Interrogation in WW2: any lessons learned?

By Simona Tobia

Terrorists kidnapping relief workers and journalists, terrorists publishing videos of horrible executions by decapitation and even burning, terrorists wiping out principles such as the freedom of the press and satire in the heart of the West in Paris, while stories of westerners joining the fight on the IS side are profusely present in the news. The ‘war on terror’, far from over, is raging, and it continues to be depicted by Western media and political authorities as a ‘just war’ fought against a heinous enemy.

After seeing the US Senate report on the CIA published at the end of 2014, I was wondering to what extent can human beings go to fight what they perceive to be atrocity and evil. I would like to share some ideas gathered during my research on WWII, another conflict which took the shape of a ‘just war’ against an overwhelmingly evil foe, to see if there are some lessons we can learn from that past.

Interrogation and questioning of POWs is one of those settings in which lines are often allowed to blur and mistreatment and breaches of the Geneva Conventions take place, frequently in the name of so-called ‘ticking-bomb scenarios’. This is the official argument in defence of the use of harsh methods (let’s call things with their own name: torture), portraying a very artificial situation in which a bomb is ticking its way towards a devastating attack and only by torturing the terrorists who placed it will the intelligence officers be able to save hundreds of lives. However, so far I have not yet come across any historical case in which this actually happened.

Ill-treatment, psychological abuse and torture committed by representatives of liberal states such as Britain and the US are an astonishing reality, not only in war on terror, but also in and after WWII. Given the shared memory of WWII, with narratives of a war (‘just war’?) fought against a brutal enemy, it appears hard to believe, but the stories of at least a couple of British interrogation centres where lines were actually allowed to blur are worth telling.

The (in)famous London District Cage was headed by Lt. Col. Alexander Scotland. Its prisoners included war crimes suspects from the SS and the Gestapo, ‘the worst of the worst’, and the many reports of ill-treatment and torture included one by Fritz Knoechlein, who wrote a long letter complaining of the treatment he received at the Cage, where he was deprived of sleep, starved, beaten and humiliated constantly. Knoechlein was a high ranking officer in the SS, and he had been responsible of the Le Paradis massacre of May 1940, when 99 British POWs who had surrendered to his unit were machine-gunned en masse; the order was given by Knoechlein, who was later tried for war crimes and executed in Hamburg in 1949. Lt. Col. Scotland wrote a memoir in which he talks at length about the London Cage, admitting to have breached the Geneva Conventions. The book had to be submitted to censorship and was only published in 1957, after having caused a lot of distress in the Foreign Office and the MI5. More recently this story hit the headlines in the Guardian where an article appeared in November 2005 denounced it as a ‘torture centre’.

After the end of the hostilities a CSDIC centre was established in Bad Nenndorf, in the British Zone of occupation of Germany and Lt. Col. Robin ‘Tin Eye’ Stephens became its commandant. The camp and those who ran it were the protagonists of a huge scandal with allegations of abuse and ill-treatment of prisoners, followed by investigation carried out by inspector Tom Hayward. Following his reports, the centre was closed in July 1947 and some of the camp’s officers were brought to court martial in 1948. Among them, there were Lt. Col. Stephens, who was acquitted in July 1948, the Medical Officer Capt. J.S. Smith who was sentenced to be dismissed the service, and a German born interrogator, a former refugee who had joined the British war effort, Oliver Langham. In fact ‘Tin Eye’ struggled to run the camp because of funding reductions and insufficient resources. Prisoners often ended up in nearby hospitals severely harmed and malnourished, and in January 1947 two of them died shortly after admission. Inspector Hayward found in his investigation that interrogators and the camp’s guards were not likely to be totally impartial, either because they were ex German or Austrian refugees or because they were young soldiers who had experienced harsh combat in various war theatres, and arriving in Germany some of them had to face even more war horrors liberating Bergen-Belsen. The investigation proved that that conditions in the CSDIC centre were very harsh: prisoners were kept in cells with no heating and no mattresses, were denied a proper rest, and some of them were found wearing dirty clothes because they could not dry them. Prisoners could be punished with ‘solitary confinement’ sometimes even for longer than 40 days. Solitary confinement was used as a form of ‘mental pressure’ for prisoners considered to be with-holding the truth. Threats to execute, arrest, torture the prisoners’ relatives, such as wives or husbands and children, were also part of the ‘mental pressure’ and they were allowed because they were never carried out. It should be stressed that the commander was against violence and Gestapo-like measures only because he thought that those were counterproductive, and not certainly for humanitarian concerns. He was convinced that physical violence produced poor intelligence.

The London Cage and CSDIC’s stories challenge the myth of British wartime interrogation systems, traditionally thought to be “legal, well-tried and highly successful”. The British system of interrogation was of course successful in wartime, but it was despite and not because of techniques such as those employed by CSDIC. An extremely complex system of intelligence networks, well trained professional intelligence officers, including various centres, eavesdropping facilities, a cross-check technique, and the legendary British double-cross system, made the collection of human intelligence successful in WWII. Violence was most likely employed by the least experienced and more resentful interrogators and it was never fruitful, as Hayward’s report shows very clearly.

This was by no means an attempt of writing an exhaustive history of interrogation in WWII in a blog post (I believe it deserves an entire book, which is the object of my current research), but I think there are a few lessons that we can learn today. It is easy to conclude that harsh methods seem to become acceptable even in a conflict narrated as a ‘just war’ if the enemy is heinous enough, but it is also interesting to note what actually works in the collection of human intelligence, and to work how the reasons why violence sometimes happens (in the – naïve, I know – hope to be able to reduce it in the future).

Further reading:

Andrew, Christopher and Tobia, Simona, Interrogation in war and conflict. A comparative and interdisciplinary analysis (London, Routledge, 2014)

Cobain, Ian, Cruel Britannia. A secret history of torture (London, Portobello Books, 2012)

Hoare, Oliver, Camp 020. MI5 and the Nazi spies (Richmond, Public Record Office, 2000)

Jackson, Sophie, British interrogation techniques in the Second World War (Stroud, The History Press, 2012)

Freedom, coercion or torture? The political re-education of German POWs in Soviet concentration camps, 1941-1956

By Gianluca Cinelli

In all ages of human history, torture has represented a fear and a reality for prisoners of war. Soldiers captured in war can be the victims of the victor’s retaliation immediately after battle as well as far behind the front line, through interrogations for intelligence, forced-labour, brain-washing. In fact, torture is not only physical. George Orwell describes the perversion of psychological torture in his novel 1984 (1948) by means of the symbol of Room 101. Primo Levi, the well-known Auschwitz-witness, once wrote that “useless violence” in Nazi Lagers consisted in inflicting apparently aimless physical and psychological suffering in order to demolish the human dignity and resilience of captives.

A mass-scale case of ideological torture was the political re-education of German POWs in Soviet concentration camps during WWII. In 1941 Walter Ulbricht (1893-1973, he was President of the Democratic Republic of Germany from 1960 up to his death), in exile in Moscow, thought that German POWs could represent a useful instrument of propaganda, if they could be won to the cause of Communism. Ulbricht believed that the Red Army would eventually win the war, and he therefore saw the necessity to create a group of German Soviet agents who would trigger a socialist revolution in Germany after the end of the war. Ulbricht submitted his project to the Soviets, who recognized the potential of the proposal and decided to install the first School of Antifascism in the concentration camp of Jelabuga, where the German Captain Ernst Hadermann began to cooperate with Ulbricht and the Soviets to win the German POWs to the cause of antifascism. The breakthrough came in winter 1943, after the German debacle in Stalingrad, where the entire 6th Army was destroyed. Although only 90.000 Germans were taken prisoners, among them Feldmarschall Freidrich Paulus and his staff were also captured. For the first time hundreds of thousands of POWs were in the hands of the Red Army (over 100.000 Germans, about 74.000 Italians, and many thousands of Rumanians and Hungarians).

On 13th July 1943 in the Lager of Krasnogorsk the National Committee “Free Germany” was founded with the purpose to create the first group of military resistance against Hitler’s regime. Soon after, in September 1943, a number of officers who had refused to join “Free Germany” because it seemed too compromised with Communism, founded the Union of German Officers, which was apparently independent but actually under the thumb of Communist political activists. By the end of 1944 some tens of officers and a few hundreds of Wehrmacht soldiers had joined the antifascist movement, small figures in comparison with the 3.500.000 German POWs in Soviet hands at the end of the war.

In November 1945 “Free Germany” and the Union of German Officers were disbanded. The former members were sent back to the Soviet Zone of Occupation in Germany between 1946 and 1948 in order to build the new socialist German fatherland. Nonetheless, although political re-education of POWs was no longer in agenda, POWs remained exposed to arbitrary Soviet policies concerning intelligence and forced-labour. In 1949 a wave of political trials stormed over the thousands of concentration camps in the USSR: thousands of German POWs were accused with war crimes and sentenced to death, life imprisonment or 25 years of forced-labour. POWs were to be used to rebuild the Russian cities and infrastructures destroyed by war as well as hostages to put pressure on West Germany, which in 1950 was to be re-armed within the NATO. Political trials against POWs took place in an atmosphere of terror and menace, which can be acknowledged from the literary memoirs of witnesses.

One must distinguish between memoirs written in the Democratic Republic of Germany and those published in West Germany because they reflect different political perspectives: in fact, all Eastern authors (e.g. Paulus, Adam, Müller, Steidle and Rühle) occupied relevant roles in politics, culture and education and their memoirs depict the political re-education in Soviet concentration camps as a rejuvenating experience of self-affirmation. Political re-education, or Antifascism, certainly was not for them torture or suffering. They consider themselves as patriots who embraced the cause of a free and democratic Germany shaped on the Marxist view of history and society. They interpret Germany’s catastrophe as the necessary outcome of imperialism and militarism, to which they oppose socialism and its vocation to internationalism and peace.

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, things were different. A small group of witnesses came from the ranks of former antifascists, such as Heinrich Einsiedel (vice-president of the National Committee “Free Germany”), novelist Heinrich Gerlach, and theologian Helmut Gollwitzer. These authors had first joined Communist antifascism because they had believed in the historical necessity to take a stand against Hitler and his war. They had later gown critical toward Communism and they had been persecuted and punished for that, in concentration camps before and once they had come back to Germany after 1948. They represent the political re-education as a two-fold experience: on the one hand it was a noble and heroic assumption of responsibility that they faced as officers and human beings; on the other that experience was also a dangerous compromise with power and corruption insofar as being antifascists in Soviet concentration camps meant claiming privilege and prominence over other fellow POWs. These authors remember in their memoirs how they had to act as spies for the Communist authorities, how they had to lie and deceive in order to keep their privileges, and how they had to go through a never-ending psychological war against other prisoners in order to conquer power. These authors recall the motto of Soviet antifascism: “whoever is not with us is against us”, or “whoever does not work does not eat”, which did not sound much different than under the Nazi yoke.

The political re-education in the memoirs of lower officers and ranks, who depict it as sheer torture, appears even worse, as a school of double-thought and as a struggle for surviving, because the periodical interrogations carried out by Communist activists made the difference between being admitted to the school of antifascism (which meant more food, warm bedrooms and no hard-labour) and being sent out to Siberia for hard-labour in the woods, in mines or on cotton fields. Interrogations were subtle and dangerous, aimed at forcing prisoners into self-contradiction. When this happened, the prisoner had to choose between becoming a spy and collaborating, and ending up in punishment camps. These witnesses recall the wave of political trials of 1949 as the most fearful experience after starvation and typhus epidemics of 1943-1944: threatened to be held for years in hard-labour camps, many a prisoner chose to denounce even close friends as war-criminals, in order to be sent back to Germany, and many even mutilated themselves in order to be spared from work and sent home.

In West Germany some authors, such as former pilot and POW Assi Hahn, caught the occasion to raise a vehement polemic against Communism, which in many cases turned out to be a shameful apology of the old Nazi regime, militarism and imperialism. What is striking is that the Soviet project of conquering a huge mass of POWs, marked as a “bunch of fascists”, to the political cause of Communism eventually ended up into a large-scale failure. In fact, the strategy of attracting POWs to antifascism in exchange of privilege and power over fellow comrades in concentration camps did not produce the model of a virtuous democratic society, but rather a “grey zone” where compromise, deceit and egoism prevailed over social virtues such as solidarity, friendship and justice.

In this sense, Soviet concentration camps of POWs also represented a sort of laboratory for social experimentation. The separateness of POWs from their homeland permitted to create the condition for an artificial acceptance of the new political and social doctrine in abstract, not as a real means to manage the life of a community. Better said, there was a community, but a fragile and weak one, of starving and frightened POWs under the thumb of a powerful and intricate structure capable of inflicting suffering and death or to grant favour and privilege. Such political re-education can be seen as torture, especially if one considers that many German POWs remained in Soviet camps up to 1956.

Torture is an evil and useless instrument. Its secrecy and separateness testify to its unlawfulness as well as to the bad will of those who use it. In the past, criminals were tormented and executed in public, as Foucault pointed out, in the course of violent ceremonies aimed at restoring the authority of the State challenged by serious offences. But torture is different. It is a closed-door activity, because it is brutal and illegal, because it is aimed at overwhelming the victim’s will, in order to force out a confession beyond evidence of crime and guilt. Torture can make up evidence as magic: in order to stop suffering and fear the victim is ready to confess what the torturer wants to hear. The case of political re-education shows that torture can also be a means to force ideologies into the mind of people. Nonetheless, experience teaches that such achievements almost always remain unattained, or that they are reached at the cost of moral degradation, illegality and inhumanity.

For further reading

Bungert, Heike, Das Nationalkomitee und der Westen. Die Reaktion der Westalliierten auf das NKFD und die Freien Deutschen Bewegungen 1943-1948, Stuttgart, Steiner, 1997

Scheurig, Bodo, Freies Deutschland. Das Nationalkomitee und der Bund Deutscher Offiziere in der Sowjetunion 1943-1945, München, Nymphenburger, 1960

Schoenhals, Kai, The Free Germany Movement. A Case of Patriotism or Treason?, New York, Greenwood Press, 1989

Smith, Arthur, The War for the German Mind. Re-Educating Hitler’s Soldiers, Oxford, Berghan, 1996