent States during the First World War.” Systematic detention of civilians had been an element of both the Spanish occupation of Cuba and the British policy in the Boer War, and was a dark part of the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913. However, internment during WWI was implemented on an unprecedented scale. Hundreds of thousands of people from across Europe and European-controlled colonies were confined, many in labor camps.

Historians have identified a number of factors contributing to the expansion of internment. Universal military conscription on the European continent made every male civilian a potential recruit. Off the battlefield he might be “spy” or “saboteur,” in the language of war hysteria that drew from popular prejudices against foreigners. Extensive railway lines were available to transport people in large numbers. Especially vulnerable were civilians in occupied territories, imprisoned for punitive reasons or as conscripted labor to make up manpower losses. The labor historian Ulrich Herbert notes that the German conscription of several hundred thousand Poles and Belgians, among other nationalities, was economically vital to the war effort (see Stibbe, p. 9).

The mutual internment by Britain and Germany of one another’s citizens was among the less brutal—if more insidiously absurd—episodes within this vast network of POW and labor camps. When Britain declared war on Germany in August of 1914, around 10,000 British nationals were on German soil, while roughly 70,000 German and Austrian nationals were to be found in Great Britain. Before the year ended, men of military age within both populations would be behind barbed wire.

However, military prudence, mingled with a certain cultural respect, restrained both nations in their conduct towards each other’s civilians, who were generally treated like captured officers, spared hard labor, and fed on soldiers’ rations. Since neither the revised Geneva convention of 1906 nor the second Hague convention of 1907 included explicit provisions for protecting non-combatants, the unofficial pressures of reprisals, martial success, and (more vaguely) cultural esteem, were crucial to the experience of civilians during the war.

Initially, civilian detention in Germany and Britain was prompted in part by propagandistic (often fabricated) accounts of atrocious conditions for POWs, which stirred public belligerence, and in part by the need to boost morale in response to military setbacks. Germany interned some 4,000 British men at Ruhleben in early November 1914, after the First Battle of the Marne halted the German invasion of France. The sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 prompted Britain to a large-scale reprisal, resulting in the internment of over 30,000 German, Austrian, or Hungarian civilians by the fall of 1915.

Ruhleben, on which this series will focus, was the only camp in Germany to hold only British civilians. The shared nationality and language of this population, which hovered at a relatively stable 4,000 men throughout the war, enabled the creation of a new identity: that of the “Ruhlebenite.”

Bibliography & Further Reading

Stibbe, Matthew. “The Internment of Civilians by Belligerent States during the First World War and the Response of the International Committee of the Red Cross.” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Jan., 2006), pp. 5-19.

Marissa Grunes is a PhD candidate in English Literature at Harvard University, focusing on transatlantic literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her dissertation project explores frontier architecture in 19th century poetry, fiction, and non-fiction of the United States.

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