History

Millions of Prisoners of War illegally used as slaves by the Allied Victors

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Three years after the end of World War II tens of thousands of German prisoners of war were still being detained in post-war Britain. In March 1946, angry that the government had not announced when they could be repatriated, the Labour MP Richard Stokes said the Germans were entitled to know their expected date of release.

26th March 1945: A group of German prisoners captured at Friedrichsfeld are marched through a town in Germany, after the crossing of the Rhine by the US 9th Army. (Photo by Fred Ramage/Keystone/Getty Images)

‘It was an affront to their human rights and therefore a betrayal of British values, he said.’ Although ex-enemies, Stokes insisted German POWs had human rights which Britain, as a foremost guardian of them, had to respect.

By September 1946, nearly two years since WWII had effectively ended for Germany, 402,000 German POWs were still being held in camps stretching across Britain. They were set to work on tasks including road repair and brickmaking. POWs swept up the rubbish after Victory in Europe celebrations and helped construct Wembley Way for the 1948 Olympics. In March 1947, 170,000 captive slaves were being worked illegally in agriculture, helping farmers bring in the harvest.

International law stipulated that captives should be repatriated after a peace treaty was signed, but with Germany occupied, a peace treaty was a remote possibility. Britain in clear defiance of international law kept its German POWs, who were proving useful as a labour force, without announcing when they might be sent home.

‘Upon embarking from our ports the prisoners were given to understand that they were being sent home; when they learned upon arrival at British that they were to be worked indefinitely as slaves, they became sullen. 

As one British officer said: ‘It takes us several weeks to bring them around to where they will work hard.’  – Arthur Veysey, London, May 28 1946. Chicago Tribune Press Service.

In May 1946, the politician and writer Harold Nicolson argued that the repatriation of German POWs should begin immediately. For Nicolson, the treatment of German POWs was an example of this damaging hypocrisy: That we should treat human beings in this manner while proclaiming aloud our belief in the sanctity of human values, [is] more than wrong, it is blind and stupid.

The outraged British people registered similar disapproval in letters to newspapers. Retaining prisoners of war as slaves indefinitely tarnished Britain’s image; the freedoms for which the war that they had been told was fought were being denied the German captives.

Public dissatisfaction was formally expressed in August 1946 when Save Europe Now, a post-war pressure group sent a petition to then-prime minister, Clement Attlee, who himself insisted on having German slaves serving him and his family at the British home. Attlee soon announced that 15,000 POWs would be repatriated per month. While this was celebrated, criticism of the slowness of repatriation continued until it was completed in 1948 ~ over three years since the German armed forces had surrendered.

Though the Geneva Convention stipulated that prisoners of war should not be used as slave labour and should be returned quickly to their home countries, there was no foreseeable end to imprisonment for the former German soldiers in France.

Things began to move when the United States started to exert pressure, as it would need the support of western Germany in the looming Cold War against the Soviet Union. Under massive pressure from the United States, in 1947 French officials told the German slave labourers that the last of them would be able to return home by the end of 1948.

French officials did not want to completely relinquish the supply of free labour, which, according to a study from the 1970s, was responsible for 2.3% of gross domestic product. Their French slaveholders offered their German captives the chance to stay in France suggesting that in future they would be paid. Almost 137,000, many of them from eastern Germany, thus received the status of civilian workers.

‘Many of the slaves used by the Allied victors had never served in the German armed forces. They included German seamen illegally seized by the Americans before they entered the war, Americans of German descent, and German civilians who had previously lived in South American countries. – The Chicago Daily Tribune, March 14 1946.

The British Government nets over $250,000,000 each year from its German slaves, hiring them out at up to $20 a week, and paying the slaves up to 20 cents a day.  The prisoners are never given cash but are provided with credits instead.

In March 1946, 140,000 prisoners-of-war were working on farms, which earned the government $14 a week per prisoner, 24,000 on housing and bomb damage projects, 22,000 on the railways; others in odd jobs or waiting on GI brides awaiting shipment to America.

According to Members of Parliament at the time, 130,000 German prisoners-of-war are held in Belgian camps. ‘The prisoners lived through the winter in tents and slept on bare ground under one blanket each. They say they are underfed and beaten and kicked by the guards.  Many have no underclothes or boots.’ – Chicago Tribune Service, London, May 19 1946.

‘Such were the desperate straits of the German prisoners-of-war that an increasing number of them were escaping from British slave camps, with British civilian aid.  Accounts of the chases by Military Police are reminiscent of pre-Civil War pursuits by fleeing Negro fugitives,’ reported Chicago Tribune Press Service, London, August 27 1946.

‘By mid-September, public indignation had reached such a pitch that the British War Office announced that plans were underway to release 15,000 prisoners per month, on a selective basis, and promises were made to improve conditions in the camps.’ – John Wilhelm, London, September 12th 1946

‘When Press representatives ask to examine the prison camps, the British loudly refuse, with the excuse that the Geneva Convention bars such visits to prisoner-of-war camps.’  – Arthur Veysey, London, May 28 1946.

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2 replies »

  1. I recently saw a Mark Felton production, excusing Eisenhower of the ‘Rhein Meddow Camp’ deaths of over a million German prisoners by the American and French occupying armies. He more or less calls James Bacque a liar concerning his book, ‘Other Losses.’ It appears we get court historians in all types and sizes. Felton is popular with anyone interested in the period from 1914 to 1945 which we will call World War parts one and two. But, his emphasis is always tinted with the victor’s propaganda. Where I grew up in the fifties and sixties many of our neighbors had fought for the Axis Armies trying to free Europe of Bolshevism. One of my friend’s father survived a nightmare camp where prisoners were left to fend for themselves. They were fed weak soup every third day and almost never given water. He emphatically stated he was not treated under the rules of war. At the time many of us thought he was exaggerating, but, after reading ‘Other Losses,’ I determined he wasn’t. Unfortunately, it took me over 30 years to determine that. We owe James Bacque who has passed away a great service for telling the truth about history that seems to be always hidden. Mark Felton on the other hand is just another Faux-historian making excuses for the real enemies of mankind.

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