My favorite part of my job is meeting different people. Sure, there are always the one or two who keep to themselves and just want to see the exhibits in solitude. Then there are those that have a connection to the museum and the exhibits in someway: a child of a veteran, a wife of a German POW, a German family understanding their American roots, or even the family or friend of a Holocaust survivor. Last summer I even got to meet several teachers from Germany who gave their perspective on World War II and what the strengths and weaknesses of the German Army was during the war. That was fascinating since you tend to get the perspective of America or Great Britain more. (That old saying about how the history books are written by the victor).
As I have updated the front page of the museum website to show our updated hours we have had more people coming through. Today has already been an awesome day for people watching. However, the person that sticks out the most is the visitor who spent nearly an hour and half reading each and every panel of the exhibits. She came to find me and thank me personally and said how excellent the museum was. She had a tear in her eye and she said that she had visited Dachau when she went to Germany. She said that it was amazing how different the treatment was for those in Concentration Camps and Stalags compared to the POW Camps in America. They were all people who deserved to be treated humanely and with respect. Her Father had been a German POW in an American camp but had reluctantly joined the army since he had been a conscientious objector to the war.
This made me stop and think. We tend to have a 'us' versus 'them' mentality when it comes to the Second World War and the German Army. The last seventy years has brought a plethora of stereotypes of who a German soldier was during the war. The ones that my generation has become accustom to is either the portrayal of Amon Goeth by Ralph Fiennes in 'Schindler's List'; a sadistic but fat and lazy man who ruthlessly murdered for sport or Colonel Hans Landa brilliantly portrayed by Christoph Waltz in 'Inglorious Basterds'; a cunning, sneaky, and semi-delusional German. In actuality there were plenty that did in fact rival these two characters throughout the SS and some Wehrmacht officers, but those that were brought to Camp Algona were mostly enlisted men. They were not fighting for Der Fuehrer or to necessarily contribute to 'The Final Solution', they were fighting to protect their families and their country. They were also fighting to survive in a country where if you did not submit to Hitler's rules in terms of conscription and participation in the war efforts both you and your family's lives were in jeopardy.
Some may say that the POW system in the United States was too lax when it came to German prisoners because American soldiers faced disease, starvation, and death in many of the POW camps scattered throughout Germany and Austria. We have had many people come into the museum and actually ask that. I wish it was a simple answer of saying everyone who signed the Geneva Convention of 1929 upheld the terms and conditions, but they did not. The United States tried to. Camps in Germany varied in their dedication to the Geneva Convention. Their resources were depleted by the end of the war and it was hard to feed the people of Germany let alone the POWs held in their country. Is that an excuse? Not per say, but the conditions were vastly different then the United States.
And there's my history ramble of the day!