The Stigma of Surrender: German Prisoners, British Captors, and Manhood in the Great War and Beyond

The Stigma of Surrender: German Prisoners, British Captors, and Manhood in the Great War and Beyond

The Stigma of Surrender: German Prisoners, British Captors, and Manhood in the Great War and Beyond

The Stigma of Surrender: German Prisoners, British Captors, and Manhood in the Great War and Beyond

Synopsis

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, historian Brian K. Feltman brings wartime captivity back into focus.

Many German men of the Great War defined themselves and their manhood through their defense of the homeland. They often looked down on captured soldiers as potential deserters or cowards--and when they themselves fell into enemy hands, they were forced to cope with the stigma of surrender. This book examines the legacies of surrender and shows that the desire to repair their image as honorable men led many former prisoners toward an alliance with Hitler and Nazism after 1933. By drawing attention to the shame of captivity, this book does more than merely deepen our understanding of German soldiers' time in British hands. It illustrates the ways that popular notions of manhood affected soldiers' experience of captivity, and it sheds new light on perceptions of what it means to be a man at war.

Excerpt

“The war had entered into us like wine. We had set out in a rain of flowers to seek the death of heroes. The war was our dream of greatness, power and glory. It was a man’s work, a duel on fields whose flowers would be stained with blood. There is no lovelier death in the world.” Ernst Jünger’s recollections of the Great War’s commencement fail to capture the range of emotions that accompanied men to the front in August 1914 and throughout the Great War. For every soldier who welcomed the opportunity to face death and prove himself on the battlefield, another trembled at the prospect of not returning home. Nonetheless, Jünger’s comments reveal something significant about social expectations in the period before Europe descended into more than four years of conflict. War was indeed “a man’s work,” and even the most reluctant warrior understood what was expected when he encountered the enemy. Firmly entrenched social mores demanded that men exhibit honor and courageousness on the battlefield. Soldiers, including citizen soldiers, realized that their peers expected them to fight bravely and willingly give their lives in defense of the fatherland. Jünger’s search for a “lovely” demise was not exceptional; thousands of young men imagined the Great War in absolute terms of victory or death. But what of soldiers who found neither and fell into enemy hands?

Prisoners of the Great War found neither the triumph of victory nor the glory of a heroic death. Instead, soldiers who left the battlefield as prisoners could face accusations of cowardice, desertion, or treason—regardless of the circumstances leading to their capture. As a result of what George Mosse referred to as the “militarization of masculinity,” German men of the early twentieth century based much of their masculine identity on the belief that they served a higher purpose, which was often imagined as a responsibility to defend the fatherland. Willingly sacrificing one’s . . .

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