If you were on the look out for Nazis, the tiny farming town of Aliceville, Alabama – population of 1,500 – is not the first place most people would think to look.

And yet, if you had shown up to Aliceville between 1943 and 1945 you would have found not just a Nazi, not just a smattering of Nazis, but you would have found around 6000 of them!

That’s because during WWII, Aliceville was home to a POW camp run by the United States Government.

During WWII there were over 500 POW camps on American soil. You could find them in every state of the union except Nevada, North Dakota, and Vermont. All told,  they housed over 425,000 prisoners of war  taken by the American military, most of those being Germans soldiers.

The sleep farming town of Aliceville, Alabama, once home to an uncomfortable amount of Nazis.

The particular prisoners sent to Aliceville were some of Hitler’s most fearseome fighters: Rommel’s Afrika Korps 6. So called “Nazi supermen,” they were supposed to be the elite of the elite.

For that reason, the day they were due to arrive in Aliceville by train, the local police instructed the townspeople that they weren’t allowed out on the street.  However, this being a very big event taking place in a very tiny town, that order lasted all of five minutes. Pretty soon the entire town had turned out to watch the German soldiers arrive. They waited with eager anticipation to see exactly what kind of devils would disembark from the train.

But when the train pulled up right along the highway and hundred and hundreds of German soldiers started pouring out, the townspeople’s reaction was not what they had expected it would be. Far from the horned devils they thought they’d see getting off the trains, what they saw instead was just a bunch of whipped kids. Young. Beat up. Scared. Many were seriously injured and disfigured from the war.

Enemy combatants though these were, it was hard not to have compassion for them.

Trains carrying POWs arriving in Aliceville.

But the truth is, even if the townspeople hadn’t felt a modicum for compassion for these POWs, it wouldn’t have mattered all that much. Because before the prisoners had arrived, the DOs and DONTs of the Geneva Conventions had been drilled into the heads of the officers running the camp. There were posters and reminders plastered everywhere you looked in Camp Aliceville.

Forged in the aftermath WWI, the Geneva Conventions of 1929 mandated that prisoners of war needed a certain amount of food every day, and that they were entitled to the same quality rations, clothing, and living quarters as were afforded to our own troops. There were also rules about medical attention and needing to pay them for any labor that they did.

Following these international laws the German prisoners were treated with dignity from day one.

German POWs who arrived on the first train to Camp Aliceville.

But something remarkable started to happen at the POW Camp in Aliceville. Within a short amount of time, neither the officers running the camp nor the people in the surrounding town were following just the letter of the law alone. Rather, they started to follow the true spirit of the Geneva Conventions and were treating these enemy soldiers the same way they would want their own sons and brothers to be treated were they captured in the war.

When the soldiers first arrived at the camp, they found fresh linens and shaving equipment waiting for them on their bunks. In short order, they were introduced to the twin American delicacies of peanut butter and sliced white bread. They were given so much ham and so much corn to eat that they couldn’t finish it all. As to not offend their “hosts”  they ended up digging a hole and burying it. They got away with it for a while but they eventually got caught  when the corn started growing!

A soccer match between POWs in Camp Aliceville.

Within a year the prisoners had three different orchestras up and running, using instruments donated by the local community. They opened a school where soldiers could learn anything from pottery to mathematics to almost any language you could imagine. They set up correspondence programs with local universities where they could earn college credit. They had soccer games just about every day. They had a newspaper. They had poetry readings and  theatrical productions.

An interesting historical footnote: In the middle of fighting WWII, Hitler sent $12,500 to the camp at Aliceville so that the the German soldiers could open up an art exhibition. 

In other words, life was good for POWs in Camp Aliceville. According to one German solider: they arrived in Aliceville expecting hell, but instead were greeted by heaven.

A theatre production put on by Aliceville POWs.

Word eventually started to get out about how well all these prisoners of war were being treated. Articles started getting published in all the big papers. Radio pundits started ranting and raving about how they were being coddled. 

And remember: this was at a time when Americans were being asked to ration and go without. So when your average American  started hearing stories about POWs getting food and extracurriculars that they themselves did not have access to, they got ticked off in a major way. Public outcry began to swell.

In response, the guy running the prisoner of war program, Major General Archer Lerch, was called to testify before Congress. In these hearings he took quite the shellacking but he stood his ground.

He said, basically: No, we’re not coddling these prisoners. We’re just following the Geneva Conventions. And the reason we’re treating them so well is reciprocity. We treat them well so that they treat us well. That why we signed these treaties in the first place. 

That sound reasoning was enough to get Congress off his back for a while.

Major General Archer Lerch – not one to be trifled with! 

But just one month after that hearing, news broke that the Germans had gunned down 84 American soldiers after they had surrendered and left their bodies to rot. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. we began to liberate their soldiers from POW camps in Germany. Suffice it is to say they were nothing like Aliceville. The conditions the Americans POWs were kept in were wretched – simply inhumane. A few months after that, things get even worse when the U.S. start liberating concentration camps and saw firsthand what the Nazis were really up to.

In response, Congress decided to hold a second investigation into the treatment of prisoners of wars being held American soil. This time, though, the hearings held a lot deeper significance. 

We had just seen the full horrors of the Holocaust. So in the American public’s view, anything we chose to do to the Nazi soldiers that we have in our custody, they fully deserved. What’s more, it was clear we were not getting any reciprocity. We had no practical reason to continue treating them well.

POWs enjoying a lighthearted relay race at Camp Aliceville. One of many examples that led the American public to believe we were coddling our prisoners.

Once again, Major General Archer Lerch was called to testify. Once again, he took quite the drubbing from the congressmen questioning him. And once again, he stood his ground. Only this time, he didn’t speak about reciprocity.

This is the essence of what he said: We’re not going to lower ourselves to Nazi standards. We’re not gonna let the enemy decide who we are as a country. We’re going to continue to treat our POWs well not because because they treated our soldiers well, but because we are decent people.

Surprisingly, miraculously even, in the midst of a bloody, protracted war against the Nazis – an enemy that today has become shorthand for the very worst evil in the world – Archer Lerch’s sentiments won the day. They brought the congressional investigations to a close and they silenced even his most vocal critics.

A watercolor of a guard tower at Camp Aliceville painted by a German POW and gifted to a guard.

We love of our enemies not because of who they are, but because of who we are. That is not just the sentiment of Major General Archer Lerch, but that is also the heart of Jesus’ teaching about loving our enemies. We love our enemies not because there is anything objectively likable or lovable about them. Not because we’re getting anything in return.

Rather we love them because of who we are: people who have experienced the unearned, undeserved, unmerited love of God. Standing in that grace (swimming in it even!) what can we do but pay that love forward to others – enemies and otherwise – who are just as undeserving as us!