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

By Ron Robin | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
The Idea Factory and Its
Intellectual Laborers

IN HIS history of the Allied Forces Psychological Warfare Division in Europe, Daniel Lerner recalled that “characters” was the disparaging term reserved for the so-called misfits: the members of the many wartime intellectual enterprises implanted within the inhospitable setting of the military establishment. Lerner argued that this distrust over the intrusion of academia into military affairs was part of a more general “suspicion common among Americans of sustained intellectual activity”; it also reflected the particularly negative attitude of the military toward those who had never fully accomplished the transition from civilians to soldiers. “Largely exempt from the petty but continuous annoyances imposed by military status, ” Lerner observed, the civilian-minded members of the “special programs” were quick to arouse resentment among regular military personnel. 1

Such image problems affected The Provost Marshal General's (PMG) reeducation program from the very beginning. Hoping to avoid the inevitable locking of horns with the professional military establishment, the PMG allowed the Special Project Division (SPD) to set up its headquarters in New York rather than in Washington, D.C. Proximity to New York's large libraries was the official reason for this unwieldy distance between PMG headquarters and the SPD. In reality the SPD simply strove to detach its unorthodox operation from the confines of a particularly inflexible military body. Safely tucked away on Broadway in Manhattan, the headquarters operations of the SPD did indeed avoid the scrutiny of officious military overseers.

However, SPD officials were unable to protect the main production center of their enterprise, the Idea Factory. In this special POW camp the numerous German assistants who did most of the daily work of the SPD—from editing the POW newspaper to reviewing books for prison libraries—discovered that their daily routine, unencumbered by trappings of military discipline or even prison life, aroused resentment. In Camp Van Etten, in upstate New York, where the Idea Factory had begun its operations before moving to its permanent base at Fort Kearney, Rhode Island, SPD officials confronted a typical military-minded base commander who treated the prisoner-Factory workers “as criminals.”

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