18 November 2014

Remembering Ruhleben prisoner of war camp, Berlin 1914-8

Of course prisoners of war and interned civilians are going to try to keep themselves busy and productive, throughout the years of their captivity. Otherwise they would go insane from mind­-numbing boredom, even before they had the chance to die from starvation or disease.

In 1940 the British government rounded up 75,000 German, Aust­rian and Italian aliens across the UK. Within 6 months, war time tribunals across the country had individually summoned and examined 64,000 aliens, including c1,000 teenage lads. Some of these men were in the armed forces and arrested while on parade. They were taken first to police cells, and then to prison, usually on the Isle of Man.

The German-speakers of Onchan camp (Isle of Man)  were a scholarly lot. There were 121 artists & writers, 113 scientists & teach­ers, 68 lawyers, 67 engineers, 38 physicians, 22 post-grad­uate scientists, 19 clerics & 12 dentists. Theor­etical physicist Walter Kohn, who later won the Nobel Prize in Chem­istry, and expressionist artist Kurt Schwitters, were interned guests of His Maj­es­ty’s govern­ment. As were Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, Lord Weidenfeld, Sir Ch­arles Forte, Prof Geoffrey Elton and RW Tiny Rowland. At the other end of the social scale, but just as important to the British economy, were 103 agricultural work­ers. This was not your usual police round up of uneducated, unemployed louts.

Detainees were subject to dehumanising treatment from guards, but discussions between the prisoners was tolerated and the opportunity for education and entertain­ment emerged. Each Isle of Man camp had its own youth group, organising its own debating society and music sessions. A camp university was led by refug­ee academics who arr­anged lectures and English classes. Every evening hundreds of internees, each carrying his chair to one of the lectures, pursued knowledge and kept depression at bay. Eventually the internees could take part in local farm work, run their own camp newspapers, and set up internal businesses and run an inter-camp football league. Life in the Isle of Man camps took on a productive and quite scholarly air.

But I had not heard of a similar story in WW1!! .In Nov 1914, an order was issued for all British civilian men in Germany to be arrested and taken to an old racetrack in Berlin. 5,000 men, tourists and workers from Britain and the Empire, ended up in what became known as the Ruhleben  internment camp.

In Ruhleben prison camp near Berlin, internees built a Little Britain
photo credit: BBC News Magazine

The internees slept in the old racing stables, often on straw, with no blankets and barbaric latrines. The first winter was miserable, and internees did die of disease or starvation. But since there were 26,000 German nationals interned in Britain in WW1, the Germans HAD to improve conditions for their British prisoners who were civilians, not prisoners of war. There were still 200 German guards but they stayed on the perimeter, allowing the prisoners a measure of home rule. New barracks were built and rations increased. And a proper community had to develop.

Each barracks established a committee because, to stave off boredom, the interned men needed to be useful. Chess clubs and debating societies were formed, then an orchestra and a theatre. Plays by Ibsen, Shakespeare, Shaw, Sheridan and Wilde were performed and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas were enjoyed. There were also workshops that taught bookbinding, watch-­making and engraving, a lending library established. There were organised sports, including boxing, cricket and league football teams.

A gift of seeds from the Crown Prince of Sweden in mid 1915 seems to have suggested the idea of gardening. Then in late 1916, a letter was posted to the Royal Horticultural Soc­iety’s offices in London. It announced the creation of the “Ruhleben Horticultural Society”, and asked for bulbs and seeds to be sent to Berlin.

But it was not until 1917 that the British internees asked to expand the central part of the racecourse as a large vegetable garden. That year, with help from London's Royal Horticultural Soc­iety, there was also a series of hortic­ultural lectures and exhibitions, with “prizes” awarded for vegetab­les and gardens. Pests were a big problem at first, manure was not available and the soil was quickly transformed into mud. But the men built frames and greenhouse. Eventually the camp was almost self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables. By 1918, there was almost no food left in Germany so the quality of diet inside the prison fence was probably higher than outside.

organised sport at Ruhleben prison camp 
photo credit: Harvard Law Library

The British class system reasserted itself inside Ruhleben!! Public schoolboys quickly set up exclusive clubs, and even paid other internees to act as formally dressed drink waiters. Hanging around with merchant seamen for four years meant that the habit of swearing spread to the middle-class internees, so they needed a period of “quarantine” before returning home post-war.

During and after WW1, the Ruhleben camp was famous in both Britain and Germany. After the Armistice a number of books were published about the internees’ experience at Ruhleben. But as the full horror of the trenches became clearer, the camp was quickly forgotten. Ruhleben might have been beset by bestial conditions, but it was an idyll compared to what was happening at Ypres or the Somme.

Running until Jan 2015, The Gardens and War exhibition is presenting the Ruhleben story in London. The goal of the show is to display the British at their most resourceful, despite horrible war time conditions. This was story of British ingenuity and practical­ity, via pumpkins and onions. 

The story is also told in A History of Ruhleben, written by Joseph Powell and Francis Henry Gribble (published by Nabu Press, 2010). And in “The Other RHS” by Mark Griffiths, published in Country Life 6th August 2014.


Student of History said...

Good grief. The Isle of Man prisoners were a very educated group of men. How stupid of the British to not use these brilliant men, not lock them up in a horrible island prison.

Dazza said...

Where in London is the Gardens and War exhibition showing the Ruhleben story? My grandfather was in the First World War, but not in Berlin.

Andrew said...

I often wonder what the real threat from aliens during war pose to 'enemy' society they find themselves in. All countries seem to inter the foreigners and no doubt a few would pose a threat, but it seems quite an extreme measure and as you know, there are some very sad stories from both here and abroad.

Hels said...


The British were brutal in two ways and stupid in a third.
1. They imprisoned thousands of Jewish men who had escaped Nazi Germany, and put them in the same camps as their Nazi prisoners.
2. They broke up families, imprisoning the men only, leaving the women and children without a bread winner.
3. They had the finest German-educated doctors, scientists and engineers, yet they chose to not use those minds for the British war effort.

Hels said...


The Garden Museum is in Lambeth Palace Road, London. The Telegraph (21/9/2014) has quite a good review.

Hels said...


I would understand imprisoning soldiers and other men tied up with the war machine, but tourists, honeymooners and exchange students? Civilians MUST be protected.

Australia was no better, I understand that :(

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, America, of course, had its own share of similar guilt with the Japanese internments. Sometimes heart-warming stories like this can have a bad effect, because they deflect attention from the brutality and misery which were more often the order of the day in these places.

A similar argument was made before the U.S. Civil War, that images of plantations where the slaves were well-treated and "happy" allowed people to ease their consciences and look the other way while ignoring the overall enormity of the situation.

Personal Perspectives: World War I said...

The Anglican bishop for northern and central Europe, who visited the camp in 1916, told a correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph: "There is so much studying that I call it the University of Ruhleben - music, art, chess, languages, lectures on commerce, navigation and engineering. There is a magnificent laboratory and classes are held in a loft with poor light. It is a marvellous triumph over difficulties".

Personal Perspectives: World War I
by Timothy Dowling

Hels said...


When you suggest America had its own share of similar guilt with the Japanese internments, do you mean internments of civilians who had nothing to do with Japan's war effort? If so, then there was good reason to be outraged.

And worse still, if those Japanese civilians had already been fully naturalised and had thrown their lot in with their second country!

Hels said...

Personal Perspectives

many thanks for the great reference.

I think we should be making clear the difference between a WW1 concentration camp (as it was understood in 1914), a prisoner of war camp for captured combatants and a detention centre for civilians. Clearly there were no international conventions in place in 1914 that restricted warring nations from holding civilians within their territories. Germany did have the right to detain the male British civilians, but they also had the responsibility of treating them semi-decently, as you have shown.

Parnassus said...

Hello again,

The American Japanese internment camps were implemented after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It is shocking that this occurred so readily, as the situation of "rounding up" people runs so counter to what many felt to be basic principles. Many Japanese, often established in America for generations, ended up losing their land and other property. I have seen a number of memoirs of the period, which describe camp life and how those detained coped with it.

Wikipedia offers a summary:

Canadian Japanese faced a similar situation:


Hels said...


thank you. That recently arrived immigrants, without naturalisation yet, should lose their rights is unpleasant. But we probably understand nervous governments' fears in a time of war.

But you are saying that American citizens (with a Japanese history) had often been established in America for generations. That they lost their human rights was unconscionable.

If I, an Australian born citizen, was punished because my father or grandfather was born in Albania or Cuba, I would be deeply offended.