Martin Auger. Prisoners on the Home Front: German POWs and "Enemy Aliens" in Southern Quebec, 1940-1946. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2005. 240 pp. $93.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7748-1223-8; $35.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7748-1224-5.
Reviewed by Angelika E. Sauer (Department of History and Geography, Texas Lutheran University)
Published on H-Canada (January, 2007)
Concentration camps had come a long way since the turn of the century, when Western colonial powers (notably Spain, the United States, and Britain) first started herding civilians into confined spaces in an attempt to subjugate hostile populations in their overseas colonies. By the time Canada received its first batch of mostly German Jewish civilian internees from Britain in 1940, establishing internment operations "had become standard procedure in times of war," as Martin Auger assures us (p. 18). All belligerents used camps to intern not only prisoners of war but also to neutralize potential internal enemies. Designed by the modern state and managed by a specialized bureaucracy, these modernized internment operations could range from the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, Stalinist gulags, and Japanese torture camps to the fair and humane treatment meted out by the Western Allies, Canada included.
The history of Canadian internment operations in World War II, both affecting civilians and captured members of the enemy armed forces, is fairly well known, and Martin Auger provides an excellent bibliography of published and unpublished secondary sources, integrating them into his narrative without, however, fully positioning himself in the historiography of internment. His main point is that "the internment operation in Canada, although occasionally lacking proper organization, was a positive experience overall"--a home front victory (pp .4, 152). Other writers have questioned the legality of interning civilians and the positive experience that internment allegedly provided. But Auger's point is well taken: one should not, even in a casual way, equate Canada's internment camps with Nazi Germany's concentration camps. Growing out of the same seed of extending colonial warfare to perceived civilian enemies, these two types of camps had historically become very different and nearly unrelated phenomena. Nothing could illustrate this better than the story of how newly interned German POWs in late 1942 complained that their lodging, courtesy of the Canadian government, was "primitive" and "unworthy of an officer." This promptly led to the construction of a new and more comfortable officer camp (pp. 36-37). Throughout the book, Auger shows numerous examples of Canada scrupulously following the Geneva Convention that regulated conditions for interned enemy armed forces, and extending the same protections to civilian internees and merchant seamen, although their position was not defined or protected under international law.
Auger's focus is on five internment camps located in southern Quebec: Île-aux-Noix, Farnham, Sherbrooke, Grande Ligne, and Sorel. All were small with less than one thousand internees; all were specialized, either by type of internee (for example, Sherbrooke was for seamen only) or by function (Sorel was especially constructed for re-education purposes); and all housed only German-speaking internees. Auger therefore does not offer many reference points for comparison with camps that housed Italians (such as Île Ste. Hélène in Montreal), camps in other parts of Quebec, or indeed any of the other twenty permanent camps throughout the country.
After a useful, concise overview of the historical and legal developments that framed the way Canada and other Western Allies approached interning POWs and civilians, Martin Auger traces the development of the southern Quebec camps and examines their administration mainly on the basis of war diaries, those indispensable logs of military units' daily activities. Three of the five camps he examines were initially and hastily constructed to house civilian internees that were transferred from Britain in the summer of 1940. Conditions were primitive, guards inexperienced and not always scrupulously honest, and the unlucky captives had a hard time convincing the authorities that they were, in fact, not enemies of the Allies, but refugees from Nazi Germany: German Jewish teenagers, scholars, intellectuals, and a sprinkling of Communists and other political opponents of the Nazis. The remarkable story of the "camp boys" has been told by Paula Draper and in numerous memoirs, and Auger might have decided to exclude it, concentrating instead on the POW phase of the camps which began in 1942. Yet he does prove throughout the book that patterns of internment operations were established during the civilian phase, and that the experiences of the captives were in many cases remarkably similar.
In the following chapters, which form the core of the book, Auger attempts to reconstruct the social history of the camps. Again, the war diaries, with their wealth of daily trivia, help, and Auger supplements them with memoirs and oral histories of the civilian internees (in particular) that are found at the Library and Archives Canada in MG30, in the Eric Koch collection (Eric Koch was one of the internees). Life in captivity, even under the best of conditions, was marked by physical and psychological strains that affected all civilian and military internees to various degrees. The Canadian authorities were well aware that boredom, privation of material comfort, resentment, "barbed wire psychosis" and "internitis" (pp. 52-53) could lead to various morale and disciplinary problems. They opened the camp to the efforts of international relief organizations who introduced musical instruments and sports equipment. (Here, Auger might have consulted the Boeschenstein fonds, MG30 C193, to find out more about the work of the YMCA in the camps.) With the help of relief organizations, Canadian authorities provided camp libraries (from which both Adolph Hitler's Mein Kampf  and Karl Marx's Das Kapital  were banished) and hosted movie nights, exposing German POWs to English-speaking movie stars like Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Errol Flynn, and Ronald Reagan. They even offered English-language classes, noticing only belatedly that in order to introduce Germans to the Canadian way of life in a Quebec environment, some French-language classes might be useful, too (p.135).
Two of the most effective methods to prevent discontent and unrest were educational programs and paid employment, both of which also served the purpose of preparing POWs for postwar life in a democratic and capitalist society. Internees were provided with opportunities to practice or learn agricultural and trade skills in camp farming operations and industrial workshops. The wages they earned could be exchanged for consumer goods in the camp canteen; in one case, a profit sharing arrangement netted Farnham internee farmers $10,000.00 (p. 99). Internees were also encouraged to practice democracy on a small scale by electing a camp spokesman or in the case of Camp Farnham in 1945-46, electing a camp council, and drafting and ratifying a constitution. After the war in Europe had formally ended, the Canadian authorities also embarked on a re-education program that was to show the prisoners alternatives to totalitarianism and prepare them for civilian postwar professions while they awaited repatriation.
Despite all these efforts to make life in captivity bearable, there were mental breakdowns and attempted break-outs, as well as riots, hunger strikes, and any number of illicit activities, such as the making and consuming of alcohol, attempting to communicate with female civilians, and building radio receivers. Attempting to escape seemed to be a sport for some internees who cut barbed wire with stolen kitchen knives and built tunnels with concealed entrances. Guards and prisoners were watching each other closely in what appeared to be an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse. Prisoners who did escape were always captured within hours and returned to the camp.
While parts of Auger's book reads as if the documents were a script for a sitcom, there are far more serious elements of the story of internment that eventually shine through. Canadian POW camps contained an unusually high percentage of committed Nazis whose ideological makeup seemed to make them immune to humane treatment and who spread terror in some of the camps in the West. A plot by the so-called HARIKARI club in Camp Grande Ligne to implement a suicidal mass escape with civilian casualties and sabotage of important facilities brought the Minister of Justice and the Chiefs of the General Staff into the picture (p. 88). While the camp authorities had found the Communists among the civilian internees annoying, the threat posed by unrehabilitated Nazis seemed far more imminent. With the approval of the Canadian war cabinet, intelligence officers were stationed in the camps and an effort was made to segregate all German prisoners into political and ideological categories of "white," "gray," and black." The plan was to house them in separate camps, respectively. Reluctantly, the Canadian government also joined the Allied effort to prepare "white" (i.e. reliable and documented anti-Nazi) prisoners for work in post-hostilities Germany (p. 125).
Auger's section on the re-education program struck this reviewer as the most interesting part of the book. Based on sources by military intelligence, Auger shows how the camps in southern Quebec were turned into laboratories for postwar Germany and, in turn, taught much that was later applied in Europe. When interviewing volunteers for relocation to the new re-education camp at Sorel, Intelligence Officers had to develop ways to probe a person's ideological commitment and design methods to detect opportunists and liars; what they learnt was later applied in the security screening of immigrants. Watching their captives throughout the war years, the Canadian authorities noticed how the homogeneous body of "German" POWs split into groupings by social class and military rank, by educational level and by region of origin, German particularist tendencies becoming oblivious in friendly football rivalries (p. 51) and in radio recordings in distinct regional dialects (p. 140). Military authorities also realized that most German POWs shared a dislike of the Soviet Union and hoped to win over the Western Allies for postwar cooperation. Finally, when forcing the "gray" inmate population of Camp Farnham to watch the documentaries of the liberation of the concentration camps, Canadian military authorities would have become painfully aware of the tendency of most ordinary German POWs to deny, disbelieve, and generally disassociate themselves from the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany (pp. 138-139). The realities of postwar Germany could not have come as a surprise to any of the Canadian authorities involved in internment operations.
This meticulously researched book offers a wealth of material, though no startling new insights. One wonders why, other than for reasons of convenient sources, Auger chose the five internment camps of southern Quebec? What made southern Quebec an internment "region"? Was it because the guards were unemployed French-Canadian veterans of World War I, who likely saw their roles as paid employment rather than patriotic duty? Was it because the internees, ever hatching escape plans and dreaming of freedom, could hope for a quick dash across the U.S. border and onwards to Mexico and Latin America--a route that was not open to internees in northern Ontario? How much was different in the overall internment operations, of which these camps were an integral part?
A second criticism concerns Auger's use of his sources. Though painstaking in his documentation, he is perhaps too literal and too traditional in his reading of the primary sources. This becomes especially obvious in his social history of the camps. Using so-called "ego documents" to analyze camp life, Auger is reluctant to practice "reading against the grain" or questioning silences in the personal narratives. While this may work when reconstructing banal and pleasant activities, such as playing music or learning to skate, it fails to deal convincingly with controversial topics such as homosexual activities in the camps. Auger devotes a mere half page to this question, repeating the observations of one former internee that support the existence of homosexual practices in the camp. Yet he concurs with fellow historian Chris Madsen that Nazi German military culture detested homosexuality and that German POWs did not tolerate it in their midst. These findings contradict much that is known about homosocial environments, especially when they are the result of forced confinement (such as prisons). Patrick Farges has tackled this question as an issue of power hierarchies and concluded that "l'existence d'une économie homosexuelle au sein du camp" is well documented. Further, what is known from research about the homoerotic culture of the Nazi movement and the German military also suggests that any neat conclusions about the lack of toleration of homosexuality may not capture a more complex and contradictory reality in the camps.
In all fairness, homosexuality is not the focus of this book. However, the same problem with a too-literal reading of the documents extends to the war diaries. They are marvelous treasure troves of detailed information, but they also could be interrogated for what they say about the Canadian military authorities' values and priorities. What, for example, does it mean that authorities, working on preventing escapes, barely concealed their respect for the German POWs, who were "ingenious, imaginative, intelligent and courageous" (p.68)? Was the enemy seen as a fellow soldier rather than an ideological opponent, and how did this perceived commonality influence the guards' actions? How did the discovery of the death camps in Europe change this picture? How did half-hearted attempts at social engineering change the microcosm that each camp represented? Martin Auger has supplied us with a useful book to better understand Canada's war in all its dimensions, but he may not have given us the definitive account of life in an internment camp in southern Quebec.
. John Stanton, "Government Internment Policy, 1939-1945," Labour/ Le Travail 31 (Spring 1993): 203-241; and Bill Waiser, _Park Prisoners: The Untold Story of Western Canada's National Parks 1915-1946 (Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1995).
. Paula J. Draper, "The Accidental Immigrants: Canada and the Interned Refugees," (Ph.D. diss., University of Toronto, 1983).
. Patrick Farges, "Nous les Camp Boys: Constructions de la masculinité dans les récits des 'réfugiés-internés au Canada' (1933-2003)," paper presented at the conference Histoire, Genre, Migration (Paris) March 27-29, 2006, http://barthes.ens.fr/clio/dos/genre/com/farges.pdf
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Angelika E. Sauer. Review of Auger, Martin, Prisoners on the Home Front: German POWs and "Enemy Aliens" in Southern Quebec, 1940-1946.
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