*** war and social upheaval: World War II -- prisoners of war POWs

World War II--Prisoners of War (POWs)

World War II POWs
Figure 1.--The German High Command was staggered at the numbers of Soviet POWs. Photographs show longlines of POWs being marched back from the front, often lines often against a vast flat steppe. The long lines of POWs helped convince the Wehrmacht that the Red Army was a degeated force. Little provision was made to care or adequately feed these men. Often they were simply confined with barbed wire without any shelter. Those POWs taken in the early months of Barbarossa had no idea of the genocidal policies of the NAZI regime. Tragically the Spviet POWs who managed to sirvive the NAZI camps were treated as tritors by Stalin when they were liberated.

The treatment of prisoners of war (POWs) varied widely from country to country. The Germans were the first country to acquire large numbers of POWs. German policy varied as to the nationality of the POWs. Here a primary factor in the German mind was race. The Germans treated French, British, and later American POWs relatively correctly. They did try to separate Jewish POWs from the general POW population. POWs were also used to some extent as forced labor. The German treatment of Polish and Soviet POWs, however, was barbaric and many died from starvation, exposure, and mistreatment. The German policy was in part a planned method of elimination and in part their inablity to deal with the massive numbers involved. German tretment improved somewhat as they began to use Soviet POWs for forced labor, but it was still brutal. British and American treatment of POWs was correct, although there were difficulty handling thelarge numbers in 1945. German POWs in camps located in America were amazed at their treatment and diet. Strangely German and Italian POWs were often treated more courtesly than Black U.S. servicemen. I'm unsure about Italian policies. Soviet tretment of German POWs was also brutal, but not as genocidal as German poliies. In fact German POWs fared better than domestic prisoners in the Soviet Gulag. It is unclear why. Some belive that Stlin wanted to influence POWs that were to be repatriated. The Japanese treatment of POWs was barbaric. POWs were starved, brutalized, and used for forced labor. Some were even used for mediucal experiments, including live vivisections and assessmrents of biological weapons. American combat soldiers were often brutal with Japanese soldiers, but once in camps the treatment was correct.

World War I

World War I histories tend to give less attention to Prisoners of War than is the case of World War II. This is in part because the major beligereant countrirs generally treated POWs correctly following the Geneva Convention to the extent possible given war time conditions. Here the major exception was the Ottoman Turks. The Austrians and Germans also tended to treat the Serbs harshly. There was, however, nothing of the barbarity exhibted by the Germans and Russians during Wotld War II. Quite large numbers were involved. Offical statistics tend to combine POWs and missing in action. The two countries with the largest numbers of POWs were the Russians with 2.5 million (mostly taken by the Germans) and thecAustro-Hungarians with 2.2 million (mostly taken by the Russians. There were also 1.2 million Germans (mostly taken by the Western Allies). Other countries with relatively large numbers were: Italy (0.6 million), France (0.5 million), Ottoman Empire (0.3 million), Britain (0.2 million), and Sebia (0.2 million). Only 4,000 Americans were POWs or missing. Given the recruitment policies of the beligerant nations, there were many children and teenagers among the POWs. The Red Cross played a major role with POWs during World War I. This was a category of war victims that had not previously been protected by the Geneva Conventions. The International Prisoner of War Agency in Geneva compiled a an index of seven million file cards. They documented 2 million prisoners held in the POW camps of the 38 belligerents nations.

Geneva Convention (1929)

The rules concerning the treatment of Prisoners of War (POWs) were different during World War II than those in force during World War I. The reason for this was the negotiation of the Geneva Convention during the inter-war period. The Geneva Convention was negotiated at various times and covered different aspects of war. One of the most important covered Prisoners of War (POWs). The Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War was signed by 47 governments (1929). Two countries which did not adhere to the Geneva Convention of 1929 were Japan and the Soviet Union. Japan after launching the Pacific War (1941), indicated that with qualifgications that they would abide by the Convention (1942). The Soviet Union did not adhere to the Geneva Convention and instead pledged to observe the terms of the Hague Convention (1907). There were major differences between the two documents. The Hague Cinvention unlike the Geneva Convention does not provide for neutral inspection of prison camps, exchange of prisoners' names, and permitting correspondence. The Geneva Convention provided extensive protections for POWs. POWs could be questioned, but they could not be compeled to disclose information beyond their identity (name, rank, and serial number). The country holding POWs had to provide adequate food and medical care. POWs had the right to send and receive mail, including parcels. A POW was required to observe ordinary military discipline and courtesy. The attempt to escape was seen as a legitimate action and such attempts should not be punished. Officers were to receive their and could not be forced to work. Countries could force enlisted men to work, but they had to be paid. They could not be used for work associated with military opneration nor could they be used in areas exposing them to danger. POW camps were subject to inspection by neutral powers. Switzerland and Sweden acted as protecting powers during World War II. The International Red Cross based in Geneva served as a clearinghouse for the exchange of POW information. No country perfectly followed these provisions, especially at lower levels and during actual combat. The United States and Great Britain generally honored the terms of the Geneva Convention during the War. Japan committed terrible atrocities such as the Bataan death march. After 1942 few additional Allied POWs fell into Japanese hands. There treatment of the POWs taken in 1942 continued to be barbaric. German treatment of POWs varied. Race and nationality was a major factor. Some effort to treat American, British, and French POWs correctly. Polish and Soviet POWs were treated savegly. Here treatment depended on who was holding the POWs. The Wehrmact and Luftwaffe generally attempted to abide by the Geneva Convention. Some POWs got into the hands of the Gestapos and SS and in some cases were murdered. The Germans also selected out Jewish POWs who were subjected to inhuman treatment in concentration camps.


Depite the Geneva Convention of 1929, the treatment of POWs in World War was very different than that of World War I. The basic difference was the policies of NAZI Germany, the Soviet Union, and Imperial Japan. The policies of each of these countries varied, but with Germany and Japan racism was a central matter. This was not the case for the Soviet Union. Here the treatment of POWS went more to the barbaric nature of the Soviet regime. NAZI Germany embarked on World War II with a racist mission as Hitler explained in Mein Kampf. We commonly think of the NAZI Holocaust of the Jewish peopke as the principal result of NAZI racism. It was not, the NAZIs sought out to gain Lebensraum, in the East. And along with the acquisition of the land was the reduction of the Slavic population. Thus the NAZI policies for Polish and Soviet POWs was race-based genocode. Racism was not a major motivating factor for the Soviets. The Soviet treatment of German POWs was mopt radically different thn that of Soviet citizens commited to the Gulag. Racism was a factor with the Japanese. They pomoted a racist doctrine similar to the German veneration of the Aryan race. It was somewhat different than the NAZIs in that the Japanese master race was lovated in Japan. The NAZIs on the other hand found suitable Aryan stock in many conquered countries. Another factor for the Japanese was preceived national slights by arrogant Westerners.

Country Policies

The treatment of World War II prisoners of war (POWs) varied widely from country to country. Axis and Soviet war crimes included the barbaric treatment of POWS. Some 2-3 million POWs were esentially murdered, primarily by starvation and exposure. Almost all the POWs taken by the Western Allies (American and British) survived the War in good condition (about 99 percent). Few POWs taken by the Soviets survived (5-10 percent). Some were executed by the NKVD, especially the Polish POWs. Fewer Germans were shot, but huge numbers perished because of mitreatment and living conditions. They were used to he help repair the damage done, and surivors did not get back to Germny for years. German policies varied greatly from country to country. POWs from the Western Allies generally survived the War, although not at the same rate as the Germans taken prisiner by the Americans and British. Conditions in German camps deterioratd badly in the final years of the War. There were some abuses such as the treatment of Jewish servicemen and escapees. POWs from Poland and the Soviet Union perished in large numbers. This was in part due to the huge numbers taken orisoner, but was primarily an act of genocide, using starvation nd exposure to kill. The Germans after engenerring massive deaths, eventually improved conditions somewhat so the mnen could be used as slave labor. The Italins did not take mny prosoners, but the Germans turned over POWs taken in North Africa to the Italians. The Japanese treated POWs brutally and the death rate was very high, although climate kept survival rates higher than in Soviet camps, at least for the western POWs. The fate of the Chinese soldiers was different, the Japabese simply killed them. At the end of the war, despite capturing large numbers of Chinese soldiers, there were no POWs to turn over to the Chinese authorities, one of the great atrocities of the war and for some reason rarely mentioned.

Country POWs

The number of POWs taken in World War was enormous. We have found no detailed assessment of the total number of military personnel, neraly all men taken prisoner during World War II and the country totals, Estimates vary widely from 12-35 million men. Here the higher number seems a reasonable estimate. One of the reasons for the substantial discrepany was that the Japanese did not hold the huge number of Chinese soldiers as POWs, but rather murdered most of them. Strangly, this is anatricity often ommited in duscusions of Japnese war crimes. The Chinese captives who survived, were those who agreed to join the Wang Jingwei puppet Chunese Government--the Reorganized National Government of the Republic of China. No data exists on the number of Chinese POWs murdered by the Japanese. They did not keep records and the neuither the Natiionalists who did most of the fighting or the Communists have any idea, but it would have been several million men. Better if incomplelete records exists for other countries. Some 4-6 million Soviet Red Army soldiers were taken prisoner. German policy was also to murder them, by starvation and exoosure to the elements. More than 3 million men died, mostly in 1941-42. As the War wentv against the Germans and labor shortages occurred, the Germans improved conditioins marginally. Over 6 million Germnns were taken as POWs. About half by the Soviets and half by the Western Allies The Soviets took 3 million German POWs. This began with the coiunter-offensuive begfore Moscow, but most were taken in the final year of the War. The vast majority taken in the last year of the War. In the final montha, the Wehrmact attemopted to moce as many of its men west as possible so they could surrebder toi the Western Allies. Compared to these huge numbers, only smnall numbers of the Western Allies were taken as POWs. The exceotion was the French Army. Nearly 2 million Frebch slodiers were interned in the Reich as POWs. Large numbers of Italians were made POWs, over 1 million. Iroinically the largest numberse takjen by the Germans when they seized control of Italy (1943). Stangely as fierceky as the Japanese fought during the War, the Japanbese had one of the largest numbers of POWs after the War. Only a nandful of Jaosnese surrendered during the War. Some 1 million surrenders to the Soviets in Manbchyria at the end of the War. Another 1 million surrendered to the Chinese. We do not yet have the number who surrenderedd to the British Empire forces in Southeast Asia, but it was several million.


Age is another factor which needs to be accessed concerning the treatmet of POWs. Here we are talking boys meaning individuals under the age of 18 years and eldrr men meaning well above military age, mostly men in their 50s. We do not think very many men in their 60s outside of top commanders were involved in combat. There are two countries which employed boys in combat, the Gerams and Soviets. And one country employed older men, the Germans. The Germans in the last year of the War, mobilized boys and older men up to 60 years of age in a people's militia--the Volksstrum (September 1944). The Volksstrum was authorized to conscript boys 16 and 17 years of age. Earlier the age of conscription was 18 years of age. And men up to 60 years of age could be conscripted. In additioin to 16 and 17 year olds, many younger boys took up combat roles asthe conerging Allied and Soviet armies entered the reich, including some preteens. We also notice boys in the Red Army. Here we are not entirely sure why. The age of conscription before the War was 21. With the German invasion (1941) the age was loweed to 18 years. But we notive many obviously younger individuals in the Red Army. Apparently younger individuals were allowed to enlist. This increased exponentially with the German invasion. German genocidal policies forced boys anf girls into the military. Here patriotic fervor was a factor. Another factor was severe food shortages after the German occupied much of the most productive agricultural land of the Soviet Union, including the Ukraine. Childrn were given special rations until they turned 12 yeatrs of age. Children who did not get a job in the war industry or join the military had to survive on very low rations. Another facor was the partisans. Here in addition to patriotism children. especially boys but some girls as well, may have witnesed their family being killed and took to the woods. What we do not know at this time is how these younger and older indviduals were treated if vcaptured as POWs. Here we are looking for policies of the different beligerent countries, including America, Britain, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union. We have not yet been able to find any specific regulations issued by military authorities to deal with this problem. We have read that American GIs in the front lines sent the younger boys home. But we do not yet have any real evidence shedding light on this question.


The vast majority of World War II POWs were men. Women were not used as combat soldiers except by the Soviet Union. A great deal has been written about female Red army soldies, including snipes and pilots. The publicity here was demphasized as the war progressed. We know nothing about female POWS. The United States and Britain used women in the military, but in non-combat roles. All of the World War II combtants used women as military nurses. The most publicized female POWs were the Australian and American military nurses captured by the Japanese.


Davis, Prentiss. E-mail message, October 12, 2014.

Gilbert, Martin. Churchill and the Jews: Aifelong Friendship (Henry Holt and Company: New York, 2007), 359p.

Newby, Eric. Love and War in the Appenines.

Nichol, John and Tony Rennell. The Last Escape: The Untold Story of Allied Prisoners of War in Europe, 1944-45 (Viking, 2003).


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Created: October 30, 2003
Last updated: 6:18 AM 6/2/2015