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Berga: Soldiers of Another War
Stories of Berga What Would You Do? Timeline & Maps Berga and Beyond War Crimes
Intro POWs and the Laws of War WWII and Its Legacy
POWs and the Laws of War
Intro Traditional Laws of War World War II and Berga The Legacy of WWII

World War II and Berga
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Soldiers being carried

Dead and wounded soldiers being removed from the battlefield.
The 1929 Convention adopted the 1907 Convention's prisoner of war definition but expanded it to include individuals that were captured in the "course of military operations at sea or in the air." While incorporating all of the protections found in the Hague Conventions, the 1929 Convention was more expansive and specific in its protections, defining more explicitly such terms as "humane treatment." The 1929 Convention also first articulated the principle that prisoners of war must be "protected, particularly against acts of violence, insults, and public curiosity."

The 1929 Convention recognized, for the first time, that women may also become prisoners of war and sought to ensure that "women shall be treated with all the regard due their sex." It also adopted the Lieber Code's principle that all prisoners of war should be treated equally. The only lawful distinctions in treatment were those based on rank, mental or physical health, professional qualifications, or sex, and then these distinctions in treatment would only "profit" the protected individual, the prisoner of war.


Even a cursory glance at the Berga tragedy reveals overwhelming and blatant disregard for the 1929 Convention.
The 1929 Convention added the protection from interrogation by the detaining country, to wit, "no coercion may be used on prisoners to secure information as to the condition of their army or country. Prisoners who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind whatever." Furthermore, the Convention required the detaining party to evacuate prisoners of war away from zones of combat as quickly as possible and required that they "not needlessly be exposed to danger while awaiting their evacuation from the combat zone."

The 1929 Convention also articulated the conditions under which prisoner-of-war camps were to be run, including the sanitary conditions, and the organization of the camps including the election of prisoner representatives. Building off of the limitations placed on prisoner labor found in the Hague Conventions, the 1929 Convention articulated in detail that it was forbidden to use prisoners of war at "unhealthful or dangerous work" and that prisoners could not be involved in the "manufacturing and transporting arms or munitions of any kind or for transporting material intended for combat units."

Soldiers in line

Captured soldiers being escorted to prisoner camps.
The Convention also required belligerents to send seriously sick and injured prisoners of war either back to their own country or to a neutral third country as soon as the individual was in a condition capable of withstanding transport. In addition to these protections, the 1929 Convention established many detailed protections for prisoners of war, including the right to communicate through letters with individuals outside of the prison camp as well as the right to religious, intellectual, and social pursuits. Furthermore, the Convention required the repatriation of prisoners of war as soon as possible upon the cessation of hostilities. Interestingly, at the close of World War II this final requirement became a major challenge for the Allies, as many of the prisoners of war from Central Europe and the Soviet Union did not wish to return to their country of origin.

All of these protections, and many more that are not assessed in this article, were in place under international law. Both the United States and Germany had signed and ratified the treaty. The International Committee of the Red Cross was present throughout World War II. And yet the atrocities and ill treatment this Convention was designed to prohibit occurred.

The working conditions at Berga, the type of labor, and the fact that it was forced and unpaid labor were in blatant violation of the Convention's mandates. The condition of the Berga prisoners upon liberation -- and, of course, the high number of deaths -- demonstrates that the Germans grossly neglected many other requirements regarding the treatment of prisoners. Documenting the entirety of the legal violations at Berga would require hundreds, if not thousands, of pages, and this article will not pinpoint the specifics. Yet even a cursory glance at the Berga tragedy reveals overwhelming and blatant disregard for the 1929 Convention.

Berga - The Investigation and Trial

Next: The Legacy of WWII



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