German atrocities against Soviet prisoners of war
Part of World War II
Distribution of food in a POW camp near Vinnytsia, Ukraine (July 1941)
LocationGermany and German-occupied Eastern Europe
TargetCaptured Red Army soldiers
Attack type
Starvation, death marches, executions, forced labor
Deaths2.8[1] to 3.3 million[2]

During World War II, 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 three million died during their imprisonment.

In June 1941, Germany and its allies invaded the Soviet Union and carried out a war of extermination with complete disregard for the laws and customs of war. Among the criminal orders issued before the invasion was the execution of captured Soviet commissars. Although Germany largely upheld its obligations under the Geneva Convention with prisoners of war of other nationalities, military planners decided to breach it with the Soviet prisoners. By the end of 1941, millions of Soviet soldiers had been captured, mostly in large-scale encirclement operations during the German Army's rapid advance. Two-thirds of them died from starvation, exposure, and disease by early 1942—ranking as one of the highest death rates from mass atrocity in history.

Soviet Jews, political commissars, and sometimes officers, communists, intellectuals, Asians, and female combatants were systematically targeted for execution. A larger number of prisoners were shot for being wounded, ill, or unable to keep up with forced marches. Over a million were deported to Germany for forced labor, where they died in large numbers in sight of the local population. Their conditions were 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. An estimated 1.4 million Soviet prisoners of war served as auxiliaries to the German military or 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 (civilian) Jews and has been called "one of the greatest crimes in military history".[3] Nevertheless, their fate is much less well studied. Although the Soviet Union announced the death penalty for surrender early in the war, most former prisoners were reintegrated into Soviet society. The majority of defectors and collaborators escaped prosecution. Former prisoners of war were not recognized as veterans and did not receive any reparations until 2015; they often faced discrimination due to the perception that they were traitors or deserters.


German advances from June to August 1941

Nazi Germany and its allies Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Italy invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941.[4][5] The Nazi leadership believed that war with its ideological enemy was inevitable[6] 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.[7][8] The war aims included securing natural resources, including agricultural land to feed Germany, metals and mineral oil for German industry.[4] To increase the speed of conquest the Germans planned to feed their army by looting and to terrorize the local inhabitants with preventative killings.[9]

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.[10][11] Among the criminal orders issued by the Wehrmacht's High Command (OKW) directed the army to shoot captured Soviet commissars as well as suspicious civilian political functionaries.[12][13] Soviet citizens were categorized on a racial hierarchy, led by Soviet Germans, Balts, and Muslims, with Ukrainians in the middle, Russians towards the bottom, and Asians and Jews ranked the lowest. Informed both by Nazi racial theory and by experience during World War I, this hierarchy heavily influenced the treatment of the prisoners of war.[14] The Nazis believed that the Soviet Union's Slavic population was secretly controlled by an international Jewish conspiracy.[15] Thus, by killing communist functionaries and Soviet Jews, it was expected that resistance would quickly collapse.[16] Conversely, the Nazis anticipated that much of the Soviet population, especially in the western areas, would welcome the German invasion. In the long run, they hoped to exploit tensions between different Soviet nationalities.[17]

World War I led to both increased antisemitism based on the belief that German Jews had caused the German defeat, and recognition of the need to secure food supplies to avoid a repeat of the blockade-induced famine in Germany.[6] Planners considered cordoning off the Soviet Union's "deficit areas", especially in the north, that required food imports, from its "surplus areas", especially in Ukraine. If the surplus food was redirected to the German army or Germany, an estimated 30 million people—mostly Russians—were expected to die.[18] The Wehrmacht lacked the resources to cordon off these large areas.[19] Although more than a million[20] Soviet citizens died from smaller-scale blockades of Soviet urban areas (especially besieged Leningrad and Jewish ghettos), they proved less effective than expected because of flight and black market activity.[21][19][22] The Soviet prisoners of war were held under tighter control, and consequently suffered a higher death rate.[23][19]

Planning and legal basis

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.[24] 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.[25][26] 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.[24] Unlike Germany, the Soviet Union was not a signatory of either convention; its offer to abide by the Hague Convention's provisions regarding prisoners of war if the German army did likewise was rejected by German dictator Adolf Hitler several weeks after the start of the war.[27] 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. Law and morality played at most a minor role in this planning, in contrast to the demand for labor and military expediency.[28] On 30 March 1941, 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.[29][30] Although the mass deaths of prisoners in 1941 were controversial within the Wehrmacht, Helmuth James Graf von Moltke was one of the few high-ranking officials who favored treating Soviet prisoners according to the law.[31]

Anti-Bolshevism, antisemitism, and racism are often cited as the main reasons behind the mass death of the prisoners, as well as the regime's conflicting demands for security, food, and labor.[32][33] It is disputed if the German command planned to use the Soviet prisoners of war as a labor reserve,[34][29] or if the forced labor program developed after the Wehrmacht's failure to secure a quick victory.[35][36] Little planning was done[37][35][38][39] 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.[40] During the invasion of France in 1940, 1.9 million prisoners of war were housed and fed, which historian Alex J. Kay cites as evidence that supply and logistics cannot explain the mass death of Soviet prisoners of war.[41]


Red Army soldiers surrendering, 1942
Soviet prisoners of war by year of capture

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.[42] By mid-December 1941, 79 percent of prisoners (more than two million) had been captured in thirteen major cauldron battles.[43][44] Although fewer Soviet soldiers were captured than expected,[45] historian Mark Edele argues that opposition to the Soviet government is one factor that led to the mass surrenders in 1941,[46] 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.[47] 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.[48] Edele estimates that at least hundreds of thousands, and possibly more than a million, Soviet soldiers defected over the course of the war,[49] far exceeding defections from other belligerents.[50]

Especially in 1941, the German Army often refused to take prisoners on the Eastern Front, instead shooting Soviet soldiers who tried to surrender.[51] Waffen-SS shot hundreds of captured Red Army soldiers on multiple occasions and thousands at least once.[52] The Red Army also shot prisoners, although less commonly than the Wehrmacht,[53] which contributed to a mutual escalation of violence, although ideology was a more important factor on the German side.[54] Killings that occurred prior to reaching the collection point (Armee-Gefangenensammelstelle [de]) are not counted as part of the figures for Soviet prisoner deaths.[55][56] 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.[57][54] Thousands of Red Army soldiers were executed on the spot as "partisans" or "irregulars".[58][54][59] Others evaded capture and returned to their families.[60] The number of Soviet soldiers captured fell dramatically after the Battle of Moscow in late 1941.[61]


Red Army soldiers, captured between Lutsk and Volodymyr-Volynskyi (June 1941)

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.[62] From there, the prisoners were sent to a transit camp (Dulag [de])[63][64] Many transit camps were shut down from 1942 with the prisoners sent directly from the collection point to a Stalag.[64] Some frontline units would strip prisoners of their winter clothing as cold temperatures set in late in 1941.[65] Although wounded and sick Red Army soldiers sometimes received medical care, most often they did not.[66][67]

Before May 1942, when the Commissar Order was rescinded,[68] 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.[69] Although the order was mostly accepted, behavior varied from refusal to implement it to extending to other groups of Soviet captives.[70] These killings did not have the intended effect of decreasing Soviet resistance, and came to be perceived as counterproductive.[71] Contradictory orders were issued for the execution of female combatants in the Soviet army, who defied German gender expectations; these orders were not always followed.[72][73]

Wehrmacht internment system

An improvised camp for Soviet prisoners of war (August 1942)

By the end of 1941, 81 camps had been established on occupied Soviet territory.[29] Permanent camps were established in the areas under civilian administration, and the areas under military administration that were planned to be turned over to civilian administration.[63] Camps in areas under civilian administration fell to the prisoner-of-war department of the Allgemeines Wehrmachtsamt under the OKW.[74][75][76] In areas under military administration, the OKH and its quartermaster-general were in charge of the camps. The collection points were militarily under the control of the Korücks, and the Army Group Rear Area Commands were responsible for the transit camps.[77][78] Due to the low priority attached to prisoners of war, each camp commandant had a great deal of autonomy, limited by the military and economic situation. Although a few tried to ameliorate the conditions, most did not.[79][80][81] At the end of 1944 all prisoner of war camps were placed under SS chief Heinrich Himmler's authority.[3] 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.[82]

Death marches

Soviet POWs transported in an open wagon train (September 1941)

The use of railcars for transport was often forbidden to prevent the spread of disease.[83] Prisoners were often forced to march hundreds of kilometers on foot, during which they were not provided adequate food or water.[84][39] Guards frequently shot anyone who fell behind in large numbers.[84][39][83] Sometimes Soviet prisoners were able to escape due to inadequate guarding.[85] An estimated 20 percent or more died over the winter during transport in open cattle wagons.[83][39][58] Additional death marches were ordered as the Red Army regained territory, typically on foot except in western areas.[86] A figure of 200,000 to 250,000 deaths in transit is provided in Russian estimates.[58][87]

Housing conditions

Soviet prisoners of war captured near Białystok, June or July 1941

The prisoners were herded into open, fenced-off areas with no buildings or latrines; some camps did not have running water. Kitchen facilities were rudimentary, meaning that many prisoners got nothing to eat.[88][89] In September 1941, preparations for winter housing began and in November 1941 building barracks was rolled out systematically.[63] Some prisoners had to live in the open for the entire winter, in unheated rooms,[90] or in burrows they dug themselves, which often collapsed.[91] 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.[91] The total death toll at many of the prisoner-of-war camps was comparable to that at the largest Nazi concentration camps.[92] One of the largest camps was Dulag 131 in Bobruisk, where an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Red Army soldiers died.[93] Shooting prisoners was encouraged.[88]

The number of guards was relatively low, contributing to violence against prisoners. The Germans recruited prisoners—mainly Ukrainians, Cossacks, and Caucasians—as camp police and guards.[94] Regulations specified the camps be surrounded by double barbed wire fences 2.5 metres (8 ft 2 in) high and watchtowers.[95] Despite draconian penalties, organized resistance groups formed at some camps and some attempted mass escapes.[96] Tens of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war attempted to escape, and about half were recaptured after successful escapes,[97] while around 10,000 reached Switzerland.[98] 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.[97]

Hunger and mass deaths

At the camps in Smolensk (pictured August 1941)—the headquarters of Army Group Center—300 to 600 prisoners died each day in late 1941 and early 1942.[99]

Food for prisoners was extracted from the occupied Soviet Union after the needs of the occupiers were met.[100][101] Prisoners usually received less than the official ration due to supply problems.[102][103][104] By mid-August it had become clear that a large number of prisoners would die.[105] The capture of a large number of prisoners following the encirclements of Vyazma and Bryansk caused a sudden breakdown in the makeshift logistics arrangements.[106] On 21 October 1941, Eduard Wagner—the General Quartermaster of the OKH—issued an order reducing rations for non-working prisoners to 1487 calories.[103] The prisoners not working—all but 1 million of the 2.3 million held at the time—would die, as Wagner acknowledged in a meeting in November 1941.[103][104] Although prisoners had not received much food from the beginning, death rates skyrocketed during the fall, following increased numbers of prisoners, the cumulative effect of starvation, disease epidemics, and falling temperatures.[107][61] Hundreds died daily at each camp, too many to bury.[61][36][108] The German policy shifted to prioritizing feeding the prisoners at the expense of the Soviet civilian population, but in practice conditions did not significantly improve until June 1942[109] due to improved logistics and fewer prisoners to feed.[110] The mass deaths were repeated on a smaller scale in the winter of 1942/1943.[111][12]

Starving prisoners attempted to eat leaves, grass, bark, and worms.[112] Some Soviet prisoners suffered so much from hunger that they made written requests to their Wehrmacht guards asking to be shot.[113] Cannibalism was reported in several camps, despite capital punishment for this offense.[113] Soviet civilians who tried to provide food were often shot.[114][79] In many camps, those who were in better shape were separated from the prisoners deemed not to have a chance of survival.[99] Finding employment could be beneficial for securing additional food and better conditions, although workers often received insufficient food.[115]


On 7 August 1941, the OKW issued an order[84] to release prisoners who were ethnically German, Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Caucasian, and Ukrainian.[116] The purpose of the release was largely to ensure that the harvest in German-occupied areas was successful.[117] Red Army women were excluded from this policy.[118] The vast majority of prisoners, ethnic Russians, were not considered for release, and about half of Ukrainians were. Releases were curtailed due to epidemics and fear that they would join the partisans.[118] Some severely injured prisoners were allowed to be released if they had family living nearby;[119] many of those likely died of starvation soon afterwards.[120] By January 1942, 280,108 prisoners of war—mostly Ukrainians—had been released, and by the end of the war around a million were.[121] Besides agriculture, prisoners were released so that they could volunteer for the Wehrmacht or police. About a third became Hiwis while others changed their status from prisoner to guard.[84][122][117] As the war progressed, release for agricultural work decreased while military recruitment increased.[118]

Selective killings

Soviet prisoners of war were shot at the crematorium of Flossenbürg with silencers after local residents complained about gunfire[123]

The selective killings of prisoners held by the Wehrmacht were enabled by its close cooperation with the SS and through Soviet informers[124][125][126] and often Wehrmacht soldiers conducted the executions as well.[2] These killings targeted mainly commissars and Jews,[127][125] but sometimes communists, intellectuals,[125][128] Red Army officers,[129] and in 1941 Asian-appearing prisoners[130]—around 80 percent of Turkic soldiers were killed by early 1942.[131] Wehrmacht counterintelligence identified many individuals as Jews[132] by medical examinations, denunciation by fellow prisoners, or possessing a stereotypically Jewish appearance.[133]

Beginning in August 1941, additional screening carried out by the Security Police and the SD in the occupied Soviet Union led to the killing of another 38,000 prisoners.[127] With the cooperation of the Wehrmacht, Einsatzgruppen units visited the prisoner of war camps to carry out mass executions.[134][125] Around 50,000 Jewish Red Army soldiers were killed[135][136] but around 5 to 25 percent were able to escape detection.[133] Soviet Muslims were sometimes killed after being mistaken for Jews.[125] From 1942, systematic killing increasingly targeted wounded and sick prisoners instead.[137][138] Those unable to work were often shot in mass executions or simply left to die,[119][139] and sometimes mass executions were conducted without a clear rationale.[140] Invalid soldiers were in particular danger when the front approached.[124]

For the prisoner-of-war camps in Germany, screening was carried out by the Gestapo.[128] 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.[126] The victims were taken to a concentration camp for execution to conceal their fate from the German public.[126][125] At least 33,000 prisoners were transferred to Nazi concentration campsAuschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, Flossenbürg, Gross-Rosen, Mauthausen, Gusen, Neuengamme, Sachsenhausen, and Hinzert—and nearly all were executed.[126][141] These killings dwarfed all previous ones within the camp system.[125] The number of executions declined as the war progressed due to manpower shortages.[142] After March 1944, around 5,000 escaped Soviet officers and non-commissioned officers were killed at Mauthausen.[143] Including shooting of wounded soldiers, it is likely the total death toll from direct executions reached hundreds of thousands.[2]

Auxiliaries in German service

Further information: Hilfswillige

Two Trawniki men helping to clear the Warsaw Ghetto, 1943
Turkestan Legion soldiers in German-occupied France, October 1943

Hitler opposed recruiting Soviet collaborators into military and police functions, because he blamed non-German recruits for the defeat in World War I.[144] 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.[145] 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.[138][146] A large proportion of those who survived being taken prisoner in 1941 did so because they joined German military collaboration.[147][148] 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.[145][117]

A minority of captured prisoners of war[149] were reserved by each field army for forced labor in its operational area; these prisoners were not registered.[150] The way these Osttruppen[146] were treated varied, with some having similar living conditions as Wehrmacht soldiers and others being treated as badly as occurred in the camps.[151] A smaller number joined dedicated military units (Ost-Bataillone) with German officers, but staffed by Soviet ethnic minorities.[152] The first anti-partisan unit was formed from Cossack prisoners of war in July 1941.[117] In 1943 there were 53 Ost-Bataillone: 14 of the Turkestan Legion, 9 of the Armenian Legion, 8 of the Azerbaijani Legion, 8 of the Georgian Legion, 7 of the North Caucasian Legion, and 7 Volga-Tatar battalions.[153] 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; largely ethnic Ukrainians and Germans, they 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.[154] Collaborators were essential to the German war effort as well as to the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.[155]

If recaptured by the Red Army, these collaborators were often shot.[156] 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.[157] By D-Day in mid-1944, these soldiers formed 10 percent of the occupying forces of France.[158] Some of them aided the resistance, and in 1945 parts of the Georgian Legion rebelled.[158] Soviet prisoners of war were forced to work in construction and pioneer forces for the army, air force, and navy. After April 1943, prisoners of war were allowed into anti-aircraft units where they could be as much as 30 percent of the strength.[159][160] By the end of the war, 1.4 million out of 2.4 million surviving prisoners of war were serving in some kind of auxiliary military unit.[161]

Forced labor

See also: forced labor under German rule during World War II

Forced labor engaged in by Soviet prisoners of war often violated the 1929 Geneva Convention. For example, the convention forbids work in war industries.[162]

In the Soviet Union

Soviet POWs at work in Minsk, Belarus (July 1941)

Without the labor of Soviet prisoners of war for military infrastructure in the German rear areas—building roads, bridges, airfields, and train depots, as well as converting the Soviet wider-gauge railway to the German standard—the German offensive would soon have failed.[163] In September 1941, Hermann Göring ordered the use of prisoners of war for mine clearing and in the construction of infrastructure to free up construction battalions.[83] Many prisoners ran away because of the poor conditions in the camps, limiting forced labor assignments,[83] and others died. Particularly deadly assignments included road building projects, especially in eastern Galicia,[115][164] fortification building on the eastern front,[165] and mining in the Donets basin, authorized by Hitler in July 1942. 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.[166]

Transfer to Nazi concentration camps

Naked Soviet prisoners of war in Mauthausen concentration camp, to which at least 15,000 were deported[141]

In September 1941, 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,[167] compared to the existing concentration camp population of 80,000.[168] 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.[167] The majority of the incoming prisoners were to be imprisoned in two new camps established in German-occupied Poland, Majdanek and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, as part of Himmler's colonization plans.[169][170]

Despite the intention to exploit their labor, most of the 25,000[171] or 30,000 who arrived in late 1941[172][173] were in poor condition and incapable of work.[173][174] Kept in worse conditions and provided less food than other prisoners, they suffered a higher mortality rate—80 percent were dead by February 1942.[172][174] The SS killed politically suspect, sick, and weak prisoners individually and carried out mass executions in response to infectious disease outbreaks.[175] Experimental execution techniques were tested on prisoners of war: gas vans (at Sachsenhausen) and Zyklon B in gas chambers at Auschwitz.[176][177] So many died at Auschwitz that the crematoria were overloaded; the SS established the practice of tattooing prisoner numbers in November 1941 to keep track of which prisoners had died.[178][170] Contrary to Himmler's assumption, more Soviet prisoners of war were not forthcoming to replace those who died. The number of new captives declined and Hitler decided at the end of October 1941 to deploy the remaining Soviet prisoners of war in the German war economy.[179][180]

Besides those sent for labor in late 1941,[181] others were recaptured after escapes or arrested for offenses such as relationships with German women, insubordination, refusal to work,[140][97] suspected resistance activities or sabotage, or expulsion from collaborationist military units.[141] Red Army women were often pressured to renounce their prisoner of war status 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.[182] Those imprisoned in concentration camps for an infraction were discharged from prisoner of war status in violation of the Geneva Convention.[183] Officers were overrepresented[184] among the more than 100,000 men and an unknown number of women that were eventually transferred to Nazi concentration camps.[185][181][141]

Deportation elsewhere

Soviet prisoner of war barracks in Saltdal, Norway, pictured after liberation

The first 200,000 Soviet prisoners of war were deported to Germany in July and August 1941 to fill labor demand in agriculture and industry.[186][187] Those who were deported to Germany faced conditions not necessarily any better than existed in the occupied Soviet Union.[188] Hitler halted the transports in mid-August, but changed his mind on 31 October;[189] along with the prisoners of war, a larger number of Soviet civilians were to be sent.[186][190] The camps in Germany had an internal police force composed of non-Russian prisoners who were often violent towards Russians; Soviet Germans often staffed the camp administration and served as interpreters. Both received more rations and preferential treatment.[160] Guarding the prisoners was the responsibility of Wehrmacht Landesschützen [de] units composed of German men too elderly or infirm to serve at the front.[191]

Many Nazi leaders wanted to avoid contact between Germans and prisoners of war, limiting the work assignments for prisoners.[192] Labor assignments differed based on the local economy. Many worked for private employers in agriculture and industry, and others were rented out to local authorities for such tasks as building roads and canals, quarrying, and cutting peat.[193] Employers paid RM0.54 per day per man for agricultural work, or RM0.80 for other work; many also provided prisoners with extra food to achieve productivity. The workers received RM0.20 per day in currency that could be spent at the camp (Lagergeld [de]).[194] By early 1942, to combat the reality that many prisoners were too malnourished to work, the leadership increased rations to surviving prisoners.[193] However, not all prisoners benefited from higher rations and they remained vulnerable to malnutrition and disease.[195] The number of prisoners working in Germany continued to increase, from 455,000 in September 1942 to 652,000 in May 1944.[196] By the end of the war, at least 1.3 million Soviet prisoners of war had been deported to Germany or its annexed territories,[197] Of these, 400,000 did not survive and most of these deaths occurred in the winter of 1941/1942.[197] Others were deported to other locations, including Norway and the Channel Islands, where many died.[198]

Public perception

Head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, accompanied by SS and Wehrmacht soldiers, inspects a prison camp in Minsk, August 1941.

Nazi propaganda portrayed the Soviet prisoners of war as murderers.[51] Photographs depicting cannibalism in the prisoner-of-war camps were taken as proof of "Russian subhumanity".[199] 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.[200] 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.[201]

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.[202] Accurate information about the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war reached Red Army soldiers by various means and was an effective deterrent against defection.[203]

End of the war

On 8 April 1945, more than 200 Soviet prisoners of war were forced to dig their own graves and murdered in Hanover-Wuelfel.[204]
Liberated Soviet prisoners at Hemer[205]

Around 500,000 had already been freed by Allied armies by February 1945,[206] as early as 1941 and with greater frequency from 1943.[207] During its advance, the Red Army found mass graves at former prisoner of war camps.[99] During the final months of the war, most of the remaining Soviet prisoners were forced on death marches[208] similar to concentration camp prisoners.[176] Many were killed during these marches or died from illnesses after liberation.[209] 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.[210] 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.[211] 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.[24]

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.[212][213] 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.[213][214] 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.[215] As the war continued, Soviet leaders realized that most Soviet citizens had not voluntarily collaborated.[216] 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.[217] At the Yalta Conference, the Western Allies agreed to repatriate Soviet citizens regardless of their wishes.[218] 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.[219] These filtration camps were intended to separate out the minority of voluntary collaborators, but were not very effective.[216]

The majority of defectors and collaborators escaped prosecution.[220] 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.[221] 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".[222] 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.[223] On 7 July 1945, a Supreme Soviet decree formally pardoned all former prisoners of war who had not collaborated.[222] Another amnesty in 1955 released all remaining collaborators except those sentenced for torture or murder.[220]

Former prisoners of war were not recognized as veterans and denied veterans' benefits; they often faced discrimination due to the perception that they were traitors or deserters.[223][222] In 1995, Russia equalized the status of former prisoners of war with that of other veterans.[224] They were excluded from the Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future fund[225] 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.[226]

Death toll

See also: World War II casualties of the Soviet Union

Mass grave of Soviet soldiers interred at the transit camp in Dęblin Fortress, German-occupied Poland

The number of prisoners recorded as captured by Germany in 1941—3.35 million—exceeds the Red Army's reported missing by as much as one million. This discrepancy can be partly explained by the Red Army's inability to keep track of losses during a chaotic withdrawal. Additionally,[227] 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.[56] Viktor Zemskov argues that the German figures represent a minimum value,[228] and should be adjusted upwards by 450,000 to account for prisoners who were killed without ever arriving in a camp.[229] Zemskov estimates around 3.9 million dead out of 6.2 million captured including 200,000 killed as military collaborators.[230] Other historians, working from the German figure of 5.7 million captured,[228] have come to lower estimates: Christian Streit's 3.3 million,[231] Hartmann's 3 million,[232] and Dieter Pohl's 2.8 to 3 million.[1]

The majority of the deaths, around 2 million, took place before January 1942.[233][172] 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 between July and October 1942.[234] By this time, more Soviet prisoners of war had died than any other group targeted by the Nazis;[32][235][236] only the European Jews would surpass this figure.[237][238] An additional million Soviet prisoners of war died after the beginning of 1942—27 percent of the total prisoners remaining alive or captured after that date.[172][138]

Most of the Soviet prisoners of war who died did so in the custody of the Wehrmacht.[239][3] 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.[240][2] Deaths among the prisoners of war from the Soviet Union vastly exceeded other nationalities;[241][55] the second highest mortality rate was suffered by Italian military internees at 6 to 7 percent.[241] 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".[242] In comparison, more than 28 percent of Soviet prisoners of war died in Finnish captivity[243] and around 15 to 30 percent of Axis prisoners died in Soviet custody, despite the Soviet government's attempt to reduce the death rate.[244][245] 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.[172]

Legacy and historiography

Monument to Soviet prisoners of war in Salaspils, now Latvia

Hartmann refers to the treatment of Soviet prisoners as "one of the greatest crimes in military history".[3] Thousands of books have been published about the Holocaust, but as of 2016 there was not a single book in English about the fate of Soviet prisoners of war.[237] Few prisoner accounts were published, perpetrators were not tried for their crimes, and little scholarly research has been attempted.[246][92] Streit's landmark Keine Kameraden was published in 1978;[225] after 1990 Soviet archives became available.[224] Prisoners who remained in the occupied Soviet Union usually were not registered under their names, so their individual fates will never be known.[111]

Although the treatment of prisoners of war was remembered by Soviet citizens as one of the worst aspects of the occupation,[31] Soviet commemoration of the war focused on antifascism and those killed fighting.[247] 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.[248] Russian nationalist historiography defended the former prisoners, minimizing incidents of defection and collaboration, and instead emphasizing resistance.[249]

The fate of Soviet prisoners of war was mostly ignored in West Germany and East Germany, where resistance activities were more of a focus.[247] 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.[250] 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.[251][252] Some memorials and markers have been established at cemeteries and former camps, either by state or private initiatives.[253] For the 80th anniversary of World War II, several German historical and memorial organizations organized a traveling exhibition on the event.[254]


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  5. ^ Bartov 2023, p. 201.
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Further reading