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VICTORS against the DEFEATED (6 of 7)

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Prisoners of War

At the end of the war, approximately 72,000 Russian prisoners of war who had labored in Norway for the German occupiers were repatriated, the Norwegians finding to their surprise that Soviet authorities were hardly interested in them. By October 1945 all of them had been sent back to the Soviet Union. In Norway were also Poles, Dutch, French and Czechs who had labored for the Germans, and they too were repatriated. And there were around 14,000 Poles and 12,000 Czechs who had been with the German army who were afraid to go home.

The Allies had agreed that at the end of the war people would be allowed to return to their home country. Many of the Japanese who surrendered to the Allies were sent home expeditiously. Until sometime in 1947, the British retained roughly 113,500 Japanese prisoners of war as laborers, the last Japanese in Malaya and Burma not being repatriated until October 1947. More than a year after the surrender it was reported that some 68,000 prisoners in Manchuria were still being employed by the Chinese. Roughly 1.6 to 1.7 million Japanese surrendered to the Russians, and they became a source of labor for the Russians. The Russians released their first contingent of Japanese prisoners of war in December 1946, and by the end of 1947 only 625,000 had been repatriated. (John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat, p 52)

German prisoners of war were treated well in Canada – and in the United States, where they had also been used as laborers on a contract basis to civilian employers. In the Midwest they worked in fields planting, hoeing and picking vegetables. This extended into 1946, and an outraged International Red Cross complained that the United States, Britain and France were violating International Red Cross agreements they solemnly signed in 1929. Thousands of former German soldiers were being used to clear minefields, retrieve sea mines or raze shattered buildings, and the Red Cross pointed out that the Geneva Convention expressly forbade employing prisoners of war in any dangerous labor.

German prisoners of war in the United States had it good compared to those held by the Russians. Germans taken prisoner by the Russians numbered around 3,250,000, and about 36 percent of them – 1,200,000 – vanished in the Soviet Union, the rest of them trickling back to Germany in the years after war.

Russian prisoners of war held by the Germans had it no better than the German prisoners held by the Russians. An estimated 5.7 million Russians had been taken prisoner by the Germans between 1941 and the end of the war and of these about 3,300,000 had perished.

The British had promised the Russians that they would send to the Soviet Union all Soviet citizens in their zone, including those who did not want repatriation. Their agreement appears to have been made with little thought or concern and with the assumption that those not wanting to return were guilty of treason – such as those Russian prisoners who had chosen to fight on the side of the Germans. The British tried to talk the Americans into cooperating with this policy in their zone. The Americans went along with it but with skepticism and reluctance. The British handed over to the Russians thousands of men, women and children from their zone amid scenes that haunted the British soldiers involved, including images of suicide by those being forced to return. The Americans handed over no more than a few hundred before they quit in disgust.

Among those shipped back to the Soviet Union against their will was Rauol Wallenberg, a Swede who had been working to save Jews in Hungary. When Soviet troops arrived in Hungary they grabbed Wallenberg, and in the years ahead they refused to answer questions about his whereabouts.

Some Russians who had been looking forward to being liberated by their country's soldiers were disappointed. Stalin had broadcast a general amnesty, but rather than greet the liberated Russians with joy, the liberated were greeted, in some cases at least, with frowns and insults. The Russians treated those who had been captured with suspicion. Many of them who had been innocent of treason were sent to do labor in Siberia or they met the same fate of those who had joined the German military.

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