- - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

HITLER’S LAST ARMY: GERMAN POWS IN BRITAIN

By Robin Quinn

The History Press/IPG Books, $29,95, 253 pages, illustrated

When World War II ended in Europe 70 years ago, it was a time of rejoicing for many prisoners of war, but not for all. American, British and most of the other POWs serving in the victorious forces of what was then known as The United Nations could look forward to repatriation and recovery. Russian troops unfortunate enough to be captured by the Nazis and sufficiently tough to survive the harsh treatment accorded to them because the USSR was not a signatory of the Geneva Convention could hope for little mercy from their own regime, which regarded them with contempt for surrendering to the enemy. So if not even all servicemen from the winning side had cause to celebrate, what about the defeated? For those German troops unlucky enough to find themselves in Soviet custody, the Gulag loomed; and it would be a decade before the last of them were released, an open wound in the collective German consciousness.

Given Germany’s role in starting World War II and its horrendous treatment of so many millions, there was understandably scant sympathy for its armed forces, although the story of those POWs in Russia did seem unfair to many. This book by Robin Quinn, a BBC producer of radio documentaries, tells the much less well-known story of what befell those Nazi troops who found themselves captive in England. While nothing like as dreadful as the fate which befell their comrades to the east, what happened to them will come as a shock to most of us:

“Today — decades later — it seems extraordinary that German prisoners were still being held captive two years after the end of hostilities . ‘I think many young people would be surprised to learn there were German POWs living here at all.’ The fact is that as many as 400,000 were detained as prisoners in the U.K. during and after the war — some until 1948. This is their extraordinary story.”

Mr. Quinn proceeds to tell it through the eyes of those who actually experienced that fate and also through those who observed it as British civilians. It is on the whole a remarkably upbeat tale, with a lot of stoicism and acceptance, and even a surprising amount of contentment. For some, there was even a happy ending, which began with falling in love with British women and marrying them, settling in the United Kingdom after their release.

There is, of course, a certain amount of whining in a peculiarly German manner, but it is mostly tempered by knowledge of the worse fates suffered by their comrades and by others at the hands of their compatriots. The book’s title is apt, for although debriefing of the POWs, most carried out by refugees from Nazi Germany, many of them Jewish, showed them as running the gamut from fervent believers to those forced to do their duty, they took their oath to their fuehrer very seriously. Hitler making them swear that oath to him personally was a kind of double-edged sword, because their captors noticed a marked change in attitude when prisoners felt that his death released them from it. Being forced to watch films of Nazi atrocities shook some, but others dismissed it as false propaganda or found it impossible to admit that their nation had done something so terrible.

It does seem surprising that they were forced to work on farms and do other essential work in the United Kingdom for so many years after the end of the war, but the British seemed to feel that the damage done to their economy and infrastructure by the enemy justified it. While the war was going on, many German POWs were shipped off to camps across the Atlantic: All those ships that had brought the millions of U.S. troops to Britain in preparation for the invasion of Europe and the subsequent campaign had plenty of room on their return trips. After the spartan fare of wartime Britain, these lucky folk couldn’t believe the American lavishness of what one described as “a fabulous luxury prisoner of war camp where we had excellent food, unheard-of steaks and marvelous facilities.” Another “raved about the Chesterfield cigarettes, Coca-Cola, ice cream and real coffee they were given. ‘It was an unforgettable experience.’ ” But when they were shipped down south to pick cotton and expected to gather 40 pounds by hand for 80 cents a day, things didn’t seem so paradisal.

The salient point that emerges from this book is that whether these POWs were picking cotton in the United States or hops in England, they shared, to some extent anyway, the relative standard of living of those nations. Although the rations on which they were expected to do a hard day’s labor in Britain seem paltry, a chart helpfully provided here shows that they were not that different from what British workers got. And they knew that back home in a collapsed Germany without valid currency or a functioning economy, they would be dependent on rations from an occupying power that were even less generous. Perhaps that’s why they were not all that unhappy to be where they were, doing what they were.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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