The Barbed-Wire College: Reeducating German POWs in the United States during World War II

By Ron Robin | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
Professors into Propagandists

IN THE early winter of 1938, as America looked on from afar at the stilldistant war, Harvard scholar Howard Mumford Jones startled the readers of Atlantic Monthly with an unusual analysis of the pervasive hold of totalitarian regimes. In anticipation of Antonio Gramsci's prison notes on cultural hegemony, the Harvard professor of English literature argued that the success of Fascism lay not in the ruthless deployment of repressive political tools, but in “the efficient creation by the dictators of a glamorous mythology.” The aesthetically attractive myths of Fascism endowed the “downtrodden subjects” with appealing images of their collective past and a communal sense of self-worth which no longer existed in democratic societies. “We used to have Glamour in this country, ” Jones added somewhat sadly but it had been destroyed by “'progressive' educators, the debunking biographer, and social historians.” Jones urged his readers to learn from Fascist successes. His proposal called for mobilizing the liberal arts for the purposes of creating attractive democratic myths and resurrecting an engaging version of America's past.

Jones argued that it would make little sense to try to prove that the mythological figures of totalitarian cultures were “fake heroes.” Whether the romance of totalitarian patriotism was derived from actual historical events or was pure fabrication was beside the point. The objective of the humanist and cultural historian was not to verify facts but to understand the lure of myths, to comprehend why people chose to believe certain legends. If Fascist regimes controlled their peoples primarily by producing an attractive collective history, American humanists who had “debunked too much” now had the mission to produce a usable and inspiring past for the impending battle for hearts and minds. The “only way to conquer an alien mythology is to have a better mythology of your own.” 1

Jones would be given the opportunity to practice his preaching a few years later upon joining the staff of the POW reeducation program. As fate would have it, the plans for reeducating German POWs were placed in the hands of a personal friend, one Lt. Colonel Edward Davison, who somewhat predictably would seek the services of reliable acquaintances.

Edward Davison, university professor, minor poet, and an obscure officer in the Morale Division of the Army Service Corps, was probably surprised to be informed of his nomination as director of the Special Project Division (SPD), a newly formed branch of the Office of the Provost Marshal General (OPMG) charged with the reeducation of German

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