Introduction Internees, general Black internees Jewish internees Pro-German internees Internee release

Ruhlebenites: Introduction

Tallest policeman and two young Russians

Great Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, and in September, the two belligerent nations began negotiating the fate of male foreign nationals resident in their respective countries. On November 6, 1914, following a British refusal of an all-for-all exchange, German military authorities began arresting British male civilians between the ages of 17 and 55 and taking them to local police stations and prisons before loading them onto trains bound for Berlin. From Berlin, the internees were taken to the emigrants’ railway station in Spandau, Germany and then marched to the Ruhleben racetrack. The entire internment process was completed within a three-week period.

The Ruhelben population was extremely diverse in terms of class, ethnicity, and cultural background. At its largest in February 1915, there were 4,273 internees living at Ruhleben and about 2,000 men spent all four years of the war there. The prisoners included Englishman (know as Englanderlager) who had been in Germany for work or holiday as well as representatives from all divisions of the United Kingdom and almost every country in the British Empire. Nearly 20% of those defined as British were born in Germany to English parents. Some did not speak English and many had never been to England. The internees were sailors, academics, musicians, businessmen, clerks, students, workmen, waiters, fishermen, and domestic servants representing various religious and secular traditions. The men were assigned living quarters as they arrived.

Some subsequent segregation did occur at Ruhleben based on religion, pro-German sentiment, and skin color. Some seventy Jewish prisoners were segregated for a time into Barrack 6. To avoid conflict, prisoners applying for German naturalization were housed in separate quarters beginning in April 1915. The bulk of these prisoners were slowly released beginning in January 1916 under guidelines set forth by the German authorities. Finally, about 100 black sailors from the British West African and the West Indies were housed in Barrack 13 beginning in December 1914. Except for on sports teams, the black residents were never fully integrated into the community at Ruhleben.

Despite their diversity and with these examples of segregation notwithstanding, the residents of Ruhleben did find common cause in their captivity and came together in their barracks, on sports teams, and in various clubs and associations. While the experience of Ruhleben varied from man to man, there was a gradual sense of national solidarity and patriotism that helped them make sense of and endure their captivity.

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