A U.S. Army committee hoped that teaching German POWs an appreciation of American history and culture would inspire them to create their own democracy in postwar Germany. (National Archives)
A U.S. Army committee hoped that teaching German POWs an appreciation of American history and culture would inspire them to create their own democracy in postwar Germany. (National Archives)

Eighty-five German POWs, identified as dedicated anti-Nazis, worked to reeducate their countrymen interned in nearly five hundred camps across the United States

By early 1944 the reign of terror and intimidation by hard-core Nazis interned in American prisoner-of-war camps had become so widespread that an intrepid woman journalist decided to do something about it. Dorothy Thompson was a widely syndicated newspaper columnist who, in 1934, had been the first American journalist to be kicked out of Nazi Germany. She came home so incensed that she reportedly hauled off and socked a woman who made pro-Nazi remarks in her presence.

Now, hearing reports that Nazis in American camps were beating, murdering, and forcing the suicides of fellow German POWs, Thompson went to the White House to see her good friend Eleanor Roosevelt. She talked to the First Lady about the Nazi terror campaign in the camps and suggested that the United States should be taking the opportunity to reeducate German POWs by teaching them lessons in democracy.

Shocked by what she heard, Eleanor Roosevelt promptly invited an official in the army’s prisoner-of-war administration to dinner at the White House. Maj. Maxwell McKnight was chief of the administrative section of Prisoner of War Camp Operations—a Yale graduate, former United States Attorney, and, most important, member of a prominent New York family who would have moved in the same social circles as the Roosevelts. “I’ve been hearing the most horrible stories about all the killings that are going on in our camps with these Nazi prisoners,” she told McKnight.

As McKnight already knew, a reeducation scheme aimed at countering Nazi domination of the camps had been gathering dust at the War Department for nearly a year. The main obstacles were the lack of qualified personnel to carry out such a
program, and the provision of the Geneva Convention that prohibited indoctrination of prisoners of war. But after Eleanor Roosevelt spoke to McKnight and then her husband, and after President Roosevelt conversed with his secretaries of war and state, the controversial idea was revived.

During the summer of 1944, the government launched an ambitious and secret effort to influence the nearly three hundred eighty thousand Germans imprisoned in the United States. Through newspapers, books, movies, and classroom education, they would be given “the facts, objectively presented,” said a War Department memo, “but so selected and assembled as to correct misinformation and prejudices.” Secretary of War Henry Stimson ordered that the goal “should not be the improbable one of Americanizing the prisoners, but the feasible one of imbuing them with respect for the quality and potency of American institutions.”

The army imposed a tight veil of secrecy over the program. Planners feared that publicity might cause the prisoners to resist reeducation and that Germany might retaliate with its own indoctrination program. There was also the matter of the Geneva Convention. But someone noted a loophole in the document’s Article 17, which read, “So far as possible, belligerents shall encourage intellectual diversions and sports organized by prisoners of war.” Thus originated the official and innocuous cover name for this grand scheme in reeducation—the Intellectual Diversion Program.

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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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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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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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Though the films were in English, the Factory prepared German synopses describing the plots and highlighting the educational points to be made. The box office boomed. Prisoners who earned an average of forty cents a day proved willing to spend fifteen cents of it for cinematic diversion. By the end of September 1945, four months after the Factory’s movie program began, every German prisoner in the United States had viewed an average of ten feature films. Healthy box office receipts, together with proceeds from Der Ruf, helped bolster the claim that the reeducation program was paying for itself.

Attendance at some showings was mandatory. These required films were documentaries of the horrors of the Nazi death camps at Dachau and Auschwitz; the inmates at some camps referred to them as Knochhenfilmen, or “bone films.” One German prisoner, Gerhard Hennes, remembered how the audience “stared in silence, struggling but unable to believe what we Germans had done to Jews, gypsies, prisoners of war and many others deemed inferior or expendable.”

The atrocity films provoked stunningly dramatic reactions—or merely disbelief. At Eglin Field, Florida, POWs took up a collection and contributed $2,371 to American war charities. At Camp Butner, one thousand prisoners were so ashamed that they burned their German uniforms. All the same, a later survey of twenty thousand prisoners about to be repatriated indicated that nearly two-thirds simply refused to believe Ger-many had committed these atrocities.

As the war in Europe wound down, the reeducation program continued to operate covertly. Any lapses in secrecy were quickly covered up. In February 1945, after a camp official slipped up in a Kiwanis Club speech, Texas’s Waco News-Tribune headlined its story, “Course in American Life Taught POWs.” Wire services failed to pick up the story, which the army immediately dismissed as “fanciful.”

The secrecy lid was still so tight that a couple of months later, Rep. Richard F. Harless of Arizona inspected his state’s camp at Papago Park and came away clueless about what he had seen. In Congress, citing a Soviet scheme for indoctrinating German POWs as Communists, he denounced the apparent fact that “the United States has not done a single thing to educate German prisoners in the American way of life.”

Then, on May 28, 1945, less than three weeks after Germany’s unconditional surrender, the War Department revealed the existence of the program. Not many in the press, even those who had been harping about failures in the prison camps, paid much attention to the news. Meanwhile, the reeducation program continued because it would be many months before German POWs went home.

If the end of the war in Europe ended the need for secrecy, it had other ramifications for the reeducation program. Canteen privileges in the camps were cut back and the quantity and quality of the daily diet reduced. POWs perceived the changes as a form of reprisal now that the United States did not have to worry about its own prisoners in Germany, and enthusiasm for reeducation tended to wane.

In addition, an intensification of concern within the War Department about the alleged threat of domestic communism undermined morale in the Special Projects Division. Undocumented accusations set off a Red scare and a loyalty check of Davison’s headquarters staff. Three staff members accused of leaning to the left were transferred out. The climate of fear grew so intense during the late summer of 1945 that the former Harvard dean Howard Mumford Jones abruptly resigned his position as a civilian adviser.

At the same time, the reeducation program now had to cope with the need for trained and trustworthy German POWs to help staff the American zone of occupation in their newly conquered homeland. Special Projects men and a dozen of the most highly regarded POWs at the Factory met and recommended the establishment of schools to prepare prisoners selected from camps all over the United States. The first school—an experimental course in military government administration at Fort Kearney, site of the Factory—operated full-time for eight weeks. In July 1945, it graduated seventy-three POWs who received certificates of achievement for completing this training course “established for the reeducation of selected citizens of Germany.”

The Kearney experiment proved so successful that new schools were created at Fort Getty and Fort Wetherill, nearby coastal artillery installations just across Narraganset Bay. Officials at camps across America recommended nearly eighteen thousand candidates for these two schools—training administrative personnel at Getty and policemen at Wetherill for the military government in Germany. A rigorous screening process finally pared the number to about three thousand seven hundred men. The candidates for the Getty administration school in particular were an elite group: 43 percent were university graduates, 25 percent were businessmen or other white-collar workers, and 10 percent were former civil servants.

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Their eight-week curriculum included English, military government, and American and German history. Instruction in military government suffered from a lack of up-to-date information; the U.S. Army in occupied Germany was just now learning on the job. Learning colloquial English was vital to preparing the POWs to serve in the military government. Students varied greatly in their ability to speak English, and they were placed on five different levels of instruction. Everything at Getty was taught in English except German history, which emphasized positive democratic aspects of that nation’s past.

One of the students, Lt. Wolf Dieter Zander, said later that he and his comrades expected stiff, impersonal military instructors. Instead, they were stunned to see that they were being taught by lively academics from Harvard, Brown, and other first-rate universities. A casual air of camaraderie like that at the nearby Factory permeated Fort Getty. Every afternoon, students and professors got together and talked about the ideas presented in the morning lectures. Zander remembered with particular fondness Henry Ehrmann, a German Jewish refugee who had become a professor at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Ehrmann, in describing democratic strands in German history, treated the prisoners with the respect never afforded him in his homeland. Zander exchanged correspondence with him for years after the war.

As it turned out, only a handful of the 528 Getty graduates eventually found jobs in the military government, due to bureaucratic red tape after repatriation. But important things had happened at Getty. A noted New York psychiatrist, Dr. Richard M. Brickner, visited there to evaluate Nazi attitudes among some of the students. Brickner had written the book Is Germany Incurable? and believed that Germans could not be de-Nazified. Brickner reported his pleasant surprise after interviewing five of the prisoners. One interviewee in particular, Brickner wrote, “gave me the first inkling I have had that even downright, regular, typical Germans can be impressed” by such training in democracy.

At the police training school at nearby Fort Wetherill, the eight-week course focused heavily on how law enforcement operates in a democratic society. The curriculum from Getty was condensed, and about half the time devoted to criminal investigation, fingerprinting, crowd control, and other aspects of police work. Perhaps because the students lacked the impressive educational backgrounds of the Getty elite, strong rapport with the faculty never took root. But to get in, students had to endure an even tougher screening process, limiting the number of graduates to a little more than five hundred. Police experts from Chicago and several other major cities were brought in to administer lie detector tests. A number of candidates were rejected because they failed the polygraph on their Nazi backgrounds or leanings toward communism.

Graduates from Wetherill and Getty, along with those from the experimental school at Kearney, were almost immediately repatriated to Germany. That allowed them to bypass the detour scheduled for most German POWs before they could return home—reconstruction duty in labor battalions in France. Colonel Davison and his staff scrambled to come up with a scheme for avoiding that detour. They wanted one more school for exposing prisoners to democracy, thus enabling them to go directly back to Germany, where they might help in the American occupation. “The ultimate mission,” Davison wrote later, “was to return these prisoners to their war-torn homeland as a spearhead of democracy.”

Davison’s solution was an ambitious crash course in democracy. Sited at Fort Eustis, Virginia, a large army base that could accommodate thousands of students, it attempted to shoehorn into only six days the eight-week course in administration conducted at Fort Getty. Lists of candidates submitted by POW camps were screened at the Factory and reduced to more than twenty-five thousand names. The demand to attend was strong because many POWs realized it was the quickest way home. The high standards set at the Getty school were relaxed; most of the students were enlisted men from blue-collar backgrounds. It was enough, a memo stated, to be “cooperative prisoners favorably inclined toward democracy…who had proved their sincerity by attitudes and actions while confined in this country.”

When the first cycle of two thousand POWs began on January 4, 1946, Fort Eustis became a marvel of logistics. In addition to the men hurrying through what they dubbed “the six-day bicycle race,” thousands of others arrived ahead of time—at one point eight thousand prisoners were living there at once—and had to be occupied with films, sports, instruction in English, and other diversions while waiting for their regular schooling. A staff of personal counselors was on hand to help them with problems such as the whereabouts of their families in occupied Germany.

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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.