Welcome to Ruhleben Camp

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. 

Trafalgar Square looking to Y.M.C.A., Ruhleben Internment Camp. VIA record number olvwork427586
Trafalgar Square looking to Y.M.C.A., Ruhleben Internment Camp. VIA record number olvwork427586

Wilkommen in Trafalgar Square, Ruhleben, Germany. From here you can wander under the Marble Arch, or venture down Fleet Street to visit the offices of the local print journal.

If it doesn’t look much like London, no wonder: these flimsy, dirty wooden buildings and barren expanses of mud are the heart of Ruhleben Camp, an internment camp for British civilians erected in 1914 at a hastily vacated horse racing track outside Berlin. Over the next four years, this racetrack would house around 4,000 male British nationals, ages 17 to 55, with backgrounds ranging from saltwater tars to Society nobs, and including celebrity athletes and a future Nobel laureate in physics. Commonwealth and colonial subjects were also represented by Irish, Scottish, Jamaican, and West African prisoners, among others.

Sharing British citizenship and the fact of imprisonment, this hodgepodge would spend the course of the war transforming the bleak racecourse into a bustling barbed wire society with a civil administration, postal service, university, scientific laboratories, a garden, weekly theatrical productions, an orchestra, sporting leagues, and a full-color, illustrated magazine to serve as the camp “mouthpiece.”

Blending homesickness with a dash of dry irony, the inmates christened their dingy environs after iconic landmarks in the capitol of the British Empire. They reserved the names of areas around Berlin—Charlottenburg and Spandau—for the two latrines on either side of the camp.

The photograph above is one of hundreds housed in the HLS Library’s Special Collections, among the private papers of former internees Maurice Ettinghausen and John C. Masterman (Masterman was a hugely popular figure in the camp, and became head of counter-intelligence for MI5 during WWII). These collections also include copies of the Ruhleben magazine, written and edited by the prisoners, and professionally printed in Berlin from 1915 through 1917. This magazine offers a window into the busy life of what became a little British outpost on the Continent during the so-called Great War.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Stibbe, Matthew. British civilian internees in Germany. The Ruhleben camp, 1914-18. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2008.

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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