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A Laboratory of Humanitarianism: Military and Civilian Captivity during the First World War

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A Laboratory of Humanitarianism: Military and Civilian Captivity during the First World War


Matthew Stibbe, PhD will speak on Thursday, May 5, 2022 at 2:00 PM ET. This program will be live-streamed globally, and archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Dr. Stibbe is Professor of Modern European History, Sheffield Hallam University, United Kingdom, and 2019 NLM Michael E. DeBakey Fellow. Circulating Now interviewed him about his research and upcoming talk.

Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like? 

Matthew Stibbe: I am originally from Leicester, in the UK.  I am Professor of Modern European History at Sheffield Hallam University, also in the UK. I teach undergraduate students on the bachelors program and supervise research students. I also lead history colleagues in creating and fostering a research-active environment within my department, and have a number of external-facing roles, including acting as associate editor of the international research journal Immigrants and Minorities. In June-July 2022 I will be a visiting professor at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, Germany.

CN: How did you first become interested in the history of medicine?

MS: I became interested in the history of medicine as an extension of my longstanding research into civilian internment during the First World War. Civilians were a particular kind of captive, often forgotten amidst the focus on military POWs. At least 800,000 non-combatants experienced some kind of wartime captivity during the years 1914–20, many for long periods. Some of the medical impacts were quantifiable and can be seen in camp inspection reports drawn up by the International Committee of the Red Cross or experts working for neutral embassies, including the provision of statistics on diet, nutrition and hospital admissions. But some were less knowable, particularly when the factor of time—in other words the sheer length of captivity and enforced idleness—is added into the mix.

CN: You’ve written for us previously on the topic of “Barbed-Wire Disease,” tell us a little about your upcoming talk, “A Laboratory of Humanitarianism: Military and Civilian Captivity during the First World War,” is there a connection to your earlier topic?

Printed title page of an official document.
Report by Doctor A.E. Taylor on the Conditions of Diet and Nutrition in the Internment Camp at Ruhleben Received Through the United States Ambassador, 1916
National Library of Medicine #101484644

MS: Very much so. ‘Barbed-Wire Disease’, an umbrella term used for a variety of mental health problems suffered by prisoners during and after captivity, is a good example of how humanitarian activism became more reflexive as the war continued. Could some forms of assistance actually make things worse, or have unintended side effects, prolonging a situation when the only humane alternative is to end it as soon as possible?

CN: What approaches to humanitarian assistance for those experiencing prolonged incarceration were effective during World War I?  What about after the war?

MS: The most effective forms of relief came in contexts were the principle of reciprocity worked to the prisoners’ advantage. In other words, when two captor powers held roughly equal numbers of captives and/or had an interest in protecting the health and welfare of their own nationals in enemy captivity. This applied as well to exchange agreements. Conversely, relief efforts were least effective for those still held captive after the war. In 1919–20 this meant prisoners from the defeated Central Powers, who no longer benefitted from any of the protections offered by reciprocity.

CN: In researching this subject, were you drawn to any particular individual’s story? Or alternatively, was there a particular document that made an impression on you?

Printed formal photographic portrait of a white woman.
Elisabeth Rotten, Director of the New Education Fellowship in German-speaking countries, 1930
Wikimedia Commons

MS: One of the most important findings from my research was that, as the war continued, the children and other dependents of (mostly) male prisoners suffered more from shortage of food and care than their imprisoned husbands, sons, and fathers living behind the barbed wire. This came to me in particular through the story of Dr Elisabeth Rotten, a Swiss citizen with links to the British Quakers, who ran a relief organisation in Berlin between 1914 and 1919 specifically to assist women and children who faced destitution as a result of their civilian male relatives’ long-term wartime captivity. I spent a lot of time looking through the records of her wartime organisation, held in an archive in Berlin, and considering her own story alongside the stories of the hundreds of women and children she was able to help.

Matthew Stibbe’s presentation is part of our NLM History Talks, which promote awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All talks are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.



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