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Alon Rachamimov. POWs and the Great War: Captivity on the Eastern Front. Legacy of the Great War Series. New York: Berg, 2002. xii + 259 pp. Bibliography and index. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 1-85973-578-9.

Reviewed by Andrew Donson, Department of History, Marquette University, Milwaukee.
Published by H-German (November, 2003)

In early twentieth-century historiography, a widely held thesis is that the First World War laid the foundations for the atrocities of the communist and fascist dictatorships. From 1914 to 1918, the European states forced millions to work for the national defense and to accept extensive economic regulation of the economy, industrial killing of soldiers, and draconian regimes of censorship. Superficially, the argument that the First World War was the first disaster, the so-called Urkatastrophe that led to the subsequent violence and curtailment of freedoms, is supported by the fact that eight and a half million European prisoners of war (by far the largest number of men ever incarcerated to that time) suffered under considerable deprivation. Prisoners in the First World War, like those later in the Soviet and Nazi camps, faced forced labor, inhumane living conditions, preferential treatment according to ethnicity, and controls on communication that damaged their morale. Yet in POWs and the Great War: Captivity on the Eastern Front, the first monograph on the subject, Alon Rachamimov sheds doubts on this continuity, arguing that "the treatment of prisoners had more to do with nineteenth-century thinking than with Auschwitz and the Gulag Archipelago" (p. 123). He offers abundant evidence that Austro-Hungarian soldiers in captivity in Russia encountered not the repressive dawn of totalitarianism but the chaotic twilight of the age of progress.

The experience of the Austro-Hungarian POWs was shaped by two factors: nineteenth-century bourgeois ideas about human rights and class privilege, and the monstrous difficulty of transporting, housing, and feeding the 2.77 million Austro-Hungarian prisoners (over a third of the total number of soldiers mobilized in the Habsburg Empire). Committed to conducting war according to the rule of law, Russian officials generally tried to abide by the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. The agreements forbade killing POWs and required states to provide adequate food, lodging, clothing, and mail service. But giving all the prisoners proper care was impossible in a country whose resources were stretched and whose own civilian population was starving. Consequently, conditions in the POW camps, which were deplorable at the beginning of the war, declined until the food and clothing sent by relief workers in Austria-Hungary began arriving in late 1915.

The situation of officers in the first two years of the war was by contrast far better. The Hague Conventions forbade states from forcing a captured officer to labor. In addition, they required the host state to pay his salary and respect his right to have enlisted men as servants. Feeling a closer connection to the captured aristocratic and bourgeois officers of foreign armies than to their own enlisted men, Russian military officials treated them with personal and professional dignity. Receipt of money from home further permitted the officers to live quite comfortably. Their situation worsened in 1916, after the devaluation of the ruble, and became positively dangerous after 1917, when the anarchy of civil war descended over Russia.

For enlisted men, however, life improved in the last years of the war due to relief aid and new opportunities to work. The Hague Conventions gave the belligerent states wide latitude in using the labor of captured enlisted men, and provided for the release of prisoners on parole, giving them freedom of movement within a certain area. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of enlisted Austro-Hungarian Slavs avoided the deplorable conditions in the POW camps by working peacefully on small farms scattered throughout the Russian countryside. Though over a third of the seventy thousand prisoners who worked on the Murman railway line died, hundreds of thousands who worked in private industry earned the full wages of Russian workers and received better nourishment than many civilians. After May 1916, when Russian officials allowed non-Slavs to work as well, the number working swelled to over 1.6 million. With fifteen million Russian men conscripted, numerous foreign prisoners developed intimate relationships with Russian women. Some fathered children.

In POWs and the Great War, a social history, Rachamimov does not delve deeper into these cultural and political peculiarities in the POW experience. He devotes ten pages to determining the total number of prisoners but just two and a half pages to the extraordinary encounters between the prisoners and the Russian villagers. He discusses the riveting adventures of the forty thousand prisoners who joined imperial Russia's Czechoslovak Legion and fought for independence--first against the Habsburgs, then against the Bolsheviks, all before hightailing back through Vladivostok in 1920 to form the core of the new Czechoslovak army. But the book skirts over the motivations and experiences of the estimated fifty to two hundred thousand prisoners who joined the Red Army. The book focuses on the majority of working class prisoners, who refrained from revolting against the Habsburg state and merely strove to eke out a humdrum existence in Russian captivity. The book does not discuss the various cultural practices of the prisoners--their sporting competitions, literary magazines, and cross-dressing in theater productions that marked the lighter side of prison life.

Despite these omissions, Rachamimov probed a variety of Czech, Polish, Russian, English, German, and Hebrew sources, including over 1,300 letters by prisoners themselves, to portray the captives's experiences. Few historians are capable of such breadth, and the result is a judicious and authoritative study of a subject long neglected. In POWs and the Great War, he makes a strong case that though captivity was the first of the great dislocations in early-twentieth-century Europe and anticipated life under the dictatorships, it was a far cry from the gulag or the concentration camp. Though limited resources made prison life deplorable, Russian officials tried to treat the prisoners according to the conceptions of the belle epoque.

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 11/03/04 04:20:54
S D Stein

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