Thousands of Non-German Workers Trapped in Germany,

Forced Labor for Most; Comfort for a Few.

Special to The Great War Project

(17-23 October) Despite the loss of Freedom, life in the Ruhleben internment camp west of Berlin is tolerable. The Germans can be given credit for creating a camp where conditions are as humane as possible.


The gardening society at the Ruhleben internment camp in Germany.

Since the beginning of the war in 1914, the camp is the home for as many as 5500 Allied prisoners, most of them British, many of them civilians who are working in Germany when the war breaks out. By the fall of 1916, a century ago, hopes are rising that the Germans will close the camp and let the prisoners return home.

“The British and German governments agreed to exchange all civilian prisoners over the age of forty-five,” writes historian Martin Gilbert. “Those who remained realized that they would remain captive for a long time.”

Conditions for the detainees at Ruhleben are not terrible. “The deprivation of liberty at Ruhleben was offset,” writes Gilbert, “if such a basic loss can ever be offset, by music concerts, theatrical and operatic performances, debating societies, a library, a cinema, church and synagogue services and sport.”

Cricket was played “in blazers and flannels.”

Gilbert reports that “education classes were organized by the prisoners, within the framework of an Arts and Science Union, which boasted seventeen departments and 247 teachers.”

“It was believed in the camp that Einstein was among those who donated scientific apparatus for laboratory courses in heat, light and sound.” History lectures are given by an Oxford don.

Later he escapes from Ruhleben only to be recaptured two days later.

Posted letter from Ruhleben.

Posted letter from Ruhleben.

At first the Germans permit the internees to operate a postal system, but not long after the beginning of the war, the Germans stop the postal system. But there are other acts of mercy at Ruhleben. Among them a mock Parliamentary election.

But Ruhleben is also a propaganda coup for the Germans. The result of the election in the camp “was immediately publicized by the Germans,” Gilbert reports, “as a protest against the British government for entering the war.”

By all accounts, the 3000 British civilians who remain in the camp for the remainder of the war resist the temptation to praise the Germans and turn against the war.

Elsewhere conditions are not so humane. Thousands of Russians, Poles, and other nationalities are caught inside Germany, working at jobs they had sought before the war. The Germans force these men and women to remain in Germany but now to work under forced labor conditions.

It dawns on the German authorities that these workers can be pressed into labor gangs.

They become especially important for Germany in farming and the food supply industries.

These workers are now under the control of the German authorities who prevent them from returning home or even to move around freely in German.

“To provide a semblance of legality,” writes historian Alexander Watson, “for detaining people ineligible for military service, intense pressure was placed upon them to sign employment contracts ‘voluntarily.’”

“In detaining these people the German state demonstrated right from the start of hostilities that it was prepared to act ruthlessly and against the spirit of international law to benefit its war effort.”

“Its treatment of what were regarded as uncultured easterners was different from citizens of ‘civilized’ western states.”

Magazine published in the Ruhleben camp.

Magazine published in the Ruhleben camp.

“British women for example,” reports Watson, “were permitted to return home at the start of the war while their 4000 military-aged men were first forbidden exit.”

Later in the fall of 1916, one hundred years ago, they are moved to the relatively comfortable camp — Ruhleben.