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  • United by Barbed WireRussian POWs in Germany, National Stereotypes, and International Relations, 1914–22
  • Oxana Nagornaja (bio)
    Translated by Jeffrey Mankoff

During World War I and the revolutionary turmoil in Central and Eastern Europe, Russian prisoners of war (POWs), 1.5 million strong and thus the largest group of enemy officers and men in German camps, became one of the few points of contact between Russia and Germany and an important channel by which each country could seek to influence the other. Presented in a variety of ways, the image of the POW became a popular propaganda theme in both countries. Domestically, it was used to dehumanize the enemy and enforce discipline on the home front. Internationally, it served to bolster one’s claim to be a civilized European state while accusing the opponent of barbarism. Public discussion of this issue in Russia and Germany shaped perceptions of the enemy, the self-presentation of each nation, and the practices of military and political officials. The prison camps themselves offered a unique space for unmediated contact with the enemy away from the passions of the front lines. Accordingly, both the actual treatment of prisoners and the rhetoric of those who had contact with them reflected the reception of stereotypes and their influence on the behavior of individuals and institutions.

Thanks to the “new military history,” the issue of POWs on the Eastern Front in World War I has drawn much attention from historians.1 Existing works emphasize the multifaceted nature of POW experiences: once they became a mass phenomenon, both enemy POWs and one’s own compatriots held by the enemy acquired considerable military, economic, and diplomatic importance for the belligerent states. The totalization of military operations,2 the development of [End Page 475] international law,3 and domestic concerns such as forced labor,4 migration policy and social policy,5 and so on were reflected through the prism of the POWs. Historians are unanimous in recognizing that prisoners were an important object of nationalist and revolutionary propaganda and an instrument for exerting pressure on the opposing side.6 So far, however, the literature has not paid sufficient attention to depictions of the enemy and how these influenced the agencies and individuals working with POWs, or to the specificity of the intertwining discourses of captivity in Russia and Germany and their transformation during the revolutionary period.7

To understand how both sides instrumentalized the image of the POW, the present article explores the basic components from which the image of the enemy was constructed, their dissemination, their influence on the actions of individuals and groups, and the change in reciprocal perceptions during what Ernst Nolte [End Page 476] calls the “European civil war.”8 I therefore approach the construction of the other as a flexible, multilayered formation that is dependent on the milieu—the social group or political institution—where it occurs and that evolves in response to new experiences. This approach should make it possible to go beyond studying isolated propaganda tropes and illumine the link between constructed images and political practices. This study is based on Russian and German official correspondence, journalism, visual representations, and published memoirs.9

Colonialist Stereotypes and the Treatment of Russian POWs

In the first months of the war, the number of POWs on German territory exceeded expectations and compelled the German military quickly to devise new plans to house and feed them and provide medical care. During this “improvisational phase,” but later, too, what Reinhard Koselleck calls a “horizon of expectations”—a stereotyped image of Germany’s eastern neighbors molded by mass-market fiction and wartime propaganda—decisively influenced how the prison-camp system operated. From the late 19th century on, racist studies founded on the precepts of Social Darwinism and emphasizing the natural slavishness, dirtiness, and low intellectual development of the Slavs were widely distributed in Germany and Western Europe.10 As a result, a habit of viewing the population of Eastern Europe through a lens that was not only liberal but also colonialist became firmly established both in propaganda and in popular opinion.11 [End Page 477] Political and propagandistic institutions used this kind of rhetoric against the Russian empire to...


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pp. 475-498
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