Prisoners of War

views updated Jun 11 2018

Prisoners of War. This essay consists of three articles that examine different aspects of the history of prisoners of war. U.S. Soldiers as POWs describes the treatment of American servicepeople as POWs from the Revolutionary War to the present. Enemy POWs examines the history of how enemy prisoners of war have been treated during America's wars. The POW Experience uses narratives written by American POWs, particularly in recent times, to help understand the experience of modern American POWs.
Prisoners of War: U.S. Soldiers as POWs Although in ancient times wartime captives who were not rich enough to be held for ransom were usually enslaved as laborers by the victors as laborers, by the early modern era, with the emergence of centralized states and regular, professional armies, the practice had changed to regular exchange of prisoners, either during or after war.

In the Revolutionary War (1775–83), although higher‐ranking officers were usually exchanged during the war, the majority of soldiers were not. Because the British government considered the Americans rebels and refused during the war to recognize the Continental Congress as a sovereign government, captured American fightingmen were often treated like criminals. American sailors or seamen from privateers were imprisoned in Britain, sometimes accused of piracy. The majority of American prisoners of war (POWs), however, were soldiers who were confined under wretched conditions in floating British prison hulks around New York City. Many died, some escaped, but few accepted British offers to switch sides. Survivors were exchanged after the war. No accurate count was made, but perhaps more than 18,000 Americans became POWs. During the War of 1812, the legal status of the United States and its servicemen was not an issue; American POWs were generally treated properly and were repatriated following the peace.

The Texas War of Independence (1836) proved particularly brutal. Viewing Texans as rebels, the Mexican leader Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna refused to take prisoners. Texans captured at the Battle of the Alamo and at Goliad were executed.

During the Mexican War (1846–48), although native Texans captured serving with the U.S. Army were executed as rebels, the Mexican treatment of other North American POWs was fair and humane.

The Union army and the Confederate army in the Civil War were modern mass armies of citizen soldiers. In modern wars of intense nationalism and mass citizen armies, civilians identified more closely with the citizen soldier than with the hired professional. Furthermore, the stakes of war became less subject to compromise. Consequently, the practice of prisoner exchange during hostilities declined. During the Civil War, at first, Union and Confederate POWs were regularly exchanged; in 1863, the Union army issued General Order Number 100, The Rules of Land Warfare, detailing regulations for treatment of POWs and enemy civilians in occupied territory. In 1864, however, because prisoner exchange was helping to sustain the Southern war effort and because the Confederacy refused to recognize former slaves serving as African American soldiers in the Union army, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant stopped the regular exchange of POWs. Consequently, both sides were swamped with POWs.

In all, there were some 220,000 Confederate POWs in the North and 211,000 Union POWs in the South, and the makeshift Civil War prisoner‐of‐war camps became notorious on both sides. A total of more than 50,000 Union and Confederate POWs died on both sides. After the war, a U.S. military commission convicted the commander of the camp in Andersonville, Georgia, Capt. Henry Wirz, for the maltreatment and death of 14,000 Union POWs. Although probably guilty of inefficiency rather than the conspiracy for which he was convicted, Wirz was hanged in 1865, the only Confederate official to be executed.

By the time of World War I, the major powers had agreed to the laws of war, which included the treatment of prisoners of war. Drawing on the U.S. Army's 1863 regulations, delegates at the Hague Peace Conferences (1899, 1907) agreed that each other's POWs should receive decent treatment. After the Spanish‐American War of 1898, the United States quickly repatriated thousands of captured Spanish soldiers, and the Spanish returned their limited number of U.S. POWs. In contrast, the Philippine War (1899–1902) eventually degenerated into guerrilla warfare, and counterinsurgency measures were taken in which prisoners on both sides were sometimes tortured and killed.

The enormity of World War I overwhelmed the major powers with millions of POWs. However, since most of the American fighting occurred only in the final months of the war, just 4,120 American soldiers wound up in German POW camps. U.S. diplomats and the American Red Cross sought successfully to ensure decent treatment. Only 147 American prisoners died in the German camps, most of them from previous wounds.

By contrast, World War II was characterized by the mistreatment and even murder of Allied prisoners and civilians by Germany—especially on the eastern front—and by Japan throughout Asia and the Pacific. This led to the postwar trial and execution of some German and Japanese officials and military officers for war crimes. The 1929 Geneva Convention further elaborated details for treatment of POWs. While subjecting many captured civilians and others to slave labor, torture, or death, Nazi Germany usually treated American (and West European) military POWs within the Geneva rules.

Before December 1944, the majority of American soldiers held in Stalags (German POW camps) were captured airmen. In the ground war, only a few G.I.'s were captured before December 1944, but in the surprise German Ardennes offensive, known as the Battle of the Bulge, thousands of Americans were surrounded and captured. In the Malmédy massacre in Belgium, eighty‐six captured G.I.'s were executed by a German SS unit on 17 December. During the bitter winter of 1944–45, the Germans force‐marched thousands of Allied POWs across the country in an attempt to keep them from the armies invading from the east and west. Several thousand American POWs in the east were therefore liberated by the Red Army and held for a while, after the German surrender on 8 May 1945, and through the Potsdam Conference in July, although they were eventually repatriated before the end of 1945. Of the 93,941 American POWs held in the European theater during the war, only 1 percent died in captivity, most of them from combat wounds.

In contrast, Japan's treatment of POWs was brutal. Influenced by the military, Tokyo had not signed the 1929 Geneva Convention, and Japanese military leaders instilled in their soldiers the belief that surrender was a betrayal of the emperor and a disgrace to the individual and his family. Pursuing a policy disdainful of Allied servicemen who surrendered, the Japanese military treated Allied POWs viciously. Some POWs, such as captured American airmen who bombed Japan, were beheaded. The majority of American POWs had been captured when the Japanese conquered the Philippine Islands in the winter of 1941–42.

In the infamous Bataan Death March of April 1942, some 78,000 American and Filipino POWs led by Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, many already starving and weak from malaria, were beaten, clubbed, and bayoneted as they were forced to walk sixty‐five miles with little or no food, water, or shelter to the prison camp near Cabanatuan. Between 7,000 and 10,000 people died or were killed on the march. (After the war, Japanese Gen. Masaharu Homma was held responsible and executed. In the Philippines, homage is paid annually to the American and Filipino victims on Bataan Day, 9 April, when Filipinos rewalk parts of the death route.)

After the Americans began the liberation of the Philippines in October 1944, the Japanese put surviving POWs onto ships to take them to Japan as hostages. There were orders to kill them if the Americans invaded the home islands. Nearly 4,000 American POWs died in unmarked transport ships sunk by American planes or submarines, but others survived the journey in filthy holds to be worked in mines and other hazardous facilities in Japan until the Japanese surrender in August 1945. (Indeed, after the emperor's call for surrender, several dozen captured American airmen were beheaded by imperial military units in Japan.) Of the 25,600 American POWs held in the Pacific during the war, 10,650 or nearly 45 percent died, most of starvation and disease since they were worked incessantly and given little food, clothing, shelter, or medical treatment.

In the postwar era, despite the trials in Nuremberg and Tokyo of Germans and Japanese for war crimes, several Communist states refused to accept the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which further developed the laws of war. In the Korean War (1950–53), North Korean forces executed many G.I.'s in the field, their bodies later re covered with their hands tied behind their backs. A report to Congress in 1954 concluded that this was a deliberate tactic of psychological warfare. Many more Americans were captured during the winter of 1950–51 when United Nations forces retreated following the massive Chinese intervention.

Of the more than 7,000 Americans captured by the Communists during the Korean War, only 3,800 returned alive. An estimated 1,000 were murdered, and at least another 1,700 died of sickness and malnutrition. When the Chinese Communists took control, the prisoners' physical conditions improved slightly, but they now underwent indoctrination efforts. Under torture, a number of American airmen “confessed” to germ warfare and other atrocities. Twenty‐one Americans and one Englishman renounced their citizenship and decided to remain in China following the armistice in 1953. Although only one out of every twenty‐three American POWs was ever suspected of serious misconduct, the so‐called “brainwashing” of POWs who denounced the United States led to a public outcry. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10631, prescribing a code of conduct for American POWs designed to forge captive Americans into a unified community through a common standard of behavior.

In the Vietnam War (1965–73), North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front in the South refused to consider any requests from the International Red Cross Commission regarding POWs. In effect, Vietnamese Communists viewed American servicepeople as having been criminals before they were captured and thus as without the status of POWs. In the ground war in South Vietnam, some Americans were shot while trying to surrender. Others were taken north to POW camps. Many of the navy and air force aviators captured during the bombing of North Vietnam were held in a prison known sarcastically as the “Hanoi Hilton.” Most of the POWs suffered considerable mental and physical abuse and some were tortured, but only a few agreed to issue anti‐American propaganda.

Between 1964 and 1972, of the known American POWs held in North Vietnam, 114 died in captivity. After the Paris Peace Agreements (1973), 651 POWs returned to American control. However, the status of over 2,000 Americans missing in action (MIAs) and the question of whether the Socialist Republic of Vietnam had retained some American POWs remained controversial for years afterward.

During the Persian Gulf War (1991), although Iraq, like the United States, had signed the 1949 Geneva Conventions, Saddam Hussein refused to allow the International Red Cross Commission to inspect Iraq's POW facilities. In captivity, the twenty‐three American POWs, including two female soldiers, suffered physical mistreatment that ranged from sexual abuse of the women to electric shocks and bone‐breaking for the men.


Pat O'Brien , Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 1918.
Ralph E. Ellinwood , Behind German Lines: A Narrative of the Everyday Life of an American Prisoner of War, 1920.
Clifford Milton Markle , A Yankee Prisoner in Hunland, 1920.
William B. Hesseltine , Civil War Prisons: A Study in War Psychology, 1930; repr. 1962.
U.S. Department of the Army , Communist Interrogation, Indoctrination and Exploitation of Prisoners of War, 1956.
Stanley L. Falk , Bataan: The March of Death, 1962.
John G. Hubbell, et al. , P.O.W.: A Definitive History of the American Prisoner of War Experience in Vietnam, 1964–1973, 1976.
David Foy , For You the War Is Over: American POWs in Nazi Germany, 1984.
Marion R. Lawton , Some Survived: An Epic Account of Japanese Captivity During World War II, 1984.
John Dower , War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, 1986.
Richard B. Speed III , Prisoners, Diplomats, and the Great War: A Study in the Diplomacy of Captivity, 1990.
Susan Katz Keating , Prisoners of Hope: Exploiting the POW/MIA Myth in America, 1994.
Dwight Messimer , Escape, 1994.
S. P. MacKenzie , The Treatment of Prisoners of War in World War II, Journal of Modern History, 66 (September 1994), pp. 487–520.

Robert C. Doyle

Prisoners Of War: Enemy Pows Four principles have guided American treatment of enemy POWs: military customs and tradition of the time; internal American military law such as the Rules of Land Warfare (1863 to the present); international agreements on the law of war such as the Hague (1899) and Geneva Conventions (1929, 1949); and, most important, American responses to the practical dynamic that if one side treated its prisoners humanely, the other side was expected to do the same so far as its means allowed.

The first European POWs taken in the British colonies were French prisoners, who, according to custom, were either paroled or exchanged for British or colonial military prisoners held in French Canada. (Indian prisoners, if taken at all, were often sold into slavery before the Civil War, or afterwards, like Geronimo, made prisoners for life.) The Americans took more than 16,000 British, Hessian, and loyalist POWs during the Revolutionary War. Officers were exchanged; enlisted men were generally sent to work on farmland in the frontier, particularly in western Pennsylvania. Captured loyalist became political prisoners and were sent back to their own regions for internment. All prisoners were released by 1783; some assimilated into American society, especially expatriate Hessians; others, including loyalists, returned to England or settled in Canada. During the Revolution, despite the lack of formal British recognition of American POW status until 1783, few enemy POWs perished in American captivity. In the War of 1812, POW status was recognized and Americans kept enemy POWs under similar conditions to the way that Americans were kept by the British.

During the Mexican War (1846–48), the U.S. Army took over 40,000 Mexican POWs, most of whom were paroled in the field. The practice of field parole survived in the first year of the Civil War but proved impractical. Both sides established a system of facilities: Union camps held more than 220,000 Confederates, and the Confederacy held more than 211,000 Union soldiers. In practice, both sides paroled prisoners until 1864. Although Abraham Lincoln issued General Order 100, Rules of Land Warfare, to the Union army in 1863, over 56,000 Americans on both sides died in captivity, mainly in 1864–65. In the Spanish‐American War (1898), thousands of Spanish troops who surrendered in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines were returned home upon the conclusion of hostilities.

Only a handful of German POWs, mostly merchant marine and political internees, were held in the United States during World War I. In Europe, the American Expeditionary Force held over 40,000 German POWs by November 1918; all were freed in 1919. In World War II, the U.S. Army held more than 325,000 German, 50,000 Italian, and 5,000 Japanese Army POWs (the last mostly Koreans and Formosan drafted to work for the Japanese Army) in some 500 prison camps in the United States. The militant Bushido Code required Japanese soldiers to commit suicide rather than surrender until the emperor himself ordered his armed forces to surrender in August 1945.

Treatment of enemy POWs in the United States was proper, just, and humane, and generally consistent with the 1929 Geneva Convention. The most significant problem for American authorities was distinguishing between kind of Axis prisoners: political opportunists, German nationalists, nonpolitical POWs (mostly draftees), and dedicated Nazi Party members, who did distinguish among the other three groups. A total of 1,000 German POWs escaped, but most were soon returned by the FBI, military, or local police, and the last German POWs sailed for Europe in July 1946. American military intelligence initiated programs directed toward reeducation and denazification.

After Germany's surrender in May 1945, Allied powers established a vast system of POW camps for millions of surrendered German soldiers known as “Disarmed Enemy Forces” (DEF). Spread along the Rhine Valley, the meadow camps operated by the American Military Police were filled beyond capacity, and large numbers of former German soldiers, already weakened from long combat and diminished rations, died of starvation, exposure, and disease. By 1947, realities of the Cold War descended on Europe, and the American occupation discharged most DEFs except for members of the SS, SD, Gestapo, and others held for war crimes trials.

During the Korean War, the largest prison facilities for North Korean and Chinese POWs were on Koje and Pongam‐do Islands south of the mainland. In Korea, Cold War issues changed American policy from accepting forced repatriations of all POWs to admitting defectors as political refuges. In May and June 1952, the United Nations Command witnessed the results of that policy change: Communist resisters in the camps staged one of the most successful uprisings in POW history. Rioting lasted for nearly two months. The Americans answered with force and also began separating Communist and non‐Communist prisoners upon arrival. No real solution was ever found, and only the 1953 armistice ended disputes over POW conditions and treatment on both sides.

In the Vietnam War, especially from 1965 to 1971, thousands of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers fell into American hands. If North Vietnamese soldiers were captured in uniform, they were protected by the 1949 Geneva Convention with oversight by the International Red Cross, and repatriated in 1973 after the Paris peace accords. However, a political war raged and more than one prison system operated in secret on both sides. Special units like the Province Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) arrested civilians suspected as Communist Party members and incarcerated these political detainees without habeas corpus or international inspection in notorious conditions such as those at Con Son Island.

Following the Persian Gulf War in 1991, captured Iraqi soldiers fell into two categories: those who participated in a failed rebellion against the dictator Saddam Hussein, and those who helped him repress their country's minorities. With recent wartime experiences in mind, American authorities conducted rigorous screening of thousands of Iraqi POWs to determine which ones would likely suffer political retribution and imprisonment following repatriation. Many of those POWs were granted political asylum.


Lucy Leigh Bowie , German Prisoners in the American Revolution, Maryland Historical Magazine (September 1945), pp. 185–200.
William Best Hesseltine , Civil War Prisons, 1930; repr. 1962.
Ovid L. Futch , History of Andersonville Prison, 1968.
Charles H. Metzger, S. J. , The Prisoner in the American Revolution, 1971.
Judith M. Gansberg , Stalag USA: The Remarkable Story of German POWs in America, 1977.
Howard S. Levie, ed., Documents on Prisoners of War, Vol. 60 of Naval War College International Law Studies, 1979.
Arnold Krammer , Public Administration of Prisoner of War Camps in America Since the Revolutionary War, 1980.
James Bacque , Other Losses: An Investigation into the Mass Deaths of German Prisoners at the Hands of the French and Americans After World War II, 1989.
Günter Bischof and Stephen Ambrose, eds., Eisenhower and the German POWs: Facts Against Falsehood, 1992.

Robert C. Doyle

Prisoners of War: The POW Experience American POW experiences began in the colonial past and continue as part of the human legacy of war. For three centuries, American POWs have examined their experience by writing personal histories that search for a sense of social, legal, historical, and personal order in the midst of captivity. In a corpus of American literature, POWs' accounts reveal cultural conflicts of ideologies, international conflicts in law, and stressful human tensions that require life‐or‐death choices. They also ask ethical and moral questions.

Former POWs often wrote accounts in which they reflected on their experiences as a chaotic hell on earth. These are our best guides to the POW experience. Simple and unadorned, POW narratives contain anecdotal evidence of brutality, torture, stress, and a strong sense of moral outrage. More important, they contain readily identifiable political, social, religious, or military purposes. With a strong sense of mission, some POWs like Ethan Allen during the Revolutionary War designed their stories to generate both emotional response and renewed commitment to armed political struggle. Other POWs followed the Puritan jeremiad model and reinforced the power of religious faith. Modern POW literature such as the accounts of the war in Southeast Asia by James N. Rowe, Five Years to Freedom (1971), Dieter Dengler, Escape from Laos (1979), and James B. Stockdale, In Love and War (1984), bear witness to an experience that affected not just the authors but an entire class of Americans whose human rights were denied in wartime. In effect, POW narratives lie beyond the documented statistical histories of war; instead, they tell highly personalized, extremely painful stories about a world consisting of seven commonly recurring events that structure experience and give it meaning.

Precapture guides the reader through personal memories before the POW experience took place. The POW identifies the core value systems—family, comrades‐in‐arms, God, institutions, country—that later help to establish and maintain the will to survive. Capture describes how, where, and when the POW was taken by the enemy. The victim can be man or woman, a civilian caught in the battle's center or in the throes of a political crisis, an individual soldier, sailor, or an entire military garrison that was forced to surrender as a unit. This event dramatizes the battle's loss: a person has nothing more than the moment at hand in which to make decisions. All is lost but life itself, and one's future depends on luck and the whim of one's captor. The long march describes the dangerous journey from the place of capture to the place of permanent internment, with intermittent stops along the way. The experience removes the outer layers of the prisoner's cultural veneer as POWs are executed for such trifles as wanting water, walking too slowly, or falling down.

POWs describe the prison landscape as the permanent prison facility where chronological time stood still. Simple affairs of life are transformed into time‐marked events. Food becomes an obsession, and no POW forgets the cell, filth, rats, or the hunger. In resistance or assimilation, the POW begins to understand his or her captors better. No longer stereotypes, captors become real people who demand absolute obedience. POWs describe physical torture and psychological pressure made to change their way of thinking, or at least to change their overt behavior. As a result, many POWs undergo deep personal transformations when they are confronted with basic decision making. Beginning this process as one person, the POW ends it as another.

POWs describe release as the happy‐sad return (or attempted return through escape) to the world from which they came. Escape takes place in this phase of the experience; however, most escapees suffer recapture and receive severe punishment for their efforts. Consequently, there are ever‐intensifying social, ethical, and moral conflicts among POWs about the efficacy of escape, especially when the well‐being of the entire captive community is at stake. This phase focuses also on the joy of anticipation, the oddities of renewed personal freedom, and the shock of homecoming.

The lament allows the POW to reflect on and grieve for what was lost in captivity. As witness bearers, most narrators grieve the cost of the sacrifice in terms of the loss of those who died needlessly or who suffered greatly. POWs also grieve the loss of irreplaceable time—especially time away from home, family, and cultural institutions that put them into another unique class where they have more in common with other POWs than with those people closest to them.

Each scenario contains varied examples of what POWs view as dramatic events that reinforced or destroyed the will to live. Capture is usually individual, whereas long marches tend to be group events. The act of resistance takes place as both a group and an individual event, depending on the nature of the captivity. Interrogation and torture are individual acts of resistance. Assimilation, if it occurs at all, tends to be an individual decision. Escapes are usually individual or small‐group ventures, whereas release/repatriation are often group experiences. POWs, once part of a community of prisoners, become individuals again after their repatriation, alone with their memories, but with little support from those other POWs on whom they depended for so long. The lament gives them the opportunity to grieve for the time wasted in captivity; for the material opportunities lost over time; and most often for the dead.

For individual POWs, the act of writing about their experience often serves as a catharsis for personal feelings, an ethical forum to tell the world what happened to them and why. Most important, in their expressions of outrage, POWs serve their respective communities as witnesses against willful and often illegal acts of inhumanity. Because writing a memoir terminates an extended act of violence that nearly consumed them, they also achieve a sense of closure. The common denominator remains the moral judgments that test an individual's ability to withstand the unexpected when the chips fall about as low as they can go.


Michael Walzer , Prisoners of War: Does the Fight Continue After the Battle?, American Political Science Review, 63 (1969), pp. 777–86.
Robert F. Grady , The Evolution of Ethical and Legal Concern for Prisoners of War, 1971.
A. J. Barker , Prisoners of War, 1975.
John G. Hubbell , A Definitive History of the American Prisoner of War Experience in Vietnam, 1964–1973, 1976.
Richard Garrett , POW: The Uncivil Face of War, 1981.
Pat Reid and and Maurice Michael , Prisoners of War, 1984.
Sydney Axinn A Moral Military, 1989.
Robert C. Doyle , Voices from Captivity: Interpreting the American POW Narrative, 1994.

Robert C. Doyle

Prisoners of War

views updated May 17 2018


PRISONERS OF WAR This entry includes 7 subentries:
Exchange of Prisoners
Prison Camps, Confederate
Prison Camps, Union
Prison Camps, World War II
Prison Ships
POW/MIA Controversy, Vietnam War


Throughout the colonial wars, French authorities imprisoned British and American colonial soldiers in Montreal. During the American Revolution, no accurate count was ever recorded, but it is estimated that more than 18,000 American soldiers and sailors were taken as POWs, with the majority kept aboard British prison hulks near New York City. Captured American privateers were kept in England, Ireland, and Scotland. Since the British never recognized the Continental Congress as a sovereign government, citizenship became a serious issue when the British captured American soldiers. The prisoners the British took faced severe conditions in captivity. Although the British continued to use prison hulks to some extent during the War of 1812, American POWs were treated humanely until their repatriation following the Treaty of Ghent (1814).

During the Mexican-American War (1846–1848),very few Americans fell into Mexican hands, but treatment was fair and humane. The U.S. Army paroled captured Mexicans in the field. During the Civil War (1861–1865), both Union and Confederate forces were unprepared for the enormous numbers of POWs: 211,400 Union prisoners in the South and 220,000 Confederates in the North. Exchanges took place regularly under the Dix-Hill Cartel until 1864, when General Ulysses S. Grant stopped them in order to further tax Confederate resources and bring the war to a swift conclusion. Thereafter, the South was glutted with huge numbers of starving Union prisoners it could not support.

By the time the United States entered World War I in April 1917, it had become a signatory to the Hague Convention (1899 and 1907), and of its 4,120 POWs, only 147 died in captivity, most from wounds received in combat. Treatment was fair and humane. World War II POW issues were covered by the 1929 Geneva Convention, which protected the 93,941 American POWs in the European theater. Only 1 percent died in captivity. Japan signed the Geneva Convention, but refused to ratify it at home. Japanese treatment of Allied POWs was criminal at best. Of the 25,600 American POWs captured in Asia, nearly 45 percent, or 10,650, died from wounds received in battle, starvation, disease, or murder. More than 3,840 died in unmarked transports, called "Hell Ships," sunk by American submarine attacks. Beginning in 1945 and lasting through 1948, the Allied international community conducted military tribunals to seek justice against those Japanese officers and enlisted men who deliberately mistreated POWs in the Pacific.

The captivity experience in Korea continued the kinds of savagery experienced by Allied POWs during World War II. More than 7,140 Americans became documented POWs; at least 2,701 died in enemy hands. After the Chinese entered the war in 1951, they took control of United Nations' POWs whenever possible, introduced a political reeducation policy, and attempted to indoctrinate prisoners with minimal success. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10631, prescribing the Code of Conduct for Members of the Armed Forces of the United States, a set of principles that bound prisoners together into a POW community through a unified and purposeful standard of conduct.

In 1964, when the situation in Vietnam evolved into a major war, the International Red Cross Commission (ICRC) reminded the warring parties that they were signatories to the 1949 Geneva Convention. The Americans and the South Vietnamese affirmed the convention without reservations. The North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (NLF or Vietcong) refused to consider the convention, citing their reservation to Article 85 that permitted captors to prosecute prisoners for acts committed prior to capture. Between 1964 and 1972, 766 Americans became confirmed POWs, of whom 114 died in captivity. After the Paris Peace Accords (1973), 651 allied military prisoners returned to American control from Hanoi and South Vietnam.

In January 1991, hostilities erupted between a coalition of nations, including the United States and Iraq over the invasion and occupation of oil-rich Kuwait. In the one-month Gulf War, Iraq took twenty-three American POWs. In captivity, POWs suffered physical abuse that ranged from sexual abuse, electric shocks, and broken bones to routine slaps.


Baker, C. Alice. True Stories of New England Captives Carried to Canada during the Old French and Indian Wars. Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 1990. Originally published in 1897.

Doyle, Robert C. Voices from Captivity: Interpreting the American POW Narrative. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1994.

———. A Prisoner's Duty: Great Escapes in U. S. Military History. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.

Robert C.Doyle

See alsoAndersonville ; Exchange of Prisoners ; Geneva Conventions ; Hague Convention ; Prison Camps, Confederate ;Prison Camps, Union ; Prison Camps, World War II .

Exchange of Prisoners

Derived from the medieval custom of holding prisoners for ransom, the exchange of prisoners of war was an established practice by the American Revolution. Shortly after the battles at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts authorities arranged for the exchange of captured British soldiers for Massachusetts militiamen, a precedent that other states soon followed. In July 1776 the Continental Congress authorized military commanders to negotiate exchanges, and in 1780 it appointed a commissary general of prisoners, thereby assuming from the states the responsibility for exchanging prisoners of war. British refusal to recognize American independence prevented agreement on a general cartel for exchanges, but American commanders used the authority vested in them by Congress to make several exchanges. In March 1780 a separate cartel arranged for the trade of American prisoners confined in Britain for British prisoners interned in France. In 1783 a general exchange of prisoners occurred after the cessation of hostilities and recognition of American independence.

During the War of 1812, battlefield exchanges happened under a general British-American cartel for exchanging prisoners. The United States and Mexico failed to negotiate a cartel during the Mexican-American War, but the United States released many Mexican prisoners on parole on the condition that they remain out of combat. The Mexicans released some American prisoners in "head-for-head" exchanges that occasionally took place during the war, but most American prisoners of war remained incarcerated until the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

During the Civil War the unwillingness of the federal government to enter into an agreement recognizing the Confederacy complicated the exchange of prisoners. The Dix-Hill Cartel provided for parole of captured personnel. The cartel became ineffective as the tide of battle changed, however, and commanders resorted to the traditional battlefield exchange of prisoners. At the end of the war, the North exchanged or released most Confederate prisoners. Except for the exchange of a few Spanish soldiers for American sailors, no exchange of prisoners occurred during the Spanish-American War.

Prisoner exchange during World War I followed the signing of the armistice. Throughout World War II the United States negotiated through neutral nations with the Axis powers for the exchange of prisoners. The United States and Germany never arranged a general exchange, but they traded sick and wounded prisoners on one occasion. Repatriation and exchange of prisoners took place after the defeat of the Axis nations.

During the Korean War the vexing issue of voluntary repatriation delayed the exchange of prisoners. Exchanges began after the Communist side accepted the principle of nonforcible repatriation. Operation Little Switch witnessed the exchange of sick and wounded prisoners, while a general exchange occurred during Operation Big Switch.

Each side occasionally released prisoners during the Vietnam War, but the North Vietnamese released the majority of American prisoners during the sixty days between the signing of the Paris Agreement and the withdrawal of all American military personnel from South Vietnam. A total of 587 Americans held in captivity in North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and Laos gained their freedom. American forces turned over North Vietnamese military prisoners to South Vietnamese authorities, and the responsibility for exchange of Vietnamese prisoners of war fell to the Vietnamese participants.


Foot, Rosemary. A Substitute for Victory: The Politics of Peacemaking at the Korean Armistice Talks. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Gruner, E. G. Prisoners of Culture: Representing the Vietnam POW. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Lech, Raymond B. Broken Soldiers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Marvel, William. Andersonville: The Last Depot. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Whiteclay, John et al., eds. The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Vincent H.Demma/a. e.

See alsoPrisoners of War .

Prison Camps, Confederate

Approximately 200,000 prisoners were taken by the Confederates in the Civil War. Inadequate resources and no preparation for the task produced a severe drain on both the material and human resources of the South. An exchange of prisoners, arranged in 1862, was ended in 1863, and captives were held in scattered prison camps until near the end of the war. The larger prisons were, for officers, in Richmond, Va., Macon, Ga., and Columbia, S.C.; for enlisted men, in Andersonville, Millen, Florence (all in Georgia), and Charleston, S.C. Andersonville was by far the most infamous; over ten thousand prisoners perished there. Its commander, Capt. Henry Wirz, was later tried on charges of murder and conspiracy and was hanged. Deserters, spies, and political prisoners were incarcerated at Castle Thunder in Richmond or in Salisbury, N.C. Throughout most of the war the provost marshal of Richmond exercised a general but ineffective supervision over the prisons. The majority of the prisons consisted of either tobacco warehouses or open stockades. Poor quarters, insufficient rations and clothing, and lack of medicines produced excessive disease and a high death rate, which were interpreted in the North as a deliberate effort to starve and murder the captives. In retaliation, northern authorities reduced the allowances for rations and clothing to the prisoners they held. Some relief was obtained when southerners permitted the Union authorities to send food, clothing, and drugs through the lines, but conditions remained bad and the Confederate prisons became the major "atrocity" in northern propaganda.


Hesseltine, William B. Civil War Prisons. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1930.

Marvel, William. Andersonville: The Last Depot. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

W. B.Hesseltine/a. r.

See alsoAndersonville Prison ; Civil War ; Prisoners of War ; Prison Camps, Union ; Prisons and Prison Reform ; andvol. 9:Prisoner at Andersonville .

Prison Camps, Union

Most captured Confederate soldiers were released on parole in the first year of the Civil War, but federal authorities confined captured officers and civilian prisoners in temporary prisons scattered across the North. Lt. Col. William Hoffman became the commissary general of prisoners on 7 October 1861. He hoped to consolidate the prisoners at a central depot for 1,200 inmates on John-son's Island in Lake Erie, but the capture of 14,000 Confederates at Fort Donelson rendered the depot inadequate. Soon the already chaotic collection of prisons expanded to include four training camps across the Midwest. Compounding the confusion, guards and medical personnel changed frequently, so there was little continuity in administration.

Hoffman tried, but only partially succeeded, to regulate the disarray. An agreement to exchange prisoners in June 1862 cut the number of inmates from 19,423 to 1,286, enabling Hoffman to consolidate prisoners at three locations. When the prisoner exchange broke down in early 1863, the number of inmates increased and camp conditions deteriorated. Scarce clothing, unsatisfactory sanitation, overcrowded quarters, inadequate medical attention, and inclement weather contributed to widespread sickness. To consolidate and regulate facilities Hoffman established large permanent prisons at Fort Delaware, Del., Rock Island, Ill., Point Lookout, Md., and Elmira, N.Y., although the same problems that had plagued their more temporary counterparts continued to beset the newer prisons.

Starting in February 1865, when the Union prisons held over 65,000 inmates, the federal government began to return large numbers of soldiers to the Confederacy. After the surrender at Appomattox the Union prisons were closed quickly, so that by early July only a few hundred prisoners remained.


Hesseltine, William B. Civil War Prisons. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1972.

McAdams, Benton. Rebels at Rock Island: The Story of a Civil War Prison. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2000.

United States. War Dept. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Prepared under the direction of the Secretary of War by Robert N. Scott. Series 2. Pasadena, Calif.: Broadfoot, 1985.

Leslie GeneHunter


See alsoExchange of Prisoners ; Prison Camps, Confederate ; Prisoners of War .

Prison Camps, World War II

The experiences of the Allied troops held captive in prisoner-of-war (POW) camps during World War II varied according to time, place, and nationality of captor. For the first time in history, combatants captured by American troops were brought to U.S. soil and used as laborers in one of 155 POW camps. Japan held the majority of its war prisoners on the Asian mainland. Most of the German POW camps were located in the Third Reich and in western Poland. The Soviet Union probably administered some 3,000 camps. Most of the POWs captured by the British were held in England, with a small percentage held in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. While 15 million POWs were held at some point during World War II, by the war's end 220,000 Allied prisoners were in Japanese camps, and 260,000 Allied troops remained imprisoned by Germany.

The Third Reich administered concentration camps for political and minority prisoners and separate camps for military prisoners of war; POW camps were further subdivided into camps for officers and camps for nonofficers. Sometimes Allied troops were sent to concentration camps.

The treatment of POWs in Japanese camps was grueling. POWs were subjected to starvation diets, brutally hard labor, and sometimes execution. It is possible that as many as 27 percent of the 95,000 Allied troops taken prisoner by the Japanese died in captivity. By contrast, 4 percent of the 260,000 British and American POWs in German captivity died.

The imprisonment of POWs on U.S. soil was ordered by the U.S. Department of War and administered by the Army. At first POW labor in the U.S. was restricted to military installation service jobs, but by summer of 1943 it was contracted out to civilian projects, especially on farms.


Dear, I. C. B., and M. R. D. Foot, eds. The Oxford Companion to World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Laqueur, Walter, and Judith Tydor Baumel, eds. The Holocaust Encyclopedia. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001.

Monahan, Evelyn M., and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee. All This Hell: U.S. Nurses Imprisoned by the Japanese. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2000.

Martha AvaleenEgan

See alsoWorld War II .

Prison Ships

Americans and the British both used prison ships during the Revolution to confine naval prisoners. Conditions on the prison ships varied greatly, but the British vessels moored in Wallabout Bay, Brooklyn, particularly the Jersey, became notorious for the harsh treatment accorded the captives. Provisions were poor. Fever and dysentery prevailed and the guards were brutal. George Washington and the Continental Congress protested against this treatment, and Vice Adm. John Byron of the Royal Navy labored to better conditions. At least thirteen different prison ships were moored in Wallabout Bay or in the East or North rivers from 1776 to 1783. Up to 11,500 men may have died on these ships.


Allen, Gardner W. A Naval History of the American Revolution. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1913.

Louis H.Bolander/f. b.

See alsoAtrocities in War ; Jersey Prison Ship ; Revolution, American: Military History .

POW/MIA Controversy, Vietnam War

POWs and MIAs are an important legacy of the Vietnam War, with ramifications for both American domestic politics and U.S. relations with Vietnam. By the terms of the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, which ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) agreed to release all American POWs that it was holding. North Vietnam had acceded to the Geneva Convention of 1949, which classified prisoners of war as "victims of events" who deserved "decent and humane treatment." Nonetheless, North Vietnam insisted that the crews of U.S. bombers were guilty of "crimes against humanity," and returning POWs told stories of mistreatment by their captors. Evidence of mistreatment stirred emotions, which reports that North Vietnam had not returned all POWs and was still holding Americans captive only magnified. The plight of "boat people" fleeing Vietnam and Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in 1978 reinforced these impressions of an inhumane Vietnamese government, officially called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam following the North's victory of 1975. These events helped to solidify public and congressional support for nonrecognition of Vietnam and a trade embargo.

The United States made "full accountability" of MIAs a condition of diplomatic recognition of Vietnam. At the end of the war, 1,750 Americans were listed as missing in Vietnam, with another 600 MIAs in neighboring Laos and Cambodia. The United States also insisted that Vietnam assist in the recovery of remains of MIAs who had died in Vietnam and in the return of any individuals who might have survived the war. Of particular concern were the "discrepancy cases," where individuals were believed to have survived an incident, such as bailing out of an aircraft and having been reportedly seen later, but were not among the returning POWs.

The POW and MIA controversy triggered a rigorous debate and became a popular culture phenomenon in the late 1970s and 1980s, despite Pentagon and congressional investigations that indicated there were no more than 200 unresolved MIA cases out of the 2,266 the Department of Defense still listed as missing and about a dozen POWs unaccounted for. By contrast, Vietnam still considers approximately 300,000 North and South Vietnamese as MIA. President Ronald Reagan, speaking before the National League of POW/MIA Families in 1987, stated that "until all our questions are fully answered, we will assume that some of our countrymen are alive." The Vietnam Veterans of America, which sent several investigating groups to Vietnam in the 1980s, helped renew contacts between the U.S. and Vietnamese governments. Accordingly, Vietnamese authorities and representatives of the Reagan administration reached agreements that resulted in cooperation in recovering the remains of American casualties. Beginning in the late 1980s, Vietnam returned several hundred sets of remains to the United States. In addition, progress occurred in clarifying "discrepancy cases." The question resurfaced in the 1990s about whether President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had done all they could during peace negotiations to free servicemen "knowingly" left behind or whether they both were so desperate to get out of Vietnam that they sacrificed POWs. Both Nixon and Kissinger maintained that it was the "doves" in Congress at the time who prevented any effective military action to find out the truth about POWs when it was still possible to do so in the summer and spring of 1973. On 3 February 1994, with the approval of the Senate and business community, President Bill Clinton removed the nineteen-year trade embargo against Vietnam, and the Vietnamese government cooperated with veterans groups in locating the remains of U.S. soldiers and returning remains to the United States for burial, including those of nine soldiers in October 1995. As of June 2002, just over 1,900 Americans remained unaccounted for in Southeast Asia.


Howes, Craig. Voices of the Vietnam POWs: Witnesses to Their Fight. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Keating, Susan Katz. Prisoners of Hope: Exploiting the POW/MIA Myth in America. New York: Random House, 1994.

Philpott, Tom. Glory Denied: The Saga of Jim Thompson, America's Longest-Held Prisoner of War. New York: Norton, 2001.

Stern, Lewis M. Imprisoned or Missing in Vietnam: Policies of the Vietnamese Government Concerning Captured and Unaccountedfor United States Soldiers, 1969–1994. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1995.

Gary R.Hess/a. e.

See alsoExchange of Prisoners ; Geneva Conventions ; Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder ; Vietnam War ; Vietnam War Memorial ; Vietnam, Relations with ; War, Laws of .

Prisoners of War

views updated May 14 2018




The phenomenon of prisoners of war (POWs) is thoroughly part of the twentieth century, an era of wars and prison camps. In Europe, some six to eight million prisoners were held captive during the First World War, and some eighteen million during the Second World War. The extent of captivity reflects the mass character of total war, which led to the instrumentalization of the captive. At the same time there arose a body of law pertaining to the prisoner's legal status. Nevertheless, POWs have long remained occluded in history. Imprisonment of captured soldiers bears the stamp of defeat, and societies at war have a hard time acknowledging those of their own who were defeated. This helps account for substantial variation in the way that prisoners have been treated by democratic and totalitarian regimes.


Until 1899, despite the Lieber Code on the treatment of prisoners of war, written in 1863 during the U.S. Civil War, and the 1880 Oxford manual, The Laws of War on Land, soldiers captured in battle had no legal status, and their treatment at the hands of the enemy could be arbitrary. In reaction to European conflicts such as the bloody Battle of Solferino in 1859, the Franco-Prussian War in 1870–1871, and the Boer War, which began in 1899, 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 1907 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 1915. Bilateral agreements between governments underscored the limitations of the Hague treaties conventions, which had envisaged only a brief war. In July 1917, 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. For example, in Russia authorities ran separate camps. There were relatively privileged "first circle" camps reserved for POWs of Slavic origin—the future supporters of pan-Slavism—and a second category of camps in Siberia for German POWs. Liberation and repatriation were

Number of prisoners estimated held in:
1915 (1 February)1918
Detaining powerGermansBritishFrenchRussians
Austria (Austria-Hungary for 1918)250,000916,000
United States43,000

conceived along similar lines. Control over German POWs in French hands was used to exert pressure on Germany to sign the Treaty of Versailles (1919). The increasing mobilization of various countries and the ferocity of the conflict lay behind different mortality rates among prisoners of war. In Germany, for example, the death rate among British POWs was 3.5 percent, for Russians, 5.4–6.5 percent, but for the Romanian soldiers, 29 percent.

All these issues made it clear that some of the rules devised at the 1907 Hague Convention needed revision. Advances emerged from the Geneva Conference of 27 July 1929. One new convention provided rules for the treatment of POWs, an addition to the 1907 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.

The Second World War was a major challenge to these attempts at humanizing imprisonment in

Estimated number of prisoners during the Second World War (European and African theaters)
During the conflict1945 (Germans)
Detaining powerBelgiansHungariansAmericansFrenchBritishSoviets
Soviet Union3,060,000
United States3,097,000

wartime. 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. Some German POWs, for example, endured six years of conflict and then ten years of incarceration in the Soviet Union. Blitzkrieg warfare enabled Nazi authorities to imprison a very high number of captives in record time: 1.8 million French taken prisoner during May–June 1940; 5.16 million Soviets during Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941. 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 1914–1918 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. They thus muddied the distinction between captive soldiers and other groups such as civilian prisoners and forced labor; together, by 1945, 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 1914–1918 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 1929 accords, such as Romania; thus, some 63.7 percent of Romanian POWs died in captivity. 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 1946 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. German POWs were designated as the "Disarmed Enemy Force" by the U.S. Army and "Surrendered Enemy Personnel" by the British. This distinction enabled those countries to avoid strict application of the 1929 Geneva Convention; there were fifty-six thousand deaths recorded in U.S. captivity, most of them detained in six Rheinwiesenlager (Rhine meadow camps). 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.

In 1949 a third Geneva Convention took into account lessons learned from the war. It completed the earlier 1929 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." This convention extends the range of the humanitarian law and determines the roles and responsibilities of the detaining power. The latest additional protocols, added in 1977, 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 (1990–1995) pushed the convention to its limit and tested conventional wisdom and practice. The number of POWs was indeed limited; according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Serbs detained from 35,000 to 70,000 individuals in 135 camps in January 1993. 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. 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

Captured byTransferred toTotal number of prisoners by sectors
Soviet Union3,155,000Soviet Union3,060,000East: 3,349,000
United States3,800,000United States and/or American camps in Europe3,097,000West: 7,745,000
United Kingdom3,700,000United Kingdom3,635,000

of the law has favored a principle of reciprocity in the absence of inspections and sanctions. 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.


Captivity may be said to take place in four stages:

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. 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.

Labor. 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." POWs worked in all sectors, from agriculture to industry to mine-clearance. Exceptionally, a POW might become a free civilian worker, a procedure initiated by the Vichy government in wartime France in the 1940s. 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). Over time there developed a "language of the camps" (for example, in post-1945 POW camps in France, "Franzmann" for French or nixcompris = not understood).

To kill time, POWs enjoyed simple pastimes (cards and simple crafts), more elaborate activities (sports, orchestras, theater), and even religious observance. However, not all POWs succeeded in overcoming the Stacheldrahtkranheit (barbed wire disease) that could and did culminate in despair and at times suicide.

Daily life in camps and on detachment details was organized around basic preoccupations:

Nourishment and strategies for maximizing it (using tobacco as a form of exchange).

Mail and the maintenance of links with the home front. Prisoners receiving packages could overcome feelings of alienation and abandonment. However, it did not fulfill the need for kindness and affection among the prisoners. The absence of any feminine presence at times fostered homoerotic or homosexual ties.

Escape. This occupied a special place in the culture of captivity. It showed the prisoner's attachment to his patriotic cause and a willful desire to end captivity. In the Second World War, there were thirty-five thousand successful escapes among English and American prisoners of war from German camps.


A prisoner's welcome upon returning home rarely matched his hopes. The nation's recognition of his sacrifice was not extended to combatants whose status remained ambiguous and who had appeared at times as traitors. To obtain their rights, soldiers organized associations, such as the Volksbund zum Schutz der deutschen Kriegs und Zivilgefangenen in Germany in 1918. In France, only in 1922 was the honor "died for France" accorded POWs.

In the early twenty-first century, veterans associations welcome former POWs, who foster remembrance of both war and captivity. French and German POWs have worked on a rapprochement through sister cities arrangements and associations. Despite this institutional framework, it is unclear whether former POWs intend or are able to transmit their memories to succeeding generations. And it is uncertain to what extent prisoners of the wars of the twentieth century will in future remain a group apart from their comrades who avoided captivity.

See alsoConcentration Camps; Forced Labor; Hague Convention; Nuremberg War Crimes Trials; Occupation, Military; Operation Barbarossa; Red Cross; War Crimes.


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Fishman, Sarah. We Will Wait: Wives of French Prisoners of War, 1940–1945. New Haven, Conn., 1991.

Gammon, Victor F. Not All Glory!: True Accounts of RAF Airmen Taken Prisoner in Europe, 1939–1945. London, 1996.

Jackson, Robert. The Prisoners, 1914–18. New York, 1989.

Lindstrom, Hildegard Schmidt. Child Prisoner of War. As told to Hazel Proctor. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1998.

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Rachamimov, Alon. POWs and the Great War: Captivity on the Eastern Front. Oxford, U.K., 2002.

Speed, Richard B. Prisoners, Diplomats, and the Great War: A Study in the Diplomacy of Captivity. New York, 1990.

Vance, Jonathan F., ed. Encyclopedia of Prisoners of War and Internment. Santa Barbara, Calif., 2000.

Vourkoutiotis, Vasilis. Prisoners of War and the German High Command: The British and American Experience. Houndmills, U.K., 2003.

Fabien ThÉofilakis

prisoner of war

views updated May 11 2018

prisoner of war (POW) In international law, military personnel captured by the enemy in an armed conflict between states. Their treatment is generally expected to be humane. The 1907 Hague Convention and the Geneva Convention of 1949 widened the scope of the first international convention on prisoners of war, signed at the Hague Peace Conference of 1899.

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