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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

Factory workers thrived on the relative freedom. They weeded out books containing Nazi propaganda sent to camps from the German Red Cross and International YMCA. They also created a series of twenty-four inexpensive German-language paperbacks known as Neue Welt (New World). The books, including classics by Thomas Mann and other German authors banned under Hitler, and by Americans like Ernest Hemingway, Stephen Vincent Benét, and William Saroyan, sold for twenty-five cents in camp canteens, where they often sold out. The Germans also translated books and pamphlets about American geography and history, monitored camp newspapers published by POWs, evaluated films to determine if they were politically and culturally appropriate, and even made available records and sheet music of works by American Jews and blacks.

The Factory’s main mission was the creation of a national German-language prisoner-of-war newspaper named Der Ruf (The Call). Typically consisting of eight pages liberally illustrated and printed on high-grade paper, Der Ruf was published twice a month. Its staff of experienced journalists, writers, and editors was headed by Curt Vinz, a publishing veteran from Germany, and Gustav René Hocke, a prizewinning German author who had fled the Gestapo, served in the anti-Fascist underground in Rome, and then was pressed into service as an interpreter for the Wehrmacht in Sicily. The newspaper’s ambitious aim, according to a War Department memo, was to provide POWs with no less than “realistic news of all important military and political events, a clear understanding of the American way of life, a true picture of the German homefront.”

The first edition, dated March 1, 1945, hinted at the highbrow tastes of the editors. In addition to reports from the battlefronts and news about the effects of Allied bombing on the German homeland, it contained an account of the new Metropolitan Opera season in New York and a lengthy piece headlined “The Inner Power.” This latter article, splashed across page one, discussed the human soul and quoted liberally from Goethe, Schiller, Schopenhauer, and other German intellectual heavyweights. Americans in the Special Projects Division joked that this was “a newspaper which even Thomas Mann would find difficult to understand.” Someone added, “This was a great success among the prisoners, because it seems the Germans believe that anything they can’t understand must be pretty hot stuff.”

The paper’s literary bent reflected the inclinations of its thirty-six-year-old army overseer, Capt. Walter Schoenstedt, as well as its POW staff. A native of Berlin, Schoenstedt had joined the German Communist Party during the early 1930s. He fled Nazi Germany and eventually settled in the United States, where he became a naturalized citizen. A novelist whom an army personnel report described as the division’s chief “idea man,” Schoenstedt resisted suggestions that the paper appeal to readers by running comic strips and extensive coverage of sports. “If we had a full page of funnies,” he said, “we would get the wrong type of reaction from the prisoners of war like: Ah, ha! American culture!”

His boss, Colonel Davison, respected Schoenstedt but chided him: “Don’t you think a lighter touch is needed if ‘Der Ruf’ is to be written on a level that will be read by the many instead of the few? Shorter words and as little of the abstract as possible—concrete all the way, pungency as well as pith. Above all, we shouldn’t let ‘Der Ruf’ be too literary or philosophic, even though Germans may be more literary and philosophical than we are.”

Literary or not, German prisoners were at least curious about Der Ruf—if they could get it. In a number of camps, hard-core Nazis sought to prevent the distribution of the first few editions. They denounced the paper as “Jewish propaganda” or the work of “traitors and deserters.” They bought up copies and burned them, or threatened anyone caught reading them.

But at five cents a copy, circulation grew, soaring from 11,000 to 73,000 in less than eight months. Der Ruf published twenty-six issues in its American existence, the last one dated April 1, 1946. (The paper would be resurrected the following summer in postwar Germany by two repatriated editors of the American edition, Alfred Anderesch and Hans Werner Richter, whose literary talents had been nourished at the Factory. The new Der Ruf went on to attack American occupation policies so vehemently that the military government, in an ironic lesson in democracy, suspended its publication. Anderesch, Richter, and other writers, including Heinrich Böll, then formed Gruppe 47, which became the most influential literary movement in postwar Germany.)

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