This Teaching Practice was created by Dennis Röder

Dennis Röder, M. A., teaches English and History at the „Gymnasium Athenaeum“ in Stade, Northern Germany. He also works in the field of teacher training in Lower Saxony, Germany.

Inspiration

This teaching practice was inspired by a desire to integrate both local and global approaches to the teaching of a topic – World War I – traditionally seen through national or Eurocentric lenses in most textbooks and teaching aids. It focuses on a “forgotten” piece of WWI history, namely that of the nearly 9 million Prisoners of War  (PoWs) as well as the role of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). 

Introducing the teaching practice

The ICRC has a dedicated website on its efforts during WWI. The website can be freely accessed in English and French, https://grandeguerre.icrc.org/

The website contains a well of source material, most notably “index cards” with basic information on individual PoWs, postcards containing pictures of camps in France, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Germany, United Kingdom, British Empire and Italy, as well as accounts from ICRC delegates, letters sent to the ICRC, notices of death and other historical records.

The sources present teachers with several opportunities at highlighting the global and local aspects of WWI history and can complement traditional textbook narratives on the War. Allowing students to work directly with primary sources, the database also presents an appropriate challenge for students to find the required information and analyse, compare and contrast the sources they can find. 

In working with these sources, presenting a brief outline of the history of the Red Cross Movement and its global connections will be necessary. The ICRC in itself is often neglected in textbooks on WWI. Founded in 1863, the Red Cross was part of an internationalist pacifist movement originating in Geneva, Switzerland. The pacifist ideas that the movement promoted soon spread to the rest of Europe and beyond, with books published by the organisation becoming international bestsellers. As a result, the ideas of the Red Cross spread to places such as the Ottoman Empire (the Red Crescent) and Japan (where a local chapter was founded in 1879). The major turning point for the ICRC as a global movement was however WWI, when there were nearly 9 million PoWs across the world.  

From local to global

With such a large database there is much potential to connect local history – even family histories –  with global history through looking at these sources. Exploring the stories of individual PoWs can be an exciting way to showcase the local and global implications of WWI. In sharing his teaching practice, Dennis Röder pointed specifically to the example of a sailor captured near San Francisco  in the USA. The sailor in question was from a small village outside of where Dennis himself is teaching, bringing this history closer to the local setting of his students. 

Applying these teaching resources

The rich source materials from the ICRC present much potential for use in history teaching. Working with the ICRC sources and the forgotten history of the PoWs will allow students to question common national narratives on WWI, including periodization, war theatres, places and people. It also allows for the development of “glocal” historical questions and case studies by looking at the biographies and backgrounds of the PoWs – a case in point being the German soldier from a village near Dennis Röder’s school who was captured in the American Pacific. 

The variedness of the sources present a clear use as a tool to contrast with more traditional sources on WWI, commonly found in school textbooks. As such they can prompt questions on, for example, why certain groups are neglected in school books or indeed why the Red Cross itself is often left out of the narrative. 

The sources can also be a starting point to discuss and discover some concrete effects of colonialism. For instance, students will discover that among German PoWs you would also find prisoners from Germany’s African colonies, such as Togoland and Cameroon. In the source materials, one can then find reports from delegates arguing for their equal treatment to “regular” German PoWs. 

History Lesson Ideas using the ICRC archives

1. Compare and contrast the accounts of prisoners about the daily life in the camp with the reports of ICRC delegates. What was life really like in the camps? In this way students may discover that life in these camps were not always as easy or bright as some of the visual sources might otherwise indicate. Use the index cards to create biographies of specific PoWs. Searching through the ICRC index cards, providing some key data on each prisoner, students can be tasked with drafting a couple of biographies illustrating the local and global connections of WWI. Students can also draw comparisons between the delegate reports and their view on the life of POWs and reports used for national propaganda.

2. Encourage speculation on how and why PoWs ended up in their particular places and situations. Consider for instance the below image from a French camp located in Morocco. The caption reads: “Our delegate in conversation with the German head gardener at the experimental gardens”. Was the PoW perhaps a gardener in his civilian life? Can students find other sources about the camp in question, pointing perhaps to other realities of camp life?

3. A tool to discover the global aspect of WWI. With traditional narratives on WWI often neglecting theatres of war outside of Europe, as well as colonial contributions to the warring armies, the ICRC sources present many opportunities for students to discover the ways in which the Great War affected the wider world. Consider for instance the below source from a Japanese camp, with a list of the German and Austrian prisoners. How did a German soldier end up in a PoW Camp in Japan in 1917? Given the number of soldiers from the colonies, what did it mean to be classified as “French”, “British” or “German” in this context? How were these colonial soldiers treated and how did they experience their time in the PoW Camps?

4. Map the camps. The ICRC website contains a map of all the camps where their delegates were sent to report. Students can immediately contrast the map with the maps seen in textbooks. What are the differences? Which areas are included in the ICRC map but not the textbook maps on WWI? Why do we think this is the case? 

5. The Nobel Peace Prize. The ICRC won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1917 (the only one handed out during the War) “for the efforts to take care of wounded soldiers and prisoners of war and their families.” A task for students could be to a) draft a speech accepting the prize, highlighting why it was important and deserved, thereby passing historical judgements from the viewpoint of WWI contemporaries and from that of today or b) research if there were other organisations or individuals who were equally deserving of the Prize during WWI.

  • Target age group: 13+  
  • Prerequisites for this activity:
    • Some knowledge of WWI; basic English or French skills for navigating the ICRC website.
  • Format: Group work or in plenary classroom.
  • Duration: 1-2 lessons
  • Teacher preparation: 
    • 2-3 hours: get involved with webpage and history of ICRC
    • choose appropriate examples for your learning group
  • Application and adaptation
    • This practice is well suited to  adaptation across countries. A fair amount of preparation would however be needed in order to find the right sources relating to your local setting within the ICRC database. 
    • As an online database, the ICRC website on PoWs is suitable both for online and in person lessons
    • Teachers may want to provide students to sets of sources or introduce them to certain databases/platforms, such as archives. By doing so, students are more supported in their research and are less likely to get overwhelmed easily. However, this guideline is only designed as a stepping stone for learning to independently research.

Useful tips and additional reading 

  • Try to make the initial research phase accessible for students, since it can be overwhelming. E.g: Make a pre-selection of sources/index cards of PoWs, selecting perhaps some from their city/region/country. 
  • Consider combining with other online sources on WWI, such as Historiana’s source collection “Colonial Contributions to WWI”
  • ICRC website on the Great War: https://grandeguerre.icrc.org/
  • Khan, Daniel-Erasmus: Das Rote Kreuz. Geschichte einer humanitären Weltbewegung. München 2013
  • Oltmer, Jochen (Hg.): Kriegsgefangene im Europa des Ersten Weltkrieges. Paderborn, 2006
  • Riesenberger, Dieter: Das Internationale Rote Kreuz 1863-1977. Göttingen 1992
  • Röder, Dennis: A Forgotten Global History of WWI: Prisoners of War and the Role of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Ideas for the History Classroom, in: JHEC Yearbook 38 (2017), S. 197-214

Advantages

  • Highly valuable learning outcomes: Challenge traditional narratives, supplementing textbooks on a largely “forgotten” side of WWI history making a connection with the global history of the war. 
  • Does not require any advanced equipment or programs and can be done in person as well as online.
  • Combines relatable personal stories with fundamental and complex historical (and social) concepts.
  • Allows students direct access to working with primary sources, gaining key skills in source analysis and critical thinking. 

Limitations

  • The ICRC database is very large and may seem overwhelming both to students and teacher. 
  • The lesson ideas would translate well to various European countries, but would however work best in curricula where WWI is given ample space.

*This text was written by Andreas Holtberget on the basis of a presentation by Dennis Röder in January 2022. This was conducted as part of the collection of teaching practices for the Critical History  project with co-funding of the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union. 

The European Commission’s support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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