Germany and the Western Allied powers were all signatories of the Geneva Convention of 1929, which set out the rules for treatment of prisoners of war. The complete collapse of the Polish and French armies in 1939 and 1940 left the Germans with more than 2 million POWs on their hands. For the most part, British and American soldiers taken prisoner by the Germans were treated fairly well until the last winter of the war. The International Red Cross was allowed to provide food and comfort parcels, which supplemented the rations of the POWs. Officers, as per the Geneva Convention, were not made to work. In the autumn of 1944, however, Himmler took control of the German Replacement Army, and with it the POW camps. After this, the International Red Cross parcels were seldom delivered.

The treatment of Soviet POWs by the Germans, on the other hand, can be described only as abominable. In the first months after Germany’s attack on the USSR, entire Soviet armies surrendered; in the Battle of Kyiv (August-September 1941), for example, more than 600 000 Red Army soldiers surrendered. The Germans had no adequate facilities for these prisoners, nor did they concern themselves with providing any. Quite often Soviet POWs were forced to live in open-air camps without any shelter and only the most meager food rations. Officers and political commissars were usually shot upon capture. Because the USSR had not signed the Geneva Convention (according to Stalin, no Red Army soldier would ever surrender, and those who did were traitors and their fate therefore did not matter), the Germans held that they were not bound by the terms of the Convention in their treatment of Soviet POWs.

The treatment of Soviet POWs was consistent with the plans of the highest German leadership. While the war with the Western allies was a political war fought along the same basic principles as WWI, the war on the Eastern Front was a war of annihilation; part of Germans’ plan was to completely wipe out Bolshevism. It is estimated that five of every six Red Army soldiers taken prisoner by the Germans did not survive the war. Those who did returned to the USSR only to find out that they were considered traitors to the Fatherland, and many were sentenced to terms in the Gulag