How Did Americans Feel About Incarcerating German POW's in W. W. II on US Soil?

History Q & A

Ms. Stephenson is an HNN intern.

As news of Guantanamo Bay filters through the media, torture, fear and human rights are common themes. Conservative pundits speak out, asserting average Americans are afraid the detainees will devastate America again if released. Human rights groups all over the world have been calling for the end of abuse by the United States, and the CIA recently stated that torture does not yield “significant leads,” according to the Washington Post.

But, to steal a scene from the novel, Summer of My German Soldier, during WWII many German POWs were not fenced in or shackled up, but were allowed out for farming duties and leisure time, and often developed relationships with their guards and the families they worked with.

“The Germans were utilized,” said Arnold Krammer, a history professor at the University of Texas A&M. With the American labor force moving toward the industrialized cities, the German prisoners took up the “agricultural gap” left behind.

The camps, first established at the beginning of the war, were located in the southern United States. Krammer said this was because the Geneva Convention stipulated that wherever the enemy was captured, he was to be held in a similar climate. Many German POWs were captured in Africa; the South was a comparable climate. Also, Krammer added that southerners were seen as “patriotic,” and willing to give up their land for country. By the end of the war, almost every state in the Union had a POW camp: 550 camps holding almost 400,000 prisoners. The Germans had about 90,000 American prisoners.

The biggest difference, explained Krammer, is the ‘Gitmo’ prison is covered by a completely different set of rules than the WWII camps.

The WWII camps that held POWs were run under the Geneva Convention (1929 version), which, among many articles, provided that prisoners must be allowed a certain amount of space, air, and other personal freedoms.

Guantanamo Bay, in contrast, was not governed by the rules of the Geneva Convention for many years. In 2001, President George W. Bush signed an executive order that the U.S. military may lawfully detain any non-citizen involved in international terrorism. The Bush administration claimed that these terrorist suspects -- unlawful combatants who operated without a uniform -- were not protected by the Geneva Convention. That is, they were not recognized as lawful soldiers.

Nearly 70 years ago it was America’s policy to treat prisoners as humanely as possible; how the United States treated the Germans, we hoped, would be how the Germans would treat Americans. US officials encouraged prisoners to write home and tell their families (and subsequently the government) how they were being treated. The camps had routine inspections from the Swiss and the Red Cross. Prisoners received three regular meals and were given alcohol (much to the grumbling of some American citizens). "And we were decent people. We would have done it anyway,” Krammer said.

The belief in the necessity of setting an example has changed. Detainees at Guantanamo Bay have alleged they have been tortured: deprived of sleep, shackled to the floor for more than 24 hours, left without food or water, and waterboarded. The FBI released memos detailing the abuse agents saw in 2004.

The United States government has taken steps to make amends. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled suspects at Guantanamo Bay are in fact entitled to minimal protections under the Geneva Convention. They cannot be humiliated or degraded. They have a right to a habeas corpus hearing. Soon after being sworn in, President Obama signed another executive order closing Guantanamo Bay prison in one year. By the end of August, President Obama secured commitments from six European Union countries to take Guantanamo Bay detainees. So far, 80 prisoners have been cleared for release to these countries. A Gallup Poll in June found that three-fourths of Americans oppose closing Guantanamo and two-thirds oppose relocating the prisoners to facilities on U.S. soil.

“Before, we set the example. Now we’re trying to find a way out,” Krammer said.

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Donald Wolberg - 8/26/2009

Were not Italian POWs kept in the U.S. as well? I suspect history shows that the American experience with these POWs and the POW expereince with Americans was on the whole beneficial to both. Of course, the Germans and Italians were uniformed soldiers, not Islamic terroists out of uniform folowing the bizarre orders of their bizarre version of holy orders through the equally bizarre mouths and lips of "leaders."

It is also likely that the German and Italian POWs were very happy to be in the U.S. and not on the Eastern Front fighting the Soviets where POW had a whole other meaning. I reacall that several MILLION German POWs never lived to return to Germany after the war and instead were either murdered of worked to death by the Soviets under Stalin. So is it any wonder that POWs in America were so well behaved. Similalry, many likely had relatives or neighbors in the U.S., and a commonality of history, thought and belief and a sense of the world as it is stemming from the enlightenment were additional strands that made the POW experience less a trauma than an opportunity.

In the Islamic terrorists, and the belief structure that created them is none of the rational philosophical and scientific world of Western creation. There is, incontrast, a 7th Century mentality of superstition, inequality of women, heaven attainable by murder of innocents, and a disbelief in modernism of science. All this is very different and dangerous.

Elliott Aron Green - 8/26/2009

Unfortunately, Ms Stephenson overlooks the fact that Jewish refugees from Nazi German persecution and genocide efforts were NOT at all or very seldom allowed into the United States in that period, not even to reside in camps until the war was over and then leave the country. So Jewish victims of Nazi German persecution and genocide efforts were excluded whereas German POWs were treated rather well for prisoners of war.

The democratic equality that Americans believe in has had its limits. The site of the David Wyman Institute may have more info on this matter.

Per Fagereng - 8/24/2009

German prisoners were also held at Bismarck, North Dakota. The worked on farms and the highways. They took part in camp activities - a newspaper, theatrical performances, etc.

I wonder if they had been of a different races, maybe they would have been treated more harshly.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/24/2009

The German POWs of WWII were not terrorists and suicide bombers. The Gitmo detainees were much too dangerous to be treated like the German POWs.

Ralph V. Turner - 8/24/2009

I can remember the German prisoners of war who were in camps in Eastern Arkansas. My father contracted to employ them as peach pickers in the summer, and I recall how much they enjoyed the horses that pulled wagonloads of peach baskets to the packing shed. I was a preteen at the time, and my parents allowed my teenaged older brother and me to mingle with the prisoners in the orchad. I remember one who spoke some English telling us about the fruits available in Germany.