Time Stood Still: My Internment in England 1914-1918, by Paul Cohen-Portheim

Paul Cohen-Portheim, 1931“This book tells of the experiences of a German civilian interned in England,” wrote Paul Cohen-Portheim in the preface to Time Stood Still: My Internment in England 1914-1918, “and it is the author’s aim to describe nothing except what he actually saw and experienced.”

This understatement is both typical of Cohen-Portheim’s remarkable humility and an utterly inadequate synopsis of this remarkable book, for Time Stood Still is, in its way, a monument of humanism–the cosmopolitan, cultured, enlightened humanism exemplified by Stefan Zweig, Jules Romains, Thomas Mann and others–that flourished in Europe until exiled or exterminated by fascism. Countless times while reading this book I was awed by the depth and character of the author’s perspective.

Born in Berlin of Austrian parents, Paul Cohen-Portheim was educated in Geneva, took up painting, and was living in Paris when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in June 1914. Despite the increasing rumors of war, he carried on with his life and traveled to England to spend a few weeks with friends in Devonshire. When England declared war on August 4th, 1914, he found himself stranded: “My flat and my belongings were in France, my relations in Austria and Germany, I myself with summer clothes, painting materials, and £10 in an England one could not leave.” The next day, he discovered he was now an “enemy alien.”

For the next ten months, he lived in a sort of limbo, unable to leave England, unable to move from one location to another without official permission, unable to hold a job legally. He joined with other expatriates to form a makeshift opera company and busied himself with sets and costumes until, on May 24th, 1915, he received notice to report to the local police station the next morning to be interned.

“What shall I pack?,” he asked the policeman. “I would pack as if you were going for a holiday,” the man replied. And so Cohen-Portheim loaded his luggage with “white flannels, bathing things, evening dress, etc..”

He and several hundred other German and Austro-Hungarian men between the ages of 18 and 65 were loaded into railway cars and then ferried to the Isle of Man, where they were interned at Knockaloe, which was the largest camp set up in England during World War One. A few months later, however, he and about sixty other inmates, considered by the British to be “gentlmen” were transported to a new camp in Lofthouse Park, near Wakefield in West Yorkshire. Here he was to remain until mid-1918, when he was sent to the Netherlands to await the end of the war in another form of limbo.

To the authorities responsible for setting up Lofthouse Park, “a gentleman was a man prepared to pay ten shillings a week to them for the privilege of being there.” Cohen-Portheim had been able to contact his mother in Vienna and set up a weekly allotment while at Knockaloe, so, like the other inmates of the camp, he was able to order books and art supplies and to pay for sundries at the camp store. He was able to obtain more suitable clothing, and, as this picture from the Wakefield libraries collection shows, to dress in a manner befitting a gentleman. Other than being confined to the camp, served tasteless but adequate food, and mustered multiple times a day to be counted, he was largely left alone by the authorities and guards.


“Were you treated well?” friends asked him after the war. Cohen-Portheim’s response was carefully qualified: “I am not prepared to say what British treatment of prisoners of war or of interned civilians was–fair, correct, brutal, inhuman, indifferent–I can only speak of my own experience,” and that was that the treatment was “standardized.” He understood that internment was politically motivated, moderated entirely by public perceptions of the treatment of British internees in Germany, and bureaucratically administered.

This was the first war in which there was large-scale confinement of enemy civilians, and the lot of those in England was far better than that of their counterparts in France (as recorded in Aladar Kuncz’s 1934 book, Black Monastery). But, in Cohen-Portheim’s analysis, it was still a brutal and cruel system. Its inhumanity was not based on physical abuse or deliberate psychological mistreatment, but on a more fundamental truth: this was not how humans are meant to live.

Take, for example, the factor of time. Cohen-Portheim chose his title carefully: “One must remember that there was absolutely no limit to be foreseen to the duration of the war and of my imprisonment, not could one know to what one would then return, if one lived to return to anything.” The inmates were well aware of the events going on outside the camp, the progress and set-backs of each side in combat, but they were frozen in time. “The past was dead, the future, if there should be a future, was a blank, there was nothing left but the present, and my present was the life of a prisoner.” This condition was, in his view, unnatural: “where there is no aim, no object, no sense, there is no time.”

Yet it was not the fact of being imprisoned that made the experience horrible. “What was horrible was that one had ceased to be an individual and had become a number.” Any decisions made about the conditions in the camp were made based on an abstract concept of the enemy alien prisoner, and not on any aspect of his individual actions or nature. Cohen-Portheim saw this as a fundamental effect of war: it creates “an abnormal state in which no one can be honestly considered responsible for his actions.”

The obliteration of personal responsibility “undoes what education has built up in years of struggle, or rather in many centuries of effort.” This observation illustrates the particular perspective evident throughout the book. Cohen-Portheim upheld the humanist ideal of man as a rational being with a free will moderated by morality and empathy. And the fundamental crime of internment is that it is inhuman. The fact that the camp population was of such a narrow demographic–male, upper class, German or Austrian, adult, with no women, no children, no other nationalities or classes–by itself made the situation inherently abnormal.

But there was also, “no privacy, no possibility of being alone, no possibility of finding quietude.” The men were cooped up together 24 hours a day, day in and day out, with no end in sight. Because of this, “The worst tortures of camp life were due to the small failings of one’s fellow creatures everlastingly in evidence, and to unimportant little tricks endlessly repeated”:

It is not the men of bad character or morals you begin to hate, but the men who draw their soup through their teeth, clean their ears with their fingers at dinner, hiccough unavoidably when they get up from their meal (a moment awaited with trembling fury by the others), the men with dirty hands, the man who will invariably make the same remark (every day, year after year) as he sits down–and who is quite an inoffensive good-natured soft of creature otherwise–the man who lisps, the man who brags,, the man who has no matter what small defect or habit you happen to object to. You go on objecting quietly, for one does not quarrel about such silly trifles, and the thing gets on your nerves, becomes unbearable by the simple process of endless repetition, until you hate the cause of your torture with a deadly hatred.

“Such an atmosphere is thoroughly poisoned,” he concluded.

What is most impressive about Cohen-Portheim’s account of his experience, however, is that despite all of these wrongs, he could write, “I cannot honestly say that it has harmed me.” Indeed, his time at Lofthouse Park turned his passion from painting to writing, and one of his books, The Message of Asia (1934), was based on material began in the camp. He saw himself as an exception case, though, and was careful to caution in his preface that this must not “induce my readers to think that I call good what in itself is evil.”

After the war, he became a journalist and travel writer, and published such books as England, the Unknown Isle, The Spirit of France, and The Discovery of Europe. Time Stood Still was published in 1931, and like W. V. Tilsley’s outstanding novel, Other Ranks, published the same year, suffered from critical and popular weariness over war memoirs. The Saturday Review’s reviewer dismissed the book as “a ‘document’–by which I mean a piece of writing what has not quite succeeded in becoming literature.” Looking back on Time Stood Still from a distance of eighty years, however, I would place it on a shelf with some of the finest pieces of writing about life behind barbed wire.

You can find a length set of excerpts from Time Stood Still, about his time at Knockaloe camp, on a website devoted to the Isle of Man, at http://www.isle-of-man.com/manxnotebook/fulltext/tst1932.htm. There are no copies currently listed on Amazon and only about a dozen, starting at $37, Internet-wide, according to Add-All.com. However, his travel book, The Spirit of London, first published posthumously in 1935, was reissued by Batsford in 2012.

Update: “Enemy Aliens,” a long piece by Andrea Pitzer, author of The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, on Cohen-Portheim’s experiences during the war and his interment, appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly.

Time Stood Still, by Paul Cohen-Portheim
London: Duckworth, 1931