The POWs and the Great War: Captivity on the Eastern Front. By Alon Rachamimov. New York: Berg, 2002. Distributed by NYU Press. ISBN 1-85973-578-9. Photographs. Tables. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xii, 259. $22.50.
Although clearly a doctoral dissertation in need of professional editing for a more general readership, this book, one in a series of recent works, examines a part of World War I history rarely addressed in the west. That large numbers of German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners were taken on the Eastern Front between 1914 and 1918 has all but faded from memory, in part because of their victory over the Russians and subsequent peace negotiations with the Bolsheviks. That Alon Rachamimov addresses the issue, one that demands skill in German, Hungarian, and various Slavic languages, results undoubtedly in a distinct contribution to the field of historical POW studies.
The author poses several fascinating questions early in the text: did the large Russian POW camps preview the Soviet Gulag system and the Nazi Death Camp system later in the century? Rachamimov examines this thesis and concludes that the evidence shows pretty clearly that correlations remain historically circumstantial and do not prove causation. Second, did Czarist Russian Pan-Slavism usurp the POW provisions of the 1899 Hague Convention? Perhaps it did, in that the Czarist High Command ordered Alsatian and Slavic prisoners to be given better treatment in European Russia than Germans, Austrians, or Hungarians in Siberia. In the end, however, favoritism played a minimal role; over 90 per cent of all captured soldiers from all sides returned home after hostilities ended in 1918.
Even more important in the author's view were the stark differences in treatment accorded captured officers under the Hague Convention. Based on Joan Beaumont's concerns for hierarchal inequalities and lack of egalitarianism in military affairs, Rachamimov asks his readers to sympathize more with the plight of the lower rank and file—the "view from the bottom"—than [End Page 259] with the officers. The reason for this is the contemporary problem with the nineteenth-century understanding of officers as a social class, i.e., what Jean Renoir called the "Grande Illusion" in his 1937 film. Social problems aside, the author addresses the core difficulties of captivity in the East during World War I: the POW as loyalty risk, and the complexities of a civil war caused by the Bolshevik Revolution in the middle of a world war.
Essentially, the author shows us that the Cold War really started in
1918-20 as Austro-Hungarian POWs returned home under great suspicions
that Russian Bolsheviks had infected them with notions of anti-Hapsburg,
anarchic radical socialism. Rather than expressing the thanks of a
grateful nation, the Austro-Hungarians engaged their returnees in long
interrogations and subsequent military/political reeducation programs. The
real complaints from the POWs had little to do with radical politics
and much more to do with the low levels of concern for their physical
welfare behind the wire.
Robert C. Doyle