Your browser does not support JavaScript

A British Community in Wartime Germany

Harvard Law School Library Historical & Special Collections Exhibitions

Color photomechanical print postcard depicting the Ruhleben Coat of Arms, which reads Dum, Spiro, Spero—While I breath, I hope.

Harvard Law School Library
Caspersen Room
September 8 – February 24, 2012
Monday – Friday, 9:00am – 5:00pm

Historical & Special Collections is pleased to announce the installation of a new exhibit: Ruhleben Internment Camp—A British Community in Wartime Germany.

On November 6, 1914 – some four months after the outbreak of WWI – all male British citizens between the ages of 17 and 65 living in Germany were apprehended and sent to an internment camp outside of Berlin. The internment of civilians was common during World War I, however, what was not common was what the internees at Ruhleben – or Ruhlebenites as they came to be known – accomplished during their incarceration.

Ruhleben was a horse racetrack located on the outskirts of Berlin that the German military converted into an internment camp. Over the course of the war it served as a temporary home to more than 5,500 civilians, the vast majority of whom were British. As one might expect, conditions were poor. Horse stalls had been converted into barracks for housing and overcrowding was a constant problem and internees were faced with poor food and unsanitary conditions. However, despite this difficult environment, the internees were able to create in the word of a former detainee, “…a bit of England – a small British colony as it were, planted in the heart of the enemy’s country.”

He was referencing the development (in many cases the rapid development) of familiar social structures in the camp. Within one month of their arrival an internee police force was established, as was a nascent administrative system, which was permitted to co-administer the camp with the military administration. Within one year the Ruhlebenites had virtually complete administrative control of the camp; a camp whose similarities to a typical British town by then included medical and mail services, an elaborate education system (including a lending library) and a remarkable variety of organizations and clubs.

But the industry of the internees and the community they formed belied their true feelings of homesickness, frustration, and boredom. The first verse of “The Ruhleben Song” written for a play performed by the men in 1915 touches on this:

“Oh, we’re roused up in the morning, when the day is gently dawning,
And we’re put to bed before the night’s begun,
And for many months on end, we have never seen a friend,
And we’ve lost the job our energy had won,
Yes, we’ve waited in the frost for the parcel that got lost,
Or a letter the postman never brings,
And it isn’t beer and skittles, doing work on scanty victuals,
Yet every man can get up and sing.”

The Harvard Law School Library’s Historical & Special Collections holds two collections of internment camp materials for the study of the history of Ruhleben: the Maurice Ettinghausen collection and the John Cecil Masterman collection, both of which have been digitized. Through manuscripts, newsletters, artwork, and photographs, these holdings illustrate the creative and social output of the Ruhleben prisoners

Image credit: Detail, Ruhleben Coat of Arms, olvwork418594. Harvard Law School Library. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.