The German Diaspora during World War I: Remembering Internment Camps in Britain and the Commonwealth

Lead Research Organisation: Aston University
Department Name: Sch of Languages and Social Sciences


After a century of mass emigration, Germans had settled as sizeable minority groups in all parts of the British Empire. Following the outbreak of war in 1914, many were classified as 'enemy aliens' and faced internment, together with military Prisoners of War. An extensive network of camps was set up throughout the Empire, including, for example, Knockaloe on the Isle of Man, Stobs near Hawick in the Scottish Borders, Pietermaritzburg in South Africa, Kapuskasing in Canada, Newcastle in Australia, and Ahmednagar in India. These camps and their inmates have been all but forgotten. They play no role in national commemoration and are only patchily remembered by communities as part of their local heritage. The project aims to firmly embed commemoration of mass internment during the First World War at local, national and global levels. It will support communities in rediscovering their own tangible connection with the First World War, their archaeological heritage, and their historical connections with other communities around the world. In reaching out to European and Commonwealth partners the project works towards a globally shared - rather than nationally demarcated - history of internment.
The project has a clear strategy to reach as wide an audience as possible through innovative and creative forms of engagement which have not been applied in a British and Commonwealth context. Reconstructed theatre and music perfomances will provide a glimpse of cultural life in the camps. A travelling exhibition on the Imperial camp system will provide a broader and academically sound framework for local communities in the Commonwealth. Texts produced in the camps such as letters and camp newspapers will be translated from German into English. These give vivid descriptions of camp life but, so far, have not been accessible to the very communities who hosted the camps and therefore have a vital interest. These materials will also form part of educational activities with young people, as well as imprisoned offenders. How did First World War prisoners perceive their captivity and its location? What did they long for, what depressed them, and what did they laugh about? What cultural, physical and professional activities did they pursue to avoid the depressive 'barbed wire disease'? These are some of the manifold pathways to arouse interest not just in local history, but in the global conflagration of the First World War.
In order to guarantee sustainability of outcomes, the project will be institutionally embedded into the Heritage Hub in Hawick. This is the central archives service in the Scottish Borders and will host the new Internment Information and Research Centre at Hawick (IIRCH) which will be established as part of this proposal. This will be the only centre of its kind in mainland Britain and will be open to the general public and researchers from around the world. Its international advisory board will consist of scholars and public stakeholders and is indicative of the close cooperation between academia and the general public which is fostered by the project.
Why does the project matter? Britain is currently in transition. Ethnic and religious minorities are increasingly perceived as a threat, Brexit has made the gulf between Britain and continental Europe wider, and the future legal status of many immigrant groups is unclear. Relevant policy areas are in flux, and the project presents a wider historical and geographical perspective on them. It will create an awareness that immigration and multiculturality are not just a modern day phenomenon but date back to the pre-1945 period; it will show that restrictive state responses towards a perceived 'enemy in our midst' can be out of tune with the actual threat posed; and it will create concrete links with countries in Europe and beyond to stress shared heritage and commemoration.

Planned Impact

All pathways to impact are innovative, will draw in new audiences, and will have a transformative effect on public sector institutions and existing users. This is true for local, national and international audiences. All public sector partners, in particular Heritage Hub Hawick, will be connected through expertise and institutional transformation (IIRCH) to academic and non-academic communities beyond the Borders region. Hawick Museum will heavily draw on the project outcomes for curating its exhibitions, and all interested heritage organisations in the UK will have access to the primary material and curatorial expertise accumulated at the Heritage Hub and Manx National Heritage. Archaeology Scotland will benefit from the range of experts to inform its outreach activities with young people and adults. Educational work in prisons will open up a completely new thematic area to this user group. The interdisciplinary nature of the performance strand ensures that audiences who are naturally more drawn towards music and theatre will now be drawn into a new topic area. Translations of source texts will open up a substantial body of primary information to users who are not proficient in German and are, at the moment, completely shut out of this aspect of First World War history at their doorsteps. The exhibition, website and social media will communicate public engagement activities and project findings to a national and global audience. The exhibition in particular will connect communities with similar histories around the world. It will help these communities integrate their own experience into wider contexts. Further dissemination will be through existing infrastructures, i. e., public sector organisations with broad experience in public engagement. This is crucial for outcome sustainability beyond the lifetime of the project. Audience participation will be measurable through events attendance, website clicks, social media participation, IIRCH user figures, and post-event surveys as practiced by the Heritage Hub after the pilot study weekend.


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