In Ruhleben Camp: Strike!

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 or around 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. 7, 12 Sept 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 395
Front Cover. In Ruhleben Camp, No. 7, 12 Sept 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 395

A live wire of debate, protest, and satire runs through the 12 September 1915 issue of In Ruhleben Camp, as we saw in the previous post. Divisions rifting the camp ramified both outwards—as in the “Ruhleben Medal” scandal—and inwards—as in the political strife to which we now turn.

In the wake of the Medal scandal, the Camp Captains, magazine editors, and others spent August of 1915 scrambling to repair the camp’s image. While these leaders galvanized Ruhlebenites into a unified front of chagrined humility, however, other sources of internal discord were corkscrewing through the camp. Calls for a more democratic Ruhleben and greater fiscal accountability in particular raised a vigorous new challenge to the Camp Captains.

The divas of this drama were among the most profitable groups in the camp: the entertainers. In August of 1915, the Ruhleben Dramatic Society (RDS), Musical Society and Orchestra, Irish, French, and German societies sent a letter to the Camp Captains protesting the structure of the Entertainments Committee (EC). The EC coordinated the schedules and budgets of performing groups, and was composed largely of men appointed by the Captains. Complaints about high ticket prices had been flooding the magazine all summer, as internees wished to know where their (and the British government’s) money was going.

Citing the EC’s autocratic approach, greed, and financial excesses, the irate organizations demanded greater representation on the EC, the ouster of the Captains’ appointees, and a copy of the EC’s “full Balance-Sheet” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 354). If change did not come quickly, these groups threatened to go on strike.

And strike they did. As one wag wrote in an August number of the magazine:

“But now a rabble fills the hall,
Where once the lofty-browed and wise
Were wont to take a tanner stall
And praise, expound or criticize.
Their seats are now profaned, worse luck!
The R.D.S., alas, has STRUCK!”
(Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 364)

After at least two weeks of silence in the Ruhleben theatre, the Captains grudgingly backed down and reconfigured the EC.

Negotiations had been resolved by the September 12th issue of In Ruhleben Camp, but the principles at stake remained hotly contested. The magazine’s cover (pictured above) captures the controversies swirling through its pages. A searchlight streaks across the dark page, illuminating the words “In Ruhleben Camp” against a span of barbed wire, as if catching an escapee in the act of scaling the fence. Like prior covers, the image declares this a prison publication, but the searchlight carries other associations: it streams from the bottom left corner like the footlights of a stage, and hits the fence in an unusually crisp square reminiscent of a movie projector. It might be the screening of a film called “In Ruhleben Camp.”

Indeed, there was such a film. Ruhleben’s “Cineomatograph Theatre” [sic] was inaugurated on August 21st with a screening of a film by and about Ruhleben internees, featuring many “Camp celabraties” [sic] (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 422), according to the Captains’ announcement. The pet project of the Captain-of-Captains Joseph Powell, a cinema owner in Leeds before his internment (Stibbe, p. 2), the Cinematograph Theatre doesn’t seem to have lived up to its glamorous beginning. Although it was a coup for German public relations, J.D. Ketchum remembers it as “usually sparsely attended,” which he attributes to the passive gratification it offered. Ruhlebenites needed “concrete goals” such as the creation of a weekly play or promenade concert, Ketchum contends, “they needed to be active, and their activity had to be purposeful” (Ketchum, p. 208).

This theory helps explain why temperatures ran so high when the theatrical and musical organizations stubbornly lowered the curtain in August. By refusing to work, these groups deprived the camp of a critical resource. But Ketchum also hints at a thorny contradiction: what the prisoners needed most was distraction, a method of “getting rid of Time,” as one magazine contributor calls the camp theatre (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 359). When the distractions worked too well, though, they could blot out the ongoing war and compromise the camp’s image back home.

Ruhlebenites could only win sympathy from the British public by striking a balance between cheerful activity and needful distress. Too much of the latter meant they had no backbone; too much of the former meant they were mollycoddled.

From that angle, going on strike didn’t look much better than soliciting military honors. A caustic satirical piece in the September 12th issue, titled “Towards a Complete Concentration Camp,” opens with dry sarcasm: “Now that the Cinema is well established in our midst, with a frequent change of programme and no change of atmosphere, we find one of our most pressing needs supplied.” What should come next? Perhaps a “billiard saloon,” “Roller-skating Rink,” and “Turkish Bath and Hydropathic Establishment”? Cheekily echoing the Captains’ announcement of the “Cineomatograph Theatre” in this same issue, the author (evidently a magazine insider) cries out for a “madame Tausaud’s” [sic] since “our supply of celebrities is so immense” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 418).

In short, the road to self-indulgence was paved with good distractions. With a coolly impartial swipe at Medal-grubbers, the autocratic EC and strikers alike, complacent Captains and their cinemas, the author concludes by musing: “On second thoughts, however, perhaps the best suggestion we can offer would be to pool all the inexhaustible funds that this wonderful camp seems to possess, and build a comfortable “Home for those who have lost their perspective”” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 419).

Bibliography & Further Reading

Ketchum, J. Davidson. Ruhleben: A Prison Camp Society. With a Foreword and Postscript by Robert B. MacLeod. Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1965. Foreword (Ithaca, NY, April 1964)

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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