LONDON — When it comes to interrogating prisoners, perhaps the United States and Britain could take a page from their own history — Germany did.
The issue of human rights abuse by U.S. interrogators especially resounds in Germany. After the destruction of the Nazi regime and subsequent Allied occupation, the newly formed West German army — inspired by Britain and the United States — instituted a number of strict policies to ensure that German soldiers would be exemplary in conducting P.O.W. interrogations. One of the key decisions was to ensure that the debriefing of prisoners was carried out by specially trained civilian reserve officers.
When I was in the West German army, I trained to become one of these interrogators. During my application interview, I was asked to elaborate on “how humanism played a part” in “my education.” (My answer — “a large part” — was apparently the one they were looking for). My training included learning to speak Russian fluently and receiving a full immersion in Russian Army life — including learning marching songs and making home-made vodka.
The reasoning behind all this was to ensure that interrogators had the ability to understand their captives and be able to extract information through psychological and not physical means.
When a particularly zealous professional interrogator at the National Intelligence School in Bad Ems began to elaborate on methods similar to those practiced by the U.S. Army in Iraq (and, apparently, C.I.A. officers abroad), my fellow officers and I reported him and he was reprimanded.
At the end of my two years of service, my 30 colleagues and I all left the army to rejoin the professional and family life from whence we came. We felt then and I still feel today that prisoner interrogation is a matter for mature, grounded individuals, who are guided by the spirit of the Geneva Convention.
Part of the impetus for the postwar German interrogation policy stemmed from the fact that many of the reconstituted army’s new leaders had been P.O.W.s recently released from Allied — especially British — custody. These men had been well-treated by the British and Americans during the war. One of them was my grandfather, Ludwig Cruewell. His experience as a P.O.W. stands in stark contrast to the stories we hear from Iraq.
As commanding general of the Africa Corps, he reported to Erwin Rommel, head of Axis forces in North Africa. Cruewell was captured on May 29, 1942, when his reconnaissance plane was shot down over Libya. As the highest-ranking German officer in Allied hands at that point in the war, Cruewell’s capture was a key victory for the Allies. He had fought in every theater of the war, led the forces that captured Belgrade and had recently met privately with Hitler.
However, upon his capture he was treated to a most enjoyable dinner by General Montgomery in Gibraltar, allowed to have a bath and towels of a quality he had never seen before, and was finally put on a night flight to Britain. Arriving in London, he was immediately allowed to meet with a Red Cross representative.
Later, he was able to communicate by letter with his children in Germany and was put up in style in Trent Park, the luxurious, stately former home of a British business magnate. My grandfather and the other prisoners were allowed to take daily strolls in the expansive grounds. A captured German non-commissioned officer was designated to keep his uniform, sent from Germany, in order.
Surrounded by luxury, these prisoners were — unbeknownst to them — wiretapped. The approach worked: The Allies studied their idle chatter, and lengthy reports of their conversations went all the way to Churchill.
While I don’t think it is feasible (politically, if not logistically) to put up hardened terrorists in five star hotels, this old-fashioned approach to P.O.W. interrogation has a lot to recommend for itself. For Germans today, a humane approach springs from an abhorrence of our wartime record of atrocities committed by soldiers in uniform. This sensibility has been shaped by the unexpectedly decent treatment received from Allied captors.
If we are really interested in nation-building in Iraq and other areas that are wracked by war, “doing unto others what you would have them do unto you ” is a good thing to keep in mind when implementing any interrogation policy.