German mistreatment of Soviet prisoners of war

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Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, accompanied by an entourage of SS and Heer personnel, inspects a prison-camp for Soviet prisoners-of-war in the fall of 1941. Himmler besichtigt die Gefangenenlager in Russland. Heinrich Himmler inspects a prisoner of war camp in Russia, circa... - NARA - 540164.jpg
Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, accompanied by an entourage of SS and Heer personnel, inspects a prison-camp for Soviet prisoners-of-war in the fall of 1941.

During World War II, Nazi Germany engaged in a policy of deliberate maltreatment of Soviet prisoners of war (POWs), in contrast to their treatment of British and American POWs. This resulted in some 3.3 to 3.5 million deaths. [1] [2] [3] [4]

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During Operation Barbarossa, the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent German–Soviet War, millions of Red Army prisoners of war were taken. Many were executed, arbitrarily in the field by the German forces or handed over to the SS to be shot, under the Commissar Order. Most, however, died during the death marches from the front lines or under inhumane conditions in German prisoner-of-war camps and concentration camps.

Death toll

An improvised camp for Soviet prisoners of war. August 1942 Bundesarchiv Bild 183-B21845, Sowjetische Kriegsgefangene im Lager.jpg
An improvised camp for Soviet prisoners of war. August 1942

It is estimated that at 3.3 million Soviet POWs died in Nazi custody, out of 5.7 million. This figure represents a total of 57% of all Soviet POWs and may be contrasted with 8,300 out of 231,000 British and U.S. prisoners, or 3.6%. About 5% of the Soviet prisoners who died were Jews. [5] The most deaths took place between June 1941 and January 1942, when the Germans killed an estimated 2.8 million Soviet POWs primarily through deliberate starvation, [6] exposure, and summary execution. A million at most had been released, most of whom were so-called ‘volunteers’ (Hilfswillige) for (often compulsory) auxiliary service in the Wehrmacht, 500,000 had fled or were liberated, the remaining 3.3 million had perished as POWs [2]
The figure of 3.3 million POW dead is based on German figures and analysis. Data published in Russia presents a different view of their POW dead. Viktor Zemskov estimated Soviet POW deaths at 2.3 million, he published statistics that put Soviet POW losses at 2,471,000 (5,734,000 were captured, 821,000 were released for German military service, 72,000 escaped and 2,371,000 liberated ) [7] [8] Of the 823,000 POWS released for service in the German military forces 212,400 were killed or missing, 436,600 were returned to the USSR and imprisoned and 180,000 remained in western countries after the war. [9] [10] Russian military historian Grigori F. Krivosheev maintains POW and MIA losses of the combat forces were actually 1.783 million, according to Krivosheev the higher figure of 3.3 million POW dead includes reservists not on active strength, civilians and military personnel reported missing who were recovered during the course of the war. [11]

By September 1941, the mortality rate among Soviet POWs was in the order of 1% per day. [12] According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), by the winter of 1941, "starvation and disease resulted in mass death of unimaginable proportions". [13] This deliberate starvation, despite food being available, led many desperate prisoners to resort to acts of cannibalism [14] was Nazi policy [15] and was all in accordance with the Hunger Plan developed by the Reich Minister of Food Herbert Backe. For the Germans, Soviet POWs were expendable: they consumed calories needed by others and, unlike Western POWs, were considered to be subhuman. [16]

Commissar Order

The Commissar Order (German: Kommissarbefehl) was a written order given by the German High Command (OKW) on 6 June 1941, prior to the beginning of Operation Barbarossa (German invasion of the Soviet Union). It demanded that any Soviet political commissar identified among captured troops be shot immediately. Those prisoners who could be identified as "thoroughly bolshevized or as active representatives of the Bolshevist ideology" were also to be executed.

General internment system for Soviet prisoners of war

Red Army soldiers, captured between Lutsk and Volodymyr-Volynskyi. June 1941 Bundesarchiv Bild 183-L25034, Russland, kriegsgefangene sowjetische Soldaten.jpg
Red Army soldiers, captured between Lutsk and Volodymyr-Volynskyi. June 1941
Distribution of food in a POW camp near Vinnytsia, Ukraine. July 1941 Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1979-113-04, Lager Winnica, gefangene Russen.jpg
Distribution of food in a POW camp near Vinnytsia, Ukraine. July 1941
Overcrowded transit camp near Smolensk, Russia. August 1941 Bundesarchiv Bild 183-L28726, Sowjetische Kriegsgefangene bei Smolensk.jpg
Overcrowded transit camp near Smolensk, Russia. August 1941
Soviet POWs transported in an open wagon train. September 1941 Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-267-0124-20A, Russland, Transport sowjetischer Kriegsgefangener in Güterwagen.jpg
Soviet POWs transported in an open wagon train. September 1941
Soviet POWs of Asian ethnicity near Stalingrad, Russia. June 1942 Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-218-0507-24, Russland-Süd, sowjetische Kriegefangene.jpg
Soviet POWs of Asian ethnicity near Stalingrad, Russia. June 1942
Soviet POWs in Zhitomir on 24 July 1941. Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1989-063-30A, Russland, russische Kriegsgefangene.jpg
Soviet POWs in Zhitomir on 24 July 1941.
A column of Soviet POWs near Lwów in July 1941. Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-187-0203-06A, Russland, Russische Kriegsgefangene.jpg
A column of Soviet POWs near Lwów in July 1941.


In the summer and autumn of 1941, vast numbers of Soviet prisoners were captured in about a dozen large encirclements. Due to their rapid advance into the Soviet Union and an anticipated quick victory, the Germans did not want to ship these prisoners to Germany. Under the administration of the Wehrmacht, the prisoners were processed, guarded, forced-marched, or transported in open rail cars to locations mostly in the occupied Soviet Union, Germany, and occupied Poland. [17] Much like comparable events, such as the Pacific War's Bataan Death March in 1942, the treatment of prisoners was brutal, without much in the way of supporting logistics.

Soviet prisoners of war were stripped of their supplies and clothing by poorly-equipped German troops when the cold weather set in; this resulted in death for the prisoners. [12] Most of the camps for Soviet POWs were simply open areas fenced off with barbed wire and watchtowers with no inmate housing. [14] These meager conditions forced the crowded prisoners to live in holes they had dug for themselves, which were exposed to the elements. Beatings and other abuse by the guards were common, and prisoners were malnourished, often consuming only a few hundred calories or less per day. Medical treatment was non-existent and an International Red Cross offer to help in 1941 was rejected by Hitler. [13] [18]

Some of the Soviet POWs were also experimented on. In one such case, Dr. Heinrich Berning from Hamburg University starved prisoners to death as "famine experiments". [19] [20] In another instance, a group of prisoners at Zhitomir were shot using dum-dum bullets. [21] [22] [23]

Prisoner-of-war camps

The camps established especially for Soviet POWs were called Russenlager ("Russian camp"). [24] The Allied regulars kept by Germany were usually treated in accordance with the 1929 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War. Although the Soviet Union was not a signatory, Germany was, and Article 82 of the Convention required signatories to treat all captured enemy soldiers "as between the belligerents who are parties thereto." Russenlager conditions were often even worse than those commonly experienced by prisoners in regular concentration camps. Such camps included:

Jewish-Soviet POWs marked with yellow badges. August 1941 Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-267-0111-37, Russland, russische Kriegsgefangene (Juden).jpg
Jewish-Soviet POWs marked with yellow badges. August 1941

"Weeding-out" program

In the "weeding-out actions" (Aussonderungsaktionen) of 1941–42, the Gestapo secret police further identified Communist Party and state officials, commissars, academic scholars, Jews and other "undesirable" or "dangerous" individuals who had survived the Commissar Order selections, and transferred them to concentration camps, where they were summarily executed. [32] At Stalag VII-A at Moosburg, Major Karl Meinel objected to these executions, but the SS (including Karl von Eberstein) intervened, Meinel was demoted to reserve, and the killing continued. [33] [34] [35]

In all, between June 1941 and May 1944 about 10% of all Soviet POWs were turned over to the SS-Totenkopfverbände concentration camp organization or the Einsatzgruppen death squads and murdered. [12] Einsatzgruppen killings included the Babi Yar massacres where Soviet POWs were among 70,000–120,000 people executed between 1941 and 1943 and the Ponary massacre that included the execution of some 7,500 Soviet POWs in 1941 (among about 100,000 murdered there between 1941 and 1944).

Soviet prisoners of war in German concentration and extermination camps

Soviet prisoners of war in Mauthausen concentration camp. October 1941 Bundesarchiv Bild 192-096, KZ Mauthausen, sowjetische Kriegsgefangene.jpg
Soviet prisoners of war in Mauthausen concentration camp. October 1941
Naked Soviet prisoners of war in Mauthausen concentration camp. Unknown date Bundesarchiv Bild 192-208, KZ Mauthausen, Sowjetische Kriegsgefangene.jpg
Naked Soviet prisoners of war in Mauthausen concentration camp. Unknown date

Between 140,000 and 500,000 Soviet prisoners of war died or were executed in Nazi concentration camps. [13] Most of those executed were killed by shooting but some were gassed.

Soviet prisoners of war in German slave labour system

Soviet POWs at work in Minsk, Belarus. July 1941 Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-137-1010-21A, Weißrussland, Minsk, Aufräumungsarbeiten.jpg
Soviet POWs at work in Minsk, Belarus. July 1941

In January 1942, Hitler authorized better treatment of Soviet POWs because the war had bogged down, and German leaders decided to use prisoners for forced labour on a large scale (see forced labour under German rule during World War II). [43] Their number increased from barely 150,000 in 1942, to the peak of 631,000 in the summer of 1944. Many were dispatched to the coal mines (between July 1 and November 10, 1943, 27,638 Soviet POWs died in the Ruhr Area alone), while others were sent to Krupp, Daimler-Benz or other companies, [18] where they provided labour while often being slowly worked to death. The largest "employers" of 1944 were mining (160,000), agriculture (138,000) and the metal industry (131,000). No less than 200,000 prisoners died during forced labour.

The Organisation Todt was a civil and military engineering group in Germany eponymously named for its founder Fritz Todt. The organisation was responsible for a wide range of engineering projects both in pre-World War II Germany, and in Germany itself and occupied territories from France to the Soviet Union during the war, and became notorious for using forced labour. Most of the so-called "volunteer" Soviet POW workers were consumed by the Organisation Todt. [2] The period from 1942 until the end of the war had approximately 1.4 million labourers in the service of the Organisation Todt. Overall, 1% were Germans rejected from military service and 1.5% were concentration camp prisoners; the rest were prisoners of war and compulsory labourers from occupied countries. All non-Germans were effectively treated as slaves and many did not survive the work or the war.

See also

References

  1. Peter Calvocoressi, Guy Wint, Total War — "The total number of prisoners taken by the German armies in the USSR was in the region of 5.7 million. Of these, the astounding number of 3.5 million or more had been lost by the middle of 1944 and the assumption must be that they were either deliberately killed or done to death by criminal negligence. Nearly two million of them died in camps and close on another million disappeared while in military custody either in the USSR or in rear areas; a further quarter of a million disappeared or died in transit between the front and destinations in the rear; another 473,000 died or were killed in military custody in Germany or Poland." They add, "This slaughter of prisoners cannot be accounted for by the peculiar chaos of the war in the east. ... The true cause was the inhuman policy of the Nazis towards the Russians as a people and the acquiescence of army commanders in attitudes and conditions which amounted to a sentence of death on their prisoners."
  2. 1 2 3 Christian Streit: Keine Kameraden: Die Wehrmacht und die Sowjetischen Kriegsgefangenen, 1941–1945, Bonn: Dietz (3. Aufl., 1. Aufl. 1978), ISBN   3-8012-5016-4 — "Between 22 June 1941 and the end of the war, roughly 5.7 million members of the Red Army fell into German hands. In January 1945, 930,000 were still in German camps. A million at most had been released, most of whom were so-called ‘volunteers’ (Hilfswillige) for (often compulsory) auxiliary service in the Wehrmacht. Another 500,000, as estimated by the Army High Command, had either fled or been liberated. The remaining 3,300,000 (57.5 percent of the total) had perished."
  3. Nazi persecution of Soviet Prisoners of War United States Holocaust Memorial Museum — "Existing sources suggest that some 5.7 million Soviet army personnel fell into German hands during World War II. As of January 1945, the German army reported that only about 930,000 Soviet POWs remained in German custody. The German army released about one million Soviet POWs as auxiliaries of the German army and the SS. About half a million Soviet POWs had escaped German custody or had been liberated by the Soviet army as it advanced westward through eastern Europe into Germany. The remaining 3.3 million, or about 57 percent of those taken prisoner, were dead by the end of the war."
  4. Jonathan North, Soviet Prisoners of War: Forgotten Nazi Victims of World War II Archived March 30, 2008, at the Wayback Machine — "Statistics show that out of 5.7 million Soviet soldiers captured between 1941 and 1945, more than 3.5 million died in captivity."
  5. British Imperial War Museum — Invasion of the Soviet Union display (Holocaust Exhibition) Berkeleyinternetsystems.com; accessed 19 July 2018.
  6. Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners (pg. 290) — "2.8 million young, healthy Soviet POWs" killed by the Germans, "mainly by starvation ... in less than eight months" of 1941–42, before "the decimation of Soviet POWs ... was stopped" and the Germans "began to use them as laborers" (emphasis added).
  7. Zemskov, Viktor. "Mortality of Soviet POWs". ww2stats.com. Retrieved 3 September 2018.
  8. Zemskov, Viktor. "The extent of human losses USSR in the Great Patriotic War and Statistical Lynbrinth (in Russian)". demoscope.ru # 559-60, July 2013. Retrieved 3 September 2018.
  9. Krivosheev, G.F. (1997). Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century. Greenhill Books. pp. 91–92. ISBN   978-1-85367-280-4.
  10. Krivosheev, G. I (2001). Rossiia i SSSR v voinakh XX veka: Poteri vooruzhennykh sil ; statisticheskoe issledovanie. OLMA-Press. p. 463. ISBN   5-224-01515-4.
  11. Krivosheev, G.F. (1997). Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century. Greenhill Books. pp. 230–238. ISBN   978-1-85367-280-4.
  12. 1 2 3 War against subhumans: comparisons between the German War against the Soviet Union and the American war against Japan, 1941–1945, James Weingartner, 22 March 1996.
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 6 The treatment of Soviet POWs: Starvation, disease, and shootings, June 1941 – January 1942 USHMM.
  14. 1 2 "Case Study: Soviet Prisoners-of-War (POWs), 1941–42". Gendercide Watch. Retrieved 19 July 2018.
  15. Harvest of Despair: Life and Death in Ukraine Under Nazi Rule Canadian Slavonic Papers; accessed 19 July 2018.
  16. Applebaum, Anne (November 11, 2010). "The Worst of the Madness". The New York Review of Books .
  17. "The Treatment of Soviet POWs: Starvation, Disease, and Shootings, June 1941–January 1942". Ushmm.org. Retrieved 2015-05-19.
  18. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Soviet Prisoners of War: Forgotten Nazi Victims of World War II Archived March 30, 2008, at the Wayback Machine By Jonathan North, TheHistoryNet
  19. "Nazi Doctors & Other Perpetrators of Nazi Crimes". Webster.edu. Archived from the original on 2014-02-06. Retrieved 2014-03-01.
  20. "Using Science For The Greater Evil". Newsweek.com. Retrieved 2015-05-19.
  21. Michael Burleigh (1997). Ethics and extermination: reflections on Nazi genocide. Cambridge University Press. p. 71. ISBN   978-0-521-58816-4 . Retrieved 20 March 2011. Inhumane treatment of Soviet prisoners included proceedings at Shitomir in August 1941 where a group of them were shot with captured Red Army dum-dum bullets so that German military doctors could precisely observe, and write up, the effects of these munitions upon the human body.95(See Streim reference below for original source).
  22. Alfred Streim (1982). Sowjetische Gefangene in Hitlers Vernichtungskrieg: Berichte und Dokumente, 1941–1945 (in German). Müller. pp. 87–91. ISBN   978-3-8114-2482-1 . Retrieved 20 March 2011.
  23. Andrew Rothstein (1946). Soviet foreign policy during the patriotic war: documents and materials. Hutchinson & co., ltd. p. 155. Retrieved 20 March 2011. Six kilometres from Pogostie Station (Leningrad region) German troops, retreating from Red Army units, shot over 150 Soviet prisoners with dum-dum bullets, after terrible floggings and bestial tortures.
  24. 1 2 (in German) "Das "Sterbelager" von Hemer "Bekannt und gefürchtet" bei sowjetischen Kriegsgefangenen Archived 2007-08-12 at the Wayback Machine
  25. 1 2 Otto 2008, p. 585.
  26. Strods, Heinrihs (2000). "Salaspils koncentrācijas nometne (1944. gada oktobris – 1944. gada septembris)". Yearbook of the Occupation Museum of Latvia (in Latvian). 2000: 87–153. ISSN   1407-6330.
  27. Otto 2008, p. 576.
  28. "Stalag and Oflag POW Camps". Stalagoflagpow.com. 1944-03-24. Retrieved 2014-03-01.
  29. https://web.archive.org/web/20080103124742/http://www.stsg.de/main/zeithain/geschichte/russenlager/index_en.php. Archived from the original on January 3, 2008. Retrieved February 24, 2008.Missing or empty |title= (help)
  30. 1 2 Otto 2008, p. 572.
  31. Archived March 13, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  32. https://web.archive.org/web/20080106201847/http://www.stsg.de/main/zeithain/geschichte/sowjpow/index_en.php. Archived from the original on January 6, 2008. Retrieved February 24, 2008.Missing or empty |title= (help)
  33. "Moosburg Online: Stalag VII A (Zeitzeugen: Meinel)". Moosburg.org. Retrieved 2014-03-01.
  34. International Military Tribunal at Nurnberg (circa 1947). Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression. USGPO.
  35. Otto, Reinhard (1998). Wehrmacht, Gestapo und sowjetische Kriegsgefangene im deutschen Reichsgebiet 1941/42. Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag
  36. Auschwitz — deportees, camp topography, SS garrison Archived 2007-11-26 at the Wayback Machine Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum
  37. Work Camp for Russian POWs Archived 2008-02-20 at the Wayback Machine Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum
  38. The Systematic Character of the National Socialist Policy for the Extermination of the Jews: Electronic Edition Archived 2013-01-03 at Archive.today , by Heinz Peter Longerich
  39. "UNC Press - People in Auschwitz, by Hermann Langbein. Foreword". Uncpress.unc.edu. Archived from the original on 2007-12-28. Retrieved 2015-05-19.
  40. "Gross-Rosen Timeline 1940-1945". Internet Wayback Machine. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C. 15 January 2009. Archived from the original on January 15, 2009. Retrieved 5 April 2014.
  41. Archived November 23, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  42. "The Zyklon B Case: Trial of Bruno Tesch and Two Others". United Nations War Crimes Commission. 1947. Archived from the original on 2012-07-09.
  43. Forced labor: Soviet POWs January 1942 through May 1945 USHMM

Literature