31st December 2006
Henry Faulk was the British officer responsible for a programme to 're-educate' 400,000 German Prisoners of War held in England at the end of the Second World War.
This book, published in 1977, is remarkable for two reasons. Firstly much has been written on the theory of re-education, but the programme described in the book was one of the few examples where it was consciously and systematically applied in practice. Secondly Faulk approaches the subject from the point of view of group psychology, rather than the attitudes of individuals, or of any supposed 'national character.'
In all, there were 1,500 separate prisoner of war camps in Britain, which, in Faulk's words, made it possible to observe alterations in the group conditions of men "under conditions as like those of a laboratory as real life permits."
It is also one of the few books in English I have read, which consciously tries to portray both a British and German point of view. As Faulk says:
"Although the war was the same historical event for both the Germans and Allies, they saw it from diametrically opposed points of view. To the West the war was a symptom of the specifically German disease of super-nationalism, and re-education was to be the cure. The majority of German POW had as little comprehension of that viewpoint as had the British population for the way in which Germans had experienced the years of National Socialism under Hitler."
Before 1944, very few German POW were held in Britain. But after D-Day and the Normandy landings, numbers increased rapidly and in total around 400,000 German POW were held in Britain between 1944 and September 1948, when the process of repatriation was finally completed.
(The 3 million German soldiers who surrendered to the British in Germany at the end of the war in April and May 1945, were not treated as POWs and are not part of this story. They were renamed 'Surrendered Enemy Personnel' allocated a living area within Germany, provided with rations, and left to manage as well as they could, until they were eventually demobilised).
On the concept of 're-education' Faulk says that: "The word was a reminder that the Second World War was in part fought on both sides for ideological reasons." The policy as it applied to POWs was officially approved in 1944: "In September 1944 the War Cabinet approved a scheme of re-education for German prisoners. The Department responsible for the submission and initiation of the scheme was known at that time as the Political Intelligence department and, later, as the Prisoner of War Division of the Foreign Office."
On his own role Faulk says that: "A few weeks before the end of the war the author, then an officer of the Intelligence Corps, was seconded by the War Office to the Political Intelligence Department. At the end of the war the author was given the task of organising the work of re-education in the camps."
The situation in the POW camps at the end of the war
Until the end of the war, the POW camps were run in accordance with the Geneva Conventions which meant that prisoners remained subject to their own military discipline and Nazi ideology and supporters dominated the camps. Faulk says of the situation at this time:
"Until the end of the war...The POW accepted and carried out orders in the same way and in the same spirit of mingled defiance and contempt as any other POW. There was no trouble for the British guards other than the odd attempt at escape, and all serious crime was committed by the prisoners against each other and was politically motivated.... In general the behaviour of the German POW was probably the best of all POW of the last war. Serious crime was rare.... The good behaviour of the POW was not the simple submission to authority. It was a conscious good conduct of the individual. The men were proud of their communal discipline and hoped that it would persuade the world at large that they were not really barbarians. They rarely understood that the accusations of the world were really directed at their group ethos, not at their personal morality."
According to Faulk: "For the mass of German POW National Socialism was a way of life, a system of group attitudes, which supported the individual in his concept of himself as a German, and was seen though a projection of personal honesty. It was identified with racial virtues, patriotism, courage, comradeship, fidelity, self-sacrifice, honour and efficiency. Politically it was seen as a movement of reform towards a classless society, social justice and the betterment of the underprivileged."
This meant that the mass of POW could not understand why the world was "blind to the 'good side' of National Socialism or was not a 'good idea badly carried out.'"
However, according to Faulk, the POWs showed a lack of empathy for those who were not members of their own group. This was not a lack of understanding of another's point of view "for they learned in the most admirable way to listen quietly and patiently to differing opinions and to discuss without hear. Basically it was the lack of a concept of humanity, of men simply as people."
"Until the group blinkers had been removed and it became possible to achieve a moral perspective based on a concept of humanity and not solely on conformity to the group habits, it was difficult to establish an intellectual common ground for any kind of social or political discussion. On the other hand, once the moral basis was established, re-education had attained its aim and the political aspect was of little import."
In summary, the aim of the British Prisoner of War Department, "entrusted with the re-education of the German POW ...was first to separate the concepts of National Socialism, patriotism and the German character, and then to substitute for the attitudes of the National Socialist group ethos, attitudes based on a less ethnocentric and more humanitarian view of people."
Changing British attitudes to the German POWs
On attitudes to the re-education of POWs in Britain, Faulk says: "In so far as the general public was aware of the policy of re-education, and on the whole it evinced relatively little interest, its interpretation of the aim, never clearly defined, tended to be a vague feeling that it was necessary to make the Germans more like the British."
Initially the war was seen as a war of ideas, not a national war between Britain and Germany. But after the discovery of the concentration camps, the distinction drawn by liberal opinion between Germans and Nazis was questioned. Nationally minded opinion, largely represented by the Conservatives, saw this of further evidence of German collective guilt.
According to Faulk, the meaning of 'guilt' was understood differently by British and Germans. The British understood it to mean moral responsibility. "Although there was a general emotional confusion, the British were really talking of moral responsibility." The Germans, on the other hand understood it as "criminal involvement in a personal and legal sense."
During the war, the German POW had enjoyed a higher level of rations than the British civilian population, in line with the government's interpretation of the Geneva Conventions. But on 15th May 1945, after the discovery of the concentration camps, the government yielded to popular demand and reduced the ration scale. Faulk comments on this: "In the POW camps the adjustment of the ration scale was regarded either as proof of the hatred the British bore them or as an act of revenge for the concentration camps; in the course of time the latter explanation became the generally accepted slogan."
But from then on, remarkably, the attitude of the civilian population to German POW changed. Despite a ban on fraternisation and social contacts: "...German POW from that time on began to receive secret and illegal offerings of food from the [British] civilians among whom they worked, a first step in the process which made the POW draw a sharp distinction between their personal thoughts of the [individual] Britisher and their group concept of 'the British.'"
Presumably the British civilian population had made the same distinction in their personal thoughts, between a group concept of 'the Germans' and the individual German POW.
In general there was little contact between the general British population and POWs until 1946. Faulk says of this: "The POW first appeared outside the camps as workers under strict military supervision in the autumn of 1944. Contact with civilians was then the minimum dictated by the needs of employers. Civilian contact developed through 1946 and became general and sanctioned only at the end of that year."
"The war psychosis began to ebb at the beginning of 1946, and the demand on humanitarian grounds for fraternisation and repatriation gathered momentum. Public sympathy was increased by the growing number of cases of people punished for kindness to POW or for deliberately flouting the fraternisation ban. Conversely no credit was allowed to the POW for praiseworthy action. When, for example near Stratford, in the summer of 1946, two POW saved the life of a farmer from the attack of a bull, the War Office forbade any concrete expressions of gratitude."
"In July Richard Stokes MP chaired in London a public meeting of the Churches, Parliamentarians and welfare organisations that passed a resolution demanding for the POW repatriation, fraternisation, a decent pay and a chance to send parcels home. By August the press was in full support. The ban continued even after repatriation began in September and was only relaxed at Christmas, when public and parliamentary pressure had made fraternisation inevitable. Thereafter it progressed fairly rapidly."
"Among the families with which the POW began, eighteen months after the end of the war, to form friendships, any conscious idea of re-education was almost completely absent. Here the watchword was simply humanity and friendliness, and the underlying principle the faith that warm humanity would evoke humanity and that this was bound to have social and political repercussions."
By 13th June 1948 even The Sunday Express was saying: "At the beginning bus conductors refused to carry Germans, Councillors would not have them in libraries, ex-soldiers fought them in dance-halls, but all gave way to public opinion. The Germans are all right."
Around 10% of the 400,000 German POW applied to remain in Britain and eventually 25,252 (6%) were given permission to do so. 796 British girls married POWs.
The process and methods of re-education
The process of re-education started by screening POWs and classifying them as 'blacks' ie Nazi sympathisers, 'whites' ie anti-Nazis and 'greys'. Faulk says of this:
"There never at any time existed among the POW camps of Great Britain a 'White' or a 'Black' camp, in the sense that all the inmates of the one were untainted by Nazi attitudes, whilst all the inmates of the other were steeped in Nazi ideology. Every camp consisted of a small 'white' element and a small 'black' element, rarely making up more than 20% of the camp total between them, and of some 80% of 'greys', men in whom National Socialism was simply the expression of group conformity. Nevertheless both prisoners and POWD spoke of 'white, 'grey' and 'black' camps. The reference was to the 'tone' of the camps, the awareness of preponderant attitudes to which the mass conformed and which emanated from the small active element."
Re-education was about finding the right people, more than about ideas. The process was to remove active Nazis from a camp and then to "find and encourage men capable of making the group aware of a new direction, and to aid the mechanics of the spread of awareness."
"Even though a camp might, for a number of reasons, be ready for change, the process would not start without the right kind of man to lead it. Rejection of Nazism, whether political or based on a positive humanitarianism was not enough."
"The initial impetus toward change required men of impressive quality. The best of these 'whites' were men whose humanity, integrity and capabilities were of a quality to overcome opposition and to command respect, trust, and a focal social influence in the community."
The British Prisoner of War Department described the process as follows: "These men will be hard to find, but when we do find them, we must win them over for re-education. Above all they have objectivity and humanity, integrity, tolerance and ethical principles, which they can express. They prefer democracy because with all its faults it puts people in the foreground and not an impersonal political or economic ideology."
Faulk's assessment of the results was that the process of re-education resulted in a shift of attitudes from 'black' towards 'white' but the greatest movement was from 'black' to 'grey'. The proportion of 'whites' remained fairly constant at 10%.
"Re-education was not a process of preaching and persuasion. It was a reorientation of group attitudes to people and events.... It did not proscribe opinion, but it affected the way in which the group saw its problems and the conclusions it drew."
The 'tone' of the camps changed and results are summarised as follows:
- "About 3% of the POW claimed to have acquired in captivity a new, positive philosophy of life
- About 30% considered tolerance, objectivity and esteem for human dignity the basis of their new social attitudes. The word 'tolerance' was the commonest new concept among the POW. They were proud of it.
- About 20% claimed to have changed their political outlook. For almost all of these men that meant a conclusion in favour of democracy.
- About 4% remained faithful to the old National Socialist norms. For these men the re-educational efforts were enemy propaganda."
Faulk claims that whereas many POW retained some respect for the social institutions of National Socialism, they rejected its attitudes, whereas the mass of the civilian population in Germany rejected National Socialism as a political system, but retained the attitudes which had ensured cooperation with it. Many POW were "shocked after repatriation by the retention of National Socialist attitudes at home."
In summary Faulk says that in the camps involved in re-education in 1945 there was a "gradual, fairly slow, but steady reaction against National Socialism ... In 1946 the persistence of the old attitudes and the dominance of the 'blacks' shrank to a small minority of the camps."
To finish this posting here are two examples from letters Faulk received, after their release, from POW at different ends of the scale. Firstly one who claimed that re-education was a complete failure, because it taught the POW, or at least those of his generation, nothing they did not already know:
- "Re-education: let me restrict myself to those men, perhaps the lesser half, who don't want war or power, and were old enough to know why. The lecturers only told us what we knew already, or else they said things meant to make us feel guilty, or they talked about crimes we hadn't committed and that we ourselves condemned. Most men listened without any interest or just brushed it aside as propaganda. To my mind re-education was a complete failure."
And the second which speaks for itself:
- "Looking back one must confess that captivity was no waste of time for any of us, even for the worst fanatics. In every case the POW was the gainer and so much of it stuck that today, 20 years later, one notices constantly, in every serious conversation, who had the luck to be a prisoner of war in Britain. I write the word 'luck' quite intentionally, because, believe it or not, it is today here in West Germany considered to be an advantage to have been a prisoner of war in Britain. Not an advantage, of course, because of any sort of preferential treatment, but simply because the intellectual and political perspective of the men from Britain is wider and deeper than is, for example, that of the prisoners of war who were unlucky enough to spend the best years of their lives in Russia. Even they got something out of it, although their re-education was a one-sided anti-capitalist affair which failed to turn them into communists, and you notice that they are less patient and tolerant that the prisoners of war from Britain."