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Apr 2007 Journal

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Prisoners remembered, prisoners forgotten

Researching my article on Herbert Sulzbach for our March issue, I was amazed at the extent to which the history of German prisoners-of-war in Britain has fallen into oblivion. Today, nobody seems to know that there were some 400,000 German PoWs in Britain in 1946, dispersed all over the country in some 1,500 camp units. I even discovered a mini-camp in Brondesbury Park, London NW6, about two miles from where I live, where prisoners from Wilton Park in Buckinghamshire, selected to broadcast on the BBC, were lodged in London. Yet the record of the British in re-educating the PoWs in their charge was thoroughly creditable. The official German history of German PoWs in the Second World War explicitly acknowledges that Britain surpassed all other custodian powers in teaching PoWs to respect democratic values and humane standards of behaviour.

Nevertheless, compared to the level of interest in British PoWs in Germany during the Second World War, that in German PoWs in Britain remains negligible. Who now remembers that the original ‘one that got away’ was a captured Luftwaffe pilot, Franz von Werra? Von Werra was in one respect a rather ‘British’ PoW: he was determined to escape and eventually reached the then neutral USA, from Canada. As the title of the film about him, The One That Got Away, implies, he is often thought to be the only Axis PoW who escaped and reached Germany. But he is remembered, if at all, only because his determination to escape aroused the interest of post-war British audiences eager for stories about escaped PoWs.

The British have an abiding fascination with British PoWs in the Second World War. Books and films about them abounded in the 1950s and 1960s, like the popular film The Wooden Horse (1950), the subject of which was a famous escape from Stalag Luft III (with a moving performance from Leo Genn). The sequence of these films ended with The Great Escape (1963, with a mega-cast of Anglo-American stars headed by Steve McQueen’s motorbike) - appropriately enough, since this mass escape, also from Stalag Luft III, put an end to such attempts: the Germans shot 50 of the recaptured escapees as a deterrent.

The British love affair with escaped PoWs continued with the 1970s TV series Colditz (Oflag IV-C); this camp’s name so penetrated the public consciousness that, like ‘Dunkirk’, ‘Arnhem’ or, for that matter ‘Belsen’, it came to encapsulate the nation’s collective memory of key episodes of the Second World War. The experience of British PoWs in the Far East, where they were exposed to the institutionalised sadism of the Imperial Japanese Army, inspired David Lean’s famous The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), with a riveting performance by Alec Guinness. The 1980s TV series Tenko, which depicted the appalling treatment endured by British and Allied women in Japanese internment, also showed how interest in Second World War captives persisted down the decades.

This fascination does not extend to British PoWs in the First World War, about whom very little is known. At most, a few people will have heard of the camp at Ruhleben, near Berlin, where British civilians were interned. The presence of numerous British and French PoWs in Germany during the First World War also vanished rapidly from German public consciousness, unlike that of Russian PoWs, whose suffering is vividly depicted in such bestsellers as Arnold Zweig’s Der Streit um den Sergeanten Grischa and E. M. Remarque’s Im Westen nichts Neues. The fate of the Russian PoWs came to symbolise the senseless suffering of the ordinary soldier in a hopeless war, which was the main lesson of the First World War for liberal intellectuals in post-1918 Germany. The theme reappeared in Jean Renoir’s magnificent anti-war film La Grande Illusion (1937), which turns in part on the relationship between the captured French officer de Boeldieu and the camp commandant, unforgettably played by Erich von Stroheim.

For the British public after 1945, escape attempts from German camps by British PoWs played their part in the structuring of the national image of the Second World War as a heroic story of British resistance to a menacingly powerful and authoritarian regime. Given that for most of the war, between Dunkirk (May 1940) and D-Day (June 1944), there was no all-important land front in Europe where Britain confronted Germany as it had on the Western Front in the First World War, the triumphant halo of resistance to the Nazis had to be displaced to other areas. The most obvious of these was the war in the air, which acquired an almost mythical stature in public memory, as did civilian defiance of the Luftwaffe’s blitz on British cities.

Escape attempts from PoW camps helped to fulfil this function of symbolising the successful resistance of the British and their values to Nazi power and tyranny, and of anchoring it in post-war public consciousness. Sadly, what began as the symbol of a conflict of values has more recently been hollowed out into mere nationalism and anti-German bigotry: the theme music from The Great Escape has been adopted by England’s football fans as their anthem, alongside their bone-headedly ignorant slogan ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’.
Anthony Grenville

next article:H.G. Adler: scholar, poet, survivor