Europe, Eastern FrontOn 1 September 1939, German forces invaded Poland; two days later Britain and France declared war on Germany, igniting World War II. Two weeks later, Soviet forces invaded Eastern Poland in accordance with the secret provisions of the August 1939 German-Soviet Non-aggression Pact. In 1940, Soviet authorities executed perhaps 15,000 Polish officers in the Katyn Forest of eastern Poland. Prisoners taken by the Germans were sent to slave-labor camps. The Poles thus did not benefit from the Geneva Convention.
In June 1941, German forces invaded the Soviet Union. In response to inquiries by the U.S. government, Moscow had stated that the Soviet Union would observe the Hague Convention of 1907 regarding land warfare, the Geneva Protocol of 1925 regarding chemical and bacteriological warfare, and the Geneva Convention of 1929 regarding care for the wounded and sick of warring armies. However, the Soviets said they would observe the agreements on POWs only as "they were observed by the Germans."
The German government was as obstinate on the issue as the Soviets, and the cost was ultimately very high for the POWs captured in the fighting. Both German and Soviet POWs suffered conditions that were approached only by treatment accorded prisoners of the Japanese. Of some 5.7 million Soviet soldiers taken prisoner by the Germans, at least 3.3 million died in captivity, a mortality rate of 57 percent. This compares with a mortality rate of only 3.5 to 5.1 percent for British and American POWs in German hands.
Many Soviet prisoners taken early in the fighting were simply starved to death. According to Adolf Hitler's notorious Commissar Order, political officers were to be shot on capture. Jewish soldiers taken prisoner were handed over the Schutzstaffel (SS) to be executed. Conditions were horrendous for the others. The Germans marched the prisoners long distances to the rear, and there were no prepared lodging or sanitary facilities and little food for them when they reached the camp locations. As a result, POWs died by the hundreds of thousands. The leaders of the Reich regarded the prisoners as subhuman and treated them accordingly. Of 3.2 million Soviet soldiers taken prisoner by December 1941, 2 million were dead by February 1942.
As the German advance came to a halt and it became impossible to demobilize German soldiers, the Reich's leaders sought to make more effective use of the Soviet POWs by putting them to work in difficult conditions in road building, mining, and agriculture. Not until mid-1944, however, did food rations for Soviet POWs approach those of other Allied POWs in German captivity. So difficult was it for Soviet prisoners of war that at least a quarter million volunteered to serve as auxiliaries to the German army, working as cooks, drivers, and the like, in an effort simply to stay alive. Tens of thousands of others also agreed to serve in a German-sponsored Russian Liberation Army led by former Soviet Lieutenant General Andrei A. Vlasov. Hitler, however, refused it any combat role and it became simply a means to encourage desertions.
The plight of Soviet POWs in German hands did not end with the defeat of Germany. Soviet leader Josef Stalin's infamous Order 270 of August 1941 had branded as traitors all Red Army personnel who allowed themselves to be taken prisoner, regardless of circumstances. It also ordered rations cut off to their families. Of some 1.8 million Soviet POWs repatriated at the end of the war, at least 150,000 were sentenced to long prison terms of forced labor for having "aided the enemy."
On the other side, about a third of the nearly 3 million German and Austrian soldiers taken by the Soviets in the war died in captivity. Of some 91,000 Germans taken prisoner in the Battle of Stalingrad, fewer than 5,000 survived Soviet captivity. Death rates were comparable for the 2 million Axis soldiers taken prisoner by the Soviets.
The only difference in German and Soviet treatment of POWs was that, for the Germans, it was systematic government policy to work the prisoners to death, whereas POWs in Soviet hands fell victim to the general inefficiency and indifference of the Soviet POW camp system (GUPVI), lack of resources in a country ravaged by war, and individual acts of reprisal. Rising numbers of German POWs after 1942 simply overwhelmed available Soviet means to care for them. The Soviets did not begin major repatriation of its POWs until 1947, and the last were not released until 1956.
Western EuropeDuring World War II in Europe and North Africa, the Axis powers captured some 8.5 to 9 million enemy soldiers, of whom 6 million—the vast majority—were Soviets. In turn, the Allies took some 8.25 million Axis soldiers captive, 3.4 million of whom surrendered with the end of hostilities on the Western Front.
Few problems were reported for prisoners held by the Italian government. Experiences for POWs held by the Germans varied according to their citizenship. Treatment was decidedly better for western Europeans and North Americans than for those from eastern or southern Europe. The Germans did not expend scarce resources on the prisoners, however. Thus, in consequence of the high number of parcels sent to western Allied POWs, the German government decided to cut food rations to U.S. and British Commonwealth POWs by one-third, forcing these Allied governments to subsidize German Geneva Convention obligations. The Germans did, however, employ many of its French and Belgian POWs in labor activities (such as the armaments industry) that directly benefited the German war effort.
The Germans organized their POW camps quite methodically. Internally, the camps were run by the prisoners. Generally there was an SAO—Senior Allied Officer or Senior American Officer, depending on the mix of prisoners. Officers were segregated from enlisted men. Stalags were camps that held enlisted personnel as well as noncommissioned officers. Oflags were camps with only officers and some noncommissioned officers. In stalags, there was generally a "man of confidence" who was usually elected by his fellow POWs, although on occasion he was appointed by the Germans.
Camps usually contained more than one compound, and prisoners were segregated among the compounds by uniform, not by claimed citizenship. Hence, U.S. personnel who flew with the RAF and were captured in RAF uniform were considered to be British and housed with British flyers. Compounds held French, Russians, British, Commonwealth, and various other nationalities. Some camps held only one nationality; some held many different nationalities.
There were also prisoner-of-war camps located in areas that held concentration camps. Auschwitz, which is known for being an extermination center, was actually a complex of camps comprising more than just the extermination center. French, Soviet, and other nationalities of POWs were held there. Two exceptions to the generally satisfactory German treatment of western POWs came in Hitler's Commando Order of October 1942, which allowed the killing out-of-hand of Allied commandoes, and Berga, a Buchenwald subcamp that held 352 U.S. "Jewish" POWs. Of that number, only 70 were actually Jewish, but the others were chosen by the Germans because they "appeared" Jewish. Prisoners were regularly beaten and starved, and several were murdered.
There have been unsubstantiated charges in recent years of British and U.S. mistreatment of German POWs in the months immediately following the end of the war in Europe. There is, however, no proof of this nor of any widespread mistreatment of Axis prisoners of war by British and U.S. authorities during the war itself.
Far EastJapanese cultural attitudes played an overwhelming role in Japanese treatment of its POWs. The Japanese believed that soldiers should die in battle rather than surrender and that those who allowed themselves to be taken prisoner had dishonored themselves. Japanese treatment of POWs was atrocious. Prisoners were subject to torture, starvation, beatings, and denial of medical care. Most were required to perform slave labor, from building railroads to working in coal mines and factories, all of which were forbidden by the Geneva Convention. Mistreatment was rampant, as were disease and starvation, not only among military prisoners but with civilian internees. Nor would the Japanese allow humanitarian aid to reach the prisoners.
The generally accepted figure for Allied POWs in Japanese hands is 320,000: 140,000 Europeans and North Americans and 180,000 Chinese, Filipino, Indian, and other Asian troops. Most of Japan's prisoners were taken in the Japanese successes of late 1941 and early 1942, especially in the Netherlands East Indies. Although the Japanese soon released many of the nonwhite prisoners, they held their white captives until the surrender in 1945.
The Japanese captured some 25,600 U.S. prisoners. Of these, 8,288 died, a rate of 35.6 percent. This was appreciably higher than the rate for all prisoners who died in Japanese hands: 37,800 or 26.9 percent. Part of this disparity was the result of the many American and Filipino POWs who died in the Bataan Death March. Prisoners of the Japanese received no medical care and little food, and they were seldom allowed to contact their families. Many of the prisoners were transferred from the Philippines and other places to Japan or Manchuria to prison camps. Sent by ship, the prisoners were entombed below decks with little or no access to fresh air or water. Many hundreds of men died in these "Hell Ships" of the conditions, but the exact total is unknown. Several of the ships, unmarked by the Japanese as transporting POWs, were sunk by Allied planes or submarines. In addition, many POWs who ended up in Manchuria were subjected to the horrors of biological warfare and vivisection experiments carried out by the infamous Japanese Unit 731.
Japanese military codes forbade surrender, and in consequence, the western Allies took very few Japanese prisoners. On Iwo Jima, U.S. Marines took fewer than 300 prisoners from the 21,000-man Japanese garrison, and only about 7,400 of nearly 115,000 Japanese soldiers on Okinawa surrendered. It is also true that once Allied soldiers learned of the barbaric treatment accorded by the Japanese to their prisoners, there was a tendency to decline to take prisoners, although this was never official policy.
Some 633,000 Japanese personnel were taken prisoner in Southeast Asia, and most of them surrendered to the British at the end of the war. Many of these were held well after the war and worked as laborers without pay. Only in October 1947 were Japanese released from Singapore. Some Japanese POWs were also rearmed and forced to serve with Dutch forces in the Netherlands East Indies in violation of international law, and nearly 1,000 died.
It is unclear how many Japanese were taken prisoner by the Soviet Union, which entered the war in the Pacific on 9 August 1945. The Soviets claimed to have captured 594,000 Japanese and claimed that upward of 71,000 of these were immediately freed. Japanese scholars, however, insist that the number was much higher. Sent to Siberia, the Japanese worked there for several years before they were released. Because of the dishonor associated with being captured, few Japanese ex-POWs have left memoirs of their experiences. The record of Americans and Europeans held by the Japanese is, however, well documented.
North AmericaWhen the United States entered World War II, little thought had been given to the establishment of POW facilities. In March 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the evacuation of Japanese Americans from "military areas," especially on the West Coast of the United States. Ultimately some 120,000 Japanese Americans were affected. Although they were not called prisoners of war, they were interned in camps in Wyoming, California, Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, and Arkansas.
Following the Axis defeat in North Africa, large numbers of German and Italian POWs were brought to camps in the United States. Ultimately, some 425,000 Axis prisoners of war were held in the United States. By the end of the war, the United States had established 141 permanent base camps and 319 branch camps, each holding an average of about 2,500 prisoners. Given the labor shortage in the United States because of the demands of the war, many of the POWs went to work, but they were paid for their labor according to rank. Officers were not required to work, although several did accept supervisory positions. Contractors who hired the POWs paid the U.S. government some $22 million for their services, so that the program was nearly self-sufficient. By the end of the war, of 370,000 POWs in the United States, nearly 200,000 were employed in nonmilitary jobs, most of them in agriculture. Conditions in the U.S. camps were generally excellent. The major problem came from die-hard Nazi fellow prisoners, who had to be segregated in special camps.
Following the war, several U.S.-held POWs were turned over to France and Britain to work in mines and help clear bombed roads and cities. Most of these POWs were repatriated to Germany in late 1947 and early 1948, embittered over their postwar treatment. Spencer C. Tucker and Patricia Wadley
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Spencer C. Tucker and Patricia Wadley