One of the significant features of World War II was a great number of prisoners of war (POW‘s) to be kept both by Allies and Axis. The way those prisoners were treated differed greatly dependently on the nation of a prisoner and the country of imprisonment. This paper discusses the treatment of the American prisoners captured on the European theatre and compares it to the treatment of prisoners from other countries, such as Britain, Poland and Russia.
In total Some 95,000 American and 135,000 British and Commonwealth servicemen were incarcerated in prisoners of war (POW) camps in Germany during World War II. The prisoners were held in some fifty German POW camps, of several types. These included the Stalag (Stammlager, permanent camps for noncommissioned officers and enlisted men), Stalag Luft (Luftwaffestammlager, permanent camps for air force personnel), and Oflag (Offizierslager, permanent officers’ camps). American POWs were found in many of the POW camps, but the majority of camps contained only a few Americans. In some camps (Stalags II-B, III-B, IV-B, XVII-B, Luft I, Luft III, and Luft IV), however, the number of American POWs ran into the thousands.
The basic international instrument, regulating the POW‘s status at the time was the 1929 the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, signed by 47 governments. Subject to this convention, no prisoner of war could be forced to disclose to his captor any information other than his identity (i.e., his name and rank, but not his military unit, home town, or address of relatives). Every prisoner of war was entitled to adequate food and medical care and had the right to exchange correspondence and receive parcels. He was required to observe ordinary military discipline and courtesy, but he could attempt to escape at his own risk. Once recaptured, he was not to be punished for his attempt.
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Officers were to receive pay either according to the pay scale of their own country or to that of their captor, whichever was less; they could not be required to work. Enlisted men might be required to work for pay, but the nature and location of their work were not to expose them to danger, and in no case could they be required to perform work directly related to military operations. Camps were to be open to inspection by authorized representatives of a neutral power.
Germany in general followed the 1929 Geneva Convention in the treatment of American and British servicemen in POW camps, with little difference to be found in treatment with Americans and British. POW‘s were not to be individually confined, and the food served them should have been equal to that served to German troops. The ration was reduced by the end of the war, but this was related to the general situation with food in Germany. Much greater problem for the POW‘s was the warm clothing, often not provided by the Germans, however the prisoners could receive acceptable clothes from the Red Cross and from their families via the Red Cross.
The prisoners were allowed to arrange recreational activities, such as sport games by their own, also some attention was paid to the religious demands of catholic and protestant POW‘s, the largest POW camps had chapels on their territory. The prisoners, involved in work received small payment (5 to 10 marks) for their effort, though the amount of money, which a POW could possess was limited. An important right for the British and American prisoners was a right to send and receive mail, although the delivery of mail was very erratic, and a letter or a parcel required several weeks to transit.
American and British prisoners’ worst enemy was usually boredom. One of the most important activities which overcame this enemy was reading. The American and British peoples, through the various agencies which undertook the task of providing POWs with books, made it possible for prisoners to obtain books which were so necessary and useful. It helped the prisoners to occupy their time and keep their mental capacity. When the American and British POWs left the prisoners of war camps, approximately 1 million books were left behind.
One can notice, that the treatment of British and American POW‘s was tolerant enough, except for some cases of spontaneous violence, such as murder of USAF and RAF pilots by the German civilians, angry with their air raids. However, this human attitude was hardly applied to the prisoners from other countries, retained in Germany. Polish, Yugoslavian and especially Russian prisoners received the worst treatment ever imaginable.
There were several reasons for it, and the most important of them was the notorious Nazi racial doctrine, which considered the Slaves to be Untermenschen or underhumans, almost equal to Jews. The Soviet Union was also not a party to 1929 Geneva Convention, and so could not count for Red Cross assistance. Finally, Stalin, being suspicious of everyone out of his control, proclaimed all the Russian POW‘s to be traitors and deprived them with any rights or aid.
Dealing with Russian prisoners became even more complicated as the amount of captives at the first year of war reached 5 million, creating problems even with simple accommodation. Russian soldiers, captured in the great encirclements, were often left without food for weeks, causing starvation and typhus. Some categories of prisoners, such as Jews or Communist party members were usually shot immediately. The survivors were taken to the concentration camps on the territory of the Soviet Union, Poland and Germany itself.
At the later period working with Russian POW‘s became more organized. Germans point now was to use the mass of people in their disposal in the most rational way. Those of the prisoners, who conformed with the racial demands (mostly originating from the Baltic or western regions of Russia) could voluntary join the Wehrmacht. Other volunteers, mostly recent captives, were used as Hiwi Hilfswillige), or helpers in the army units.
The fate of the others to be kept in the concentration and death camps, such as Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau. Forced labour of the Russian POW‘s was actively used at the German civil an military enterprises, including aircraft factories and V-2 rockets production. Another way of exploiting the Untermenschen was to use them for medical and military experiments. For example, 600 Soviet prisoners were gassed in Auschwitz on 3 September 1941 at the first experiment with Zyklon
B. Based on the overstated one can make a conclusion, that treatment of the American and British POW‘s, captured by the Germans was surely preferable to the treatment of other POW‘s. General observance of international law towards allied prisoners by Germany along Red Cross activity, provided them with huge benefits in comparison with the Slavic, Jewish and other POW‘s.
M. R. D. Fott, “Prisoners of War,” The Oxford Companion to World War II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)
The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001.
American Prisoners of War in Germany. Prepared by Military Intelligence Service, War Department 1 Nov 1945
W. Wynne Mason, Prisoners of War (Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945) (Wellington, New Zealand: War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1954)
Antony Beevor Stalingrad (Penguin Books, New York, 1999)
 M. R. D. Fott, “Prisoners of War,” The Oxford Companion to World War II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 913–915;
 The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001.
 American Prisoners of War in Germany. Prepared by Military Intelligence Service, War Department 1 Nov 1945
W. Wynne Mason, Prisoners of War (Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945) (Wellington, New Zealand: War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1954), pp. 42–43;
 Antony Beevor Stalingrad (Penguin Books, New York, 1999), pp.- 15, 60, 166
 Antony Beevor. Ibid. p.-59
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