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

By Ron Robin | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
Literature: The Battle of
the Books

IN A WORLD dominated by contests of technology and brute force, the officers of the Special Programs Division (SPD) remained convinced that the rational exposition of ideas could solve the scourge of global conflict. They argued consistently that controlling intellectual expression by such means as the regulation of reading material represented the key to ultimate and enduring victory. Technology might decide the battle, but winning the war hinged upon the triumph of ideas.

In their war of words, the SPD's commanding officers did not limit their concerns to the curtailing of enemy propaganda, or, conversely, the saturating of the enemy with bombardments of ideologically correct thoughts. They were equally preoccupied with ostensibly innocuous material, including popular escapist literature. Such material was considered highly prejudicial to the war effort because of the demands it made upon the reader's time and interest. Major Maxwell McKnight, the assistant director of the SPD, charged that the “distribution of books which serve no other purpose than to entertain” severely undermined the command and control of POW camps by providing distractions and avenues of avoidance. 1

McKnight and his fellow officers in the reeducation program maintained that it was possible to engineer consent and acquiescence to American control, both in the camps and beyond, through the minds of their prisoners. The management of POW literature was based on the assumption that controlling the prisoners' intellectual diet would diminish the need for a harsh penitentiary regime. The literary program strove to pierce the mass deception of National Socialism by replacing the false consciousness of Nazism with an alternative, and thoroughly American cultural agenda. Acceptance of the aesthetic and social standards of the rulers would lead to the authentic cultural reorientation of a defeated enemy. Most SPD officers agreed that the point of departure for such an exercise was the regulation of the prisoners' reading material as the primary conveyor of ideas. However, devising the actual inventory of politically correct literature proved to be somewhat more difficult than agreement on the strategy itself.

The SPD launched this campaign for a methodic regulation of reading material only after V-E Day. Previously, local camp commanders had

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