Obama’s Mistake: Britain Did Torture

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Last night, Barack Obama said he had recently read an article about Winston Churchill during the London blitz. “Churchill said, ‘We don’t torture,’ when the entire British — all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat,” Obama said. “And then the reason was that Churchill understood, you start taking short-cuts, over time, that corrodes what’s — what’s best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.”

It was, perhaps, the most powerful anecdote of the night, and an apparently powerful moral condemnation of President Bush, an admitted admirer of Churchill who kept the British leader’s bust in the Oval Office.  But it was not entirely true. Churchill may well have said that Britain did not torture, but British archives show clearly that captured Nazis were subjected to harsh treatment in order to extract information during World War II. This morning, Michael Tomasky points to this 2005 story in the Guardian about a secret World War II detention center called the “London Cage”:

The London Cage was used partly as a torture centre, inside which large numbers of German officers and soldiers were subjected to systematic ill-treatment. In total 3,573 men passed through the Cage, and more than 1,000 were persuaded to give statements about war crimes. The brutality did not end with the war, moreover: a number of German civilians joined the servicemen who were interrogated there up to 1948. . . .

Within the National Archives are documents from two official inquiries into the methods employed at the Cage, one which heard evidence that guards were under orders to knock on some prisoners’ cell doors every 15 minutes, depriving them of sleep, and another which concluded with “the possibility that violence was used” during interrogations.

There is also a long and detailed letter of complaint from one SS captain, Fritz Knoechlein, who describes his treatment after being taken to the Cage in October 1946. Knoechlein alleges that because he was “unable to make the desired confession” he was stripped, given only a pair of pyjama trousers, deprived of sleep for four days and nights, and starved.

The guards kicked him each time he passed, he alleges, while his interrogators boasted that they were “much better” than the “Gestapo in Alexanderplatz”. After being forced to perform rigorous exercises until he collapsed, he says he was compelled to walk in a tight circle for four hours. On complaining to Scotland that he was being kicked even “by ordinary soldiers without a rank”, Knoechlein alleges that he was doused in cold water, pushed down stairs, and beaten with a cudgel. Later, he says, he was forced to stand beside a large gas stove with all its rings lit before being confined in a shower which sprayed extremely cold water from the sides as well as from above. Finally, the SS man says, he and another prisoner were taken into the gardens behind the mansions, where they were forced to run in circles while carrying heavy logs.

Amazing how the methods–sleep deprivation, starvation, hot/cold, stress positions–always remain the same. Be sure to read the entire story here.

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