Thousands of American soldiers during World War II faced their most horrific encounter not on the battlefield, but under captivity in the prisoner of war camps of Nazi Germany. While in the camps, these men struggled to survive the harsh demands of the Germans each day. Life in the camps was substandard for basic living needs, resulting in illness and death for many prisoners. Despite the Geneva Convention, which defined and prescribed proper treatment for prisoners of war, Hitler disregarded all the requirements of the document, previously signed by Germany in 1929. The living facilities in the camps were unsanitary and unequipped with proper hygienic amenities, inmates received minimal food that lacked nutritional value, and the men were victims of strict discipline and ruthless labor. Although the prisoners suffered under hours of treacherous labor and inhumane treatment by the Nazis, these soldiers did not give up hope that they would be liberated from the camps. Even after returning to their lives in America when the war ended, the ex-prisoners never forgot their experiences in the Nazi camps.
Kurt Vonnegut was one of the thousand other American soldiers captured and kept as a prisoner of war at the hands of the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. His experiences as a POW, and in particular his witnessing the immediate aftermath of the firebombing of Dresden, inspired his anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five. This satire, like many of Vonnegutís, reveals the illogical and violent nature of human beings in order to bring attention to the need for a more compassionate society. Vonnegut reflects his own personal experiences through the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, who is unique not only because he is ďunstuck in timeĒ but also because he is capable of kindness and compassion though he is surrounded by violence. Through his travels to the fictional planet of Tralfamadore and his encounters with the aliens who inhabit it, Billy learns that it is possible to live in a world where war does not exist, where humans can think independently and act peacefully.
Major Works Consulted:
Cohen, Roger. Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped by the Naziís Final Gamble. New York: Random, 2005.
Vonnegut, Kurt. While Mortals Sleep. New York: Random, 2011.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Catís Cradle. New York: Dial, 1991.
--. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Random, 1997.
Whitlock, Flint. Given Up for Dead: American GIís in the Concentration Camp at Berga. Cambridge: Basic, 2005.