Paul Cohen-Portheim (unknown -1932)

Paul Cohen-Portheim

Paul Cohen-Portheim, the German-born Jew of Austrian parentage, was painting in Devon at the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. Returning to London in late 1914 he took up a commission designing the costumes for a series of operas, by similarly performers from the Brussels Opera, at the London Opera House (Anon. 1932c). Like many of his countrymen he was interned in early 1915, initially in camps at Stratford (London) and Knockaloe before being moved to Lofthouse Park (Wakefield). He came from a middle/upper class background and spent much of his childhood in Vienna, although he was educated in Geneva. He also spent short periods of his early life in London, Berlin, Paris and Seville; a diversity which led The Observer to describe him as “the first citizen of Western Europe” (Anon. 1932a: 22). Internment seems to have had a huge impact on Cohen-Portheim’s life, as Feld reports

The effect upon the author's personality was radical; he was turned in upon himself, revised his whole Weltanschauung, and became a writer instead of a painter. "Wakefield brought me the death of one thing, the birth of another. Compared with this aspect all others fade into complete insignificance. I cannot call this bad or good, for it has become a part of myself. (1932: 497).

He spent much of time reading history, alongside Indian philosophy and religion. These new interests, along with his proficiency in European languages led him become a renowned writer at the cessation of hostilities. Indeed an obituary in The Times reported

Beneath an exterior of youthful spirits and almost cynical scepticism, Portheim concealed a profound disillusion with modern democracy and a deep faith in the saving grace of intellect. He was essentially a patrician of the mind. He was also a prophet of human tolerance. (Anon. 1932b: 9)

Despite his internment experience, he was left “with no feelings of animosity or even of bitterness” (Anon. 1932b: 9), perhaps best illustrated by the fact that on his release Cohen-Portheim went to Paris where he wrote a sympathetic and perceptive account of England and the English, originally written in German, but later translated into English as England, the Unknown Isle (1930). Indeed The Times commended

His achievement in removing from the minds of his countrymen certain misconceptions regarding our egoism and self-righteousness was similar to the achievements of André Maurois in convincing the French that we are not really so barbaric and unreliable as they had been keen to suppose. (Anon. 1932b: 9).

His The Discovery of Europe (1932) written in German before the war, proved an insightful survey of pre-war Europe, with “an impassioned plea for a revival of the culture of quality, not quantity, which alone could bind western Europe as whole” in the face of the polluting influences of American (Anon. 1932a: 22). While his Time Stood Still, one of the few first-hand accounts of camp life from the perspective of an internee, written “without a trace of personal bitterness, [even] the least imaginative reader of the post-War generation will derive from his pages a vivid idea of the horrors of internment for that unspecified period, ‘the duration.’” (Anon. 1931: 272). The Observer described it as:

surpassed by very few, if any, accounts of personal experience in the war; but it is also something more, a profound statement of the adventures of the spirit in a solitude from which all purposive action, except the meanest, was forcibly excluded (Anon. 1932a: 22).

While The New York Times made comparisons with Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) and The Road Back (1931) (Feld 1932), while the American Journal of Sociology called it “A most valuable and interesting document“ (Ketchum 1932: 496) Others were less praiseworthy, The Saturday Review, for example, dismissed Cohen-Portheim’s complaints as “petty restrictions”, much like the lifestyle imposed on combatants (Willoughby 1931: 305). Whatever the work provided some insight into internment. As Feld reports

This was the first war… where internment of enemy aliens was practiced as a form of warfare and reprisal. After reading his volume, powerful in its reticence and understanding, one can only pray that it will be the last. (1932: 2).

His death was greeted as “a loss not only to letters but still more to the cause of mutual sympathy and esteem amongst nations” (Anon. 1932a: 22), while the Washington Post called it “a severe loss to the world” (Phelps 1935: 9). While The Times reported

The death of Paul Cohen-Portheim is not merely a sad deprivation for his friends: it is a serious blow to the cause of intellectual understanding between the Anglo-Saxon and the Teutonic peoples. (1932b: 9).


Anon. (1931) ‘The Bookman’s Tale: Time Stood Still’. In The Bookman 80 (479).

Anon. (1932a) ‘Death of a famous Author’. In The Observer ,16 October 1932, 22, col. e.

Anon. (1932b) ‘Obituary: Herr Cohen-Portheim’. In The Times, 18 October 1932, 9, col. C.

Anon. (1932c) ‘Obituary: Herr Cohen-Portheim. An Observer of England and Europe’. In The Times, 8 October 1932, 14, col. B.

Cohen-Portheim, P. (1932) The Discovery of Europe. New York: E P Dutton & Company.

Cohen-Portheim, P. (1936) Time stood still: my internment in England 1914-1918. London: Duckworth.

Feld, R.C. (1932) Book Review: Men for Whom ‘Time Stood Still’: A Remarkable addition to personal literature of the war in a record of Civilian Internment as an Enemy Alien. Time Stood Still. By Paul Cohen-Portheim, New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. In The New York Times Book Review, March 20 1932, 2.

Ketchum, J. D. (1932) ‘Cohen –Portheim, Paul.. Time Stood Still: My Internment in England, 1914-1918 (Book Review)’. In American Journal of Sociology 38:3, 496-497.

Phelps, W. L. (1935) ‘Cause of Nationalism’. In The Washington Post, September 3 1935, 9.

Willoughby, D. (1931) ‘War and Post-War’. In Saturday Review 152 (3958), 304-305.