From Stalag 17 to The Manchurian Candidate, the American media have long been fascinated with stories of American prisoners of war. But few Americans are aware that enemy prisoners of war were incarcerated on our own soil during World War II. In The Barbed-Wire College Ron Robin tells the extraordinary story of the 380,000 German prisoners who filled camps from Rhode Island to Wisconsin, Missouri to New Jersey. Using personal narratives, camp newspapers, and military records, Robin re-creates in arresting detail the attempts of prison officials to mold the daily lives and minds of their prisoners.
From 1943 onward, and in spite of the Geneva Convention, prisoners were subjected to an ambitious reeducation program designed to turn them into American-style democrats. Under the direction of the Pentagon, liberal arts professors entered over 500 camps nationwide. Deaf to the advice of their professional rivals, the behavioral scientists, these instructors pushed through a program of arts and humanities that stressed only the positive aspects of American society. Aided by German POW collaborators, American educators censored popular books and films in order to promote democratic humanism and downplay class and race issues, materialism, and wartime heroics. Red-baiting Pentagon officials added their contribution to the program, as well; by the war's end, the curriculum was more concerned with combating the appeals of communism than with eradicating the evils of National Socialism.
The reeducation officials neglected to account for one factor: an entrenched German military subculture in the camps, complete with a rigid chain of command and a propensity for murdering "traitors." The result of their neglect was utter failure for the reeducation program. By telling the story of the program's rocky existence, however, Ron Robin shows how this intriguing chapter of military history was tied to two crucial episodes of twentieth- century American history: the battle over the future of American education and the McCarthy-era hysterics that awaited postwar America.
"A compelling saga of well-meaning incompetence and inefficient oversight from above. Why [Robin] asks more in wonder than in criticism, did those in charge of re-education address the problem in such a limited manner? And how could these professors in uniform have later claimed resounding success for an operation that was clearly a fiasco?"--John Toland, Washington Times
"[A] ground-breaking study.... Robin's excellent book illuminates this unknown wartime chapter in American history."--American Historical Review
"The Barbed-Wire College is a fascinating account of the Army's attempt to re-educate German POWs during World War II. Ron Robin's well-documented study brings to light this virtually unknown chapter in World War II history."--Edward M. Coffman, University of Wisconsin-Madison (Emeritus)
"By studying a crucial episode that historians have overlooked-the United States' effort to `re-educate' 380,000 German prisoners of war-Robin illuminates the fascinating relationship between humanistic scholarship and government policy in the years during and immediately following World War II. His analysis, based on superb archival research, is at once thoughtful and persuasive."--Richard Polenberg, Cornell University
"A well-written and thoroughly researched study. . . . Anyone with an interest in the state of American culture during the war years will have to read this book."--William L. O'Neill, Rutgers University
File created: 9/18/2015