Liberation within Interment: The Drag Queens of Prisoner of War Camp Cottbus

Isabel McMillan

The Prisoner of War performers of Cottbus are often seen dressed as women

The Prisoner of War performers of Cottbus are often seen dressed as women. Be them showcasing a comedy, drama, or posing for the camera a majority of the images associated with the Cottbus Prison Camp of World War I is detailed by the act of drag. The Prisoners of War and performers, both in and out of drag, depict a far greater atmosphere of the Cottbus camp where both soldier and prisoner work to assert control over their very out-of-control lives through the performance of drag. Men performing as women is not a new nor unique phenomenon. Yet, the gender-bent performances seen in the Cottbus POWs are distinctly more than just dressing up. Appearing in multiple postcards, and referenced in official government documents, the gender-bending activities were an integral aspect in the lives of POWs at Cottbus, and the performances to be a form of drag. Drag “complicates the distinction between readable exteriors and stable identities, confusing the “essence” or a particular body.” The performance, both on stage and off, was a reassertion of control over their bodies. “Being a prisoner of war could indeed be an emasculating experience. In times of war, the front-line soldier is the epitome of masculinity, and the presence of armed guards and barbed wire as well as the letters ‘P/W' stenciled on their clothes constantly reminded the Germans that they no longer belonged to this group.” As men whose "essence” can be stripped away in war and imprisonment, where their bodies were in constant flux, the performance of drag recreated a sense of control over their bodies and identities. Performing both drama and comedy the prisoners took their drag to different extremes of the human experience utilizing detailed staging and costuming. Drag, traditionally conceptualized as “conspicuous displays of glamor” the performances of the drag performers of Cottbus leaned distinctly towards the glamor of normalcy. Through their performances, both gender-bent and not the POWs attempt to glamorize normalcy by creating a new normal. The continued act of performance, either in posing for the camera, or performing for a crowd is a form of drag for the POWs. Seen clearly in Figure II where a British couple poses before an image of Cliffs of Dover. This couple embraces the more traditional sense of drag where they not only gender-bend a “typical” day, but the performers also utilize the costumes to enhance the performance of drag. Their costumes, one is dressed in a hobble skirt and the other in evening wear with a top hat, would have been “normal” if not the high of fashion but is dated in comparison to what fashion standards of when the performance occurred which exaggerates the overall performance of normalcy.
Liberation within Interment: The Drag Queens of Prisoner of War Camp Cottbus
French Prisoners of War Performing a Show at a Prisoner of War Camp in Cottbus

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Liberation within Interment: The Drag Queens of Prisoner of War Camp Cottbus
British Prisoners of War Performing a Show at a Prisoner of War Camp in Cottbus, with Dover Cliffs Backdrop

The performers continually deconstruct ideas of power and identity assigned to them in war

The performers continually deconstruct ideas of power and identity assigned to them in war, by reconstructing the most pristine ideas of normalcy shaped by their time imprisoned “To the extent that drag's marginal play problematizes cultural categories, we can appreciate its parody and subversion as an “act of resistance.” In crafting identities that appeared to transcend the stage, the war, and imprisonment drag itself was an act of rebellion in all the ways that it mattered. Looking at one of the informal images of the Cottbus prisoners, “Four British Prisoners of War” in Fig. VII, the intricacies of the drag performance were stripped away. While two POWs appear as women, the costuming and sets are not as detailed as their performances could be. These performers are innating a performance of normalcy and in it an act of rebellion. In a space and time which “reflected the acute sense of masculine disempowerment” under the circumstances of captivity the act of the performance of drag no matter how simple provided a rebellion in control over bodily autonomy. Moreso, the act of drag created “some semblance of a decent life” for the men. The performance of drag created a liberation inside a stifling space. Drag in Cottbus was far more than just entertainment. The act of drag became a liberating escapist fantasy that ordered the chaos of their worlds. The fantasies created were simple walks on the beach or holding a lover's hand was the extent of fantasy allowed in times of war and imprisonment. The men of the Cottbus camp reconstructed their freedom and their identity in the costumes, wigs, and makeup which informed their drag. For those who watched and participated in the exercise and performance of drag became a place to exercise control and power in placeless where they had none. Drag created a world defined by the performers and their performance, the prison camp of Cottbus became a world defined by drag.
Ancestry UK
Liberation within Interment: The Drag Queens of Prisoner of War Camp Cottbus

Isabel McMillan

Isabel wrote for Edition 6: LGBTQ+ History Month
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