With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Were Nazis Tortured in World War II?

Were Nazis tortured in World War II? How one ultimately answers the question of whether Nazi POWs were tortured in World War II depends on how one defines torture. It also depends on what one considers a "Nazi."

There were three main categories under which a "Nazi POW" held by American forces in WW II could fall: (1) a National Socialist Party or German-American Bund member, who was perhaps a suspected Nazi-sympathizer already living in the United States, captured by the F.B.I. shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, (2) a captured Nazi soldier who was sent to one of the Prisoner of War camps inside the United States, or (3) a Nazi soldier who was captured and held inside Europe after Germany was occupied by the Allies.

The German-Americans who were captured while living inside the United States – who may or may not have been national socialists or Nazi-sympathizers as suspected – were perhaps treated the worst in their initial capture. Texas A&M’s Arnold Krammer writes that officials would often seize suspects late at night and try them at unfair trials, giving little if any chance to the accused to defend themselves or their loyalty to America.

Yet, despite the questionable legality of the detainment in the first days of America’s involvement in World War II, there are no instances of detainees being tortured for information. Even diplomats, whom FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover deemed to be more threatening to America’s security than the thousands of detained German-Americans, were allowed to return to their countries (it was hoped that American diplomats in Axis countries would be allowed to leave as well).

In accordance with the Geneva Conventions, The Rules for Detainees (Instruction No. 58) stated:

Detainees must at all times be protected against acts of violence, insults, and public curiosity. Physical coercion must not be resorted to and, except in self-defense, to prevent escape or for purposes of proper search, no employee of this Service under any pretext shall invade the person of any detainee. No measures calculated to humiliate or degrade shall be undertaken.

In most cases, it would not have made sense to torture these German-Americans to gain intelligence anyway, since they had not been captured on the battlefield and would not have been knowledgeable about strategic targets in Europe or Africa. Though there were cases of Nazi-sympathizers being caught in the act of treason, as in the cases of German-American Bund leaders Dr. Otto Willumeit and Gerhard Wilhelm, who were caught and jailed for "transmitting U.S. defense secrets to Germany and Japan," there were many more German-Americans being detained for no apparent crime whatsoever. An angry ex-wife or suspicious neighbor suddenly had the power to have a German-American locked up.

Hoover suspected that the Nazis had planted sleeper cells in the United States before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He thought this group would wait for a Nazi invasion of America before becoming active, perhaps even leading the Nazis to strategic military targets. This was what the Nazis had done in their invasion of Poland in1939. But Krammer points out one problem with this suspicion was that the Nazis in Germany did not consider German Americans (or Germans living in any foreign country, for that matter) to be "authentic" Germans, no matter how supportive of National Socialism they may have been.

The most persuasive argument for treating the German prisoners in conformity with international rules was pragmatic: if the Allies did not torture their German or Japanese prisoners, perhaps the Japanese and Germans would return the favor. Florida State University’s Daniel Hutchinson told HNN:

Generally speaking, the American military and government followed the terms of the (1929) Geneva Convention very closely. This close observance of the Conventions resulted from the fact that Germany and Italy held somewhere around 90,000 Americans in Axis POW camps. Any ill treatment of Axis POWs might result in reprisals against American POWs.

To prove that German POWs were not mistreated, Americans hired third-party, neutral Swiss inspectors to report on the conditions inside the camp and to relay this information to the Germans.

Concerning the second and third classifications of Nazi POWs, some are more skeptical of the treatment these POWs received. In 1989, a Canadian novelist by the name of Jacques Bacque wrote Other Losses, which contained accusations against General Eisenhower in this regard. Bacque argued that Eisenhower’s misdeeds led to the starvation of "over 800,000, almost certainly over 800,000 and quite possibly a million" German POWs. Bacque claimed that Eisenhower nefariously got around the Geneva Conventions by changing the status of the German prisoners from "Prisoner of War" to "Disarmed Enemy Combatant." According to the Geneva Conventions POWs are to be fed military rations, but "Disarmed Enemy Combatants," don't have to be. Bacque alleged that Eisenhower himself was to blame for the starvation of prisoners, even citing one instance where the general allegedly turned away a train full of food from entering a Nazi camp.

Christof Strauss of the University of Heidelberg calls into question many of Bacque’s accusations, as have others, as spelled out in this debate conducted by HNN in 2003. While Strauss decided that "conditions in these camps indeed did not meet the requirements of the Geneva Convention of 1929," he also maintains that "contrary to Bacque’s assertion, the Americans did allow aid to be delivered to the inmates by representatives of the German churches." The International Red Cross was also permitted to see the prisoners. Strauss says that Bacque made the death toll appear much higher than it actually was.

There is no question that Eisenhower changed the status of the POWs and turned away some trains bringing aid – but why these decisions were made is still a matter of debate. Steven E. Ambrose argues that Eisenhower’s approach was justified because there was a food-shortage ravaging post-war Germany as a whole, and more food was needed elsewhere among civilians. Krammer offers similar theories on cutting back food rations in the detainment camps in the United States, including a food shortage in American army camps across the world, or possibly a shortage of farmers in multiple countries due to the draft. Meanwhile, though Canadian historian A. Rettig confirms part of Ambrose’s defense that the Allies "intended to shift priority away from German POWs to Hitler’s victims, who might be starving," he claims that the American and British governments had decided to change the POW status in 1943, years before the fall of Berlin. This reclassification of POWs allowed the defeated Nazi soldiers to be used for labor.

By the time the status of the POWs was downwngraded, the war with Germany was over. When food rations were cut in the POW camps in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, many Germans concluded that the Allies were exercising a kind of "victor’s vengeance." Now that the war in Europe was over, the Allies had little incentive to treat the Germans well. The Allies no longer had to fear how the Germans were treating their POWs.

Another factor shaped the way the Allies treated German POW's at the end of the war. To counteract years of Nazi propaganda, reeducation was attempted in all POW camps. Rettig writes:

In 1944, American psychologists who studied newly captured POWs for Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces, argued that the POWs required "a really traumatic experience...to dispel the resistance to reality." Consequently, Allies planned rough handling of POWs to emphasize the war’s outcome: there was no myth of an undefeated German army after World War Two as after World War One.

Whether or not such a "traumatic experience" translated to purposefully torturous interrogations, or simply rough treatment in general, Rettig never says. Meanwhile, in the camps across Europe, Ambrose admits:

There was widespread mistreatment of German prisoners in the spring and summer of 1945. Men were beaten, denied water, forced to live in open camps without shelter, given inadequate food rations and inadequate medical care. Their mail was withheld. In some cases prisoners made a "soup" of water and grass in order to deal with their hunger. Men did die needlessly and inexcusably. This must be confronted, and it is to Mr. Bacque's credit that he forces us to do so.

There are many allegations of mistreatment and unwarranted brutality. If reclassification of a detainee in order to cut his or her rations constitutes "torture," then some may conclude that Nazis were "tortured" after the fall of Berlin. If rough treatment designed to break an individual's will constitutes torture, then some may conclude that Nazis were tortured when subjected to rougher treatment, Holocaust films and American propaganda in the reeducation process.

There is no documented evidence that torture was used to gain intelligence from captured Nazis.

Related Links

Works Cited

Rettig, Andrew. "A De-programming Curriculum: Allied reeducation and the Canadian-American Psychological Warfare Program for German POWs, 1943-47." The American Review of Canadian Studies. Winter 1999. Volume 26, Issue 4. 593-619

Stephen E. Ambrose.Ike and the Disappearing Atrocities. New York Times Book Review, 1991.

Fact or Fiction? The Historical Profession and James Bacque. Roundtable discussion at the Annual Meeting of the German Studies Association, Salt Lake City, October 8-11, 1998. Participants: Guenter Bischof (University of New Orleans), Dewey A. Browder (Austin Peay State University), Wilfried Mausbach (GHI), Hans-Juergen Schroeder (University of Giessen), Christof Strauss (University of Heidelberg), Richard D. Wiggers (Georgetown University).

Amnesty International Report on Torture. Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd. London, England: 1973.

Krammer, Arnold. Undue Process: The Untold Story of America’s German Alien Internees. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. New York: 1997.

Florida State University. Daniel Hutchinson. Personal Correspondence. Sept. 26, 2006.