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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

School itself consisted of nonstop lectures on the United States Constitution and other aspects of democracy, along with hour-long open discussions, films, and filmstrips. The teaching staff included eleven prisoners from the Factory and sixteen graduates of Getty and Wetherill. The commandant, Col. Alpheus Smith, set the tone in his disarmingly honest opening address. “He didn’t pull his punches,” recalled one prisoner. “He admitted, much to our shocked surprise, that American democracy wasn’t perfect.” One student later remembered the school’s emphasis that the prisoners must learn to think for themselves. An admonition from a teacher stuck in his mind: “It is a sin against the Holy Ghost to let others think and decide for you.”

The twelfth and final cycle ended on April 5, 1946, and the last of 23,147 graduates headed home. Fort Eustis marked the end of the entire reeducation program. One historian later adjudged it “a bold experiment conducted against heavy odds by a relatively small band of Americans hoping to influence the future of Germany.” Other writers, less kind, would call it an exercise in “well-meaning incompetence” and “clearly a fiasco.”

The War Department attempted to measure the impact of the program in a poll of 22,153 departing prisoners. According to the poll, about 74 percent left with an appreciation of the value of democracy. Some 33 percent said they were anti-Nazi and pro-democratic. Only 10 percent remained militantly Nazi.

Neither defenders nor critics could agree on the meaning and accuracy of these results. After all, with the destruction of the Nazi regime, comparatively few Germans were eager to cling to an ideology that had failed so dramatically.

Perhaps the most decisive and lasting lesson in democracy occurred as the prisoners returned to their devastated homeland and confronted the legacy of Nazism. Capt. Robert Kunzig of the Special Projects Division, who accompanied the first shipload of Fort Eustis graduates on their journey home, described the scene as their train crossed into Germany: “I was conscious of a tenseness in the men. I could see it in their eyes. They crowded to the doors for that first glimpse. Then they saw. They saw, and they’ll remember for all time. Ruin, desolation, and destruction were framed in that open door.”

Whatever the impact of the reeducation program, the sight of that ruin was the impetus for change that would transform many of the returning POWs—and postwar Germany. “Physical destruction, not a new enlightenment,” concluded Kunzig, “had obliterated the complex social conditions and ideological values that had nurtured National Socialism.”



This article originally appeared in the August/September 2008 issue of World War II magazine.

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