Most POWs Want to Go Home–But After World War II, Some Faced Death on Arrival.
When the Second World War in Europe ended in May 1945, the United States military had custody of a staggering number of enemy prisoners of war: 4.3 million total worldwide, with more than 400,000 held in prison camps inside the domestic United States. German personnel represented the single largest group of prisoners. However not every soldier in German uniform who fell into American hands—whether through capture, surrender, or exchange of custody with another ally—was actually a German citizen.
Between 1939 and 1945, tens of thousands of Frenchmen, Poles, Dutchmen, and Norwegians wound up in German uniform, either voluntarily or through coercion. Nearly a million Soviet citizens, ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, and Cossacks had served in the German military for a myriad of reasons, plus many more millions of captured Soviet soldiers held as prisoners of the Germans were now in American or British hands; it was they who would represent one of the thorniest problems among the former allies in the war’s aftermath.
Prisoner of war issues during WWII were at least notionally governed by the 1929 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, but the conduct of Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union demonstrated all too clearly the limitations of international conventions and laws of war. The Soviet Union was not a signatory to the 1929 Convention; Japan signed it but never ratified it; Germany was a full signatory. The legal distinction between them was largely irrelevant, because those three nations were categorically guilty of the worst treatment of prisoners of war of any belligerents during that conflict.
As many as 3 million Soviet soldiers died in German captivity. Japanese treatment of captured Allied soldiers was infamously brutal, with a death rate estimated at 27.1 percent among prisoners of Western armies (the mortality rate for American POWs in Japanese hands was more than 30 percent). Japanese treatment of Chinese prisoners was even worse, with a nearly 100 percent death rate—only 56 Chinese prisoners were officially recorded as being released from Japanese custody at the end of the war, for the grim reason that Imperial Japanese forces killed most Chinese prisoners outright. The Soviets, at the end of the war, held as many as 3,060,000 German POWs. How many of those men died in captivity is debated, but of the 1.3 million German military personnel listed as missing in action, the vast majority of them are assumed to have died as Soviet prisoners. More than 50,000 Japanese POWs perished in Soviet prison work camps after the war was over.
The end of the conflict precipitated one of the most controversial episodes related to international conventions on prisoners of war: the question of forced repatriation.
The 1929 Convention stipulated that “repatriation of prisoners shall be effected as soon as possible after the conclusion of peace.” What it did not account for, or at least did not anticipate, was how a nation should handle prisoners of war who did not want to return to their nation of origin.
At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the Soviets insisted that all Soviet citizens held as prisoners of war by the Germans or liberated from German custody by the Western Allies were to be repatriated without exception. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union with Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the Soviet government announced a policy that labeled all its soldiers who fell into enemy hands—whether by capture or surrender—as traitors. Order 270 issued August 16 that year, explicitly stated that Soviet soldiers’ only option was to fight to the last. To be taken prisoner, especially if one was a commander or political commissar, would be equated with desertion and defection to the Nazis. Stalin supposedly said, “There are no Soviet prisoners of war, only traitors.” With that attitude in mind, Soviet insistence on repatriation of their captured soldiers did not sound particularly benevolent.
More than 800,000 Soviet soldiers had in fact changed sides once in German hands for a variety of reasons. After the grim years of the Great Terror of the 1930s and Stalin’s purge of the Red Army before the war, there was no shortage of Soviet citizens in the military who loved the Motherland but genuinely hated Stalin and the repressive USSR government. Stalin was especially unpopular among Ukrainians, Cossacks, and other ethnic groups who had suffered in the years following the Bolshevik victory in the 1917-1923 Russian Civil War.
Some senior Red Army officers, such as Lt. Gen. Andrey Vlasov, seem to have become turncoats for self-serving reasons, but led thousands of rank-and-file soldiers into peril. Other Soviet soldiers in German custody, faced with near- certain slow death by starvation and slave labor in prisoner of war camps, chose what seemed to be the lesser of two evils and signed on for what they were told would be labor battalions in German service, only to find out too late that they were deployed as frontline combat formations or as guards in Nazi death camps.
A Promise at Yalta
The problem was that when the Soviets at Yalta extracted the promise from their British and American counterparts to repatriate all Soviet citizens, there was no consensus as to who fit that definition. The Soviets insisted that persons from the Baltic States and eastern Poland, annexed by the USSR in 1939-1940, were Soviet citizens, but neither the U.S. nor Great Britain recognized that claim. Nor had the Allies anticipated the problem of what to do with Soviet prisoners who did not want to return. The 1929 Convention made no provision for that situation, and it did not specifically allow a detaining power to grant asylum to prisoners in its control who asked to not be returned to their country of origin.
As the war drew to its close, British and American officials, in both the civilian governments and military command structures, were confronted by this question: did the uniform a soldier wore determine the nation to which he should be repatriated? If a Soviet citizen fought in a German uniform and was captured as a German soldier, did the Geneva Convention say he was a member of the German armed forces and protected by that service as a prisoner of war, or was he a Soviet combatant who should be returned to his country of origin?
This photo shows a large American camp for German POWs located in Rheinberg, Germany, then holding no less than 89,000 internees. Many German POWs were held and used as forced labor by the Soviets for decades after the war.
Legal specialists in the British Foreign Office argued “it was the uniform that determined a soldier’s allegiance and no government had the right to ‘look behind the uniform’ of any POW.” Part of the thinking behind that decision was a desire to avoid reprisals against British and American prisoners still in German control.
Unfortunately, they also had to worry about the risk their countrymen then in German POW camps faced from their own ally, the USSR. As Soviet forces advanced in the east and began overrunning German prison camps containing American and British prisoners, Britain and the U.S. wanted to do nothing that might cause the Soviets to delay the repatriation of those men. Previous Soviet behavior had repeatedly demonstrated this was no idle concern. Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary, told Churchill, “It is most important that they [British POWs] should be well cared for and returned as soon as possible. For this we must rely to a great extent upon Soviet goodwill and if we make difficulty over returning to them their own nationals I am sure it will reflect adversely upon their willingness to help in restoring to us our own prisoners.”
Even so, some of the language coming out of the Foreign Office in London was starkly coldhearted. As one Foreign Office official stated in an official memo, “This is purely a question for the Soviet authorities and does not concern His Majesty’s Government. In due course all those with whom the Soviet authorities desire to deal must be handed over to them, and we are not concerned with the fact that they may be shot or otherwise more harshly dealt with than they might be under English law.” This attitude did not sit well with many British military officers, but it became the policy of repatriations as the war ground to a halt.
"A Battle of Discourtesy"
The same debate caused problems between civilian and military leaders on the American side. In early 1945 Gen. Dwight Eisenhower grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of good faith cooperation from his Soviet counterparts on POW negotiations—the Soviets demanded much but conceded nothing. It eventually got so bad that Eisenhower suggested to the Chief of the U.S. Military Mission to the USSR in the U.S. embassy in Moscow, Maj. Gen. John R. Deane, that he should simply stop cooperating with the Soviets until they proved more willing to collaborate as allies should. Deane said this would be pointless; there was absolutely no chance, he said, of “winning a battle of discourtesy with Soviet officials.”
Statesmen in Washington also grumbled about the push to give into Soviet demands on the repatriation issue. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson vehemently opposed the idea of “turning over German prisoners of Russian origin to the Russians.” He put it bluntly: “First thing you know we will be responsible for a big killing by the Russians. … Let the Russians catch their own Russians.” The U.S. Attorney General agreed on grounds of legal precedent. “I gravely question the legal basis or authority for surrendering the objecting individuals to representatives of the Soviet Government….Even if these men should be technically traitors to their own government, I think the time-honored rule of asylum should be applied.”
But like the British, the Americans were most concerned about the fate of their own POWs who fell into Soviet control, which overrode all other issues. Edward Stettinius, the U.S. Secretary of State, expressed this clearly in a communique in February 1945 when he wrote, “The consensus here is that it would be unwise to include questions relative to the protection of the Geneva convention and to Soviet citizens in the U.S. in an agreement which deals primarily with the exchange of prisoners liberated by the Allied armies as they march into Germany… we believe there will be serious delays in the release of our prisoners of war unless we reach prompt agreement on this question.” By “agreement” he meant capitulating to Soviet demands, but there seemed no simple solution.
The Soviets knew very well their British and American allies were vulnerable on this point, and they kept the pressure on in a manner that was nothing less than outright coercion. That January, U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle glumly told Stimson, “the Russians have already threatened to refuse to turn over to us American prisoners of war whom they may get possession of in German internment camps.” That threat was very much in plain view when Roosevelt and Churchill signed the Repatriation Agreement with Stalin at Yalta the next month.
Asylum Would not be granted
By the end of February nearly 370,000 Soviet POWs were in the custody of British and U.S. forces in Western Europe, and a great many of those were taken while wearing the uniforms of the German military. In accordance with the Geneva Convention, Allied command had at first issued orders that forced repatriation would only apply to POWs and Displaced Persons (DPs) who identified themselves as Soviet citizens. That arrangement did not last long.
On May 23, representatives of the Soviet High Command and Supreme Headquarters Allied European Forces signed the Leipzig Agreement, which specified that, “All former prisoners of war and citizens of the USSR liberated by the Allied Forces and all former prisoners of war and citizens of Allied Nations liberated by the Red Army will be delivered through the Army lines to the corresponding Army Command of each side.” The operative word was “all.” Washington passed instructions on to its military commanders in Europe that they were to hand all Soviet citizens over to the custody of the Red Army “regardless of their individual wishes.”
Asylum would not be granted, not even for persons whose status all but guaranteed that they would be executed as traitors when they were returned to Soviet control. Mass repatriations followed, and by the end of September 1945, 2,034,000 former prisoners identified as Soviet citizens were given over to the Red Army, sometimes by use of military force.
Nothing in the 1929 Geneva Convention provided for the forced repatriation of prisoners who did not want to return to their government’s control, so the American and British decision to comply with Soviet insistence on the matter was not compelled by law or treaty obligation. It was, instead, an unpopular course of action driven by the need to protect their own soldiers from an ally whose brutality was in some cases nearly as bad as that of their common enemy.
Refusal to Release Prisoners
By citing the 1929 Geneva Convention in its insistence that Britain and the U.S. had to repatriate all Soviet prisoners whether they wanted to return or not, the USSR’s position was duplicitous in the extreme. The Soviets had refused to join the Convention themselves, but that did not prevent them, during the Yalta negotiations, from pointing to Article 75 with its requirement that “repatriation of prisoners shall be effected with the least possible delay after the conclusion of peace.”
The diametric contrast between the wording of that article and what the Soviets themselves did in practice was absolutely appalling. The Soviet Union kept nearly 1.5 million German prisoners of war as forced labor for an entire decade after the war ended. The last of them were not repatriated until 1955. “Fragmented archival sources,” as historian Susan Grunewald says, “imply that the Soviets primarily held onto German POWs out of economic necessity caused by the war’s destruction.” As many as 560,000 Japanese prisoners were held by the Soviets until 1950 under the same excuse. The USSR used those men to rebuild a national infrastructure damaged by the war, but such practice was directly contrary to the spirit, if not the actual letter, of the very international convention that the Soviets cited when it suited their purposes.
Soviet refusal to release their prisoners after the end of WWII directly influenced the drafting of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949 when it replaced the 1929 Convention. Article 118 (Release and Repatriation) begins with the sentence, “Prisoners of war shall be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities.” At that time, there was still no end in sight to Soviet delaying tactics.
The 1960 Commentary on the Convention discusses Article 118 in refreshingly simple language: “This is one of the most important Articles in the Convention and is intended to remedy very unsatisfactory situations. As a result of the changed conditions of modern warfare, the belligerents have on two occasions, and without expressly violating the provisions of the existing Conventions [of 1929], been able to keep millions of prisoners of war in captivity for no good reason. In our opinion, it was contrary to the spirit of the Conventions to prolong war captivity in this way.” It then explains in detail that the Geneva Convention (III) is interpreted to mean that forced repatriation is unacceptable, and that a Detaining Power has the right to grant asylum to prisoners it holds in any situation “where the repatriation of a prisoner of war would be manifestly contrary to the general principles of international law for the protection of the human being.”
Both interpretations exist today precisely because of the long shadow cast by Soviet policies on the repatriation of prisoners at the end of the Second World War.