- Nazi POWs in the Tar Heel State by Robert D. Billinger Jr
Between 1942 and 1946, 378,000 German soldiers who had been captured by the western Allies in North Africa and Europe and shipped to the United States as Prisoners of War (POWs) were held in more than 500 camps in military installations and agricultural areas across the country. Robert D. Billinger’s Nazi POWs in the Tar Heel State is an anecdotal history about the POW experience in North Carolina, where approximately 10,000 men were detained in eighteen temporary [End Page 207] enclosures. Using national, local, and German-language camp newspaper articles, event logs and reports from German and U.S. military archives, inspection reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross, letters, diaries, and interviews with American civilians (from 1980) and former POWs (from 2004), Billinger reconstructs the particularities of the camps in North Carolina and the prisoners’ lives in chronological detail.
Separate chapters focus on the biographies of seven former POWs; main camps, Fort Bragg and Camp Butner; the branch camps, such as Camp Mackall and Camp Davis; the POW labor program, which improved the labor shortage caused by the war and migration; and the reorientation program, which trained numerous pro-American prisoners in “American democracy” for work in the American zone of occupation. Billinger includes supplementary sections on the repatriation of the POWs, many of whom were unexpectedly transferred to France, Belgium, or England for reparation labor after they had been promised immediate repatriation and employment with the U.S. military in Germany; graves and memories maintained by local commemoration groups for German POWs who passed away while in captivity; and correspondences of a Jewish, political prisoner in Nazi Germany who was mistaken for a soldier by Allied troops and ended up in U. S. captivity. Unfortunately, these materials serve neither an analytical purpose nor a critical argument.
Despite its title, the book conveys Billinger’s “sympathy for former members of the Wehrmacht” (xv) and his goal to counteract American stereotypes about German soldiers as “Nazis.” Indeed, not all German soldiers were German nationals, and not all of them identified with National Socialist ideology, as illustrated in the unique spatial arrangement of Camp Butner. The camp housed—in separate compounds—“Nazi” POWs and “Allied” POWs, the latter of whom were Polish, Czech, Dutch, or French nationals who requested to be repatriated or volunteered to fight for the Allies. Yet, exemplifying the diversity among German soldiers did not require a new study or exclusive attention to the POW experience in North Carolina. Attempting to complicate American stereotypes, in fact, Billinger relies too heavily on popular German myths that permeate his interviewees’ narratives and several of his sources: the myth of the “clean” Wehrmacht and the myth that German prisoners were underdogs and were recognized as such, especially by African American soldiers. Unfortunately, the book does not contextualize the presence of “Nazis” within the particular history and culture of the American South. In spite of the book’s uncritical use of sources, readers interested in the local history of North Carolina should find the anecdotes interesting and very informative.