In Ruhleben Camp: “Home Rule”

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. 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. 8, Sept 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 447
Cover. In Ruhleben Camp, No. 8, Sept 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 447

After the dramatic (in many senses) feuds of August and September, issue no. 8 of In Ruhleben Camp, released in late September, urged internees to band together as the iron hand of winter fell once more over the camp.

The Ruhleben Dramatic Society was still on strike, but by the end of September, dropping mercury outside and momentous internal changes made cooperation crucial for the camp’s welfare. The German military authorities had just granted “Home Rule,” solidifying the autonomy internees had accrued since the American Ambassador’s first visit in March of 1915. Internees would finally be “placed under the immediate control of our own officials” rather than “the Military Authorities,” as the magazine’s editors explain in a tone of cautious celebration. But for the camp to sustain its new “civil authority,” the editors warn, internees must embrace the ever-vilified Camp Captains as indeed “our own,” not allowing “differences of opinion” to paralyze daily administration (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 457). (What this meant for the striking R.D.S. is unclear).

Who were the Captains and what magic potion would transform them to respected representatives, from their image as pampered pawns pandering to German officers? Stories about the rise of the Captains’ Committee are tinctured with bias, and in Ruhleben’s hothouse of rumors, the truth seems lost to misty legend. However, most tellers agree that the Captains were originally interpreters.

The historian Matthew Stibbe asserts that choosing barrack interpreters was among the first acts of Baron von Taube, the well-liked Lageroffizier (Camp Officer) and deputy to the camp commander. The interpreters doubled as captains, and the Baron hoped their bilingualism would win trust on both sides of the barbed wire (Stibbe, p. 58).

The former internee J.D. Ketchum gives a more sardonic account, recalling the chaos of the early days of internment. On November 8, 1914, two days after mass internment, Ketchum remembers the Baron addressing each barrack on “prison decorum.” When the Baron asked for interpreters, “from each stable-company someone who spoke German either volunteered or was pushed forward by others. This was the modest beginning of the Captains’ Committee, which became in a year the all-powerful government of the camp” (Ketchum, p. 25). As Ketchum tells it, the change was sudden and obscure: by November 13th, this hodgepodge of men was holding meetings, addressing needs in the camp, and assembling a civilian police force. They were now “mysteriously styled “captains”” (Ketchum, p. 26).

Where Ketchum sees the seeds of organization sown half-accidentally, an anonymous piece in issue no. 8 of the magazine, titled “How the Camp Is Run,” asserts that each barrack had “elected a Captain to act as…intermediary between the Barrack and the Military Authorities” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 490). The author goes on to defend the Captains, but many readers would have taken the word “elected” as more euphemistic than accurate.

When “Home Rule” was granted, current captains were not compelled to run for re-election unless barrack members presented alternative candidates. According to the magazine, none did. As a result, this quasi-autocratic system transformed overnight into representative democracy. While this passive acceptance of the Captains may have been “a surprise to many,” as the editors coyly remark, it appeared that “the Camp as a whole has expressed itself satisfied with that body.”

Thus, despite widening social and economic rifts in the camp—to which we will turn next—the editors insist that to maintain independence, the “necessity for the Camp to pull together is greater than ever” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 457).

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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