Writing home from Camp, Otto Recke talked about great food, interesting pottery classes, and new movies with friends. He described the camp… as heaven. Interestingly, Otto was actually a German prisoner of war, being held here in the United States at Camp Opelika in Alabama from 1942 to 1945. As explained in The Guardian, May 20, 2015, following the Battle of El Alamein in November 1942, the United States had no real plan of what to do with the thousands of Prisoners of war. So they set up what the Guardian describes, as Nazi Summer Camps. These were a series of 500 POW camps housing 425,000 German Soldiers across the United States. These camps were the product of the 1929 Third Geneva Convention, which, following deplorable treatment during World War One, called for treating prisoners with respect. We might think of 70 year old POW camps as a part of the past. However, revisiting how we treated our enemies during WWII is important today, as the United States looks to wind down Camp Delta at Guantanamo, where we hold modern POWs, euphemistically called detainees. Reporter Karen Duffin, whose May 22, 2015 Radiolab report brought the Summer Camps back into light states, this incredible story can help us figure out why we did what we did then, and why we are doing things so differently now. Today, we will explore these summer camps, the rationale behind their creation, and the implications of what New York Public Radio on July 2, 2015 calls, “a forgotten chapter of U.S. history". To better understand these Nazi summer camps, let’s first examine some background, and then explore what life was like for POW’s. Initially, of the 500 camps hosted in every state except for Vermont, the largest one housed 6,000 POWS in Aliceville, Alabama. As per the Geneva convention, these camps were meant to be work camps. However, the convention only allows for prisoners of war to perform work-related tasks if they are paid a fair wage, and treated humanely. As reported in Alabama Pioneers on June 6, 2015, arrayed around the barracks were mess halls, a hospital, and several small indoor theatres. Essentially, a small city. The POW’s were able to enroll in correspondent programs at local universities to earn college credits. The previously cited Radio Lab continues that at one point, Hitler event sent over $12,000 to fund an art exhibit for the camp. While we were fighting Hitler, he was sending us money for art. Next, According to The Daily Mail of July 14, 2015, in addition to being allowed sunbathe and play soccer, the POWS ate as well as, if not better than, their American guards—including meat and fresh fruit. They were even given bottles of beer, and if they had jobs that brought them into town, they were allowed to eat dinner with local host families. American guard’s often slept in tents, whereas the POW’s slept in well-kept barracks. As German POW Edwin Pelz writes in his Memoir, published in “The Arkansas Historical Weekly” in 1948, “I had felt at home there- I had never felt that we were enemies. It was all like a dream. I was not ashamed of the tears which were running down my face that day as we all said our goodbyes”. For Americans who were rationing food on their own tables, the German POW accommodations stung a bit. Many Americans even began referring to the camps as the “Fritz Ritz.” But why exactly, were these camps so swanky for Axis prisoners? There are two primary reasons: hope for reciprocity, and insurance if the allies lost. First, The Smithsonian of February 9, 2016 reports, as per the Geneva convention, fair treatment was promised to all POW’s. The 2010 book “Men in German Uniforms” notes that Archer Lerch, the American general in charge of German prisoners of war explains concerns of reciprocity: if we torture them, they will torture us. If the observers reported abusive conditions within the camps back to Germany, then American POWs held in German prisons would likely be harmed. Next, these camps were America’s insurance policy if we lost the war. If defeated, the Americans hoped that the German POW’s would explain their generous treatments and living conditions once they went back to Germany. Thus, Germany would reciprocate the generosity and lessen the consequences of losing the war. However, The 1950 autobiography, “Panzer Leader” written by General Heinz Guderian discussed that in 1945, Nazi Germany knew that they were facing an imminent collapse. “One evening Hitler lost his temper at the high prisoner-of-war claims issued by the Western Allies. Hitler was quoted as saying 'The soldiers on the East fight far better. The reason soldiers give in so easily in the West is simply the fault of that stupid Geneva convention which promises them good treatment as prisoners. We must scrap the idiotic thing.” Soldiers who didn’t hold Nazi ideology, would simply give up to go to camp. Ironically, our insurance policy in case we lost the war, may have actually been the reason we won.
Although the Nazi Summer camps closed over seven decades ago, the impacts have lasted into present day. Specifically, we must examine implications regarding the War on Terror, and our own humanity. First, according to US News on February 24, 2015, the unusual nature of the War on Terror has changed how we view prisoners of war. Unlike World War 2, this is a war against a non-state actor with no clear exchange of POWs and no end in sight. With virtually no Americans being held by the enemy, America has forgotten what it is like to hope for the return of prisoners. And that has impacted how we have treated those we have captured for the past 15 years. BBC on December 8, 2015 highlights that at Guantanamo, prisoners are called “detainees” rather than POWs, a tactic used to subvert the Geneva Convention and justify extreme interrogation techniques. And unlike the German camps which were planned with the end of the war in mind, CNN February 23, 2016 states that prisoners at Guantanamo are being held indefinitely. The shifting definition of prisoner of war has raised the question of whether the modern interpretation of the Geneva Convention is fueling Anti-American sentiments and potentially making us less safe. Finally, the hope for reciprocity that led us to treat our German POWs well has been turned on its head. Instead of inspiring our enemies to treat us better, the US treatment of prisoners in both Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo may be contributing to the gruesome tactics of the Islamic State. In fact, former hostage Javier Espinosa explains to Newsweek on March 16, 2015, the Islamic state is using Guantanamo as a model for how it treats its hostages. But rather than stop the escalating cycle of torture, CNN of February 9, 2016 notes that during the recent debate, presidential candidate Donald Trump said, “I’d bring back waterboarding...and a hell of a lot worse.” While it’s human nature to want to respond to acts of terrorism with anger and violence, the German POW camps can teach us an important lesson- even though war may make enemies on the battlefield we are still humans; and treating an enemy prisoner with dignity allows us to hold on to our humanity.
Today, we visited the forgotten POW camps of WWII, explored the rationale behind them, and finally, discussed their long lasting implications. Comparing the experiences of POW’s during World War Two and War on Terror, reveal important truths about our society and the changed perspective of the Geneva Convention today. Our history teachers often admonish that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, and in the case of prisoners of war, remembering our past, may help us fix our present, and prepare for a more humane future.