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Democratic Concerns over Retaliation

Through a series of rapid offensives, Nazi Germany quickly cemented control over much of the European continent by the end of June 1940. An uneasy yet mutually beneficial equilibrium in prisoner affairs came to develop on the western front between Germany and Italy on the one hand and Britain (later joined by the United States) on the other. Decisive victories early on by the Axis powers brought with them large numbers of prisoners, leaving the Western Allies acutely worried over the risks of retaliation given they held a much smaller collection of enemy captives at the time. Even as the tide of the war later turned in the Allies' favor, and with it swelling prisoner ranks, the democratic powers remained extremely sensitive to the effects their treatment of Axis prisoners would have on the corresponding fate of Allied soldiers in enemy hands.

Worries within both the public and the military over the treatment of American prisoners once behind enemy lines became a major issue for the U.S. government throughout the war. Rationalizing the decent conduct toward German prisoners, Brigadier General R. W. Berry of the War Department General Staff stated plainly this policy meant “our boys over there were better treated as prisoners than they otherwise would have been."17 Archibald Lerch, U.S. provost marshal general and the main military official in charge of the POW system in the United States proper, stressed the stakes involved by declaring, “Any non-adherence by this government [to the 1929 Geneva Convention] probably would result in instant retaliation against American prisoners held in Germany."18 Reinforcing the point, Lerch continued by saying, “The War Department has an abundance of evidence which leads it to believe that our treatment of German prisoners of war has had a direct effect in securing better treatment of American prisoners in Germany."19

U.S. officials were clearly aware of the twin role played by reciprocity in guiding their conduct toward German prisoners. In the first place, good treatment was more likely to be met in kind by German authorities, or at the very least limit any abuses committed against Allied prisoners. This was possible not only through direct actions taken by Germany to care for U.S. prisoners, but also by making it easier for relief agencies to gain access to and operate in German camps. The role of external agencies grew in importance, especially later in the war as German infrastructure was devastated and supplies became much scarcer. One official from the American Red Cross noted that good U.S. conduct “has rendered a great service in enabling us to demand many things in hard-pressed, blockaded enemy countries which we might not otherwise have been able to obtain for our prisoners."20

The darker side of reciprocity was a discernable fear among policymakers that abuses committed in U.S. camps would result in swift retaliation against American prisoners held by the Axis powers. The result was that U.S. authorities often interpreted obligations under the prevailing 1929 Geneva Convention in as strict a manner as possible to ensure Axis prisoners would be treated according to the highest standards. The generous level of care even led to periodic outcries in the American media that enemy prisoners were receiving better treatment than regular U.S. soldiers in the field or citizens at home.21 Beyond the particular level of care, groups including labor unions protested against the use of prisoner labor, which they felt crowded out work for U.S. civilians and depressed overall wages.22 Part of the government's effort was thus devoted to convincing skeptical segments within domestic society that humane prisoner policies were in line with international obligations and necessary for the public's broader concern over the safety of their own troops overseas.23 Government policies generally found a fairly sympathetic audience. Surveys of newspapers during the early war years showed the center of gravity in public opinion was clearly toward restraint when possible abuses against Axis prisoners were being contemplated in government circles. At the height of what became known at the Shackling Crisis, where prisoners were being manacled for long hours each day, some Allied leaders were receiving letters from concerned citizens at a rate of eight to one in opposition to retaliation.24

Although consistent across different government agencies as well as nongovernmental organizations, public pronouncements provide only indirect, and potentially uncertain, evidence of the importance of reciprocity in guiding the conduct of the democratic allies toward captured enemy combatants. Perhaps officials were in actuality primarily motivated by normative considerations but chose to couch their policies in terms of reciprocity for public consumption. Even in this case, however, it is not clear why direct normative appeals would not be just as convincing, or even more so, to domestic and Allied audiences if norms of nonviolence and individual rights were truly the driving force behind prisoner treatment.

In contrast to statements intended for public consumption, “harder" sources, like internal government reports or meetings, involve fewer reasons for actors to dissemble their true beliefs, are more difficult to manipulate or conceal after the fact, and thus offer a much firmer basis for evaluating the preferences of political elites.25 In particular, private discussions among government officials provide a clearer window into the motivations underlying the conduct of democracies during war. One incident in particular highlights the relative role of normative versus institutional factors in internal British discussions on prisoner treatment during the early years of the war. With Germany's quick defeat of France in just six weeks from May to June 1940, Britain lost its foothold on the continent after the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force escaped at Dunkirk. While an air war continued to rage between the two sides, the main site for ground operations became North Africa, where Britain used its colonial holdings as a launching point to challenge German and Italian dominance in the region. During the nascent North African campaign, Britain was able to maintain its positions and frequently took modest numbers of Axis prisoners, whom it treated according to a decent standard of care. However, this policy would quickly be tested.

In early 1941, Britain began receiving reports that Italy was ordering its soldiers to execute all captured members of the Free French Forces (FFL) during battles in Libya and the surrounding area. The FFL were composed of remnants of the defeated French armed forces, which were not loyal to the German-backed French Vichy regime and thus nominally allied to Britain. When faced with this situation at a meeting with his Chiefs of Staff (COS) Committee, Churchill reportedly proposed at first that Britain should send one thousand Italian troops to the FFL for what he termed “working capital."26 The initial thinking was that giving the French the capability to either threaten retaliation or actually commit abuses in kind against Italian captives would deter any future executions of captured FFL troops.

Whatever the initial merits of this plan, it does not provide much support for the view espoused by the normative approach that democracies tend to externalize domestic norms of nonviolence and respect for individual rights when dealing with foreign adversaries. Even the very words Churchill chose to use indicate Axis prisoners were perceived less as individual persons deserving of rights and respects, and more as a commodity to be dealt with as Britain saw fit.

This was in many ways consistent with earlier opinions expressed by Churchill regarding the status of enemy prisoners. Before becoming prime minister in May 1940, Churchill served as first lord of the Admiralty for the opening months of the war. During his tenure he set forth the following policy to the military branch in an internal memorandum from October 15, 1939:

it is our policy to capture and hold as prisoner the largest number of able-bodied enemy aliens capable of military service whom we can catch upon the seas. We must accumulate a substantial stock of German prisoners in case we may need to inflict reprisals because of German barbarity to our own prisoners of war. This will probably not be necessary; but I took great pains in the last war [referring to World War I] to catch as many as possible because the Germans always behave much better when you have more of their men in your hands than they have of yours. And after all we want to help them to behave better [emphasis


Besides betraying a rather patronizing view of the German leadership, Churchill consistently displayed a very instrumental approach to enemy prisoners as assets to be exploited rather than individuals inherently entitled to respect. In his time heading the navy, he even considered plans to employ German prisoners as de facto human shields to protect British hospital ships from attacks during naval operations in Narvik, Norway.28 In this context Churchill appears to have been less worried about possible retaliation, since the British navy had the upper hand at sea and there were few British naval prisoners at the time. Once he became prime minister not long after, however, Churchill needed to take into account the impact of prisoner abuse on the armed forces as a whole, and in particular public pressures over the safety of British troops now in enemy captivity.

Despite personal views on the relative worth (or lack thereof) of enemy prisoners, it is important to note the British prime minister would come to lean heavily in the direction of restraint when dealing with prisoners. The reluctance of engaging in abuses either directly or by proxy through allies appears driven less by norms-based convictions but more by reasons related to concerns over retaliation as expected by an institutional account. Although Churchill was tempted to exact some revenge against Italy over the FFL executions, there was a palpable fear among the members of the COS Committee that any violation would result in retaliation against the more than fifty thousand British prisoners already held by the Axis powers.29 Continued good conduct by Britain toward prisoners in this case appears to have been more the result of instrumental considerations over the safety of British troops already held behind enemy lines rather than any inherent concern for the rights of Axis prisoners as an end in itself.

Over the course of the war Churchill personally intervened on numerous occasions to ensure that the treatment of enemy prisoners remained at the highest levels possible.30 In personal correspondence, Churchill later revealed that his interventions were primarily driven by fears of “a general counter-massacre of prisoners" that could be sparked all too easily by any British abuses.31 Concerns over initiating the first violation or responding too rashly in kind were thus a function of prospective fears of retaliation and escalation rather than an idealistic desire to remain consistent with domestic normative principles.

The pressures of reciprocity meant that both of the major democratic allies also preferred maintaining direct control over captives rather than transferring them to third parties, who may not have had similar desires for diligent prisoner care.32 A source of friction throughout the war involved cooperation between Britain and the United States on the one hand and the residual French forces of the FFL on the other. A complete explanation for the conduct of nonstate actors like the FFL toward prisoners is beyond the scope of this study. Many elements nevertheless remain consistent with the overall logic of reciprocity presented above. As the case of the Italian-led executions makes clear, Axis captors systematically subjected captured members of the FFL to high levels of abuse. Levels of violence on an even greater scale were directed toward their fellow countrymen participating in the French resistance in Occupied and Vichy France.33 Given that French fighters were already facing extreme hardships once captured, there were few qualms about responding in kind against any Axis prisoners falling into their grasp. As a sign of the poor conditions in FFL-controlled camps, many Italian prisoners sought to escape not with the aim of returning to their own lines, but rather to gain entry to U.S. facilities where captives generally fared much better!34

Whatever the precise reasons for the FFL's abuse of prisoners, the prospect of transferring captured Axis soldiers to the FFL remained a constant worry for Britain and the United States. British and U.S. prisoners were treated much better on the whole, but both democratic belligerents realized the safety of their troops would be jeopardized if they were seen as handing off captives to the FFL to be treated as the latter saw fit. Prisoner transfers often involved a difficult trade-off between military expediency and the risk of retaliation. Whether it was in North Africa or later in France proper after the Normandy invasion, transferring prisoners was seen as an attractive option to U.S. and British leaders by relieving the burden on already limited resources.35 Several proposed transfers of prisoners to FFL camps were dismissed during high-level U.S.-U.K. meetings, however, because of fears of possible retaliation against Allied servicemen held by the Axis powers. Some later transfers eventually took place, especially when huge numbers of German prisoners fell into Allied hands after D-Day and subsequent offensives, but U.S. and British leaders incorporated explicit guarantees over treatment alongside stringent monitoring requirements. Through collective pressure the two main democratic belligerents were moderately successful in improving the conduct of FFL captors, though when possible both powers still showed an overall preference to personally maintain control over enemy combatants they captured.36

Despite their best efforts, good conduct by the United States and Britain could not provide a surefire guarantee that their own troops would be treated accordingly. In part this was because Nazi Germany was less sensitive to the potential costs of retaliation since the government was not subject to the same degree of domestic pressures as its democratic counterparts. As the war gradually shifted in the Allies' favor, Germany became increasingly willing to abuse prisoners, especially those attempting to escape. Escalating abuses were intended to serve as an example to other prisoners along with troops still in the field, but also to deter millions of foreign workers essential to the German war effort from any thought of resistance.37 Although never approaching the horrific treatment of prisoners on the eastern front, as noted earlier German treatment of U.S. and British prisoners was punctuated by several episodes of extreme violence.

The ways in which the Western Allies chose to respond to German provocations offers further support for the role of reciprocity and an institutional account of democratic wartime conduct. Both the United States and Britain generally refrained from retaliating against German abuses, but the reasons for this restraint were more a function of the fear that any retaliation would simply result in an escalating cycle of violence between the captors. For instance, reports surfaced in spring 1944 that fifty prisoners were executed on Hitler's direct command through the infamous Sagan Order, after they along with others had attempted to escape from the German camp Stalag Luft III. Britain seriously considered reprisal executions but rejected the idea as counterproductive to the safety of remaining British soldiers in German custody.38 In a similar manner, the United States decided to refrain from retaliating in kind against German abuses later in the war out of concern that this would only endanger those U.S. prisoners still in German captivity.39

In personal correspondence between the two elected leaders, Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized that as the tide was turning against Germany, their adversary had fewer and fewer reasons to continue caring for Allied prisoners and could instead become desperate enough to inflict whatever damage it could on Allied troops.40 Rather than threaten to reciprocate with violence against Axis troops in captivity, both leaders preferred to issue direct warnings to German officials who would personally be held responsible for any abuses against Allied prisoners and liable for war crimes once the war was over. As they asserted in a joint statement, “Any person guilty of maltreating or allowing any Allied prisoner of war to be maltreated, whether in the battle zone, on the lines of communication, in a camp, hospital, prison or elsewhere, will be ruthlessly pursued and brought to punishment."41 The added danger of personal indictment in war crimes trials after the war contributed to deterring more extreme levels of German abuse against Allied prisoners.42

Concerns over reciprocity thus appear to have constrained the willingness of the democratic belligerents to initiate prisoner abuse, or even to retaliate against abuses committed by their German adversary. Reciprocity-related motives were driven largely by the greater sensitivity of British and U.S. leaders to preserving in any way possible the safety of their own troops, which they believed depended on maintaining proper treatment of Axis prisoners in return. In contrast, the available documentary record dealing with both public and private communications suggests that normative considerations were for the most part absent from the decision-making process, or at best secondary to the attention devoted to retaliatory dynamics.

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