University of Mobile
During World War II, the United States hosted thousands of Axis prisoners of war. Many of the German prisoners taken by the Allies were sent to the rural South, where the opportunity for sabotage was limited and labor was desperately needed. Around 16,000 of these German prisoners of war arrived in Alabama, and their presence in POW camps deeply impacted the state and its citizens. This paper argues that German prisoners greatly benefited wartime Alabama, and the citizens of Alabama in turn influenced these Germans both directly and indirectly. While the Germans came to a greater understanding of America, its citizens, and democracy, they also saw firsthand the limits of that democracy in the way that Alabamians treated African Americans under Jim Crow. As such, German POWs drew on their time in the state, among a variety of Alabamians, to determine their own place in a new, post-war world.
My research relies on a number of first-hand accounts, including letters, reports, and interviews with both Germans and Alabamians who experienced life in and around the prisoner of war camps, all of which show the influence each group had on the other. Alabamians, and many other Americans, came to see the Germans as individuals, much like themselves, instead of the monsters shown in wartime propaganda. For their part, Germans noted the hypocritical treatment of African Americans in the so-called “land of freedom,” and instances of camaraderie between these two groups were born out of their mutual frustration. This research is invaluable as it highlights an understudied facet of wartime society in Alabama, and as such, is an important addition to the state’s history, as well as the nation’s.