Concentration camp of Ruhleben and World War I

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.

Concentration camp of Ruhleben in 1918
Concentration camp of Ruhleben in 1918 (via ruhleben.tripod.com)

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.

Wiliam O'Sullivan Molony in 1915
O’Sullivan Molony (1915) (via pw20c.mcmaster.ca)

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.”

Inmates taking lessons at Ruhleben
Inmates taking lessons at Ruhleben (via ruhleben.tripod.com)

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.

(Translated from Spanish by Valentina Turchi)
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4 Responses to Concentration camp of Ruhleben and World War I

  1. Thankyou for this glimpse of life in Ruhleben. My wife’s great grandfather, Charles Walkerley, was one of the fishermen from Boston, Lincolnshire, interned from 1914 till January 1918 when he was repatriated. We are still piecing together something of his life in the camp – his story is on my website under the Genealogy section.

  2. Rosa Sala Rose says:

    Thank you for your comment and for the story of Charles Walkerley! I still have a second entry about Ruhleben more or less ready to be posted. Your research on the topic may be a motivation to finally do it.
    If you want to have a fascinating account about life in Ruhleben, you definitely should read “Prisoners and Captives” by O’Sullivan Molony, the book I mention here. I know that it is rare and therefore expensive, but perhaps you can find it in a library. My personal fascination with Ruhleben comes from there! I did a research in Spanish archives for my book about fugitives from Nazism. O’Sullivan Molony was one of my case-studies. After all he had to endure in Ruhleben he finally spend some peaceful years at the South of France, but with WWII he had to flee again and ended up in a nasty prison in Barcelona, my hometown. I have no idea about what happened to him afterwards…

  3. Jennifer Proctor (Kincla previously) says:

    Hi have just read with such interest the information you have forwarded for this site. I found your notes fascinating especially as I do have such an avid interest in the 2nd world war and how people managed to accept and live through such horrific times.
    Until this evening I had not heard of Ruhleben and so I now have another avenue to follow. I have tried to find out more of my families past history, but have not been very successful, mixed results of Polish, survivors of the Spanish Armada etc. I am going to try and organise a book regarding Ruhleben either to buy or from a local library. Prisioners of Captive by O Sullivan Morony will be the first book I am going to try and obtain. Thank you for giving me some direction.
    Thanks, Jennifer Proctor

    • Rosa Sala Rose says:

      Dear Jennifer, sorry for coming back so late to your kind comment! I am very glad that my notes about Ruhleben have been of some help for you. I can also recommend this site to you: http://ruhleben.tripod.com/. The page has an alphabetic list of former inmates and perhaps you may find a trace of your relatives there. It’s worth a try! I wish you good luck pursuing the story of your family.

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