German mistreatment of Soviet prisoners of war
During World War II, Nazi Germany engaged in deliberately genocidal policies towards Soviet Union prisoners of war (POWs). This resulted in some 3.3 to 3.5 million deaths, about 60% of all Soviet POWs.
During Operation Barbarossa, the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union (USSR), and the subsequent German–Soviet War, millions of Red Army prisoners of war were taken. Some of them were arbitrarily executed in the field by the German forces, died under inhuman conditions in German prisoner of war camps and during ruthless death marches from the front lines, or were shipped to Nazi concentration camps for extermination.
Some 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 only 8,300 out of 231,000 British and US prisoners, or 3.6%. Some estimates range as high as 5 million dead, including those killed immediately after surrendering (an indeterminate, although certainly very large number). 5% of the Soviet prisoners who died were of Jewish ethnicity. Among those who died was Stalin's son, Yakov Dzhugashvili.
The most deaths took place between June 1941 and January 1942, when the Germans killed an estimated 2.8 million Soviet POWs primarily through starvation, exposure, and summary execution, in what has been called, along with the Rwandan Genocide, an instance of “the most concentrated mass killing in human history (...) eclipsing the most exterminatory months of the Jewish Holocaust”. By September 1941, the mortality rate among Soviet POWs was in the order of 1% per day. According to the USHMM, by the winter of 1941, “starvation and disease resulted in mass death of unimaginable proportions”. This deliberate starvation, leading many desperate prisoners to resort to acts of cannibalism, was Nazi policy in spite of food being available, in accordance to 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.
The Commissar Order (German: Kommissarbefehl) was a written order given by Adolf Hitler on 6 June 1941, prior to Operation Barbarossa. 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.
The prisoners were stripped of their supplies and clothing by ill-equipped German troops when the cold weather set in. This resulted in fatal consequences for the prisoners. The camps established specially for the Soviets were called Russenlager. In others, the Soviets were kept separated from the prisoners of other countries. The Allied regulars kept by Germany were usually treated in accordance with the 1929 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War. However, the 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.”
In the case of the Soviet POWs, most of the camps were simply open areas fenced off with barbed wire and watchtowers with no housing. 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 per day. Medical treatment was nonexistent and an International Red Cross offer to help in 1941 was rejected by Adolf Hitler. Some conditions were actually worse than those experienced by prisoners in the regular German concentration camps.
In the summer and fall/autumn of 1941 during the German invasion, vast numbers of Soviet prisoners were captured in about 11 different encirclements (so-called cauldrons). Due to the rapid advance and an expected quick victory, the Germans did not want to ship these prisoners back to Germany. Under the administration of the Wehrmacht the prisoners were processed, guarded, force marched, or transported in open rail cars. Much like famous atrocities such as the Bataan Death March, the treatment of prisoners was brutal, without much in the way of supporting logistics.
Selected POW camps
- Oflag IV-C: Allied officers at Colditz Castle were barred from sharing Red Cross packages with starving Soviet prisoners.
- Oflag XIII-A: In July 1941 a new compound, Oflag XIII-D, was set up for higher ranking Soviet officers captured during Operation Barbarossa. It was closed in April 1942; the surviving officers (many had died during the winter due to an epidemic) were transferred to other camps.
- Stalag 324: Once a week, sick inmates were to be shot.
- Stalag 350/Z: According to the 1944 Soviet report, 43,000 captured Red Army personnel were either killed or died from diseases and starvation.
- Stalag 359B: An epidemic of dysentery led to the murder of some 6,000 Red Army prisoners between September 21–28, 1941 (3,261 of them on the first day), conducted by the notorious Police Battalion 306.
- Stalag I-B: About 50,000 prisoners died in the camp, the vast majority of them Soviets.
- Stalag II-B: The construction of the second camp, Lager-Ost, started in June 1941 to accommodate the large numbers of Soviet prisoners taken in Operation Barbarossa. In November 1941 a typhoid fever epidemic broke out in the Lager-Ost; it lasted until March 1942 and an estimated 45,000 prisoners died and were buried in mass graves. The camp administration did not start any preventive measures until some German soldiers became infected.
- Stalag III-A
- Stalag III-C: In July 1941 Soviet prisoners captured during Operation Barbarossa arrived. They were held in separated facilities and suffered severe conditions and disease. The majority of the prisoners (up to 12,000) were killed, starved to death or died due to disease.
- Stalag IV-A: In June–September 1941 Soviet prisoners from Operation Barbarossa were placed in another camp. Conditions were appalling, and starvation, epidemics and ill-treatment took a heavy toll of lives; the dead Soviet prisoners were buried in mass graves.
- Stalag IV-B: In July about 11,000 Soviet soldiers, and some officers, arrived. By April 1942 only 3,279 remained; the rest had died from malnutrition and a typhus epidemic caused by the deplorable sanitary conditions. Their bodies were buried in mass graves. After April 1942 more Soviet prisoners arrived and died just as rapidly. At the end of 1942 10,000 reasonably healthy Soviet prisoners were transferred to Belgium to work in the coal mines; the rest, suffering from tuberculosis, continued to die at the rate of 10–20 per day.
- Stalag IV-H: Of the 10,677 inmates in the camp before the typhoid fever epidemic in December 1941, only 3,729 were still alive when it ended in April 1942. In 1942 at least 1,000 were “weeded-out” by the Gestapo and shot at Buchenwald.
- Stalag V-A: During 1941–1942 many Soviet POWs arrived, but they were kept in separate enclosures and received much harsher treatment than the other prisoners. Thousands of them died of malnutrition and disease.
- Stalag VI-C: Over 2,000 Soviet prisoners from Operation Barbarossa arrived in the summer of 1941. Conditions were appalling, starvation, epidemics and ill-treatment took a heavy toll of lives. The dead were buried in mass graves.
- Stalag VI-K: Between 40,000 and 60,000 prisoners died, mostly buried in three mass graves. A Soviet war cemetery is still in existence, containing about 200 named graves.
- Stalag VII-A: During the 5 years about 1,000 prisoners died at the camp, over 800 of them Soviets (mostly officers). At the end of the war there were still 27 Soviet generals in the camp who had survived the mistreatment that they, like all Soviet prisoners, had been subjected to. The new prisoners were inspected upon arrival by local Munich Gestapo agents; some 484 were found to be “undesirable” and immediately sent to concentration camps and murdered.
- Stalag VIII-C: In late 1941 nearly 50,000 prisoners were crowded into a space designed for only one third that number. Conditions were appalling, starvation, epidemics and ill-treatment took a heavy toll of lives. By early 1942 the survivors had been transferred to other camps.
- Stalag VIII-E: The first Soviets arrived in July 1941; by June 1942 more than 100,000 prisoners were crowded into this camp. As a result of starvation and disease, mainly typhoid fever and tuberculosis, close to half of them died before the end of the war.
- Stalag VIII-F: Physical and sanitary conditions were terrible and of the estimated 300,000 Soviet prisoners who passed through this camp, about one third (some 100,000) died of starvation, mistreatment and disease.
- Stalag X-B
- Stalag XI-B: In July 1941, over 10,000 Soviet army officers were imprisoned here. Thousands of them died in the winter of 1941/2 as the result of a typhoid fever epidemic.
- Stalag XI-C: In July 1941, about 20,000 Soviet prisoners captured during Operation Barbarossa arrived; they were housed in the open while huts were being built. Some 14,000 POWs died during the winter of 1941–42. In late 1943 the POW camp was closed and the entire facility became Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
In the “weeding-out programs” (Aussonderungsaktionen) in 1941–42, the Gestapo further identified Communist Party and state officials, commissars, academic scholars, Jews and other “undesirable” or “dangerous” individuals who survived the Commissar Order selections, and transferred them to concentration camps, where they were immediately summarily executed. At Stalag VII “Moosburg”, Major Karl Meinel objected to these executions, but the SS (including Karl von Eberstein) intervened with military leadership, Meinel was demoted, and the killing continued.
Concentration and extermination camps
Between 140,000 and 500,000 Soviet prisoners of war died or were executed in Nazi concentration camps, most of them by shooting or gassing. Some were also experimented on; in one such case, a Dr. Heinrich Berning from Hamburg University starved prisoners to death while performing “famine experiments”; in another, prisoners were shot using dum-dum bullets.
- Auschwitz concentration camp: From about 15,000 Soviet POWs who were brought to Auschwitz I for work, only 92 remained alive at the last roll call. About 3,000 more were killed by being shot or gassed immediately after arriving. The Soviets were treated worse than any other Auschwitz prisoners. Out of the first 10,000 brought to work in 1941, 9,000 died in the first five months. A group of about 600 Soviet prisoners were gassed in the first Zyklon-B experiments on September 3, 1941; in December 1941, a further 900 Soviet POWs were murdered by means of gas. In March 1941, Heinrich Himmler ordered the construction of a large camp for 100,000 Soviet POWs at Birkenau, in close proximity to the main camp. Most of the Soviet prisoners were dead by the time Birkenau was reclassified as the Auschwitz II concentration camp in March 1942.
- Buchenwald concentration camp: 8,483 Soviet POWs were selected in 1941–1942 by a task force of three Dresden Gestapo officers and sent to the camp for immediate liquidation by a gunshot to the back of the neck, the infamous Genickschuss using a purpose-built facility.
- Chełmno extermination camp: The victims murdered at the Chełmno killing center included several hundred Poles and Soviet POWs.
- Dachau concentration camp: Some 500 Soviet POWs were executed by a firing squad in Dachau.
- Flossenbürg concentration camp: More than 1,000 Soviet POWs were executed in Flossenbürg by the end of 1941; executions continued sporadically up to 1944. The POWs at one of the sub-camps staged a failed uprising and mass escape attempt on May 1, 1944. The SS also established a special camp for 2,000 Soviet POWs within Flossenbürg itself.
- Gross-Rosen concentration camp: 65,000 Soviet POWs were killed by feeding them only a thin soup of grass, water, and salt for six months. In October 1941 the SS transferred about 3,000 Soviet POWs to Gross-Rosen for execution by shooting.
- Hinzert concentration camp: A group of 70 POWs were told that they would undergo a medical examination, but instead were injected with potassium cyanide, a deadly poison.
- Majdanek: The first transport directed toward Majdanek consisted of 5,000 Soviet POWs arriving in the latter half of 1941, they soon died of starvation and exposure. Executions were also conducted there by the shooting of prisoners in trenches.
- Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp: Following the outbreak of the Soviet–German War the camps started to receive a large number of Soviet POWs; most of them were kept in huts separated from the rest of the camp. The Soviet POWs were a major part of the first groups to be gassed in the newly built gas chamber in early 1942; at least 2,843 of them were murdered in the camp. According to the USHMM, “so many POWs were shot that the local population complained that their water supply had been contaminated. The rivers and streams near the camp ran red with blood.”
- Neuengamme concentration camp: According to the testimony of Wilhelm Bahr, an ex-medical orderly, during the trial against Bruno Tesch, 200 Soviet POWs were gassed by prussic acid in 1942.
- Sachsenhausen concentration camp: Soviet POWs were victims of the largest part of the executions that took place. Thousands of them were murdered immediately after arriving at the camp, including 9,090 executed between August 31 and October 2, 1941. Stalin's son died in this camp.
- Sobibór extermination camp: Soviet prisoners of Jewish ethnicity were among hundreds of thousands people gassed at Sobibór. A group of former Soviet officers led the successful mass breakout from Sobibor, after which the Germans closed and dismantled the camp.
Forced labour camps
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 (see forced labor in Germany during World War II). 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 countless other companies, where they provided labour while 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 labor.
The Organisation Todt was a Third Reich civil and military engineering group in Germany eponymously named for its founder, Fritz Todt, an engineer and senior Nazi figure. The organisation was responsible for a huge range of engineering projects both in pre-World War II Germany, and in Germany itself and occupied territories from France to Russia 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. The history of the organization falls fairly neatly into three phases:
- A pre-war period from 1933–1938 during which the predecessor of Organisation Todt, the office of General Inspector of German Roadways (Generalinspektor für das deutsche Straßenwesen), was primarily responsibility for the construction of the German Autobahn network. The organisation was able to draw on “conscripted”—i.e. compulsory—labour, from within Germany, through the Reich Labour Service (Reichsarbeitsdienst, RAD).
- The period from 1938, when the Organisation Todt proper was founded until 1942, when the huge increase in the demand for labour created by the various military and paramilitary projects was met by a series of expansions of the laws on compulsory service, which ultimately obligated all Germans to arbitrarily determined (i.e. effectively unlimited) compulsory labour for the state: Zwangsarbeit. From 1938–40, over 1.75 million Germans were conscripted into labour service. From 1940–42, Organisation Todt began its reliance on Gastarbeitnehmer (guest workers), Militärinternierte (military internees), Zivilarbeiter (civilian workers), Ostarbeiter (Eastern workers) and Hilfswillige (“volunteer”) POW workers.
- The period from 1942 until the end of the war, with 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 were effectively treated as slaves and existed in the complete and arbitrary service of a ruthless totalitarian state. Many did not survive the work or the war.
Soviet reprisals against former POWs
One often finds statements that Soviet POWs who survived German captivity were accused by the Soviet authorities of collaboration with the Nazis or branded as traitors under Order No. 270, which prohibited any soldier from surrendering. During and after World War II freed POWs went to special “filtration” camps. Of these, by 1944, more than 90 per cent were cleared, and about 8 per cent were arrested or condemned to serve in penal battalions. In 1944, they were sent directly to reserve military formations to be cleared by the NKVD. Further, in 1945, about 100 filtration camps were set for repatriated Ostarbeiter, POWs, and other displaced persons, which processed more than 4,000,000 people. By 1946, 80 per cent civilians and 20 per cent of POWs were freed, 5 per cent of civilians, and 43 per cent of POWs were re-drafted, 10 per cent of civilians and 22 per cent of POWs were sent to labor battalions, and 2 per cent of civilians and 15 per cent of the POWs (226,127 out of 1,539,475 total) transferred to the NKVD, i.e. the Gulag.
Russian historian G.F. Krivosheev gives slightly different numbers based on documents provided by the KGB: 233,400 were found guilty of collaborating with the enemy and sent to Gulag camps out of 1,836,562 Soviet soldiers who returned from captivity. Latter data do not include millions of civilians who have been repatriated (often involuntarily) to the Soviet Union, and a significant number of whom were also sent to the Gulag or executed (e.g. Betrayal of the Cossacks).
The Black Book of Communism provides different numbers: 19.1% of ex-POWs were sent to penal battalions of the Red Army, 14.5% were sent to forced labour “reconstruction battalions” (usually for two years), and 360,000 people (about 8%) were sentenced to ten to twenty years in the Gulag. The survivors were released during the general amnesty for all POWs and accused collaborators in 1955 on the wave of De-Stalinization following Stalin's death in 1953.
According to Rolf-Dieter Müller and Gerd R. Ueberschär, “Soviet historians engaged for the most part in a disinformation campaign about the extent of the prisoner-of-war problem.” They claim that almost all returning POWs were convicted of collaboration and treason hence sentenced to the various forms of forced labour. However, other scholars concede de-classified Soviet archive data to be a reliable source. Thousands of Soviet POWs indeed survived through collaboration, many of them joining German forces including the SS.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Soviet prisoners of war of World War II.|
- Babi Yar — Soviet POWs among victims (70,000–120,000 people executed between 1941 and 1943).
- Ponary massacre — Execution of some 7,500 Soviet POWs in 1941 (among about 100,000 murdered there between 1941 and 1944).
- World War II casualties of the Soviet Union
- German High Command orders for the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war
- German prisoners of war in the Soviet Union
- Commissar Order
- Severity Order
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- “Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century”, Greenhill Books, London, 1997, G. F. Krivosheev
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- 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.”
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- Soviet Prisoners of War in Norway 1941–1945: Organisation of the camps and treatment of the Prisoners
- The “Russian” Prisoners of War in Nazi-Ruled Ukraine as Victims of Genocidal Massacre
- The treatment of Soviet POWs: Starvation, disease, and shootings, June 1941 – January 1942
- (German) Die deutschen Verbrechen an den sowjetischen Kriegsgefangenen (German crimes against the Soviet prisoners of war)
- (German) Kampf für Entschädigung sowjetischer Kriegsgefangener (Fight for compensation of Soviet war prisoners)
- (German) Sowjetische Kriegsgefangene