“History is written by the victors.” While we cannot attribute this aphorism to a specific source with any degree of certainty (some claim it was Churchill, others swear it was Machiavelli), we may take comfort in the fact that historical fiction can be written by the vanquished. That’s what I decided to do twelve years ago when I began my research for Captives, the novel that was originally a screenplay titled, Court of Honor, and then The Tears of Valour when Nextpix optioned the script in 2008.
I have always had a fascination with history. Growing up in postwar Germany, it seemed impossible not to be obsessed with it. My father had served as a teenaged soldier in World War II, fighting alongside White Russian Cossacks in Yugoslavia and blowing up Soviet tanks in Vienna. His stories intrigued me, but they seemed accounts of a vague and distant historical past. I was a teenager myself when I finally did the math. I was born in 1961. Sixteen years after the end of World War II. Only six years after Germany had become a sovereign nation again.
I was fortunate to grow up in the peace and prosperity of the postwar economic boom. Aside from the Mercedes-Benz plant in the neighboring Sindelfingen, most of the industry in my hometown was American. IBM. Hewlett-Packard. My father was the command post-sergeant-major at the local German Army post. Through his job, we were friends with American and French military families who were stationed throughout the greater Stuttgart region. They were our military allies. We bowled, barbecued, and went on Volksmarches together. The idea of being at war with these people would have seemed utterly absurd.
But then we spent the entire tenth-grade history class at my Realschule learning about the Third Reich, the Second World War and, of course, the Holocaust. My high school class was required to see Joachim Fest’s Hitler—Eine Karriere at the movies. We visited a former concentration camp in France. Gradually I began to understand why I saw the German flag fly only at my father’s army post. Why our national anthem was heard only before national soccer games and during medal ceremonies at the Olympic Games. My generation bore the guilt and the shame our fathers and grandfathers had brought on our heads. We were responsible for the millions who had perished in thousands of camps across Europe.
We had waged war on peaceful nations and murdered innocent people in gas chambers while the rest of the world suffered our injustices until it bravely fought back and—after defeating us—generously helped us rebuild our country and welcomed us back into the global community as a trading partner and an ally. The United States, in particular, deserved our gratitude because only the Marshall Plan and American investments had made our Wirtschaftswunder—the economic miracle—possible. It would be decades before I began to realize that the truth was more complicated than that.
When I immigrated to the United States in 1990, I was excited about moving to a country that, in my mind, represented freedom and liberal values. Of course, I had learned about slavery, the annihilation of the native population, and the civil rights struggles of African Americans in the 20th century. But it seemed as though America had learned from its mistakes and rectified those tragic injustices. I have always felt welcome here. Aside from, once in a New Jersey bar, being asked if I was a Nazi, I have never been forced to defend my nationality or my homeland.
Then, in 2006, I happened to meet a woman who was a Frederick, Maryland, native while we both worked as models for a drawing class at the community college. While trying to hold a particularly awkward pose, we chatted to pass the time. Suddenly she asked me if I knew that there had been a camp for German POWs in town during the war. I admitted that I did not. She told me that her father had shared a story with her about one of the POWs’ committing suicide. That was the extent of our conversation about this topic. But I couldn’t forget it.
For weeks I thought about it, trying to find a reason why someone who had survived the battles of Europe and North Africa—and reached the safety of a POW camp in a sleepy Western Maryland town—would take his own life. I decided to explore this mystery of local German American history and if the story was compelling enough, write a screenplay to tell it.
I began by reading Dr. Arnold Krammer’s Nazi Prisoners of War in America, which provided me with a wealth of facts—some fascinating and others disturbing. I learned that almost 400,000 German prisoners had been incarcerated in roughly 700 camps across the entire United States between 1942 and 1946. Many of them provided the agricultural labor force necessary to do the work American farmers serving in the U.S. military overseas could not perform themselves.
But I also discovered that many American camp commanders allowed the German POWs to run the camps themselves. Frequently, the Nazis quickly established themselves as the self-appointed executive and judicial forces. Evidently, their American masters often preferred Nazi efficiency to the relative lack of order in the liberal camps. Frequently, when liberal-minded prisoners rejected the pressure from the Nazis in the camp, the former would be penalized. In extreme cases, they were executed, and the killings would be made to look like suicides.
But there were other, more disturbing surprises. For example, the business relationship between the United States and Germany—well into the war—added another level of historical complexity. Both Ford and General Motors-owned plants in Germany that manufactured the cars and trucks that transported German soldiers to their various fronts.
Du Pont and Standard Oil of New Jersey (current-day Exxon) freely shared their research with I.G. Farben, the German cartel that produced the poisons for the gas chambers. In June of 1940, the Auschwitz concentration camp began to produce artificial rubber from coal using proprietary patents granted by Standard Oil.
Investigative journalist Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust paints another damning picture of a powerful American corporation. The book documents the pivotal role IBM’s technology played in helping facilitate Nazi genocide through the generation and tabulation of punch cards based on national census data. A revised 2002 edition of Black’s book includes further evidence that IBM New York created a special subsidiary in Poland called Watson Business Machines, which operated a punch card printing shop near the Warsaw Ghetto.
Mr. Black also sheds light on the American influence of the eugenics movement in Germany. After the movement had been well established in the United States, American eugenicists began sharing their work with scientists and medical professionals in Germany. The Rockefeller Foundation helped develop and fund various German eugenics programs—including one that Josef Mengele participated in before he embarked on his career at Auschwitz. American educator, eugenicists, and sociologist Harry Laughlin considered it a source of pride that his Model Eugenic Sterilization Laws had been implemented in the 1935 Nuremberg racial hygiene laws.
Ironically, Nuremberg, the medieval city that had been the picturesque backdrop for Nazi rallies, hosted the court in which Nazis were tried, after the war, for their crimes before an Allied tribunal. Some of them were convicted and sentenced. But the U.S. Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency brought more than 1,600 German scientists—some of whom were Nazis and had used slave labor during the war—to the United States to help America win the space race against the Soviets (who, themselves, had forcibly recruited over 2,200 German scientists and their families). Wernher von Braun’s V-2 rocket, which had rained down death on London, eventually evolved into the Saturn V rocket that took American astronauts to the moon.
Most of these facts did not make their way into my novel. Those that did serve as historical background rather than pivotal plot devices. But they gave me insights I would not have imagined. However, it was not just the realization that, while an estimated 400,000 American soldiers gave their lives, a small number of American industrialists grew their fortunes by doing business with the enemy.
What I do finally understand is that history can help us avoid repeating mistakes. History should be a vehicle for communication and truth—not guilt or shame. And, yes—for forgiveness. In our age of political correctness and heightened sensitivity, let’s find a civil and constructive way to be honest. Talk about World War II. Korea. Vietnam. Slavery. Talk about it and write about it. Don’t dismantle Confederate statues. Put up a plaque that educates readers about the person commemorated in that statue—the good and the bad.
My 91-year-old father tells me that he wakes up every morning around 6am and relives the guilt of killing a Russian tank commander with his bazooka. He knows that Russian soldier had a mother and father. Maybe a wife and children. Seventy-five years later, my father still cannot forgive himself for the acts of war he was forced to commit as a teenaged boy. In listening to his story and talking to him about it, I can provide the therapy his generation never had any access to.
Let’s learn from history. And let’s pay close attention to current events because they will become history. Let’s make sure we create the kind of history our children won’t be ashamed of.
REINER PROCHASKA is an author, actor, and playwright, whose plays have been produced regionally and published internationally. His latest novel, Captives is available on Amazon.