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For the 72 Million

German Prisoners of War in Allied Hands in World War II

Hundreds of thousands of German soldiers were captured during the war. Their fate depended on whether the Red Army or the British or Americans took their armistice. Prisoners of the Western Allies had a much better chance of survival.

Few Germans were taken in combat from 1939 to 1941. The German victories ensured that prisoners taken in combat in Poland, Norway, France and the Low Countries were released when the campaign ended in allied capitulation.

The combat in the Soviet Union, due to its apocalyptic nature, left both sides trying to prevent capture. Soviet and German units cut off from relief would fight to the death. Friedrich von Paulus’ Sixth Army took 85% casualties before surrendering at Stalingrad. Capture was so feared many choose death.

The conditions German POWs endured on the Eastern Front are beyond description. Shipped to separate camps in Siberia and elsewhere in the western Soviet Union, the German POWs were subjected to aggressive reeducation in Communist ideology, as well as frequent beatings, torture, and execution. Food was always scarce.

The result was a horrific rate of death among German POWs. Out of the 90,000 Germans who marched into Soviet captivity at Stalingrad, only 5,000 returned from Russia. Most German POWs were held for ten years after the war.

Germans in North America and sometimes Britain fared much better. Food was plentiful, and they ate better then their families in Europe did. Camps for German POWs were set up all over England and the United States. German POWs had medical care, shelter, and were paid wages for their labor, although very low ones. They worked on farms and work gangs. Some died in captivity, either due to wounds in combat or trying to escape. In one incident, zealous Nazi U—boat crew members killed a POW that had collaborated with the Allies. Thousands of German POWs attempted escape, with one pair even trying to cross over the Arctic to get from Canada to Germany. Most were recaptured; only one successful escape is recorded from North America. Baron Franz von Werra jumped out of a train in Canada and walked to then-neutral New York State in April 1941.

Violence in POW camps was generally down. Loyal Nazis celebrated national holidays at the same time Hitler was in Berlin. War news shocked them as the Allies and the Red Army advanced into Germany.

The Western Allies were overwhelmed by the number of surrendering Germans in late 1944 and early 1945. The POW system was completely overloaded, with too few guards and too little shelter and food. Many guards were brutal to the German POWs, often in retaliation for the German occupation of their home country.

The end of the war was distressing, but most POWs feared for their loved ones. Some Nazis committed suicide, either before the end of the war or on the day of the armistice.

When the war ended, the German POWs were shipped home — unless they were held by the Red Army. Germans were still being released from Soviet POW camps in 1955. Some probably were never released and spent their lives in captivity.

German POWs often remained defiant Nazis in captivity, but others were grateful for a hot meal and a warm place to sleep after the horrors of modern warfare. They were often abused for the Nazis’ actions in combat and occupation. If they were lucky enough to make it to a POW Camp in North America, they could expect decent food and shelter and sometimes work release. These men only had to fear the hard line Nazis that would execute those they held as Allied collaborators.

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