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Camps along the river Rhein

The Rheinwiesenlager (English: Rhine meadow camps) were a group of 19 (other sources claim 23) camps built in the Allied-occupied part of Germany by the U.S. Army to hold captured German soldiers at the close of the Second World War. Officially named Prisoner of War Temporary Enclosures (PWTE), they held between two and three million surrendered Wehrmacht personnel and others. Around half of German soldiers captured in the West at the end of the war were placed in these camps. Most of the rest were placed in British and French custody.


Prisoners of war in the Rheinberg camp dug holes in the ground to protect themselves from the weather.
„Paris, April 24–AP–The Allied bag of German prisoners during April already has passed the one million mark with six more days left in the month. From April 1 to 22 inclusive 992,578 prisoners were killed. It is estimated that well over 20,000 were captured yesterday.“
Women's camp in Sinzig, June 1945

Prisoners held in the camps were designated disarmed enemy forces, not prisoners of war. This decision was made in March 1945 by Dwight D. Eisenhower: by not classifying the hundreds of thousands of captured troops as POWs, the logistical problems associated with accommodating so many prisoners of war mandated by the Geneva Convention governing their treatment were negated. Many of these died from starvation, dehydration and exposure to the weather elements because no structures were built inside the prison compounds.

For all but fringe debaters on the subject, the book is closed. The horror and death caused my maltreatment or murder in German, Japanese and Russian prisoner of war (POW) camps stains the history of these countries red, and is still painful for many, on all sides of Word War II, to even mention. However, over the years, controversy has lingered over another group of camps. Many still claim that these camps were another war crime, this time committed by the Americans, under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower: the Rheinwiesenlager. It is certainly true that some facts about the Rheinwisenlager are shocking, the behavior of some of the Allied troops atrocious. These facts and their greater context will be presented along with the conclusions of historians and experts who have dived deep into this subject and the controversy around it. There were 19 camps built in total, housing between 2 and 3 million prisoners. Some of these camps were turned over to British control in June, as they were in the “British Zone” in post-war Germany. Over 180,000 prisoners were sent to France at the request of the Charles de Gaulle’s government for forced labor. By September 1945, most of the Rheinwisenlager camps were closed. The camps were beyond overcrowded. Prisoners mostly slept without shelter, exposed to the elements. Rations were generally between 1000 and 1550 calories per day.
There was often little or no access to clean drinking water. Thousands died. How many thousands depends on who you ask. Regardless, given the facts, these camps did not hold up to the conditions mandated by the Geneva Convention. This issue was circumnavigated, however, by a decision made in 1943 to declare German soldiers taken prisoner not as POWs, but as Disarmed Enemy Forces (DEF). With this characterization in place, things like lower rations and poor living conditions were inflicted without officially breaking what amounted to a binding international treaty. Much of the controversy over these camps is centered around a book published by James Bacque in 1989 titled Other Losses. Bacque, a fiction writer, and amateur historian, found himself investigating what he saw as very disturbing deception and grievous disregard for life that lead to the death of probably over 1 million Germans. Bacque posits that Eisenhower, out of a spirit of vengeance denied the DEFs food that was readily available throughout Europe and through the offers of the Red Cross. With all the sweeping and horrifying claims made in Bacque’s book, a conference was held at the Eisenhower Center of the University of New Orleans to examine the history of the Rheinwiesenlager. The conference was attended by several historians and experts from America, Canada, Britain, Germany, and Austria specializing in that period of post-war Germany.[1]

Mainly German soldiers from the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS were held prisoner in the Rhine meadow camps. Former military combat units or groups that had been brought to a camp together were usually divided up and housed separately. The German officers were also separated from the 'ordinary' soldiers and were, at least officially, better off. Many of the prisoners were physically and mentally weakened by the rearguard action, poor care and their stay in assembly camps at the front.

The prisoners of war came from all areas of the former German Reich and from different social classes. Their war experiences varied, as did their ages. In addition to the German Wehrmacht members, there were also Luxembourgers, Belgians, Slovenes, Hungarians, ethnic Germans from Poland and soldiers from Alsace-Lorraine, the majority of whom had volunteered to fight for the German army. The term 'special nationals' also included foreign civilians in the prisoner of war camps who had collaborated with them in the areas occupied by the Germans.

There were also German civilians among the prisoners, including teenagers and women. They were arrested as 'automatic arrests' because they either held a political position in the state or in the NSDAP – for example as mayor – or because they were suspected of wanting to continue fighting. A total of around 2,600 German women were interned in the Rhine meadow camps. They mostly worked as Wehrmacht and Air Force helpers, as radio operators, paramedics, typists or for the German Red Cross on and behind the front. In the camps themselves, the women were housed in separate camp areas, often provided with tents, and were provided with somewhat better care than the men.



All camps in the Rheinwiesenlager complex were built according to the same principle. Each camp consisted of a large fenced-off square, which was divided into individual cages. A cage usually had a length and width of around 250 meters. These cages were separated by a 2 meter high barbed wire fence and by a camp road, so that the prisoners could not get from one cage to the next. In one corner there was a watering hole, in another the latrine, consisting either of a gutter or a deep hole.

The outer barrier was two barbed wire fences approximately 3 meters high. In between there was a paved guard path on which a guard patrolled at a distance of approx. 50 m. Each cage was equipped with one or two watchtowers placed in the corners. They were about 5 meters high and were occupied by a machine gun post. Depending on the prison camp, the cages were occupied by 5,000 to 15,000 prisoners and were made up of different groups. The individual cages were divided according to rank, nationality, Volkssturm men, young people, wounded, SS, party officials, foreigners and women.

Camp hierarchy

Because the American camp management gave some of the prisoners positions in the camp's administration, a camp hierarchy developed. These prisoners were able to obtain benefits as camp leaders, camp police officers, interpreters or cooks. In addition, they did not have to live in the open air, but had a place to sleep in the few barracks or administration houses. There was resentment and attacks between them and the other prisoners in many camps.

As punishment, the guilty were separated from the other prisoners or exposed internally. In some camps they were literally pilloried and punished with beatings by the German camp police or their fellow prisoners. But the opposite was also the case: new groups sometimes formed in the camp to help each other. They provided practical and emotional support, organized self-help, shared their possessions such as tents, and helped each other in difficult situations. This was particularly important because the prisoners were no longer organized into their original units and troops, but had been distributed to different camps or cages upon capture.[2]

See also

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