Labour History

Australian POW Labour in Germany in World War II

Labour History (2012), 103, (1), 83–102.


Accounts of Australian prisoners of war in Japanese captivity typically focus on the centrality of the labour experience. In contrast, the literature of the POW experience in Europe largely avoids the topic of labour. Popular culture, too, offers an image of German captivity dominated by boredom and inactivity, with the exception of accounts of escape. This article focuses on the work experiences of Australian POWs in Germany. It draws on official sources as well as first-hand accounts to establish the extent and conditions of Australian POW labour. It argues that it was an essentially ambivalent experience, on the one hand offering those required to work relief from prolonged inactivity and increased opportunities to escape, but on the other labour was perceived as a contribution to the enemy’s war effort, and conditions were in many cases so harsh as to cause injury and have longer term physical consequences.

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1.Rohan Rivett, Behind Bamboo: An Inside Story of the Japanese Prison Camps,Angus and Robertson,, 1952;Russell Braddon, The Naked Island,Lloyd O’Neil,, 1975;E.E. (Weary) Dunlop, The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop: Java and the Burma-Thailand Railway,Nelson,, 1986;A Town Like Alice,dir. Jack Lee, 1956(also a television mini-series by the same title directed byDavid Stevens in1981);The Bridge on the River Kwai,dir. David Lean, 1957;Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence,dir. Nagisa Oshima, 1983;Paradise Road,dir. Bruce Beresford, 1997. Google Scholar

2.For the scholarly literature on Japanese captivity and the centrality of labour see especiallyHank Nelson, Prisoners of War: Australians under Nippon,ABC Enterprises,, 2001;Joan Beaumont, Gull Force: Survival and Leadership in Captivity 1941-1945,Allen & Unwin,, 1988;Gavan McCormack andHank Nelson(eds), The Burma-Thailand Railway: Memory and History,Allen & Unwin,, 1993.Gavan Daws examines the experiences of Australian and other POWsinPrisoners of the Japanese: POWs of World War II in the Pacific,William Morrow,, 1994. For the experience of working Australian nurses in Japanese captivity, seeChristina Twomey, ‘Australian Nurse POWs: Gender, War and Captivity’, Australian Historical Studies, vol.36, no. 124, 2004, pp.255-255. Google Scholar

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8.A noteworthy but unscholarly attempt to address the issue of work as it affected British POWs – a category which German authorities understood to include Commonwealth POWs such as Australians – isSean Longden, Hitler’s British Slaves: British and Commonwealth POWs in German Industry 1939-1945,Arris,, 2005. Two scholarly works on the British POW experience devote chapters to work; seeMackenzie, The Colditz Myth, pp.193-193, andAdrian Gilbert, POW: Allied Prisoners in Europe, 1939-1945,John Murray,, 2006. The latter heads a chapter with the words ‘Forced Labour‘ and surveys mainly English work experiences, though without integrating German sources or perspectives. Arieh Kochavi in his study of the international diplomatic dimensions of British and American captivity in Germany devotes some sections to the inspection regime inArbeitskommandos(work detachments) and the diplomatic consequences of concerns expressed by the Protecting Power and the Red Cross over alleged breaches of the Geneva Convention; seeArieh J. Kochavi, Confronting Captivity: Britain and the United States and their POWs in Nazi Germany,University of North Carolina Press,, 2005, pp.58-58.Neville Wylie, Barbed Wire Diplomacy: Britain, Germany, and the Politics of Prisoners of War, 1939-1945 Oxford,, 2010. As its title suggests, Wylie’s book is devoted to the international diplomatic dimensions of POWs. This extends only in small part to negotiations over the use of labour, working conditions and alleged breaches of the relevant paragraphs in the Geneva Convention. See, for example, pp.20-20, 174. Vourkoutiosis’s study is similarly focussed on high politics and diplomacy rather than the experiences of POWs themselves; see Vasilis Vourkoutiosis, Prisoners of War and the German High Command: The British and American Experience,Palgrave Macmillan,, 2003. Making extensive use ofOberkommando der Wehrmachtand Red Cross archival material, it devotes a section of a chapter to‘Labour and Finance’pp.109-109. See alsoDavid Rolf, Prisoners of the Reich: Germany’s Captives, 1939-1945,Leo Cooper,, 1988, pp.62-62. Google Scholar

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12.Ibid.Article 31 specifically stated, ‘Work done by prisoners of war shall have no direct connection with the operations of the war. In particular, it is forbidden to employ prisoners in the manufacture or transport of arms or munitions of any kind, or on the transport of material destined for combatant units’. Google Scholar

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Author details

Monteath, Peter