Located at Fort Kearny, Rhode Island, the Idea Factory consisted of German POWs who were carefully screened for their anti-Nazi tendencies and then selected after they filled out questionnaires. These prisoners were then separated from the rest of their comrades at their camp to await transport to Fort Kearny. Although this selection was not foolproof, the Americans did have an advantage. Hitler’s impending defeat had soured many Germans against Nazism. Others had never been ardent admirers of Nazism. Still, at the time the reeducation program appeared, many of the German POWs had been prisoners for two or three years, offering them ample opportunity to think about Germany’s status in the world. These prisoners were involved in the experimental phase of the reeducation program. Although pro-Nazism was still a problem in the camps, this group was determined to do something about it.
The Special Projects staff then assembled a division of “specially-qualified” German prisoners—writers, professors and linguists who were dedicated anti-Nazis. All were volunteers, all were officers and all renounced their Wehrmacht ranks. Due to this special assignment, these prisoners enjoyed far more freedom at Fort Kearny than they had had at their respective camps. No guards or towers policed their movements, and they even took the ferry to Jamestown in army trucks to pick up their supplies.
However, this rather elite group of individuals was perhaps not the most prudent choice. Although the group was happy to be among other intellectuals, Ron Robin believed the group did not understand the tastes of the average prisoner. According to Robin, this would come to negatively affect the program. The Idea Factory was separated into subdivisions, which included review sections for film and government agency material, translation sections for the school curriculum and a camp newspaper section. This last section monitored around seventy POW camp newspapers as well as produced its own nationwide camp newspaper called Der Ruf (The Call). The goals of the newspaper were to “reflect the experience of being a German PW in America, but also stimulate democratic thinking.” The first issue appeared in the spring of 1945.
When Germany fell and victory was proclaimed in Europe in May 1945, many of the ordinary classes POWs had been taking were eliminated. Instead, the essentials—English, history, geography and others that stressed democracy—were emphasized. Now the men at the Idea Factory in New York concentrated on reviewing and preparing materials for the new reeducation program. They focused on two areas: censorship and translations. Books that were to be considered for class use, libraries and for sale in the POW canteen all had to be read, analyzed and evaluated before they would be declared “suitable” for the POWs.
With so many diversions already in place before the reeducation program went into effect, it remained imperative that the Special War Projects Division find U.S. officers capable of implementing the program. The requirements were stiff. The men were expected to be experts on German and American journalism, film and literature; be fluent in German; and have previous experience in a POW camp and education. These assistant executive officers were trained at conferences in Fort Slocum, New York, in late 1944 and early 1945.
The importance of intelligence officers to the program’s success could not be overstated. Yet more often than not, they met with more opposition from their own officers and American servicemen than from the prisoners themselves. Alfred Thompson suggests that the program did not receive the support and cooperation it should have at the camp level because of the intense secrecy surrounding it. Because it was a top secret program, they could not even tell their fellow officers just what they were doing. “One went so far as to tell his commanding officers that he was under secret orders and could not reveal his mission even to him. Some of the AEO’s had enough brains to recognize the difficulties which would be involved in such complete secrecy and lack of confidence in co-workers, but the majority was not so intelligent.” In fact, Thompson and other officers found themselves ostracized by their own co-workers. “We were called ‘Junior Dick Tracys’ or ‘Super Sleuths’ to the point where it hurt.”
This attitude originated from the very top. The supervising officer of the assistant executive officers, Major Paul A. Neuland, felt that the lack of contact between the officers in the field and the Special Projects Division chain of command was having a detrimental effect on the program itself. Even though he tried to pass along the critical comments of the officers to division headquarters, he succeeded only in alienating himself further from his fellow officers. Neuland was upset by the continual rejection of the officers’ comments “by a man in the New York Office … doesn’t make sense.” But unfortunately, to his fellow Special War Projects Division officers, Neuland’s criticism only pointed to a lack of loyalty.
These intelligence officers’ responsibility carried further than merely implementing the reeducation program. They were also required to keep morale and special service activities “maintained and improved” for the American military personnel at the camps. They were ordered to distribute the War Department pamphlets 19-1 “What about the German Prisoners?” and 19-2 “Facts vs. Fantasy” to help in this endeavor. Yet with the majority of the responsibility of the program falling on their shoulders, it is difficult to understand why the commanders in the Special Projects Division office did not listen more to their thoughts on the matter.
Yet the very nature of those in charge, who were mostly from academia, might offer a clue. As Ron Robin states in The Barbed-Wire College, “They represented an alienated intelligentsia, who never bothered to hide their contempt for the rank and file within the camps.”
03 November 2018
The Idea Factory for POW Reeducation
From Nebraska POW Camps: A History of World War II Prisoners in the Heartland, by Melissa Amateis Marsh (History Press, 2014), Kindle pp. 41-44: