Episodes & Studies Volume 1
THE GERMANS in the main observed the provisions of the Geneva Convention and on the whole they treated prisoners of war and civilian internees* with fairness and justice. It is well to bear this in mind, as this account of prisoners of war in German hands cites instances of German brutality or violation of the Convention. But the Germans’ consideration for their prisoners fluctuated during the war and reflected the fortunes of war. After the Greek campaign their treatment of prisoners was generally harsh; it improved for a few months and then deteriorated again in the summer of 1942 with the German advance to the Caucasus and Rommel’s successes in the Western Desert. After Stalingrad and the landings in North Africa a marked change for the better showed itself in German manners and behaviour. Yet, even at the end of the war, many Germans would not admit to themselves that their country could be defeated, and they remained constant in their attitude of rigour to their prisoners. But, by and large, courtesy to prisoners had returned by the end of the war.
The Germans treated the sick humanely except sometimes in forward areas such as Greece. The medical equipment they supplied to prison camps was inadequate, however, and prisoners would have fared very badly if it had not been for the special supplies of medicines and comforts sent in through the International Red Cross. The Germans were punctilious about funerals, burying with full military honours those who died of sickness or accident; numbers also were killed in Allied air raids.
Prisoners of war gained considerable insight into the German character in their years of captivity. They remarked on the constantly vituperative, hectoring manner of German non-commissioned officers and their liability literally to scream with rage. Most of their guards they found ‘decent chaps’, if a trifle wooden and blindly subservient to orders and to rank. Many of them were men of low physical grading or elderly, of a very different type and outlook from German front-line troops, whose treatment of men at the time of capture was nearly always excellent. The German virtues of order and obedience were fully exhibited in their prison camps, whose commandants on the whole were fair and just.
Another side to the character of Hitler’s Germany was seen in the Germans’ treatment of prisoners of other nationalities. Many camps had a Russian compound, and the condition of the Russian prisoners (whose government did not adhere to the Geneva Convention and who had to exist on the German rations) was pitiable. British prisoners made gifts to them from their own parcels to the utmost extent possible. They were astounded to find the Germans able to behave humanely to one group of captives and so brutally to other groups. But few had not seen these distinctions obliterated before the end of the war.
The fall of greatness has been a constant theme of tragedy. Prisoners of war witnessed, from all too intimate a vantage point, the drama of Germany’s overthrow. The nation which had filled all Europe with terror had been beaten in the field; force had been mastered by greater force; the nation which had waxed great by the sword was perishing by the sword. This historic tragedy should have been profoundly moving as an emotional spectacle. But prisoners of war were generally indifferent to it. That is not to their discredit. Their thoughts were fixed on their own homes, and they did not pause to feel vindictive towards the captors from whom they had at last been liberated.
* About 100 New Zealanders, including some women, were interned by the Germans; they were mostly merchant seamen or passengers captured at sea.