Lockdown Lecture #1
The Mental Health Impact of First World War Internment

Delivered by Matthew Stibbe, Professor of Modern European History at Sheffield Hallam University and a specialist in First World War studies.

Civilian internment has been correctly identified as one of those aspects of twentieth-century ‘total war’ which underlined the growing power of the state over the lives of individual citizens and non-citizens. In particular, it played a central role in the wartime persecution of minorities, and often went hand in hand with other discriminatory measures, such as expropriation, deportation and expulsion. However, a less well-known aspect of the internment phenomenon is its links to the rise of international humanitarianism and the development of a transnational body of scientific knowledge about the physical and psychological impact of long-term captivity on prisoners of war and their families.

This talk focuses on the work of one medical expert, the Swiss Red Cross physician Adolf Lukas Vischer. His book on ‘barbed wire disease’, a label given to a set of mental health problems observed to some degree among all civilian internees during the First World War, marked an important turning point in humanitarian understanding of wartime captivity. This can be seen in two respects. First, Vischer characterised mental illness among long-term internees as normal rather than deviant or exceptional. And second he shifted attention from the spatial aspects of internment to the temporal dimension. The cause of ‘barbed wire disease’, he argued, lay less in the physical experience of confinement and more in the uncertainty about how long it would last. The talk concludes by considering the implications of these findings for our understanding of the mental health impact of (a) immigration detention and (b) covid-19 related lockdowns in the world we live in today.