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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

Meanwhile, the Factory-produced Der Ruf evidently exerted a benign effect on the newspapers produced by the prisoners in camps across the United States. These papers typically contained eight or ten mimeographed pages and appeared once or twice a month. At the inception of Der Ruf in March 1945, monitors at the Factory kept tabs on the political complexion of camp papers. About half of the fifty papers surveyed were deemed Nazi in editorial policy. Six months later, a Factory survey of eighty camp papers counted only one that was openly Nazi.

This radical change presumably reflected the influence not only of Der Ruf, but of the entire reeducation program—and particularly of the American officers specially assigned to each camp to make it work. These company-grade officers were dubbed Assistant Executive Officers (AEOs) to disguise their role in coordinating reeducation activities. Qualified AEOs were hard to come by. Most German-speaking officers had already been absorbed into military intelligence and other roles, and the Special Projects Division frequently had to dispense with the language requirement. Prospective AEOs got a ten-day orientation at Fort Slocum, New York, in such topics as German history, psychology of prisoners of war, camp educational activities, and film, art, and other media.

Once assigned to camps, the AEOs sometimes encountered commanding officers who opposed reeducation. Several Jewish AEOs reported having more trouble with their fellow officers than with the prisoners. At one camp, an anti-Semitic commander encouraged the Germans and the American enlisted men to ignore the Jewish AEO’s directions, and then had him replaced by a gentile. Camp commanders in general were frequently unsuited to their job, having already been found unsatisfactory for combat. “We were pretty much dredging the bottom of the barrel,” recalled McKnight, who had administered POW activities before becoming the reeducation deputy.

Some commanders contributed to the AEOs’ problems in yet another way. They found it easier to let the POWs rule themselves, allowing Nazi officers to keep their fellow prisoners in line. AEOs had to find inconspicuous means to identify and neutralize Nazis who controlled prisoner newspapers, camp libraries, education courses, and even the selection of films to be shown. Segregating hard-core elements in their own compounds or transferring them to their own camps proved a continuing problem in many places, though Nazi dominance tended to lessen as the war’s tide turned in Europe.

Successful reeducation often depended largely on the energy and imagination of the camp’s AEO. He might be called upon to change the editorial policy of the newspaper, increase church attendance, arrange for a university in the area to conduct extension courses in the camp, establish classroom courses in American history, help organize a drama club, or ferret out questionable books. Pamphlets, books, and calendars arriving from the German Red Cross often contained Nazi propaganda. Gifts sent to the camps via that organization during the 1944 Christmas season included walnuts stuffed with propaganda.

A good AEO learned to work swiftly. Recalcitrant prisoners in one camp targeted a vocal anti-Nazi by putting up posters accusing him of being a traitor. The AEO responded by preparing posters praising him as a man “who lives only for freedom and his fatherland” and posting them overnight.

The AEO at Camp Butner, North Carolina, saw an opportunity to teach a lesson in tolerance. When the POW music program became so popular that there was a shortage of instruments, he brought in a local dealer. “Mr. Goldman is exactly five feet high and exudes a girth any three men would be proud of,” the AEO wrote, “and he is obviously Jewish.” Mr. Goldman supplied all the needed instruments and was paid from the camp’s canteen funds. Every time he showed up at the camp, he was surrounded by friendly and appreciative German prisoners.

AEOs also played a key role in selecting and promoting the showing of films from a list approved by the Factory. Perhaps because of the emphasis on Der Ruf and other literature, the reeducation program lagged in promoting a medium that house intellectuals may have considered lowbrow. Eventually, the Factory approved a list of 115 feature films including Abe Lincoln in Illinois, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and other movies that “fostered respect for our democratic institutions.” Their criteria excluded the gangster movies and cowboy films that Nazi prisoners had previously selected to emphasize the shortcomings of American society.

At first Hollywood’s leaders, many of them Jewish, balked at the prospect of supplying films for the program. They were unaware of its purpose and thought the German prisoners were merely being coddled. “Finally,” Major McKnight recalled, “the Secretary of War had to call in all the Warner Brothers people—the key ones—and explain what was being done and that it was a secret program.”

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