American Films: A Successful Reeducation Tool for German POWs

Despite Harry Warner’s (of Warner Brothers) strong objections to the use of films to “educate” German POWs because of the Holocaust, Warner finally shifted his opposition to reeducation in general and instead criticized the kinds of films picked by the Special Projects Divison because he felt they glorified violence.

The Oklahoma Kid and The Frisco Kid, both movies produced by Warner Brothers, were not the kinds of films that would influence hardened German POWs to view democracy in a new light, according to a letter Harry Warner sent to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. But the Special Projects Division, the department within the Office of the Provost Marshall General that oversaw the more than 500 POW camps, thought otherwise.

The Frisco Kid stressed lawlessness was overcome by the efforts of the people themselves, and The Oklahoma Kid was chosen specificially because it showed disapproval of radical individualism. It’s triumph was an emphasis on the collective struggle of winning the West. Besides, the use of Westerns for showing American values was important because of the popularity of Western novels written by German author Karl May. More than thirty million copies of May’s books were read by German youngsters, so the Special Projects Division felt Western films were appropriate democracy material.

But in the end, Warner’s criticism (and his weight with the Truman Administration) forced the removal of those two films from the reeducation program. Instead, musicals, comedies, melodrams and war films were used to provide an interpretation of contemporary American culture.

At the admission price of fifteen cents apiece, the POWs who earned only forty cents a day in American fields and factories spent more than $1.2 million over a period of four months. Thus, the film branch of the Special Projects Division was successful in its efforts with over three million POWs viewing American culture.

Read my novel “The Swastika Tattoo” about life at the German POW camp in Arizona during WWII, Camp Papago Park.

Next time: Other Tools of Reeducation

Copyright, Geraldine Birch. All rights reserved.

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