|German atrocities on Soviet prisoners of war|
|Part of German–Soviet War|
|Location||Germany and German-occupied Eastern Europe|
|Starvation, death marches, executions, forced labor|
|Deaths||2.8 to 3.3 million|
Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) held by Nazi Germany and primarily in the custody of the German Army, were starved and subjected to deadly conditions. Of nearly six million that were captured, around 3 million died during their imprisonment, largely in 1941. Soviet Jews, commissars, Asians, and female combatants were systematically targeted for execution, while many other Soviet prisoners were shot for being wounded, ill, or unable to keep up with forced marches. Soviet prisoners of war were subjected to forced labor under conditions worse than civilian forced laborers or prisoners of war from other countries. More than 100,000 were transferred to Nazi concentration camps, where they were treated worse than other prisoners. Nearly a million Soviet prisoners of war volunteered to serve as auxiliaries to the German military; others joined the SS. Collaborators were essential to the German war effort as well as to the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.
The deaths among Soviet prisoners of war were numerically exceeded only by the European Jews and has been called "one of the greatest crimes in military history". Nevertheless, few received any reparations and their fate is much less well studied. Changing and contradictory orders issued by German military leaders has led to debate as to whether the Nazi leadership planned and intended mass deaths of Soviet prisoners of war in 1941 or whether it was initially intended to use Soviet prisoners for forced labor.
Nazi Germany and its allies Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Italy invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. The Nazi leadership believed that war with its ideological enemy was inevitable and one reason for the war was the desire to acquire territory, called living space (Lebensraum), which Nazis believed was necessary for Germany's long-term survival. The war aims included securing natural resources, including agricultural land to feed Germany, metals and mineral oil for German industry. To increase the speed of conquest the Germans planned to feed their army by looting and to terrorize the local inhabitants with preventative killings. The vast majority of German military manpower and materiel was devoted to the invasion, which was carried out as a war of extermination with complete disregard for the laws and customs of war. Among the criminal orders issued by the Wehrmacht's High Command (OKW) was the Commissar Order directing the army to shoot captured Soviet commissars as well as suspicious civilian political functionaries. The Nazis believed that the Soviet Union's Slavic population, considered racially inferior, was secretly controlled by an international Jewish conspiracy. Thus, by killing communist functionaries and Soviet Jews, it was expected that resistance would quickly collapse. They anticipated that much of the Soviet population, especially the western areas, would welcome the German invasion and in the long run hoped to exploit tensions between different Soviet nationalities.
The experience of World War I both increased antisemitism in Germany based on the belief that Jews and others had stabbed their country in the back resulting in its defeat, and also the importance of securing enough food supplies for the home front to avoid a repeat of the blockade-induced famine. The Nazis divided the Soviet Union into "deficit areas", especially in the north, that required food imports and "surplus areas", especially in Ukraine. Food deliveries from surplus areas to deficit areas would be redirected to the German army or Germany, which Nazi planners estimated would lead to the starvation of some 30 million people—mostly Russians. These plans were mostly abandoned as they proved impossible to implement. A smaller-scale starvation policy was implemented in Soviet cities (especially besieged Leningrad) and Jewish ghettos, but proved less successful than German planners hoped because of flight and black market activity. The Soviet prisoners of war were held under tighter control, and consequently suffered a higher death rate.
Prior to World War II, the treatment of prisoners of war had occupied a central role in the codification of the law of war, and detailed guidelines were laid down in the 1907 Hague Convention. Germany was also a signatory to the 1929 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War and generally adhered to it when it came to other nationalities of prisoners of war. These laws were covered in the Wehrmacht's military education and there were no legal gray areas that could be exploited to justify its actions. During the invasion of France in 1940, 1.9 million prisoners of war were housed and fed, which Kay cites as evidence that supply and logistics cannot explain the mass death of Soviet prisoners of war. On 30 March 1941, German dictator Adolf Hitler stated privately that "we must distance ourselves from the standpoint of soldierly comradeship" and fight a "war of extermination" because Red Army soldiers were "no comrade" of Germans. No one present raised any objection. The OKW ordered that the Geneva Convention did not apply to the Soviet prisoners of war, but nevertheless suggested that it be used as the basis of planning. Hartmann cites this order as an example of the dual state as well as disagreements among the Wehrmacht leadership, but argues that law and morality played at most a minor role in planning, in contrast to the demand for labor and military expediency.
Anti-Bolshevism, antisemitism, and racism are often cited as the main reasons behind the mass death of the prisoners, and went along with the regime's demand for security, food, and labor in determining their fate. These practical demands were in conflict when it came to the Soviet prisoners of war. A quick victory was expected, and historian Alex J. Kay argues that the Germans did not plan to use the prisoners for forced labor until victory did not materialize. Gerlach writes that this was because, if the Soviet Union could be defeated in one offensive, ramping up armaments production would not be necessary. In contrast, historian Christian Hartmann argues that from the start, the Soviet prisoners of war were intended to be used as a labor reserve and Babette Quinkert concurs, arguing that the mass deaths were decided on after German advances did not go according to plan. Little planning was done for how to house and feed the millions of soldiers to be captured as part of the rapid encirclement actions that the German commanders expected to enable the blitzkrieg.
In 1941, three or four Soviet soldiers were captured for each who was killed in action; the ratio of prisoners was reduced later in the war, but remained higher than for the German side. By mid-December 1941, 79 percent of prisoners had been captured in just thirteen major cauldron battles. Historian Mark Edele argues that opposition to the Soviet government is one factor that led to the mass surrenders in 1941, but emphasizes that military factors—such as poor leadership, lack of arms and ammunition, and being completely overwhelmed by the German advance—were more important. Behavior of Soviet soldiers ranged from fighting to the last bullet to making a conscious choice to defect and deliberately going to the German side. Edele estimates that at least hundreds of thousands, and possibly more than a million, Soviet soldiers defected over the course of the war, far exceeding defections among other participants in the war.
Especially in 1941, the German Army often refused to take prisoners on the Eastern Front, instead shooting Soviet soldiers who tried to surrender. Waffen-SS shot hundreds of captured Red Army soldiers on multiple occasions and thousands at least once. The Red Army also frequently shot prisoners—although not according to a policy and less commonly than the Wehrmacht did—contributing to mutual escalation of violence, although ideology was a more important factor on the German side. Killings that occurred prior to reaching the collection point are not counted as part of the figures for Soviet prisoner deaths.
Before May 1942, when the order was rescinded, an estimated 4,000 to 10,000 commissars were shot; such killings are documented for more than 80 percent of front-line German divisions fighting on the Eastern Front. Although the order was mostly accepted, behavior varied from refusal to implement it to extending to other groups of Soviet captives. These killings did not have the intended effect of decreasing Soviet resistance, and came to be perceived as counterproductive. Contradictory orders were also issued for the execution of female combatants in the Soviet army, who defied German gender expectations and were supposed to be convinced communists. These orders were not always followed.
Infantry divisions took prisoners during encirclement battles but front line troops were typically in charge for only a short time before taking them to a collection point at division or army level. A minority were reserved by each field army for forced labor in its operational area; these prisoners were not registered. They were not allowed to be recruited as auxiliary personnel (Hiwis) without authorization. The way these prisoners were treated varied, with some having similar living conditions as Wehrmacht soldiers and others being treated as badly as occurred in the camps. Some frontline units would also strip prisoners of their winter clothing as cold temperatures set in late in 1941. Although wounded and sick Red Army soldiers sometimes received medical care, most often they did not. Red Army soldiers who had been overtaken by the German advance without being captured were ordered to present themselves to the Wehrmacht under the threat of summary execution; such orders were intended to prevent the growth of a Soviet partisan movement. Despite the Supreme Command of Ground Forces (OKH) order, prisoners were often taken under such circumstances. Thousands of Red Army soldiers were executed on the spot as "partisans" or "irregulars". Others evaded capture and returned to their families.
As many as one in eight of the people registered as Soviet prisoners of war had never been members of the Red Army. Some had been mobilized but never reached their units; others belonged to the NKVD, People's Militia, were from uniformed civilian services such as railway corps and fortification workers, or were otherwise civilians.
For a time in late 1941, the supply of prisoners seemed infinite to Nazi leaders.
Although Wehrmacht command authorities from the OKW on down also distributed orders to refrain from excessive violence against prisoners of war, historian David Harrisville argues that these orders had little effect in practice and that their main effect was to bolster a positive self-image in Wehrmacht soldiers.
Responsibility for the prisoners in Wehrmacht custody was split. In the areas under civilian administration, this responsibility was divided between the Allgemeines Wehrmachtsamtand the OKW. In areas under military administration, the OKH and its quartermaster-general were in charge. Each camp commandant had a great deal of autonomy, limited by the military and economic situation. Food and agriculture authorities and quartermasters helped to set rations. Railway workers and rear military units often executed or mistreated prisoners during transport. In Germany itself, local Nazi party officials had considerable say. At the end of 1944 all prisoner of war camps were placed under Himmler's authority.
Prisoners were often forced to march hundreds of kilometers on foot, during which they were not provided adequate food or water. Guards frequently shot anyone who fell behind—often by the hundred. Sometimes Soviet prisoners were able to escape due to inadequate guarding. Many died over the winter during transport in open cattle wagons. A figure of 200,000 to 250,000 deaths in transit is provided in Russian estimates.
Captured prisoners were sent first to a collection point (Armee-Gefangenensammelstelle) and then to a transit camp (Dulag ) Many Dulags were shut down from 1942 with the prisoners sent directly from the collection point to a Stalag. By the end of 1941, 81 camps had been established on occupied Soviet territory. The permanent camps were established in the areas under civilian administration, and also the areas under military administration that were planned to be turned over to civilian administration.
The camps were overcrowded, especially those near the front where major offensives were carried out. Housing conditions were poor and prisoners often slept in the open. Only in September 1941 did preparations for winter housing begin and in November 1941 building barracks was rolled out systematically. Prisoners often had to live in burrows they dug themselves, which often collapsed. The poor housing situation combined with the cold was a major factor in the mass deaths that occurred from October 1941. After 1941 the situation improved because of mass deaths the camps became less overcrowded.
Defectors who became known to their fellow prisoners were often lynched. In 1941, defectors were housed with other prisoners and treated the same, but in 1942 new camps were created for them with privileged conditions, and those housed in regular prisoner of war camps were granted separate barracks and increased food rations.
The number of guards was low compared to the number of prisoners, contributing to excesses committed against prisoners. The Germans recruited prisoners - mainly Ukrainians, Cossacks, and Caucasians - as camp police and guards. Regulations specified the camps be surrounded by double barbed wire fences 2.5 metres (8 ft 2 in) high and watchtowers. Tens of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war attempted to escape, and about half were recaptured after successful escapes. Escape attempts were more likely to be successful in occupied territories. If they did not commit crimes while escaped, the prisoners were usually returned to the Wehrmacht prisoner of war camps. Otherwise, they were usually turned over the Gestapo and imprisoned or executed at a nearby concentration camp. During the second half of the war, fewer were executed outright due to increasing manpower shortages.
Food for prisoners was extracted from the occupied Soviet Union after the needs of the occupiers were met. From August to October, the official ration was supposed to be 2080 to 2200 calories, although by mid-August it had become clear that a large number of prisoners would die. The capture of a large number of prisoners following the encirclements of Vyazma and Bryansk caused a sudden breakdown in the makeshift logistics arrangements. On 21 October 1941, Eduard Wagner—the General Quartermaster of the OKH—issued an order reducing rations for non-working prisoners to 1487 calories. Those involved in the decision-making process understood that the prisoners not working—all but 1 million of the 2.3 million held at the time—would starve, as flatly stated by Wagner in a meeting in November 1941. Although prisoners had often received insufficient food from the beginning, death rates skyrocketed during the fall, following increased numbers of prisoners, the cumulative effect of starvation, and falling temperatures. Hundreds died daily at each camp. Severe hunger continued to be reported until mid-1942, becoming less severe due to improved logistics and fewer prisoners to feed, due to the mass deaths.
Starving prisoners attempted to eat leaves, grass, bark, and worms. Some Soviet prisoners suffered so much from hunger that they made written requests to their Wehrmacht guards asking to be shot. Cannibalism was reported in several camps, despite capital punishment for this offense. Although Soviet civilians often attempted to provide food to starving prisoners of war, they were typically forbidden to do so because food supplies for the occupation forces were prioritized. Finding employment could be beneficial for securing additional food and better conditions, although workers often received insufficient food.
There has been a long running debate as to what extent the mass death of the prisoners was due to circumstances or policies. Gerlach argues that "While it is obvious that not every German officer, soldier and functionary unanimously wanted to destroy POWs, there is enough evidence to conclude that many of them saw this as either their duty, or desirable." The argument that the deaths of Soviet prisoners can be attributed to a deliberate and systematic mass killing policy is not universally accepted. Hartmann argues that there was no mass killing policy at the same time acknowledging the primary responsibility of the Wehrmacht High Command for the deaths.
Further information: Hilfswillige
Hitler opposed the idea of recruiting Soviet collaborators into military and police functions, which he blamed for the failure of German imperialism in World War I. Nevertheless, military leaders in the east disregarded his instructions and recruited such collaborators from the beginning of the war; Himmler recognized that locally recruited police would be necessary in July 1941.
On 7 August 1941, the OKW issued an order to release prisoners who were ethnically German, Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Caucasian, and Ukrainian. Red Army women were excluded from this policy. The vast majority of prisoners, ethnic Russians, were not considered for release, and even only about half of Ukrainians were. Releases were curtailed due to epidemics and fear that they would join the partisans. By January 1942, 280,108 prisoners of war—mostly Ukrainians—had been released, and by the end of the war around a million were. Those who released generally had to work in agriculture or volunteer for the Wehrmacht or police. About a third became Hiwis while others changed their status from prisoner to guard. Later on, release for agricultural work decreased while military recruitment increased; Tatars, Turkic peoples, Cossacks, and Caucasus people were now eligible. The motivations of those who joined up are not well known, although it is assumed that many joined to survive or improve their living conditions and others had ideological motives. A large proportion of those who survived being taken prisoner in 1941 did so because they joined German military collaboration.
By the end of 1941, as many as 40 percent of the 200,000 Hilfswillige were former prisoners of war. The majority served in support roles such as drivers, cooks, grooms, or translators, but others were directly engaged in fighting, particularly during anti-partisan warfare. Along with those recruited by the German military, others were recruited by the SS to engage in genocide. For example, the Trawniki men were recruited from prisoner of war camps and consisted especially of ethnic Ukrainians and Germans, but also included Poles, Georgians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Tatars, Latvians, and Lithuanians. They helped suppress the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943 and worked in the extermination camps that killed millions of Jews in German-occupied Poland, and carried out anti-partisan operations. Collaborators were essential to the German war effort as well as to the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. If recaptured by the Red Army, these collaborators were often shot.
After the German defeat at Stalingrad in early 1943, defections of collaborators back to the Soviet side increased. In response, Hitler ordered all Soviet military collaborators to be transferred to the Western Front in late 1943, which was largely carried out by the beginning of 1944. Some Soviet prisoners of war were forced to work for the air force or the navy, particularly in labor battalions and anti-aircraft units where they were allowed to be as much as 30 percent of the strength.
Main articles: Ostarbeiter and forced labour under German rule during World War II
Soviet prisoners of war employed at road building projects, particularly in eastern Galicia, suffered particularly bad conditions and were later replaced by Jewish workers. Many Soviet prisoners of war died in fortification building on the eastern front. In July 1942, Hitler personally authorized the use of Soviet prisoners of war for mining in the Donets basin. Around 48,000 were assigned to this task but most never started their labor assignments and the remainder either perished from the conditions or had escaped by March 1943.
The first Soviet prisoners of war were deported to Germany in July 1941 to fill labor demand in agriculture and industry, but Hitler initially limited the transports to 120,000 men. In late October or early November 1941, Hitler and Hermann Göring decided on the mass deportation of Soviet prisoners of war—and a larger number of Soviet civilians—to Germany for forced labor, but epidemics soon caused the halting of prisoner-of-war transports. Those who were deported to Germany faced conditions not necessarily any better than existed in the occupied Soviet Union. By the end of the war, at least 1.3 million Soviet prisoners of war had been deported to Germany or its annexed territories, although the majority of Soviet prisoners remained outside Germany until 1945. Of these, 400,000 did not survive and most of these deaths occurred in the winter of 1941/1942.
In September 1941, SS chief Heinrich Himmler began advocating the transfer of Soviet prisoners of war to Nazi concentration camps under the control of the SS for forced labor. At first he proposed transferring 100,000 prisoners, then 200,000, compared to the existing concentration camp population of 80,000. By October, segregated areas designated for the prisoners of war had been established at Neuengamme, Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Gross-Rosen, Sachsenhausen, Dachau, and Mauthausen, either by clearing prisoners from existing barracks or building new ones. The majority of the incoming prisoners were to be imprisoned in two new camps established in German-occupied Poland, Majdanek and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
Despite the intention to exploit their labor, many of the 30,000 who arrived in late 1941 were in poor condition and incapable of work. They were kept in worse conditions and provided less food than other prisoners and therefore suffered a higher mortality rate—80 percent of the Soviet prisoners were dead by February 1942. Camp SS personnel carried out both selective executions of sick and weak prisoners and mass executions in response to infectious disease outbreaks. Some were also executed for political reasons. Soviet prisoners were killed in experimental execution techniques such as gas vans (at Sachsenhausen); they were also the first victims to be gassed with Zyklon B at Auschwitz. The death rate was so high that the SS got little useful labor out of the prisoners before their deaths. So many died at Auschwitz that the crematoria were overloaded; the SS had trouble keeping track of which prisoners had died and in November 1941 established the practice of tattooing prisoner numbers. Contrary to Himmler's assumption, more Soviet prisoners of war were not forthcoming to replace those who died because of a declining number of prisoners taken and Hitler's decision at the end of October 1941 to deploy the remaining Soviet prisoners of war in the German war economy.
After February 1942, an additional million Soviet prisoners of war—27 percent of the total—perished.
After the Commissar Order selections, additional screening carried out by the Security Police and the SD targeted another 38,000 prisoners, mainly commissars and Jews, in 1941 and 1942. The systematic searches in prisoner-of-war camps were largely abandoned in mid-1942 although the selective killing of Jews continued until 1944. Wehrmacht counterintelligence identified many individuals as Jews—by medical examinations, denunciation by fellow prisoners, or possessing a stereotypically Jewish appearance—were often tortured before their death and sometimes forced to declare that they deserved the treatment as they were responsible for starting the war. Around 50,000 Jewish Red Army soldiers were killed but around 5 to 25 percent were able to escape detection, which Gerlach attributes to solidarity between prisoners and contrasts to the even lower survival rate of Soviet Jewish civilians under German occupation.
Beginning in August 1941, the Gestapo began to screen prisoner of war camps in Germany for Jews, commissars, communists, intellectuals, and anyone else considered dangerous. Soviet collaborators often helped identify the people the Gestapo was looking for. Those highlighted for scrutiny were interrogated for around 20 minutes, often with the aid of torture, and if their responses were not satisfactory, they were discharged from prisoner of war status and taken to a concentration camp for execution. At least 33,000 prisoners were executed at Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, Flossenbürg, Gross-Rosen, Mauthausen, Gusen, Neuengamme, Sachsenhausen, and Hinzert; the method used varied. The number of executions declined as the war progressed due to increasing manpower shortages. Besides those sent for labor in late 1941, others were recaptured after escapes or arrested for offenses such as relationships with German women, insubordination, or refusal to work. Red Army women were often pressured to renounce their prisoner of war status in order to be transferred to civilian forced labor programs. Some refused and were sent to concentration camps. Around 1,000 were imprisoned at Ravensbrück; others at Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Mauthausen. Those imprisoned in concentration camps for an infraction were discharged from prisoner of war status in violation of the Geneva Convention. By the end of the war, more than 100,000 men and an unknown number of women were transferred to Nazi concentration camps.
Most Soviet prisoners who were directly executed were not targeted on political grounds.
Unlike the Holocaust, where killings occurred far from Germany's borders and many Germans claimed ignorance after the war, Soviet prisoners of war were dying en masse in Germany in 1941. According to historian Rolf Keller, at least 227,000 had died in Germany by mid-1942. According to the Security Service reports many Germans worried about personally suffering from food shortages and wanted the Soviet prisoners to be killed or given minimal food for this reason.
As early as July 1941 atrocities against Soviet prisoners of war were integrated into Soviet propaganda. Information about the Commissar Order, described as mandating the killing either of all officers or prisoners captured, was disseminated to Red Army soldiers. Accurate information about the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war reached Red Army soldiers by various means and was an effective deterrent against defection.
Around 500,000 had already been freed by Allied armies by February 1945, as early as 1941 and with greater frequency from 1943. During the final months of the war, most of the remaining Soviet prisoners were forced on death marches similar to concentration camp prisoners. Many were killed during these marches or died from illnesses after liberation. They returned to a country that had lost millions of people to the war and had its infrastructure destroyed by the German Army's scorched-earth tactics. For years afterwards the Soviet population suffered from food shortages. Some former prisoners of war were among the at least 451,000 Soviet citizens who managed to avoid repatriation and remained in Germany or emigrated to Western countries after the war. As a case of obvious and clear-cut criminality the treatment of the Soviet prisoners of war was included in the indictment of the International Military Tribunal.
Since the beginning of the war, the Soviet policy—intended to discourage defection—advertised that any soldier who had fallen into enemy hands, or simply encircled without capture, was guilty of high treason and subject to execution, confiscation of property, and reprisal against their families. Issued in August 1941, Order No. 270 classified all commanders and political officers who surrendered as culpable deserters to be summarily executed and their families arrested. Sometimes Red Army soldiers were told that the families of defectors would be shot; although thousands were arrested, it is unknown if any such executions were carried out. As the war continued, Soviet leaders realized that most Soviet citizens had not voluntarily collaborated. In November 1944, the State Defense Committee decided that freed prisoners of war would be returned to the army while those who served in German military units or police would be handed over to the NKVD. At the Yalta Conference, the Western Allies agreed to repatriate Soviet citizens regardless of their wishes. The Soviet regime set up many filtration camps, hospitals, and recuperation centers for freed prisoners of war, where most stayed for an average of one or two months. These filtration camps were intended to separate out the minority of voluntary collaborators, but were not very effective.
The majority of defectors and collaborators escaped prosecution. Trawniki men were typically sentenced to between 10 and 25 years in a labor camp and military collaborators often received six-year sentences to special settlements. According to official statistics, "57.8 per cent were sent home, 19.1 per cent were remobilized into the army, 14.5 per cent were transferred to labour battalions of the People's Commissariat for Defence, 6.5 per cent were transferred to the NKVD ‘for disposal’, and 2.1 per cent were deployed in Soviet military offices abroad". Different figures are presented in the book Dimensions of a Crime. Soviet Prisoners of War in World War II, which reports that of 1.5 million returnees by March 1946, 43 percent continued their military service, 22 percent were drafted into labor battalions for two years, 18 percent were sent home, 15 percent were sent to a forced labor camp, and 2 percent worked for repatriation commissions. Death sentences were rare. On 7 July 1945, a Supreme Soviet decree formally pardoned all former prisoners of war who had not collaborated. Another amnesty in 1955 released all remaining collaborators except those sentenced for torture or murder.
Former prisoners of war were not recognized as veterans and denied veterans' benefits; they often faced discrimination due to perception that they were traitors or deserters. In 1995, Russia equalized the status of former prisoners of war with that of other veterans. They were excluded from the Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future fund and did not receive any formal reparations until 2015, when the German government paid a symbolic amount to the few thousand still alive at that time.
Around 3 million Soviet POWs died in Nazi custody, out of 5.7 million. Estimates range from that provided by Christian Streit of 3.3 million to between 2.8 and 3 million according to Dieter Pohl. The majority of the deaths, around 2 million, took place before January 1942. By this time, more Soviet prisoners of war had died than any other group targeted by the Nazis. More than 2 million died in the Soviet Union, around 500,000 in the General Governorate (Poland), 400,000 in Germany, and 13,000 in German-occupied Norway. According to official statistics, 20.8 percent of survivors were officers and 10.7 were sergeants. Because most did not disclose their rank to their captors, Gerlach argues that their increased survival rate could be explained by the increased social capital and power wielded by higher-ranking military personnel in the camps. Most deaths occurred to prisoners in the custody of the Wehrmacht.
Of other nationalities of prisoners of war held by Germany, the second highest mortality rate was suffered by Italian military internees at 6 to 7 percent. Polish prisoners of war were considered racially similar to Soviet prisoners, but the conditions they were held in and death rate they suffered "differed in the extreme". In comparison, more than 28 percent of Soviet prisoners of war died in Finnish captivity and around 15 to 30 percent of Axis prisoners died in Soviet custody, despite the Soviet government's attempt to reduce the death rate. Throughout the war, Soviet prisoners of war faced a far higher mortality than that of Polish or Soviet civilian forced laborers, which was under 10 percent.
The death rate of 300,000 to 500,000 each month from October 1941 to January 1942 ranks as one of the highest death rates from mass atrocity in history, equalling the peak of killings of Jews during August to October 1942. The Soviet prisoners of war were the second-largest group of victims of Nazi criminality after European Jews.
Hartmann refers to the treatment of Soviet prisoners as "one of the greatest crimes in military history". As of 2016[update], thousands of books had been published about the Holocaust, but there was not a single book in English about the fate of Soviet prisoners of war. Few prisoner accounts were published and little scholarly research has been attempted. Streit's landmark Keine Kameraden was published in 1978; after 1990 Soviet archives became available.
Soviet commemoration of the war focused on antifascism and those killed fighting. During perestroika in 1987 and 1988, a major debate erupted in the Soviet Union over the former prisoners of war and whether they had been traitors, with those arguing in the negative eventually winning the argument but not until after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Russian nationalist historiography defended the former prisoners, minimizing incidents of defection and collaboration, and instead emphasizing resistance.
The fate of Soviet prisoners of war was mostly ignored in West Germany and East Germany, where resistance activities were more of a focus. After the war, some Germans made apologetic claims regarding the causes of mass death in 1941. Some blamed the deaths on the failure of diplomacy between the Soviet Union and Germany after Operation Barbarossa, or on the soldiers allegedly being weakened at the time of their capture because of prior starvation by the Soviet government. The crimes against prisoners of war were among those exposed to the German public in the Wehrmacht exhibition around 2000, which challenged the myth of the clean Wehrmacht that was still prevalent at that point. Some memorials and markers have been established at cemeteries and former camps, either by state or private initiatives. For the 80th anniversary of World War II, several German historical and memorial organizations organized a traveling exhibition on the event.