Monday, November 21, 2011

Ruhleben: Germany’s Race-Course/ Concentration Camp for British Subjects in World War One

Genealogical and historical treasures can pop up online in the strangest places.

For example, who would ever think to look on the Harvard Law School Library’s Special Collections area for the new digital exhibition about a German “concentration” camp for British subjects during World War One?

Frankly, how many folks have ever heard about Ruhleben, a former racecourse turned WWI internment camp about 10 kilometers from Berlin?  Or the folks that spent the duration of the war there?

Or that the "residents" designed their own municipal coat of arms?  (Note the "rats rampant" in the illustration above left...)

And if they ever heard of Ruhleben at all, how many knew how it operated (hint one: the “guests” ran it), and what went on there?  (hint two: its own newspaper, plus theatre and musicals and lots, lots more kept folks from going stir-crazy)

The collection (well, actually TWO collections: the Maurice Ettinghausen collection and the John Cecil Masterman collection) have been digitized and are now available for study on the Harvard Law School Special Collections website.  It’s brand-new and well worth checking out. Here’s the link:


It’s a well-thought-out and intuitively-designed website and conveys lots of information in a highly graphic way.  Frankly, most people will find it more than a little bit interesting, since “most people” probably have no idea that the German government rounded up so many male “enemy aliens” and sequestered them in a place like Ruhleben for the duration of the war. All in all, about 100,000 people spent at least part of the war in these kinds of camps.

Many of the Ruhleben “guests” were British businessmen working in Germany, while others were students and teachers.  Only males between the ages of 17 and 55 were interned, and about 5,500 people spent a large part of the war in the makeshift village-camp known as Ruhleben.

Not all of the thousands of Ruhleben residents were obscure English businessmen and commercial travelers.  The “guest list” also included athletes, musicians and scientists who were studying or resident in Germany before the War, many from Commonwealth nations, including Canadian composer and conductor Ernest MacMillan and later Harvard professor Winthrop Pickard Bell, familiar to many genealogists for his work on early “foreign Protestants” in Nova Scotia.  “Prince Monolulu” (the West Indian born Peter Carl MacKay) horse-racing tipster and probably the best-known black man in English racing circles after the war, was also a guest at the Kaiser’s Ruhleben race course.

It’s important to note that the Harvard Law School site is not the only source of information about the Ruhleben camp.   Since it was a camp that housed British nationals, it’s only natural that there would be additional information in the U.K. National Archives.

(Note: those with possible family members interned at Ruleben will find the many references and links helpful.)


You can search the links on the left-hand side of the page for the names (and short biosketches) of many who spent time at Ruhleben as “guests” of the German Imperial government.

The Harvard Law School website raises two interesting legal questions, which I suspect that genealogists will also find interesting – especially if they’re researching military ancestors:  the first question: what exactly is a “concentration” camp and is it different from an “internment” camp or some kind of “prisoner of war camp”?    The second question: what is the legal status of “civilian” (i.e., non-combatant) internees and, by extension, how do their “rights” differ from those of “prisoners of war” under international law?

Nothing about what we do is ever simple.  Still, the spanking-new “Ruhleben” website certainly helps to shed new light on the “war to end all wars” and, in the process, gives us new things to think about.

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