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20 January 2021

From the NS archive: Who goes home?

28 July 1945: The problem of German prisoners of war.

By New Statesman

At the end of the Second World War the problem of what to do with captured German soldiers became more acute. Some were needed for the clean-up work necessary in the Allied nations, some to get agriculture back on its feet, and some for the re-establishment of Germany itself. The prisoners were also divided between various of the victorious nations and no common policy was yet agreed. In Britain alone, there were some 200,000 German PoWs and in this piece, the magazine’s special correspondent argued that it was dangerous to send unrepentant Nazis back to Germany. Those who went back should be committed anti-Nazis whose beliefs had been clearly established through screening and retraining. 


Sir Stanley Reed asked the secretary of state for war whether measures will be taken to ensure that no prisoners of war, under British control, who have shown themselves to be unrepentant and aggressive Nazis are returned to Germany free to organise anew Nazi cells and tyrannise over non-Nazi Germans, until they have given evidence of good conduct.

Sir J Grigg: I would refer my honourable friend to the reply I gave the honourable Member for Maldon (Mr Driberg) on 8 May.

Sir S Reed: Does my right honourable friend appreciate that this is causing very serious apprehension and that those who are in touch with these unrepentant, irreconcilable Nazis view with anxiety their early return to Germany, there to revive their nefarious activities?

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Sir J Grigg: I am completely unaware that any of these unrepentant and aggressive Nazis are being returned to Germany.

(Hansard, 29 May)

In speaking these words, Sir James Grigg was guilty of a terminological exactitude. It is exactly true that no ardent Nazis have yet been returned to Germany. But, unless the camp commandants with whom I recently spoke have all got the wrong end of the stick, the secretary of state for war, when he gave this answer, had already decided to send the ardent Nazis back, and to keep most of the anti-Nazis in England. Sir Stanley Reed had every reason to feel anxious. Indeed, it is high time that the whole treatment of German prisoners of war was thoroughly examined.

So long as we were at war with Germany, it was not unreasonable for the War Office to take cover behind the Official Secrets Act. The Germans held a very large number of British prisoners, and public discussion of segregation and re-education might have given them an excuse for “reprisals”. Now that our prisoners have returned from Germany, there is every reason for public discussion of a problem whose handling will influence the whole future of Europe. There are at present only some 200,000 German prisoners in this country: the bulk of those shipped overseas are in Canada, America and the Middle East. These number something over half a million men. We can reckon, therefore, that some 750,000 young Germans – well-fed and the majority captured while Germany was still undefeated – are in the hands of the Western Allies. What happens to these young men, how and when they are sent home and in what frame of mind, is as important to the fate of Germany as French prisoners in Germany were to France.

Even from a short-term point of view, public security in all four zones will be vitally affected by the policy adopted by each government to its own prisoners of war. The prisoners in Britain, Canada, America, France and Russia, come from all four zones and will be returned, if they are returned, to their homes. Tens of thousands of those now in America will go back to each zone; a large number of those in Britain will return not to the British zone only but to the American, French and Russian zones as well. But at present there is no common policy between the British, Canadian and American Governments, let alone the Russian. We know that the Russians have made extensive use of the Free German Committee to segregate and train German prisoners for work in Germany. During the War, they sent large numbers back behind the German lines, as subversive agents, and some of them fell into our hands. The War Office must, therefore, be fully acquainted with the methods and aware of the postwar use to which these carefully selected prisoners will be put.

It is also known that in Canada, despite frantic efforts by the Canadian psychological warfare board, the majority of camps are still under the control of Nazi NCOs, apart from one or two isolated experiments. No real segregation has been achieved, far less retraining. These Germans, thriving under superb physical conditions, have maintained miniature Nazi communities under the protection of the military authorities; and anti-Nazis by now have been cowed into submission. In America, the scandal was first exposed nearly two years ago. The War Department could not deny either the extravagant luxury or the Nazi psychology of most of the camps. Not only do the prisoners receive American Army rations, 80 cents for a day’s work and a free issue of cigarettes: the camps were equipped with elaborate PX stores – corresponding to but vastly superior to our NAAFI – where prisoners could buy gifts for their girls including excellent watches. In one camp a lithograph press was installed to enable them to produce portraits of the Fuhrer. These excesses have been stopped, but even today there is no serious effort either to segregate or to retrain.

In Great Britain conditions are now a great deal better. For the first four years of the war the War Office blankly refused to touch the problem. All the camps were Nazi-run, and a number of anti-Nazis were murdered or committed suicide. The vast majority of prisoners, who are neither ardent Nazis nor anti-Nazis, submitted to authority – in this case Nazi authority; tolerated and often supported by the British Army. The reason for this lamentable state of affairs was nothing so dramatic as Fascist influence in the War Office. The directorate of prisoners of war was quite properly concerned to avoid reprisals during 1940-41 against the vastly greater number of British prisoners held by the Germans. It became obsessed by the Geneva Convention, interpreting it to exclude either segregation of ardent Nazis or active retraining of anti-Nazis. Moreover, camp commandants, like most human beings, hate unnecessary trouble. The easiest way to avoid “trouble” is to appoint the senior Nazi NCO as camp leader, and then to leave him to maintain discipline. There was no trouble; and, if there was, the trouble-maker was “some damned traitor who deserved all he got”.

The War Office had a further powerful argument on its side. When the Ministry of Agriculture began to make demands for German labour, it was stated that German NCOs were the only gang leaders capable of preserving discipline. Attempts to segregate would cause friction and reduce the efficiency of the prisoners. Anti-Nazis were awkward customers, with political bees in their bonnets and unfit for leadership. To disturb the Nazi status quo in the camps would therefore, so it was argued, be grossly unfair to the Ministry of Agriculture.

In view of these formidable arguments, which received strong personal support for Sir James Grigg, the achievements of the past year are all the more remarkable. After years of fruitless paperwork, a few enthusiasts at last obtained permission to conduct experiments in segregation. A special camp was established to which Anti-Nazis exclusively were sent. Here each prisoner was comprehensively “screened” to make sure of his complete sincerity. Lectures, films, special library facilities were instituted. Finally, selected bands of “apostles” were sent to a couple of camps, from which the most obvious Nazis had been removed, and given the task of cleaning up on their advice, further purges were carried out, until the camps were really “white”. Contrary to official expectation, the discipline of these first “white” camps was excellent, and the output per man higher than in those run by Nazis.

Since these early experiments, segregation has been accelerated. A camp commandant recently told me that more than half of the prisoners have now been sorted into “whites”, “greys” and “blacks” (ardent Nazis). Under 20 per cent are found to be “white”, positively anti-Nazi; rather more are “black” (positively Nazi). The rest are “greys”. Each “white” prisoner has been carefully classified according to job lists supplied by the control commission and by SHAEF [Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force]; and re-orientation by lectures, camp newspapers and films is now under way. The War Office Directorate, sceptical at first of the scheme, and inclined to call its advocates “woolly sentimentalists”, recognises its value. It seems a chance of getting rid of Nazi toughs, and retraining “whites” for work in England. Hence Sir James Grigg’s reply on 29 May.

Before any final decision is taken, it would be well to examine very carefully the alternatives. The control commissions in Germany are desperately short of reliable German man power. Understaffed and overworked, military government is desperately trying to sort out the sheep from the goats, and to rebuild a sound German administration. On the spot, it is almost impossible to undertake proper “screening” and retraining. Meanwhile in England hundreds of specialists – civil servants and judges, morse operators and typesetters, journalists and actors have been screened, under proper conditions, and to some extent enabled to read and hear the facts which Nazi propaganda suppressed. True, these “whites” are not all drawn from the British zone. But the Americans are keen to take those whose homes are in the American zone, and there is little doubt that the French would do the same. As for the Russians, it would surely be worthwhile to raise the matter with them, and to propose that each country should segregate and retrain its “whites” on a common plan, and then send back to their homes, wherever they are, all those required by military government. The blacks and the greys – the vast majority – should then be retained under white leadership for reparation work abroad.

But apparently this is not to be the case. If Sir James has his way, the anti-Nazis, with specialist qualifications for work in Germany, are to clean up the rubble in London, while the ardent Nazis are sent back to Germany to form the backbone of the Werewolves this winter.

But a general election has intervened. Let us hope that, when parliament reassembles, the secretary of state for war has a statement to make which is not only terminologically exact but a straightforward denial that he intends to send ardent Nazis back to Germany, and an assurance that no one will be sent back without thorough “screening” and retraining.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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