The Final Logic of Sacrifice? Violence in German Prisoner of War Labor Companies in 1918

By Jones, Heather | The Historian, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

The Final Logic of Sacrifice? Violence in German Prisoner of War Labor Companies in 1918


Jones, Heather, The Historian


UNTIL RECENTLY, the historiography of the First World War focused upon the intercombatant violence that occurred between opposing armed forces. Yet new work by historians has shown that the boundaries of violent practice between 1914 and 1918 were far more fluid than this dichotomous model can explain. Recent studies have revealed that significant combatant-civilian violence occurred during the conflict. (1) John Home and Alan Kramer's book German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (2001) has highlighted the extent of military violence against civilians during the German invasion of France and Belgium in 1914; a theme revisited by Larry Zuckerman in The Rape of Belgium: The Untold Story of World War I (2004). (2) These studies have shed new light on the attitudes toward violence that existed within the German Army. Other recent publications have discussed violence, such as Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius's work, War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity and German Occupation in World War One (2000), and the groundbreaking study by Isabel Hull, Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany (2005). (3) Historians have also begun to explore the role of intra-army violence such as that meted out by military courts which implemented corporal punishment to maintain discipline. (4)

However, within this new wave of historiography reassessing the nature and scope of military violence in 1914-1918, one type of violence has been overlooked--violence against prisoners of war. The First World War is not particularly known for the mistreatment of prisoners. Despite a recent upsurge in publications looking at prisoner labor in Germany, (5) violence against prisoners of war has received little scholarly attention, and the prisoner of war labor companies, developed by armies on the Western Front, have scarcely registered with historians. (6) One consequence of this neglect, as Isabel Hull has pointed out, is that "it is still uncertain how Germany's treatment of prisoners of war compares with that of other belligerents." (7) This lack of information is all the more surprising given the importance of prisoner labor for military logistics in the British, French, and German armed forces. The organization of a permanent prisoner labor system to the rear of the battlefield, which operated separately from prisoner of war camps on the home front, was an innovation common to all three belligerent armies by 1916. Prisoner labor companies built road and rail networks and loaded and unloaded military supplies. This breached prewar international law, which stipulated that prisoners of war could not be forced to work directly for their captor's war effort. (8)

These systems of prisoner labor reveal much about the military culture of each army and shed light on the extent to which violence was practiced within the army structure to maintain its functional capabilities on the battlefield. They also reveal different checks and balances, which, depending on the cultural attitudes toward violence against prisoners within an army, served as control mechanisms either to promote or to contain prisoner mistreatment. For example, all three armies restricted the prisoner of war labor company system to certain categories of captives. Only other rank prisoners, captured unwounded, were sent into labor companies. (9) Class remained a universal factor that determined whether or not a prisoner became a labor company worker.

This article will explore the prisoner of war labor system in the German Army during the last year of the war, focusing upon the treatment of British and French prisoner workers. The choice of 1918 is deliberate. The experience of the German Army during this year has been the subject of considerable recent historical research. The older debate about when German Army morale began to disintegrate, which was pioneered by Wilhelm Deist, has been rejuvenated by new discussions about how cultural attitudes toward violence and sacrifice within the army determined military decision making. …

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