I was reading an autobiographical account of an Army Air Corps POW. He was on a train that made a stop at Dachau to unhook several box cars containing Jews. Although he and his fellow POWs feared for their lives, they were reassured by their guards that the Germans would not treat them the way they were treating the Jews.

What rationale did the Nazis give for the differences in the way they treated Jews v. POWs? A naive perspective might argue that those actively opposing the Nazi regime should receive the harsher treatment. Was it merely that POWs explicitly fell under the Geneva Convention, or was there something more?

  • Nazi treatment of POWs was vastly different western POWs were treated relatively well. Russian POWs were treated very badly most captured 1941 were simply starved to death, later they were used as labour, but in hard conditions.
    – pugsville
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 19:08
  • 3
    Sorry, - 1 and voting to close as basic historical facts.
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 21:12
  • 1
    They did not have to justify anything because the Jews were not POW's, and nobody considered them POW's. They were just ordinary population. Those POW's which happened to be Jews were treated as Jews, not as POW's.
    – Alex
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 21:38
  • Countries usually strive not to treat the POWs very bad to encourage surrender.
    – Anixx
    Commented Feb 16, 2019 at 20:58

2 Answers 2


Nazi doctrine developed in the 1920s from pre-existing anti-semitic and other racist tendencies, and placed Jews amongst the Untermensch - essentially "not quite human". The Russians were categorised with Slavs, and were also "not quite human".

Western Allied people (French, British, American) fell into a category that was considered to be compatible with most Germans (the Aryan ideal was an extremely select elite above everyone else).

This goes most of the way in explaining the extreme treatment of the Jewish people in Nazi controlled regions, as well as that of Russian and other Eastern European POWs, in contrast to that of Western POWs. That's not to say Western POWs had an easy time of it - with starvation, harsh punishments, and even executions for escape attempts.

Another consideration for the variation in treatment was that POWs (at least in the beginning of the war, and in the west) generally fell under the responsibility of the Heer, Luftwaffe, or Kriegsmarine, and not the more fanatical SS and Gestapo.

Finally, there was always the risk that the Allies would reciprocate any mistreatment of prisoners. Indeed, the Russians did reciprocate quite strongly as they began to advance west in the later stages of the war.


I'll try to explain briefly the big picture, because the full answer would be book length. So this answer is simplified and designed to give you a good idea about where to keep learning.

The Nazis had a concept of Scientific racism.

This led them to define the "Jewish problem" and to therefore define Jews as sub-humans. They then created the "Nuremberg Laws", which codified the protection of the German racial superiority in law. All this agenda led to an organized plan to solve the "Jewish problem". It started with idea to deport Jews out of Europe, but very quickly rolled to a total planned genocide which was documented under the name "The Final Solution".

The official decision about the genocide was given at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 and it was documented by Adolf Eichmann. They were very organized, as you may notice. Adolf Eichmann is considered by many as the architect of the plan.

  • 1
    I would say that Nazi Germany's scientific racism was more an ex post facto rationalization of plain old antisemitism.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 20:00
  • CGCampbell, Mark C. Wallace & Felix, thanks for proofreading :) Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 13:39

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