The POW Camp and the
“America, ” whispered Grundmann. Gühler said nothing. He looked at the country that stretched before him into the distance, empty and monotonous and dotted with hills. The trees on the hills stood base beneath the heavy, leaden sky. … The morning wind blew cold across the sea, making them shiver. But they only stared out into the wide, flat country that seemed to them endless and full of mystery.
—Hans Werner Richter 1
THE BLEAK, spartan barracks, planted on the forbidding terrain of an alien country, had a curiously uplifting affect. After months of milling around in makeshift enclosures, deprived of adequate food, and ritually humiliated at every temporary camp along the way, these stark enhutments which made up the POW camp for Germany's military captives in the United States signaled a return to a familiar routine.
For Germans captured during the course of allied offensives in Italy and North Africa, surrender had taken a heavy emotional toll. The humiliation of defeat could be rationalized, of course, as a mismatch between an outnumbered and exhausted German army, on the one hand, and the fresh, well-stocked American fighting force. But a far more onerous psychological burden was the captives' loss of fundamental frames of reference. They were soldiers, a calling based upon a rigid etiquette which had governed their lives since induction. Captivity destroyed all remnants of their predictable routine and hurled the surrendering troops into a maelstrom of disorder, uncertainty, and disgrace.
The destruction of group identity and exclusive military frames of reference was hard to bear because rigorous initiation had erased previous pristine civilian concepts of self. Relentless training and harsh manifestations of authority were all part of the soldier's rites of passage. Military life reproduced the Total Institution, Erving Goffman's seminal definition for a tightly controlled, culturally sealed world in which an individual's previous experiences were forcibly erased. 2 Upon entering military life, the German recruit, like any other inductee into a modern military regimen, was exposed to constant attempts to destroy his civilian