During the First World War the experience of captivity became a global mass phenomenon. Around ten million combatants and civilians were captured or interned , experiencing the war behind barbed wire or in labour camps. While the experience of military prisoners of war (POWs), foreigners in belligerent countries (‘enemy aliens’), and civilians in occupied territories differed widely depending on their legal status, gender, race, and nationality, they nearly all considered their captivity to be humiliating and traumatic.

In the early months of the war, all belligerent states were confronted with a huge number of POWs, generating an unexpected logistical and infrastructural challenge, which often resulted in the hasty construction and administration of POW camps. Yet, the different civilian and military authorities developed a complex camp system with camps for ordinary soldiers, camps for officers, and reprisal camps for disobedient POWs. In Germany among the 175 official prisoner-of-war camps, there were dozens of special camps (‘Sonderlager’) for Flemish POWs, Ukrainian POWs, and also Muslim POWs, the latter in Zossen and in Wünsdorf. These two Muslim camps held mostly colonial POWs from British, French, and Russian territories and were set up as ‘show' or 'propaganda' camps.

In these special camps, POWs received much better treatment - better supplies, proper housing in barracks, and more relaxed labour rules – compared to regular POW camps. The special camps were erected as part of Germany's 'programme for revolution', run by the German Foreign Office and the Political Section of the Reserve General Staff. The programme extended far beyond the Muslim world and relied on a set of local agents and imperial networks to create unrest in the Entente's territories, and influence POWs in favour of Germany through propaganda in the special camps that was adapted to the needs of the interned communities.

In addition to the camps for combatants of belligerent countries, e.g. Britain, Germany, or the USA, there were internment facilities for ‘enemy aliens’. These included civilians, predominantly men of military age, who found themselves in a foreign country that had declared all citizens of enemy nations to be ‘enemy aliens’. This policy was also applied to the European colonies where in 1914, foreign-born settlers, missionaries, and traders were interned despite a concept of ‘white solidarity’ and a shared ‘European civilizing mission'.

Captivity was undertaken in accordance with The Hague Conventions of warfare of 1899 and 1907, which regulated international standards for the treatment of prisoners of war. Although not very specific, this international agreement monitored standards of camp accommodation and facilities, labour regulations (conditions, wages), and encouraged the establishment of relief societies for prisoners of war. From 1915, all belligerent states agreed to inspections of their camps by representatives from neutral nations, such as the Netherlands and Spain. The International Red Cross also visited camps on a regular basis, in order to monitor camp conditions. From August 1914, the ‘International Prisoners of War Agency’ collected lists of prisoners’ names in Geneva and this is available online. The exchange of sick and wounded prisoners of war was regulated by the Geneva Convention of 1906, which turned neutral countries like Switzerland and Holland into sites for prisoner-of-war exchanges, but these countries also became a destination for POWs who had escaped captivity.

Conditions of captivity depended on the time and location of capture, military rank, and national origin, but it also depended on the conditions in the host country and its military administration. While officers generally enjoyed more freedom, many regular prisoners of war were used in forced labour battalions but this was against the regulations of The Hague Conventions. However, such practice was not always sanctioned.

Studying camps and captivity is a transnational endeavour, since practices of administering camps travelled internationally and POWs were used for strategic policies. For example, the bad treatment of German POWs in North Africa provoked an immediate reaction by Germany towards French prisoners of war. In the course of the war, the interrogation of POWs became strategically important for gaining knowledge about military operations of the enemy, thus combatant POWs not only into objects for propaganda and academic research, but also into strategic resources for gathering wartime intelligence.

Larissa Schmid