Political Prisoners

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The term political prisoner has had a wide currency since the early twentieth century without commanding an accepted definition. Individuals opposed to the policies of a particular state who have voiced or acted on their opposition have often found themselves subject to the criminal laws of sedition or treason, even though their objections may well have been based on ideological or moral grounds. It would be wrong to exclude all such people from being political prisoners, but a more viable distinction is to highlight those people who have been imprisoned primarily for their opposition to a particular regime or ruling party, even if they have been convicted under the criminal law of the country concerned and accused of crimes against the state. Although the concept of the political prisoner is usually associated with the autocratic regimes of the early twentieth century and the dictatorships of Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Benito Mussolini, most states have found it necessary to imprison political opponents whose extremist ideologies or actions were perceived as inherently dangerous.


The tsarist regime in Russia had used both imprisonment and exile extensively to deal with political opponents and presumed subversives in the years before 1914. For example, most of the Bolshevik leaders suffered imprisonment for their beliefs at some point. After the Revolution of 1917, they instituted concentration camps for political opponents from mid-1918 onward close to major centers of population. The number of these camps was reduced from sixty-five in 1922 to twenty-three in 1923. At the same time, a new form of special concentration camp (SLON) was established on the Solovetsky Islands in Archangel Province. This was specifically designed to house counterrevolutionaries including White Guardists, reactionary clergy, and "hostile class elements." This system of corrective labor camps and corrective labor colonies in remote locations was expanded by the OGPU (security police) in the later 1920s to deal with the class struggle against the kulaks (wealthy peasants) through the creation of "special settlements." Estimates suggest 1.8 million people were exiled in the years 1930 and 1931 alone. On 15 February 1931 the OGPU also created a main administration for its camps, the Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei (GULag, now commonly rendered as gulag). Although directed primarily toward political and class enemies of the regime, the gulag system became increasingly intertwined with the Soviet need for labor in remote regions to drive forward industrialization. The victimization of the kulaks was followed by a law of 7 August 1932 on the theft of state property under which sentences of life imprisonment or even death could be levied for the most minor infractions. This brought 55,000 arrests in less than six months and 127,000 in four years.

The use of terror against political opponents and Soviet citizens in general became ever more pronounced through the 1930s. The murder of Leningrad Party leader and Politburo member Kirov in 1934 was used as an excuse to arrest those suspected of disloyalty inside the Communist Party. The Great Purge of 1936–1938 included the show trials of leaders such as Gregory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, and Nikolai Bukharin but also involved the mass arrests and deaths or imprisonment of huge numbers of party functionaries and state officials, including 70 percent of Central Committee members and 50 percent of Party Congress delegates. In addition, 35,000 Red Army officers, including 80 percent of colonels and 90 percent of generals, also became victims of the system. Estimates of the numbers who died in captivity vary enormously, but the total of political prisoners executed or worked to death runs into millions. Although the purges were abandoned in 1938, the system of internal exile, imprisonment, and incarceration in labor camps for political crimes was continued during the remainder of the Stalinist era and beyond. The gulag system reached its peak in the summer of 1950 when the camps, colonies, and prisons contained 2.8 million inmates. At that time the number of fresh admissions was between 600,000 and 700,000 per year, and it has been estimated that anywhere between 20 and 28 million people passed through or died in the system between the 1920s and 1950s, a large proportion of them for supposedly political offenses. However, the nature of the records and the categorization of prisoners make any precise estimation of true numbers impossible. Outside knowledge of the Soviet system came from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose books One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) and Gulag Archipelago (1973) were based on his personal experiences of imprisonment between 1945 and 1957.

The regimes in Eastern bloc countries of Europe under Soviet domination after 1945 also used harassment, arrest, and imprisonment of political, intellectual, and perceived class opponents. Thus, for example, Vaclav Havel, the playwright later to become president of the Czech Republic, spent many years in prison or under house arrest during the communist era. The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) also used imprisonment to deal with perceived class enemies and dissident intellectuals. In spite of releasing 21,187 political prisoners in the first ten months of 1956, East German jails still contained 23,674 people held for political reasons. Even in the 1970s there were between 4,000 and 6,000 political detainees held by the regime. These included dissident functionaries of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED; German Unity Party) such as Rudolf Bahro, who was sentenced to eight years' imprisonment for his publication The Alternative in Eastern Europe (1977). In post-1945 Hungary, arrests for political reasons were commonplace in the later 1940s and early 1950s. Amnesties in 1953 and 1956 were followed by further mass arrests after the Soviet suppression of reformism in the latter year. Thousands were subsequently condemned to imprisonment and forced labor, including the former premier Imre Nagy, who was arrested and shot by the KGB.


Like tsarist Russia, imperial Germany had become increasingly worried about internal subversion by social democrats (SPD) in the years leading up to 1914 and had established a political police department in Prussia in 1912. In spite of plans embodied in the so-called Gebsattel Memorandum for martial law and military control of the factories to ensure production in the event of war, there was little real opposition to the war of 1914 except from the extreme left of the SPD, some of whose members were imprisoned for fomenting opposition to the war. During the Weimar Republic, political prisoners were a rarity, although putschists from both left and right, including Adolf Hitler, served jail terms for insurrection.

From its inception in 1933 the Nazi regime in Germany imprisoned vast numbers of political opponents in concentration camps. Nazi activists abducted and imprisoned their political opponents almost from the moment that Hitler became chancellor on 30 January. Thus the first "camps" were in the basements of buildings or other easily guarded locations. This illegal terror was regularized by the so-called Reichstag Fire Decree on 28 February that suspended personal liberties for the individual. Permanent sites at Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen soon replaced these "wild" camps. Administered initially by the SA (the Stürmabteilung, or "brownshirts"), control of the camps soon passed to the SS (the Schutzstaffel) under the police and security apparatus run by Heinrich Himmler. The camps were designed to run in parallel with the normal judicial and penal system but to dispense National Socialist justice. Initially, like the camps in the Soviet Union, they were supposed to rehabilitate inmates and turn them into useful members of society, but later the system became a means of provoking fear among the population at large and providing a source of labor. A criminal finishing a sentence might be rearrested and sent to a concentration camp for a period of protective custody (Schutzhaft) if the Nazis considered the original sentence too lenient.

Camp inmates were categorized under four headings: political opponents, "racial" opponents, criminals, and "asocials." The first victims of this system were the Communists who were thought capable of mounting a counterrevolution to the Nazis but whose organization was rapidly broken up and its members exiled or imprisoned. To them were added Social Democrats, trade unionists, and members of other parties who spoke out against the regime, as well as Catholics, Protestants, and Jehovah's Witnesses. One such was Pastor Martin Niemöller, founder of the Pastors' Emergency League, who was imprisoned in 1938 for "under-hand attacks" against the state and then rearrested and committed to a concentration camp until 1945. The political prisoners in the camps were often the longest-serving inmates and often formed the internal administration of the camps as barracks leaders. Jews also became victims of the system of arrest without trial or appeal, with 30,000 being held in the aftermath of the November 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom. The system was enlarged in the prewar period with new camps built across Germany, and it is estimated that 200,000 people passed through the system between 1934 and 1939 with around 50,000 still being imprisoned at the outbreak of war.

As the regime broadened its the definitions of political "crimes"—from anti-Hitler or anti-Nazi sentiments, spreading rumors, or listening to illegal radio broadcasts to criminalizing any behavior with an oppositional aspect to it—so the numbers of political prisoners inevitably increased, although many were now being prosecuted under the criminal code. The concentration camps also took in large numbers of arrestees after the war against the Soviet Union began in June 1941 and again at the end of that year, when dissidents from occupied territories, the so-called night and fog (Nacht und Nebel) prisoners, were transferred to the Reich. By mid-August 1944 the concentration camp system held 524,286 people, but by this stage it included all manner of "opponents" of many different nationalities, not all of whom could be classed as political.

Germany's Axis partner, the Italian Fascist regime under Mussolini, also imprisoned political opponents and ultimately members of its own movement as well. Its most famous prisoner was Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist politician, journalist, and Marxist ideologue, who was arrested and tried before a special tribunal in November 1926 and then spent eleven years in jail, until shortly before his death in 1937. Although the Fascist regime allowed many political opponents to leave Italy, it also used exile to remote locations as a policy to deal with those regarded as politically unreliable.


Arrests for political reasons were commonplace in Spain before and during the 1930s. Large numbers of anarchists were arrested in 1933 and 1934 for opposition to the center-right government of the Second Republic. During the Spanish civil war both sides interned supporters of their opponents, occasionally for their own protection against popular hatred. In this conflict many political prisoners were used as hostages and were subject to summary justice from political groups working within the Republican or Nationalist coalitions. Toward the war's end, in February 1939 the victorious Francisco Franco regime passed the Law on Political Responsibilities and took steps to arrest and incarcerate those in Spain who were thought to hold Republican sympathies. This included not only the politically active but also many people whose only "crime" had been nonattendance at Mass. Prisons and camps were packed to overflowing and the prisoners were subject to summary justice, with perhaps 200,000 being executed in the years during and after 1939. Estimates suggest that there were still 250,000 in prisons at the end of 1940, but this had been reduced to around 28,000 by 1944.

In spite of this mass killing, many thousands remained prisoners for decades, and the regime continued to use imprisonment against opponents. For example, in 1969 there were 1,101 political cases brought before the Spanish courts. The system ended only when Franco died and was replaced by King Juan Carlos in 1975. Thereafter most political detainees were freed. During the later years of the Franco regime in Spain, Basque nationalists and their paramilitary force Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) were subject to repression, arrests, and torture.


The major Western European democracies traditionally had constitutional guarantees to prevent the imprisonment of political opponents. The exceptions occurred in time of war or emergency. Thus, many Irish nationalists were imprisoned during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for their political beliefs. During World War I, Britain also used its emergency powers under the 1915 Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) to arrest Irish nationalist sympathizers, but these measures were often frustrated by Irish juries' refusal to convict those charged, even when the case involved criminal charges. After the Easter Rising in 1916, Regulation 14B was used to arrest a total of 3,509 people and then have them brought before military courts-martial. This resulted in numerous death sentences, fourteen of which were carried out.

At the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939, the French Third Republic used the war and the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression treaty as an excuse to arrest large numbers of French Communists, but in general the liberal states of Western Europe had no plans to deal with pro-Nazi elements, and at the beginning of January 1940 there were only 49 detainees in Britain. The preference was for identification and surveillance of both potential enemy subversives and traitors, but this changed as the tide of war turned against the Anglo-French alliance. The British moved to arrest and intern German sympathizers and members of the British Union of Fascists, including its leader, Oswald Mosley. In total, around 2,000 British nationals were incarcerated under Regulation 18B and some remained in jail until the war ended in 1945. These relatively limited numbers of political prisoners were swamped by the internment of enemy nationals from May 1940, in spite of the fact that many were anti-Nazi or racial refugees from the Hitler regime. Mass internment of German and Italian nationals totaled 29,000 by the summer of 1940. Some were deported to the dominions and the rest held on the Isle of Man. Gradual releases took place as the threat to the United Kingdom receded, and by 1945 only 1,200 remained in captivity.

At the end of World War II many states occupied by the Axis Powers interned those who had joined indigenous national socialist or fascist parties and those who had collaborated with the occupying powers. Since then the numbers of political prisoners in democratic Western Europe have been small. All European states have ratified the 1950 European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and most have also agreed to the 1987 European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Those who might have been deemed political prisoners have been largely confined to regional independence movements such as the Basque separatists or Irish Republicans and to extremist political groups such as the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof Group, or Red Army Faction, in Germany. For example, in the mid-1970s, in response to increasing levels of terrorism, the Italian government began arresting activists from the extraparliamentary Left, and their numbers peaked at around 4,000 in the early 1980s. Democracy after 1975 in Spain brought extensive autonomy for the Basque region, but the terrorism continued. After attempts at reconciliation with ETA failed, the Spanish government began to take a harder line, giving seven-year prison sentences in 1997 to the entire twenty-three-member leadership of Herri Batasuna, ETA's political wing, for collaboration with the armed group. They joined an estimated 500 to 700 imprisoned ETA activists.

The outbreak of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland in 1968 led to the government using internment at the Long Kesh/Maze prison as a device to remove both Catholic and loyalist paramilitary leaders from circulation. Reportedly subject to interrogations and torture in the early days of internment, their "political" status was removed in 1976, but internment remained a major weapon for the British government. It was reinforced by the use of Diplock courts, in which judges try criminal cases without a jury, ostensibly to remove the possibility of jury intimidation in criminal trials but also as a means of obtaining easier convictions for criminal offenses. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 ended the process, and internees, as well as many paramilitaries convicted of criminal offenses, were released.

Since the 1960s the plight of political prisoners across the world has been given a higher profile through the activities of Amnesty International, a charity that seeks to protect the interests of those imprisoned on political grounds. It also publishes an annual international survey of imprisoned persons and assessments of the legislation and extra-legal measures used to detain them.

See alsoConcentration Camps; Crime and Justice; Gulag; Purges; Terror.


Appelbaum, Anne. Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps. London, 2003.

Ivanova, G. M. Labor Camp Socialism: The Gulag in the Soviet Totalitarian System. Translated by Carol Flath and edited by Donald J. Raleigh. Armonk, N.Y., and London, 2000.

Krausnick, Helmut, et al., eds. Anatomy of the SS State. St. Albans, 1970.

Ruggiero, Vincenzo, et al., eds. Western European Penal Systems: A Critical Anatomy. London, 1995.

Robert Moore

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