Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle

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Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle

Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle

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At Colditz, there were various nationalities, primarily British, French, Dutch and Polish, and they didn’t always work well together. There were also problems with class conflict, racial prejudice, and anti-Semitism among some of the prisoners. Sadly, there were prisoners who shared many of the same fascist and racist attitudes as the Nazis. Some prisoners were communist sympathizers, which foreshadowed the Cold War conflict. These differences caused problems in themselves, but also served to further divide the prisoners when some suspected that there were moles among them tipping off the Germans to escape plans. In a forbidding Gothic castle on a hilltop in the heart of Nazi Germany, an unlikely band of British officers spent the Second World War plotting daring escapes from their German captors. Or so the story of Colditz has gone, unchallenged for 70 years. But that tale contains only part of the truth. The book isn’t just about the escape attempts, though. A closed community tends to have intensified social dynamics. On the positive side, the prisoners threw themselves into cultural pursuits, including putting on concerts, skits and plays. Hilariously, the British chaplain was appalled at prisoners dressing up as women for some of the plays and skits they acted out in the castle’s theater, thinking that even these ridiculously ersatz women would stir the men’s passions. Having read many WWII books and memoirs, Prisoners of the Castle is a new and unique addition to my WWII library that helps to broaden my perspective and understanding of the war and lives of those touched by it. Obviously, this is a war story so most of this is pretty bleak. However, there are plenty of moments of humor, touching humanism, and joy. I got legitimately choked up when the men starting building the glider, despite the extreme unlikeliness that it would work. "...It had more to do with mythical escapism and imagination than with a real escape. It was a dream for the prisoner collective: to fly away to freedom." After years of mostly failed escape attempts, increasing loss of hope as rations and other supplies dwindled, and deep fears that the prisoners might all be murdered if Germany was losing and the Allied powers reached the castle....imagine these defeated men pooling their ingenuity to build something so magnificent, such a beautiful dream of freedom. Ugh, it got to me.

The Great Escape is a fairly well-known movie with a star-studded cast. It is set in a POW camp in Poland and portrays the real-life audacious escape attempt of 76 Allied airmen during WWII. A different POW camp in Germany was Colditz Castle. It was supposed to be the most secure German POW camp so was specifically used as the prison of last resort for Allied officers who had previously attempted escape or were otherwise high risk. Despite the designation of "escape proof," Colditz turned out to be the ideal camp for escape-inclined Allied prisoners. With so many escape-prone prisoners housed together it was inevitable that they would plan escapes. They organized and created an "escape committee" which arranged the details of each escape, including who would produce or procure money, tools, maps, disguises or any other required materials. They also organized the dates of escapes so that one group did not interfere with another. Some of the few who did escape gained fame, becoming celebrities in Britain for years after the war. A surprising number kept diaries, as did at least one of the guards, which were among MacIntyre’s principal sources. And several wrote bestselling books about the experience, distorting and contributing to the enduring legend of Colditz in the British imagination. No doubt, it was their skill as writers which had a lot to do with making Colditz the most famous of the many WWII Nazi POW camps. I had a tap on the shoulder from one of my tutors, who said, ‘There’s part of the Foreign Office that is slightly different from the other parts.’ He never actually said what it was, but it became pretty clear. I did the first couple of interviews and I enjoyed talking to them. But they took one look at me and realised that here’s a man who can’t keep a secret, as I’ve just demonstrated by telling you the story, which I’ve told others before.” The officers had a British “boarding school mentality.” They tried to recreate the traditions of Eton and other private schools coopting behaviors such as bullying, enslaving individuals on the lower rung of society, “goon-baiting” Germans, and diverse types of entertainment. Those who did not attend a boarding school were rarely included. This was utterly fascinating, not only the escape attempts of the prisoners, but also the politics within the prison, the relationships with the guards, the people on the outside who collaborated to smuggle escape equipment into the prison......

The Sydney Morning Herald

At that point, [then US president Ronald] Reagan’s speeches were incredibly incendiary; he was poking the bear very, very hard. Gordievsky’s information was, ‘They may be paranoid in the Kremlin but they genuinely believe you’re about to launch your first strike.’ I tend to prefer to read a book before listening to the audiobook but in this case, I think I would have preferred to listen to the audiobook from the outset. The audio sample sounds good and I may return to it some day. Much of the material comes from recordings made in the late 1980s and early 1990s by every surviving Colditz prisoner, which are held in the Imperial War Museum but hadn’t been listened to by researchers or historians. It’s through these archives that Macintyre learnt of Ross’s anguish and other prisoners’ private fears, including a chaplain’s anxiety over the men acting on homosexual urges. The book reveals a culture of homosexuality among the prisoners, including one who was openly bisexual. “No one has really written about that before,” says Macintyre. He’s referring here to the fact that when Gordievsky was safely ensconced in England, the Russian used his prodigious memory to pass on vast troves of intelligence to the West. Most notably, he revealed the extent to which the Soviets were paranoid that the US would launch a first strike against them. Secrets are very intoxicating and can also be very bad for you. If you do keep them, they have a corrosive effect over time. You often end up doing a bad thing for a good cause, in your own mind, breaking the law or manipulating people or deceiving the people you love.”

There are two components that dominate Macintyre’s monograph; the replica of the British social class structure that dominated prison life, and the integration of an eclectic and diverse group of prisoners whether British, Dutch, French, Polish, or American. There are other themes that the author introduces that include the Nazi leadership that ran Colditz, the ebbs and flows of the war which prisoners were able to keep up with by building a surreptitious radio, the planning of escapes and what happened to the escapees, the plight of Prominente – a group of influential and famous prisoners whom the Nazis sought to maximize a return, and how Berlin reacted to what was occurring in the prison. There is just SO much here to talk about; so many interesting tidbits and stories and individuals, some slimy, others much more heroic. Eggers started a Colditz Museum with foiled escape souvenirs, complete with photos of reenacted escape attempts. They legitimately caught several prisoners attempting escape (one dressed as the Colditz electrician, another dressed as a woman) and requested they pose for a photo for the museum scrapbook. And these are supplied mid-book, which was fantastic. There is too much I could go on about, so just read the book honestly. Another important contrast is the treatment of Jews vs POWs. The Jews and other "undesirables" sent to concentration camps like Auschwitz had it much, much worse than the prisoners of Colditz. But the POWs still faced hunger & food shortages, near-constant supervision, and of course the danger of being powerless in enemy hands. Yet prisoners of Colditz were among the better-treated POWs - the main men in charge of the camp actually (mostly) adhered to the Geneva Convention of 1929. Which naturally didn't stop the prisoners from attempting to escape. Some of the most comedic bits of this book are during escapes. Their creativity and courage was indomitable.A few years earlier, while Gordievsky was head of the KGB rezidentura (spy hub) in the Soviet embassy in London, Macintyre recalls, there was the “extraordinary moment when Mikhail Gorbachev, the great new kind of grand hope of the Politburo, arrives in London, and Oleg is briefing both sides. The KGB resident designate is writing a memo for Gorbachev about what he should say to Thatcher but the memo has been dictated by MI6, and you’ve also got him advising MI6 how Gorbachev responds.” World War II prisoner-of-war escapes are a staple of adventure fiction. IMDB lists twenty-one films on the theme, most prominently the 1963 production The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Richard Attenborough. In reality, however, successful escapes were rare. Britain’s Imperial War Museum notes that “Of the 170,000 British and Commonwealth prisoners of war in Germany in the Second World War, fewer than 1,200 of them managed to escape successfully and make a ‘home run.'” But the numbers fall far short of conveying the sheer drama in the German camps. And perhaps the most colorful examples have emerged from Colditz, the Nazi camp for Allied officers in Germany’s east from 1939 to 1945. Author Ben MacIntyre brings the drama into high relief in Prisoners of the Castle, a nonfiction rendering of life in the most famous of the nearly one hundred WWII Nazi POW camps.

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