German mistreatment of Soviet prisoners of war

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German atrocities on Soviet prisoners of war
Part of Nazi crimes against humanity & genocide
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.
Location Eastern Europe
Date1941 - 1945
Target Soviet POWs
Attack type
Death marches, Deliberate Starvation, Genocide
Deaths3.3 to 3.5 million [1]
Motive Slavophobia, Lebensraum

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 policy, which amounted to deliberately starving and working to death Soviet POWs, was grounded in Nazi racial theory, which depicted Slavs as sub-humans (Untermenschen). The policy resulted in some 3.3 to 3.5 million deaths. [1] [2] [3] [4]

Contents

During Operation Barbarossa, the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent German–Soviet War, millions of Red Army (and other Soviet Armed Forces) 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 least 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 maintained POW and MIA losses of the combat forces were actually 1.783 million, according to Krivosheev the higher figures of dead includes reservists not on active strength, civilians and military personnel who were captured 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 Guterwagen.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-Sud, 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 Lwow 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, Aufraumungsarbeiten.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). [46] 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

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References

  1. 1 2 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."
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