Russell Wallis. British POWs and the Holocaust: Witnessing the Nazi Atrocities. International Library of Twentieth Century History Series. London: I. B. Tauris, 2016. 320 pp. $110.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78453-503-2.
Reviewed by Jean-Michel Turcotte (Free University of Berlin)
Published on H-War (February, 2019)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
In his recent book, British POWs and the Holocaust: Witnessing the Nazi Atrocities, Russell Wallis, an independent historian, examines how British prisoners of war (POWs) in Europe during the Second World War were witnesses to the Holocaust. In doing so, Wallis engages with two enormous topics: war captivity and the Holocaust. Considering the voluminous but largely separate historiographies of these two subjects in the last twenty years, it is an impressive challenge to entangle the testimonies of World War II British prisoners, the narratives surrounding their captivity, and the crimes and atrocities committed against Jews and Slavs by Nazi authorities. According to Wallis, scholars of British war captivity overuse notions of courage, heroism, bravery, and gallantry, as well as fear and timidity, to explain the experience of detention of two hundred thousand British soldiers between 1939 and 1945. He challenges these postwar concepts and shows that they cannot explain the reaction of POWs who witnessed the Holocaust. Using primary sources from the Imperial War Museum and the National Archives, he explores how and why POWs’ knowledge of Nazi atrocities was publicized, exaggerated, and even fictionalized in the decades after the conflict.
According to Wallis, it is a widely accepted assumption among scholars that British POWs in Europe saw little of the marginalization, stigmatization, brutality, violence, and murder of Jews by Nazi authorities. He challenges this interpretation and argues that British prisoners—held all over Germany and occupied territories and often moved from one camp to another—crossed paths with Jewish captives in different ways. In fact, he states that “Britons saw and understood a great deal more than anyone” in terms of the Holocaust (p. 1). POWs not only heard about the hard conditions experienced by Jews but also directly witnessed atrocities committed against them in concentration camps and in the course of working closely to certain death camps, especially Auschwitz-Birkenau. Wallis’s argument critiques a common interpretation of British captives’ reaction to these atrocities, often described with compassion, humanitarianism, and heroism. These notions were notably popularized by postwar memoirs of POWs. As examples, the comforting image of British valor facing one of the greatest crimes against humanity was influenced by Charles Coward’s memoir, The Password Is Courage (1954), and Denis Avey’s account, The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz (2011). According to Wallis, these two works depicted a heroic experience of British prisoners against the Nazi terror and served a similar aim: to assert that British prisoners “acted as guarantors of civilized values in the midst of a Nazi universe” (p. 3). The central problem stressed by the author is that these testimonies do not fit with the evidence found in the primary sources.
The book consists of six chapters. The introduction gives a general overview of the constitution and composition of the British armed forces, the place of Jews and “foreigners” in the British military, and the conventional view of the POW experience in Germany. Wallis explains the physical and psychological difficulties that British POWs had to confront in captivity in order to, according to the author, strip away some popular, oversimplified, and distorted conceptions of everyday POW life and mental conditions (p. 18). He rather suggests that the POW experience was characterized by a “lack of certainty,” here meaning a lack of material conditions and psychological support. Following this statement, chapters 1 to 3 describe different aspects of the story of British POWs in Germany and the Holocaust. First, he claims that British POWs saw and understood the abuses, crimes, and killing of Jews in Germany during their transport to camps or in working detachments. He then turns to an analysis of the captivity of Jewish soldiers among British forces, suggesting that anti-Semitism was also present among the British POW population, which posed an additional difficulty for those prisoners. The comparison also includes important differences in treatment between British-Jewish POWs and POWs from other countries recruited as Jewish forced laborers and the nature of contacts between these two groups. Chapters 4 and 5, dealing with the case of camps in Buchenwald, Theresienstadt, and various working detachment satellites of Auschwitz, explore how British captives reacted to the terror endured by Jewish and Soviet inmates in the Nazi concentration system: everyday violence, shooting on the spot, gas chambers, and the so-called death marches. Wallis also describes POWs’ perceptions of German camp authorities and the German population, which was not purely negative.
The last chapter, by far the longest (more than eighty pages), shows that postwar British POWs’ testimonies often described this experience as “heroic.” However, by meticulously scrutinizing the cases of Coward and Avey, Wallis asserts that these two major autobiographies contain many historical and factual errors, distorted assertions, simplifications, and inaccuracies. To sum up, the testimonies of Coward and Avey, which contributed to shaping the popular narrative or the myth of the brave British POW experience in the face of genocide, is far from the reality shown by rigorous historical inquiry. The author concludes that the various reactions of British POWs are less “heroic” and “gallant” than portrayed in literature and films. These two tropes are clearly insufficient to explain the array of reactions exhibited by British captives facing the Holocaust. Rather, their behavior was shaped by numerous others factors: their own experience; intrinsic values; and regard for Jewish, Russian, and German inmates. As a final argument, Wallis argues that such tales were popularized in Britain as a reaction of the British people who want to believe this comforting narrative in the context of the memory of the mass murder of European Jews.
The questions and issues raised by the book highlight the British witness of the crimes against Jews and Soviet POWs in World War II and their postwar interpretation. As a former fellow of the Holocaust Research Centre at Royal Holloway, Wallis was well placed to undertake this assigned task. Unfortunately, the overall result is somewhat disappointing. Based on a wide reading of secondary sources and some focused research in primary sources, Wallis offers thoughtful asides on British POWs’ response to the Holocaust. But overall, his study lacks a clearly defined démarche and analysis. From an academic historian’s perspective, the contribution of this book to our understanding of wartime captivity and the Holocaust is debatable and contains little that is new. Despite the interesting points raised by Wallis, this study does not effectively engage with the existing literature seeking to explain the experience of British POWs. The author ignores not only a wealth of scholarship that analyzes the detention of Allied soldiers but also the broad context of Soviet POWs imprisoned by Nazi Germany, as described by Jonathan F. Vance, Arieh J. Kochavie, Clare Makepeace, Raphael Scheck, Vassili Vourkoutiotis, and Rüdiger Overmans. Such analyses could help locate the experience of British POWs within other groups of Allied prisoners: American, Canadian, and colonial captives. At least a few words on the differences between soldiers from the Commonwealth, the United States, and Great Britain could have highlighted the singularity of British POWs. Also, the interaction of German and Swiss authorities and delegates from the International Committee of the Red Cross in regard to POWs in Germany is ignored in the analysis. Moreover, the relationship between Britain and Germany also requires further exploration. The detention of military and civilian prisoners was a complex war phenomenon that involved international politics and diplomacy, as reciprocity between captor states became an increasingly important factor in the course of the conflict. The custody of British POWs was thus directly influenced by the detention of German prisoners by Allied forces, which was structured by “barbed wire diplomacy” between London Berlin and Swiss representatives. These aspects represent examples of how macro-structural factors should be examined in the study of British POWs’ experience of captivity.
The main weakness of this book is that Wallis is focused primarily on the more factual or anecdotal facets of detention, such as daily life, violence, physical manifestations of anti-Semitism in camps, and the personal stories of different prisoners and commanders. His narrative is more descriptive than analytical. No more satisfactory is Wallis’s long final chapter. True, his argument on the construction of the myth of heroic and gallant behavior of British POWs, as seen in the case of Coward and Avey, is clear and convincing. However, the long descriptive thrust and use of numerous citations make his demonstration hard to follow. Finally, the archives and materials used by Wallis are limited to Great Britain, and, consequently, important studies and relevant concepts published in other languages are absent. In particular, German, Swiss, and Red Cross archives contain many documents that would have been central to this study.
A more global approach might have served as a better option in examining the question of Allied POWs and the Holocaust. Amid the extensive historiography on POWs, historians have tended to explore captivity beyond the boundaries of a single nation or particular camp. In doing so, historians have increasingly sought to generate a global understanding of this wartime phenomenon. Considering that this book is likely addressed to a general public and less to graduate students or historians, scholars will likely appreciate Wallis’s extensive work on the memoirs of Coward and Avey but will regret the absence of a clear analysis that weaves together a broader history of POWs and the Holocaust. Nevertheless, the book raises interesting questions on the uses and abuses of testimonies and the retelling of stories in the service of constructing postwar public narratives and memory. In this respect, British POWs and the Holocaust is recommended to anyone interested in the public history of British POWs in the Second World War and the question of witnessing the Holocaust.
. The preeminent works on POWs include Jonathan F. Vance, Objects of Concern: Canadian Prisoners of War through the Twentieth Century (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1994); Arieh J. Kochavi, Confronting Captivity: Britain and the United States and Their POWs in Nazi Germany (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Clare Makepeace, Captives of War: British Prisoners of War in Europe in the Second World War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017); Raffael Scheck, French Colonial Soldiers in German Captivity during World War II (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Vasilis Vourkoutiotis, Prisoners of War and the German High Command (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); S. P. MacKenzie, “The Treatment of Prisoners of War in World War II,” The Journal of Modern History 66, no. 3 (September 1994): 487‑520; and Rüdiger Overmans, ed., In der Hand des Feindes. Kriegsgefangenschaft von der Antike bis zum Zweiten Weltkrieg (Köln: Böhlau, 1999).
. Neville Wylie, Barbed Wire Diplomacy: Britain, Germany, and the Politics of Prisoners of War 1939-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
. Anne Marie Pathé and Fabien Théofilakis, eds., La captivité de guerre au XXe siècle: Des archives, des histoires, des mémoires (Paris: Armand Colin, 2012); and Günter Bischof, Stefan Karner, and Barbara Stelzl-Marx, eds., Kriegsgefangene des II. Weltkrieges. Gefangennahme - Lagerleben – Rückkehr (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2005). There is also no mention of recent works on Jewish prisoners: Rüdiger Overmans, “Le traitement allemand des prisonners de guerre juifs durant la Seconde Guerre mondiale,” in Pathé and Théofilakis, La captivité de guerre au XXe siècle, 59-68; and Günter Bischof and Rüdiger Overmans, Kriegsgefangenschaft im Zweiten Weltkrieg: Eine vergleichende Perspektive (Ternitz-Pottschach: G. Holler, 1999).
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