When Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, is captured by the Germans in December 1944, he gets taken first to a POW camp near the Czech border. Most of the prisoners are Russian, but coralled in the middle of them are fifty British officers, ‘among the first English-speaking prisoners to be taken in the Second World War’. They are ‘clean and enthusiastic and decent and strong’. ‘A clerical error early in the war . . . had caused the Red Cross to ship them five hundred [food] parcels every month instead of fifty.’ The Germans ‘thought they were exactly what Englishmen ought to be. They made war look stylish and reasonable, and fun.’ And ‘each of them had attempted to escape from another prison at least once. Now they were here . . . They could tunnel all they pleased. They would inevitably surface within a rectangle of barbed wire, would find themselves greeted listlessly by dying Russians.’
At first, these British officers seem strangely out of place in a novel that is in part an assault on the ways in which the Allies mythologised and heroised the war: surely no POWs ever had it so good, were so immune to the depredations of captivity. On the other hand, such things are relative: British prisoners certainly had a better time of it than their Russian counterparts; and these paragons are described from the perspective of a traumatised, hungry, cold, exhausted man on the verge of delirium. But Slaughterhouse-Five is also concerned with, or baffled by, the sheer dumb luck of survival, and the insane stories that people tell themselves in order to stay sane. Billy Pilgrim sees the wantonness of the destruction of Dresden; he is also abducted by aliens and able to travel through time.
In The Colditz Myth: British and Commonwealth Prisoners of War in Nazi Germany (Oxford, £20), S.P. MacKenzie, who teaches at the University of South Carolina, uses the memoirs, diaries and letters of prisoners to reconstruct their wartime experience, and contrasts it with popular (mis)conceptions. He also, as it happens, gives the other point of view of the encounter between British and American prisoners: ‘To the more reserved, stiff-upper-lip types it seemed that the Yanks – “full of enthusiasm and exuberance”, as a rather more sympathetic RAF officer put it – complained too much about the level of deprivation they encountered . . . while exhibiting worrying signs of material waste and both moral and physical laziness.’
MacKenzie traces the cultural process by which the Colditz myth grew after the war: the memoirs, novels, films and TV series that between them conjured in the popular imagination an idea of a place where ‘prisoners bore the burden of captivity with a light heart while helping one another with schemes to outwit and ultimately evade their captors’. One obvious reason for the disproportional emphasis on escape in fictional or semi-fictional accounts of Colditz and other POW camps is that it provides a convenient narrative or dramatic vector that might otherwise be lacking from a depiction of the monotony and misery of prison life. Most popular prison stories, from The Count of Monte Cristo to The Shawshank Redemption, have turned on the hero’s escape.
In the early 1970s, when the drama series Colditz was on the BBC, Escape from Colditz the board-game appeared, ‘devised by Major P.R. Reid MBE MC, author of The Colditz Story and Latter Days at Colditz’. My cousin had it. When we played, he invariably chose to be the German Security Officer, which surprised me at first. But then he always won. The little wooden men under my command could be English, Dutch or French: it made no difference; not one of them ever escaped from Colditz. This was staggeringly frustrating, but I can draw retrospective consolation from knowing that we were unwittingly recapitulating a more authentic version of Colditz – one in which escape was vanishingly rare, rather than the norm. The game is hard to come by these days, and it may anyway be time for something more contemporary: ‘Escape from Guantanamo’, perhaps, though to make it worth playing it would need a few extra inauthentic details – the possibility of escape, say, or getting a fair trial if you roll a double six.
One tactic of would-be Colditz escape teams involved a prisoner concealing himself somewhere within the castle, to give the impression to the guards that he had escaped. Then, when one of his colleagues managed to get out, the ‘ghost’ would emerge from hiding to take his comrade’s place at roll call, much as Charles Clarke has done following the lovesick David Blunkett’s escape from Cabinet – a strange business on many levels, Blunkett’s repressive record as home secretary aside. For a start, it’s hard to imagine a more venial form of corruption than merely speeding along someone’s visa application. And then there’s the whole cherchez-la-femme aspect: why is it that the resignations of male British politicians almost always have to do with their relationships with women who are not their wives? Still, it’s hardly worth pondering the murkier causes of the matter, when taking the country to war on false pretences doesn’t qualify as a resigning issue.