Behind the Wire. Aston University historian generates public understanding and empathy for minorities in wartime

Why is this research needed?

When nations clash in wars, those civilians finding themselves in enemy territory are in trouble. During the First World War, one million so called ‘enemy aliens’ were interned by combatant empires on a global scale. This was often linked to large-scale deportations between countries and continents. The memory of these ‘collateral’ victims of the Great War has all but vanished as they did not fit into twentieth century ideals of heroism and sacrifice. ‘Behind the Wire’ recovers and reshapes this memory, creating empathy for civilian minorities of all nationalities in wartime. Internment and deportation are still practiced by many countries today, including Britain. 

The researcher

Stefan Manz is Professor of Global History and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. His research interests include migration studies, the First World War, and British-German relations. Stefan also holds a Research Fellowship in the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. 

The research process

The project focuses on civilian internment camps in the British Empire during the First World War, holding 50,000 mostly German, but also Austro-Hungarian, Turkish and Bulgarian nationals who had settled in Empire locations before 1914. Together with Professor Panikos Panayi (De Montfort University), Professor Manz received funding from the Gerda Henkel Foundation to co-author a research monograph for Oxford University Press entitled Enemies in the Empire. Civilian Internment in the British Empire during the First World War. 

During his research Stefan uncovered moving stories about uprooted individuals and disintegrated communities. He found artefacts and texts produced by inmates. Letters from wives and children talking about social isolation, economic hardship and deportation as the family breadwinner was locked away. He also found evidence of vibrant cultural activities behind the wire such as theatre performances and educational classes. During his original research he made a point of collecting material that lends itself to public communication. He collaborated with partners in communities throughout the Commonwealth and the United States to recover the memory of their respective local camps. 

An AHRC impact grant allowed Professor Manz to communicate this material to the general public on a global scale. The global hub of activities is the newly-established Internment Research Centre in the Scottish Borders Archive, Hawick. The adjacent Stobs camp was the biggest camp in mainland Britain during the First World War. Professor Manz’s research showed that today the site is of global archaeological significance: it is the best preserved site of a WWI internment camp in the world. This information has found its way into public materials about the region.


Project partners have included curators, archaeologists, theatre producers, local historians, translators and teachers, all co-producing imaginative pathways to impact with Stefan and a team of other academics led by him. Pathways included a travelling exhibition shown in public spaces in Britain, Ireland, Canada, South Africa, Barbados and the United States; recreated theatre plays originally performed behind the wire; large-scale digitisation and translation of German original sources into English; and educational resources for primary schools. Further funding from Research England allowed for the production of a Virtual Reality Experience about Fort Napier Camp in South Africa. 

Interest in the activities has been overwhelming. The three theatre performances in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Hawick were all sold out with a combined audience of 280. The exhibition has been seen by 15,000 visitors worldwide, with more showings planned. Education packs are now used in Scottish and South African schools. The Virtual Reality Experience is shown in KwaZulu-Natal Museum and used for demonstrations and workshops in various countries.

The activities have both recovered and reshaped the way communities remember their own local history and its place in the First World War. Artefacts and texts found by Manz and public partners are now on display in museums, together with local and global contextualisation. Archive and library collections have been complemented and reorganised, and the sites of former camps have been identified and brought into public consciousness.

‘Behind the Wire’ constructs transnational patterns of remembrance. This form of memorialisation is different from - and critical of - nationally demarcated memorialisation patterns such as the 2014 poppy installation in the Tower of London. ‘Behind the Wire’ generates empathy and understanding for those civilian minorities who found (and find) themselves in enemy territory during conflicts. A typical participant comment after a study activity was: ‘Everyone was a mother’s son regardless’. Other visitors mentioned that they are now more aware that the important history at their doorstep needs to be preserved. The reconciliatory nature of the project came through during the big opening event of the Internment Research Centre in Hawick. In his opening speech, the German General Consul to Scotland stressed in his speech that the centre will ‘actively contribute to an even better understanding among the general public of Great Britain and Germany.’ 

Why is this research relevant today?

There is an urgency for this story to be told as today, a century later, many civilians who have not been legally tried for a crime experience similar suffering: in camps for Uighur muslims in China, in refugee camps across Europe, in Guantánamo Bay – or as Windrush-deportees from Britain. Researching the First World War allows us to investigate the roots of this policy and its devastating long-term effects on minorities, local communities and individuals on a global scale.