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. This special post by Marissa Grunes marks the centenary of Armistice Day (November 11, 1918).
The Ruhleben Camp Magazine was largely quiet in the second half of the First World War—as this blog series has been! In honor of Armistice Day yesterday and Veteran’s Day today, though, I wanted to offer a special post about the unusual end to the Great War for those passive participants, the British civilian internees at Ruhleben Camp outside Berlin.
In some ways the drama of Armistice Day was muted within Ruhleben Camp. Many internees had already been released, and those who remained were still busily engaged in camp cultural activities, with the last of the camp’s 128 theater productions opening after Armistice Day, as Davidson Ketchum notes (Ketchum, p. 240). The robust civic organization within the camp had also rendered the last year of the war comparatively gentle to Ruhlebenites. Thanks to the work of the Quaker peace activist Elisabeth Rotten and the Friends Emergency Committee, Ruhleben had access to a steady stream of books and scientific instruments as well as support funds, as the historian Matthew Stibbe relates (Stibbe, p. 144-6), and although the Ruhleben Camp Magazine seems to have closed its editorial offices in the summer of 1917, the Ruhleben Camp School (jocularly called Ruhleben University) remained in full swing (Ketchum, p. 198; In Ruhleben, p. 226). Meanwhile, “standardised” parcel delivery service, various clubs, and the civic administration were also still active (Ketchum, pp. 8).
This bureaucratic organization was in some cases life-saving. When the Spanish flu struck Germany, leaving 187,000 German civilians and thousands of POWs dead, Ruhleben’s civilian camp authorities leaped into action, imposing quarantines and closing off parts of the camp, including the theatre and cinema. As a result, Ruhleben lost only two men (Stibbe, p. 151).
Ruhleben was also one of the few places in the region with sufficient food: after living behind the Allied blockade for nearly four years, Germans were dying of starvation, yet food parcels continued to arrive at Ruhleben (Stibbe, p. 70). The difference was so stark that in October 1918, the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung carried a feature-length article claiming that a German businessman, one Herr Wittkowski, had asked the Ruhleben commandant to take his sons into the camp to be fed and receive an education (Stibbe, p. 149). One internee later recalled how he and his messmates, fearing that hungry Berliners might raid the camp, went so far as to bury a cache of food in what “was ostensibly a window-box…with emergency rations of canned beef, tripe, etc., and a few flowers planted on top.” He concludes gratefully, “We never needed it” (quoted in Stibbe, p. 153).
The upshot was that Armistice Day mattered less for the internees at Ruhleben Camp than did the chaos sweeping Germany. In early November 1918, German sailors in Kiel resisted orders to take to the seas for a final hopeless battle against the British. As the German imperial government crumbled, revolutionary sentiment spread, reaching Ruhleben on November 8, 1918, when the German guards followed the lead of their countrymen across Europe and deposed their officers. The guards then joined the prisoners in signing a “declaration of brotherhood” between the German and English people, and “hoisted the red flag before setting the prisoners free” (Stibbe, p. 16). The next day, the German republic was proclaimed by the socialist parliamentarian Philipp Scheidemann from the balcony of the Reichstag in Berlin: “That which is old and rotten, the monarchy has collapsed. Long live that which is new, long live the German republic!” Only a few hours later, a revolutionary admirer of Soviet Russia, Karl Liebknecht, walked up the stairs of the nearby imperial palace to instead proclaim a “free socialist German republic.”
This tension between the moderate and radical socialist revolutionaries cost Liebknecht his life weeks later and would persist throughout the years of Germany’s new Weimar Republic. Nevertheless, revolutionaries in 1918 hoped that socialism would inaugurate a new era in German history. Monarchism, it seemed, had torn the world apart, and socialism promised to heal it. Although this hope was short-lived, it glows from the declaration of peace and fraternity, signed by the inmates and guards at Ruhleben. I would like to conclude by reprinting the opening, as quoted by Matthew Stibbe:
“ENGLISHMEN! Brothers from over the Channel. It is tragic, deeply tragical, that a million dead on both sides were necessary in order to bring home to us that after all we are brothers, and members of the same race. Have Germans and British ever, until now, torn each other to pieces? From impressions gained in competent circles yesterday, it is our personal opinion that your release is only a matter of days. When you are at home again, let it be your task to make known that the German people, in spite of all its victories, still retained sufficient strength to take its destiny into its own hands and this time to keep it there. Let your aim be to make known that the German people, in this, its time of greatest need, which is also the proudest period of its history, instinctively casts its eyes across the water, looking for help.” (p. 155)*
* Jamie McSpadden kindly contributed his substantial expertise on modern German history to this post. Jamie is a Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC.
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)
In Ruhleben: Letters from a Prisoner to His Mother. Edited and with an introduction by Douglas Sladen. Including “Civilian Prisoners: the Case for a Wholesale Exchange” by Sir Timothy Eden. London: Hurst and Blackett, Ltd. Paternoster House, E.C., 1917.
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.