POWs & the Geneva Convention

My father has told me that he considered himself very fortunate to have been a British POW in WWII, as they followed the Geneva Convention’s rules for POW treatment. (In northern Italy, where he was held, he volunteered for labor duty - building/repairing roads - and was well treated and well fed. Non-volunteers didn’t work but had much less “comfortable” living conditions.) In contrast to his experience, he heard stories from other ex-POWs that many American soldiers were permitted to ignore the rules and treat captives harshly because officers higher in the chain of Allied command thought it acceptable in light of the Allied discovery of the concentration camps.

I was wondering - were those stories true? What about conditions for POWs under the Russians (can’t imagine they were great, but I haven’t heard much discussion of the issue)? Who exactly is responsible for making sure victors toe the Geneva Convention line - is it self-policing, or is the UN as a whole supposed to be involved? And have the rules governing treatment of POWs really been effective in protecting them in any war since the convention was first signed?

Most of the stories told of and by POWs held by the U.S, during the war seem to indicate that the U.S. (which had not been bombed or threatened with invasion) seemed to treat POWs rather better than the Brits (who had suffered two more years of war with their wives and children under attack from the Luftwaffe).

After the war, there is at least one story of the U.S. treating German POWs shamefully. (I hear occasional statements that the U.S. actions regarding POWs held in Germany should have been treated as war crimes.)

I do not know how true that story is. Was there deliberate mistreatment of German POWs in Germany? Or did the overwhelming number of refugees and displaced persons in war-shattered Germany lead to a shortage of resources that was reflected in POW camps in the winter of 1945-1946? I actually don’t know.

I’m pretty sure that the German POWs that picked apples in Michigan before the end of the war had it easier than your father.


Russians didn’t follow the Geneva convention so when they were captured the Germans didn’t allow them to be visited by the Red Cross or to receive parcels of food and medicine.

Italians held at Fort Ord near Monterey, CA, were released to work in the local fields as farm labor, staying with the families of the farmers. They liked it so much, they moved to the area after the war and started growing artichokes, making it an area that produces quite a few of that strange thistle. :slight_smile:

Just to add to DS’s post some were held in the Adirondacks and Adirondack magazine recently did a short article on POW’s that worked as lumberjacks, farm laborers, etc. They seemed to be treated very well. It was probably very different on the front lines however where the guards weren’t civilians but military regulars who had seen some of the worst that war can offer.

Thanks, everyone, for your responses. Just to clarify, I was in fact thinking of POWs held in Europe; my dad was a German POW held by the British in northern Italy. My apologies for not expressing that more clearly.

German and Italian prisoners taken by the British and Americans met similar fates. They were temporarily held in field camps – the amenities of which varied greatly, from decent to pretty bad, depending on the resources of the captors – until transport to England or the U.S. could be arranged. Thereafter, their treatment was generally far better than the Geneva Convention required.

Germans and Italians captured by the Soviets fared a lot worse. (Most of the soldiers captured by the Soviets were German.) A large proportion were transported east and never seen again. This is probably because, in the early years of WWII, the victorious German armies murdered their Soviet captives wholesale.

During the period 1939-45, the United Nations, as an organization, did not exist. The International Red Cross sought to enforce the Geneva Convention terms, with widely-varying success.

I don’t know why fortune smiles on some and lets the rest go free…


tomndebb wrote:

You might be remembering some of the claims of James Bacque’s ‘Other Losses’. Bacque claims that the Allies, and specifically Dwight D. Eisenhower, starved at least 800,000 - 1,000,000 German POWs to death.

‘Other Losses’ achieved some notoriety and success but it is a tissue of lies. See what Stephen Ambrose says about it here.

Andrew Warinner

A friend of mine who is a WWII buff is of the opinion that Germany defended the Soviet front with the vigor they did partly to insure that the American/British forces would reach Berlin first. If true it would indicate that the German commanders felt they would recieve better treatment from our side of the Atlantic if captured.

Anyone know of a cite (commanders diary or such) that confirms this?

I don’t know if this helps at all. while in the army (Canadian) we were instructed on the proper treatment of POWs and watched a very informative (and complete lie) of a film about how to fight for your “rights” if you are a POW. The long and short of it is you are supposed to be treated in the same manner as the troops holding you prisoner,namely same food, same sleeping conditions, access to proper hygiene, women are not supposed to have to sleep in the same area as men (if possible).
I’m not an expert on WWII but I have heard conditions for the Russian soldiers was pretty bad, therefore POWs certainly wouldn’t get treated any better.

Does the noise in my head bother you?


I haven’t come across anything official on that (and didn’t the Russians indeed reach Berlin first, BTW ?) - but I think it’s pretty well-documented that at least some of the General Staff were hoping for a “separate peace” with Britain & USA late in the war. Some of the people involved in the attempt on Hitlers life in 44 hoped for this scenario.

On the other hand, the Germans did offer stubborn resistance on the western front, even late in the war - the Ardennes offensive springs to mind.

WAG: What might have given the impression of a more vigorous defense in the East was perhaps that a very dirty war was being fought on that front. A soldier who knows that no quarter is given will probably defend his position more desperately that one who knows that surrender will be accepted.


Worrying is the thinking man’s form of meditation.


Yeah. I didn’t want to give that book any appearance of respectability. I have heard that some of the pieces that Bacque dragged into his fiction had a basis in truth. I certainly never bought his thesis. In the context of the OP, however, that background provides a context for Fillet’s father’s viewpoint.



I followed your link to Stephen Ambrose’s review of “Other Losses,” and read it with interest. I have never read the book, and frankly don’t plan to, especially after seeing the review.

I am aware that there were tremendous hardships in Europe in general after the war, and I understand how such hardships would color people’s views of events. My mother has told me plenty of her own stories, some humorous (like the trouble she got into for getting berry stains on her brand new dress - made from parachute material) to dark (women sleeping with soldiers in an effort to get extra rations for their families).

The stories my father heard were told to him by other ex-POWs while he was living in Austria after the war. (He emigrated here in 1951.) An example of the kinds of things he heard: An American soldier would throw a loaf of bread into the no-man’s land around the perimeter of the camp, where of course POWs were not supposed to go or they would be shot. The soldier would assure nearby POWs that it would be OK for them just to retrieve the loaf of bread, but any POWs that stepped across the line were immediately shot anyway.

What I’d like to understand is whether the people my father spoke to had the poor luck of being in the one or two camps where the Geneva Convention rules were flaunted (i.e., more going on than simply low food rations), or if the problem was actually more widespread.

Also, I’m still curious to know whether the Geneva Convention was at all effective in protecting POWs in other wars as well. For example, based on what I’ve heard about Vietnam, the rules of the convention did not apply - is that correct?

P.S. In case anyone is getting the wrong idea, let me make it clear that I’m not about to announce myself as an apologist for Hitler or the Nazis.


The two ways it was explained to me during Basic Training (when I asked this question) were that some countries
a) hadn’t signed the Geneva Convention thereby making themselves immune to prosecution under it.
b) were punishable by it, but as you can see even with current conflict trying them on war-crime charges isn’t the easiest thing done

Maybe someone who knows more about this than me can comment on whether or not my CO was full of it or not. Just don’t tell him I said it :slight_smile:

My understanding was the Germany had signed the Geneva Convention, but took the view that it was based entirely on reciprocity - that the Convention only governed its treatment of POWs from other countries that had signed the Convention. So, Germany complied with the Convention in the treatment of POWs from the Western Allies, who had signed the Convention, but did not comply with the Convention with respect to Soviet POWs, since the USSR had not signed the Convention. For example, at the Nuremburg trials, Soviet POWs came forward who had been branded by their German captors.

I’m no expert in international law, but this interpretation of the Convention sounds flawed to me. The Convention was to establish basic humanitarian standards, not to allow signatories to be barbaric in their treatment of some POWs but not others.

and the stars o’erhead were dancing heel to toe

fillet wrote:

The real problem that the Allies struggled with in 1945 was twofold: coping with approximately 4 million German prisoners and administering liberated and captured territories. The most basic problem was food. In the spring of 1945, according to U.S. Army documents, civilians in Germany were receiving about 1/3 of the minimum daily ration of 2000 calories/day. That, coupled with the post-war chaos, as well was the hordes of prisoners that the Allies took in a short period of time made for a logistical and administrative nightmare that certainly allowed abuses and brutality to take place.

According the the Nizkor Archive US Army figures show that about 1% of German prisoners died in US custody. 833 of 93,653 US prisoners in Germany died, about 0.9%.

Compare this to deaths among US military personnel held by the Japanese: 8,634 out or 24,992 (35%).

Andrew Warinner

Thanks for the reference, Andrew, I’ll check it out.

IIRC, the Geneva Convention didn’t apply in Vietnam because the U.S. had never officially declared war. I guess that’s a requirement under the terms of the treaty. Just a WAG.

johnnyharvard wrote:

Well, I am not an expert in international law, but the the Geneva Convention depends on the Hague III conventions which set out the rules of war and also cover the opening of hostilities.

The Hague convention on the opening of hostilities sez:

Article 1

The Contracting Powers recognize that hostilities between themselves must not commence without previous and explicit warning, in the form either of a reasoned declaration of war or of an ultimatum with conditional declaration of war.

Hague III

I have no idea if North Vietnam was a signatory to any of the Hague conventions. If they weren’t, they were not bound by the Geneva and Hague conventions nor was the U.S. bound to observe them with respect to North Vietnam.

Of course the U.S. never declared a state of hostilities with North Vietnam (at least I think the Gulf of Tonkin resolutions couldn’t be construed so). And ‘officially’ the U.S. was assisting South Vietnam in suppressing its internal enemies. Insurgents and/or civil war is covered by the Geneva and Hague conventions. The conventions cover only hostilities between states. But the conventions don’t define what a ‘state’ is either. North/South Vietnam were of ambiguous international standing because of various peace settlements.

I think the long and short of it is this: belligerents play by the rules of the Hague and Geneva conventions only when it suits them. And there is no real sanction for not playing by the rules.

Andrew Warinner

I just learned something interesting the other day: According to Richard Rhodes in “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”, the US had not signed the Geneva Convention. Because of this thought was given to cleaning out Iwo Jima with poison gas. (page 594) Only the thought of how Germany was excoriated because it used gas first in WWI kept Roosevelt from doing it. So we were under no treaty bounds to treat prisoners in any way.