ญญญญ What really happened?

Allied post-war treatment of German prisoners

In the Spring of 1945, Germany collapsed and millions of men in the German army surrendered to the Americans, British, Canadians, French and Russians. They included not only conscripted regular soldiers. but also young teenagers and men in their sixties and seventies pressed into service in the desperate last days of the war as well as a small number of women. Given the huge numbers involved, it should be fairly easy to establish what happened to them and that should not only be a clear part of the public record, but common knowledge among the general public. However, this is not the case. No films, TV programmes or newspaper articles deal with the topic. Mere discovery of the basic and undisputed facts requires deliberate searching and comes as a shock.

This short article is intended simply to introduce the issue and not to seek conclusions or form judgments. Since my intention is not to write anything original, I will draw on, and refer you to, relevant articles in Wikipedia. Unlike many Wikipedia articles on topics relating to the period, and especially Holocaust-related topics, these  articles appear to conform to Wikipedia's stated aims, presenting a balanced picture of both sides of the issue and using reliable references for those opposing views. That I have used the expression "both sides" implies that the issue has become one of emotion and polemic. In practice it consists of some powerful and apparently extreme accusations brought by the the Canadian writer James Bacque in his book Other Losses, and of several works which appear to have been written with the expressed intention of debunking Bacque. Neither approach can fairly be said to comply with the principles of objective historical investigation, but, unfortunately, such prejudice (in the etymological sense of "pre-judging") seems to be the basis of most historical writing on this period, with those who most loudly hurl this accusation at their opponents being often the most guilty of it themselves. That is a personal view which I will ask you to keep in mind and to form your own judgments on.

Although the greater part of the German army had fought on the Eastern front, large numbers of them made every effort to surrender to the Western Allies rather than the Soviets, with the result that by June 1945 more than seven and a half million men were in American and British custody.The Geneva Convention required that Prisoners of War receive the same treatment, rations and accommodation as soldiers of the nation holding them: a clearly untenable position when Europe, especially Germany, was hungry and strict rationing was in force even in Britain; civilian rations in Europe as a whole were far inferior to what American troops received. Germany was in a state of chaos, with its population swollen by millions of displaced persons from Eastern Europe, soon to be followed by millions more expelled Eastern Germans. For this and other reasons, prisoners taken after the war's end, along with POWs already held, were redesignated Disarmed Enemy Forces, a procedure that had already been followed by Germany for Italian prisoners in 1943. While this was clearly in breach of the Geneva Convention, it has to be recognised that application of that Convention was quite impossible. The disputes we are discussing in this article revolve mainly around whether the Allies, and the Americans in particular, made every effort to handle the situation as humanely as the circumstances permitted or whether there was deliberate vindictiveness leading to large scale avoidable deaths and suffering, with, of course, the possibility that that the reality was a mixture of the two, with mistreatment of prisoners at field level not necessarilly condoned by the high command. It is generally thought that prisoners of the British and Canadians fared somewhat better than those held by the Americans and the French.

The Rhine Meadow Camps

The millions of surrendered troops were initially confined in large barbed-wire enclosures in open fields without shelter or access to food, water, medication, disinfection, washing facilities or latrines. One area of dispute is how quickly and efficiently these basic resources were organised and provided. Common sense would appear to indicate that even with the best will in the world this was a herculean task and large-scale suffering, including deaths, from thirst, starvation, disease and exposure were inevitable. (A similar situation had faced the Germans when millions of Soviet prisoners were taken in 1941. The position of the Soviet prisoners was far worse because their German captors were involved in a war of national life or death and resources were simply not available to house, clothe and feed them. Losses were horrendous - though the numbers are disputed - but any discussion of the issue today seems routinely to assume that the Germans deliberately murdered their Soviet prisoners.)

See the Wikipedia article on the Rheinwiesenlager.

James Bacque: Other Losses
In 1989, the Canadian writer, James Bacque, published Other Losses. Whatever the criticisms of this work, it can at least be credited with bringing the issue to public attention. He accused Eisenhower of knowingly and deliberately allowing conditions in which hundreds of thousands, possibly as many as a million, died and of covering up these deaths. Several refutations of Bacque's work have been published, but all seem to be driven by agenda at least as much as Bacque's original work.
I have not read the book, nor its refutations, and I can only keep an open mind on the subject. It is interesting that the arguments brought by Bacque's critics reflect those brought by Holocaust Revisionists: lack of bodies, reliance on eye-witness testimony, poor methodology, emotional manipulation, etc. It does seem to me though, that while Bacque's figures may be too high, and the criticisms of his methodology may be valid, the figures accepted by his opponents, particularly the 0.15% death-rate of German prisoners held by the Americans cited by Niall Ferguson, defy common sense, the latter being a fraction of the contemporary civilian death rate in the United States.

Of the two Wikipedia articles on James Bacque and Other Losses, the former seems to take a balanced view and quotes critics of Bacque who nevertheless concede that, while overstating his case, he raised valid issues:

[from Wikipedia article "James Bacque")
Despite the criticisms of Bacque's methodology, Stephen Ambrose and Brian Loring Villa, the authors of the chapter on German POW deaths, conceded the Allies were motivated in their treatment of captured Germans by disgust and revenge for German atrocities. They did, however, argue Bacque's casualty figures are far too high, and that policy was set by Allied politicians, not by Eisenhower.

Nevertheless, Stephen Ambrose conceded, "we as Americans can't duck the fact that terrible things happened. And they happened at the end of a war we fought for decency and freedom, and they are not excusable."

Jonathan Osmond, writing in the Journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, said:

"Bacque has published a corrective to the impression that the Western allies after the Second World War behaved in a civilised manner to the conquered Germans. It is clear that he has opened up once more a serious subject dominated by the explanations of those in power. Even if two-thirds of the statistical discrepancies exposed by Bacque could be accounted for by the chaos of the situation, there would still be a case to answer."

Osmond also called the book "emotive and journalistic".

One of the historians in support of Bacque was Colonel Ernest F. Fisher, 101st Airborne Division, who in 1945 took part in investigations into allegations of misconduct by U.S. troops in Germany and later became a Senior Historian with the United States Army. In the foreword to the book he states:

"More than five million German soldiers in the American and French zones were crowded into barbed wire cages, many of them literally shoulder to shoulder. The ground beneath them soon became a quagmire of filth and disease. Open to the weather, lacking even primitive sanitary facilities, underfed, the prisoners soon began dying of starvation and disease. Starting in April 1945, the United States Army and the French Army casually annihilated about one million men, most of them in American camps."
The Wikipedia article on Other Losses seems less balanced and more a hatchet job.

Below are some links to other relevant items. As always, our linking does not imply support for views expressed in any of them. We encourage you to investigate for yourself.

An overtly Revisionist view

A German soldier's story

Eisenhower's Death camps (by James Bacque)

Silent footage


James Bacque - Other Losses [the Mass Deaths of Disarmed German Soldiers & Civilians] (1991)

The Journal Of Historical Review Volume 10 Number 2 1990