Some of Germany’s finest writers and artists churned out an anti-Nazi newspaper at a secret reeducation camp in Narragansett, R.I., during World War II.
They produced the newspaper for tens of thousands of German POWs held at prison camps throughout the United States. It ran from February 1945 to April 1946.
Their American captors selected the intellectual POWs to publish the newspaper, Der Ruf, because they hated Nazism.
After they returned to Germany, the POWs formed a world-famous literary circle, Group 47. It then dominated German literature for decades. Group 47 nourished young writers such as Nobel Prize winners Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass.
US POW Camps
During World War II, the United States incarcerated 425,000 prisoners of war in 700 camps inside its borders. Most were German, and many of them weren’t Nazis.
New England had more than a dozen prison camps. In Massachusetts, prisoners were held in Boston when they arrived. Wounded POWs went to hospitals and anti-Nazis went to Fort Devens. Others went to Camp McKay, Westover Field, Camp Edwards on Cape Cod and Camp Andrews and Fort Strong in Boston Harbor.
German POWs who opposed Nazism could find life miserable in the camps. Hard-core Hitler followers beat them up, even murdered them.
Secret Reeducation Camp
The War Department sent the most brutal, dedicated Nazis to a maximum security prison in Oklahoma. And then the Department’s Special Projects Division set up three secret reeducation camps in Rhode Island – at Forts Kearny, Getty and Wetherill. Their aim: to prepare German POWs to rebuild their country as a democracy. They also wanted to persuade them to break from Nazi beliefs.
The War Department chose anti-Nazi prisoners to create “intellectual diversions” for German POWs. They then called the project the “Idea Factory” or just the “Factory.”
The Americans carefully screened the German prisoners to make sure they hated Nazism and wanted to rebuild Germany into a free democratic society. Most had joined the army involuntarily, and some had spent time in Nazi concentration camps.
On Feb. 27, 1945, 85 German writers, artists and professors were moved to Fort Kearny, situated on 20 acres in Saunderstown above the West Passage of Narragansett Bay. The fort served the purpose of coastal defense, but the naval threat disappeared. The army took its heavy guns elsewhere. The fort had barracks for the prisoners, a kitchen and administrative buildings.
The prisoners didn’t have such a bad life in the secret reeducation camp. In the morning, a recording of Duke Ellington’s Lady Be Good woke them up. They had to wear clothes printed with “PW,” but sometimes they could wear khakis. They also had a measure of freedom. Sometimes they could take the ferry to Newport for supplies. One local resident remembers seeing prisoners in their “PW” clothes strolling along Boston Neck Road, presumably on their way to Twin Willows, a bar still in operation.
The News Staff
They worked on their main task, publishing the German-language newspaper. Prisoners who worked on Der Ruf and later joined Group 47 included:
- Hans Werner Richter, a novelist who eventually earned worldwide fame for his role in starting the Group 47.
- Dr. Gustav R. Hocke, Der Ruf’s first editor in chief. He was a prize-winning novelist and newspaper correspondent who had been forced to serve as a civilian interpreter for the German Army. The Allies captured him in Sicily in September 1944.
- Alfred Andersch, a writer who became a leading literary and radio figure in postwar Germany. After serving time in Dachau, he was forced into the army, deserted, and was captured. After the war, he continued to work on Der Ruf in occupied Germany.
- Curt Vinz, production editor.
- Franz Wischnewski, an artist and graphic designer.
The newspaper was first distributed to German prisoners in March. They were given small amounts of money and had to buy the paper for a nickel. That way, reasoned the Factory, it wouldn’t seem like American propaganda.
Ardent Nazis called it “Jewish propaganda.” They burned the newspapers and threatened prisoners who bought them. At some camps, prisoners greeted Der Ruf with enthusiasm, and the news staff received hundreds of letters praising their work.
Stories included recommendations on the best American writers (Steinbeck and Hemingway). The newspapers carried accounts of the horrors of German concentration camps. They also had war reporting along with descriptions of the strengths of America’s political system. And they ran a history of free German labor unions. and included quotations from American authors like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Walt Whitman and Thornton Wilder.
Until April 1 of that year, the Factory produced 26 editions of Der Ruf. The army then shut down Fort Kearny and returned the POWs home.
One POW author wrote that the secret reeducation camps were “probably unique in human history.” He wrote that “Voluntarily, German prisoners of war have undertaken to start a work of positive aid to their own fellows here in captivity.”
.They did it, he wrote, “as men who believe in the future of their home country, a country that must become a part of a peaceful world.”
Der Ruf in Germany
Wischnewski, Vinz and Andersch then continued to publish Der Ruf in Germany. Its circulation reached 100,000 until the Americans shut it down because it opposed the occupation of Germany.
The Der Ruf alumni then formed Group 47. Richter said its members were determined to prevent forever a repetition of what had happened. “They wanted to lay the foundation of a new democratic Germany,” he said. They also wanted “a better future and a new literature, conscious of the responsibility in regard to politics and the development of society as a whole.”
After Fort Kearny closed as a secret reeducation camp, Rhode Island State College acquired its buildings. They now belong to the Narragansett campus of the University of Rhode Island.
This story was updated in 2023.
Images courtesy of Edward Davison Papers, Yale University Library, except for photo of Der Ruf, which comes from the Office of the Provost Marshal General, RG 389, National Archives). With thanks to the Small State, Big History blog, The Top Secret World War II Prisoner-of-War Camp at Fort Kearny in Narragansett.