In Ruhleben Camp: No. 1, June 1915

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. 

Front Cover. In Ruhleben Camp, No. 1, 6 June 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 152.
Front Cover. In Ruhleben Camp, No. 1, 6 June 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 152.

On the opening page of the first issue, which appeared on 6 June 1915, the editor in chief T. Arthur Barton declares his hopes that In Ruhleben Camp will be a “real expression of Camp life,” not representing a particular faction but acting as a “mouthpiece” whose columns may “let the fresh air of public criticism blow into dusty corners” and perhaps enable “our fellows to lead a freer and more active life” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 154).

The camp’s burgeoning organization had made the journal possible, but that same administrative bureaucracy also seems to have made it necessary. As a channel of communication between “the Camp” at large and its “Captains,” the magazine positioned itself as a check against the pretensions of power. In this respect In Ruhleben Camp continued a proud British tradition of reformist satire: among its models one quickly recognizes the nineteenth-century magazine of humorous dissent par excellence, the almost miraculously successful Punch.

The first issue’s front cover reinforces this liberal vision of In Ruhleben Camp as a vehicle of mental, if not physical, freedom. On the cover, shown above or found here, a man stands casually by a barbed wire fence, flipping through a magazine with evident pleasure. Across the fence, another man in uniform gazes enviously through the barbed wire, craning his neck for a peek.

Which of these men is “behind” barbed wire? From where we (as the viewer) stand, the uniformed officer looks like the prisoner, the thin wires of the fence making a checkerboard of his body and face as he slings his rifle, half-forgotten, over his shoulder and gazes with absorbed, almost wistful interest at the journal. Being in Ruhleben Camp, the scene implies, means being in the know, in on the joke, in the company of a vibrant, even enviable community of first-rate fellows and fine wits.

If you look closely at the cover of the journal the two men are perusing, you will notice outlines of those same two men, with a mesh of cross-hatching resembling a fence, and a minute scrawl resolving into the words “In The Camp.” It is none other than the magazine you yourself are holding, of course. And if you are holding this magazine, you are almost certainly a Ruhlebenite, and may recognize the man lounging by the fence as none other than yourself: a loud, slightly boastful, gleefully self-sufficient Britisher.

To be “in Ruhleben Camp” also means to be “in” this magazine, the center of attention, the star of something worth a dash of British bravado. Educated Germans were besotted with English culture—they had practically claimed Shakespeare as their own countryman—and this magazine would be yet one more incitement to admiration.

In June 1915, we can thus see the effects of Ambassador Gerard’s visit resonating through the increasingly autonomous camp, as Ruhleben’s civil administration and blossoming cultural life are reflected in the pages of the magazine. Ruhlebenites have taken an inch of liberty and run with it, while the German military officer is forced to walk his narrow, meaningless beat, patrolling this fence that keeps him more thoroughly imprisoned than anyone “inside” it.

Nonetheless, the freedom asserted here is an illusion, and any Ruhlebenite knows it. Being “in” on the joke also means recognizing the dapper civilian as the true prisoner. He is free only through a visual reversal that still leaves him trapped within the Droste chain of nested magazine covers. Like a man caught in a revolving door, the mechanism that brings him outside, also inevitably drags him back in.

The irony crystallizes in the title, “In Ruhleben Camp,” which floats above the scene as if it longed to fly free of the fence, of the frame, and get out of Ruhleben Camp altogether.

Bibliography & Further Reading

John Masterman collection of Ruhleben British Civilian internment camp documents, 1914-1919, Harvard Law School Library, Box 2, sequence 153

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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