Article

Prisoners

Thomas J. Ward

in Military History

ISBN: 9780199791279
Published online August 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0085
Prisoners

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How to deal with captured combatants is a problem as old as warfare itself. Execution, slavery, conscription, imprisonment, and even assimilation have historically all been means that societies have utilized to deal with warriors taken in arms. Some societies held prisoners for ransom, while others brought them into their societies to increase their numbers. The ancient Greek and Roman empires both used captured foes for labor or sold prisoners into slavery. The first formal call for the humane treatment of prisoners of war (POWs) came in 1625 from the Dutch lawyer Hugo Grotius in The Laws of War and Peace. Drawing on Greek and Roman philosophy, Grotius sought to convince European nations to treat prisoners mercifully, often arguing that it was in their own interest to spare the lives of their captives, who could be used for labor or exchange. While Grotius’s appeals for a uniform code of prisoner treatment were not enacted, his work did provide the basis for later models on the treatment of POWs. Beginning in the mid-18th century, there were numerous attempts among nations to standardize protections for soldiers taken in combat. During the Seven Years’ War, the British and French established cartels in order to deal with the exchange of prisoners, although no formal treaty establishing rules for exchange or the treatment of prisoners was developed. The first formal treaty among nations to codify treatment of enemy prisoners was the Treaty of Amity and Commerce of 1785 between the United States and Prussia; the two nations agreed not use the infamous “prison hulks” that British held Americans in during the War for Independence. In 1863, at the behest of President Abraham Lincoln, Francis Lieber, a professor of international law, developed a set of rules for both the Union and Confederate forces to adhere to regarding the treatment of captured soldiers. Influenced by Lieber’s work, during the 19th and 20th centuries, European nations came together numerous times to try to develop international agreements on the treatment of enemy prisoners, most notably at Geneva in 1864, 1906, 1929, and 1949. The Geneva Accords created standard protocols for the treatment of incapacitated men in the field of battle, at sea, and in prison camps and for the protection of civilians during wartime; they remain the standard rules of war to which most of the world’s nations adhere. While this bibliography deals mostly with the experiences of POWs, that is, armed combatants captured by an enemy force during battle, attention is also given, in some cases, to noncombatants imprisoned during wartime.

Article.  12040 words. 

Subjects: Military History ; Pre-20th Century Warfare ; First World War ; Second World War ; Post-WW2 Military History

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