"You mustn't suppose that the camp was always like this. When the men were first brought here, the place wasn't fit to keep pigs in. All that you have admired in the camp they have themselves created."
Count Schwerin, Commandant of Ruhleben, Summer of 1916

Ruhleben: A picture of a World War I Internment Camp     |     An Introduction

Against all odds and expectations, World War I British civilian prisoners of war built a distinctive, multi-faceted society on the site of the Ruhleben Trabrennbahn (racetrack) outside Spandau, German. Situated just two miles west of Berlin, the Ruhleben Internment Camp operated from November 1914 to November 1918. Over the course of these four years, the Camp was temporary home to more than 5,500 British male civilians between the ages of 17 and 55. And in those years, the residents of Ruhleben—whose only common bond was their British citizenry—became Ruhlebenites who came together to improve their living conditions, govern themselves, and form athletic, cultural, artistic, and educational associations.

Internment camps in Germany and throughout Europe were common during World War I and held men, women, and children of all nationalities. In Germany alone, more than 100,000 enemy civilians were interned during the course of the war in a variety of different types of camps. Ruhleben, however, was unlike any other German camp. The only camp exclusively organized for holding civilians, Ruhleben was not a work camp and its homogenous population, the bulk of whom began arriving on November 6, 1914, remained relatively stable.

Like detainees in other camps, Ruhleben prisoners had to deal with typical prison deprivations: substandard living conditions; boredom; lack of privacy; and restrictions in freedom of movement. Given these facts, how did this remarkable community of men come about? As more than one former prisoner of the camp and various commentators have written, the men interned at Ruhleben had a choice to either regard their imprisonment as a tragedy or a challenge. As a group, they took the challenge and created clubs, teams, and associations that helped them focus their minds and bodies on something other than incarceration. In order to improve their living conditions, they worked with German authorities to take over administrative control of the camp and its services. In doing both of these things, the Ruhlebenites created a collective sense of purpose that guided them through their daily lives and assisted them in surviving – both mentally and physically – their imprisonment.

The Harvard Law School Library's Department of Special and Historical 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. Through manuscripts, newsletters, artwork, and photographs, these holdings illustrate the creative and social output of the Ruhleben prisoners.