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Military, Civilian Dimensions

Stibbe Examines Effects of WWI Internment

Dr. Stibbe portrait
2019 NLM Michael E. DeBakey fellow Dr. Matthew Stibbe of United Kingdom’s Sheffield University

The internment of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians during World War I gave governments a unique opportunity to experiment with different kinds of humanitarian assistance, said Dr. Matthew Stibbe, during a recent NLM History of Medicine talk. By studying the experiences of interned citizens in the 1910s, he hopes to gain insights into how isolation and uncertainty affect people, something that’s relevant today.

From 1914 to 1918, roughly 8 million to 9 million soldiers became prisoners of war, said Stibbe, professor of modern European history at the United Kingdom’s Sheffield Hallam University and 2019 NLM Michael E. DeBakey fellow. 

The experiences of the POWs varied greatly, Stibbe noted. Some soldiers were forced into physical labor near the frontlines. Others spent their time at guarded camps in more comfortable conditions. Neutral countries like Switzerland detained soldiers who strayed onto their lands. Across Europe, the death rate for these prisoners was around 11 percent, with considerable variations from country to country.

About 800,000 civilians also experienced internment. When war was declared in 1914, hundreds of thousands of citizens on both sides were imprisoned in detainment camps. British nationals living in Germany, for example, were seen as potential threats. These citizens were held captive, sometimes for the whole duration of the war.

“Military POWS were protected, in theory, by international legislation,” he said. “Captive states were supposed to treat captured soldiers from the opposite side according to the same standards as their own enlisted men, in terms of food, accommodations and access to medical care.” 

Some civilian and military prisoners were also protected by the “reciprocity principle,” in which “captor nations would not mistreat prisoners because they wanted to protect the interests of their own subjects in enemy captivity.” Citizens interned by their own governments, however, had none of these protections. 

Captives had political and military value, said Stibbe. They were not just “useless eaters,” although they were sometimes dubbed as such. Rather, they were bargaining chips, sources of intelligence and a labor force. Additionally, captor nations used POWs in propaganda to build support for the war. 

Humanitarian organizations like the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross campaigned for captor nations to treat civilian prisoners like military prisoners. 

“There’s a dilemma there,” Stibbe argued. “If they were treated as military captives, civilians could experience disadvantages. They might not be able to excuse themselves from labor, for instance.”

Certain groups, such as the British Quakers, thought that if they organized good things for German captives in Britain, that would encourage Germans to do the same. For example, the Quakers lobbied universities in Britain to give scientific equipment to German scientists in internment camps. In return, the Germans gave scientific equipment to detained British scientists. 

As the war went on, countries began to standardize relief efforts, he said. Experts determined the amount of food, books and sports equipment each prisoner received. Neutral organizations like the Red Cross managed distribution of the packages. 

A black and white aerial view of an internment camp
Stibbe showed this 1917 image of an internment camp of British prisoners near Berlin, from the book In Ruhleben, Letters from a Prisoner to His Mother.

Photo:  Credit Wikimedia Commons

“A lot of relief organizations decided that the typical prisoner was a literate, white male aged between 18 and 45,” Stibbe noted. “There’s a certain blindness towards the needs of particular groups.”

In response, Dr. Elisabeth Rotten, a Swiss citizen with ties to the Quakers, created an organization to help enemy aliens in Germany who were in distress. Rotten believed those “who were most distressed were not the people who were in camps” but “the wives and children,” Stibbe explained. 

Exchange agreements were common. Soldiers with serious injuries were often traded. In 1917, some countries recognized that “barbed-wire disease,” an “umbrella term for mental health conditions observed in long-term captives,” could be grounds for exchange, he said.

A Swiss medic named Adolf Lukas Vischer wrote a book about the disorder. He argued, “It doesn’t matter how good the conditions are in a camp. After a certain period of time, everybody in a prisoner of war camp will develop mental health symptoms, not just those who developed very obvious ones that necessitate their removal to a psychiatric institution.” He further stated no one knew what the psychological implications of long-term internment might be.

The idea was controversial. Some medical experts thought diagnosing prisoners with barbed-wire disease would encourage others to claim they had the condition so they could go home. The Quakers criticized Vischer because they thought sending food and materials for arts and crafts was a good thing. 

“Captivity itself had overlapping military and civilian dimensions, purposes and features,” Stibbe said. “We cannot understand it holistically without understanding this overlapping of the military and civilian.” 

To view the talk, see:

For more information about the NLM Michael E. DeBakey Fellowship in the History of Medicine, see:

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