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We all know that the harshest attitudes were toward Jews overall, and maybe Russian POWs in German concentration camps too. Conditions for German soldiers who were held as prisoners in USSR were also very hard.

But I wonder, what kind of POWs were treated in the mildest way during WW2?

(These could be POWs held captive by any country, not necessarily Germany.)

  • 5
    Celebrities were pretty well treated. How to evaluate mildness seems difficult though. – Semaphore Aug 8 '15 at 19:05
  • Granted, "mildest" begs for opinion and judgement. I wonder if we could ask "Which countries had documented procedures for the treatment of prisoners?" and "Which countries followed their procedures?" as proxy questions. I think a viable answer could emerge from that. (there is a danger the answer would be book length; is there a way around that?) – Mark C. Wallace Aug 8 '15 at 23:28
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    I know that the movie Victory portrayed conditions in Eastern Front prison camps being far worse than Western Front. That's not exactly a reliable source though (although the director Houston was a WWII vet himself). – T.E.D. Aug 9 '15 at 0:06
  • This doesnt really answer the question but my grandfather was a pilot and POW in Germany and he once said Luftwaffe camps were generally more pleasant than Army camps. – ed.hank Nov 17 '16 at 23:08
  • @T.E.D. - Isn't that common knowledge already? (wikipedia). And even if placed in the same area, eastern prisoners fared much worse. Why? When they were not Jews, they were Slavs. – German Nazi exterminatory propensity against those categories is not to be underestimated. – user8690 Dec 5 '18 at 12:35
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If you are asking about people who were prisoners of the Germans, then British and Americans did the best, although this was certainly no joyride.

According to Wikipedia, German prisoners in the hands of Britain were least likely to die. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allied_war_crimes_during_World_War_II#Comparative_death_rates_of_POWs

  • I actually mean any prisoners, held by any country during the war. – Serg Z. Aug 8 '15 at 17:59
6

There was large difference between Eastern and Western fronts. Generally, Western POW (British, American, French, German) were treated by their western captors according to the "laws of war", that is Geneva conventions. Of course, there were many exceptions, but as a rule they were treated decently.

This does not apply to the Soviet POW captured by the Germans and German POW captured by the Soviets. There were several reasons for this. One is enormous numbers (in the millions) of Soviet POW's in 1941. The Germans just had no means and no resources to keep this many people in decent conditions. (Some of them were simply released btw). Another, probably more important reason was the attitude of the Germans to the Soviets (and the other way around). Soviet Union did not sign the international conventions on POW. Soviet Government treated its own citizens captured by the Germans as "traitors" and did nothing to help them. Very few Germans which were captured by the Soviets in 1941 were tortured and killed. German propaganda, on their part widely circulated this information, with photos.

This is not to say that only Soviets were guilty in these mutual cruelties. Everyone knows the infamous "commissars order" which prescribed to kill all communists, and Jews on the spot. (Some German commanders objected and did not pass this order to the troops).

(I am only addressing the POW question here, as asked. Partisans, "traitors" and general population is another matter.)

  • Beyond the overall extermimnatory policy against Jews, communist officials, officers, other Soviet prisoners were object of a sistematic process of extermination in the camps : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – user8690 Dec 5 '18 at 11:31
  • +vote for large difference between Eastern and Western fronts. But also, Germans were mobilized by fierce racial bias against Slavs in general (to put it mildly; in fact: exterminatory intentions) and especially Russians and Poles; and in the east POWs were Slavs, when they weren't Jewish). - Keeping proportions, that bias was common in West European nationalist imaginary, be it "Latin", "Celtic" or "Gothic". I have even found an anti-German WW1 text by the French author Maurice Barres mocking the "Slavic" feature of German character etc. – user8690 Dec 5 '18 at 12:26
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I doubt that a generalized answer is possible. Contrary to myth, nazis were not efficient. Many of their policies were made up as they went along. POW camps, concentration camps, and forced labor camps were not the same, but there were similarities in the policies. That being said:

  • I recall reading about a Dutch prisoner in a forced labor camp who ran away, crossed the border, visited his family, came back a few days later, and got nothing worse than an admonition not to do that again. I'm afraid I won't be able to dig out the reference.
  • But not all Western prisoners got preferential treatment, cf. the order to kill Allied Commandoes.
  • There was an order to kill Soviet political officers at once.
  • The treatment of Eastern and Western farm workers varied from case to case. It could depend on the ideological fervor of the local party representative and that of the individual farmers.
  • During the final breakdown of Germany, there were organized and unorganized attempts to kill surviving prisoners.

The nazi worldview led them to expect that certain European groups (Norwegians, Danes, Dutch) were natural allies who would follow German guidance. While some of that happened, consider the origin of the term Quisling, there was resistance as well.

  • 1
    The story about the Dutch prisoner coming back is so absurd it would really needs a reference… – o0'. Aug 9 '15 at 16:36
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    I googled a bit, but I didn't find the original source. However, from 1940 onwards many military POWs got the 'opportunity' to become civilian forced labor. The conditions for forced labor were incredibly varied, both over time and depending on the ethnicity. Forced labor ranged from digging ditches to bus drivers, and some forced laborers were allowed to travel home on vacation. E.g. oops.uni-oldenburg.de/387/1/420.pdf – o.m. Aug 9 '15 at 17:56
  • It wasn't uncommon for prisoners to be let out for work details if they gave their parole not to try and escape. Often this was done (like at Andersonville in the Civil War) to get chances to make deals for extra food. – Oldcat Aug 12 '15 at 19:35
  • I think Lohoris was surprised that the conditions for so-called 'germanic race' laborers were so different from typical Nazi behaviour. – o.m. Aug 13 '15 at 5:41
  • -1 for making an extraordinary claim about the Dutch POW with no reference. – Ne Mo Sep 6 '15 at 21:01
3

I think your question is impossible to answer because each side held some of their prisoners under conditions which bordered on a release. The usual reason was to use the prisoners for their own war effort, not charity.

  • The US had Operation Paperclip which captured scientists like Wernher von Braun. It is a judgement call when captivity turned into a job for NASA.
  • The Soviets encouraged German POWs to join the NKFD to fight against the Nazis in an organization which was less overtly communist than the KPD. Joining it could get the prisoners out of the camps and into the frontline.
  • The Nazis 'allowed' some POWs to give their parole and become civilian forced labor. Their treatment of laborers from the East was barbaric, but those from so-called 'germanic races' received better treatment. In the best cases, this was similar to the conditions of German workers under wartime conditions, while the worst case was something like Mittelbau Dora. (Note that the V-2 killed more people during construction than during employment. And also that von Braun was involved.)

(I'm not editing my earlier answer because of the comment history ...)

  • Paperclip is different, since this was post-war and keeping them as POWs would be impossible. – Oldcat Aug 12 '15 at 19:36
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    The Soviets kept German POWs until 1955. If those count as POWs, then the Paperclip scientists count until they were genuinely free to leave. That's a judgement call. And just before that, they'd be well-treated POWs. – o.m. Aug 13 '15 at 5:39
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Well can testify because my mum married a son of a Italian POW, the British treated some POWs well enough that at the end of the war they did not want to go home and stayed in the UK. Si

1

When I was a kid, I heard anecdotal stories from the older generation about German POWs that were held in Wisconsin in the United States towards the end WWII. It is my understanding that they were well fed and received good medical attention. I don't know where the camps were, or what the inside was actually like, but I recall these stories:

  1. Because a lot of the local Wisconsin population spoke German, when they escaped from the POW camp they were able to just "blend right in" with everyone else. Escape form the camp was easy, but after a few days of going to bars and chasing girls, the POWs generally went back into the camp because the food was free.

  2. The POWs had to work in agriculture, but they didn't have to work very hard. They loved it here in the US because it was much better than fighting & dying. They also liked it because they earned a decent amount of money when they worked.

  3. The locals liked them because they were "nice boys" and it was good to have young men around, where as a lot of the Wisconsin boys were "away".

  4. When the German POWs were boarding ships to leave Europe, they were terrified. The propaganda told them they would suffer horribly under US/UK. During the trans-atlantic boat ride, they calmed down.

  5. Nazi propaganda told them that the cities in the USA were bombed to the ground, and much of the US infrastructure had been destroyed. When they went arrived port in New York, they knew that that propaganda was lies, and that Germany would most certainly loose the war. Not only was New York standing, but it was "lit up with bright lights, like a Christmas Tree" because New York didn't do blackouts like in Europe.

  6. At the end of the war, there were a lot of German POWs who decided they liked the US and got married and stayed in Wisconsin.

So according to the anecdotal stories I heard as a kid, the US treated German POWs who came to work in agriculture in the US very well. This says nothing, of course, about Japanese or Italian POWs, or POWs that were not held in the USA.

Also, these stories are so fantastical I am not sure if they are true. But I heard them more than once, and I seem to recall a PBS documentary in the 80's.

  • "New York didn't do blackouts like in Europe" For a short time after the USA entered the war it was true, but since the lights near the city helped u-boats to detect ships (because they were dark against the light background) coastal blackouts were in effect in the East Coast (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackout_(wartime)#World_War_II). – SJuan76 Nov 10 at 20:05
  • Do you have a better source on that? This article doesn't seem to jive with that. Nor does this one. Also keep in mind that I am reporting oral history. But it seems like NYC was not under every-day blackout. – axsvl77 Nov 11 at 12:20
0

During the (1944) battle of Warsaw, as reported in "Rising 44", when Polish prisoners were captured, the German General von dem Bach-Zalewsi told his men to treat them "as if they were British."

In World War II, the Germans reserved their best POW treatment for captured men from America, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

  • But did the mean it as a good or a bad thing? – Felix Goldberg Aug 8 '15 at 23:54
  • @FelixGoldberg: Compare the German treatment of British and Russian prisoners and understand that the Poles got the "best" of the deal. General B-Z explained to his men that Germany was about to lose the war, and they needed all the "friends" they could get. – Tom Au Aug 8 '15 at 23:59
  • That is insignificant for the overall treatment of the Polish prisoners by Germany. There were model camps, but this gives a different story. – user8690 Dec 5 '18 at 11:45
  • "approximately 13,000 (men, women and children) ...arrived [to Auschwitz] in August and September 1944. Their deportation was a result of the ongoing uprising in Warsaw against the occupant, and the decision taken by the German authorities to remove the surviving civilian population from Warsaw and then destroy the city." - Maybe you should alter statements like Poles got the "best" of the deal. I find the answer anecdotal and misleading. How could they have made friends after/while killing 6 million of them (among which 3 million were Jews)? – user8690 Dec 5 '18 at 11:53
  • @FelixGoldberg - a good or a bad thing : it was raving, or propaganda. Anyway, it was insignificant to the question, and Poles cannot stand in the list of "POWs treated best" that was asked here. With the Russians, they can only be mentioned as the extreme contrast to the ones that were "best treated" (that is British, American and French). – user8690 Dec 5 '18 at 12:03

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