Five Years Behind
Hitler's Barbed Wire

barbed wire
edited by Jacqueline Collins

Five Years Behind Hitler's Barbed Wire

On July 3, 1940, 5,000 exhausted and hungry French officers reached a high plateau of the Moravian Mountain range in Austria. Prisoners of war of the Third Reich, they had arrived at Oflag XVIIA, a quad of grim looking barracks encircled by barbed wire, their new home for the next five years.

They immediately organized and within a year created a dynamic community, complete with a university, library, newspaper, theater, orchestra and sport teams. More than 20 clandestine radios connected them with the outside world. In 1943, they executed the largest Allied POW escape of the war with 132 escapees.

The diary engages the reader in the day-by-day life of the community’s activities and events, and portraying all aspects of the collective life of the officer POWs it captures the changing mood with candid musings, cries of despair, occasionally lyrical reflections, and mostly positive comments. With dry humor it describes the indignities of lengthy roll calls and the destruction of personal possessions during the searches of barracks by the Gestapo, documentation in real time of the life of the officer POWs.

The commentaries expand what the diarist could not mention: the activities of the resistance group, the ability of the men to introduce many forbidden items into the camp, and the Germans treatment of Jewish French officers. Innocuous details in the diary uncovered major events, some chance enquiries led to the actual copies of the camp newspaper, le Canard, and the visit of what remains of the camp in 2010.