GREY - Memoirs of a Prisoner of War in France 1916 to 1920
GREY - Memoirs of a Prisoner of War in France 1916 to 1920
Help publish the memoirs of a soldier during the Great War - a story forgotten for 100 years! Discovered 2013 - published 2017?
Help publish the memoirs of a soldier during the Great War - a story forgotten for 100 years! Discovered 2013 - published 2017? Read more
About this project
LAST WEEK - PLEASE SUPPORT NOW!
What is left of someone roughly fifty years after his death?
In most cases next to nothing.
Sometimes, traces of someone who is long forgotten, reemerge.
In this case, these traces made their reappearance during an internet auction:
In July 2013, I bought a wad of papers discovered in an attic, enticingly entitled:
“War Diary. Memoirs of War 1916 – 1920; typed manuscript”.
This Kickstarter is launched in order to publish an amazing story in English. A fate that was forgotten for 100 years!It´s the story of Otto Mehnert who was captured by the French on 24 October 1916 in the course of the defense of Fort Douaumont.
In line with his Christian and humanitarian fundamental convictions, he soon began jotting down notes for publication while he was still in captivity, but “not with the aim of sowing more seeds of hatred, but to set an example of what to avoid in future.”
There were about 9 million prisoners of war in World War One - they are the "Forgotten of History". GREY will bring one story back to life!
I do need your help!
Please do also see the updates for further information.
Mehnert´s story in a nutshell (Spoiler!):
Around August / September 1916, Mehnert was sent to the Verdun front and was soon captured by the French on 24 October 1916 in the course of the defense of Fort Douaumont. Thus he escaped the deadly fate of hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the “charnel house of Verdun”. In a form of retaliation for crimes against French prisoners, Mehnert was first made to work close to the front in support of the French Army effort. Following further service far away from the front lines, he saw the end of the war as a laborer at a railroad yard in Central France. His hopes of finally being allowed to go home were crushed, when he was made to labor on the former battlefields of the Champagne region as part of the reparation payments. Mehnert made an unsuccessful attempt to escape over a distance of over 100 km and was sentenced to 30 days’ solitary confinement.
In January 1920, the repatriation of German prisoners of war from France began. Following an attempted escape Mehnert was an inmate in a penal camp at the time and was not released until March 1920.
In line with his Christian and humanitarian fundamental convictions, Mehnert began jotting down notes for publication while he was still in captivity, but “not with the aim of sowing more seeds of hatred, but to set an example of what to avoid in future.”
As a matter of fact, I was intending to study and make use of these documents at a later date – but then the story fascinated me so much that I decided to publish the manuscript immediately.
Although the Internet facilitated much of my research, what I was still missing was personal impressions; moreover, if at all possible, I wanted to verify Mehnert’s narration, some of which sounded quite incredible.
So, in 2014, I travelled to France on four separate occasions. In addition to Verdun and Souilly – the first two stages of his captivity – I travelled to the Champagne region, where Mehnert had been employed in clean-up operations after the war, 100 km along his route of escape to the border of Luxembourg and, finally, to Normandy, to examine his prisoner of war file in the archives of the “Service historique de la Défense” (SHD).
In many places, no visible traces of the war remained and especially of Mehnert’s time as a prisoner of war, but in some places time seemed to have stopped. I have captured some of these impressions for the chapter “Traces”.
At the time of my trip to Caen, the International Red Cross in Geneva made the World War One prisoner of war files accessible for Internet research. This enabled me to complete my research and finish the book. It contains Mehnert’s memoirs, as well as the results of my research.
The publication of Mehnert´s work in e-book form in December 2014 was followed by a paperback, with its revised and expanded appendix in May 2015.
During my research in France, I was often asked if the book will also be published in English. Encouraged by the positive response, especially in France and Great Britain, I now want to publish an edition in English.
Unfortunately there are not too many people who understand German.This is why I have started this campain at Kickstarter.
The "Musée de la Voie Sacrée" in Souilly has already quoted from Mehnert´s book to decribe what the situation was like in the Souilly POW Camp in 1916.
“I will note all this down in shorthand, the French can’t read that. Maybe I will be able to describe this cruelty and its physical and psychological impact sometime. Not in order to incite more hatred, but to set an example of how not to do things in future!”
- Otto Mehnert in 1919, while still in captivity -
Otto Mehnert’s intention in writing down his memoirs was clearly defined at the start of his record in 1919: he was concerned with humanity and with the relations that people had with each other – a concern that has lost none of its importance to this day.
Currently, available literature on World War One contains almost no substantial information on this topic. Although captivity as a prisoner of war in Europe in World War I was a “mass phenomenon” affecting between eight and nine million men, these people have become “the forgotten both in memory and historiography”.
I hope you can see, my interest is not to make as much profit as possible, but to promote Mehnert´s experiences - therefore the book will be reasonably priced in order to "spread the word".
Prisoners of War: Treatment & Mistreatment
Dr. Heather Jones, Associate Professor, Associate Professor of International History, LSE (Department of International History London School of Economics and Political Science) talks to RTÉ's David McCullagh.
Dr. Heather Jones is not part of this project.
The paperback will have approximately 280 pages and will be printed in black and white.
It will have roughly 70 remarks with explanations, research results and everything the reader needs in order to understand the historical background of the book. The French perspective is included, as well as Mehnert´s German point of view.
In addition to Mehnert´s memoirs there will be a chapter called "Traces" that shows pictures I took during my research in France.
Followed by historical pictures of German POW and a chapter that presents Mehnert´s CV I was able to reconstruct.
The title of the book - GREY - derives from a poem written by Mehnert in 1919 after having been in solitary confinement (30 days) for his attempted escape.
This Kickstarter project will end 1st of March 2017 -
exactly 97 years after Mehnert was set free -
having been a prisoner of war for 1224 days.
You can find further information about the book here: www.pg-grau.de.
Until now this website is in German, but I will start an English version soon. If successfully funded, the book will be printed via self-publishing.
So far, I do already have the first pages of the professional translation into English. With your help I will be able to give an order for the complete translation.
What will follow is proof-reading and editing by me and my friends.
First, I will work on the ebook-version. My intention is to publish the digital version via Amazon in April 2017 or earlier.
Second, I will edit the paperback, which will be complete in July 2017 for sure!
Figuring out a structure of different pledges is not that easy. Hopefully my idea makes sense to you. I tried to develop a fair and understandable system.
The digital version will have the same content as the printed version, with some slight changes with regards to the pictures.
All books will be signed by me, the editor. I think you all deserve a unique version of GREY. If there´s many backers I will be happy to sign "all night long".
Bookmark - early bird special
Really, this is special and strictly limited!
I personally made 14 bookmarks with original Prussian uniform buttons.
14 is the exact number of buttons a German soldier´s uniform had.
Each bookmark represents 3 months that Otto Mehnert spent in captivity. The bookmarks are made of high quality red fabric and leather. The button is attached by a little wooden stick - just like it was done by the soldiers at that time, when producing "trenchart".
Postcard - early bird special
You will receive a personal greetings postcard from my next Verdun tour. I don´t know when that will be exactly, so you will be surprised!
During my research I have been to many places that are related to Mehnert´s fate. For me it was alway touching to locate places where he had been 100 years before. I have chosen 10 beautiful pictures which I will add to the book.
In appreciation of the great support you are giving me, your name will be added to the acknowledgement section of GREY.
Your reward will be professionally packed.
To keep shipping costs low for you, I will ship as unregistered letter at supporters risk. In case prefer tracked shipping, please let me know.
The book will be complete the way I set it up!
I think it would be unfair to leave something out just to add it as bonus later on.
But, of course, there´s always something to add.
I do have some ideas:
3.500 € - Thank you very much!
I will add four postcards of the frontcover.
7.000 € - Great!
I will add an extra four pages with facts and figures about prisoners of war in World War One.
15.000 € - Are you crazy?
The picture of the frontcover will be wonderfully colorized.
Beyond that ...
Honestly, I have no idea what to add then, but it will be a great addition to the book for sure! I have lots of unpublished material from my research.
... I will start thinking about it, when we are beyond the last stretchgoal.
I have tried to keep the costs down. Therefore I am doing the editing, layout, design and ebook-setup all by myself. I also did that for the German version.
Nevertheless, some money is needed, especially for the translation.
Mehnert´s book was featured in several German newspapers.
I am especially proud that the book was presented as a reading recommendation by
- Vereinigung Deutsch-Französischer Gesellschaften für Europa
the Association of German-French Societies for Europe e.V.
in June 2015 (link)
- Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge e. V.
the German War Graves Commission (link)
Initially, there was no information at all on Otto Mehnert. The only clue as a starting point for research was his address on the manuscript. By tracing his data backwards in time in the official registration records it was possible to largely reconstruct Mehnert’s life and career. An extremely lucky and helpful find proved to be the registration card of Tegernheim Town Administration: it yielded information on a denazification procedure in 1947
[State Archive Amberg, Regensburg Board of Arbitration I, M30].
Early Years, War, Captivity
Otto Mehnert was born 22 November 1897 in Schöningen on the Magdeburg Plain, his father a railroad employee. He had a younger brother named Oswald Mehnert. After graduating from school at 18, probably on the strength of an examination brought forward in wartime for pupils about to be conscripted, he was in fact conscripted into Reserve Infantry Regiment 27 (RIR27) in Halberstadt. Around August / September 1916, Mehnert was sent to the Verdun front and was soon captured by the French on 24 October 1916 in the course of the defense of Fort Douaumont. Thus he escaped the deadly fate of hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the “charnel house of Verdun”. In a form of retaliation for crimes against French prisoners, Mehnert was first made to work close to the front in support of the French Army effort. Following further service far away from the front lines, he saw the end of the war as a laborer at a railroad yard in Central France. His hopes of finally being allowed to go home were dashed, when he was made to labor on the former battlefields of the Champagne region as part of the reparation payments. Mehnert made an unsuccessful attempt to escape over a distance of over 100 km and was sentenced to 30 days’ solitary confinement. In January 1920, the repatriation of German prisoners of war from France began. Following an attempted escape Mehnert was an inmate in a penal camp at the time and was not released until March 1920.
Mehnert returned to his family and served an apprenticeship in trade. In November 1928 Mehnert married Margot Lenz from Braunschweig. He was employed at the time as an accountant by a subsidiary of the Deutsche Shell, the Rhenania-Ossag Mineralölwerke AG in Hamburg.
After going through a series of jobs in bookkeeping for the corporation in Bremen, Düsseldorf and Hamburg, he lived to see the NSDAP’s and Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 as head bookkeeper in Stettin. In 1935 he was again transferred to Düsseldorf to manage the branch of the company there.
NS State, Persecution
Mehnert was not one of the “March casualties”, as the new members of the NSDAP were called derisively after the March 1933 elections. Quite the contrary: the explicit exhortations to “join the Party at the last moment” was something Mehnert rejected “categorically”, as he had “abhorred the elbow policy of the National Socialists” even before that date, before they came to power. According to the 1938 Racial Legislation, Mehnert’s wife was a “woman of second degree mixed Jewish race.” In the subsequent period he came into conflict with the Nazi power apparatus because he tried to remain “neutral” and resisted political influence being taken on business operations. Mehnert was reported to the authorities and officially reprimanded and fined. The Mehnerts lived through the growing persecution of the Jews in Germany and felt increasingly under threat.
The family was under increasing psychological pressure: Margot Mehnert suffered from depression and thought of suicide. The feeling of “being a second-class person in the eyes of the world” and “standing in the way” of Mehnert’s professional advancement was a burden on her. The Mehnerts had made a conscious decision not to have any children. (“[…] a child with a touch of Jew would have been an object of pity given the fact that the young were taught to become anti-Semites at the time.”) Mehnert himself became “somewhat emotionally unbalanced”, as he termed it in 1947 – he was ill for months at a time and escaped into thoughts of the past by writing and finishing his narrative of his time as a prisoner of war.
In November 1939 he gave up his job, and the Mehnerts moved to his home in the Harz Mountains to St. Andreasberg, in the hope of “finding peace”. The change of residence was a positive step for the family, but again was increasing trouble instigated by the town mayor who was informed of “the circumstances”. In July 1942 the Mehnerts left St. Andreasberg again and moved to Tegernheim, where Mehnert took a job as authorized signatory* [*Translator’s note: ‘Prokurist’ – company officer authorized to act and sign on behalf of the firm, with general or restricted power of attorney] for the Süddeutsche Holzverzuckerung A.G. (Südholag) in Regensburg.
About 200 Polish forced laborers and prisoners of war were exploited until the end of the war at the Holzverzuckerungs AG under appalling conditions. Mehnert claimed to have done his best for these people:
“As I was a French prisoner of war for 3 ½ years, I always had the greatest sympathy for these people. I always treated well those foreigners under my direct control, and had several run-ins with the then head of factory security.”
Post-War Period, Denazification, Retirement
After the end of the war, Mehnert was classified as a “tacit supporter” by the Board of Arbitration I Regensburg. It was only after he had appealed this ruling in court that he was classified in Group V as an “exonerated person”. The opinion of the ruling, dated 17 January 1947, states: “[…] His conduct towards the party was contradictory to the party line due to his marriage to a Jewish woman. His rejection of Nazism led him to prohibit any kind of political propaganda in his business, which resulted in his being reprimanded and fined RM 100.00. By not renouncing his relationship with this Jewish woman, he exercised active resistance to the regime to the fullest extent within his power, and this resistance resulted in a measure of intrinsic and material disadvantages for him.”
Following his rehabilitation, Mehnert took up his previous work at Süddeutsche Holzverzuckerung AG. In May 1957 he moved to Tutzing on Lake Starnberg into the house belonging to Margot Mehnert’s mother.His book remained unpublished.
Otto Mehnert died in August 1969 at the age of 71; his wife Margot followed him four years later.
The basis for the treatment of prisoners of war was the Hague Convention on the Laws and Customs of War on Land (“Hague Regulations”) ratified in 1907, ruling that prisoners of war were to be treated humanely and “regarding food, accommodation and clothing [were to be] treated on the same footing as the armed forces of the government who had captured them.”
As early as the first winter of the war, there were widespread casualties among the prisoners because the authorities were unable to cope with the large number of prisoners of war, no one having anticipated that hostilities would continue into the following year.
Currently available literature on World War One contains almost no substantial information on this topic. Although captivity as a prisoner of war in Europe in World War I was a “mass phenomenon” affecting between eight and nine million men, these people have become “the forgotten both in memory and historiography” [Oltmer]. This was quite different while the war was still being fought and during the immediate post-war period: especially between the German and the French parties, there were impassioned debates about the rules governing the treatment of prisoners of war, and later fevered negotiations took place about the release of the prisoners. Neutral countries and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) repeatedly mediated negotiations between the Parties; but reprisals were viewed by both belligerent parties as a legitimate means of enforcing their own interests. So prisoners of war were employed in activities close to the front, for example, in order to force the opponent to stop precisely this practice himself. The same applied to the shortening of food rations or withholding mail from home. These planned measures, as well as individual acts of abuse against prisoners, drove up the “spiral of violence, especially between France and Germany” [Oltmer].
Thank you very much for your time and interest in GREY!
Risks and challenges
There are no real risks at all, from my perspective.
I will use the experience I have made while editing and publishing the German version for this project.
I got the full license by Mehnert´s family to publish the book.
The German book will serve as model for the English version. I guess the English version will be even better than the German one.
All the research work is done, mistakes made and learned from - so let´s start!
Most of the costs will arise when I order the books, until then I will take care of editing, layout etc. with only small costs.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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