FRIENDS OR ENEMIES ?
By DOROTHY F. BUXTON
THE problem of the 380,000 prisoners of war in this country and of the 100,000 still in the Middle East has not been disposed of by the repatriation scheme recently announced. The morale of the prisoners continues to decline. Further measures to arrest this ominous process are an urgent need. What has weighed most with the Government is the immediate need of man-power. To this the interests of democratic re-education have come a long way second ; in fact they are in dire conflict with it. The repatriation scheme was a concession to the uneasiness of a public disturbed by the sight of " slave labour " in our land of freedom—a sad incongruity in the headquarters cf democracy, and one very painfully impressed on the minds of the P.o.W.s themselves.
In the camps the repatriation announcement did, of course, do something to relieve the bad psychological situation. The individual prisoner, however, is anxious lest he should find himself at the end of the queue ; he might even have to wait another two years. For the 100,000 P.o.W.s still in the Middle East the rate of repatriation is slower still, at any rate for the present. Desert sands and (at times) tropical heat contribute to their trial ; worst of all the sense of isolation, and of being forgotten by the rest of the world. The long retention of P.o.W.s has gone far to destroy confidence, in British intentions and in our democratic professions. Wilton Park and one or two other training-centres continue to achieve fine results ; but the percentage of P.o.W.s affected by them is extremely small. The mass of prisoners are adversely influenced by three other serious factors—the farce, or fraud as it appears to them, of our " screening " ; the long maintenance of a war-time anti-fraternisation policy (now at last relaxed to some degree); worst of all the appalling picture presented by their country under Allied administration.
As regards our screening policy, the P.o.W.s are aware of the
importance which we nominally attach to their political outlook. All the more are they unfavourably impressed by the haphazard nature of our methods. The interview which may decide a man's fate, perhaps for years to come, and incidentally that of his family, is often an affair of only three to five minutes. Who are the people likely to acquit themselves best in this fateful viva? The audacious liar, the typical product in Hitler-training, may well stand the best chance. The scrupulous man, or again the nervous man (and anti- Nazis are often both), is likely to show hesitancy which in itself arouses suspicion. For one thing he cannot vie with the hardened Nazi in ready expressions of unqualified enthusiasm for all things
British. The system of classifying men according to " outlook "- to be checked in a few moments' interview—is in fact fantastic.
Trained psychologists demand a long series of interviews for the unveiling of a man's real mind. Our• method is carried out in defiance of all that is known of psychology ; in fact it denies the very existence of that science.
To reverse the present situation let us imagine a panel of Germans being called upon to " sift " British people in a few moments' inter- view and decide which of them in their hearts were loyal sup- porters of Mr. Churchill, or which of them unexceptionable critics of British democracy. It is difficult enough to size up quickly people even of one's own nationality. When it comes, however, to other nationalities, intuitive judgements are apt to fail, and a whole
range of the subtler order of impressions are ruled out. In the present case familiarity with German mentality, with the prisoner's
background, the conditions of his country and of Nazi doings at any particular date provides many clues unavailable to those who have not lived in Germany. If prisoners could be returned to their own towns and villages they would encounter the most reliable of all judges in the people who remembered them. As things now work out one not infrequently hears cases of bewilderment and horror following the priority repatriation of a well-known Nazi. And to the P.o.W.s awaiting screening the one great question naturally has become what it pays best to say to the screener, and how to say it.
Far from being a safeguard to democracy our methods often appear an indictment of it. P.o.W.s here and their friends in Germany alike are not unreasonable in thinking that by this time we should be aware of the extraordinary difficulty of their position under Hitler. To save themselves from concentration camps and their families from destitution the men whom we now penalise as Nazis often had no choice but to join the Nazi Party, and to accept such employment as was offered them. To do otherwise demanded heroic qualities which few of us could honestly claim without having endured an equally severe test. The reluctance of people even in our own country to run even the slightest risk of prejudicing their own careers for the sake of some public interest is well known to all who have worked for unpopular causes. Why then do we expect so much higher standards of the Germans? If a prisoner finds himself among the " blacks " he sees the barbed-wire desolation extending indefinitely before him. Nor should we overlook the effects upon a prisoner (whatever his " shade " may really be), and especially to a mere youth, if he is to be segregated with hardened Nazis perhaps for years to come.
Anxiety, again, about conditions at home causes increasing de- pression and lowering of morale. In the first letters which arrived from Germany many wives refrained from telling the full truth, and the prisoners tended to discount some of the terrible reports that reached them from other sources as incredible. Now they realise the bitter truth. The wives, too, more and more despairing, no longer attempt to conceal the painful facts. The prisoner may hear for the first time of the total destruction of his home ; of the desperate living-conditions to which his family is driven ; wife or parents losing four stone in weight and too weak to struggle on ; tuberculosis causing premature death. Again he may hear of the arrival of a child by a Russian soldier. Sometimes the wife admits prostitution with Occupation
soldiers or personnel as a last resort to support the children or herself. What will happen to the family in the course of the winter, weakened as they all are by nearly two years of increasing mal- nutrition, and with no means of escape from constant hunger and cold?
" I am no longer interested in all these lectures on Democracy. The only thing which interests me now is when I can go home and help my family. My wife (in the British Zone) writes that she and the children are starving. She gets just 57 marks a month from the Welfare Office." (October.) And now (November) even the meagre rations are suffering collapse. " I have terrible news : my wife and children have no fuel at all. My wife has not even bread, let alone anything else for my children. I am helpless—there is nothing I can do. Could you send some food? I should be only too glad to give you all my month's wages of 305." So runs a typical outburst. The better the man the more awful the punishment of being refused the right to succour his family. Mr. Freeman, Financial Secretary
to the Wax Office, has frankly admitted that " the prisoners were needed in Germany more urgently than in this country." No doubt It was primarily agriculture, the mines and industries which Mr. Freeman had in mind. But the needs of the German home—or so-called " home "—are also of terrrible urgency. The disruption of family life (as Lord Beveridge and others have told us) is one of the most ominous factors in the European situation. The struggle of the German mother, herself debilitated by eighteen months of hunger, is something outside the experience, and beyond the imagin- ation, of people in our own happy island. She has no time or strength for long foraging expeditions to supplement the famine rations ; no skill or muscle for the endless jobs required to make a half-ruined room or leaking cellar a few degrees more habitable. The fatherless lives of the children are beset with every kind of risk, moral as well as physical.
The prisoner thinks too of the fate of millions of his country- men expelled from Eastern Germany, a stream—even now unchecked —of old people, women and children, turned overnight into homeless beggars ; the younger men retained presumably for forced labour. He thinks too of the deportations from the Russian zone of men, and even of small boys, to Russia. The same questions thrust themselves upon his mind as on those of the direct sufferers: " Is it the policy of the Allies to destroy us? " Again, when zoo,000 P.o.W.s suddenly arrived here from America with •the dreadful story of how they had been led to believe that they were on their way home, their indignation, despondency and a terrible mistrust both of Americans and English spread through all the camps alike.
The cause of democracy has, in fact, suffered a very serious decline. For some time the lectures on democracy enlisted much genuine interest. Too often, however, British deeds have appeared to contradict our theories and professions. The maintenance of non- fraternisation when " security " grounds were obsolete was unintelli- gible to them—as indeed it has been to great numbers of British people. In lecture-halls they were taught that democracy was based on regard for human values, and the individual's dignity and rights. In practice, however, they found themselves regarded as machines for exploitation, retained here in spite of the urgent need for them at home ; treated moreover as suspects, if not criminals, by the British Labour Government whose regulations appeared to aim at keeping an unbridgeable gulf between them and the Herrenvolk. Re-education in fact has been proceeding rapidly, but in the wrong direction. There are even cases of men who were not Nazis who have become so. Many anti-Nazis are so discouraged that they feel their cause is lost. Sooner or later the 500,000 prisoners will all have been returned, most of them in full physical vigour, to their Fatherland. How much will they retain of the friendly feeling which the great majority were ready to offer us at the outset? We could have secured most of them as friends, and this in itself would have brought " re-education," and an insurance against many possible future dangers. Is it too late to regain some of the ground that we have lost? It is an urgent question.