Men in German Uniform: POWs in America during World War II (review)
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Men in German Uniform: POWs in America during World War II. By Antonio Thompson. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2010. Pp. xiv, 178. $41.95 cloth)

Men in German Uniform is an excellent addition to the literature concerning German POWs held in the United States during World War II. There are three notable reasons. Thompson presents a brief, readable, but comprehensive survey based on American archival materials and existing secondary literature. This makes his book an excellent introduction to those beginning a study of the topic. Additionally, he rightly stresses the very positive impact that POW labor had on the American wartime economy. This point sometimes gets lost in the colorful accounts of escapes, suicides, and American-German fraternization that characterize many other studies. And finally, and very importantly, Thompson reminds us that many of the men in German uniforms were neither Nazi nor even German.

When Antonio Thompson published his fine study concerning German POWs held in Kentucky (German Jackboots on Kentucky Bluegrass, 2008), this reviewer awaited with interest the publication of the research for his 2006 University of Kentucky doctoral dissertation, "Men in German Uniform." It is the title that catches one's eye. It indicates that Thompson knows something of which few Americans are aware: German uniforms concealed a far from homogeneous group of prisoners. Men in German uniform consisted of "Germans and non-Germans and Nazis and non-Nazis mixed with the ideologically unsuitable, socially undesirable, and physically and emotionally unreliable"(p. 16). Thompson's chapter two: "Sprechen Sie Deutsch? From Recruitment in the Third Reich to Incarceration in the United States" is itself worth the price of the book. Though a twenty-one-page chapter can hardly do justice to the theme, Thompson's accomplishment is to raise the consciousness of historians. Gone are the simple divisions such as Nazis and anti-Nazis or Germans and Austrians. In their place are the additional complexities of SS legionnaires from Denmark, the Low Countries, France, and Italy; Soviet "Hiwis" (Hilfswillige); and manpower dredged from prisons [End Page 439] and concentration camps: socialists, communists, deserters, and convicts. Thus, Thompson explains how "another war would soon be fought once they were behind barbed wire"(p. 36).

Though Thompson's chapters on the diversities among Hitler's soldiers and the resulting conflicts within the POW camps are among his best, his chapter on German POW labor is the most detailed. Other chapters explain how American authorities struggled successfully to house their former enemies, sought to deflect charges of coddling, and attempted—-with somewhat less success—-to "reeducate" the POWs for a democratic life in postwar Germany. Much of the material that Thompson covers in this regard will not be new to the initiated, but he uses excellent examples and sources from his own areas of interest in Tennessee, Kentucky, and beyond.

Even excellent monographs present minor details with which to quibble. There is some juxtaposition of texts that might lead the reader to believe that soldiers who wished to be captured were arrested and shot while in the POW camps or that "Italians and Germans … sometimes shared POW camps" (p. 44). Rereading makes clear that the arrests and executions were done by German troops before their capture and the author means that sometimes Italians and Germans were found on the same American military reservations, though in segregated compounds. Another quibble: tantalizingly short were the pages concerning "Black GIs, and German POWs." In this regard, Thompson and his readers should consult Matthias Reiss, Die Schwarzen Waren Unsere Freunde (2002). These quibbles do not detract from an otherwise excellent book.

Welcome, Antonio Thompson, to the ranks of historians like Judith M. Gansberg, Arnold Krammer, and Lewis H. Carlson who have shown us that the United States could treat a large number of enemy prisoners with humanity. Thanks for challenging our nation to do the same in present and future conflicts. [End Page 440]

Robert D. Billinger

Robert D. Billinger teaches history at Wingate University in Wingate, North Carolina. He is the author of Nazi POWs in the Tar Heel State (2008).

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