November 20, 2007, - 2:15 pm

When “Get Out of Jail Cards” Were Real: How “Monopoly” Saved WWII Allied Forces

By Debbie Schlussel
Monopoly is one of my fave board games. But who knew that, during World War II, the game helped save British soldiers fighting the Nazis?
In one of the coolest stories about history-meets-pop-culture, Brian McMahon of Mental Floss Magazine writes that special editions of Monopoly helped Brit soldiers escape Nazi prisons and war camps. Since the article is not available to non-subscribers, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version from today’s Wall Street Journal “The Informed Reader”:


World War II Weapon: Monopoly With Real Money
The board game Monopoly served allied prisoners as a real-life tool to get out of jail during World War II, says Brian McMahon in Mental Floss, a magazine devoted to intellectual esoterica.
In 1941, the British Secret Service asked the game’s British licensee John Waddington Ltd. to add secret extras to some sets, which had become standard elements of the aid packages that the Red Cross delivered to allied prisoners of war. Along with the usual dog, top hat and and thimble, the sets had a metal file, compass, and silk maps of safe houses (silk, because it folds into small spaces and unfolds silently). Even better, real French, German and Italian currency was hidden underneath the game’s fake money. Departing allied soldiers and pilots were told that if they were captured they should look out for the special editions, identified by a red dot in the Free Parking space. Any sets remaining in the U.K. were destroyed after the war. Of the 35,000 prisoners of war who escaped German prison camps by the end of the war, “more than a few of those certainly owe their breakout to the classic board game,” says Mr. McMahon.
The game also played a role in the Cold War, with communist countries declaring the game capitalist propaganda and banning it. Despite such edicts and Marxist-inspired alternative games such as Hungary’s “Save” or Russia’s “Manage,” smuggled versions of the capitalist diversion were hits behind the Iron Curtain.

Very cool.

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2 Responses

Think of “Save” and “Manage” in relation to board games, and you draw a big blank.
Think “Monopoly,” and giant floodlights go off, in the minds of virtually everyone around the world, then as now. What a metaphor for the cultures of boot-heel socialism/Communism and the yearning of those who wish to be free with a chance to actually achieve that freedom under a capitalist system (despite the bad Econ 101 connotations that the word “monopoly” itself conjures up).
Think “Hillary” and contrast with whomever the Republican nominee will be. Talk about “stark”!

theendisnear on November 21, 2007 at 8:53 am

Thank you for this story. You are right, it is very cool. I’ve always found that it is these little tidbits of history that make the big picture history possible. I thought it was very revealing that the Communists were so afraid of it that they banned the game. I’m betting that “Save” and “Manage” were very boring games to play.

CiderRich on November 21, 2007 at 9:02 am

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