Prisoner of war

Australian and Dutch prisoners of war at Tarsau

Australian and Dutch prisoners of war at Tarsau

A prisoner of war is a combatant (generally a soldier), or a specific non-combatant who is captured by an opposing force during an armed conflict.

Today international law

Style Usage

Prisoners of war, for example, in the English-speaking world with the signal for POW “Prisoner of war”, in Russian-speaking countries with ВП for “военнопленный” (WP = – wojennoplennij). Marked on the clothing In the legal and diplomatic parlance, the term is hors de combat (French for “incapacitated” for “incapacitated” or common), the next POW includes wounded soldiers.


For the treatment of prisoners of war, the rules of international law union Hague Regulations of 1907 apply (Articles 4 to 20) and the III Geneva Conventions of 1949 (one of the four Geneva Conventions). To qualify as a prisoner of war, the person is required by the Geneva Convention, en be an official party to a conflict, or a member of a military command structures and as such recognizable. This includes persons who are not military people, but working for the armed forces (see also military service). Police and paramilitary organizations are not in most cases considered to be participants, however, if this is requested by the State concerned, it must notify the enemy.

Important for acceptance of POW status is wearing a uniform or badge, which give the person seen as stakeholders. If participants are indistinguishable from civilians, concealed their weapons or wearing enemy uniforms, they lose that status. The POW status is also applied to rebels fighting in uniforms and openly carried weapons and command structures are integrated into. For bombers and members of the international and national terrorist organizations of POW status does not apply.

All the other people who have done acts of war are to be treated of the doubt as long as prisoners of war by competent courts to decide about their status is. Prisoners of war are in the power of the Detaining Power. They are not subject to the people and units who have captured them. Individuals may not decide on prisoners of war, not even when they have failed to meet the rules of warfare.

Medical personnel, even if the leader in self-defense a handgun, and religious personnel is not among the combatants. They are therefore formally in captivity not prisoners of war, but enjoy the same protection. They may continue their activities and must be supported in this. Paramedics may be retained only as long as the Detaining Power, as they are needed to care for their wounded countrymen.

A spy who has procured secretly and without participation in military operations in the territory of the enemy information and has returned to the territory of his war party may, after his arrest should not be penalized and is entitled to treatment as prisoners of war.

Rights and obligations of a POW

Prisoners are not prisoners, but security prisoners who are under the custody of state as state prisoners. The Detaining Power is responsible for the treatment, inhuman and degrading treatment, as well as reprisal is forbidden.

Combatants lay down their arms, or else fight defenseless or defenseless or which follow should not be fought. They must be disarmed and taken prisoner.

Prisoners of war as soon as possible to get out of danger. As far as they struggle because of conditions cannot be taken away, they are released. Here, the possible practical measures for their safety must be taken.

The prisoner of war shall only be obliged to indicate the name, first name n, date of birth, rank and personal identification number. Military equipment and weapons are to be accepted him. Personal items including helmets, NBC protective equipment, food, clothing, rank and nationality mark and awards he may keep. Only officer may command him money and valuables with a receipt to be removed, they are back to him with dismissal.

Enlisted personnel, the Detaining Power shall use to non-military work. S officer may not be used for work, but have to be treated preferentially. Here, the agreement distinguishes itself only soldiers and officers; Sergeant E under a certain rank (Ensign, according to the German ranks of sergeant and boatman) are considered teams. Harmful work or particularly hazardous work shall be awarded only to volunteers.

As far as the escaping prisoners of war (even in case of recurrence) did not use force against persons, may escape attempts are punishable only to disciplinary action.

The violation of these rights is found in almost every war and provoked at the opposite side usually similar attacks. Particularly severe violations of the law, which often involve a large number of enemy military personnel can be considered as war crimes.

Disregard for the rights of prisoners of war

Most warring parties hold in many ways not to the Geneva Conventions for treatment of prisoners of war. Thus, in addition oftmaliger disregard of the Geneva documents during a war or a conflict after the termination of the conflict, many of these soldiers often retained as “war booty man”. They are supported in such a pledge. Sometimes used as secret negotiations to wrest the opposing parties payments or concessions.


The winner in a battle possessed the discretion of the life and the property of those who were at his mercy. There was no distinction between combatants and civilians. The fate of the vanquished ranged from Niedermachung on the battlefield over the abduction or mutilation to the pressures of military service, but also the simple release was possible. A widespread fate was slavery. At the beginning of the written tradition tells of wars that were just made for the purpose of raising slaves. Assyrian sources from the time of Hammurabi tell ransom enslaved prisoners of war.

European development until 1907

Even in ancient Greece POWs had no special legal status. The general interpretation of the law was that the stronger should prevail over the weaker and should. The normal procedure was to sell or release of captured enemy warriors. Thucydides reported in several places on prisoners of war during the Peloponnesian War. 421 v. BC gave the Spartans peace to war based on the 120 full citizens to get back, which had resulted in the Battle of Sphacteria. The survivors of the Sicilian expedition were 413 v. BC locked in the quarries of Syracuse, where they went miserably. After the battle of Aigospotamoi about 3,000 prisoners were taken. Lysander put to death by a criminal court in full all Athenian citizens because “the beginning had made with illegal actions among the Greeks.”

In Roman culture was likewise. The “war booty man” was an important economic factor. The triumphs of the victorious generals were the flaunted prisoners of war are an essential element. In the civil wars of the Legionaries of the defeated party were often pardoned or incorporated into the fold. On the other hand, for B. 71 v. BC all about 6000 Prisoners of the Spartacus revolt crucified along the Appian Way.

Changing the status of prisoners of war took place, when the Third Lateran Council in 1179 banned the sale of Christians into slavery. Thus, it was no longer profitable to make many prisoners: Captured infantry was cut down on the battlefield, or simply run. To the ransom of highly placed POWs formed a lucrative business. A famous example is the capture of Richard the Lionheart, the 1192nd

In the days of the great mercenary army in the late Middle Ages and early modern times have often been mutually exchanged on the battlefield prisoners. For officers and generals were there certain quotas in relation to foot soldiers. It was also common practice to release prisoners of war when they swore not to intervene in the conflict.

The Massenaushebungen for military service after the French Revolution led to the now hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war and incurred had to be supplied. At the same time it became generally believe that wars are mainly matters of polity and the captive soldier states certain rights.

In the Franco-German War 8000 German were the more than 400,000 French prisoners of war (mostly irregular combatants) over so that a replacement was not an option. The problems with the detention and care for these masses were a major trigger for the creation of the Hague Regulations.

The international legal practices in Europe, however, were not necessarily used in colonial wars. Here it was still too real genocide en by the Imperial forces.

World War I

German prisoners of war in France

During World War II, there were about eight million soldiers and enemy forces were at war in captivity. All nations involved in the European theater of war were usually regard to the portion of the captivity of the Hague Convention. Usually prisoners of war had a greater chance of survival than their captured comrades. The bulk of the prisoners of war was when larger organizations had to lay down their arms. Examples are the 95,000 captured Russian soldiers after the Battle of Tannenberg (1914) or the 325,000 members of the Army Kuk after Brusilov offensive 1916th

At the end of the war Germany was caught 2.5 million soldiers, Russia 2.9, Great Britain, France and the United States were 768,000. The conditions in the prison camps during the war were partially much better than in World War II. This was achieved through the efforts of the International Red Cross and by observers from neutral countries.

In Russia the situation was in the POW camps, which were often in inhospitable environments, but particularly bad. Of the approximately 2.2 million soldiers of the Central Powers in Russian captivity died about 25%.

Notorious are the major typhus epidemics in the first war winters or the construction of the Murmansk railway.

In the camps of Germany, the supply situation was bad, had to do with the general food shortages during the war, however, the mortality rate was only 5%.

The Ottoman Empire often treated his prisoners of war poorly. In April 1916, for example, there were 11,800 British soldiers, most of them Indians, in the Battle of Kut. 4250 of them starved to death within a few weeks.

Prisoners of war were used in agriculture and industry, and were an important industry during the war.

In addition to soldiers during the First World War and in large scale civilian members of the enemy states interned or deported to Siberia in Russia.

World War II

After the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Emperor Hirohito issued its directive dated 5 August 1937 explicitly ordered to not to hold in the treatment of Chinese prisoners of war to the Hague Convention. The Empire of Japan, which had never signed the Geneva Convention, made in China basically hardly prisoners. Chinese soldiers who were trying to surrender were shot usually killed or after capture. Of the millions of Chinese soldiers and partisans who tried to surrender to the Imperial Japanese Army, only 56 prisoners survived the war.

Chinese American, Dutch, British, Australian, Indian, New Zealand and Canadian prisoners of war were often the victims of torture, forced labor, fatal, death marches and human experiments. Many of the prisoners died of starvation, and the International Red Cross, a denied access to the camps. Well known examples are the Death Railway and the Bataan Death March. The death rate for Allied POWs was 27.1%.

Soviet prisoners of war were treated very badly by the German Reich. They suffered from hunger, cold, forced labor and mistreatment. Gestapo commandos raided the ranks of the prisoners to Jews, government officials and other “unacceptable” and “dangerous” individuals and Soviet commissars, who survived the Commissar Order, and sent them to concentration camps, where they were killed in the rule immediately. Total killed 140,000 to 500,000 Soviet prisoners of war in concentration camps, most of them were shot or gassed. Of the 5.7 million Soviet soldiers, who were in German captivity, survived the war, not 3.3 million, representing 57%. 500,000 Soviet prisoners were liberated by the Red Army during the war yet. 930,000 were freed after the war camps. Numerous Soviet cemeteries in Germany documented the high number of perished in Germany, Soviet prisoners of war and forced laborers.

Treatment Western Allied prisoners of war were usually good and we stayed here at the Geneva Convention. Of the 232,000 U.S., British, Canadian and other soldiers survived the 8348 war is not what corresponds to 3.5%.

After the joint occupation of Poland by Germany 240,000 Polish soldiers came into Soviet captivity, of which only 82,000 survived the war, so the death rate is 66%. 20.000 prisoners of war and civilians were killed in the Katyn massacre.

Some sources suggest that the Soviet Union took 3.5 million soldiers of the Axis Powers caught (including Japanese soldiers in Manchuria), of which about one million died. A specific example is the Battle of Stalingrad, which resulted in 91,000 German soldiers. Only 5000 survived captivity. At the Italian soldiers who were prisoners of war, the mortality rate was very high. Of the 54,000 prisoners died 84.5%.

More than 700,000 prisoners of war, the United States the French are available. France forced about 50,000 high-risk for forced labor as deminers. In spring 1946 the ICRC was finally allowed to hold out and the prisoners let in the American zone get limited amounts of food. From a Western captivity many former German soldiers returned in 1947 and 1948 returned to Germany. In the Soviet Union the imprisonment lasted for an average of four to seven years. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1955 achieved great political success by bringing about the release of the last prisoners.


•      Dirk Pohlmann (director): booty man – As governments betray their soldiers. Documentation, Germany, 2006, 89 min (also for delayed or dubious repatriation of U.S. POWs and other Westalliierter from German camps by the Red Army after the war (WW2, Odessa) and the situation in the Vietnam War)

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