|Cover of the Prikkeldraad book|
The Prikkeldaad documentary was based around a book with the same name, published shortly after the war. It held the reminiscences, water colours, songs, sometimes photographs, of many men that had gone gone through one of the main Dutch POW camps, between Berlin and Magdeburg.
My granddad claimed to have contributed some photographs to the book, but he lost all his stuff on his trip back. As far as I understand he spent time in the Ukraine and was liberated by the Soviets somewhere in Bohemia. He then made his way back home through Saxony. After the war he never bought the book, but much later I found a copy and gave it to him.
There were interesting differences and similarities between the documentaries. Both concerned WWII and featured interviews with survivors, men in their 90s. The image they paint of war is not a rosy picture and sometimes very emotional. Only few of them didn't show emotion at some point. Guilt, anger, relief, pride, joy and loss were all there, even though many of them tried to remain calm and dignified most of the time. However, seeing people killed around you and looking death in the eye affects you.
There were differences as well. While the British soldier talked mostly about combat, the Dutch POWs were always talking about food. The food they loved most and the food they needed to get and the ways to get it. Some entered the black market, many stole. From the Germans, but also their comrades.
But the most marked difference is probably that between victors and vanquished. While the British tankies may have lost battles or at some point admitted they felt that they'd done their bit, overall they looked on that period with pride and satisfaction. One even remarked that some of the happiest moments of his life were in the war, being young and having large amounts of time where you had nothing else to think about.
On the other hand all the Dutchmen felt a need to justify their decision to move back into German custody as POWs in 1943, to work in the Nazi war industry. Why didn't they try to elope and hide, as some were able to do? Given that hiding 10,000s of men would have been impossible in a small, urbanised country like the Netherlands, I can't really blame them. They were also made to understand, implicitely, that their absconding would be taken out on their families.
I understand a bit how hard that decision must have been on time because my grandfather had been a soldier in 1940 too, and he went to Germany when called up. I know he felt he needed to justify that decision. He bore that decision with a sense of shame.
|A water colour made by Bob Entrop, author of the book|
and grandfather of the guy who made the documentary
But let's not make light of the plight of the Dutch POWs. Even if they weren't imprisoned as long as the Poles or the French, and not nearly treated as bad as the Russians, only a third of them came back. Hunger and illness weakened and killed, but so did hard and sometimes very dangerous labour. Dangerous labour means recovering unexploded bombs in German towns and working in strategic facilities that were bombed themselves.
My granddad told a story of two comrades who refused to leave their barracks during a raid and got killed. In another instance, the Germans guards that had denied the POWs access to their shelter had been drowned and cooked in petrol. My grandmother added that he used to have nightmares long after the war.
But the experience of losing a war and becoming a POW seems rob you of a sense of pride and accomplishment. Strangely enough, little attention was paid by Urban to the two guys that were taken POW during the war, because their story might have been much more like that of the Dutch.
The democratisation of the memory of war
But what these documentaries told me is the incredible change we´ve seen in the ´writing´ of history since that war. The initial version of the war was based on the wartime propaganda, which was then filled in with official histories and the books by leading generals which appeared in the 1950s the 1960s.
But then the cracks appeared in the story, with a new generation of historians lancing the boils of controversy that had been hidden from public view until then. And after that we saw the first books by and interviews with the ´ordinary´ men involved. This was partly driven by a wish among some historians to write the history of common people, and so of the rank and file of the armies. And when these memories started disappearing as veterans started retiring and dying of old age, there developed a need to preserve their stories for later generations.
|Stills from Tankies|
Later the historical record became more nuanced, and more room appeared for grey areas, like the killing of POWs (see for example Saving Private Ryan). This also mirrored a change in military history writing that focussed on the experience of battle of the rank and file, and from there on spread to tactics, doctrine and leadership as opposed to the (grand) strategic questions which seemed settled by the debates of the 1960s and 1970s.
But this also involved the black sheep, for example in the Netherlands men who had joined the Waffen SS were interviewed a book by Armando in 1967. It was shocking then to many people on principle of giving these bad people a voice at all. Since then more books and documentaries have appeared, like this 2011 documentary with interviews with Dutch SS members.
The focus on people´s memories has its pitfalls, because our knowledge of memory has made us much more suspicious of the truth we can wrest from them. I remember a story my granddad told me of a major walking upright in the middle of the field during an attack on the Ypenburg airfield in May 1940. It matched a story I had read in a book on the fighting and I wonder whether my granddad had really seen this happening, or later included it on the basis of stories he'd heard or read.
And looking back years after the events will cloud the story in more ways. But that doesn´t mean that memories are useless. A good historian should at least try to corroborate the facts. And the memories themselves are valuable, the emotions and the justifications.
I sometimes wish we´d have that kind of memories for many more ´ordinary´ people in history. It might look something like this....
... Peter Watkins´ Culloden from 1964.