A De-Programming Curriculum: Allied Reeducation and the Canadian-American Psychological Warfare Program for German POWs, 1943-47

By Rettig, A. | American Review of Canadian Studies, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

A De-Programming Curriculum: Allied Reeducation and the Canadian-American Psychological Warfare Program for German POWs, 1943-47


Rettig, A., American Review of Canadian Studies


The Canadian federal government, shut out of meaningful post-World War Two diplomacy by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union, found few avenues to assert its separate Canadian identity in the immediate postwar era. The Canadian psychological warfare program for German POWs--influenced by pent-up official frustration (1)--was an attempt by the government of Prime Minister Mackenzie King to register its mark on thousands of German prisoners of war who lived in Canadian-operated POW camps during and after the war. Astounding is the fact that some POWs, intentionally cut off from the outside world, asked on 8 May 1945 which side had won the war. (2)

The United States and the United Kingdom sought to influence the thinking of the Germans following World War Two, especially because of German confusion about the causes of their defeat in World War One. In fact, Adolph Hitler promoted the deceptive "stab-in-the-back" theory that blamed Germany's democratic leaders for betraying a supposedly undefeated German army by surrendering in 1918. Since German militarism quickly reasserted itself after World War One, Allied postwar treatment of Germany's World War Two POWs brought home the message that the German nation had been defeated on 8 May 1945. Canada added its own dimension by implementing a psychological warfare program based on a similar American initiative.

Colonel Henry Faulk, head of the British reeducation program, held that Canada undertook a "limited re-educational effort" that was far too "intellectual" to affect the rank and file of the POWs. (3) His harsh estimate of Canadian curriculum grew out of the POWs' strong expressions of Nazi loyalism when the Canadian-held POWs arrived in Britain in 1946-47 to begin an indefinite period of reparation labor. Faulk, who was quick to fault the Canadian reeducation program, did not consider that the Canadian-held POWs, just as those held by the U.S., resented their indefinite delay in Britain to such an extent that they briefly reasserted their adherence to Nazism in defiance. (4)

This study explores the psychological factors affecting the POWs' postwar ideology by asking fundamental pedagogical questions about Canada's reeducation program: How did the military educators attempt to achieve the desired de-programming outcomes, and what factors impeded the prisoners' learning process? Was the entire program a useful exercise? Why did the Western Allies undertake a reeducation program that involved the indoctrination of POWs?

The Mackenzie King government expended a significant military investment on the psychological warfare through an intense bombardment of "accurate" and "uncensored" Allied information. Canadian officials, looking at reeducation efforts in the United States, embraced John Dewey's pedagogy of "learning by doing" to liberate of the POWs' minds from Nazi control. Final interrogations of POWs in 1946 revealed that most prisoners abandoned aggressive Nazi tenets but refused to abandon Nazism in its entirety. Their bunker mentality and their lingering insecurities probably made them cautious students of an Allied world view. Psychological surveys in 1947 verified that POWs leaving Canada failed to embrace democratic principles.

8 May 1945 stood as a great divide in Allied reeducation efforts. Indeed, the historical context of the two periods plays a key role because only in the aftermath of the war did the Allied powers establish a victors' role over the vanquished POW enemy. Allied foreign policy goals also came into play, because the Allies sought to discredit Nazi ideology and German militarism. Canada, too, imposed strict military measures that involved withdrawing wartime POW privileges.

Canadian influence on German POW matters grew out of Canadian acceptance of thousands of British-held prisoners of war. In May of 1940, just as Germany prepared to attack Britain, and Nazi U-boats menaced Canadian shipping in the Gulf of St. …

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