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Benjamin Muse
The Memoirs of a Swine in the Land of Kultur, or, How it Felt to be a Prisoner of War
Durham, N. C.: The Seeman Printery, 1919.


Benjamin Muse (17 April 1898-May 1986), prisoner of war, diplomat, journalist, politician, and civil rights activist was born in Durham into a middle class family. His father ran a grocery store. Benjamin's parents soon had to accustom themselves to their young son's obsessive interests in amphibious weaponry, animal husbandry, and politics. When President Wilson sent the American army after Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary in 1914, the teenage Muse determined that he had to go to cover the spectacle as a "war correspondent" for the Durham newspaper. He bought a typewriter, taught himself Spanish, and spent the next year in Mexico. Muse returned to Durham to enroll in Trinity College (now Duke University.) Muse's classmates showed no more interest in his Mexican adventures than Muse did in his studies. He was more preoccupied with the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914. After briefly flirting with pro-German sympathies, Muse changed sides and became a staunch Anglophile.

In July 1916, Muse vowed to go to England to volunteer for the British army, seeing it as another opportunity for glory, both as a reporter and as soldier. He wandered from western North Carolina to New York during the next four months, riding the rails and taking various manual labor jobs to earn enough money for passage to England. Then Muse signed up with the crew of an English merchant ship and sailed the South Atlantic for months longer. Finally, he joined the King's Royal Rifle regiment in January 1917. Muse's romantic illusions about war were soon shattered by the rough conditions at camp and the terrifying combat he found himself in at Ypres and Cambrai in the summer and fall of 1917. It was on the morning of November 30, 1917, at Campbrai, that the Germans overran Muse's company, killing most of the men and taking Muse and the other survivors prisoner.

Thus began Muse's thirteen-month odyssey as a prisoner of war, the subject of his memoir. First excerpted in the Trinity Alumni Review, it was published in booklet form in 1919. Muse spent four months in a German POW camp near the town of Le Quesnoy. There he encountered English, Russian, Italian and other Allied prisoners and experienced the hardships of camp life, especially the lack of food. (Italy had allied with Germany at the beginning of the war, but switched sides in 1915.) Muse's lot improved when he was transferred to the village of Kossebade in May 1918 to serve as prison labor for local farmers.

Much of Muse's memoir is taken up with his impressions of his host family and his feud with Erma, a particularly ornery daughter. He briefly escaped in the fall of 1918 but was recaptured by an observant German policeman. He returned to the prison camp just as German defeat became inevitable, and the government crumbled. The German Kaiser abdicated in October 1918, and a "revolution" swept through the ranks of the German army. A revolutionary Soldiers' Council took over the prison camp. The Armistice ended the war on November 11, and Muse was released in December.

Muse also recounts his POW experience in his 1982 memoir, The Twentieth Century As I Saw It. It is worth comparing Muse's earlier and later versions as the contrast in perspective is striking. It is evidence both of the power of hindsight in shaping memory and of the ability of the wartime generation to cast their experience in an idealized light. In the original, shorter account, Muse provides a fairly straightforward narrative, pausing briefly to comment on the bravery of the French people, the brutality of most of his German captors, and his faith in Allied victory. In the later, expanded memoir, Muse comments on the humanity and kindness he saw in average German soldiers. He claims that at the time he became disgusted with the Allied propaganda that had duped him and others into hating all Germans as brutal Huns and believing that war would be a grand adventure. Muse also comments on the brutal culture of theft, brutality, and opportunism that sprang up among the desperate prisoners in the camps.

Muse did not return to the U.S. until May 1919. Once back home, he embarked on a lifetime of achievement and further adventures. He was graduated from Trinity College and then settled with his family on a farm in Virginia. He joined the diplomatic corps in the 1920s and was posted to Denmark and Nicaragua. In the 1930s, Muse rose through the ambassadorial ranks and hobnobbed with world dignitaries. During World War II he served as a foreign liaison officer. After the war, Muse was elected to several terms in the Virginia state house, where he proved to be a political maverick, bucking the conservative Democratic establishment. In the 1950s, Muse became more and more liberal, and he began to work to dismantle segregation. To that end, he directed the Committee on Interracial Cooperation's (later the Southern Regional Council leadership) project from 1959-1964. Muse also authored three books on the civil rights struggle and African American history.

Works Consulted: Muse, The Twentieth Century as I Saw It (New York: Carlton Press, 1982). Muse's papers dealing with his civil rights scholarship are also part of the African American Women's Archives at Duke University.]

Michael Sistrom

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