Jean-Pierre Laurens' Lithograph of a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany
Excerpt from Jean-Pierre Laurens’ album of 18 lithographs devoted to the camp of Wittenberg in Germany, in which he spent several years as a prisoner. This image shows a confrontation between German civilians and Allied prisoners. With a simple drawing style, Laurens offers a caricatured vision of German society in wartime: corpulent women, militarised children, old people, and a German officer, all in good health. Looking at prisoners behind barbed wires – taking them in picture as a woman on the left does it – they seem to be at a zoo or in a colonial exhibition before the conflict.
This album was conceived in 1918 after Jean-Pierre Laurens, a French artist captured by the Germans in 1914, returned to France. Laurens wanted to share his experiences of captivity to condemn the particular atrocities he had suffered and observed during his captivity. He spent several months in a working camp in Courland; he returned from here very weakened.
Captivity during the First World War was a mass phenomenon, never before seen in such proportions. Captivity was also a strategic element of the war. Germans believed the involvement of French and British colonial soldiers in the war to be an offence to European civilisation. Therefore, from the beginning of the war, the German Army decided to place together Allied prisoners from over the world in camps as a reprisal. Such encounters were unprecedented in Europe; soldiers had to now share their everyday lives with men from abroad. German POW camps suddenly became a reflection of a new world outlook. This cohabitation caused frequent analogy between war captivity and the peace phenomenon of colonial exhibitions. Prisoners from Europe, Russia, and the colonies experienced together the violence of being imprisoned and exposed to the gaze of others.
The presence of Russians, North Africans, and Sub-Saharan Africans in Wittenberg was an aspect of captivity that left a deep mark on Laurens. In his album he also showed the presence of East African soldiers who held for him an ethnographic interest and contributed to French propaganda, asserting a superiority of colonial soldiers in comparison with the Germans. In this way, the artist also emphasised how otherness – reinforced and multiplied by the war and captivity – served the construction of identities and the cultural war.