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Home-coming of Prisoners

The Home-coming of Prisoners of War after World War II: ideology, family, narrative.

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Publié le dimanche 04 mars 2001 par Marin Dacos


Call for papers The International Committee for the History of the Second World War is planning a conference on The Home-coming of Prisoners of War after World War II: ideology, family, narrative. The conference is to be held in Hamburg i


Call for papers
The International Committee for the History of the Second World War

is planning a conference on

The Home-coming of Prisoners of War after World War II:

ideology, family, narrative.

The conference is to be held in Hamburg in June or July, 2002.

With the International Congress of Historical Sciences to take place in Sydney in 2005 in mind, the International Committee for the History of the Second World War wishes to stimulate the scholarly exchange between the historians of the Atlantic and Pacific theatres of war with an intermediate workshop. The homecoming of POWs is a particularly promising subject for encouraging such encounters; this is a concrete and clearly defined topic which also offers the opportunity for innovative interpretations. POWs are a universal phenomenon of warfare and a classical object for traditional historiography as well as for new approaches to the history of the Second World War. From antiquity until the most recent times, military prisoners have been part of armed conflict and benefited from a particular status. Legal protection for POWs is among the oldest forms of international law, codifying norms of honourable warfare that are even older. The dramatic increase in the mobility of armies that characterised World War II also led to an enormous rise in the numbers of POWs. Moreover, in the age of total war, POWs are most often mobilised citizens, drafted by military conscription. Their experiences are thus not solely those of the military profession, but affect the societies to which they belong as a whole. As a result of the length of the detention, the often belated liberation and repatriation, the mass experience of captivity spans the war years and the immediate post-war period.

We suggest three areas of research on the ways in which military captivity could be central to the experience of World War II by societies worldwide:

1. While codes of honourable warfare and international agreements such as the Geneva Convention offered protection to some in a context of generalised arbitrary violence, none of these provisions applied to others. In particular in Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, where military aristocracies prided themselves on an image of chivalric warriors, racism more often than not gained the upper hand over any form of protection. Forced labour carried out in murderous circumstances by Allied soldiers in Japanese hands and the systematic extermination of over 3 million Soviet POWs in German hands are among the most infamous crimes of World War II. Yet all belligerents utilised the masses of POWs for ideological purposes, though some in less obvious ways. Nazi Germany discriminated between Western European POWs of « Germanic » and « non-Germanic » descent and staged active New Order propaganda amongst French POWs. Japan organised forced recruitment among POWs of Asian descent in the war against „Western imperialism". The Western allies and the Soviet Union organised de-Nazification and re-education programmes (so-called Antifa work) for their German and Italian captives, partly hoping to train the future German and Italian elite. What was the Japanese attitude towards POWs of European, Eurasian and Asian descent? How did the American treatment of Japanese prisoners compare with their treatment of German POWs? How did POWs behave collectively after their return: as a pressure group for material interests, as a recruitment reserve for political parties? The workshop could thus offer the opportunity to measure the impact of new forms of ideological warfare on the age-old group of military prisoners.

2. The absence of hundreds of thousands and, in some cases, millions of POWs left the homefront bereft of fathers and sons. How did this feminisation affect wartime societies, in the family, at the workplace or in politics? And how difficult was the subsequent remasculinisation? Do we, everywhere, observe a rise in divorce rates, denials of paternity, or juvenile crime, caused by an uprooted and fatherless upbringing? In the post-war years, several societies have lived through successive phases of acute anxiety over a crisis of the family, a crisis of male identity, plunging birth rates and physical degeneration and later, after a forced return to « normality », a restoration of gender roles, family values and moral conservatism. Is it possible to discern a worldwide pattern of the « boring 1950s », as a rejection of the displacement and disruption during the 1940s caused by World War II in general and the absence and subsequent homecoming of POWs in particular? The second topic opens a window on the short- and long-term consequences of captivity on societies as a whole.

3. How does the experience of captivity relate to individual and collective narratives of war? The condition of the POW consists of his combat experience before his capture; the shame of being taken prisoner, rather than escaping or dying in battle; the inactivity and privations suffered during military internment; the hostile or welcoming reception on his return. Depending on the weight given to any part of the experience, the POW can be portrayed as a victim of a senseless war, a national martyr, a captured hero or a war criminal. In personal narratives, captivity often figures as a lock between active participation in the violence of war, or the shame of defeat, and reintegration into civilian life. Captivity can figure as a form of regeneration through asceticism and celibacy, introspection or religion conversion. It is a formative experience of male bondage and solidarity and allows for the collective elaboration of narratives and personal defence strategies against accusations of collective guilt. Finally, captivity was perhaps also a form of Bildungsreise for millions of ordinary soldiers unaccustomed to travel. The integration of individual experiences in collective narratives depends on the political battles on the interpretation of war: are the captives a « lost generation » of men who lost their honour; a suspect group of indoctrinated subversives; or collective champions of national victimisation, whose extended captivity serves to suppress the memories of their prior participation in a war of attrition? Through the narratives of captivity, the workshop also addresses the question of the memory of World War II in concrete terms.

One page proposals, plus a short bio of the authors should be send to the organisers before June 2001 at the following address:

or per surface mail to:

Pieter Lagrou, International Committee for the History of the Second World War, Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent, École Normale Supérieure de Cachan, av. du président Wilson, F-94235 Cachan Cedex, France.

The organising committee will select the most promising papers on their merits and in the limits of the number of participants the conference can host. Limited financial aid will be available to cover travel expenses of scholars who do not benefit of other forms of financial support by their home institutions.


  • jeudi 31 mai 2001


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« Home-coming of Prisoners », Appel à contribution, Calenda, Publié le dimanche 04 mars 2001,

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