Other Losses: An Investigation into the Mass Deaths of German Prisoners of War after World War Two 
by James Bacque.
Macdonald, 252 pp., £13.95, August 1990, 0 356 19136 2
Show More
Show More

According to the dust-jacket of this book at least 750,000 German troops died of malnutrition and disease in US Army camps in North-West Europe after the end of the war, and over 250,000 in French Army camps (from about 750,000 prisoners transferred to them from US and British camps). In the text it is claimed that at least 807,190 died in the US and French camps (that is, at least ten times the number killed in combat in North-West Europe from June 1941 to April 1945) of which somewhere between 167,000 and 314,241 died in French captivity. If the higher of these last figures is deducted from 807,190, the number who died in US camps would be about 500,000 rather than at least 750,000.

This discrepancy is singled out, not in order to ridicule the author’s estimates, but to illustrate the difficulty in making any reliable estimates. Thus the figure of 167,000 for deaths in France is that given in a French official publication as the number Perdus pour Raisons Diverses (Lost for Various Reasons) by February 1946, while the figure 314,241 is the number given as ‘Missing/Not Accounted For’ in the final count in 1948. At neither point, apparently, did the French publication explicitly state the number of deaths. In the case of the US figures, the US Army recorded deaths as ‘Other Losses’ up to 9 June and between 29 July and 8 September 1945, but made no returns between 10 June and 28 July; for this period the author reaches his assessment by applying the weekly death rates derived from the recorded figures to estimates of the fluctuating numbers of men in the camps, estimates which are themselves less than precise. If the Americans ever provided an overall figure, Mr Bacque does not quote it. Despite these problems there is no reason to believe that his totals of deaths are wildly exaggerated. A simpler, if cruder calculation for deaths in US camps could be reached by taking the number recorded by the US Army for the six weeks from 28 July to 8 September, 88,675, multiplying it by four to give a total for the six months from April to September of 354,700, and adding Mr Bacque’s estimate that 217,200 died between September 1945 and January 1946 as a result of the treatment they had received before being discharged from the camps. The grand total – 571,900 – is not greatly different from his lower assessment; and even if it is an underestimate, it is still a dreadful figure.

Mr Bacque does not compare his own results with those obtained by adopting this simpler approach. He confines himself to his own more complex calculations because he believes they reveal that, at the time as well as later, the US and French authorities manipulated and suppressed the figures to conceal the death toll they must have known would follow from their policy towards prisoners.

In relation to their attempts at cover-up after the event he makes much of discrepancies in US statements of the total number of prisoners captured. Eisenhower’s HQ listed the total captured in North-West Europe and Germany up to 2 June 1945, when prisoners ceased to be taken, as 5,224,310. It listed the number taken during the whole war in Europe, including North Africa and Italy, as 5,886,310. In 1948, however, when 1,407,000 German soldiers were still unaccounted for, the US Army reported to the Red Cross that this last total was 4,100,000 and in 1969 an official German publication accepted a US revised figure of 3,761,431 for it. The author can see no reason for reducing the number captured other than the wish to depress the number who must have died in the camps and, by 1969, to divert attention to the number who must have died in Russia or still be in Russian hands. One can accept that the Americans were anxious to hide the facts without finding this explanation for such huge reductions wholly convincing. Unfortunately, the evidence he provides is too sketchy to enable one to light on any other explanation.

His account of the treatment accorded to prisoners and his analysis of the attempts to conceal its consequences at the time are more substantial. The starting point is the decision of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff in April 1945, on Eisenhower’s recommendation, that prisoners taken after VE-day would not be classified as Prisoners of War (POW) and thus entitled under the Geneva Convention to rations and facilities comparable with those of Allied troops, but be given without public declaration the status of ‘disarmed enemy forces’ (DEF). Mr Bacque quotes the grounds given by Eisenhower for his recommendation. These were that the state of chaos in Germany was making it impossible for German authorities to feed and maintain the prisoners under Allied supervision, as had been intended, and so was forcing the Allies to take on the responsibility; that it would be beyond the capacity of the Allies to provide rations and facilities on the scale required by the Geneva Convention; and that it would in any case be undesirable to place the German Armed Forces on a scale of rations far in excess of that available for the civil population. But Mr Bacque mentions these explanations only to dismiss them as dishonest. One of his persistent themes is that there was no shortage of food, only a refusal to release to the camps what was available, including 13,500,000 Red Cross parcels which would have kept alive those who starved – and he devotes less attention to Eisenhower’s stated grounds than to what he believes were the real reasons for the policy.

These were the widespread vindictiveness towards the defeated enemy which had earlier inspired the Morgenthau Plan for de-industrialising Germany, and Eisenhower’s personal hostility to the Germans together with his evasiveness and deceitfulness – prominent personal defects which concealed his true intentions behind a cloak of respectable excuses and in a jungle of vague instructions within his command and of rigorous orders for exclusion of outside observers. The deaths of these men were the outcome of a massive and deliberate crime. The direct responsibility for them rested with the Supreme Allied Commander himself, Dwight Eisenhower. He inaugurated the process by which the public was fooled, the International Committee of the Red Cross deceived, the press negated, the US Senate neutered, books censored, archives destroyed and officials inveigled into the cover-up.

One weakness in the case relates to the last of these charges. It overlooks the fact that, whatever motives underlay the measures which led to the deaths, Eisenhower and his staff could not have given or allowed publicity to the fact that men were dying in such numbers in their camps. One can believe that their efforts at concealment were furthered by indifference or reluctance to protest on the part of those who knew what was happening, without accepting Mr Bacque’s argument that the scale of the deaths was the product of deliberate criminal intent. It is too incoherent, too disfigured by gaps and internal inconsistencies, to be convincing.

At an early stage in the argument Mr Bacque makes much of the point that the British and Canadian governments declined to adopt the DEF category: they used instead the term ‘surrendered enemy personnel’ (SEP) for post-VE-day prisoners. He implies that this was because they planned to provide better treatment than the US Army. Many pages later, however, he recognises that they, too, had decided not only that it would be wrong to feed prisoners on the same scale as Allied troops, but also that ‘if widespread civilian starvation was to be avoided it was essential that the rations of enemy troops should be reduced to the bare minimum.’ For all his earlier insistence that there was no shortage of food to account for the deaths in the American camps, this admission forces him to argue that the better survival rate in the British and Canadian camps was due to other factors than better nourishment; it was due to better shelter, more space, cleaner water, medical treatment, these better facilities reflecting the fact that the British and Canadians were dealing with smaller numbers. But this diverts Mr Bacque into arguments which cast further doubt on his case.

The Americans took more prisoners than the British and Canadians (who took about two million) not only because they were operating on much wider fronts but also because they continued to imprison disarmed troops for much longer – for a month after VE-day.

Why did they do this? Mr Bacque says that the US generals indulged in a vainglorious race to take the largest numbers of prisoners like proud participants in a Scottish shoot. Whatever may be thought of this explanation, we may be sure they did not intend that their prisoners should die in captivity. He misreads a document, moreover, by stating that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had urged that no further prisoners should be taken after VE-day; in fact they had presumed that Eisenhower would not need to take more POWs for labour outside Germany. Then again, the Americans were encumbered with larger numbers because they discharged prisoners more slowly than the British and the Canadians. Though Patton had discharged 500,000 in 27 days on his own authority, other discharges were delayed beyond 2 June.

This is perhaps not surprising when the Americans were still taking men in up to that date. Mr Bacque claims that a single order after that date releasing all who were not needed for labour would have quickly reduced the death rate from over 30 per cent per year in the camps to the civilian rate of 3.5 per cent, and he finds further evidence of Eisenhower’s guilt in the fact that no such order was given, so that ‘only 2,200,000’ had been discharged by 8 September. This conclusion hardly accords with other facts he produces. On 4 June Eisenhower was urging that the agreed transfer of some US prisoners to British camps should take place urgently ‘to partially relieve a very serious situation’. Despite their policy of more rapid discharge, the British had 400,000 prisoners at work in the United Kingdom by the spring of 1946, an outlet not available to the Americans, and ‘only 68,000’ left in their camps. As for the effects on prisoners and the civilian population if US discharges had been more rapid, we learn that in the British zone, where civilian rations were 1550 calories a day, as compared with 1275 calories in the US zone, starvation was still causing civilian deaths at the rate of 220,080 a year in 1946. It is to be noted, on the other hand, that Mr Bacque does not appear to provide figures for deaths in the British and Canadian camps; if he does, his analysis is so incoherent that the reader has difficulty in finding them.

An accurate and convincing account of the measures and the calculations which culminated in these deaths calls for a much more sober analysis of the evidence. But even on the evidence Mr Bacque supplies, it seems obvious that they were the outcome not of a crime, of deliberate policy, but of a combination of severely disorganised conditions with strict, perhaps wooden, adherence to administrative measures designed to handle a problem that would in the best of circumstances have been intractable.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 12 No. 20 · 25 October 1990

In F.H. Hinsley’s attempt (LRB, 30 August) to denigrate the evidence produced in my book Other Losses, he makes a number of serious misjudgments. He finds that, on the whole, the dreadful conditions in the US and French camps, which he more or less admits occurred, resulted from misjudgment or miscalculation, rather than from deliberate policy. Oh? Does he think it was by misjudgment that the American State Department and the War Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US Army co-ordinated their efforts to prevent the International Committee of the Red Cross from visiting US prison camps, and prevented the ICRC as well from helping German civilians? Was it by miscalculation that the same US organisations kept out the Quakers, the YMCA and other charitable groups? Will Mr Hinsley contend that it was by a slip that the US Army refused to allow shipments of Red Cross food to land at Augsburg and Mannheim? That they kept in storage 13,500,000 food parcels, intended for prisoners of war, for seven months, while men starved to death in the foetid muck behind barbed wire? That the highest officers ordered lower officers not to supply shelter in the camps, although tents were readily available? This will hardly be believed by the families of those men who died of exposure, which was the principal cause of death in a survey of corpses conducted by the US Army Medical Corps. It will not be accepted by the survivors of the prisoners who suffered agonies of thirst while only a hundred metres away, according to a US Army report, ‘the Rhine flowed bank-full.’ Mr Hinsley better not try to propagate this thesis in front of those German civilians still alive who came to the American camps with food for their relatives and were turned away. All this is documented in the book.

The British and Canadians, who had a much higher prisoner load in proportion to their armies, managed to keep their prisoners alive in fair health without spoiling them. I think Mr Hinsley will find himself lonely in the belief that the British and Canadian Armies were so much better organised than the Americans that they signally succeeded where the Americans dismally failed.

The American guard Martin Brech, now a professor of philosophy in New York, has come forward to testify that when he attempted to feed the starving prisoners from his army unit’s plentiful stocks, he was ordered to stop because it was Army policy that the men die. Since the book was published in Canada, Professor Hans Hoch of the University of York in England and Professor Peter Hoffman of McGill University in Montreal have both stated that they saw Americans pour gasoline over, then set fire to, piles of food before the eyes of hungry Germans.

James Bacque

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences