Matthias Reiss

Controlling Sex in Captivity: POWs and Sexual Desire in the United States during the Second World War (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018) is the first critical study of heterosexual and same-sex activities involving Axis prisoners of war in the United States during World War II.


NOTCHES: In a few sentences, what is your book about? Why will people want to read your book?

Reiss: My book describes heterosexual and same-sex relationships involving Axis prisoners of war in the United States during World War II and how the detaining power reacted to them. It highlights the tensions these relationships created and argues that sex was a key issue that entangled the lives of Axis POWs with American society. The book provides for a better understanding of how enemies interacted in times of war and how sex was, and still is, a deeply political issue.

NOTCHES: What drew you to this topic, and what are the questions do you still have?

Reiss: I came across the topic while researching how race affected the experience of Axis POWs in the United States during World War II. I was fascinated by how performances of masculinity and ideas of race influenced the way the American population perceived POWs and how difficult it was for the authorities to prevent fraternisation with the prisoners. I was also intrigued by how the sexual activities of the prisoners influenced American society by reinforcing the notion that female sexuality was allegedly out of control during the war and by linking same-sex desire to political radicalism.

NOTCHES: This book speaks to histories of sex and sexuality, but what other themes does it highlight?

Reiss: The book also argues that POW camps were not static and isolated islands in a quickly changing and violent world. It argues that their captivity on the home front influenced American society as much as it did prisoners’ lives.

NOTCHES: How did you research the book? (What sources did you use, were there any especially exciting discoveries, or any particular challenges, etc.?)

Reiss: I started to collect sources on this topic during my PhD research in the 1990s. Once I had decided to write the monograph I began to look for more unusual sources. I was especially thrilled to receive the Basic Personnel Records of some of the prisoners who were accused of same-sex offenses from the Deutsche Dienststelle in Berlin, Germany. The protocols from the Fort Hunt secret interrogation camp in Virginia were also an exciting source of information. I tried hard to get access to the court martial records of POWs who were convicted for sodomy in American captivity but unfortunately failed. The American military was not very cooperative and there are not enough details about these trials in the National Archives to locate the court martial records.

NOTCHES: Whose stories or what topics were left out of your book and why? What would you include had you been able to?

Reiss: I would have loved to include the court martial records of POWs who were charged for committing sodomy in violation of the 93rd Article of War. These files would have provided details on same-sex activities in POW camps on American soil and how these incidents were brought to the attention of US authorities.

NOTCHES: How do you see your book being most effectively used in the classroom? What would you assign it with?

Reiss: The book could be used to make students think about how preconceived notions of race, ethnicity and masculinity influenced the ways in which ‘the enemy’ was encountered and treated in times of war. It could also prompt discussion on the meaning and purpose of “patriotic behaviour” in times of war and the degree to which society should be allowed to interfere with and regulate sexuality. (1)Dr. Matthias Reiss has studied and taught history in Germany, the United States and Great Britain. After finishing his PhD at the University of Hamburg, he was appointed as a Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute in London in 2002. Matthias joined Exeter University in Devon five years later where he is now Senior Lecturer in Modern History. In addition to another book and two edited collections, he has published numerous articles on German POWs in the United States during World War Two as well as two monographs. “Die Schwarzen waren unsere Freunde”: Deutsche Kriegsgefangene in der amerikanischen Gesellschaft 1942–1946 (Schöningh, 2002) analyses the relationship between German POWs and African Americans, while his most recent monograph Controlling Sex in Captivity: POWs and Sexual Desire in the United States during the Second World War (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018) deals with the sexual activities of German and Italian prisoners.

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