The United States War Department was loath to screen German prisoners of war to find whether they leaned toward Nazism or whether they were simply men sucked up into the maelstrom of their country’s war. There were several reasons for this:
- There was a uniqueness to the experience of the United States housing prisoners of war: We had never done it before. There were no guidelines or precidents like the British had–so we relied basically on trial and error regarding the separation of prisoners that were fanatical Nazi and those that were anti-Nazi. Of the nearly 370,000 men housed in America, the majority were men, while sympathetic with the Nazi point of view, really just wanted to go home and rebuild their lives.
- When it became apparent that the initial decision to segregate anti-Nazis from the rest of the population was not working, the War Department shifted its screening process to isolate Nazi prisoners instead. Those with fanatical views were housed at a camp in Alva, Oklahoma–about 4,500. Anti-Nazis, approximately 3,300, were shipped to camps at Fort Devens, Massachusetts and Camp Campbell, Kentucky.
- The final factor was the War Department’s absolute reliance on the Geneva Convention. Its dictates were follwed to the letter because it was felt that was the best way of protecting our soldiers who had been captured by the Germans. In that regard, the War Department was reluctant to probe into the prisoner’s political beliefs–in fact the prisoners were not even required to answer such questions. The War Department wanted to make sure there was no blatant violation of the Geneva Convention such as the suppression of political activity in the camps because it was feared the repercusions would be felt in the camps holding Americans across Germany.
Unfortunately, due to those policies, the German officers and non-commissioned officers held sway in the camps; their point of view was that of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.
Next time: Internal Nazi Control of Camps
Copyright, Geraldine Birch. All rights reserved.