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Re-educating the enemy: German Prisoners of War in Britain

By Emily Redican-Bradford

As the Second World War in Europe entered its final stages, Allied governments began to focus on how to deal with a defeated Germany. The leaders of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union were determined to eradicate Nazism, in the hope of preventing the eruption of another global conflict. In an effort to achieve this, each of the Allied powers embarked on a policy of re-education, with the aim of weakening loyalty to National Socialism amongst the Germans already in their custody: prisoners of war.

In Britain, a re-education policy targeting POWs had already been approved by the War Cabinet on 18 September 1944.[1] The task of planning and implementing this programme in the 1,500 POW camps located across the British Isles had been allocated to the Political Warfare Executive of the Foreign Office (PWE), which became known as the Prisoner of War Division (POWD) in the post-war period.[2] Under the leadership of Wing Commander Hitch, the department crafted a re-education programme designed to eliminate POW affiliation to National Socialist ideologies and promote democratic thinking amongst the men, who, it was hoped, would contribute to the re-building of a peaceful and tolerant German nation upon their repatriation.[3]

The re-education process began with individual POW interviews, where the men were asked a series of questions to determine their political views.[4] They were then divided into three broad classifications: ‘A or ‘white’, meaning ‘anti-Nazi’, B or ‘grey’, indicating that the individual held ambiguous views and C or ‘black’ referring to a committed National Socialist.[5] The men were segregated into camps based on their grading and Training Advisors then visited the camps and sent progress reports back to the POWD.[6] They introduced a variety of different educational methods, including lectures and discussion groups, in a bid to promote free discussion amongst the men and to encourage them to think for themselves.[7] Whilst attendance at the programmes was voluntary, the POWD insisted on one compulsory element: the showing of a film depicting the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald camps, which all POWs had to attend.[8]

In an attempt to further their re-education programme, the POWD established a training centre in January 1946, at Wilton Park in Beaconsfield.[9] The centre delivered six-week courses on democracy to selected prisoners, many of whom had been categorised as ‘anti-Nazis’ during screening.[10] Centre staff aimed to introduce these men to British culture and democratic thinking, with hopes that they would return to their camps and help ‘educate’ their fellow prisoners.[11] Between 1946-8, approximately 2,400 students attended courses at Wilton Park, and from January 1947, German civilians were also included amongst the students in an effort to expand re-education policy and foster democratic thinking amongst non-combatants.[12]

As more and more POWs were repatriated to Germany, re-education became less systematic. At the end of the conflict, there were almost 400,000 POWs in Britain and in July 1946 the Minister of State, Philip Noel-Baker, declared that the government would follow a gradual repatriation process, aiming to return home 2,000 men each month.[13] This timeframe enabled the government to maximise their use of POW labour and implement effective re-education measures.[14] Although growing public pressure in Britain to repatriate POWs prompted the government to increase the monthly figure to 15,000, the final POWs were only returned to Germany in July 1948.[15] The repatriation of the final POWs marked the conclusion of formal British POW re-education efforts, which were now restricted to observing whether they had succeeded in inspiring independent thinking amongst the POWs resident in the former British Zone.[16]

The staggered repatriation programme and the inherent difficulties of assessing the views of repatriated POWs within occupied Germany reveal some of the limiting factors hindering the long-term work of the POWD.[17] Whilst the British re-education programmes constituted an important attempt to try to combat fascism in the early post-war period, the difficulties the POWD faced when implementing the programmes imply that a different approach to re-education, perhaps one that shifted away from a focus on solely camp-based initiatives, may have resulted in clearer levels of success for the POWD in their attempts to de-Nazify German prisoners of war.

Image: Eden Camp, a former prisoner-of-war camp near Malton in North Yorkshire. Licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

References:

[1] Renate Held, Kriegsgefangenschaft in Großbritannien: Deutsche Soldaten des Zweiten Weltkriegs in britischem Gewahrsam (Munich, 2008), pp. 152-5 and Henry Faulk, Group Captives: The Re-education of German Prisoners of War in Britain, 1945-1948 (London, 1977), p.9.

[2] Held, Kriegsgefangenschaft in Großbritannien, pp. 152-5 and Jon and Diane Sutherland, Prisoner of War Camps in Britain During the Second World War (Newhaven, 2012), p.12.

[3] Richard Mayne, In Victory, Magnanimity, In Peace, Goodwill: A History of Wilton Park (London, 2003), p.6.

[4] Arthur L. Smith Jr., The War for the German Mind: Re-educating Hitler’s Soldiers (Oxford, 1996) pp. ix, 67-71 and 106-108.

[5] Ibid., pp. 68-9.

[6] Held, Kriegsgefangenschaft in Großbritannien, pp. 154-165 and Lothar Kettenacker, ‘The Planning of ‘Re-education’ during the Second World War’, in Nicholas Pronay and Keith Wilson (eds.), The Political Re-education of Germany and her Allies after World War II (Beckenham, 1985), p.73.

[7] Kettenacker, ‘The Planning of ‘Re-education’’, p.74.

[8]Ulrike Weckel, Beschämende Bilder: Deutsche Reaktionen auf alliierte Dokumentarfilme über befreite Konzentrationslager (Stuttgart, 2012), pp. 12-13 and 248 and Kettenacker, ‘The Planning of ‘Re-education’’, p.74.

[9] Mayne, In Victory, Magnanimity, p. 64.

[10] Kettenacker, ‘The Planning of ‘Re-education’’, p.75 and Mayne, In Victory, Magnanimity, p. 64.

[11] Smith, The War for the German Mind, pp. 129-132; Kurt Jürgensen, ‘The Concept and Practice of ‘Re-education’ in Germany 1945-50’ in Pronay and Wilson, The Political Re-education of Germany, pp. 88-9 and Faulk, Group Captives, p. 197.

[12] Mayne, In Victory, Magnanimity, p. 64. and Michael Balfour, ‘In Retrospect: Britain’s Policy of ‘Re-education’’, in Pronay and Wilson (eds.), The Political Re-education of Germany, p. 150.

[13] Miriam Kochan, Prisoners of England (London, 1980), pp. vii and 130-131.

[14] Mary Ingham, ‘Improperly and amorously consorting’: post-1945 relationships between British women and German Prisoners of War held in the UK’ (unpublished PhD. thesis, Goldsmiths College, University of London, 2019), p. 7.

[15] Held, Kriegsgefangenschaft in Großbritannien, pp 226-7; Ingham, ‘Improperly and amorously consorting’ p. 7 and Kochan, Prisoners of England, pp. 137-8 and 238.

[16] Faulk, Group Captives, p. 197 and Smith, The War for the German Mind, p. 170.

[17] Smith, The War for the German Mind, p. 170.

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