We welcome to the blog today a guest post by Brian K. Feltman, author of The Stigma of Surrender: German Prisoners, British Captors, and Manhood in the Great War and Beyond. Approximately 9 million soldiers fell into enemy hands from 1914 to 1918, but historians have only recently begun to recognize the prisoner of war’s significance to the history of the Great War. Examining the experiences of the approximately 130,000 German prisoners held in the United Kingdom during World War I, Feltman brings wartime captivity back into focus.
In a previous post, Feltman examined Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s case in the context of historical attitudes toward prisoners of war. In today’s post, Feltman discusses public reactions toward the commemoration of prisoners of war during the centenary of World War I.
From the 888,246 poppies spilling from the Tower of London to the British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s controversial ad based on the 1914 Christmas truce, the 100th anniversary of the Great War’s commencement has led to a great deal of centenary commemorations. In some cases, artists and activists from the former belligerent powers have come together to create commemorative artwork in the streets of major cities like London and Berlin in hopes of encouraging passersby to reflect on the significance of the events that unfolded a century ago. Despite widespread recognition of the need to observe the centenary and honor the war’s fallen, however, there has been little consensus over the most appropriate way to do so.
Critics have accused German officials of being less than enthusiastic about memorial efforts. German authorities have not been silent on the subject of commemoration, but they have largely stressed the need to commemorate rather than celebrate the events of 1914–1918 while focusing on the progress that has been made towards European integration. Even among the victorious powers, there has been no shortage of controversy about who deserves to be memorialized. The French government, for example, has come under pressure to recognize soldiers convicted by French military tribunals and executed for desertion or cowardice—charges of a decidedly unheroic nature.
The controversies surrounding the centennial commemorations should come as no surprise. Even in the years immediately following the Great War, Europeans strove to ensure that their particular war experience, or the experience of a fallen loved one, was properly represented in memorials and commemorative events. Monuments to the fallen and public displays of remembrance were pervasive after the war, but some veterans’ groups felt marginalized in the collective memory of the Great War.
As I point out in the final chapter of The Stigma of Surrender: German Prisoners, British Captors, and Manhood in the Great War and Beyond, former prisoners of war counted among the combatants who believed that other veterans and the general public failed to acknowledge wartime captivity as an honorable experience. Former prisoners of war had survived the carnage of the Great War, but they did not fit with the idealized perceptions of soldierly virtue and were sometimes likened to deserters. In Germany, former prisoners organized their own commemorative events to influence positively public attitudes towards wartime captivity. By collecting artifacts and working towards the establishment of a museum of captivity, former prisoners hoped that their commemorations could educate the public on the sacrifices made by Germany’s prisoners of war.
Demands that court-martialed soldiers be recognized alongside the war’s other combatants signal a shift in contemporary understandings of the trauma of war and a desire for more inclusive commemorative events. In Germany, prisoners of war have been included in many centenary commemorations and exhibitions. The former prisoners who fought for recognition in the interwar years would likely be pleased with the progress made towards acknowledging the diversity of honorable war experiences. Still, the men and women who served in the trenches or behind the lines came from all walks of life, and the experiences of war were so varied that we are bound to overlook the stories of far too many veterans and their families. Commemoration is also a business, and public officials are forced to consider the types of memorials and ceremonies that they believe the public wants to visit or participate in. As we commemorate the Great War’s soldiers and other participants, we would be well served to also contemplate those we might be forgetting.
Brian K. Feltman is assistant professor of history at Georgia Southern University. His book, The Stigma of Surrender: German Prisoners, British Captors, and Manhood in the Great War and Beyond, is now available. Follow him on Twitter @BrianKFeltman. Read his previous guest post, “Blurred Lines: Prisoners of War, Deserters, and Bowe Bergdahl.”