Matthew Thompson is a registrar at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kan. He will present “From Fatherland to Farmland” at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Lansing Historical Museum, 115 E. Kansas Ave. in Lansing, during the museum’s Kansas Day celebration.
1) How did your research for "From Fatherland to Farmland" begin? What initially piqued your interest in the subject? I've been interested in World War II for a long time; it was a major focus for me when I was a student and continues to be in my professional capacity at the Eisenhower Presidential Museum. I've found that one of the best ways to make history interesting to other people is to discuss it in a context that is engaging and relatable, so doing a project on a significant aspect of World War II that occurred right here in Kansas seemed like a potentially useful approach. 2) How long did it take you to put the presentation together? I worked incrementally over several months to prepare this program, but it continues to evolve as I keep discovering new sources of information. 3) How many German POWs were in the plains states at the time? Of approximately 700 total POW compounds in the United States during WWII, there were 16 in Kansas of varying sizes, plus the Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth. The largest POW camp in Kansas was at Concordia, which held about 4,000 Germans — both enlisted men and officers. A total of approximately 400,000 German prisoners were housed in the United States during the war. 4) Leavenworth County is the home of not only a military base, but also a military prison. Did your research yield any information about German POWs on Fort Leavenworth? Fort Leavenworth was home to the United States Disciplinary Barracks, which is where Axis POWs who were subjected to American courts martial could be sent. This generally referred to POWs who were charged with criminal behavior during an escape (although it's important to note that the act of escape itself was not a court-martial offense) or who committed crimes against American guards, civilians or other POWs. A total of 120 Germans and a small number of Italians were housed at the Disciplinary Barracks after being convicted of various crimes. After the war ended, prisoners who had completed their sentences were repatriated to their countries of origin via normal channels. However, 15 German POWs were sentenced to die at Fort Leavenworth (one of these was commuted to a prison term). The remaining 14 were hanged on a makeshift gallows that had been installed in the elevator shaft of a warehouse building. All of the death row prisoners at the USDB had been found guilty of murdering fellow Germans at regular POW camps in other parts of the country. This happened more often than people might expect, particularly during 1943-1944 and only a fraction of these incidents resulted in convictions. In almost all instances, the victims were POWs whose comrades believed they had behaved treasonously or dishonorably during the war or who harbored (or were merely suspected of harboring) defeatist or overtly anti-Nazi views. Camp Concordia, Kan., gained a particularly bad reputation for these problems during its first few months of operation. Three prisoner deaths occurred there that were deemed highly suspicious suicides or outright murders and the victims in each instance were prisoners who had run afoul of a cadre of ardent Nazi POWs who had taken charge. Once the US Army began more thoroughly and systematically vetting POWs and segregating the "incorrigible Nazis,” the situation in the regular camps improved considerably. By the end of the war, Camp Concordia was seen as a model facility. 5) What do you take away from the story about the German POWs here? Although there are plenty of examples of American conduct toward defeated Germans that are less than stellar, I believe that overall the United States did an admirable job of following the Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of prisoners of war. Almost without exception, every interview and letter I've come across from German veterans who were detained in America reflects extremely favorably about their treatment in captivity and the extent to which their dignity and human rights were respected. Some Americans objected to our government's strict adherence to the Geneva Convention and it wasn't unusual for there to be accusations that POWs were coddled and spoiled. However, I believe this policy was instrumental in establishing a cultural and political dialogue between our two countries both during and after the war. I would also argue that the experiences many Germans had as POWs in America were influential in West Germany's success at rebuilding itself as a stable and peaceful democracy. If there's a contemporary lesson to be drawn from all of this, I would suggest there's a strong relationship between the way America treats its enemies and the way other people view America. An adjutant at Camp Concordia, Capt. Karl Teufel, wrote extensively about the camp's history, and he offers a very insightful epilogue: "Not only have we preserved the integrity of our national signature to treaties which others have regarded as 'scraps of paper', but we have also convinced the world that America's altruism is a real characteristic even in times of great national anger. Many Americans resent the operations of the Convention, but with the passage of time and the return of greater objectivity, America will be proud of having honestly and conscientiously fulfilled her pledged obligations, in face of many circumstances which would have extenuated more rigid action."