Prisoner of war camps

Prisoner of war camps. Camps interning persons captured by a belligerent power during war. Until the beginning of the 20th century there were no effective multilateral agreements regulating prisoner of war (POW) camps. Serious attempts to forge such agreements were made at the First and Second Hague peace conventions of 1899 and 1907. The 1929 Geneva Convention of Land Warfare elaborated on the principle of protecting the welfare of POWs. That pact was signed by, among others, Germany, but not the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

During the First World War Ukrainians were held in camps in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Italy. Approx 300,000 of the 1.4 million prisoners from the Russian Empire held in German camps in October 1918 are said to have been Ukrainian. Through the intervention of the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine some 50,000 Ukrainian prisoners were shifted to three special camps (Rastatt, Salzwedel, and Wetzlar); from those, two Ukrainian divisions, the so-called Bluecoats, were later created. An estimated 200,000 Ukrainians were among the 1.1 million Russian army personnel held as prisoners in Austria-Hungary. The Graycoats division was formed from Ukrainian POWs interned at the Freistadt camp in 1918.

There were about 120,000 Ukrainians among the 1.7 million or so POWs from Austria-Hungary in the Russian Empire. Although Russia was a signatory to the Hague conventions, the camps spread across the empire are said to have been the worst of all POW camps during the First World War. Generally, prisoners of Slavic origin were put in camps in the European parts of the empire, and those of other origins were interned in the most distant regions. Prisoners were engaged in various types of labor, but very soon POW camps became recruiting bases for armies in the later stages of the war and during the Revolution of 1917. The Czechoslovak Legion, for instance, initiated under the auspices of the Russian government and the Czechoslovak National Council, was formed in Ukraine from POWs. Both the Whites (Volunteer Army) and the Bolsheviks drafted remaining POWs into their armies. The Sich Riflemen was also a unit created from former POWs.

In Italy some 40,000 to 60,000 Ukrainians who had fought in the Austro-Hungarian army were interned in POW camps on the island of Asinara and near Cassino and Arquata. Attempts in 1919 by delegates of the Western Ukrainian National Republic to have them repatriated proved fruitless. They were freed only in 1921.

In Poland up to 100,000 Ukrainians were interned in POW camps in 1919–20 following the Polish occupation of Galicia. Many of them were soldiers of the Ukrainian Galician Army (UHA) and of the Army of the Ukrainian National Republic. They were incarcerated in camps at Strzałków, Brest, Wadowice, and Dąbie. About 15,000 of those prisoners died from poor nourishment and unsanitary conditions. The majority of the survivors were freed in 1920. Soldiers of the UHA were also interned in Romania during 1919. During the Ukrainian struggle for independence (1917–20) Ukrainian combatants were interned in camps across Russia. Among them was the camp of Kozhukhov, near Moscow.

Between 1939 and 1945 hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians serving in the Polish army, the Soviet Army, and other armies were interned. After the Hungarian occupation of Transcarpathia in 1939, several hundred members of the Carpathian Sich were interned in camps in Dryva (near Khust) and Varju-Lapos (near Nyiregyháza). When the Germans advanced into Poland in 1939, approx 700,000 officers and soldiers from the Polish army were captured and interned, among them 60,000 to 70,000 Ukrainians. The 1929 Geneva Convention was generally observed by the Germans in the case of those prisoners, and from 1940 many of the inmates were freed and allowed to return home or to work in the factories of the Reich. A number of Ukrainians were among those Polish combatants captured and interned by the Soviet Army during the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 (see Molotov-Riebbentrop Pact).

The largest capture of enemy soldiers in history took place during the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. An estimated 1.3 million Ukrainians were among the 3.6 million Soviet POWs held by the Germans in 1941. The Soviets, who had not formally ratified either the 1899 or the 1907 Hague convention or signed the Geneva Convention of 1929, considered Soviet POWs traitors and rejected International Red Cross overtures to assist them. Soviet POWs were therefore outside the protection of international law and at the mercy of captors, who considered them ‘subhuman.’ Scattered across camps from Ukraine itself to the region of Lorraine (annexed by Germany), many of the Ukrainian Soviet POWs perished as a result of the inhuman treatment they suffered. The treatment of Soviet POWs often depended upon the attitudes of German district commanders, and thus the fate of prisoners varied from camp to camp. For instance, whereas in the POW camp located in Jarosław Ukrainian inmates were set free very quickly, at Ban-St-Jean in the Moselle department of France, the vast majority of the approximately 24,000 inmates perished during the course of the war owing to multiple privations, or even as a result of having been buried alive. Famine, disease, and mass executions were the rule in other camps where Ukrainians were interned (Khyriv, Kholm, and elsewhere).

The Germans did not have a well-defined or preconceived policy toward Soviet POWs. For a while, particularly in August–October 1941, a number of Ukrainians were released from some camps, especially those in Right-Bank Ukraine, and put to labor in German-occupied Ukraine. But the releases ceased in November 1941. Ukrainian POWs were also interned in concentration camps along with other inmates targeted for destruction. From the spring of 1942 the treatment of many POWs improved, when the Germans began to use them in larger numbers for labor in the war economy.

Few Ukrainian POWs were able to escape; some of those who did were aided by compatriots living in the vicinity of the camps. The Germans discouraged local Ukrainians, at gunpoint, from visiting or coming to the aid of inmates. That, along with the atrocities committed in the camps, contributed to the stiffening of anti-Nazi sentiment among the Ukrainian people. Altogether some 5.8 million Soviets were captured by the Germans between 1941 and 1945. According to a German report of 1 May 1944, of the 5,160,000 Soviet POWs interned to that date 1,981,000 had perished in the camps, 818,000 had been released to civilian or military status, 67,000 had escaped, and 1,241,000 were ‘unaccounted for’ (disappeared or killed). Some 875,000 of the surviving 1,053,000 inmates were engaged in construction and other labor. Toward the end of the war a number of Ukrainians were among the POWs drafted into German armies. Because the Kremlin never acknowledged formally the surrender and desertion of Soviet Army soldiers, the crimes committed in the POW camps have largely gone unpunished, even though the death of the Soviet POWs constitutes one of the largest wholesale murders of the Second World War.

Those Ukrainians who served in Allied (specifically US or Canadian) or Axis military formations and fell into enemy hands generally shared the fate of their captured colleagues in those armies in enemy camps.

In 1945–7 some 10,000 members of the Division Galizien were interned by the British in POW camps near Bellaria and Rimini, in Italy. In some cases Ukrainians published their own periodicals in POW camps. Chervona Ukraïna, for instance, was published by Ukrainian POWs in Hungary between March and August 1919, and the weekly Nova doba (Berlin) by Soviet Ukrainian POWs in Berlin in 1941–5. The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was among the signatories of the 1949 Geneva Convention on POWs.

Lozyn’skyi, M. (ed). Krivava knyha, 2 vols (Vienna 1919–21)
Golovina, N. The Russian Army in the World War (New Haven 1931)
Flory, W. Prisoners of War (Washington 1942)
Kamenetsky, I. Hitler's Occupation of Ukraine (1941–1944): A Study of Totalitarian Imperialism (Milwaukee 1956)
Williamson, S; Pastor, P. (eds). Essays on World War I: Origins and Prisoners of War (New York 1983)
Boshyk, Y. (ed). Ukraine during World War II: History and Its Aftermath (Edmonton 1986)
Hirschfeld, G. (ed). The Policies of Genocide: Jews and Soviet Prisoners of War in Nazi Germany (London 1986)

Serge Cipko, Lev Shankovsky

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 4 (1993).]

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