My colleague Lorrin Garson, recently retired from the American Chemical Society, has been a book advisor to me for some years, both of us being avid readers of military histories in particular. He has pointed me to many memorable books in this genre, including, most recently, Colditz.
The literature of prisoner of war camps is a genre in its
own right, compelling for the inevitable fascination with escapes, and also the
psychological drama of entrapped potency. Colditz was the highest security prisoner of war camp in
The story has much to speak for it… daring and heroic escapes, fascinating characters, a castle of lost passageways… and its stories have been chronicled by writers from both sides of the barbed wire. Determination and ingenuity abound (one of the most famous attempts was short circuited by the end of the war… the construction of a glider within the attic of the citadel).
Colditz was a Wehrmacht institution, run by professional
soldiers rather than the brutal Nazi thugs that populate the cruelest realities
of WWII in
Much of the prisoner of war literature revolves around the importance of food (and more often, its dearth). In Colditz, obsessions of food played a part, but for most of the war, the prisoners were better nourished than their gaolers. Red Cross parcels supplemented the meager rations of the prisoners, while the German garrison had fewer such luxuries. It is notable that, at the end of the war, no guards of Colditz were tried for, or even charged with, war crimes.
The contrast with our own prisoner of ‘war’ sagas is striking. Read The Memo in the
February 27th issue of the New Yorker if you doubt the sanction of torture at the highest
levels of the
To recognize these contrasts is neither to romanticize an earlier war nor demonize ourselves in the present conflict. The distinction between criminality and duty, whether in Nazi Germany or the halls of the Pentagon, lies in respect for just law, not in the flavor of citizenship one holds. In the aftermath of WWII, the world held German citizens complicit, if not entirely culpable, for the atrocities committed against soldiers and civilians alike. And now? The verdict is reported daily in the news. I suppose a lot depends on whose news you believe.
Image: Bone model of an 18th century warship, from the Ship Gallery of the United States Naval Academy Museum. Such models were often made by prisoners of war to pass aways long periods of detention. Photo by the author, February 28, 2006.