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Democracies and their Prisoners in the Second World War

The Second World War was unprecedented in its scope and brutality, with the best records indicating that more than forty million people perished over the course of five long years of conflict.3 Tens of millions of troops from countries around the world were mobilized, either drafted or as volunteers, to fight on distant and often bloody battlefields. With so many soldiers on the frontlines, the risks were high of either dying in combat or surrendering and becoming a POW. Laying down one's arms brought its own hardships, which ranged from the worst-case scenario of death during captivity to the better situation of imprisonment until the end of the war except for those fortunate enough to take part in occasional prisoner exchanges. Table 4.1 summarizes the estimated numbers of prisoners taken and their relative death rates in captivity for several of the main belligerents from the war.

All sides captured large though varying numbers of enemy combatants, but what is truly startling is the wide range of the overall death rates across captor states. Even these numbers are likely an understatement of the true extent of prisoner abuse, since they generally only include casualties that happened once a soldier reached the prison camps rather than those who were summarily executed upon capture. The available data suggest the fortunes for prisoners falling into the hands of an autocratic belligerent were usually terrifying. The likelihood a prisoner would survive their time in captivity was little better than half—on average, around 46 percent died with the worst being German treatment of Russian prisoners where around 58 percent (over three million total) perished after surrendering.4 There are also some impressive differences in conduct among the autocracies, in particular between German treatment of prisoners on the eastern versus western fronts. Consistent with the importance of the nature of the conflict, one of the biggest differences concerned the relative aims sought through war on each side of the continent. Germany's brutal war in the east was centered upon conquering vast tracks of Soviet and other neighboring lands to achieve the living space (Lebensraum) long sought by the Nazi leadership. By contrast, German ambitions were more modest in the west and consequently accompanied by better, though far from humane, treatment of captured enemy combatants. Racial and ideological factors likely played some role as well, though they should not be exaggerated or thought to offer a monocausal explanation for German patterns of prisoner abuse. For instance, while the Nazi government brutalized large numbers of Poles in the east as well as Jewish populations as part of the Final Solution, soldiers captured from these and other minority groups in the west were generally accorded comparable treatment to their Anglo-Saxon compatriots.5

Table 4.1 Statistics of prisoners captured and death rates for the major powers in World War II

Gt,plor State

prisoner State

Nimitvr of Prisoner#

Death Rate in Gaytivily


Soviet Union



Soviet Union











< 1%

Soviet Union












Figure? iir tin.' [hind column represent estimates for the 6>tal number of enemy combatants captured during the war Surrenders that occurred after the war ended were excluded when possible. Figures were based oil the following sources, Bartov 2001,153;

Ferguson 2004, 163-86; Forster 1986,21; Hata 1496, 263; Morrow 2001,984; О very 1997,

355; Vance 2006,458-72. Italy was also one of the other major belligerents during til is wan but precise figures on prisoner death rates in Italian prison camps unfortunately could not be located. Figures for Soviet prisoners of Japan were not Included because Japan was not considered a capable captor in this warring-directed-dyad.

Despite some disparities across fronts, and in line with regime type expectations, Germany's policies toward western prisoners as a whole still remained harsh in numerous respects. In 1942, Adolf Hitler issued the so-called Commando Order (Kommandobefehl), which mandated that Allied prisoners be summarily executed if they were engaged in missions German authorities deemed to be of an irregular or subversive nature, irrespective of the fact that these soldiers still qualified as prisoners deserving of all regular rights and protections under international law.6 Although not universal, summary executions became more common, such as the infamous Malmedy Massacre and related slaughters that later led to the prosecution of seventy-four German soldiers for war crimes.7 German captors also became more prone to severely punishing escape attempts as a sharp warning to others, even though these actions contravened existing legal


In contrast, those soldiers surrendering to the democratic powers generally fared much better, with only around 1 percent dying in captivity. With hundreds of thousands of Axis troops falling into Allied hands as the war wore on—a number later turning into millions—the sheer logistical difficulties of feeding and clothing the growing masses in captivity mounted. In the week ending May 5, 1945, just days before the official German capitulation ending the war in Europe, the U.S. Army alone was distributing 1,751,513 food rations daily to enemy prisoners.9 The extent to which resources were allocated to prisoner care is reflected by the fact that rations destined for prisoners made up 30 percent of the total food allotments issued by the U.S. armed forces, including those for their own troops and allies on the continent.10

Many Axis soldiers who first surrendered to U.S. or British forces were eventually transferred to camps in the United States proper or overseas territories of the British Empire and dominions. With greater space and resources, the comforts of prison life in these camps were in many ways superior to those for even regular civilians in Europe. Many German prisoners would even come to describe their time in captivity in the United States as “wonderful years" and “the experience of their lives."11

Praises of this magnitude should not overshadow the reality that U.S. and British abuses still occurred, especially on the Pacific front against Japan. Many scholars have pointed to the role played by race in the treatment of enemy combatants in the Pacific war.12 As the relative death rates of German and Japanese prisoners at the hands of the United States reported in Table 4.1 above makes clear, however, there were ultimately as many similarities as differences in U.S. prisoner policies across both fronts. Cultural approaches thus do not account for these parallels in prisoner treatment despite the stark difference in racial rhetoric across each theater. Although some differences were evident, abuses in both instances were generally initiated by individual or small groups of soldiers rather than reflecting official policy or orders from the highest-level authorities.13 For instance, the worst incident in a prison camp on the U.S. homeland occurred when a deranged guard at a camp in Utah opened fire with a machine gun on tents housing German prisoners, killing nine and wounding another nineteen.14 Importantly, the guard was quickly punished, since U.S. authorities wanted to make sure such acts were roundly condemned and not viewed by the enemy as sanctioned government practices.

Events of this sort were certainly regrettable but pale in comparison to abuses committed by autocratic belligerents, where it was not uncommon for Germany to execute hundreds of Russian prisoners on the spot.15 Russia later accomplished its own equally horrific revenge against German troops as the Red Army reversed its prior battlefield defeats and pushed forward against Wehrmacht positions on the eastern front. Japan similarly engaged in systematic brutality against prisoners through a stark menu of abuses that included summary executions, starvation diets, grueling labor, and medical experimentation. In light of the harsh fighting conditions, along with the cruelty inflicted in captivity by many of the other captors during the war, the relatively more benevolent conduct by the Western powers is all the more impressive and provides a relatively tough test for the constraints of democracy on prisoner treatment.

What appears to have influenced the decisions of the United States and Great Britain to restrain themselves when dealing with enemy combatants? A normative approach leads to the expectation that democratic leaders were influenced by prevailing domestic norms of tolerance, limits against violence, and a general respect for individual rights. If this were the case, then the evidence should point to leaders frequently referring to these domestic principles when deciding what to do with prisoners under their control.16 On the other hand, an institutional account instead emphasizes the importance of concerns over reciprocity and how good conduct could improve their side's chances to win the war in a timelier and less costly fashion. As will become evident, the historical record offers greater support for the importance of institutional incentives over normative commitments.

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