They weren’t all Nazis
You don’t often see letters to the editors of newspapers on the front page, but I recently found one such letter on the front page of the July 11, 1944 issue of The Algona Upper Des Moines (AUDM). I was somewhat surprised they printed this letter on the front page because of the “strong language” used by the writer. The letter says, in part:
It was with unbounded surprise and anger that I learned today that on Sunday, July 9th, the Algona municipal swimming pool had been turned over to Hitler’s Nazis from the prison camp. I will admit that these Nazi prisoners should be treated as provided by international law . . . I will not concede, however, that it is the duty of the city of Algona to entertain them. These men, as Nazis, are guilty of every crime known to man or God. Nothing in history is recorded . . . that can surpass the Nazis’ fiendish acts of war . . . That very day, I picked up my [Des Moines, Iowa] Sunday Register and on the front page, read the headline: “Nazis erase Greek village in massacre” . . . And again in the same Sunday Register, a story of the French village in the Limoges district: “People who took refuge in the village church were locked in and burned alive.”. . . And now Algona’s $25,000 swimming pool is used for the comfort and pleasure of Adolf Hitler’s murdering, robbing, raping Nazis . . . It is high time that the parents of our boys overseas and the taxpayers of the City of Algona start an investigation to discover on whose order and by what authority the persons responsible turned over Algona’s swimming pool to Hitler’s Nazis.
Immediately below the letter was an Editor’s Note:
Eighty prisoners of war were granted the use of the pool by the city council on Sunday morning when the pool was not open to the public. The prisoners paid 30c each of their own allowance for the hour and a half swimming, as well as paid their transportation charge of 15c each between camp and pool, furnished their own life guards, were escorted by proper military guards, and only those having passed a proper medical examination were permitted to use the pool. Red Cross records show that American prisoners in Germany are permitted swimming recreation and the Geneva Convention provides for equal treatment for all warring countries alike for war prisoners.
The following week, this brief column appeared, again on the front page of the AUDM. The headline read: “No More Swims For War Prisoners.”
Because of the many objections filed by Algona citizens the city council will deny the prisoners of war at the camp here the use of the swimming pool in the future . . . Objections made by citizens contain such reasons as the prisoners being unclean, physically unfit to enter the water, and that it wasn’t right that the pool should be contaminated by the Nazis. At the present writing Algona has five prisoners of war in Germany. Perhaps the civil population there holds the same reaction against those five Algona lads as our citizens hold against the prisoners in the local camp.
The editor of the AUDM supported the prisoners’ use of the municipal pool, and I found myself agreeing with him. For the past three and a half years, I have been working on a novel about some of the citizens of Algona and their temporary neighbors, the American and German soldiers at Camp Algona. While I understand the citizens’ objections—those Germans were our enemies, after all—I have had the benefit of the passage of time and a study of history to justify siding with the editor.
I have wanted to write about this subject almost since the beginning of my “blogging career” that commenced last March. The readers of my blogs and my novel (once it’s published) should understand that, during World War II, not all of Germany’s military personnel were “die-hard Nazis.” People assumed they were all Nazis; the media almost always referred to them as Nazis. Clearly, despicable acts were perpetrated by the followers of Adolf Hitler during the war. There can be no argument about that. Even today, it is hard to comprehend. But not all of Germany’s soldiers were Nazis.
The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or NSDAP—The Nazi Party) was a political party that came to power in Germany with the appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor in 1933. The Party eventually gained control of almost every aspect of German life, including the indoctrination of Germany’s youth.
When World War II broke out in 1939, the vast majority of Germany’s soldiers—either enlisted or drafted—had been members of the Hitler Youth, an organization sponsored by the Nazi Party. Initially, membership in the Hitlerjugend was voluntary, but by the mid-1930s, it was required for every Aryan male teenager, even if their parents objected. By 1940, Hitler Youth membership had reached eight million.
To understand the mind-set of the average German soldier, we must consider the years of brainwashing in the Nazi ideology they received as members of the Hitler Youth. Their ongoing activities of hiking, camping, and military training, sometimes with weapons, were all in preparation for war. They marched in formation each and every day. Physical fitness was emphasized at every level, and their uniforms and songs gave them a sense of belonging. They learned Nazi “science” (for instance, why and how the Aryan race was “superior”) and read Nazi books (e.g., Hitler’s Mein Kampf). All of this was happening during their formative years. It was only natural that so many were willing to fight and die for the Führer and their homeland.
But not every German boy was taken in by all of it. If he had a strong relationship with his parents whose values were not those of the Nazis, and if he could remember the tenets of his religious upbringing, he might have inwardly detached himself from the teachings of the Party. (Choosing to not participate was simply not an option because of the consequences.) He could have been a patriotic German boy, he probably loved his country, but the moral and ethical implications of being a true follower of Adolf Hitler would gnaw at what was left of his conscience. He kept those understandings to himself as best he could, though, for his own sake and the sake of his family.
There were “die-hard Nazis” at Camp Algona in the summer of 1944. Using intimidation tactics, some of the enthusiastic followers of Hitler’s Nazi ideology were determined to control their less than enthusiastic comrades. Several self-identified (and secretly declared) “anti-Nazis” were worried about reprisals inside the camp. They were also concerned about retaliation when they returned to Germany after the war. In July, twenty-six POWs put in requests to be transferred to another camp where they would not feel threatened. Initially, there was no place to send them, but in early August, camp commander Colonel Arthur Lobdell received a request for POW labor from a canning company in Cokato, Minnesota, just west of Minneapolis. He considered the request a fortuitous solution to the anti-Nazi situation, and immediately established a branch camp in Howard Lake, just a few miles east of Cokato. That camp was reserved exclusively for anti-Nazi prisoners. The population at Howard Lake grew to sixty-three by the end of August.
In 1944, it was estimated that between twenty and twenty-five percent of the POW population at Camp Algona (maximum capacity was 3,000) was firmly pro-Nazi. The rest were apolitical or deeply anti-Nazi, more concerned with the welfare of their families back home, the condition of their hometowns, and what the future held for them once the war was over. In spite of Hitler’s attempt to remove all aspects of religion from their lives as they advanced through the Hitler Youth, some remained deeply religious. By the time of Germany’s surrender in May 1945, the intimidation factor of the pro-Nazi prisoners had diminished, and most of Camp Algona’s prisoners were siding with the anti-Nazi mentality. They saw the “writing on the wall.”
Blessings to all.
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her first novel. You can find her web site here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.