The Molla Nasreddin Stories
By L. Fürstenow-Khositashvili
The stories of Molla Nasreddin are funny anecdotes and jokes of Turkish origin: witty, wise with subtle humour and pedagogic subtext. The one narrated by Awtandil Nalekrishvili, one of the many Georgian war prisoners kept in a German military camp in Mannheim in the year 1916 is no exception. The anecdote narrated by him is as funny as ever - nobody laughs though: neither now when one hears it almost one hundred years after its recording nor at the time it was narrated by a prisoner of war under coercion and recorded in a military camp.
The voice recording is in surprisingly good condition, one hears every word. It was meant to be made as good as possible. The leading German and Austrian scientists of the time: mostly ethnographers, anthropologists and linguists were set to create “the world archive” as they put it with the use of the advanced technology of the time: phonograms, gramophones, wax plates, voice recording media. The idea behind was to use the unique opportunity offered by the First World War -namely the German military camps as a living laboratory to research the human material detained there – the war prisoners. The “living museum” in a military camp offered unprecedented opportunities to research the languages, dialects, traditions of the various nationalities assembled in the camps in the proximity of the leading Universities of Austria and Germany. Research was made with precision and meticulous attention to detail. Sadly enough it was not only scientific ardour that inspired the researchers but also the perspective of presenting themselves as the summit of the culture nations' scientific elite. Apart from strictly scientific purposes the research strived to assemble knowledge about the future subjects of the empire for the sake of which the war was on and in the service of which science stood.
Military propaganda and ideological indoctrination of prisoners were common in the camps as well as meticulous procedures of taking bodily measurements of the detainees with the aim of classifying the human material according to racial characteristics. The soldiers from the French and English colonies used as cannon fodder were classified as the so-called “naturfolker” (nature folks standing on the lower stage of development as compared to the civilised European culture nations). The exotic “nature folks” presented by the Austrian and German propaganda as “man eaters” (Menschenfresser) were claimed to threat the entire existence of the European civilisation.
The muslim prisoners acquired particular status in the camps: special treatment, ritual washing facilities, possibility of practicing their religion. The authorities went as far as inspiring the captive muslims to lead Jihad against their colonisers. Provisional mosques were erected in camps to create the illusion of fair treatment of the muslim war prisoners although, as the representative of HU Lautarchiv stated, the conditions for religious practice were not satisfactory and the prisoners used to complain. The Halbmond lager presumably received its name (half-moon camp) from the mosque that was built there. The first mosque ever erected in Germany in 1915 was built in a military camp.
The prisoners from the-then Russian Empire – Georgians, Armenians, Tatars, those from the Baltic region were kept mostly in the Wünsdorf near Berlin, and in Weinberg lager. It's hard to estimate how many of these were detained there and what was their further destiny. The prisoners were presented as exotic and were for years the focus of interest for both public at large that came from Berlin to just gaze, for the scientists to conduct voice recordings, make three-dimensional bodily casts of the detainees and, last but not least, for German propaganda filmmakers.
The German colonial film company established in 1917 made a number of films using under coercion detainees from the colonies to play in propaganda films during the period of WWI. The films intended to boost the war spirit among the population. The fact that the actors were war prisoners in German camps and that the films themselves were made in the camps was never revealed to ordinary viewers.
The material about the First World War prisoners in the German camps is up to now almost 100 years after the war is very little known to German public, to say nothing of the public of the countries involved – the home countries of the prisoners. It has been the sincere belief and the aim of the ARE/Artistic Research Encounters while organising the exhibition cycle 100th Anniversary of the First World War to make this information available for public and to initiate a discourse about the events and the facts. Since most of the names, personal data of the detainees whose voices are recorded, are known - it might be possible to trace down, or in some way find out more about their destinies. It's common knowledge that, although the military camps praised themselves on fair treatment of their captives, the truth is that many prisoners never survived the camps because of diseases. Yet finding out information about at least one of the many prisoners would make the mission of this work-in progress project fulfilled. Up to now the private destinies of the majority of the captives are still an unresolved mystery.
Georgian, Armenian, Tatarian, Indian to name but a few – the languages spoken in military camps still speak to us thanks to the phonographic recordings. Maybe we ever find out more about those speaking.
The exhibitions cycle 100th Anniversary of the First World War/ Kriegsgeschichte(n) (War His-Story-Ies) is curated by the ARE/Artistic Research Encounters. The project is a Work-in-Progress show in the unique ambience of the exhibition space at the Alte Berliner Garnisonfriedhof – one of the oldest military cemeteries in the heart of Berlin. The project is realised with the friendly support of the Lautarchiv of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. The Vienna University is in the process of preparing a special edition of recordings of the Caucasian songs recorded in military camps. We are very thankful to researcher and expert on the issue, Dr. Britta Lange for letting us know about the existence of the archive and for providing us with the necessary information. For more on the exhibition and the project, please, see the web-pages:
The logic of the archive mostly runs contrary to that of the outside world, all the more so with the archives which the outside world knows so little about.