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le camp d'internement 1914-1919
Le camp d’internés 1914-1919

Dieser Internet-Auftritt verfolgt das Ziel, möglichst viele Informationen über das Internierungslager auf der Ile Longue zusammenzustellen, damit Historiker und Nachkommen der Internierten sich ein Bild von den Realitäten dieses bisher wenig bekannten Lagers machen können - nicht zuletzt auch, um die bedeutenden kulturellen Leistungen der Lagerinsassen zu würdigen.

Le but de ce site est de prendre contact avec les familles des prisonniers allemands, autrichiens, hongrois, ottomans, alsaciens-lorrains... qui ont été internés, pendant la Première Guerre mondiale, dans le camp de l’Ile Longue (Finistère).

Hermann von Boetticher, a German poet, on Île Longue, the place of his “external” captivity
Article published on 21 July 2016
last modification on 23 July 2016

by Sabine, Ursula
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Translation: Sabine Herrle

Among other things, it is his imprisonment in the internment camp Île Longue that Hermann von Boetticher describes in his book “Experiences of freedom and imprisonment” (“Erlebnisse aus Freiheit und Gefangenschaft”, published in 1919 by the renowned German publisher Fischer). The following notes regarding von Boetticher’s life and work in the camp Île Longue are based on his personal account as well as information gathered from the prisoners’ weekly “Die Insel-Woche“.

In September 1914, like most of the imprisoned passengers of the Dutch steamship “Nieuw Amsterdam“ (Holland-Amerika-Lijn), Hermann von Boetticher was housed in Fort Crozon, due to lack of accommodation sufficiently large enough for such a high number of prisoners. Conditions there turned out to be so terrible that after three weeks, the prisoners were moved to the discarded cruiser “Charles Martel” that had hastily been converted to house them.

Early November 1914, the new camp on Île Longue was constructed. Workers were recruited among the prisoners on the “Charles Martel”. “Breathing a sigh of relief” [1] Hermann von Boetticher volunteered with a sense, or rather a fleeting illusion, of freedom. The prisoners, mostly Austro-Hungarians (among them Serbs, Romanians, Ruthenians, Poles, Bosnians, Dalmatians, Croats and Slovenes), were packed into the completed buildings in groups of 60 persons each. “Barrack number 5 is full of adventurers. In this barrack, there I sleep.“ [2]

Hermann von Boetticher first helped in constructing the barracks. When a sufficient number had been completed, the other prisoners housed on the “Charles Martel” were moved to the camp. “My former acquaintances “avoid looking me straight in the eye because I had left them, without saying a word, without saying good-bye, just like that.“ [3] Quite soon, the internees formed different groups. “Clubs formed as well as classes: the very posh, the posh, the rich, the wealthy, the petty bourgeois and craftsmen, the proletarians, those without any rights, the poor.“ [4]

But which of those groups did he belong to?

Although work was not compulsory for civilian internees, Hermann von Boetticher continued to help constructing roads, laying out water pipes, working in the quarry. He continued bunking in barracks No. 5, crammed there with a bunch of rather wild and rough individuals. Hermann von Boetticher describes experiences and encounters which are heart-warming and disturbing at the same time. There were men unable to cope with imprisonment, who fought each other, pestered him, or challenged his position. These impressions, together with the conditions of his imprisonment, proved to be increasingly stressful. In early 1915, a dispute with a young man he actually preferred over the others and whom he had dubbed “four-eyes” almost turned physical and triggered a collapse. Hermann von Boetticher was moved to the infirmery housed in a building in the old fort’s moat at the tip of Île Longue peninsula.

Help came from an unexpected corner. “The commander of the camp had had his biblical beard shaved off, which made him look almost modern. He asked me if I would like to work as his secretary. I politely declined but dared to ask him if he might assign me a private corner in one of the dozens of empty barracks. Having sometime made the acquaintance of some of my relatives somewhere in Germany and being inclined to discuss Bismarck, Alsace-Lorraine and German-French relations with me amiably, he deemed it difficult to refuse and, in the course of some regrouping, assigned me a corner in barracks 17.“ [5]

Old friends aided Hermann von Boetticher furnishing this corner: “It features a crude deal table, the parts of which had been stolen and nailed together by ’Schwab’, a friend from barracks 5, and a bench made of abandoned boards, acquired the same way, by night. Two blankets partition it off from the rest of the barracks.“ [6]

This would be the place where he spent his time writing and waiting. In early summer he wrote the poem “A war-time turn of the year on Île Longue“ (Kriegsjahreswende auf Ile-Longue). This poem illustrates the mood of many internees in the course of their first year of imprisonment. They felt both isolated and powerless, being far away from home and without any possibility to alter the course of fate. This work was so well received that by spring 1918 – long after Hermann von Boetticher had been released from the camp – it was selected to be published in a portfolio.

Kunstdruck: Gedicht Kriegsjahreswende auf Ile-Longue
Art print: A war-time turn of the year on Île Longue

Hermann von Boetticher would experience hard times: “I am sitting on my bench in my corner, writing ceaselessly. I have stopped feeling alive, I have stopped reading the papers, I ignore the newest telegrams as if they were the stalest ghost stories.“ [7] He has almost stopped eating and writes continuously until 4 pm. “Then I start walking along the barbed wire for some hours, always going in circles around the barracks. But I am aware of neither the barbed wire nor of my state as a prisoner. The most vivid feeling of a strong inner spirit has seized me. White-bearded Dr. Kleinschmidt from Hamburg tries to step in my path and asks me, smiling, if ’I had got it bad again’, but this time, he cannot stop me, nobody and nothing can, I have stopped “to be my own master”. All of a sudden the great Frederick the Great loomed in front of me, dwarfing both my weak novellas, echoes of the years in New York, and recent drafts of dramas.

“Now all I can do is pray: Lord of my soul, inspire me and give me strength!“ [8]

Hermann von Boetticher gained strength and started writing his new work “Frederick the Great” (Friedrich der Große) In the meantime more and more prisoners were housed in barracks 17 and life around him became increasingly tumultuous. According to Hermann von Boetticher, his new room-mates were more inclined to enjoy life, for example Josef aus dem Dahl, a true bonvivant. In the theatre, he was cast to play portly characters and almost every day, together with a chef, he would “stage“ a formal dinner or supper, sometimes accompanied by chamber music. [9]

On August 22nd, 1915, Hermann von Boetticher even participated in a literary afternoon on the subject of “Poets of our times – Detlef Freiherr von Liliencron“, organized by Dr. Brebeck. (There is no trace of Dr. Brebeck in the camp’s files, but his name does appear in the “Insel-Woche” (the prisoners’ weekly). Hermann von Boetticher mentions him several times in his book.) [10] The “Insel-Woche” is full of praise for this literary afternoon: “In a detailed and colourful speech, Herr von Boetticher introduced his audience to the life and works of our great poets. He was followed by Dr. Brebeck , who recited Liliencron’s poems in a passionate and expressive way.“ [11]

By September 1st, 1915, Hermann von Boetticher had already completed the first three acts of his play “Frederick the Great” and organized a public reading. A short article in the “Insel-Woche” describes this event: “The author read the first three acts of his play “Frederick the Great“ (The Crown Prince) to a rather large audience and was rewarded with lively applause. We certainly are in no position to form a final judgment until having listened to acts four and five, which will be read Wednesday next week (September 8th) at 1:30 am. Due to the suspense and the interest the public has shown towards this work we may full well expect the lecture hall to be as crowded as last Wednesday. This second part will probably be read by Dr. Brebeck.“ [12]

However, Dr. Brebeck fell ill and the reading was postponed for a week. In all likelihood he was in no position to read by this date either, as the Insel-Woche does not mention him as reciting. On September 15th Hermann von Boetticher himself presented the complete first part of his play, “The Crown Prince”, to his audience. Issue 13 of the “Insel-Woche” dedicates a complete column to a review. The author of this review enthused: “In our minds’ eyes, Prussia’s past became alive, but not by the poet merely copying the language of the past, but by presenting the past as authentically real.“ The article finished by complimenting the author: “We cannot but congratulate the author and express our wishes that the work will be highly successful on the stage. The heart-felt applause shows the author the audience’s thankfulness and appreciation.“ [13]

In the fall of 1915, Hermann von Boetticher continued writing his play, although circumstances would become slightly more difficult. Dr. Brebeck had taken up his lectures on “Poets of our times“, but was ridiculed by some internees (probably due to his very dramatic recitals). This in turn made Hermann von Boetticher submit a text to the weekly in which he dealt with this issue: “There are those people who are able to relate to the work of another person only by showing off their own wit, which, in most of the cases, amounts to showing some misunderstanding on their part. Then there are those people who do not care about all this and accept both ridicule and ignorance on top of their work. Many people belong to that first category, Dr. Brebeck certainly belongs to the second.“ This statement was followed by a description of the lecture in which Hermann von Boetticher both portrayed and acknowledged Dr. Brebeck’s work and way to recite. [14]

In December 1915, the “Insel-Woche” published an extraordinary article by Hermann von Boetticher: “Imprisonment or about the Power of Reality.” It surprised and upset some internees – probably also due to its expressionist language. Maybe some of the businessmen felt attacked by the statement that “inner freedom arises from the ruins of our fast-moving and destructive times, the only new among all the old, after having been forgotten and buried ten times by the pioneers of the German merchants, of whom so many are amongst us, before venturing out.“ [15]

Transcription of the article “Imprisonment or about the Power of Reality”.

At the beginning of December 1915, the second part of his play, “The King”, was finished and on the 15th, Hermann von Boetticher could present the complete work in the lecture hall of the canteen. Dr. Brebeck read the second part.

Anzeige in der Insel-Woche Nr. 25 vom 12. Dezember 1915
Announcement in the Insel-Woche, issue 25, December 12th, 1915

An acquaintance of Hermann von Boetticher submitted a positive review to the “Insel-Woche” The next issue of the weekly stated: “Immediately after the recital of Hermann von Boetticher’s play “Frederick the Great“ a review was submitted by Headmaster (Rektor) Mikisch. Unfortunately it could not be published in this issue due to a lack of space. We will publish it in the Christmas issue...“ [16] However, the editors did not publish it, neither in the next nor in any of the following issues.

Hermann von Boetticher comments on this in his memoirs: “Summer has long passed, fall is over – I have separated the character of Frederick from myself and introduced it to the audience in the canteen’s lecture room. This antagonized those who were not present.
Their number grew after three lectures featuring Dr. Brebeck citing Liliencron, Dehmel and Rimbaud and French literature in general.
After the worthy “father” of the prisoners, headmaster Mickisch [17], submitted a review of “Frederick” to the camp’s paper, emissaries of the camp’s ”intelligentsia” who announced to the editors that they would boycott the paper if this positive review will be printed and published on Sunday. Simultaneously, a further humiliation at the hands of ’Karlchen’ is being prepared.” [18]

He was overcome by a deep depression. He would brood for hours at a time. “Nightmares weigh me down like mountains and keep me from sleeping, forcing my eyes open, and crushing my heart and bosom. I try to find solace in the healing lyrics of Silesius, but in vain. Among all the ordeals man may face, those caused by his fellows are the worst.” [19]

His body revolted, too – and he fell ill with dysentery. One night he rushed out of the barracks and fell down, unconscious. A doctor diagnosed “a disorder of the heart” and “fever” and had him moved to the infirmary. Hermann von Boetticher gradually recovered.
“The change of surrounding has upliftet my mind, but the ongoing captivity looms ahead with trepidation. … I receive letters from friends, from home as well as from battle-fields. Visions of a rich active life are rising up before me and this adds to my humiliation.

Then, amidst all this sorrow, a man appears, unexpectedly drifting into my life out of nowhere. He is called Halven [20] and, like me, is a son of the land between the Elbe and Weser rivers. … He is of a caring and considerate disposition and strives for justice.” [21]

In a demure and discreet manner, this new neighbour of his furnished the corner they would share from now on and lovingly saw to the needs of the delicate poet. “We do not talk much: hailing from two different worlds we are thrust on each other far too powerfully. But thanks to Halven’s tactfulness this physical closeness slowly turns into an inner friendship.” [22]

However, being imprisoned continued to undermine Hermann von Boetticher’s psyche and physical well-being.
“Imprisonment has reached a point of outward indifference and inner damage which are linked by funny coincidences and gross incidents alike.” [23]

In spring 1916, a delegation of French and Swiss doctors toured the camp to select sick internees for an exchange of prisoners in Switzerland. Hermann von Boetticher and two of his friends were among the lucky 110: “Dr. Brebeck burst along the boulevard like a torch, exclaiming ’Mad!’ … Headmaster Mickisch approaches silently and clutches my hand without saying a word: he had been selected, too.” [24]

According to Hermann von Boetticher [25] the chosen few could leave Île Longue on Easter Day: “Our ship had already ventured far into the bay and the blazing coastline of the island was but faintly beckoning when a victorious feeling takes hold of my heart: I have loved Île Longue, the place of my external captivity.” [26]

Notes :

[1Hermann von Boetticher, Erlebnisse aus Freiheit und Gefangenschaft, p. 93

[2Ibid, p. 107

[3Ibid, p.118

[4Ibid

[5Ibid, p. 125

[6Ibid

[7Ibid, p. 128

[8Ibid, p. 129

[9Ibid, pp. 129/130

[10According to the “Passenger Arrival Lists” kept on Ellis Island and files of the ICRC, this has to be Dr. phil. Wilhelm Brebeck. In December 1913, Dr. Brebeck had boarded the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria, one of HAPAG’s fast steamers. He returned aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam. In all likelihood he was transferred to Teufen, Bad Sonder, Switzerland, on April 23rd, 1916 – at the same time as Hermann von Boetticher. However a second document exists that lists his name for a transferral to the mental hospital of Waldhaus in Chur, Switzerland, on March 22nd, 1917.

[11Insel-Woche issue No.9 (August 12th, 1915) and No.10 (August 29th, 1915)

[12Insel-Woche issue No. 11 (September 5th, 1915)

[13Insel-Woche issue No. 13 (September 9th, 1915

[14Insel-Woche issue No. 17 (October 17th, 1915)

[15Insel-Woche issue No. 25 (December 12th, 1915)

[16Insel-Woche issue No. 26 (December 19th, 1915)

[17Otto Mickisch, born 1870, war volunteer, transferred to Switzerland April 23rd, 1916

[18Erlebnisse aus Freiheit und Gefangenschaft, p. 133

[19Ibid, p. 136

[20Wilhelm Theodor Halven, born September 18th, 1881, merchant, passenger of the Nieuw Amsterdam, 31.12.1916 Lyon, transferred to Switzerland April 23rd, 1916

[21Erlebnisse aus Freiheit und Gefangenschaft, p. 139

[22Ibid, p. 141

[23Ibid

[24Ibid, p. 151

[25According to the documents of the camp, the date of Hermann von Boetticher’s departure to Switzerland is April 5, 1917. This information is most probably not correct. Several reasons suggest that he was released on April 23, 1916. That day was Easter Sunday. Otto Mickisch, who went with him, was released on April 23, 1916. According to the index of the camp, many other internees were sent to the general investigation to Lyon and then to Switzerland that day. Last but not least a transferral in April 1917 would mean that Hermann von Boetticher omitted a complete year when writing his memoirs.

[26Erlebnisse aus Freiheit und Gefangenschaft, p. 152


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