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HNN Debate: Was Ike Responsible for the Deaths of Hundreds of Thousands of German POW's? Pro and Con

In 1989 James Bacque published Other Losses, a shocking account of the treatment of German POW's at the end of World War II. Bacque claimed that Dwight Eisenhower, burning with hatred for Germans, allowed nearly a million POW's to die in camps of starvation and illness. Bacque's book sparked new research into World War II archives and attracted the attention of the media in Germany.

In 1990 Eisenhower biographer Stephen Ambrose convened a conference of scholars in New Orleans to assess Bacque's claims. The scholars concluded that Bacque had misread the evidence and vastly overstated the number of POW's who died of neglect. Bacque subsequently revised his book after gaining access to secret Soviet-era archives. He stands by his account.

To help HNN readers sort out the main lines of disagreement, we asked Bacque to debate his critics.

  • Click here to read James Bacque (joined by Ernest Fisher, Jr.)

  • Click here to read critics Gunter Bischof and Brian Loring Villa


    James Bacque and Ernest Fisher, Jr.

    Mr. Fischer earned a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin. He was in the 101st Airborne during World War Two. In 1945, he was ordered to take part in an investigation into allegations of misbehavior by U.S. troops in Germany. He called the investigation"a whitewash." He was for many years a senior historian with the United States Army Center for Military History in Washington, and wrote the official history of the U.S. Army campaign in Italy, Cassino to the Alps. Among his recent publications is a book on the American non-commissioned officer, Guardians of the Republic published by Ballantine.

    Mr. Bacque was educated at Upper Canada College and Trinity College, University of Toronto (BA, 1952). He was for many years the Editor at Macmillan of Canada, and left to found New Press in 1968. He is the author of several novels, published by McClelland and Stewart and by Macmillan of London. His biography of a French resistance hero, Just Raoul, was published in Canada and the US. His books of German history are entitled Other Losses and Crimes And Mercies. His most recent work, Dear Enemy, is a collaboration with an ex-prisoner of war, Richard Mueller, of Aachen.

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    The revelations about the alleged plagiarism committed by Stephen E. Ambrose last year are not only important to American historians and the public but also vitally interesting to the authors of this article. We have both suffered considerable personal embarrassment as a result of incorrect and deceitful allegations made against us and our work. These were published in a book that Ambrose edited (with Gunter Bischof) entitled Eisenhower And The German POWs. Ambrose contributed the lead essay and he organized the conference, in New Orleans in December, 1990 at which the original papers were presented.(1)

    In the fall of 1987, Bacque and Fisher met for the first time under the auspices of General Bruce Clark, to discuss some astonishing documents about United States Army prisoner of war camps in 1945 which Bacque had uncovered while researching his book Other Losses. Together, we went to the U.S. National Archives to research this subject. We also interviewed the late Forrest C. Pogue, the leading expert on the command structure of the army. We told him that our research had shown beyond our doubt, that in the U.S. and French prison camps in Europe in 1945-6, a vast tragedy had occurred, causing the needless deaths of approximately 800,000/900,000 Axis prisoners of war. Pogue advised us what we had to find was the smoking gun in Eisenhower's hand.(2)

    In the course of the next few months' research together, we visited the National Archives in Washington many times, and the George C. Marshall Library in Lexington, Virginia. In the spring of 1988, Bacque had finished the draft of the manuscript and Fisher was preparing to write his foreword. Through the British historian M. R. D. Foot, Bacque was introduced to Ambrose, then the chief of the Eisenhower Center in New Orleans. Ambrose kindly read the manuscript, and offered many suggestions by mail, and during a two-day editing session at his cabin in Wisconsin. Among other things he said:

    I have now read Other Losses and wish I had not. I have had nightmares every night since I started reading... You have a sensational if appalling story and it can no longer be suppressed, and I suppose (in truth I know) it must be published... I must withdraw my offer to write a Foreword; I just can't do it to Ike. I quarrel with many of your interpretations, [but] I am not arguing with the basic truth of your discovery.... you have the goods on these guys, you have the quotes from those who were present and saw with their own eyes, you have the broad outline of a truth so terrible that I really can't bear it.... You really have made a major historical discovery, the full impact of which neither you nor I nor anyone can fully imagine.... I have written at length about your script to Alice Mayhew, my editor at Simon and Schuster.

    The manuscript was typeset incorporating many of Ambrose's suggestions, Fisher wrote the Introduction and the page proofs of the whole book were sent to Ambrose. He read them and handed them back to Fisher at a meeting of an historical association in Washington in the spring of 1989, with the words, "This book destroys my life's work."

    Nevertheless he bravely stood by his earlier words when reporters came to him for comments after the book was published in Canada in September, 1989. He largely confirmed Other Losses to the interviewer for the Dan Rather Evening News. He said to Time magazine (October 2, 1989, International edition) that it was "a major historical discovery. We as Americans can't duck the fact that terrible things happened and they happened at the end of a war we fought for decency and democracy and freedom, and they are not excusable." When he was questioned by a student at a lecture in British Columbia why he had not himself discovered the evidence that appeared in Other Losses, he said frankly that he had never thought to look.

    Sometime during the autumn of 1989, Ambrose accepted an appointment to lecture at the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. It appears he suffered a sea-change in his attitude, for he soon began organizing a conference to be held at the Eisenhower Center, which eventuated in the book Eisenhower and The German POWs.

    In February, 1990 he also published a review in the New York Times Book Review, under very odd circumstances. Although the Times apparently has a policy not to print reviews from writers who have helped to edit a book under review, the paper ran Ambrose's review of Other Losses. This appeared on page one, despite the fact that the book was not yet published in the U.S., was by an author never before published in the U.S., and was issued by a minor publisher on the west coast. Clearly it was the fame of Ambrose which had secured the review, its length and prominence.

    In that slam-bang attack presented as a review, Ambrose admitted frankly that he had not done the research necessary to confute the book's thesis. He wrote, "When the necessary research is done, it will be seen that...." and went on to say that the book is "spectacularly flawed."

    In December, Ambrose convoked his conference on the subject of Eisenhower and the German prisoners of war. A number of scholars presented the papers which constitute the book. These writers we have come to think of as "The Ike-minded." Although there are very many errors in the book which confuse and obscure history, we shall correct only the errors relating to the outstanding discovery in Other Losses, the number of the dead in American and French camps.

    In the first place, Ambrose and the Ike-minded in his book make the fundamental error of relying on a secondary source, the report of the Maschke Commission in Germany, when much better primary sources were available. The Maschke report purports to give an account of the fate of German prisoners of war in allied hands after World War Two. The editors did not visit the Soviet archives because these were closed. The American prisoner of war records were open at the time of the research and writing, but the writer Kurt W. Boehme did not visit them.

    These U.S. POW archives themselves were reduced by deliberate destruction sometime in the late 1940s, according to Eddy Reese, a senior archivist in Modern Military Records. But much survived, and it was among these papers, which we researched for many months through 1986-7 that we found the basic evidence for the deaths in American and French camps. For instance, we found the total of captives in U.S. hands in northwest Europe under Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) command in June 1945, which is 5,224,310. And in the same sets of papers, we found the detailed statistical summaries week by week reporting captures, transfers, discharges of prisoners, including the ominous heading, Other Losses. The meaning of this term was explained by Col. Philip S. Lauben, whose name we found on the circulation list for these G2 papers. Lauben was expert, having been head of the German Affairs Branch of SHAEF and he was unequivocal: Other Losses meant deaths, and "very very minor escapes," fewer than two per cent. It was only much later, under heavy pressure from the U.S. Army that Lauben was induced to recant. (3)

    The total of prisoners of war captured was clear enough, but Ambrose and the Ike-minded do not accept U.S. army documents as sufficient evidence. They reduce the number of prisoners to 3,800,000 by a very simple sleight-of-hand. They point out that some of the prisoners were designated as Disarmed Enemy Forces, and they then fail to give any further accounting for them. This reduces the pool of potential victims, and thus inflates the proportion of those alleged to have died. It also eliminates from the accounts 1,400,000 of the captives who were worst treated, and who bore the largest proportion of losses.

    Of the prisoners of war, they say, some 700,000 were sent to the French. Among the remainder, some 3,097,000, the Ike-minded say that 4,537 died. This is a very challenging statistic. Ambrose's book reports that the death total of 4,537 constitutes a loss ratio of 0.1%, while neglecting to report the time period. This is one of their typical evasions, which usually obscure the picture. We can partly rectify it here.

    The annual death rate for German civilians in the 1930s was around 12 deaths per 1,000 people. The ambient death rate in 1945 in central-west Europe among civilians was about the same. That 12 figure includes the most vulnerable in society, babies and old people. Among young men in peacetime, the death rate is always far lower. For instance, among resting American soldiers in base camp, it was less than one third of that rate, or about 3.8. A total of 4,537 deaths among 3,097,000 implies a death rate of 1.46 (per annum); since 80 percent of the prisoners were kept on average 6 months, this death total implies a rate of around 3.8. Thus the Ike-minded ask us to believe that the prisoners who even Ambrose has admitted were starving, thirsty, living in mudholes for long periods, somehow-miraculously-were just as healthy as were the well-fed, well-rested and well-clothed U.S. soldiers living in base camp.

    But the tedious statistical arguments have been settled by the appearance on the scene of Soviet files. When the Soviet archives on prisoners of war for the 20th century were opened after 1990, Bacque immediately flew to Moscow where he was admitted to the gloomy KGB archives. There he was shown boxes containing millions of documents relating to prisoners of war of every nationality from World War II. He was allowed to patrol those dim aisles, to take down any box he wished and to photocopy any documents he wanted. He brought away from Moscow scores of copies of typical entries, including medical and legal records for individual prisoners, ID documentation, date of death or discharge. He also found the statistical summary of the fate of German prisoners of war.

    This was a major find because it would confirm or destroy the work in Other Losses. The Germans knew, by a thorough survey, how many prisoners had never come home--about 1,400,000. The Soviet death figure would settle the argument between Ambrose and Other Losses as follows: from the missing 1,400,000 one subtracts the 800,000/900,000 deaths alleged in Other Losses to determine that there must have been 500,000 to 600,000 dead in Soviet captivity.

    In forthright manner in several reports, most notably the Bulanov Report dated 28 October, 1956, the Soviets recorded the fate of 2,389,560 Germans, of whom 450,600 died., including 93,900 as they were being transferred from the front to the rear. A further 66,481 civilians died among people rounded up to replace dead and escaped prisoners. The total of the dead actually recorded in the Soviet archives is 517,081.

    The authenticity of the Soviet archives is certain. The deaths of Japanese prisoners of war shown in the KGB prisoner archives match almost exactly the figures determined by the Japanese themselves. The Soviet massacre of Polish prisoners at Katyn in 1940 is also confirmed in the KGB archives. Finally, the figures in Other Losses when tallied with the German figures for their own missing, confirm the KGB figures.

    This amazing confirmation was never been admitted or discussed by Ambrose or any of the Ike-minded. No American publisher has offered to take on either of the books that have presented this research. They have, however, been published in the UK, Canada and Germany.(4)

    Soon after this discovery, there was placed in our hands the "smoking gun" demanded by Forrest C. Pogue. This was in the form of a letter sent from Eisenhower's HQ to all German cities and towns under SHAEF's control, dated May 9 1945. In it, the Germans are told that anyone who gathers together food for the purpose of taking it to the prisoner of war camps was liable to be shot. It was also a crime punishable by death to take food to the prisoners. We have eye-witness evidence of the killing of several women and of prisoners near them, by guards at American camps.

    The personal consequences of all this for the authors have been distressing, but far worse has been the effect on American and German history. Because of the enormous influence of Ambrose and the New York Times, most American reviewers dismissed Other Losses as sensationalist trash, or falsehood as Ambrose called it. So the public has been deprived of their right to informed public debate.

    We are neither of us feeling much Schadenfreude these days. We are upset that Stephen E. Ambrose did not live up to what is implied in his letter to Bacque, that this story "can no longer be suppressed."

    1. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1992.
    2. Stoddart, Toronto, 1989
    3. Kurt W. Boehme, Zur Geschichte der deutschen Kriegsgefangenen des 2. Weltkrieges: Die deutschen Kriegsgefangenen in amerikanischer Hand In Europa, Ed. Erich Maschke, Muenchen 1973.
    4. Crimes and Mercies (Little, Brown, Toronto and London, 1999); Other Losses (2d Edition, Little Brown, Toronto); Verschwiegene Schuld, Ullstein Verlag, Berlin, 1995.

    Gunter Bischof and Brian Loring Villa

    Gunter Bischof, PhD (Harvard '89), is a professor of history and the executive director of CenterAustria at the University of New Orleans. He is the author of Austria in the First Cold War 1945-55 (1999) and editor of more than 20 books on World War II, the Cold War and modern Austria.

    Brian Loring Villa, PhD (Harvard '69) is professor of history at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of the prize-winning Unauthorized Action: Mountbatten and the Dieppe Raid (1989) and is completing a book on Pearl Harbor.

    Research on all aspects of World War II POWs has seen a real renaissance in Germany, Russia and much of Europe in the past years, as well as in Australia. Not too long ago the premier German television channel ARD featured a three-part documentary on World War II POWs in its main evening program. This trend is less discernible in the U.S. Interest in the World War II POW story is partly the result of larger trends in World War II scholarship in studying ALL victims of the war, and has much to do with the opening of archives in the former Soviet Union. It also is related to the extensive and ongoing debate in Germany and Austria about the travelling "Wehrmacht exhibit," which documents extensively the war crimes of the German Army on the Eastern front (the willful neglect of millions of Russian POWs resulting in their deaths being one of these war crimes). Ironically, James Bacque's sensationalist book Other Losses probably was a cause for this revival of POW research in Germany and elsewhere, too, since it pointed out that this chapter of World War II history had not been sufficiently studied up until the 1990s.

    That the odd couple of Bacque and Fisher should now come out to bottom feed on the woes of historian Stephen Ambrose ought to tickle no one familiar with this debate. We cannot speak for Stephen Ambrose and his initial response to the Bacque manuscript since we never saw this correspondence. But with Bacque's considerable skill of manipulating evidence it would not be surprising if he misrepresents his personal dealings with Ambrose in the statement under discussion here. A case in point is his misrepresentation of "Ike and the Disappearing Atrocities" in the New York Times Book Review of February 24, 1991. This was a RESEARCH REPORT summarizing the findings of the conference gathered at the Eisenhower Center of the University of New Orleans in mid-December 1990. The papers of this workshop soundly refuted the charges of Other Losses, especially Bacque's fanciful handling of statistics. Dr. Ambrose first presented these findings of an international group of World War II and POW experts at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in New York City in late December 1990. He then published it in the New York Times Book Review. So the Times story was NOT a "book review," as Bacque claims, but a conference report. This is a crucial distinction as the Times indeed would not review a book not published in the United States at that point in time.

    It is not necessary to review here Bacque's extravagant statistical claims which are the heart of his conspiracy theory. The eight scholars who gathered in New Orleans and contributed to Eisenhower and the German POWs: Facts against Falsehood (1992) refuted Bacque's wily misinterpretations of statistics and oral history evidence in detail. Numerous reviews of the book written by the top talent in the military history profession such as John Keegan and Russel Weigley were persuaded by the findings of the book. These findings have since been further solidified by detailed case studies on individual American POW camps in Germany hastily built at the end of the war like Christof Strauss's exhaustive Heidelberg dissertation on the POW and internment in the Heilbronn camp.

    The mountain of evidence has been building that Bacque's charge of the "missing million" supposedly perishing in the American (and French) POW camps in Germany and France is based on completely faulty interpretation of statistical data. There was never any serious disagreement that the German POWs were treated badly by the U.S. Army and suffered egregiously in these camps in the first weeks after the end of the war. That the chaos of the war's end would also produce potentially mismatches and errors in record keeping should surprise no one either. But there was NO AMERICAN POLICY to starve them to death as Bacque asserts and NO COVER UP either after the war. No question about it, there were individual American camp guards who took revenge on German POWs based on their hatred of the Nazis.

    Some of this recent scholarship is now conveniently summarized in the volume Kriegsgefangenschaft im Zweiten Weltkrieg: Ein vergleichende Perspektive [Prisoners of War in World War II: A Comparative Perspective] (Holler Verlag 1999) edited by Gunter Bischof and Rudiger Overmans. The essays in this volume were spawned two "post-Bacque" conferences in New Orleans (1992) and Innsbruck, Austria (1994). Overmans (a contributor to the 1992 volume) has emerged as the top POW researcher in Germany with two recent books on POWs and as the historical consultant for the above-mentioned ARD TV-documentary.

    The problem for Bacque is that he cannot read most of this massive and exciting new scholarship because he does not read German. He also does not read Russian. So the claims of his exhaustive research in the "KGB archives" (which to our knowledge are only restrictively open to researchers!) should be taken with a big grain of salt. Many stories have surfaced about Russian archives opening their holdings selectively to those who are willing to pay for it. Bacque's second volume, Crimes and Mercies, was first published in German by Ullstein in Berlin (a publishing house well aware of the popularity of revisionist scholarship among German veteran circles). A panel of scholars gathered at the annual German Studies Association meeting in Salt Lake City in October 1999 and found the charges of Crimes and Mercies even more extravagant and pig-headed than those proffered in Other Losses. Here Bacque was construing a vast conspiracy about many millions of German refugees perishing in Germany at the end of the war as a result of Allied neglect. The GSA papers were never published, however, since the business of refuting Bacque's claims again and again and in detail gives more credence to his wild conspiracy history. Trying to revive the debate now is yet another attempt by him to gain acceptability in the scholarly community.

    We do not pretend that all questions have been answered concerning the treatment of POWs during and after World War II. This is an emerging field where many questions still need to be answered. Researchers are hard at work on these issues. Scholarly conferences on World War II POW treatment were held in Hamburg (Germany) in June 2002 and will take place in Graz (Austria) in May 2003. Bacque should be happy that he has helped spark such massive interest in these forgotten victims of World War II. But scholarship remains largely critical of his wildly exaggerated conclusions on POW death rates among German POWs in American hands in Europe and his sloppy methodology.

    Bacque's very odd notion that Eisenhower and the German POWs should have been "withdrawn" by Dr. Ambrose suggests that he does not understand the nature of academic discourse where ideas are contested and refuted with persuasive evidence in a perpetual cycle. You can't really "withdraw" them. And Dr. Ambrose was not in a position to retract the scholarship of seven other authors. Ideas and scholarship will be ignored if they fail to convince. This has happened to much of Mr. Bacque's work. Alas, it is surprising that Dr. Fisher, who has long served as a scholarly fig leaf to enhance Bacque's credibility, should support this strange demand of "withdrawal." Had his request come through an authoritative scholarly society, one could understand. Coming from Fisher may make his former teachers and colleagues squirm.

    As to the ridiculous charge that Bacque's critics are "Ike-minded," one only needs to ponder the fact that most of the authors in Eisenhower and the German POWs are experts on various aspects of World War II but never have been Eisenhower scholars per se. Only the Cold War diplomatic historians Rolf Steininger of the University of Innsbruck and Bischof have an abiding interest in Eisenhower's presidency. Both have tended to see Eisenhower's Cold War involvement very critically. So much for the "The Ike-minded."