By 1943, the War Department knew there was a need to break the grip of Nazi groups in American prisoner of war camps through reeducation, exposing the POWs to American history and democracy. However, the Provost Marshall General who was in charge of the POW camps shelved the idea because such “reeducation” would violate the Geneva Conventions. The American military did not want to take the chance that the Third Reich would seize an opportunity to reeducate American POWs in the tenets of Fascism.
It wasn’t until 1944 when the American press began to publicize stories of camp violence, murders and forced suicides that the War Department moved, albeit ineffectually, to segregate the most visible Nazis and anti-Nazis into different camps. By early spring, 1944, several newspaper columnists had become so frustrated with the government’s lack of action regarding the hold that Nazis had on the prisoner of war camps they took the problem directly to Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Mrs. Roosevelt was told about the problem in a frank discussion with Major Maxwell McKnight, chief of the Administrative Section of POW camp operations. She in turn, told the president who leaned on the Secretaries of War and State to do something. It was a ponderous problem that took a month of examination and finally a loophole was found in Article 17 of the Geneva Convention: “So far as possible, belligerents shall encourage intellectual diversions and sports organized by prisoners of war.”
Thus the answer–if intellectual diversions were made available in the camps like American movies, books that bespoke the American dream, camp newspapers, orchestras that played American music, and plays such as Our Town by Thornton Wilder, then perhaps democracy would permeate the camps.
Thus the Special Projects Division of the Provost Marshall General’s Office was formed and the secretive reeducation of German POWs was begun. The American public never knew about the secret program until the War Department announced a plan to reeducate the POWs twenty days after Germany declared an unconditional surrender in May 1945. It seems that the work of the Special Projects Division was so secret no one knew the men were being fed American propaganda–no one that is except the POWs.
Read my historical novel about Camp Papago Park, The Swastika Tattoo, a German POW camp located on the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona during WWII.
Next time: A Secret Deal with France
Copyright Geraldine Birch. All rights reserved.