Beginning history of prisoners of war

In reaction to European conflicts such as the bloody Battle of Solferino in , the Franco-Prussian War in —, and the Boer War , which began in , an International Peace Conference took place at The Hague in the same year, initially defining captivity in war as a state of those soldiers who are protected once they agree not to take up arms against their captors. Another conference at The Hague in proposed a new version of these early regulations. From now on, prisoners of war had to be treated with humanity; they were to receive the same housing and food rations as the troops of the captor; they could be released in exchange for a promise not to further participate in the conflict; in addition, noncommissioned officers and soldiers could be put to work provided it were unrelated to the actual conflict.

POWs were also to be freed as soon as practicable after cessation of hostilities. However, it should be noted that these regulations applied only if all belligerents officially adhered to the treaty. The First World War marked a turning point in the history of prisoners of war.

Seventy million soldiers bore arms in a conflict that lasted four years, in a mobilization of such magnitude that it effaced traditional boundaries such as the front and the rear, even the distinction between soldier and civilian. In this totalized conflict, POWs were forced to work, enabling their captors to exploit their economic value. Utilization of this workforce was justified, moreover, as a legitimate reprisal for violations first committed by the enemy. The same logic also justified minimal rations and various disciplinary measures.

France, for example, aligned rations for its German prisoners with those accorded French POWs in German hands, while punishments included withholding mail, restriction of food, or imprisonment. The magnitude of the conflict took the military by surprise, and soon there was a lack of adequate housing, poor hygiene, and deficient medical care.

In Germany, some four thousand POWs had died by the spring of Bilateral agreements between governments underscored the limitations of the Hague treaties conventions, which had envisaged only a brief war. In July , for example, a German-British agreement stipulated norms for housing prisoners. Another dealt with enforcement of discipline and the framework of prisoner exchanges. Conditions of detention were affected by ideas about race or benefits that might accrue to the detaining power.


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For example, in Russia authorities ran separate camps. Liberation and repatriation were. The increasing mobilization of various countries and the ferocity of the conflict lay behind different mortality rates among prisoners of war. All these issues made it clear that some of the rules devised at the Hague Convention needed revision.

Advances emerged from the Geneva Conference of 27 July One new convention provided rules for the treatment of POWs, an addition to the Hague regulation, which forbade reprisals and stated that prisoners must be kept away from battle. The conditions of camps were to be improved; the intellectual and religious needs of POWs had to be met; prisoners also had to have the right to send and receive letters and packages.

The convention specified regulation of prisoner's work, and indicated appropriate punishments, especially after escape attempts. Information bureaus were to be established in each country together with a Central Agency of Information. Finally, the clause that stipulated all belligerents must be party to the treaty was abandoned. Although on the western front captivity during the Second World War continued along the lines that had characterized the earlier conflict, this war turned out to be longer and deployed even more troops.

Blitzkrieg warfare enabled Nazi authorities to imprison a very high number of captives in record time: 1. These statistics help explain why living conditions for many prisoners of war were barely human. Millions would later face problems of repatriation long after the war was over. The Second World War aggravated issues that had plagued prisoners during the — conflict. The " total war " launched by the Nazis obliged them to create a workforce composed of prisoners, first Western Europeans, then Eastern Europeans, primarily Slavs.

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They thus muddied the distinction between captive soldiers and other groups such as civilian prisoners and forced labor; together, by , prisoners comprised one-third of the labor force in Germany. In spite of the numbers, the conventions of POW captivity at times functioned better in this war than in the — conflict. The International Red Cross made more than eleven thousand visits to camps; and it was, for example, thanks to their military status that French and British Jewish soldiers were saved from extermination.

This paradox derived from the Nazis' racial interpretation of the conventions. While POW status was by and large applied, the Nazis brutally mistreated prisoners belonging to the so-called inferior races. They refused to apply the POW conventions to Polish prisoners whose country they declared had ceased to exist or to countries that had not ratified the accords, such as Romania; thus, some Soviet prisoners of war were systematically starved to death by the hundreds of thousands; some estimates put these deaths in the millions.

These were violations of international law that the tribunal at Nuremberg in would incorporate as one of the four central elements in the war crimes indictment. The end of the Second World War marked the start of the third and last mass captivity in Europe; these prisoners of war were almost exclusively German, though Italian prisoners were scattered throughout Eastern Europe too.

Detaining powers were the former enemies of the Nazi regime, most of which had endured a devastating German occupation. This postwar captivity was marked by a sense of righteous vengeance, inflicting on German troops the same treatment and humiliations suffered by those they had occupied. Postwar imprisonment began in the same poor and improvised conditions from which civilian populations also suffered.

History and Legal Status of Prisoners of War

Army and "Surrendered Enemy Personnel" by the British. This distinction enabled those countries to avoid strict application of the Geneva Convention; there were fifty-six thousand deaths recorded in U.

French authorities were not able to properly feed and house their German POWs. They justified detention by using German POWs for reconstruction, stretching to the limits rules of using prisoners as laborers. In the Soviet Union, German POWs worked to rebuild the socialist fatherland, especially in the gulag, where a quarter of them died.

From Slaves to Prisoners of War - Will Smiley - Oxford University Press

In a third Geneva Convention took into account lessons learned from the war. It completed the earlier conventions and acknowledged the impossibility of distinguishing between civilians and combatants. From now on prisoners of war were defined as "all who have fallen into the power of the enemy. The latest additional protocols, added in , attempted to update and adapt the conventions to new kinds of conflicts such as civil wars and guerrilla insurgencies.

It considerably extended the categories of individuals having the right to POW status. The recent European conflict in former Yugoslavia — pushed the convention to its limit and tested conventional wisdom and practice. The number of POWs was indeed limited; according to the U. But the ambiguous nature of the conflict—civil war or a war between nations—the "logic of criminalization," and the policy of ethnic cleansing led to a situation in which an entire nation's population was held hostage.

Respect for the Geneva Conventions was hard to enforce. This war presented a backward step in the regulation of captives during wartime, a return to the premodern era. Law governing prisoners of war developed slowly, and only in some cases did practice and codes of behavior coincide.

The History of American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973 (1999)

But this has led to a paradoxical situation in which POWs get more protection than civilian detainees. In the cautious legal formulations of the conventions, military imperatives take into account the interests of captives, but the conventions do not resolve the legal and moral issue of whether it is fair to feed detainees while civilian populations starve.

The evolution. It generated either a dynamic of escalation and retaliation leading to reprisals, as with the Soviet Union, or a dynamic of neutrality such as existed between Germany and the United States. This mechanism tends to consider POWs not from a military perspective as disarmed fighters but, rather, only as representatives of the enemy nation, thus becoming part of the enemy garrison to be defeated.

Capture, during conflict or after surrender. The seizure of weapons and personal items helped to define the status of victors and vanquished. Arrival in transit camps.

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Prisoners were then transferred to base camps that held tens of thousands of prisoners, then finally to smaller camps. There followed enrollment and distribution of clothing distinctively marked in order to make the captive immediately recognizable. The camp was an enclosure whose space is limited by barbed wire and by its guards. Prisoners were affected by the military character of the camp roll calls, searches, coexistence of national directorate and POW executive. Acculturation to this environment was all the more difficult in that POWs often changed camps.

Between 70 and 95 percent of European POWs during the two world wars were drafted into forced labor commandos. In theory, conditions of work for prisoners were to be identical to civilian labor of a similar kind, seeking to avoid competition with indigenous workers. POWs' attitude toward work ranged from the "River Kwai syndrome" that pushed prisoners to the limit, to the method of "slow in the morning and not too fast at night. Exceptionally, a POW might become a free civilian worker, a procedure initiated by the Vichy government in wartime France in the s.

Although POW productivity was inferior, the prisoners represented an irreplaceable labor force and productive resource. Liberation and demobilization. These ended both the experience of military service and of captivity, which from the beginning had an uncertain outcome. The social side of POW life, an exclusively masculine environment in the twentieth century, was organized around principles of solidarity and exclusion.

Comradeship in captivity was not an extension of the comradeship of war. It was based on utilitarian solidarity protection against theft, acquisition of supplies and organized in concentric circles of acquaintances, persons from the same village or the same region or by barracks, reinforced by discussion, nourished by rumors about rations, escape, imminent liberation, and so on. To kill time, POWs enjoyed simple pastimes cards and simple crafts , more elaborate activities sports, orchestras, theater , and even religious observance.

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However, not all POWs succeeded in overcoming the Stacheldrahtkranheit barbed wire disease that could and did culminate in despair and at times suicide. Mail and the maintenance of links with the home front. Prisoners receiving packages could overcome feelings of alienation and abandonment.