Remembering the German POW Camp at BretzenheimClarissa Schnabel
We ran a camp at Bretzenheim, near Bingen on the Rhine.
One hundred thousand unwilling guests went once a day to dine.
We weren’t at all prepared for them; facilities were crude —
barbed wire and machine guns, and a scarcity of food.
In theory it is healthy to live beneath the sky,
to breathe the pleasant open air and on the green earth lie.
But the lofty roof, the sky, let through the icy rain
and our guests felt some discomfort; I heard a few complain.
The sick ones cried for help; the wounded cried in pain.
The young ones cursed; the old ones prayed, equally in vain.
Sleep in the open, so I’m told, erases spirit’s scars,
body prone on grassy earth and mind aloft with stars.
But two hundred thousand trampling feet, beneath a sky of lead,
churned the sodden earth and made a puddle of each bed.
The starving wept with hunger; the wounded wept with pain.
The proud ones cursed; the meek ones prayed, equally in vain.
Well guarded were the guests by their armed hosts night and day;
but in spite of wire and fire, many quietly slipped away.
Lesser grew the living, involved yet in mankind —
prisoners all, at Bretzenheim near Bingen on the Rhine.
— Dale R. Carver, “The Camp at Bretzenheim”
When the Rhine Meadow Camps are remembered today, stereotypical ideas of suffering often arise, which hide the historical background. Representatives of the extreme right use the subject matter and spread false, exaggerated or out-of-context accounts of the conditions in the POW camps. However, the Rhine Meadow Camps must be linked to the political and military events before 1945, because the camps are a consequence of the Nazi dictatorship, the Second World War that was started by Germany, and the National Socialist crimes against humanity. — Kriegsgefangenschaft in den Rheinwiesenlagern (1945 bis 1948). Blätter zum Land, Nr. 63; translated by C. S.
When reading Sanders, Sauter, and Kirkwood’s Soldiers of Misfortune recently, I unexpectedly found myself thinking back to a visit to Bretzenheim in May 2022. It was a bit of a confused visit. On the one hand, I love the Rhineland. My maternal grandfather’s family came from there, and I’ve always had a soft spot for that beautiful part of my country. On the other, the purpose of my visit was to see the former Rhine Meadows Camp at Bretzenheim, with its documentation center, exhibition, and the Lohrer Wald cemetery, where many of Bretzenheim’s dead are buried. So I was somewhat worried that the visit might upset me, and it did — but not, surprisingly, because of its topic, but rather because of modern sensibilities towards it.
The Rhine Meadows Camp, when it was under American control, was one of the larger ones of its kind. It held a huge number of German prisoners of war who had been reclassified as “Disarmed Enemy Personnel” (DEP) to circumvent the Geneva Convention, as well as about a thousand female Wehrmacht personnel, and even the occasional civilians who had been arrested for not carrying identification papers or because they had been wearing a uniform the US troops did not recognize. One such example of the latter was a postman who suddenly found himself behind barbed wire at Bretzenheim.
There was no shelter of any kind in the camp apart from a few tents that had been taken from the prisoners, and during the first weeks the inmates were not even allowed to dig foxholes to shelter in. Sanitary and medical facilities were non-existent, and the food supply was completely inadequate for the number of prisoners. Even the International Red Cross was initially barred from entering the camp.
It was taken over by the French after three months and, in one of those rare uplifting stories from 1945, they quickly set about improving living conditions. In addition to being a camp for prisoners of war and disarmed enemy personnel, it later became a key transit camp for POWs returning from captivity in Britain, the United States, and France. It was finally shut down on December 31, 1948.
The story of the Bretzenheim camp’s commemoration is a long one, but it was basically a private initiative that established the very informative documentation center and exhibition with its treasure trove of “relics” that is currently being housed in lovely but cramped quarters in the town hall. The documentation center has lately passed into the stewardship of the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge, the German war graves commission. And that’s where the problem begins.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I am a paying member of the Volksbund myself, and I appreciate its work. But it, too, has fallen prey to what passes as a very German branch of political correctness: We can’t emphasize that Germans suffered in wartime as well as after the war due to Allied actions, because doing so would strengthen those on the far Right. Thus, it’s better not to mention these atrocities and their perpetrators too much and bury them in generalities — along with, of course, the obligatory mention that it was all Germany’s fault, anyway.
How does this relate to the Bretzenheim camp? Simply put, the exhibition will be remodeled, partly because its style of presentation is outdated, and partly to preserve the more fragile pieces, such as newspaper cuttings — and partly because it apparently borders on what is now unacceptable — specifically, “exaggerated or out-of-context accounts of the conditions in the POW camps.” I read my way through the texts, and there is nothing — repeat, nothing — that holds up to that statement, unless you consider pointing out how bad things were to be borderline extremist.
Because of some miscommunication, I did not arrive at the documentation center at my scheduled time — a measure that was introduced when COVID hit, since, as I mentioned, this place is really small. This allowed me to view the exhibition before the obligatory educational talk about the history of the camp that, unbeknownst to me until then, is part of every visit to the documentation center. Looking back, I strongly suspect this is so exactly because of the stated reasons: You have to be taught THE CONTEXT before seeing the exhibition, so you don’t get contaminated by the extremist views expressed in those old reports, photographs, and items from the camp.
I don’t know if it was because I came already armed with some knowledge about the camps, but during the talk there was hardly any mention of its horrific conditions and the main causes of death among the prisoners: malnutrition and its loyal companion, illness. Instead we heard the usual stories about how the US Army was not prepared for such a large number of prisoners (true, but they had resources, not least the locals who lived right next to the camp; they simply didn’t utilize them); how they were paranoid (true; the fear of potential escapees joining the Wehrwolf or of the prisoners uniting against their captors was real); how horrible the Soviet camps were (whatever that has to do with the topic at hand); and the number of the dead.
It was at this point that our conversation somewhat deteriorated.
Numbers are generally a problem in relation to the Rhine Meadows Camps, which is why there is so much debate about them — to the point of it overshadowing everything else. The camp at Bretzenheim is, from what I understand, one of the better-documented ones, as several townspeople were closely involved and committed to doing what they could for the prisoners. But if even the town priest can only give an estimate of 3,500 to 4,500 dead between April and July 1945, that’s saying a lot about the documentation as a whole. I mean, we’re talking about plus or minus a thousand deceased prisoners in just three months.
Now, I don’t hold any opinion in the debate, myself. It is clear that nobody has the exact numbers and never will, but I find James Bacque’s arguments in his book Other Losses concerning how he arrived at a number of as many as a million dead and why he is not convinced by the official records. This is surprisingly supported by Soldiers of Misfortune, as authors James D. Sanders, Mark A. Sauter, and R. Cort Kirkwood show how the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) — the very authority that was responsible for conditions in the Rhine Meadows Camps and the official numbers — falsified records pertaining to captive US soldiers who were carried off from German POW camps to the Soviet Gulags by the “liberating” Red Army. Thousands of them never returned — and officially never existed, rather like the dead from the Rhine Meadows Camps.
As I had made my way through the exhibition, I had caught some parts of the educational talk that was being given to a visiting family in an adjacent room, so I knew what to expect. Thus, when the employee at the documentation center began speaking about the controversial numbers that “those on the extreme Right claim,” my aversion to platitudes got the better of me.
“I wouldn’t count James Bacque as being among those on the extreme Right,” I interrupted. That’s where the high numbers come from, after all. And then I said something that I should have formulated as a question, because it actually interested me: To my knowledge, no one had responded to Bacque’s response to the criticisms of his numbers. In the third edition of his book, he discussed each point of criticism in great detail and explained how he had arrived at his results.
Instead of receiving an answer, which the employee may not have had, anyway, there simply followed a brisk claim that Bacque had worked with false figures and had taken quotes out of context. Those were the usual reactions to the first edition of Bacque’s book, but not the third — so I was told nothing new. Above all, there was an abrupt change from affability to coolness in the employee’s attitude, culminating in the passive-aggressive question: “If that’s true, where are the dead?” How should I know? I never claimed there were any missing dead. Like I said, I do not take any position on this. If that was supposed to be the often-invoked and -demanded “objectivity,” then it’s in bad shape.
By silent consent we dropped the topic, and the rest of the talk turned out to be quite interesting. That was also when I was told about the plan to remodel the exhibition, possibly in conjunction with a larger new building near the memorial outside of town. (I hope the latter won’t be realized, as most of the former camp grounds have been “developed” as it is — and I’m not sure the memorial, with its stylized crown of thorns and barbed wire symbolism would survive any politically-correct revamp.)
James Bacque is at least appreciated at Bretzenheim as the first writer to make the story of the Rhine Meadows Camps known to a wider audience. There is still no “real” reference work on them (the employee’s words, not mine), and it appears there is more interest in them on the American than on the German side — which, to the employee, was “a bit of a pity.” (Maybe the constant reiteration about everything being Germany’s fault has something to do with it?) “They are still a blind spot,”
He said. So what they would like to do, if they had the necessary funding, is to send researchers to the archives in the United States to establish the “correct” number of prisoners. I refrained from saying anything, but James Bacque had done exactly that, and he came away with the conviction that the records did not tell the truth. But I suppose if you can sell politically correct findings as up-to-date and “definitive” research, it helps silence the critics.
All this does not take away from the good and honest work that is being done today to remember the camps. Despite my questionable remarks, I was invited to the annual commemorative event at Bretzenheim later that spring, but unfortunately couldn’t make it; I hope to take part in it this year. There is usually a commemorative address at the memorial attended by surviving former camp inmates (“We still have two who show up regularly”), followed by a tour around the whole of the former camp grounds, with a shorter tour offered for those who can’t make it up and down the hills. In the commemoration’s early years, some former American guards also took part, I was told, but nobody knows who they were and who invited them today. If by chance anyone reading this has any information on them, please let me know in the comments!
And if you are ever in the neighborhood, make sure to visit the Bretzenheim documentation center and exhibition; it’s worth it. You should perhaps do so before they modernize it and the more “controversial” statements disappear . . .
* * *
Counter-Currents has extended special privileges to those who donate $120 or more per year.
- First, donor comments will appear immediately instead of waiting in a moderation queue. (People who abuse this privilege will lose it.)
- Second, donors will have immediate access to all Counter-Currents posts. Non-donors will find that one post a day, five posts a week will be behind a “Paywall” and will be available to the general public after 30 days.
- Third, Paywall members have the ability to edit their comments.
- Fourth, Paywall members can “commission” a yearly article from Counter-Currents. Just send a question that you’d like to have discussed to [email protected]. (Obviously, the topics must be suitable to Counter-Currents and its broader project, as well as the interests and expertise of our writers.)
To get full access to all content behind the paywall, sign up here:
Paywall Gift Subscriptions
If you are already behind the paywall and want to share the benefits, Counter-Currents also offers paywall gift subscriptions. We need just five things from you:
- your payment
- the recipient’s name
- the recipient’s email address
- your name
- your email address
To register, just fill out this form and we will walk you through the payment and registration process. There are a number of different payment options.
The Worst Week Yet: March 19-25, 2023
Obituary for Prof. Roger Pearson, M.Sc. (Econ.), Ph.D., (London): 1927–2023
Survival of the Fittest: Interview with Alexander Deptolla of Kampf der Nibelungen
Dr. Roger Pearson on His Life & Work
Whittaker Chambers: The Quaker Who Exposed Communism in the US, Part 1
Ian Kershaw’s Personality & Power
The Worst Week Yet: January 15-21, 2023
The Third Reich’s Biggest Mistake
I first became aware of the treatment James Bacque was getting in the 1980s when Commentary magazine called his book “shoddy” and claimed he could not find an American publisher. It got worse. Stephen Ambrose was going to write an introduction for Bacque, then changed his mind and attacked Bacque and all his sources.
Since I already had a copy of the Canadian paperback version of OTHER LOSSES I paid no mind to Commentary. Even so the needling against Bacque and his work was incessant.
But in the early 1990s fate intervened:
“…When the Soviet archives on prisoners of war for the 20th century were opened after 1990, Bacque immediately flew to Moscow where he was admitted to the gloomy KGB archives. There he was shown boxes containing millions of documents relating to prisoners of war of every nationality from World War II. He was allowed to patrol those dim aisles, to take down any box he wished and to photocopy any documents he wanted. He brought away from Moscow scores of copies of typical entries, including medical and legal records for individual prisoners, ID documentation, date of death or discharge. He also found the statistical summary of the fate of German prisoners of war… ”
The whole Bacque–Ambrose duel is worth a look, link below. Now dead, it is my belief Bacque has been totally vindicated.
I have read Bacque’s book, albeit not closely and I want to believe in his probity but as with revisionism generally, the tendency for the court historians to pile on, always seems to leave room for lingering doubt. Certainly the linked article amounts to a ‘he said, she said’. The ‘news’ side-bar at the site has a distinctly ‘liberal mainstream’ flavour to it.
That site is indeed liberal and I often skip it.
That said, I remain confident that Ambrose did a fine job damning himself and the pro-Ike side. I find it difficult to warrant that Ambrose’s own dwindling acolytes will find much to admire about their boy. I deem that an unvarnished plus. Bacque, I believe, is resting in peace having shown that even in the late 20th century historians can be honorable.
Believe me when I write that I am not unhappy about this confidence of yours but at the same time I remain quite unsure of the basis for it.
Thank you for publicising this memorial to some of those who suffered in this part of Morgenthau’s diabolical plan. The most monstrous thing to my mind is the brainwashing that has left virtually the whole country belligerently ignorant, defenceless and utterly unable to take its own side as the Weimar 2.0 process accelerates.
Would that Mr Bacque could have been kept alive even longer than his ninety years for surely no-one will ever be allowed as much access to the records as he was in those more innocent decades.
Dale R. Carver’s exquisitely poignant ‘many quietly slipped away’ is too sad. He has an anthology ‘Before the Veterans Die’ available from Abebooks or Amazon.
Yes, definitely recommending Dale Carver’s book. It’s dark, cynical, and heroic in turn. I actually became aware of it at Bretzenheim; they have two poems concerning the camp on display (“The Camp at Bretzenheim” and “Prisoners”) as well as a copy of the original edition of his book.
“The future will demand from us the finest we can give;
both of us are Men, Sir; with courage we will live.”
Thank you for the article. My parents were Germans that lived in Germany during the war. They were both young when it ended but they told me what life was like and what people thought. I think many or most people have a very distorted view if they only know WW II Germany from TV, movies and newspapers. My mother was a refugee from the east so her story was very interesting and dangerous.
I feel I learned a lot by talking to them and I know they were honest with me. I am very skeptical of anything I read about the war. Most mainstream historians are extremely biased and don’t write the truth, possibly because they don’t know it. Most of my relatives who lived during the war are gone now. I wish I had spoken to my uncles about it more. One uncle was in the Waffen SS and spent three awful years in France until being released in 1948. I never asked him details about his experience. I’m not sure if he would have wanted to talk, but I never tried.
Now I’ll get to the part I want to say. I hope it doesn’t sound too bad, but most Germans disgust me. Almost every time I meet a German I am disappointed and feel like I’m talking to a disgusting idiot that knows nothing. I think they hate their own people, sometimes their own relatives from the war generation and they know nothing.
I especially find it irritating when I’m in Germany and the morons talk about the “NAZIS”. I feel like asking them if they’re from another country. They’re not. They’re just indoctrinated ignoramuses. I think my parents might be very disappointed in today’s Germans if they were still alive.
I know it must be frustrating, but keep in mind that they’ve been indoctrinated practically the minute they first stepped into a classroom.
Actually, that would be a fine idea to ask them what country they’re from! Maybe ask if they’re Americans, brought up on too many Hollywood movies – I bet that would get a reaction!
How did you manage to see through the propaganda?
Norman Finkelstein identified 1967, when Israel won the Arab-Israeli war, as when the Holocaust industry began. I now usually refer to it as the Holohoax industry. He says Israel’s victory in that war made Israel a valuable asset to the US and it gave American Jews the confidence to come out with their Holohoax propaganda. I didn’t hear about Norman Finkelstein until about 30 years later, but we (me and my parents) noticed big changes in the US and one was when Jews started with an onslaught of Holocaust movies and media coverage of the Holocaust starting in the early 1970’s.
In school I had a Jewish English teacher that took out a few weeks to talk about the Holocaust. He had us recite the poems written by the mentally ill Pulitzer Prize winning poet Sylvia Plath. She wrote horrible poems about how awful the Germans were, talking about Jews being made into lampshades and soap and I can’t recall what else anymore. She, herself, was the daughter of Germans, one of her parents being Swiss-German or Austrian, I believe. She committed suicide by sticking her head in the oven and then turning the gas on. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize after doing that, I assume by Jews. So, my Jewish English teacher spent several weeks teaching us how the Germans gassed and murdered millions of Jews, made them into soap and lampshades and all the other horrible things they could think of. I went up to my teacher after class one day and told him I didn’t think what he was saying was true. We walked in the hallway and I asked him if he would be teaching his students that Jews had Christ killed. He told me his grandmother was German and he wasn’t anti-German. I then went to the school principal and complained that I thought my Jewish teacher was prejudiced. I probably thought if Jews and blacks can level that charge, why can’t I. The principal told me that was a serious charge and let me out of his office.
I brought the poems home and showed them to my parents. My mother was a much calmer person than my father. I think it was around this time that she told me “this country has changed”. My father was enraged and my mother had to stop him from throwing a kitchen chair out the kitchen window.
I talked to my parents often about what life was like in Germany and I came to the conclusion that there is a wide gap between what my parents told me about Germany, including there great achievements in science, music and philosophy and the bumbling idiots they were often portrayed as in American movies. But, I had many arguments with my parents. I would usually side with the accusing Jews/Americans. They’re gone now so I can’t apologize. About then years ago I read there is no truth whatsoever to the soap and lampshades lies. Even the big holohoax memorial in Washington had something on their website saying those claims were not true, not that anyone needs them to confirm anything. I once heard one idiot saying those claims were a mistake, not a lie. He went out of his way to lie and claim they were not lies.
I have gone to some of David Irving’s presentations and heard him speak and I have read things from other revisionist historians and I think the evidence is extremely strong that most of what the mainstream historians say about WW II is false, often just outright falsifications or lying. I also believe Germany’s attack on the USSR was a pre-emptive strike, as some Russian and German historians both say. I believe David Irving says that too. The best known of these historians is a Russian named Viktor Suvorov.
Salute your intellectual honesty and courage, sir. May you strive to spread as many relevant historical and present truths to as many people esp. the youthful ones as possible in your utmost capacity and may God bless you. Meanwhile, I’ll also do my part in my life and in my humble capacity.
If you have Paywall access,
simply login first to see your comment auto-approved.
Note on comments privacy & moderation
Your email is never published nor shared.
Comments are moderated. If you don't see your comment, please be patient. If approved, it will appear here soon. Do not post your comment a second time.