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Anti-Nazi Prisoners of War in American Prison Camps:

The example of Camp Fort Devens, Massachusetts  

copyright by Norbert Haase

          In a way American POW camps represented a microcosm of the German society in the “Third Reich”. According to the time of capture – either on the Northern African theater or at the Battle of the Bulge the soldiers had different attitudes towards the outcome of the war, a different extent of nationalism and loyalty to Hitler and his regime. Ardent nationalist officers and nazi NCOs attempted to establish, what repatriants later called a “Feldwebeldiktatur”, i.e. sergeant dictatorship, a system of rigid discipline and thought control like in Nazi Germany. As a result such circumstances lead to violent confrontations between Nazi and Anti-nazi prisoners and even to murder. American camp personnel frequently acted with too much tolerance, sometimes even encouragement towards this German camp regime because they were mainly interested in military order and discipline and they distrusted radical leftist prisoners .[1]



German prisoners of war using the official Nazi salute at roll call in a U.S.

POW camp. (Date and location unknown; National Archives)



          Read how a famous German writer, Hans Werner Richter of the liberal postwar writers organization Gruppe 47, vividly described the situation as an anti-Nazi arriving in a Nazi dominated camp. Lewis Carlson cites Richter's novel “Die Geschlagenen” [2] in his American edition of “We were each others prisoners” [3]:

          “Tightly pressed together, like a narrow Guard of Honor, stood the camp prisoners on each side of the street. They all wore the same blue coats and hats which in the darkness had the effect of a gathering storm. They stood there silently. No word of greeting, no sound, nothing came out of their ranks. ‘Deserter!’ Gühler heard someone near him whisper. He looked astonished into the hostile faces but kept quiet. A menacing feeling crept along the silent walls. They walked faster and faster along the long street. ‘Traitor,’ whispered those surrounding them. ‘Deserters! Cowards!’”

           Among the 370,000 German prisoners of war in US custody by the end of World War II, there was a small minority of staunch opponents of the Nazi regime. These men tried to continue their opposition to Hitler even in imprisonment, and to contribute to the defeat of Nazi ideology. Their capture by the Allies, which some of this group had brought about intentionally by desertion, was considered as a liberation from Nazi dictatorship. Their sojourn in the United States was a military version of political exile—“freedom behind barbed wire”, as they said (Freiheit hinter Stacheldraht). The following report deals with a case study of an important anti-Nazi camp, Fort Devens in Massachusetts, and discusses how these prisoners of war reacted politically in a specific historical situation. Even though it is not uncommon in contemporary history in America, the term “anti-Nazi” in German generally calls for some explanation. A self-description by anti-Nazis in Fort Devens in April 1945 defined it thus:

          “An anti-Nazi is one who rejects Nazism by personal conviction, and who stands up for this conviction openly. Anti-Nazis fought against Nazism and its political doctrine of force both before and after Hitler came to power. Many have lost their lives in this struggle; others have spent years in prison. Those who survive stand unwaveringly by their principles. These are: Respect for our fellow human beings regardless of their nationality, race and religion; commitment to democracy, international understanding and progress in every field.”[4]  

          As early as Spring of 1944, the inmates set down a clear rejection of all opportunism in their “Principles for our Camp Community”:

          “As anti-Nazis, we German prisoners of war see the Allies not as our enemies, but as helpers in the annihilation of Nazism. Our efforts to cooperate well with the American authorities are the logical consequence of this attitude. […] Those who have come here for reasons of personal advantage, or out of fear of the settling of accounts that will be necessary with the guilty Nazi criminals, are not anti-Nazis.”[5]  

          In Spring of 1943 when the German Africa Corps was captured, about 5,000 members of the “Africa Division 999”, at least 30 percent of which was made up of opponents of the regime, became prisoners of the Allies. Even in the receiving camps in Northern Africa, soldiers of the special 999 battalions resisted military and political subordination. In Summer of 1943, political conflicts between Nazis and anti-Nazis arose in most of the PW camps in America. Fanatical supporters of the Nazi regime resorted to terrorist tactics. They compiled “black lists” which were to be conveyed to Germany, and which caused anti-Nazis to fear possible retributions by the regime against their families. In many camps serious incidents took place in 1943.




Violence among German POWs: An anti-nazi POW is threatened by a        POW Erwin Schulz was born in Berlin in 1912 to a

roll commando. (Lino-cut by POW Walter Poehls, 1945, from the                 working-class family. Communist and anti-nazi activities 

collection of German Resistance Memorial Center, Berlin)                            in the 1930s landed him in a concentration camp and 

                                                                                                    prison. In 1942 he was drafted into the infamous                            

                                                                                                    999 penal battalion, but deserted in Northern Africa to US 

                                                                                                    troops in May 1942. After repatriation he lived in East

                                                                                                                                     Germany. (Private photograph)               



          Kangaroo courts of PWs drove fellow prisoners to suicide. A few PWs were murdered: official US information documents eight such cases by the end of the war. In those camps where they were most numerous, anti-Nazis were able to stand their ground and succeeded in obtaining a division into separate compounds. Concentration and confrontation, however, excited an atmosphere of civil war in the camps, and led the US camp administration in July, 1943, to introduce a “segregation program”, in which so-called “troublemakers” were isolated. Officially, the establishment of Nazi and anti-Nazi camps was mainly a means of restoring order and discipline in the camps.

          PWs who wanted nothing to do with the Nazi state and its army included not only dissidents of the Africa Division 999, but also soldiers from regular German army units, conscripted foreigners and "German nationals" – Volksdeutsche – from the occupied countries, and Austrian separatists. In Summer of 1944, new conflicts arose between “Africa PWs” and newly arriving “invasion PWs” due to different war experiences. Anti-Nazi PWs were often suspected as traitors, not only by their fellow PWs.



Political conflicts erupted at Camp Aliceville, Alabama.

(Drawing and political poem from  the diary of POW Gustav 

Winkler, 1943. Collection of German Resistance Memorial)



          Erwin Schulz, a former communist resister to the Nazi regime and inmate of concentration camps in the 1930s, remembers his experiences, how he and his comrades of the 999 Penal Battalion (Bewaehrungseinheiten 999) were treated in American custody:

          “After our arrival in America, we were sent to Camp Aliceville, Alabama. We 999ers were easily recognizable through open discussions. The German army had been rolled back from Stalingrad and defeated in North Africa. It was now clear that Germany would lose the war, so we felt we could talk more openly. We considered the allied troops to be our friends, and in no way did we want to cause the Americans any problems. We talked openly about how we wanted nothing to do with the outspoken fascists, but the Americans handled us just like the most impassioned Nazis. When we naturally fought against being lumped together with them, we were labeled “troublemakers.” Anyone who demanded his rights under the Geneva Convention was also considered a disciplinary problem. At night we always posted a watch because the situation with the other prisoners was very tense. The Gestapo elements threatened us just to prove how powerful they were. What the Americans wanted was discipline. We were supposed to salute all officers, but we had enough of that kind of thing and we refused to salute them. So again we caused trouble. We tried to get our own anti-Nazi barracks in Aliceville. We wanted the camp authorities to segregate the Gestapo elements and their faithful followers so they would not be able to influence the younger prisoners who had never anything but Nazi propaganda. But the Americans turned everything upside down. Instead of the Nazis, we were isolated into a rather primitive compound for a couple of months and then sent to Camp McCain, Mississippi, which was an anti-Nazi camp. In Camp McCain we were joined by various prisoners from other camps. We knew some of them from North Africa or from our own incarceration in other camps. These men later became part of the Fort Devens contingent.” [6]

          The process of segregation led to the rapid expansion of the anti-Nazi camp McCain, Mississippi, to some 1300 inmates. Here the prisoners established a democratic camp constitution with freely elected spokesmen, in contrast to the strict subordination of the German army, which formed the basis of “non-com dictatorships” in other camps. In McCain a camp culture had already begun which was oriented toward concepts of civil liberty.

          In March, 1944, the anti-Nazis were transferred from McCain to Fort Devens because the War Department feared Germany had learned about the camp, especially since German authorities had stopped the delivery of Red Cross parcels for McCain. After Camp Ruston, Louisiana and Camp Campbell, Kentucky, Fort Devens was the largest and most important anti-Nazi camp for German prisoners of war in the USA.



Entrance of the POW camp Fort Devens, Massachusetts in March 1944. 

This still picture is from a film taken by order of the U.S. camp commander 

Col. Storke. (Collection of German Resistance Memorial Center, Berlin)



          By the end of WWII, the camp's roughly 3,100 inmates included some 400 dissidents who had suffered in Nazi prisons and concentration camps, members of the Africa Division 999, most of them supporters of the labor movement in its broadest sense who were active in the resistance against the Nazi regime. Fort Devens developed into a model camp, even in the eyes of the Americans. One PW recalled the camp’s “good discipline without military orders”.

          Anti-Nazi PWs in Fort Devens adopted no imposed order such a as a set of camp regulations. They committed themselves to principles which underscored their common interests and appealed to self-discipline and personal responsibility. Their principles were characterized by tolerance and pluralism, and were intended to help young fellow PWs to learn democratic concepts and ideals that would strengthen their belief in a better Germany and Europe. Small posters were put up in the camp bearing credos such as this: “As soldiers of the German Army, we see this war as nothing more than the Nazi leadership clique’s desperate struggle for survival, for which they are prepared to sacrifice the entire German people.”[7] The anti-Nazis also tried to gain sympathy among US public for their particular situation. Moderate, social-democratic and socialist-oriented forces in Fort Devens were able to control conflicts with nationalist "German soldiers". A division of factions was all the more inevitable as the end of the war approached, however, since communist hardliners and other radical leftists refused to cooperate with the USA. These PWs were punished by being transferred to the auxiliary Camp Stark, New Hampshire.[8]

          Work within the camp was aimed at permanently establishing democratic conditions. The activities ranged from organizing democratic newspapers, building a camp library (which included literature burnt by the Nazis), to political and cultural education for younger PWs through lectures and sports, to a camp chorus and cabaret. On January 14th, 1945, PWs organized a cultural evening program titled “Das andere Deutschland” (The Other Germany), that included texts by Johannes R. Becher, Erich Weinert and Thomas Mann. 



"Das andere Deutschland – The other Germany"

Cultural program from Camp Fort Devens, Massachusetts, 

January 14, 1945. (German Resistance Memorial Center, Berlin)



          The democratic spirit was also reflected in their memorial culture, as evidenced in camp meetings on May 1st in the tradition of the labor movement, September 1st as the anti-war commemoration day or November 9th, the anniversary of Germany's first republic. These efforts had some success, being well received by several hundred young inmates. Younger PWs were confronted with their older comrades' experience of democracy and the history of the youth movement, as well as with the “American way of life”, and broadened their horizons in free discussion, tolerance and responsibility.

          Wearing the German imperial eagle with swastika on uniforms was not allowed. Efforts to contribute to the war effort aimed at excellence in prisoners' work – such as repairing military vehicles on a voluntary basis, for example – and the prevention of escape attempts. In view of their own multinational makeup, which was due to the German army's conscription policies, the PWs focused on the European idea.

          A few days after the “Council for a Democratic Germany” was founded on May 3rd, 1944, in New York, anti-Nazis in Fort Devens tried to initiate a cooperation with the US and the Council by establishing a “Prisoner of War Council for a Democratic Germany”. Its agenda included the offer of support in the investigation and prosecution of Nazi crimes, in particular the persecution of the Jews; the separation of Nazi non-commissioned officers from other PWs; democratization of camp constitutions; recruitment of opponents to the Nazi regime to camp administrative functions; unrestricted access to the free press as well as democratic re-education for PWs. Although the suggestions in the PWs’ resolution were later given consideration, the reactions of the US authorities were rather reserved or even negative, since neither the Geneva conventions nor the safety of American PWs in German custody seemed to allow a more constructive position.

          Yet there were not only setbacks. From February until October, 1945, PWs in Fort Devens published the biweekly PW. Halbmonatsblatt Deutscher Gefangener, which illustrated camp life and was imbued with its spirit. The magazine, which was distributed in other camps, contributed to critical discussion of Hitler's state and its crimes and called for a reorientation towards a liberal democracy. PW took care to remember the victims of the Nazi dictatorship as well as the “other Germany”. PW’s cover illustrations, styled after political caricatures of the Weimar Republic, visualized the horrors of the war and the concentration camps, but also the democratic tradition of German freedom movements.



PW– political journal of German anti-nazi POW at Fort Devens, 1945

(Collection of German Resistance Memorial Center, Berlin)



          In the beginning of February, 1945, Fort Devens PWs finally proposed to the US authorities the famous “Peace Appeal by German Prisoners of War in the US to the German People”, which was signed by 1391 anti-Nazis and broadcast by American radio in Europe at the beginning of April, 1945. Aware of the dramatic situation in Germany and deeply concerned for their loved ones at home, they warned of an impending “self-destruction” of the German people. The peace appeal urged soldiers and civilians to distrust Nazi propaganda, to defy the regime and to lay down their weapons. In March, 1945, the PWs initiated the “Save the Child” donation campaign, collecting from their wages a contribution to the Red Cross of more than $23,344 for needy children in Europe, “without regard to nationality, religion or race”. Such initiatives went on past May 8th, 1945. When the truth about the concentration camps became public, the anti-Nazi PWs held lectures about the reality of the concentration camps, which many of them knew from their own internment.

          In May, 1945, after their efforts had met with mixed success, the camp’s inner political circle submitted a “Memorandum” signed by 367 PWs who looked back on a total of 1000 years of incarceration in Germany since 1933. These prisoners demanded quick repatriation in order to contribute to a new democratic beginning in Germany. Two statements, balancing between resignation and realism, may serve to sum up the ambivalence of the anti-Nazis' situation. Shortly before his repatriation, tank grenadier Horst Heizenröther drew this depressing conclusion in a letter from Fort Devens dated November, 1945:

          “In this land of liberty I found everything else I was looking for: humanity, fair treatment, justice; but I didn't find a chance for activity against the beasts who were going to destroy my own people and others, too. – In time, I learned that it must be that way, that the army had enough men to do the job, that I was not needed. I didn't growl against the Americans, but I suffered. I suffered because the Nazis were still fighting and I couldn't fight them in any way.”[9]

          The former Breslau socialist Herbert Tulatz, acting camp spokesman, wrote in 1946 for a leftist journal in a more conciliatory way:

          “Thus the anti-fascist German prisoners of war have accomplished exemplary work. They have worked not only for themselves, but for the German people, for they proved to the American public that there were honest people who stood up for their anti-fascist ideas.”[10]

          With some simplification we can develop a typology of dissident action from captivity – especially view of comparable observations in other countries – with differences of timing and degree. There appears a range of possible actions that might contribute to overthrowing the Nazi regime from outside, supporting self-assertion against Nazi terror from inside a PW camp, overcoming Nazism's ideological influence on fellow PWs. Consistent acts of disobedience and a clear rejection of the Nazi regime's claims to loyalty, as well as individually or collectively organized defense against terror in the camps, can be considered as categories of resistance. From the point of view of intention, the various forms of willingness to cooperate with the putative enemy must be taken into consideration.

          Although their historical impact remained relatively small or developed rather late, we can observe a remarkable bravery on the part of the anti-Nazis in view of the conflicts and threatened reprisals. These men were of different social and ideological backgrounds, while the former "999" soldiers played a very important roll among them. The prisoners' principled opposition to the Nazi regime seems to be directly related to the experience of their generations.

          In spite of the late opportunity for PWs selected as reliable by the US authorities to participate in the “Special Projects Division” – notably in the special educational camps for police and administration tasks in Wetherill and Fort Getty – the potential described here remained largely unused immediately after 1945.



Covers of books series “Neue Welt”, i.e. new world with anti-nazi literature, edited by

U.S. Army Special Projects Division for German POW in cooperation with the

Berman-Fischer publishing house, 1944. (German Resistance Memorial Center, Berlin)



          At most, it had a latent, long-term effect on the development of German postwar society.


[1] Norbert Haase, “Freiheit hinter Stacheldraht”. Widerstand und Selbstbehauptung von deutschen Gegnern des NS-Regimes in westalliierten Kriegsgefangenenlagern, Ruediger Overmanns (Ed.), In der Hand des Feindes. Kriegsgefangenschaft von der Antike bis zum Zweiten Weltkrieg, Cologne, Weimar, Vienna: Boehlau Verlag 1999, 413–440. See also Arnold Krammer, Nazi Prisoners of War in America, New York: Stein and Day, 1979, 170–173; Ron Robin, The Barbed-Wire College: Reeducating German POWs in the United States during World War II, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press 1995.

[2] Hans Werner Richter, Die Geschlagenen (Berlin: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1969), 162; translation: Lewis H. Carlson.

[3] Lewis H. Carlson, We were Each Other’s Prisoners: an Oral History of World War II American and German Prisoners of War. New York: BasicBooks 1997. Together with Lewis H. Carlson the author collaborated in a German edition of this book: Norbert Haase and Lewis H. Carlson, Warten auf Freiheit. Deutsche und amerikanische Kriegsgefangene erzählen. Berlin: Aufbau Taschenbuch Verlag 1996.

[4] German original: „Ein Anti-Nazi ist, wer aus Ueberzeugung den Nazismus ablehnt und diese Ueberzeugung offen zur Schau traegt. Anti-Nazis haben vor und nach der Machtergreifung durch Hitler gegen die Weltanschauung des Nazismus und dessen politische Gewaltlehren gekaempft. Viele muss­ten dafuer ihr Leben lassen. Andere wurden jahrelang eingekerkert. Die Ueberlebenden stehen nach wie vor zu ihren Grundsaetzen. Diese sind: Achtung des Mitmenschen gleich welcher Nation, Rasse und Religion, sie treten ein für die demokratische Staatsform, die Verstaendigung der Voelker und den Fortschritt auf allen Gebieten.“; POW collection, German Resistance Memorial, Berlin.

[5] German original: „ Wir deutschen Kriegsgefangenen als AntiNazis sehen in den Alliierten nicht unsere Feinde, sondern Helfer zur Vernichtung des Nazismus. Aus dieser Haltung ergibt sich folgerichtig unser Bestreben, mit den amerikanischen Behoerden gut zusammenzuarbeiten. [...] AntiNazi ist nicht derjenige, welcher persoenlicher Vorteile willen oder aus Furcht vor der kommenden notwendigen Abrechnung mit den schuldigen Naziverbrechern nach hier gekommen ist.” POW collection, German Resistance Memorial, Berlin.

[6] Carlson, We were Each Other’s Prisoners, 176–177.

[7] „Als Soldaten der deutschen Wehrmacht sehen wir in diesem Kriege einzig und allein den verzweifelten Existenzkampf der Nazifuehrer-Clique, fuer den das ganze deutsche Volk geopfert werden soll.“ POW collection, German Resistance Memorial, Berlin.

[8] Allan V. Koop, Stark Decency, German Prisoners of War in a New England Village. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1988.

[9] POW collection, German Resistance Memorial, Berlin.

[10] German original:“So haben die antifaschistischen deutschen Kriegsgefangenen in Amerika vorbildliche Arbeit geleistet. Sie haben nicht nur für sich, sondern für das deutsche Volk geschafft; denn sie bewiesen der amerikanischen Oeffentlichkeit, daß es aufrechte Menschen gab, die als Antifaschisten für ihre Ideen eintraten.”; POW collection, German Resistance Memorial, Berlin.

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