From pyramids of heads to the Geneva Conventions: How the fate of prisoners of war changed
For at least 11 thousand years, humanity has been at war from time to time. And as long as there have been wars, there has been captivity. If death on the battlefield is ultimately the same for any era, then captivity in the past and captivity now are completely different things.
No mercy for anyone. Prisoners of war in ancient times
The fate of the prisoners of the first intertribal conflicts was unenviable. Primitive people did not see any point in pardoning their enemies, let alone providing them with any conditions for survival. Therefore, the men who survived the clash between the tribes were usually killed by the victors. Most often, the entire tribe of the defeated was destroyed, except for women capable of childbearing. The cases of ritual cannibalism against prisoners of war were also known. That is why the armed conflicts of that time were so brutal: if one could not count on the mercy of the winner, one had to fight to the last drop of blood.
This trend continued until the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. And on the onset of the Neolithic Revolution, the attitude toward prisoners of war has changed. Now they were not an unnecessary burden, but a valuable labor resource: they could be used as slaves. However, there was no clear distinction between prisoners of war and ordinary prisoners: both captured civilians of the enemy state and captured soldiers were treated as the property of the victor and were equally powerless.
The only exception was the captured elite, aristocracy and rulers. Such prisoners had much more value because they could be ransomed for a generous price, or used to negotiate more favourable terms in postwar agreements.
But even the noble captives were sometimes killed demonstratively, just to show power and intimidate the enemy. The Assyrian Empire (14th-7th centuries BC) was especially cruel to prisoners of war and civilians. Bloody pyramids were made from the heads of killed enemies, the captives were flayed alive, and their skin hung on the walls of the Assyrian capital. Captured noblemen were forced to grind the bones of their ancestors as a sign of complete submission to Assyria, rejection of their past and refusal to fight.
In the Middle Ages, the attitude toward prisoners of war was no better. For instance, in 1014, Byzantine Emperor Basil II commanded to blind 15,000 Bulgarian soldiers captured in the Battle of Belasitsa and sent back them to Bulgaria that way. The Bulgarians were divided into columns of 100 people, with 99 soldiers fully blinded and only one of the hundred left with one eye to see the road. The legend says, when King Samuel II of Bulgaria saw his soldiers blinded, he died of a heart attack.
By the rules…
All in all, there was no common practice of treating the prisoners of war until the 17th century. The first example of international agreements on the fate of prisoners was the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, concluded at the end of the Thirty Years’ War. The treaty stated that all prisoners of war should be released without ransom.
From that moment on, the rules of warfare and treatment of prisoners of war were gradually unified. The exchanges of prisoners of war were increasingly practiced, and the conditions of their detention were improving. Over the next three centuries, a system of international humanitarian law was developed.
Today, this system is based on the “law of Geneva” and the “law of The Hague”. The four Geneva Conventions (1864-1949), with additional protocols in 1977 and 2005, and the two Hague Conventions (1899-1907) declare the basic principles of warfare. According to them, captivity should only pursue one goal, to prevent the prisoners from taking part in the fighting. Killing or harming defenseless people is against military tradition.
Unfortunately, in practice, these agreements are often ignored or adhered to selectively. As an illustrative example, during World War I, prisoners of war in the European theatre were doing better than during World War II. In World War I, all parties to the conflict pledged to adhere to the rules of fair treatment of prisoners of war, and the survival rate among combatants was generally much higher.
Perhaps that is why soldiers surrendered en masse during World War I. For instance, between 100 and 120 thousand Austrian soldiers surrendered to the Russian army in the First Battle of Galicia in 1914. Up to 90,000 Russian soldiers and officers were taken prisoner by Germany after the Battle of Tannenberg. In total, about 8 million soldiers were taken prisoner during that war.
The moment of immediate capture was the most dangerous for a soldier. In the POW camp, conditions improved, largely due to the efforts of the Red Cross and neutral countries’ inspections. Prisoners’ labor was used mainly in agriculture and in the mines, sometimes in manufacturing. The average working day lasted ten hours, and there was virtually no responsibility for low productivity. The prisoners were punished only for sabotage or refusal to work. Therefore, prisoners of war were in no hurry to fulfil the quota, just serving their working hours.
In total, during the World War I, the German Empire held captive up to 2.5 million, the Russian Empire up to 2.9 million, and Great Britain and France around 720 thousand prisoners.
The mortality rate among them was quite low, only 5 to 7 percent of POWs died in German camps. In the Russian Empire, however, the situation was much worse, mainly due to the country’s internal situation. Prisoners suffered from hunger, barely received any necessary medical care, and the work of the Red Cross was almost impossible there. As a result, approximately 20-25% of POWs in Russia did not survive captivity. The highest mortality rate belonged to the Siberian camps, where almost 375,000 out of 500,000 prisoners died. However, it happened due to negligence and lack of resources, rather than deliberate extermination.
…and without rules
The situation changed dramatically during World War II. Germany had the largest number of prisoners then: more than 7 million people went through the POW camp system. About 5 million of them were Soviet prisoners, and about 2 million were French.
And while the provisions of the Geneva Convention were applied to prisoners from the Western countries, the attitude to prisoners from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was much worse. They were held in horrible conditions and systematically exterminated. Officially, Germany explained this by the fact that the USSR had not ratified the Hague Convention. (Germany ignored the note of the USSR People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs from April 27, 1942, on joining the Hague Convention). But the true reasons of the terror were the ideas of racial superiority (according to this theory, Slavs were third-class people) and Hitler’s proclaimed fight against communism.
While prisoners from the Western countries were rarely forced to work and were provided with all the necessary supplies and assistance from the Red Cross, prisoners from the USSR were exploited in inhumane conditions. They didn’t receive medical care, their food supply was restricted, and they were forced to do the most difficult and dangerous work. As a result, between 2.5 and 3.5 million Soviet prisoners, approximately 50-60%, died in German captivity from 1941 to 1945. By comparison, the mortality rate among American and British prisoners did not exceed 5%.
The Nuremberg Tribunal declared the treatment of Soviet POWs in Germany to be a war crime. According to the principles of international law, the only purpose of captivity for prisoners of war was to prevent them from taking part in the fighting. Killing or harming defenseless people is against military tradition.
However, the conditions for prisoners from the Axis powers in the USSR were not humane either. The labor of POWs was used extensively to rebuild the ruined infrastructure. Working conditions were very difficult. According to the official data, of more than 3 million people in Soviet captivity, between 360 and 380 thousand died, and more than a million went missing.
In total, the mortality rate in Soviet labor camps is estimated at about 35%. It is difficult to give a more precise figure, because registration system for prisoners of war was poorly organized. The duration of captivity was also important, as the last of the German prisoners of war were able to return home only in 1952. For comparison, the mortality rate of German soldiers in the captivity of the Allied countries ranged from 0.03 to 2.7%.
After the World War II, the conditions for prisoners of war were gradually improving. Things got better due to the international law, the growing value of human life, and the new channels of information, as it is more difficult to cover up war crimes today. However, even in the 21st century it is still impossible to fully eradicate the vicious practice of torturing the surrendered enemy. That is why the torture of prisoners of war in Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and in Izolyatsia in Donetsk has become a reality today.