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Uncle Sam's Nazi reform schools.

Peppering POWs with propaganda violated the 1929 Geneva Convention. But the War Department found a loophole for its Democracy 101 classes.

THE victim's body WAS badly broken, too broken to suggest an accident. The guards who found Corporal Johann Kunze that morning of November 5, 1943, immediately knew the cause of death: murder. Kunze's fellow German soldiers had beaten him to death for being a Vaterlandsverrater--a traitor to the Fatherland, the Third Reich, and the Fuhrer.

Kunze's murder didn't take place in Germany, or in an Axisheld part of Europe. It happened in the United States, outside Tonkawa, Oklahoma, in a camp for German prisoners of war. It wasn't an isolated incident, either. In camps across the country, prisoner-on-prisoner violence multiplied, carried out by Nazi loyalists against fellow captives who dared lay aside resistance and cooperate with the Americans.

Soon, US War Department officials realized they had to take action. They would wage a battle to change minds, to reeducate hardcore Nazis inside America's POW camps. Doing so would require the creation of a secret and controversial program that tested the limits of international law on the treatment of war prisoners.


From mid-1943 to 1946, approximately 400,000 captured German soldiers were interned in camps across America. All but five of the 48 states--Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Rhode Island, and Vermont--had such camps, all administered by the War Department. Control of these compounds fell to the department's law-enforcement branch, the Office of the Provost Marshal General (OPMG). Each camp's facilities and logistics were seen to by regional service commands, administrative and logistical units from the US Army Service Forces that were distributed across the country in each of nine geographical areas. The OPMG followed guidelines set out by the international Geneva Convention of 1929 for the treatment of prisoners of war.

The POWs' stay was, for the most part, pleasant. They had adequate shelter, clothing, and more than enough food. They worked on local farms or in nearby factories (not related to war manufacturing), thereby helping to ease America's labor shortage. In their leisure time, they put on theatrical performances, held educational classes, played in camp orchestras and bands, engaged in woodwork and art activities, read books and magazines, and watched Hollywood films.

That left plenty of time for ardent Nazis in the camps to assert the Third Reich's authority over fellow POWs who weren't Nazis or who wanted to put the war behind them. Military discipline and command structure among the prisoners didn't disappear after capture, and to defy it was to risk threats, intimidation, trial in a kangaroo court, forced suicide, beatings, or even murder. And just as in Nazi Germany, grounds for a guilty verdict were often nominal.

Corporal Horst Gunther, 24 years old, was murdered at Camp Gordon, Georgia, because he intended to alert camp authorities about a possible POW labor strike--and because he liked jazz music. At Nebraska's Camp Scottsbluff, a German POW was summarily beaten after he wrote to his father, an American resident who was not a loyal Nazi. Captain Felix Tropschuh was forced to commit suicide at Camp Concordia, Kansas, for writing against Adolf Hitler--in his diary. Corporal Kunze, beaten to death in Oklahoma, was accused of giving American officers information that may have been used in the bombing of Hamburg, Germany.

The War Department tried segregating Nazis from anti-Nazis within the camps or transferring specific POWs to other camps for safety. That didn't solve the problem. But when the American public finally learned about the violence, the outcry reached President Franklin Roosevelt's desk. Roosevelt had a solution, a controversial one that had been discussed and debated before the POWs even arrived: reeducation. Back in June 1943, Major General Allen W. Gullion, the army's provost marshal general, had deemed such a program "inadvisable" and the plan was summarily shelved. But the rise of Nazi violence in the camps and the public's reaction spurred Roosevelt into action.


THERE WERE TWO motives behind the POW reeducation program. First, if German prisoners became convinced democracy was superior to Hitler's fascism, violence in the camps would decrease. And second, when the reeducated POWs returned home after the war, they might help secure Germany's future as a democratic nation.

The goals were lofty, and tricky to accomplish. To begin with, the issue of reeducation was a thorny one. The Geneva Convention prohibited subjecting prisoners to propaganda. If word leaked out that the Americans were de-Nazifying German prisoners, American POWs in Germany might face retaliation. It was paramount to keep the program secret--and to find a way around the stipulations of the Geneva Convention. But how? Article 17 contained the necessary loophole: "So far as possible, belligerents shall encourage intellectual diversions and sports organized by prisoners of war." The War Department could simply choose the right subjects and media for the "intellectual diversions." To emphasize that it wasn't propaganda, the reeducation effort officially became the Intellectual Diversion Program. The OPMG outlined the program as follows:

The prisoners would be given facts, objectively presented but so selected and assembled as to correct misinformation and prejudices surviving Nazi conditioning. The facts, rather than being forced upon them, would be made available through such medias [sic] as literature, motion pictures, newspapers, music, art, and educational courses. Two types of facts were needed: those which would convince them of the impracticality and viciousness of the Nazi position. If a large variety of facts could be presented convincingly, perhaps the German prisoners of war might understand and believe historical and ethical truth as generally conceived by Western civilization, might come to respect the American people and their-ideological values, and upon repatriation to Germany might form the nucleus of a new German ideology which will reject militarism and totalitarian controls and will advocate a democratic system of government.


The American public, unaware of the reeducation program, continued to complain about Nazism in the camps while the army cleverly played dumb to keep its secret. One officer even stated in the Atlantic Monthly, "It is not our business to change these men's habits or beliefs or to reeducate them." The subterfuge worked. Only after the war against Germany ended would the US public learn about the program.

To put together the "intellectual diversions," the OPMG created the Prisoner of War Special Projects Division (SPD) under the direction of Lieutenant Colonel Edward Davison and Major Maxwell McKnight in 1944. Davison and McKnight gathered a staff to lay the program's groundwork, and a distinguished staff it was: scholars and intellectuals such as Walter Schoenstedt, a German novelist who had fled Nazi Germany; Robert L. Kunzig, a lawyer and professor; and Harvard professor Howard Mumford Jones. In September 1944, this elite group began work secretly in New York City, away from prying military eyes.

While the program was under construction, the men who would implement it in the camps began their preparations. Officers and enlisted men were selected to be Assistant Executive Officers (AEOs) and were specially trained at top-secret conferences at Fort Slocum, New York, just offshore from New Rochelle on Davids' Island. These men were expected to be fluent in German and experts on German and American journalism, film, and literature. Each AEO was required to have previous experience in a POW camp and in field education. The program's success would hinge on the AEOs' dedication and enthusiasm.

In October 1944, the War Department created a special camp with enough room for the SPD staff to brainstorm and work with carefully selected German POWs in complete secrecy. Called the Idea Factory, it was located first at Van Etten in upstate New York and later at Fort Philip Kearney in Narragansett, Rhode Island. The camp became an intellectual powerhouse. In Rhode Island, a volunteer group of specially qualified German prisoners arrived from POW camps around the country--writers, professors, and linguists, all dedicated anti-Nazis. They were elated to be around like-minded academic peers.

The Idea Factory set to work immediately, eager to tackle the monumental task before it, homing in especially on two areas: censorship and translations. Lists of approved filmstrips, music, radio programs, newspapers and other periodicals, and even religious tracts wended their way to the AEOs at POW camps. The Idea Factory created subdivisions to review films and radio programs, translate curriculum, and monitor about 70 POW camp newspapers. It also created a nationwide POW newspaper called Der Ruf ("The Call") that was, in the words of historian Arnold Krammer, author of Nazi Prisoners of War in America (1996), "an enormously sophisticated German-language publication." Aimed at the better-educated German prisoner of war, it covered literature, philosophy, music reviews, politics, and battlefield news. The Idea Factory hoped the more intellectual soldiers would read the newspaper and then discuss its contents with average soldiers.

The "intellectual diversion" program also focused on the classroom. Back when German POWs first arrived in the States, prisoners and US officers had organized classes, many of which would help POWs prepare for German civil service exams after the war. With the advent of the reeducation program, the emphasis shifted to courses such as English, civics, government, and geography. Class participation wasn't mandatory, however, and in some camps, attendance plummeted when the curriculum changed.


The Idea Factory even produced lesson plans for the POW classes. For American history, the directions suggested that a teacher "need make no attempt to whitewash American history.... He will best disarm hostility and at the same time impress on prisoners our fairness of mind, if he says frankly that everything has not always been perfect in America." Teaching aids for these history courses included copies of the Saturday Evening Post, the Declaration of Independence, a map showing the slave states at the time of the Missouri Compromise (1820), and pictures of American inventions.

Perhaps the most popular teaching method was the screening of Hollywood films and documentaries. Movies had long been a popular POW entertainment. Prisoners especially enjoyed watching sultry Marlene Dietrich in features such as The Flame of New Orleans (1941) and The Seven Sinners (1940). But before the reeducation program began, many pro-Nazi prisoners chose films that showed America at its worst. Alfred Thompson, a former high school German teacher from North Dakota serving as an AEO at Nebraska's Fort Robinson, wrote, "America became to them a land of half-naked women, fighting families, the roaring West, and the gangster East."

The Idea Factory wanted to counteract this distorted view of America, but disagreement erupted over what constituted a proper film. Lieutenant Colonel Davison, the SPD's head, had deep misgivings about the popular movies Hollywood churned out. He wanted to focus specifically on films that showed democracy in a positive light. Others at the Idea Factory, like Hans Werner Richter, wanted to get rid of the film component entirely, terrified of the effect popular culture could have on the program.

Because POWs enjoyed films immensely, compromise won out in the end. The Idea Factory created a small list of approved popular movies that ostensibly revealed America's national character. Its list of documentaries was much longer. POWs could watch war films like Back to Bataan, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, and The Story of G.I. Joe. On August 30, 1945, Wolfgang Dorschel, a POW at Fort Robinson, wrote in his diary, "A film, Life in America [no film by that name appears in film histories, but many Office of War Information documentaries covered that theme]. Very good, but unfortunately, not too many visiting films of that kind." Similar to what happened with the changes in the classroom, most POWs weren't thrilled with the steady diet of educational films, and attendance dropped.


Books--used in classrooms, available in POW libraries, and sold in camp canteens--were of special interest to the Idea Factory. While promoting some books, the Idea Factory set out to eliminate others--but without seeming to eliminate them. A top-secret SPD document stated, "Books represented in this [banned] category will not be withdrawn from prisoner of war camp libraries by any means that might cause prisoners of war to suspect a design to control their reading material. It is suggested that the withdrawal of undesirable books be given the appearance of a routine library rotation."

PULLING OFF THIS SUBTLE REPLACEMENT of books required finesse and patience. Alfred Thompson and other AEOs at Fort Robinson got the job of withdrawing all the books on the censored list from the prisoner library. "How well I remember sneaking into the library one night, going through the lists of books, withdrawing all the undesirables, to find at the end of our evening of work that we had withdrawn only a small percentage of the books required to be withdrawn," he wrote. "The remainder were out on 'check' and could not be removed."

One of the few times the War Department forced POWs to participate in reeducation was when the US Army Signal Corps released films documenting Nazi atrocities. Reactions across the camps were mixed. Some prisoners were horrified and outraged by the films, and many felt compelled to join efforts to raise funds for concentration camp survivors. Others scoffed, believing the films to be pure propaganda. Still others had no outward reaction at all.

Throughout the "intellectual diversion" program, there were POWs who attended classes and watched films only because they were bored and wanted something to occupy their time. Still others wanted to cause trouble. For the most part, though, prisoners participated eagerly. They attended classes, participated in discussion groups, wrote essays, and encouraged debate.

Germany's surrender to the Allies in May 1945 brought the war in Europe to an end, but German POWs in the United States remained in custody, waiting until repatriation arrangements could be finalized. While the camps continued operations, so did the SPD's reeducation program. And now, with the war in Europe over, camp newspapers ran thought-provoking articles about democracy and how to rebuild Germany. Unbelievably, several thousand POWs asked to enlist in the US Army to help fight the Japanese. A top-secret military committee took a serious look at the plan, but ultimately concluded it wouldn't work.

Germany fell under occupation immediately after its surrender and was divided into sectors, each governed by one of the Allied powers. The Americans needed people well suited to administer and police the US occupation zone, and POWs who had responded exceptionally well to the reeducation program seemed like prime candidates. Two schools were created: the Police School at Fort Wetherill and the Administration School at Fort Getty, both in Rhode Island. Approximately 3,700 hand-picked POWs completed training and were sent overseas to help the occupation forces. Unfortunately, US occupation authorities, already busy with the difficult project of reorganizing Germany, didn't understand the reeducation the ex-POWs had gone through. As a result, they failed to use them effectively.


When the War Department announced that it planned to return all German POWs to Europe by March 31, 1946, the Idea Factory decided to create a special school of democracy at Fort Eustis, Virginia, for POWs sincerely interested in taking democratic ideals back to Germany. After filling out questionnaires, more than 23,000 of the most cooperative and anti-Nazi POWs were sent to the special school.

At Fort Eustis, the men entered an intensive six-day program of lectures and discussion groups. Journalist Quentin Reynolds, writing for Collier's magazine, attended one of these sessions and was surprised at what he found. With the horrors of Nazi Germany in mind, Reynolds at first hesitated to interact with men who had fought for the Third Reich. He feared some were masquerading to earn an early ticket home. He discovered that, instead, most were sincere. "They honestly and thoroughly believe that Germany's only hope for the future lies in democracy," he wrote. Following graduation from Fort Eustis, the POWs were repatriated back to their homeland, where many, according to Arnold Krammer, "rose to prominence in post-war Germany."

THE REEDUCATION PROGRAM OFFICIALLY ENDED on April 8, 1946. All these years later, the question remains: Was it a success? It's difficult to answer. There was no large, comprehensive study done on POWs in the years following their return to Germany. And the Korean War and anti-Communist Red Scare in the decade after World War II overshadowed the German POW experience in America until it was almost entirely forgotten.

Though there were ex-POWs who became productive members of German society and helped create their nation's postwar parliamentary democracy, it is difficult to determine whether it was the reeducation program that turned them in that direction. Scholar Ron Robin, author of The Barbed-Wire College: Reeducating German POWs in the United States during World War II (1995) argues that the program's overly academic slant failed to reach the average soldier and thus did not accomplish the goals set forth by the OPMG. Krammer, however, believes that if even one POW carried democratic ideals learned from the reeducation program back to Germany and used them in his own life, then the program worked.

AEO Alfred Thompson certainly thought the program worthwhile. In February 1946 he wrote, "I feel that I have won a great battle.... It is a fight to prove the worth of man, to prove that there is an intrinsic inborn God-given worth to every person, and that even the demoniac teachings of a Hitler cannot destroy that worth."

The program deeply affected POW Wolfgang Dorschel. At Fort Robinson, he helped teach classes and started a political discussion group. In June 1945 he took a trip to Fort Meade, South Dakota, for a related meeting. On the way, he passed one of America's most recognizable national monuments, Mount Rushmore. He noted in his diary on June 20, 1945, "And now we (are) coming to Rushmore memorial, where Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Jefferson, and Washington were carved into the natural stone mountains. The head of Washington is 60 feet high. For me a shrine of democracy."

Melissa Amateis Marsh, a frequent contributor to America in WWII, is an editorial assistant for the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
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Title Annotation:prisoners of war reeducation program
Author:Marsh, Melissa Amateis
Publication:America in WWII
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2016
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