Seven million people were imprisoned during the First World War. One hundred years later, the exhibition ‘7 Million’ focuses on their living conditions in the camps, the reality of their captivity, and the political issues they created for the states in conflict.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), partner of the exhibition, plays a major role in assisting prisoners. Prison Insider interviews Daniel Palmieri, historian at the ICRC.
No one was ready for this level of imprisonment
Prison Insider. The exhibition 7 Million! focuses on prisoners of the Great War. What can we learn from it?
Daniel Palmieri. First of all, we learn that captivity during the First World War was a mass phenomenon. Never were so many people imprisoned at once. This massification was the source of numerous problems for both the countries of captivity – because they often had to manage an outrageous number of prisoners – and for the captives’ countries of origin, who had to deal with public opinions, concerns about the fate of their people, and above all were subjected to intense propaganda and ‘fake news’ concerning the situations of the prisoners.
No one was ready for this level of imprisonment because it was expected to be a short war, and as such prisoners were expected to be released after a short period.
So it became necessary to adapt to the situation of a long war, including accommodating, feeding, caring for, and monitoring millions of prisoners. The situation was further complicated because the then international humanitarian law for prisoners of war (Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907) was incomplete and did not address the many problems associated with long-term captivity. However, prisoners were easily used as playing pieces in propaganda warfare, and, when a reprisal (actual or imagined) was announced, prisoners may have been subject to punishment.
In order to make up for the incomplete law, the ICRC urged the warring countries to reach a reciprocal agreement on the treatment of their prisoners. Bilateral agreements regarding the prisoners’ living conditions were reached, and this lasted throughout the war.
PI. What has changed about the work of the ICRC for prisoners in 100 years?
DP. The ICRC’s interest in prisoners of war can be traced as far back as the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–1. It established an International Intelligence Agency, responsible for facilitating the exchange and transmission of information about captives between warring countries, and the ICRC single-handedly set up a correspondence service between prisoners and their families.
This work was further developed in 1914–8 with the creation of a new International Agency for prisoners of war, aiming to help with not just the physical pains, but also the ‘moral pains’ (according to the ICRC), caused by captivity and separation from loved ones.
During the Great War, a further step was taken with the first visits of ICRC representatives to the prisoners’ camps, with reports drawn up following these inspections.
These visits made it possible to better evaluate the needs of prisoners and to react promptly in cases of prisoner abuse.
During these visits, the ICRC also had access for the first time to detained civilians, as not just soldiers were captured during the First World War. In addition, in its search for information on prisoners, the ICRC carried out missing person investigations – also for the first time – in the camps by interviewing colleagues of missing soldiers.
One of the ICRC’s current concerns is to ensure that the conditions of imprisonment are suitable
PI. The ICRC currently works in prisons in dozens of countries. What kind of challenges do you face?
DP. The primary challenges are the same as those we faced during the First World War. For example, identifying people deprived of liberty, providing them with assistance and protection, ensuring that their dignity is respected, facilitating contact between them and their loved ones, and fighting to solve their disappearances.
One of the ICRC’s current concerns is to ensure that the conditions of imprisonment are suitable. For example, over the last few decades we have worked on various forms of sanitation engineering to separate drinking and wastewater flows. Among the 2000 prisons visited by the ICRC every year, many do not have the technical and/or financial means to deal with sanitary problems. Yet, we all know that this can cause epidemics among the weak, and in people living in overcrowded and difficult situations. To improve the daily lives of prisoners, the ICRC is also working on pilot projects focusing on improving prisoners’ food by working with prison authorities to create vegetable gardens or self-sufficient market gardens.