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The Secret and Controversial Attempt to Teach German POWs About Freedom

By Ronald H. Bailey
9/11/2008 • World War II

For the next year, a dedicated group of Americans worked closely with handpicked German POWs—all anti-Nazi intellectuals—to create and dispense material that subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, touted American culture and values. The program overcame entrenched opposition from Nazis and some camp commanders, leading to swift and, in some cases, radical changes in the tenor of camp discourse. In fact, after the death of President Roosevelt in April 1945, prisoners at a previously pro-Nazi camp in Arizona got together and sent a sincere letter of condolence to the army. A few weeks later, after the surrender of Germany, several thousand POWs actually volunteered to join up and fight against Japan.

But that wasn’t the end of it. The program was then retrofitted to reeducate and train certain POWs to help staff the military government responsible for the occupation of Germany—in essence, to give future German officials and policemen a crash course in democracy. The goal, said the program’s director, “was to return these prisoners to their war-torn homeland as a spearhead of democracy.”

Lt. Col. Edward Davison, a distinguished forty-six-year-old Scottish-born poet and university professor, was appointed to direct the new Special Projects Division, which conducted the program. His deputy was Mrs. Roosevelt’s recent guest, Major McKnight. Together, they “collected a group of leaders and educators who would make any university proud,” wrote Judith Gansberg in her history of the program, Stalag: U.S.A. (Crowell, 1977). The intellectuals, lawyers, and professors included a civilian adviser: the distinguished Harvard dean Howard Mumford Jones. One of them later noted in jest, “Long was the hair that flowed over the desks of the Special Projects Division.”

Davison and his staff brought a humanist perspective to their task, intending to educate through rational persuasion rather than psychological manipulation. This approach invited later criticism because it excluded psychologists and sociologists who presumably would bring skills in behavior modification.

Davison set up shop on Broadway in Lower Manhattan to get away from the War Department and to be near New York media experts. But his actual working headquarters was a place dubbed “the Idea Factory.” It was first situated in October 1944 at Camp Van Etten, a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp in upstate New York, then moved to Fort Kearney, Rhode Island, a former coal artillery post in Narragansett Bay. The Factory was home to a remarkable assemblage of eighty-five German POWs. Already identified as dedicated anti-Nazis, they were former editors, professors, writers, and linguists. At the Factory they worked to produce, edit, or review books, newspapers, films, and other media in order to reeducate their countrymen interned in nearly five hundred POW camps across the United States.

The Germans selected for the Factory did not in any way typify their fellow POWs. They tended to be intellectuals who were alienated not only from other POWs but from German society as well. This would later become a source of criticism from some American historians who questioned whether they could communicate effectively with the rank and file.

The Factory proved to be the world’s most relaxed prison camp. The prisoners renounced their military ranks and treated one another as equals. Fort Kearney had no armed guards or guard towers. The Germans would travel from there in army trucks on the ferry to Jamestown, Rhode Island, to pick up supplies, socializing with civilian passengers who had no idea they were chatting with POWs. “Once in a while we’d have to sort of jack them up and make sure they kept their beds neat—try to keep it very military and correct,” recalled Capt. Robert Kunzig, one of the Kearney commanding officers.

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