It has always seemed to me an injustice that World War I has been virtually eclipsed in our collective memory because another even worse war came along. When we talk about “concentration camps” we immediately think of places like Dachau or Buchenwald, forgetting that there were many other forgotten names like Elsenborn or Soltau, which came to receive a total of eight to nine million combatants, equivalent to a total of ten percent of all forces mobilized in the war.
But not only fighters were imprisoned: also foreign residents of enemy nations. One of the most notorious civilian camps was Ruhleben, near Berlin, designed specifically to accommodate English prisoners. Originally it was a racetrack with eleven stables and capacity for 27 horses in each: they just had to replace the horses by prisoners. They were between 4000 and 5000, according to estimates, mostly British.
One of its involuntary tenants was the Irishman William O’Sullivan Molony, arrested in 1914 at the gates of the British Embassy in Berlin when he was only seventeen.
According to Molony in Prisoners and captives, Ruhleben –which in German means something like quiet life– had to be a very singular place. The prison population consisted largely of sailors captured at sea or in German ports, but also golf and English teachers which coincidentally lived on German soil at the time of the outbreak of the war. According to the attitude shown on photographs, some of the prisoners could just be coming out of a London select club, if it were not for the rope that fixed their pants to their skinny waist.
Life at the camp was terribly monotonous, so culture flourished everywhere in its various manifestations. (The rise of culture at camps and prisons is something that will never stop to amaze me). Sport was part of it, as war caught dozens of British professional footballers in Ruhleben. Special lessons for sailors about Shakespeare or literature classes for Grimsby fishermen emerged spontaneously in the camp, even a “school of bacteriology.”
In Ruhleben there was music and theater, artists clubs were born, inmates played dominoes with homemade chips, carved figurines and drew. Molony, for example, became familiar with Rudolf Steiner through an anthroposophist prisoner and studied the teachings of the Tao with the help of someone called Murehead. A Yemeni named Hamed Saleh taught him to read Arabic and recite the Quran, while the engineer Luboff allowed him to master Russian enough to read Dostoyevsky in the original. In short, abruptly deprived of their daily duties, Ruhleben prisoners had established a distinctive and frenetic alliance against boredom. Molony admits that under ordinary circumstances, subject to a conventional vital code, neither the Taoist master would have had that power of conviction, nor someone like the Yemeni could have a big influence on the course of his existence.
However, sometimes culture also came to exercise a sinister power over these individuals, who submitted to her like a lover, passionate and entirely:
I shall never forget the gloom that settled upon us after seeing Ibsen’s Master Builder acted on our stage. Such influences as these were intruders, some friendly and invigorating, others very disturbing; certain plays and certain music sustained us beyond all belief, whereas others unmanned us and brought us at times to the brink of hysteria.
Furthermore, in Ruhleben
everything was undeniably ugly. The effort, though bold and even majestic, could not reconcile the real state of things. It was a make-believe town built outside the madness, with which Ibsen would have been delighted. It was a monster sustained by the inventive genius of its small builders.
Still, it is hard not to feel some kind of envy at the strange and unwanted opportunity to live with that monster, despite the lousy food, which worsened as did the German front, the longing for the outdoor life and the constant desire of freedom that pervaded all its inhabitants.
Four years later, when the inmates of Ruhleben returned home, perhaps spiritually enriched, but also emaciated, malnourished, sick and frightened by a world whose rules had been forgotten, they were received by their people with contempt. Unlike the dead and mutilated in the trenches, they had not fought for their country. In a culture still marked by outdated ideals of heroism, Ruhleben became for many a source of shame. That was how this and many other fields of World War I were forgotten. Since the eighties, slowly, some historians have decided to rescue them.