Is the Abuse of POW's Under American Control Unprecedented?

History Q & A

Mr. Bischof is director of CenterAustria and a professor of American history at the University of New Orleans and co-editor (with Stephen E. Ambrose) of EISENHOWER AND THE GERMAN POWS (1992) and KRIEGSGEFANGENSCHAFT IM ZWEITEN WELTKRIEG (1999).

History Posters of All Kinds! Georgetown Bookshop

Is the current controversy about the abuse of Iraqi POWs by American interrogators and guards and the prolonged imprisonment of “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo unprecendented in American history? What is the American record of treating its Prisoners of Wars (POWs) in previous wars? Good, in general, but at times gives to abuse too.

In the final weeks of World War II my father was captured by the U.S. Army in March 1945. As a Wehrmacht soldier he fought on the Western front in the “Colmar Bridgehead.” He was shipped back to the U.S. on the last convoy for German POWs that went States-side. During World War II some 380,000 German POWs were brought to the U.S. I told my father that he was lucky to end up at Fort Carson, Colorado. In no theater of war were German and Italian POWs treated better during and after World War II than on the American mainland.

Had he been captured only a few days later, however, he most likely would have landed in one of the infamous “Rhine Meadow Camps.” In the final weeks of World War II in Europe, the Anglo-American armies captured some 7 million German POWs. What to do with such a mass of miserable humanity? General Eisenhower and the U.S. Army were ill-prepared for millions of captured Germans and anticipated disaster. Months ahead of the German surrender they came up with a new legal designation for POWs as “Disarmed Enemy Forces” (DEFs), so the captors would not to be bound by the strict rules of the Geneva Convention protection rights for POWs.

The consequence of this intentional legal limbo was that more than half a million DEFs were caged up in rain-soaked open fields along the Rhine River, close to where they were captured in March/April 1945. There was no housing for them, not enough food and water. The Germans had to dig shelter in muddy open earth holes and stand in line for hours for a cup of water and totally inadequate rations. They went to the bathrooms in open pits and some fell in and drowned. Some guards terrorized the POWs psychologically by shooting over their heads without any reason. Medical care for many of these POWs utterly exhausted from the war was rare. The physical abuse came in the form of keeping them caged up for weeks during a cold and rainy spring for weeks.

Only in June did the U.S. Army begin with interrogations, dismissals, or transfer to other powers (the French got 750,000 German POWs to be used as labor). Given the dire circumstances, it is surprising that only about 1 percent of the POWs died (compare this with 90 percent of the German POWs taken at Stalingrad dying in Soviet captivity).

German soldiers were also shot rather than taken prisoner, particularly in the confusing opening battles during the Normandy invasion. A soldier from the Third Armored division told me that they did not take any prisoners among SS-troops in his unit, after the massacre of more than 100 American POWs at Malmedy by the SS during the Battle of the Bulge. Clearly, POW maltreatment is often sparked by a revenge motive.

While American POWs were terrorized and brainwashed by the North Koreans and Chinese during the Korean War (remember The Manchurian Candidate?), no major stories of abuse of North Korean POWs have surfaced. The Vietnam War, on the other hand, was characterized by numerous stories of maltreatment of POWs on both sides. The fate of American POWs (“air pirates”) being tortured in the “Hanoi Hilton” is well-known. The South Vietnamese allies of the U.S. regularly tortured suspected “Vietcong” prisoners in their infamous “Tiger Cages” on Con Son Island. They confined women Vietcong into tiny cages without a shower for months, “eating, urinating, and defecating” and tearing up their clothes for sanitary napkins during their period. Thousands of suspected Vietcong and their supporters were assassinated -- often on suspicion -- in the American “ Phoenix” pacification program. American “search and destroy” missions and “free fire zones” were characterized by few or no prisoners being taken at all.

The “Winter Soldier Investigation” conducted by the “Vietnam Veterans Against the War” in Detroit in 1971 posited that the atrocities committed in My Lai were not unique but part of larger history of atrocities committed by American forces in Vietnam. Among the findings read into the Congressional Record were that “we were murdering prisoners, we were turning prisoners over to somebody else to be tortured.” Moreover, “every law of Land Warfare has been violated.” A recent Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the Toledo Blade into the atrocities committed by the “Tiger Force” of the 101 st Airborne division in 1967 has confirmed this general picture of some U.S. armed forces routinely breaking the rules of civilized warfare.

The abuse of POWs in Baghdad and the legal no man’s land constructed for the Guantanamo “enemy combatants” is nothing new, then, in the annals of American warfare. It is rare though that we get to see such explicit pictures of abused prisoners so soon after their maltreatment. It is also unique among the American public to have such a widespread suspicion that something is very fishy with the Guantanamo “enemy combatants” being denied any legal protections for over two years now – now under review by the Supreme Court. German “DEFs” during World War II were only left in such legal limbo for a few chaotic postwar weeks, before the vast majority of them were released and sent home.

A shorter version of this article was previously published in the New Orlean Times Picayune.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

I am not keeping track, but at a rough guess this is roughly HNN's twentieth or thirtieth bogus historical parallel between W. Bush's Iraq disaster and some previous American conflict, most often World War II. Despite widely varying perspectives, all these articles have shared the general trait of offering far-fetched historical rationalizations for an unprecedented and horribly mismanaged war.

To be sure, in this particular instance, author Bischof does not explicitly advance such a rationalizing argument. Neither does he renounce it, however. In the context of the very lopsided proportion of articles on HNN claiming historical precedence for W. Bush's unilateral and inept Iraq invasion, such a renunciation would have been more relevant than some kind of boiler-plate anti-Nazi disclaimer (I think there have been exactly zero pro-Nazi articles on HNN so far).

To put it simply, Japan attacked America and Germany declared war on America, in December 1941. Iraq never attacked or declared war on the U.S.. See the preamble to the UN charter for a refresher on the distinction between aggression and self-defense.

I am not excusing the U.S. Army's "ill-preparedness" for dealing with POWs in 1945, but to even remotely suggest that Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz were burdened over the past two years with anything like the same degree of pressing concerns and priorities as Truman, Eisenhower, and Patton were in World War II for example, indicates an appalling disregard for historical fact - a disregard, however, which is squarely and demonstrably inherent with HNN, not (at least based on this excerpt) with professor Bischof.

david eric klema - 7/19/2005

are you saying you would have liked to see american cities bombed and civilians killed during wwII? or further that the world would have been better off in the hands of germans? it seems to me that you imply that the allied forcers were not also fighting for the millions of jews/gypsies/soviets killed by the nazis prior to the allied treatment of DEFs, and that they did not consider themselves obligated to treat these men the way that they did. remember the constructionism that escalates in our culture and note the defference in time period. the onslaught of bombers upon german cities was accomplished because it was possible. coincidentally, the americans held superiority over the atlantic and made it utterly impossible for germans to bomb american cities. this was a wonderful tactic by the allied forces. the americans were a bigger part of that war only because they weren't in proximity of the nazi regime. i am not an historian or a journalist, and hope that my thoughts are debatable, as all i hope for is advance on this topic.

peter held - 5/23/2005

<<<To put it simply, Japan attacked America and Germany declared war on America, in December 1941. Iraq never attacked or declared war on the U.S.. See the preamble to the UN charter for a refresher on the distinction between aggression and self-defense.>>>

Yes, you've put it simply - very simply indeed. The USA was sending tons of war meterial to Russia and Great Britain. Would it be better if Germany had attacked these convois without a war declaration? At no time of WW2 the USA was a neutral, peace loving nation which was forced to self-defensed.

Jerald Lynn Meiers - 8/30/2004

I have thought long, and hard about putting this into print, as it were. BUT, If I were not to speak, then it would allow a War Crime to go undocumented !
I Was An American Held By The United States Armed Forces. However, I was what some may call a "Ghost" prisoner. That being, I was transfered from Prison to Prison IE:"Brig", to keep anyone from knowing or comming forward to represent me, such as an Attorney.
There were other American P.O.W.s' other than I. At most I never was able to see more than a dozen or so, and we were never allowed to be out of cells together, except in one situation, where the Guards had what they called a "Prison Riot Drill" This is where they brought about fifteen of us out, and sprayed us with CS & CN gas, and threw in some Gas Gernades, and "Flash Bangs", and then fired machine guns into the mud around us. when finished, they used fire hoses to blast the gas rement off of us. We were all nude, and it was cold and rainy at the time. perhaps fourty degrees or so. then they herded us all into our cells, when finished. that was the only time I was with any other prisoners. Now, as unreal as it may sound, I and others were beaten and tortured ! and as so often happens, after many beatings, some die. Well, in one case, they threw the body over a razor wire fence, and fired a machinegun into the body, and called it an escape attempt. they, it seems got away with that one ? However, one who was beaten several more times than I, did die, and just prior to them dragging him out of the cell, he told me, "They really hurt me this time", and that is the last I heard from him, and I did see him, as they dragged his body away, stiff and blue for the greater part. now, I can only talk for myself, when it comes to Torture ! and that is, I was tortured several times, and in different prisons. allegedly,to get the names of the spies who helped me. Well, there were no spies, but, religious leaders of several Asian religions, and Christian Asians. they did hide me and feed me, in their homes, and several priests hid me and fed me in their temples. The only way I was to get them to not beat or torture me was to go totally passive, and just lay there when they beat and kicked me. They seemed to get great fun out of urinating on the food they shoved under the cell door. thus, I did not eat for many days at a time. then there were those whom defecated on the food, but, I guess after not getting a result, stopped that. and eventually they did shove real unaltered food to me. But, cold showers, handcuffed to the wall, was another favorite. or, forcing me to set, "At Attention" in the sun nude for hours was another favorite. and then when sunburned to pealing and blisters, to handcuff me again to the wall, and run cold water on me for hours. I think I went into shock often, but the concussions and such were just part of the routine. and we, or I never saw a doctor. I was never charged, or had an attorney or "JAG" or Trial. and it wasnt until after the deaths of the others, there was an investigation, or "Dog & Pony" show, pure theater. as they gave us food, and clothing, and placed a radio, and TV in a general population area. and the so-called investigators walked thru, and looked around. then at their exit, all the clothing was taken, and the TV and Radio, and the other props, like the fruit in bowls, and such were gone too. and it wasnt until some days later, while handcuffed and beaten at a table, they forced me to sign documents, which allegedly were to make my entire service, and time as an American Held P.O.W. Secret forever ! I think the reason I have remained silent for so long, is the fact that, I didnt want the families of those they murdered, to suffer again, or More. as the loss of a son must be bad enough ? but, to find he was murdered by beating and torture ?
I guess, I'm taking a very real risk in making this known, However, if no one ever came forward, no one would ever know that the United States Military really does this, on a regular basis ! and then they try to say that the prisoners tortured and beaten and murdered in Iraq, is an isolated thing ! "Bull Shit" as over the years, I have spoken to others, whom were beaten and tortured too !
I can only imagine the beatings, and torture the men held by the north vietnamese went thru ? but, for anyone to believe the so-called enemy are the only one who do this, is pure "Bunk"!
And, why did I walk away from my so-called duty ? I was a wittness to the Murders of babies, children and elderly men and women, in villages in south Viet Nam. in the 60s' and when I heard of Mi Li murders, I said to myself, its too few, and too late ! as they had more or less abandond that practice, for some time, by then.
Or, atleast as I heard from the varied troops returning home. Perhaps, the most cruel thing is, that they published my desertion, in the home town paper, and I was to spend three decades as the " Coward of the County" which was Ironic, as I spent about two years dragging the bodies of K.I.A.s' and wounded out of combat zones. We, even carried the wounded children out too. and got their wounds treated. this was due to the fact that, too many other troops were comming into the village. and some chopper pilot, flew his chopper right into the gunfire, to stop the murders. And, the powers to be, determined, they had to help the civilians wounded. eventhough, that was not the regular practice.
I know that this is most probably self destructive, but the vivid visions of the dead and wounded children, and beaten and tortured, visit me often in my dreams. and the hundreds of dead bodies, I handled too. To me, they were a river of green. and I have though of the fact, that I knew the goo on my shoe. War is a real and all to often crime against mankind. no matter the alleged justification ! as there will always be good sounding reasons to do so, just not good sound reasons ?
Perhaps, its the nature of some men to beat, torture, and murder, prisoners ? however, as Ironic as it may sound, they were the ones, Not fit for combat! the mental defectives, they had to hide in prisons ?
I guess I will never have an answer for the sick things I wittnessed, or which happend to me ? But, I sure did not think that real Americans could or ever would do those things ? But, I was, and it seems, now, Wrong.
For, it seems, that its human nature ? and has nothing to do with which nation we happend to belong to ?
" I just Don't Know" and perhaps never will ? ? ? ?

Arnold Shcherban - 5/27/2004

No, my friends you cannot compare Soviet treatment of
German/Nazi POWs and the respective US one!
Though, philosophically speaking, everything can be compared to anything, in reality there are valid and invalid comparisons.
The case in question is one of the latter.

First of all, it should be known, to the "well-respected
specialists" on Russian/Soviet character and history that
during and immediately after WWII millions of Soviet citizens died of starvation and deseases caused by the war. I would like to see Americans in the same situation
dying of cold and hunger, but providing warmth and food to German POWs.
Secondly, Germans never destroyed and devastated US territory, its cities, towns, villages, homes, plants, factories, businesses, public and govermental infrastructure, etc., etc. along with directly or indirectly killing 22 millions(!) of its soldiers and civilians. In fact the majority of Americans cannot even imagine the scale and depth of suffering, horror and devastation Nazis inflicted on Soviet people
(just don't hypocritically remind me of the
murderous repressions of Stalin's regime; first of all -
I know all about it and much more and better than you do,
secondly - it has nothing to do with the immediate topic
on hands).
The US and UK performed the most barbaric air-bombing terror campaign in Germany, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians(just recall the fate of Dresden and Koeln, not mentioning some other smaller cities and towns, those that had not been bombed out of the military necessity), though Germans did not do anything
similar to this to their territory and peaceful citizens.
Now imagine this country experienced something even remotely close to the horrors plummeted on Russians.
I can bet not only my money but my life that provided
the latter happened, no German POWs would have been
taken by American military - not 90%, but all 100% of them would be killed at the spot of capture.

So, please, get off your high American horse, and have
little humane respect for life, dignity and circumstances of other nations, before throwing ideological dirt at them.

Kenneth T. Tellis - 5/23/2004

Yes, it is possible that Eisenhower was busy with other matters, like golf or having sex with his women chauffer to forget that there was a war on. Whatever the reasons, there was no excuse for the massacre of those 520 German guards and soldiers at Dachau. I thought that we had gone there to teach them how much better our way was, but evidently, some had it in their heads to seek revenge outside international law, just as the Bush regime is doing in Iraq today. What other reason could there be?

No, USA you have not taught the world anything better by your arrogance. Rather you Americans have made the world realize that you became the Herren Volk that you claimed to despise. If we were to take off your badges and put on SS badges you would fit you perfectly. Why even your spanking new helmets are so much like huns you fought that one cannor see any difference.

Today, your actions speak louder than words. Yes the atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison were bad, but they were nothing compared to your atrocities in Vietnam, were they? Who do you have training your forces? Are they the Detroit mob opr the New York mob? Perhaps that is why you go about raping and sodomizing in Iraq. Of course there's that big time loser George W. Bush, and he is certainly no example for you Americans to follow. Why no International War Crimes Court for US forces personnel who have committed War Crimes? Because in such a venue, you could not buy justice or influence it. But then of course the US demanded a trial for the German and Japanese War Criminals of World War II. Yet does not feel that it applies to Americans.

Grant W Jones - 5/13/2004

On 12 April 1945 the British Second Army liberated Belson. "I do not believe that anyone realized what we were going to be face with or the demands that would be made on the medical services." Brigadier Hugh Glyn Hughes: Senior Medical Officer, Second Army.

Cornelius Ryan continues: "Doctors, nurses, hospital beds and thousands of tons of medical stores and equipment were urgently needed. Brigadier Hughes alone required a 14,000-bed hospital--even though he knew that, no matter what steps were taken, at least 500 inmates would die each day until the situation could be brought under control...The psychological effect of the camps on [allied] officers and men was beyond assessment...General Eisenhower made a personal tour of a camp near Gotha. Ashen-faced, his teeth clenched, he walked through every part of the camp." Ryan, _The Last Battle_

If there was a resource allocation conflict between providing for concentration camp inmates and German POWs, guess where my sympathies lay. If anyone has info on this topic, please share.

Bischof also fails to mention the most famous case of American mistreatment of German POWs during the war:


GIs summarily executed about a hundred SS concentration camp guards. Boo F'ing Hoo.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/12/2004

There are a couple of ways to address the question of POW treatment, at least four of which come to mind at the moment.

First is, as Bischof does, diachronically (across time): comparing US treatment of POWs in multiple theaters at different times in history. A survey of US history, very typical approach, though I consider it a bit narrow and often artificial.

Second is, as Severance suggests, synchronically (time-slice): comparing US treatment of POWs with the treatment of POWs by others in the same conflicts. Another very common approach, though I find it lends credence to relativism and promotes a sort of competitive moral calculus that is more about blame than it is about historical knowledge.

Third is presentism, the application of contemporary standards to historical circumstances. This is generally considered to be a dead-end, misplaced moralistic hindsight, but it's quite popular. Other variations include the application of civilian police norms to military situations, and the assumption that results were naturally foreseen by contemporary actors as clearly as they are seen by us today.

Fourth is strict constructionism, the application of the letter of the law. This is sometimes coupled with a sort of bad moral equivalency argument, that any violation is equally bad, and a kind of "gotcha" history/journalism that rarely makes anyone happier. But it can lead to interesting questions and answers about the setting of standards, and the implementation of standards and the response to transgressions.

OK, I've probably given away my biases, but I'll spell it out anyway: I'm in favor of asking questions that lead to interesting answers and which connect to larger questions. The diachronic approach is fine, if it connects to larger questions about US military culture, the military in US culture, or shifts in policy and law over time. The synchronic approach is mostly useful in cases where strong similarities make comparisons meaningful, such as comparing German, Soviet and Japanese POW treatments, or US treatment of German v. Japanese POWs. The presentist approach is rarely all that useful, as an historian, but can be useful as a rough gauge of social/moral/ethical/legal progress: yes, US racism is bad, but it's not blatant slavery, that sort of thing. The strict construction approach makes more sense to me, as a general approach, and as an historian the question of contemporary standards and context must be carefully addressed, so that it doesn't descend into presentism or synchronic relativism.

Paul Noonan - 5/12/2004

The following is borrowed from another website:

Convention signed at Geneva August 22, 1864; Ratifications exchanged at Geneva June 22, 1865; Declaration of accession signed by the President of the United States March 1, 1882; Senate advice and consent to accession March 16, 1882; Accession of the United States accepted by Switzerland June 9, 1882; Entered into force June 22, 1865; for the United States June 9, 1882; Proclaimed by the President of the United States July 26, 1882; Superseded by conventions of July 6, 1906,1 July 27, 1929 and August 12, 1949 as between contracting parties to the later conventions in each instance.

Kenneth T. Tellis - 5/12/2004

If as they say the Geneva Convention was in place in 1864 How was it possible that both sides in the American Civil War committed atrocities against their fellow Americans? If that is the case, then the US has never fulfilled what it promised with regard to the Geneva Convention.

Now consider the facts. If the US did not treat fellow Americans during the Civil War, how can we expect them to treat non-Americans any better? Torture has been a part of the American military machine from its murder of the indigineous peoples of America, to the Mexicans, the Filipinos, the Hawaiians and the peoples of Latin Amerca, Vietnam, Cambodia, Loas, Afghanistan and now Iraq. As for what happened in Germany during and after the surrender, its not a pretty story. And now we have the liar extraordinaire George W. Bush trying to convince the world that Americans do not commmit War Crimes. Just who does this joker think he is fooling? Of course he gave praise to Donald Rumsfeld for doing a good job on torturing Iraqi prisoners-of-air. That's just what the world needed to get things going, is it not? Perhaps what we need is to have George W. Bush tried for War Crimes, just as the Allies did for the Germans and Japanese sfter World War II.

Ben H. Severance - 5/12/2004

Mr. Meade,

I have clearly overreacted, as you rightly point out. Of course, Mr. Bischof can expound on anything he wants to, and it was foolish of me to insinuate any culpability in the Holocaust. Furthermore, scholars and pundits would never present any ideas if they had to attach what would likely be an endless list of qualifiers.

As for Bischof's article, I only thought that if he was going to examine U.S. POW policy toward Germans, he might also have compared it to the Nazis overall policy, especially since he slipped into his essay the brutal Soviet treatment of Stalingrad prisoners. In not doing this, he has presented a misleading argument that suggests that U.S. policies were inordinately inhumane (though not as bad as the Russians, he is careful to note). Moreover, in mentioning GI killings of SS, he is highlighting revenge without establishing the infamous reputation of the SS (nor emphazing that the SS deserve no pity). In short, Bischof is avoiding an obvious WWII comparison that would undermine his initial line of reasoning. And doing so deliberatly, in my opinion.

Patrick Meade - 5/11/2004

What a crock. Why should Mr. Bischof need to apologize for the actions of a previous generation of Germans before he be allowed to talk about history. You make this ludicrous claim, that he can not be taken seriously, as if you had the right to speak for the rest of us.

You certainly didn't begin your reply by expressing disgust at the actions that the American military has used in the past. I'm part Native American. Should I take you seriously, even though you have yet to personally apologize to me for the fact that other Americans took my ancestors land from them?

What kind of name is Severance? English? French? Certainly, according to your notion of genetic guilt, you have some serious expressions of disgust to make before you can be taken seriously on any subject.

Oh damn. I guess I need to make some expressions of disgust myself if I want you to read this. To the best of my knowledge, my ancestory is Irish/German/Mohegan/Dutch/English/French.

I am hereby disgusted by:
The Stonewall Riots (Irish)
The IRA (Irish)
The NAZIS (German)
Bad Haircuts (Mohegan)
The Mohegan Sun Casino where many people have lost money (Mohegan)
Wooden Shoes(Dutch)
The 14th through 20th Centuries (English)
Same (French)
Celine Dion (French by way of Quebec)
and lots more.

Oh, and I'm American too, so...sorry.

Ben H. Severance - 5/11/2004

Mr. Bischof,

You illuminate a number of important issues, but given your presumably Germanic ethnic and ancestral background, you would do well to first acknowledge the infinitely more despicable POW record of Nazi Germany before chastizing American POW policies.

You seem to grudgingly admit that only 1 percent of DEFs died under Allied control in comparison to the 90 percent of Germans in the hands of the Soviet Union. In the process, you neglect to discuss German Ostpolitik. I think you will find that German treatment of Russians was just as brutal: tens of thousands of Russians were victimized by summary executions, forced labor, laboratory experiments, starvation, and exposure.

And why should we cry when American GIs shot SS troopers? The SS were murderers. To be sure, the Waffen SS were crack fighters in combat, but who were ideologicaly trained to become Einsatzgruppen afterwards. In its efforts to reach Normandy in 1944, the Das Reich slaughtered its way through the French countryside. Americans killed SS troopers in the heat of the moment; the SS engaged in pre-meditated state sponsored murder. Incidentally, was it not standard practice for Germans, SS or otherwise, to kill Soviet Commissars on the spot?

Anyway, in the future, if you want to be taken seriously on this topic, you need to first explain that you acknowledge and express disgust for the far more heinous Nazi POW policies that you, simply by association, have to own up to as a German person.