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11 May 2021

What WW1 civilian internment can teach us about today

Professor of Modern European History

Tuesday 11 May • Viewing time: 1 minute

At least 800,000 civilians were imprisoned during the First World War, but little is known about their experiences. Professor Matthew Stibbe is unlocking their untold story.

When you think about the First World War, you might picture poppy fields, muddy trenches and shell-shocked soldiers. These have become a central part of mainstream history, but what if there was an alternative story to tell?

Imagine becoming an ‘enemy’ to your neighbours overnight. This was the experience of many German nationals living in Britain and the British empire, and British nationals living in Germany, when war was declared in 1914. 

Over the next four to five years, hundreds of thousands of civilians on both sides were imprisoned in internment camps — set up to hold ‘enemy aliens’ seen as hostile or a potential threat. 

I’ve been studying civilian internment — and what it can tell us about family, community and identity — for over a decade. I’ve visited over 30 archives in eight countries, and examined the experiences of more than 800,000 non-combatants who spent all or part of the years 1914-20 in captivity.

This research, along with my work with schools and community groups, has helped unlock this forgotten chapter of our history — and its relevance to life today.

Ruhleben prison camp

At the end of a quiet underground station on the western outskirts of Berlin, there’s a space between the railway and river where a racecourse once stood. It’s hard to believe this is the site of the Ruhleben prison camp, where 4-5000 British citizens from across the empire were held during the war.

The men imprisoned here came from all walks of life. They formed a unique, international community of academics, musicians, businessmen, seamen, and even tourists who had only been in Germany for a few days when war broke out. 

Drawing on diaries, photos, camp magazines, poems and memoirs, I undertook the first in depth historical study of Ruhleben. I started to uncover the internees’ cultural life, experiences and memories — as well as the impact on their families.

 Prisoners at Ruhleben camp queuing for the theatre box office
Prisoners queuing for the theatre box office at Ruhleben camp

Barbed-wire disease

Although British internees weren’t used for labour and were fairly well fed, they lived in cramped conditions with little light and no privacy. For many internees and their families, the boredom, isolation and uncertainty led to long-term psychological harm — known in both German and English as barbed-wire disease, or Stacheldrahtkrankheit.

For the women left at home, conditions were often even worse. Women in the UK whose husbands were interned in Germany were given no real support by the government, and some faced destitution and the workhouse. Their counterparts in Germany and Austria were subject to naval blockades that limited food supplies and made communication with the UK difficult or impossible.

By focusing on themes like mental health and gender, my research has helped shift focus away from national narratives of internment towards a more global, transnational and comparative view. 

Bringing history to life

For the WW1 centenary in 2014-2018, I worked with a freelance drama teacher to bring the hidden history of internment to life for local primary school children. Up until then, a lot of WW1 teaching focused on familiar topics like poppies, the Christmas truce and the Western Front. We wanted to tell a different story.

Using photos, memoirs and poems from Ruhleben, we created activities to show what life was like as a British internee in Germany. We also shared experiences of Germans living in Sheffield and other parts of Yorkshire, so the children could make comparisons with what was happening in their own towns. 

This gave pupils a sense of how global divisions and national hatreds could be reflected in their own families and communities. As the story unfolded, we saw the children start to understand both sides of the conflict — and how the German and British prisoners were actually very similar. 

Exploring the discrimination that existed between the Germans and British also helped them develop empathy for current refugees and immigrant communities in the UK.

An artist’s impression of prisoners in their sleeping quarters at Ruhleben camp
Artist’s impression of prisoners in their sleeping quarters at Ruhleben camp

Community and memory

In 2018, I collaborated with a local youth history group in the Berlin suburb of Spandau to mark the centenary of the dissolution of Ruhleben camp. Drawing on my research, they created a theatre piece and exhibition about what happens ‘when neighbours are placed behind barbed wire’. 

This was the first time this chapter of Berlin’s history had been publicly commemorated. As a multicultural community, it was a powerful way for Spandau to reflect on the lessons internment has for tolerance and engagement with refugees and immigrants today. It also helped restore the memory of Ruhleben internees for current and future generations. At an event on 22 November 2018 — marking the exact day the camp was dissolved 100 years earlier — the local museum director said my research had ‘wrested the internment phenomenon from oblivion’.

Away from Spandau and Ruheleben, I’ve contributed to a travelling exhibition that took the story of civilian internment across the world, stopping in Utah, Canada, South Africa and Barbados, reaching 20,000 visitors. Closer to home, I spoke at the launch conferences of two new internment research centres — one at Hawick in Scotland and one at Knockaloe on the Isle of Man. I also addressed public audiences in Canterbury, Kent and Regensburg, Bavaria.

Life after lockdown

My work has shown me just how important civilian internment is to people today, across the globe. Over the last year, I’ve found that it’s more relevant than ever. 

Isolation and uncertainty are now part of everyday life, and the uniquely international nature of Covid-19 also has some similarities to the experiences of WW1 internees. 

This part of our history highlights the importance of humanity above nationality, and community above division. As the world starts to recover from a pandemic which has had a major impact on our mental health, these values must not be forgotten.

Staff

professor matthew stibbe

Professor Matthew Stibbe

Professor of Modern European History

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About this project

Explore the people and organisations behind this research, and find related publications by the research team.

Related courses

Our teaching is informed by research. Browse undergraduate and postgraduate courses with links to this research project, topic or team.

Get in touch

Find key contacts for enquiries about funding, partnerships, collaborations and doctoral degrees.

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