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«The demand for books in American and British prisoners of war (POW) camps in Germany during World War II was insatiable. Libraries, both lending and ...»

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“The Greatest Morale Factor Next to the Red

Army”: Books and Libraries in American and

British Prisoners of War Camps in Germany

During World War II

David Shavit

The demand for books in American and British prisoners of war (POW)

camps in Germany during World War II was insatiable. Libraries, both

lending and reference, were established in almost all the camps. In addition, there was a considerable number of privately held books. This article

details ways in which books were supplied to the camp libraries and to individuals POWs, the size and conditions of the libraries, and the books read by POWs. It emphasizes the importance of the library in the camps as a morale factor.

Prisoners of war shall be allowed to receive shipments of books individually, which may be subject to censorship. Representatives of the protecting Powers and duly recognized and authorized aid societies may send books and collections of books to the libraries of prisoners’ camps. The transmission of these shipments to libraries may not be delayed under the pretext of censorship difficulties.

Convention of July 27,1929, Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, Article 391 Prisoners of War Some 95,000 American and 135,000 British and Commonwealth servicemen were incarcerated in prisoners of war (POW) camps in Germany during World War II. The prisoners were held in some fifty German POW camps, of several types. These included the Stalag ( Stammlager, permanent camps for noncommissioned officers and enlisted men), Stalag Luft ( Luftwaffestammlager, permanent camps for air force personnel), and Oflag ( Offizierslager, permanent officers’ camps). American POWs were found in many of the POW camps, but the majority of camps contained only a few Americans. In some camps (Stalags II-B, III-B, IV-B, XVII-B, Luft I, Libraries & Culture, Vol. 34, No. 2, Spring 1999 1999 by the University of Texas Press, P.O. Box 7819, Austin, TX 78713-7819 114 L&C/American and British Prisoners of War Camps Luft III, and Luft IV), however, the number of American POWs ran into the thousands. Germany in general followed the 1929 Geneva Convention in the treatment of American and British servicemen in POW camps.

POWs were not to be individually confined, and the food served them should have been equal to that served to German troops. The convention forbade work of any kind for officer prisoners and non-commissioned officer prisoners were only supposed to do supervisory work, but private soldiers could be made to work, provided the work was not connected with the war effort.2 The most urgent problems for POWs were obtaining sufficient food, warm clothing, minimum health care, and adequate shelter. While life for POWs who were interned in German camps was mainly composed of boredom, frustration, hunger, cold, and occasional bouts of real danger, their existence was not, remarked one ex-POW, “absurdly grim.”3 Although fictional portrayals of POWs have invariably focused on the excitement generated by attempted escapes, gloomy resignation and stifling boredom more typically characterized a prisoner’s daily existence. Rather than undertaking unrealistic and potentially dangerous escapes, it was far more sensible for the prisoner to stay focused on his immediate environment and try to counter its negative effects. Keeping busy was all-important, either through recreational, cultural, or educational activities or by just communicating with one’s friends.4

Agencies Supplying Books

In the beginning of the Second World War, the International Red Cross Committee (IRC) in Geneva became involved in providing books to prisoners of war and to civilian internees. While the number of POWs was small, the IRC had taken upon itself to send books to the German camps. In spring 1940, however, this was no longer practicable, and the IRC began to coordinate this type of relief through various religious and lay organizations which had already been active on their own. The IRC presided over an Advisory Committee on Reading Matter for Prisoners of War, which centralized the activities of six organizations and to which the appropriate requests for books from POW camps were forwarded. The organizations were the World Alliance of Young Men’s Christian Associations (YMCA), the International Bureau of Education, the Ecumenical Commission for Assistance to Prisoners of War, the European Student Relief Fund, the International Federation of Library Associations, and the Swiss Catholic Mission for Prisoners of War.5 In the late autumn of 1940, the Indoor Recreations Section of the Prisoners of War Department of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem was established and accepted the responsibility for regular consignments of books. (The section was initially named the Fiction and Games Section, but was later renamed the Indoor Recreations, Books, Games and Music Section.) It began the task of providing books for the establishment of camp libraries and trying to satisfy all tastes.6 By December 1941, the Indoor Recreations Section had sent over 71,000 volumes. Between October 1940, and March 1945, the Indoor Recreations section sent directly to POW camps or to the reserve at Geneva more than 239,500 volumes for POW libraries.7 The branch of the Indoor Recreations Section that dealt with educational books had been in operation since the early days of the war. It was later expanded into a separate section called the Educational Books Section. By the end of May 1942, 69,400 educational books had been sent to POW camps.8 To meet the needs of newly formed camps without undue delay, a stock of 50,000 reserved and unreserved books in the English language was built up in Geneva, and many volumes requested by POWs were supplied more quickly from this source. “Request” forms were sent to the camps, on which prisoners gave some indication of their previous academic backgrounds, subjects that they wished to study, and books that they required to do so. When requests were received by the Educational Books Section, the books were ordered, packed and sent on to the POWs, who were separately notified and required to return an acknowledgment card. When the prisoner finished with these books, they were placed in the central camp library by the prisoner concerned.9 As camp libraries became active, a continuous flow of requests reached the Education Book Section. It was not always easy to satisfy these requests. A considerable number of new publications came under censorship restrictions. There was also a general shortage of books in the United Kingdom, which made supplies difficult to maintain. Some wellknown and popular titles were almost unprocurable; others were available only in insufficient quantities.10 In October 1939, the World’s Committee of the Young Men’s Christian Association, a neutral organization with headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, established the War Prisoners Aid, in order to satisfy the recreational, educational, and moral needs of war prisoners. The American War Prisoners Aid of the Young Men’s Christian Association became the major agency for acquiring books and sending them to POW camps in Germany. (The American National Red Cross decided to leave the field of educational, recreational, and spiritual welfare to the YMCA.) 116 L&C/American and British Prisoners of War Camps In its preliminary summary report of its activities during the war, the War Prisoners Aid stated that it was no accident that the first shipment to a POW camp from the War Prisoners Aid in Geneva consisted of books. Books were the first and most important requirement in helping fight boredom, in occupying and often improving one’s mind; they immediately came to the mind of anyone who wanted to help men in connement. Following the first shipment, an ever increasing, yet ever inadequate, flow of books went to the camps.11 Neutral YMCA officials from Geneva also received permission to visit POW camps and talk with the prisoners in order to determine what more could be done. From these reports and from prisoners’ letters, it was learned that there was a great need for books for the professional man, the student, and the artisan.

In spring 1942 the World’s Committee of the YMCA founded the “Men of Science—Prisoners of War” Service. This special service was developed to provide books for prisoners who wished to study and those who wanted to begin or to continue projects of serious study and research. Hundreds of librarians, university professors, and certain business corporations in the United States and Canada helped to locate, and frequently to donate, books especially requested by such individuals.

Authors, publishers, libraries and friends were generous in their donations of books as well as money to be used for book purchases.12 It is not easy to ascertain the exact number of books sent by the War Prisoners Aid to American prisoners of war. One record states that the YMCA sent 1,280,146 books to American POWs in Europe during World War II. Herbert G. Sisson, member of the Information Services of the War Prisoners Aid, reported that 98,962 popular books and textbooks were shipped to Geneva in 1943 by the War Prisoners Aid. In addition, 51,00 Bibles or parts of the Bible, supplied by the American Bible Society, were also shipped to Geneva.

In general reading alone, American prisoners in Germany received 41,030 books from Geneva in 1944 and 96,945 books in the first six months of 1945.13 On 13 January 1945, Publishers Weekly reported that 522,345 books were sent to Allied prisoners of war in Germany through the War Prisoners Aid during 1943, and a million books were sent in

1944. About 900,000 copies of the Armed Services Editions were purchased by the U.S. Army and donated to the War Prisoners Aid.14 The Geneva office reported that during 1944, the last full year of operation, 108,682 books were shipped to American POW camps. It included 41,030 books termed “general reading,” and 26,682 termed “circulating library,” as well as 19,602 religious books, and 14,117 general education books.

A typical library of 1,050 volumes, prepared for a unit of 200 American prisoners in Germany, would contain 600 fiction and general reading books; 150 textbooks; 25 biographies; 50 books on history and travel; 100 on vocations, professions and trades; 50 on science and medicine; 50 on religion; and 25 on poetry and art.15 Thousands of books were purchased outright by the YMCA using funds donated by the American people, largely through the National War Fund. (Publishers were very generous with discounts). The Victory Book Campaign, sponsored by the American Library Association, American Red Cross, and U.S.O. set aside 45,051 new and clean books for prisoners of war. The Infantry Journal provided a large number of popular books, as well as a consignment of new reference books for POW camp libraries. Other books were donated by various individuals and agencies.16 Families and individuals could also send books to prisoners of war in Germany, but only new books. No used books could be sent. Book orders had to be placed with a book seller or publisher who had to mail the books. The purchaser was not allowed to wrap or mail the books.

The American Red Cross, in its Prisoners of War Bulletin, provided guidelines to prisoners’ relatives and friends. It was possible to send, directly from a bookseller, sixty pounds of books a year, at the rate of five pounds a month. Only one parcel of books, weighing no more than five pounds, could be forwarded each thirty days, by the Censor’s Office in New York, to any one prisoner of war.

Responding to the question as to what books would interest a prisoner

most, the Bulletin stated:

Any book that is sufficiently well written, and that has enough body and content and purpose to hold the reader to the world the author is describing. A prisoner of war lives in monotonous and drab surroundings, but through books he can escape into another world. His intellect, his imagination, or his emotions are stimulated by what he reads. Even books that he read before may be enjoyable, not only for their content but for their reminders of the times and places where he has read them in his old, free days. If your prisoner is a voracious reader, the Pocket Library reprints are much lighter in weight, and you could therefore send many more books in a 5-pound package.

They are also less expensive. These reprints have a wide choice, from Shakespeare and Homer through Mark Twain, Thornton Wilder, Jack London, Raphael Sabatini, John P. Marquand, and Daphne de Maurier, to mention only a few. Books published in these small, lightweight editions are apt to be good reading because they have already 118 L&C/American and British Prisoners of War Camps survived the test of a first publishing. They are also almost all prewar, and so avoid censorship problems.17 In Canada, families of POWs were given a list of government-authorized firms through which they could order books. They would send in the order, and the books would be sent by these firms directly to the POWs, so that the families had to rely on the integrity of the businessmen with whom they were dealing, since they would never see the books.

Unfortunately, some booksellers took advantage of this situation. A Canadian flying officer in Stalag Luft III reported that his mother and father sent him a parcel of books, “and the books turned out to be things like Nancy So-and-So and Her School Girlfriends at Something-or-Other Tech. I mean crap that you wouldn’t ever read. Took them just terrible.”18 Some of the books received from the YMCA were characteristic of the kind of books that people had probably cleaned out of their attics and given to the YMCA to pass along to POWs.


“For many prisoners, the most exciting moment of the month was when they heard the casual remark: ‘Oh, Smith, your name’s on the list— book parcel.’” The contents of the weekly food parcel and the quarterly clothing parcel did not vary much. Books, therefore, became the great standby and a means of escape from the confinement of the barbed wire.19

Martin A. Smith, Prisoner in Stalag IV, recalled:

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