||In the early 1970s a
popular television comedy was set in the most unlikely of places—a
German prisoner of war (POW) camp.
The exploits of Hogan’s
laughter to millions.
The bumbling camp commandant,
Colonel Klink, (right)
never figured out that the POWs were really running the camp.
||Obviously, the series
hardly reflected the reality of life as a World War II POW.
But, in at least one respect, it
was realistic: in almost every episode there occurs a conversation
between the prisoners and the guards in which the requirements of
the Geneva Conventions are raised.
Even inside the camp, the law,
specifically the Third Geneva
Convention, must be obeyed.
The law sets out the duties,
responsibilities, and rights of both the prisoners and the guards.
Nonetheless, it is unlikely that a real POW camp would be a place where
one would find a lot of frivolity. What considerations go into
establishing, and maintaining, a POW camp? What should one really expect
to find inside a prisoner of war camp?
Prisoners walking around the
perimeter in the Exercise Area, Stalag Luft 3,
overlooked by a watchtower, or Goon Tower as they were known. Note
the thin boundary wire running at thigh-height, beyond which the
prisoners were forbidden to go on penalty of being fired upon.
Copyright: Special Collections Branch of the USAF Academy Library.
Clearly, prisoners of war lose their
freedom. But they are not criminals. They are enemy soldiers for whom
participation in the war has come to a halt. The Third Geneva Convention
is built around the idea that POWs retain their military status and are
entitled to humane treatment.
The International Committee of the
Red Cross (ICRC) is charged, under Article 126, with overseeing the
implementation of the treaty requirements, but others might also visit
a POW camp—for example, journalists or humanitarian aid workers.
A person visiting a POW camp should have
at least a general idea, if not detailed knowledge, of what the Third
Geneva Convention or individual regulations concerning camp activities
require. Some knowledge of the law should make it more difficult for a
capturing power to present the outside world with a facade of compliance
while, in reality, it is violating the fundamental precepts of the law.
An initial consideration in evaluating a POW camp is its location. Is the
camp located in an area that is unsafe? The camp should be far enough from
the combat area so that the POWs are not endangered (Article 19). It
should be located in an area where the environment does not threaten the
health of the POWs. There is also a general prohibition on housing POWs in
penitentiaries (Article 22).
The POWs should be housed in such a way
as to protect them from the effects of the war, specifically aerial
bombardment. If military considerations permit, the camp should be marked
with the letters PW or PG (prisoner de guerre), which are visible from the
air. The buildings in which the POWs are quartered must meet the same
general standards as the quarters made available to the forces of the
captor. Women prisoners must be separately housed from the men (Article
For the Third Geneva Convention to have any real utility inside the camp,
its contents must be known to those inside—prisoners and guards. Article
39 requires that the camp commander have a copy of the convention in his
possession. Article 127 takes this somewhat further and requires that the
military personnel who have responsibility for POWs must be “specially
instructed” in the convention’s requirements. At the same time, the
POWs must also know their responsibilities. Article 41 requires that the
full text of the convention, in the language of the prisoners, be posted
in the camp.
If the text of the convention is available and known to the POWs and the
guards, what sort of considerations go into evaluating compliance? An
initial inquiry concerns who is actually in the camp.
The purpose of the card is to let the
next of kin know of the capture and provide some general information as to
the health of the captive. The format for the card is set out in an annex
to the convention. Because the card must be filed within seven days of the
arrival in camp of a new prisoner, a legitimate POW camp, properly run,
should have a supply of the cards on hand. If the cards are not present, a
crucial factor in captivity—letting others know—is missing.
Some evaluation factors are obvious. Medical care must be provided for
those who need it. There should be an infirmary in the camp and it should
be staffed with qualified medical personnel. That does not necessarily
mean medical doctors, but at least people with some medical training. In
fact, if medical personnel are among the POWs they should be working in
the medical facility (Article 33).
The prisoners must be fed and provided with drinking water, but the
convention requires that the normal diet of the POWs should be taken into
consideration (Article 26). Thus, it would be improper to force Muslim
POWs to eat food forbidden by their religion. The POWs should be properly
clothed. In most cases this means the POWs will wear a uniform of some
type, either their own or one issued by the captor.
If many POWs are in civilian clothes,
there might be cause for further inquiry. First, POWs are generally
soldiers and should be in uniform. Second, a POW who has civilian clothes
is a greater escape risk. So if a large number of the “POWs” are in
civilian clothes, the possibility exists that they may be civilians and
not real POWs.
POWs are still soldiers and are expected to act like soldiers. POWs are
expected to salute their captors who are higher in rank. Every POW,
regardless of rank, must salute the camp commander. This might seem silly
at first glance. But it actually helps both the POW and those who guard
him maintain their military status and dignity. Of course, discipline is
enhanced when such military traditions are followed. The absence of basic
military courtesy, such as rendering salutes, can also be evidence that
the camp is not being properly run.
Generally, POWs can have contact with the outside world. This means the
POWs have the right to send and receive letters from home (Article
The POWs are also permitted to
receive relief shipments of food, medicine, clothing, etc. (Article