Pursuit of an 'Unparalleled Opportunity'
The American YMCA and Prisoner of War Diplomacy among the Central Power Nations
during World War I, 1914-1923.
by Kenneth Steuer

Media Index


This is an exterior view of the World's Alliance of YMCA's headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland in 1922. The Association would soon move from this building to new facilities on the Quai Wilson on Lake Geneva.
General Friedrich commanded the Department of Prisoners of War of the German Ministry of War during the First World War.
This is a general view of the prison camp at Ebersdorf bei Chemnitz which shows the POW barracks, the enclosed athletic field, and the camp fence. The Germans built this facility shortly before the war and incarcerated Allied prisoners here in 1914. Note the prisoners by the entrance of the building to the right.
A delegation of German doctors, French doctors and corpsmen, and a French nurse visit the hospital at Wetzlar. They stand in front of the hospital ward while prisoner patients stand behind a barbed wire fence. Red Cross inspections became a common practice in prison camps to ensure the best possible care of POW's under the care of the belligerent powers.
The members of the British Help Committee in the prison camp at Guestrow work in their well-stocked store room. The shelves of the room are full of packages for distribution to destitute British prisoners in the camp.
German doctors and Belgian prisoners treat French and Belgian prisoners of war in the camp infirmary in Ludwigsburg.
British prisoners, musicians in the Freigefangenenburger Orchestra (Free Prisoner Citizen Orchestra), pose on stage in front of a woods scene at the prison camp at Frankfurt-am-Main. The orchestra is well equippeed with stringed instruments, woodwinds, and percussion and is conducted by Herr Johak Shawski (an assumed name). Most of the musicians are identified with comical names in the caption.
Various Russian nationalities and a French prisoner of war (soldier with the wounded arm) pose with a German non-commissioned officer (center, standing in the back row).
General view of the prison camp at Hameln, highlighting the commandant's office (the first building on the right) and the prison school house (the building on the left). There is a decorative garden in front of the commandant's office and the wooden barracks of the camp can be seen in the background.
Sketch of a group of Russian officers at Torgau, enjoying the evening by drinking hot tea and wine and singing hymns.
This photograph provides a panoramic view of the prison camp at Ohrdruf. It clearly shows the prison camp barracks, the wire fence (with a German sentry on guard duty), and the Thueringian hills in the background.
French prisoners engage in a bowling game in the prison compound at Eichstaett. A crowd of spectators enjoy the competition, although a prisoner to the right is reading a book. In the background, POW clothing dries on wash lines next to one of the camp's stone buildings.
In the interior of the library at Erfurt, four prisoners stand reading books. Books line the shelves of the wall behind the prisoners while journals and magazeins line the wall on the right. Note the POW identification badges on the upper left arms of the prisoners.
The prison camp at Friedberg also featured a small Russian Orthodox chapel, which included an altar and six icons on the wall. The altar is framed with plants and is decorated with flowers.
Post card of the memorial to Allied prisoners buried in the cemetery near Giessen. The memorial features a statue of a woman, two funeral wreaths, and an inscription in Latin. The prisoners dedicated the memorial in 1917.
Bare-headed and kneeling Russian prisoners participate in an Orthodox divine service in the church in Wahn. There are no pews in the church to accommodate as many prisoners as possible for the service. The building was decorated with pine garlands and wreaths which suggests that this was a Yuletide service.
Russian prisoners in an Arbeitskommando turn over the top soil on the moorland of Loecknitz under the supervisiojn of a German guard. This labor detachment worked out of the prison camp in Stettin, which was less than two miles away. Allied prisoners replace German farmers, who had been called to arms, to support the empire's agricultural economy.
Russian prisoners of war study in a synagogue in the prison camp at Zwickau. Several sit at a table, reading the Talmud and several men standing in the rear of the synagogue wear prayer shawls. The synagogue is not as ornate as the Catholic chapel in the camp.
Russian prisoners, just captured at Novo Geogievski, have just arrived at the prison camp at Stralkowo and receive their first meal in the camp. Russian prisoners ladle out soup from large wooden barrels to the first group of POW's while others patiently await their turn to receive their rations.
The Catholic prisoners at Koenigstein also enjoyed a very ornate chapel for worship services. The altar features a painting of Christ above it with a communion rail at the base of the altar. The chapel features a chandelier, an eternal flame, two statues, pews, and two large ovens for heat in the winter.
Operating a large prison camp facility like Muenster required a large supply of resources and dependence on Allied labor. British and Russian prisoners saw trees and stack fire wood in huge piles in preparation for the onset of winter.
Russian POWs from Wasbek work on a labor detachment clearing brushwood and hauling down trees with ropes. Note the Russian prisoner high in the tree in the center of the photograph.
Russian and French prisoners work in the parcel post office in Koenigsbrueck preparing for the distribution of newly arrive parcels to the camp inmates.
A labor detachment of French prisoners assemble in the morning in the prison compound at Weitmoos in preparation to march off to work. The photograph was taken from the guard tower.
French prisoners line up with the recently-acquired parcels and Liebesgaben from their family and friends at home. German censors minutely searched these parcels for contraband before releasing them to the prisoners. The camp recently received considerable rain, given the size of the puddles in front of the building.
Karl Fries (1861-1943) sits in his office in this photograph; he helped found the World's Student Christian Federation and served as the General Secretary of the World's Alliance of YMCA's from 1921 to 1926.
German troops fire a salute for a dead prisoner at the end of a funeral in the Rastatt cemetery. The Germans buried POW's with full military honors.
Adolf Hoffmann was a member of the Executive Committee of the World's Committee of the World's Alliance of YMCA's in Geneva during World War I.
A Russian POW is about to be lowered into a grave for his final resting place at the prisoner of war cemetery at Koenigsbrueck. The cemetery is lined with fir trees and a priest officiates the service at the foot of the casket. The dead prisoner might have been a Pole as reflected by the Latin cross used in the ceremony.
Prince Max of Baden (1867-1929) strongly supported the American YMCA's efforts to establish the WPA program in Germany and served as the last Chancellor of imperial Germany. He is wearing a Badenese military uniform in this photograph.
A group of Russian prisoners rejoice upon hearing the news that the Soviet government had signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, which ended the war on the Eastern Front. Amid the dancing, one Russian prisoner wears a French helmet (at the left). They would soon realize that while the war had ended with the Germans, the Russian Civil War would delay their departure from Germany for as long as five years.
A Russian prisoner of war orchestra at the prison camp at Deutsch-Gabel poses with Austrian officers (standing to the left) in the prison compound in front of a decorated Christmas tree. There is a YMCA secretary in the center of the photograph (the civilian wearing the bowler hat). The Association provided POW's with musical instruments to form bands and orchestras to provide entertainment and support religious services in prison camps.
French and Belgian prisoners receive "care packages" outside of the barracks at Minden I. The parcels are distributed by POW Red Cross workers, laboring under the direction of German non-commissioned officers.
Members of the YMCA Committee at Braunau-am-Inn meet with an Association secretary to review operations in the camp. Most of the members of the Y Committee are Russian prisoners.
This poster depicts a German prisoner of war languishing behind prison bars in an Allied POW camp with a heart, representing family and friends in Germany, stands just outside the bars. This poster raised funds to send relief aid to German POW's and interned civilians in Allied prison facilities.
Serbian fiddlers strike up a tune in the prison compound at Nagymegyer to provide entertainment for the prisoners on their day off from work.
Interior of the chapel at the prison camp at Pforzheim, highlighting the altar and screen.
Muslim POW's learn to read and write in this YMCA school in the prison camp at Boldogasszonyfa in Hungary. Dual Monarchy officials encouraged the instruction of native languages among POW's, not only for the personal benefit of the prisoners, but also to weaken traditional political bonds in Eastern Europe. The Association, on the other hand, focused on the future welfare of these men and their families through educational programs.
English officers work in the prison laboratory in Guetersloh where they conduct research and medical tests using modern lab equipment. Prisoners could continue their research while in captivity and contribute to the health of the prisoners in the infirmary.
Serbian prisoners, including boys in the front row, practice their new reading skills in the elementary school at Boldogasszonyfa. Numbers and some of the letters of the alphabet in script and print are on the wall in the back of the room. The Association sought to make the time POW's spent in prison profitable in terms of teaching illiterates how to read and write.
French prisoners read books and journals in the library in the prison camp at Heustadt. The shelves of the library are well stocked with a wide range of books and journals. Reading was a critical diversion for many prisoners, either to continue their interrupted school studies or simply to learn how to read.
Max Rieser, a Swiss YMCA secretary who volunteered to support WPA operations in Austria-Hungary after the departure of the American secretaries in 1917, sits at the center of a table (in civilian clothing and bowler hat) surrounded by Russian prisoners of war at Reichenberg in Bohemia.
Photograph of Edgar MacNaughten (1882-1933), the American YMCA Senior WPA Secretary in Austria-Hungary from 1916 to 1917; MacNaughten became the Senior American Navy Secretary Overseas in 1918.
John Klanmann, a Swedish YMCA secretary who volunteered to serve as a WPA Secretary in Austria-Hungary after the departure of American secretaries from the Dual Monarchy in 1917, poses with a group of Russian boys at Wieselburg (Klanmann is in the center in the civilian clothing).
A World's Alliance secretary is compiling a list of books which will be sorted into circulating libraries and forwarded to prisoners assigned to labor detachments. The Association scoured Europe in search of pre-war books (which would receive faster approval from prison camp censors) in exotic languages (such as Russian, Serbian, and Georgian).
A Polish band performs in the prison compound at Plan. These Russian prisoners received their musical instruments from the American Red Triangle secretary. Austrian officials supported the establishment of nationalist organizations among the subject peoples of the Russian Empire in support of the Dual Monarchy's post-war goals of a Polish kingdom under Austro-German control.
Internees exercised by walking around the race course track at Ruhleben. This is a photograph of the grand stands and internees taking a stroll during the winter months.
An Austrian officer, General Schilling, examines each Polish Legionnaire prisoner in an unidentified Austrian prison camp prior to the POW's release in March 1918. The Austrians implemented a policy of nationalism regarding their conquests in the east and this examination was part of the repatriation process.
A music class is packed with French prisoners of war as an instructor explains a point on the chaulkboard. Many prisoners took advantage of the opportunity to learn how to read and write or explore topics that they had no time to study before their incarceration.
Heinrich Thommen, a Swiss YMCA secretary who volunteered to support WPA work in Bohemia in Austria-Hungary after the departure of the American WPA Secretaries, poses with the members of the Italian POW Welfare Committee at Heinrichsgruen in August 1918 (Thommen is sitting in the civilian clothing, second from the right).
French university students who ended their educations to join the army during the war were able to continue their studies at the French University at Schneidemuehl, with the support of the American YMCA. This course schedule reflects the wide range of courses (grammar, literature, math, physical sciences, business, industry, law, and music) offered at different levels in the prison camp. The Association worked with German professors in local universities to set up courses and provided students with certificates upon their successful completion of their courses.
Secretary Klanmann, in civilian clothing, stands in the center of a group of prisoners in the prison camp compound at Wieselburg in January 1918. The Swedish Red Triangle worker just gave a Christmas address to the POW's in front of the Christmas tree behind the men.
These Russian prisoners of war were members of the YMCA Band in a German prison which included brass, woodwind, and percussion sections. They are sitting on the stage of a theater where they performed during theatricals. An unidentified Red Triangle secretary sits behind the big bass drum in civilian attire.
Group photograph of the War Prisoners' Aid secretaries who served in Austro-Hungarian prison camps early in 1917. The Senior WPA Secretary in Austria-Hungary, Edgar MacNaughten, sits in the center of the group.
French prisoners compete in a soccer game in the compound of a German prison camp. Prisoners enjoyed playing soccer and it helped keep them in shape. A German non-commissioned officer serves as the referee.
A Russian Orthodox priest leads a burial service for a Russian prisoner at Spratzern in the prison cemetery. Secretary Hertig, a Danish YMCA secretary, stands next to the priest in civilian clothing. Behind the coffin on the hand truck is an Orthodox cross and the prison camp band, as well as Russian POW's paying their respects. Note the white identification badges on the prisoners' caps.
Actors participate in a scene from a French play in the theater at Koenigsbrueck. Note that the three female parts are played by male actors. The YMCA provided scripts and costumes to help prisoners stage performances and these plays provided the camp population with a welcome resprite from the monotony of daily prison camp life.
A group of Russian prisoners pose around a table outside of their barracks in the prison compound at Reichenberg. Max Rieser, a Swiss YMCA secretary, took the photograph in the Spring of 1918. An Austrian prison camp censor approved the photograph in April 1918, as attested by the censor stamp on the right.
British actors pose for a photograph in this scene from a play in the theater at Schweidnitz. Theatricals were a very popular form of entertainment for British prisoners of war in prison camps across Germany during the war.