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

By Ron Robin | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER SEVEN
Film: Mass Culture and Reeducation

“THE PRISONER of WAR activities most naturally susceptible to the influence of the program are those recreational diversions that move more or less entertainingly in the realms of social ideas, the Provost Marshal General (PMG), Archer L. Lerch, wrote in his initial proposal for what he called the “re-orientation” of German POWs. 1 The “most effective media” for indoctrination “in probable order of popularity among prisoners are a) motion picture programs; b) recreational readings; c) radio programs; and d) theatrical performances.” Films, Lerch noted, represented a particularly sensitive issue because of the prisoners' insatiable appetite for this medium. He apparently feared that counterproductive thoughts might infiltrate the prisoners' minds and impede reeducation through “casual and haphazard” handling of the movie diet in the camps. Motion pictures demanded, therefore, special attention.

These recommendations did not fare well once plans for reeducation began to materialize. Upon the establishment of the Special Projects Division (SPD), movies received marginal attention only. The architects of reeducation either ignored the use of motion pictures or damned the medium with faint praise.

Several factors had combined to produce this unfavorable attitude toward movies. Lt. Colonel Edward Davison, Lerch's choice for director of the SPD, alluded to the primary reason by describing his program as “intellectual diversion” instead of the vague, open-ended “reorientation” or the more insidious sounding “indoctrination” employed in other descriptions. Here Davison hinted at a deep mistrust of popular culture and, conversely, a commitment to education by rational persuasion that he shared with most of the senior SPD officers. Reeducation planners would admit in passing that from “time to time good non-political Hollywood productions” could provide some positive input. However, they envisioned the fundamental purpose of the film branch as a repository of government filmstrips on science and education, all of “which could furnish excellent indoctrination material.” 2 Having committed themselves to a program of scholarly enlightenment, these officials approached the medium of film as an auxiliary tool for intellectual persuasion and ignored its popularity among the prisoners.

At least as important as these staff presumptions on the efficacy of film was the attitude of the auxiliary German prisoner staff employed in the Idea Factory. As intellectuals removed from the typical concerns of the

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