• Send page
  • Print page

ICRC in WW II: Polish prisoners of war in Germany

02-02-2005

Why the ICRC was unable to keep track of Polish POWs captured by German forces.

   

©ICRC/Ref. hist-1511/28 
 
Germany, September 1939. Polish prisoners of war in Stalag 2B, Hammerstein. 
    In September 1939, Poland was invaded by German and Soviet troops.
 
A large proportion of the Polish army was captured: around 400,000 men by the German forces and over 200,000 by Soviet troops. Until February 1940, the German authorities gave the ICRC lists of the Polish prisoners of war they held, but after that date they stopped.
 
In 1943, they again began to send these lists, but now only officers were mentioned. What had happened was that most of the Polish soldiers who became prisoners of war were turned i nto " civilian workers " by the German authorities. They were thus -- in defiance of the 1929 Convention relative to the treatment of prisoners of war -- deprived of their prisoner-of-war status and of the protection this should have afforded them.
 
Prisoners of war who refused to become " civilian workers " were mostly sent to concentration camps. In this way, the ICRC lost track of a large number of them.
 
At no time during the war did the USSR give the ICRC lists of Polish prisoners. When, in April 1943, the massacre of over 5,000 Polish officers at Katyn was discovered, the USSR refused to allow the ICRC to take part in an international investigation.