|German atrocities on Soviet prisoners of war|
|Part of Nazi crimes against humanity & genocide|
|Murder, death marches, starvation|
|Deaths||3.3 to 3.5 million|
|Motive||Slavophobia, Lebensraum, Generalplan Ost, Anti-communism|
During World War II, Nazi Germany engaged in a policy of deliberate maltreatment of Soviet prisoners of war (POWs), in contrast to their general treatment of British and American POWs. This policy, which amounted to deliberately starving and working to death Soviet POWs, the bulk of whom were Slavs, was grounded in Nazi racial theory, which depicted Slavs as sub-humans (Untermenschen). The policy resulted in some 3.3 to 3.5 million deaths.
During Operation Barbarossa, the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent German–Soviet War, millions of Red Army (and other Soviet Armed Forces) prisoners of war were taken. Many were executed arbitrarily in the field by the German forces or handed over to the SS to be shot, under the Commissar Order. Most, however, died during the death marches from the front lines or under inhumane conditions in German prisoner-of-war camps and concentration camps.
It is estimated that at least 3.3 million Soviet POWs died in Nazi custody, out of 5.7 million. This figure represents a total of 57% of all Soviet POWs and it may be contrasted with 8,300 out of 231,000 British and U.S. prisoners, or 3.6%. About 5% of the Soviet prisoners who died were Jews. The most deaths took place between June 1941 and January 1942, when the Germans killed an estimated 2.8 million Soviet POWs primarily through deliberate starvation, exposure, and summary execution. A million at most had been released, most of whom were so-called 'volunteers' (Hilfswillige) for (often compulsory) auxiliary service in the Wehrmacht, 500,000 had fled or were liberated, the remaining 3.3 million had perished as POWs.
The figure of 3.3 million POW dead is based on German figures and analysis. Data published in Russia presents a different view of Soviet POW dead. Viktor Zemskov estimated Soviet POW deaths at 2.3 million; he published statistics that put Soviet POW losses at 2,471,000 (5,734,000 were captured, 821,000 were released for German military service, 72,000 escaped and 2,371,000 liberated ). Of the 823,000 POWS released for service in the German military forces 212,400 were killed or missing, 436,600 were returned to the USSR and imprisoned and 180,000 remained in western countries after the war.   Russian military historian Grigori F. Krivosheev maintained POW and MIA losses of the combat forces were actually 1.783 million, according to Krivosheev the higher figures of dead includes reservists not on active strength, civilians and military personnel who were captured during the course of the war.
By September 1941, the mortality rate among Soviet POWs was in the order of 1% per day. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), by the winter of 1941, "starvation and disease resulted in mass death of unimaginable proportions". This deliberate starvation, despite food being available, led many desperate prisoners to resort to acts of cannibalism, was Nazi policy, and was all in accordance with the Hunger Plan developed by the Reich Minister of Food Herbert Backe. For the Germans, Soviet POWs were expendable: they consumed calories needed by others and, unlike Western POWs, were considered to be subhuman.
Main article: Commissar Order
The Commissar Order (German: Kommissarbefehl) was a written order given by the German High Command (OKW) on 6 June 1941, prior to the beginning of Operation Barbarossa (German invasion of the Soviet Union). It demanded that any Soviet political commissar identified among captured troops be shot immediately. Those prisoners who could be identified as "thoroughly bolshevized or as active representatives of the Bolshevist ideology" were also to be executed.
See also: German High Command orders for the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war
In the summer and autumn of 1941, vast numbers of Soviet prisoners were captured in about a dozen large encirclements. Due to their rapid advance into the Soviet Union and an anticipated quick victory, the Germans did not want to ship these prisoners to Germany. Under the administration of the Wehrmacht, the prisoners were processed, guarded, forced-marched, or transported in open rail cars to locations mostly in the occupied Soviet Union, Germany, and occupied Poland. Much like comparable events, such as the Pacific War's Bataan Death March in 1942, the treatment of prisoners was brutal, without much in the way of supporting logistics.
Soviet prisoners of war were stripped of their supplies and clothing by poorly-equipped German troops when the cold weather set in; this resulted in death for the prisoners. Most of the camps for Soviet POWs were simply open areas fenced off with barbed wire and watchtowers with no inmate 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 kilocalories or less per day. Medical treatment was non-existent and an International Red Cross offer to help in 1941 was rejected by Hitler. The Soviet government ignored offers of help from the International Red Cross as well as prisoner exchanges from the Axis forces.
Some of the Soviet POWs were also experimented on. In one such case, Dr. Heinrich Berning from Hamburg University starved prisoners to death as "famine experiments". In another instance, a group of prisoners at Zhitomir were shot using dum-dum bullets.
The camps established especially for Soviet POWs were called Russenlager ("Russian camp"). The Allied regulars kept by Germany were usually treated in accordance with the 1929 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War. Although the Soviet Union was not a signatory, Germany was, and Article 82 of the Convention required signatories to treat all captured enemy soldiers "as between the belligerents who are parties thereto". Russenlager conditions were often even worse than those commonly experienced by prisoners in regular concentration camps. Such camps included:
In the "weeding-out actions" (Aussonderungsaktionen) of 1941–42, the Gestapo further identified Communist Party and state officials, commissars, academic scholars, Jews and other "undesirable" or "dangerous" individuals who had survived the Commissar Order selections, and transferred them to concentration camps, where they were summarily executed. At Stalag VII-A at Moosburg, Major Karl Meinel objected to these executions, but the SS (including Karl von Eberstein) intervened, Meinel was demoted to reserve, and the killing continued.
In all, between June 1941 and May 1944 about 10% of all Soviet POWs were turned over to the SS-Totenkopfverbände concentration camp organization or the Einsatzgruppen death squads and murdered. Einsatzgruppen killings included the Babi Yar massacres where Soviet POWs were among 70,000–120,000 people executed between 1941 and 1943 and the Ponary massacre that included the execution of some 7,500 Soviet POWs in 1941 (among about 100,000 murdered there between 1941 and 1944).
Between 140,000 and 500,000 Soviet prisoners of war died or were executed in Nazi concentration camps. Most of those executed were killed by shooting, though some were gassed.
Main articles: Ost-Arbeiter and forced labour under German rule during World War II
In January 1942, Hitler authorized better treatment of Soviet POWs because the war had bogged down, and German leaders decided to use prisoners for forced labour on a large scale. 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 1 July and 10 November 1943, 27,638 Soviet POWs died in the Ruhr Area alone), while others were sent to Krupp, Daimler-Benz or other companies, where they provided labour while often being slowly worked to death. The largest "employers" of 1944 were mining (160,000), agriculture (138,000) and the metal industry (131,000). No less than 200,000 prisoners died during forced labour.
The Organisation Todt was a civil and military engineering group in Germany eponymously named for its founder Fritz Todt. The organisation was responsible for a wide range of engineering projects both in pre-World War II Germany, and in Germany itself and occupied territories from France to the Soviet Union during the war, and became notorious for using forced labour. Most of the so-called "volunteer" Soviet POW workers were consumed by the Organisation Todt. The period from 1942 until the end of the war had approximately 1.4 million labourers in the service of the Organisation Todt. Overall, 1% were Germans rejected from military service and 1.5% were concentration camp prisoners; the rest were prisoners of war and compulsory labourers from occupied countries. All non-Germans were effectively treated as slaves and many did not survive the work or the war.
Even during the war, servicemen who had escaped from the encirclement and who crossed the front line from among the civilian population, after filtration, were sent mainly to replenish the rear units, in particular labor armies. These armies built military-industrial facilities, in particular the Kuibyshev Aviation Plant, etc.
To check "former Red Army servicemen who were in captivity and surrounded by the enemy," a network of testing and filtration camps was created by the decree of the State Defense Committee of 27 December 1941. In 1942, in addition to the previously existing Yuzhsky special camp, 22 more camps were created in the Vologda, Tambov, Ryazan, Kursk, Voronezh and other regions. In practice, these special camps were military high security prisons, and for prisoners, who in the overwhelming majority did not commit any crimes.
In 1944, the flow of prisoners of war and repatriated returning to the Soviet Union increased sharply. In the summer of this year, a new system of filtering and screening by the state security authorities of all returnees was developed and then introduced.
In the spring and summer of 1945, a large number of repatriates accumulated at check-filtration and collection-transfer points in Germany and other European countries, several times exceeding the throughput of these points.
The Soviet and Russian military historian G.F.Krivosheev indicates the following figures based on the data of the NKVD: out of 1,836,562 soldiers who returned home from captivity, 233,400 people were convicted in connection with the accusation of cooperation with the enemy and were serving sentences in the GULAG system. Most of them were released quickly after routine processing.
During the war, servicemen released from captivity in most cases, after a short check, were restored to military service, moreover, enlisted and non-commissioned personnel mainly in ordinary military units, and officers, as a rule, were deprived of their officer ranks, and from them officer assault (penalty) battalions were formed ... In the post-war period, the released officers were sent to the NKVD camps and spare parts of the Red Army Glavupraform for a more thorough check.
After the war, the privates and sergeants released from captivity, who did not serve in the German army or traitorous formations, were divided into two large groups according to age - demobilized and non-demobilized age. In 1945, after the dismissal from the army to the reserve of the Red Army men of those ages who were subject to the demobilization order, ordinary and non-commissioned prisoners of war of the corresponding ages were also released to their homes. Prisoners of war of the rank and file and non-demobilized ages, in accordance with a special decree of the State Defense Committee of 18 August 1945, were sent to workers' battalions to work in industry and restore facilities destroyed during the war.
By the directive of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the USSR of 12 July 1946, the workers' battalions were disbanded, and the term "transferred to permanent cadres of industry" was applied to those enrolled in them. They had no right to change jobs and return to their homeland even after their peers were demobilized from the army.
In 1956, a massive review of the cases of convicted former prisoners of war took place. At the initiative of Georgy Zhukov, Minister of Justice Konstantin Gorshenin and Attorney General Roman Rudenko issued a joint decree of the Central Committee of the CPSU and the USSR Council of Ministers on 29 June 1956 "On elimination of the consequences of gross violations of the law in respect of former prisoners of war and their families". After that, prosecutorial protests began to be introduced against the sentences to Soviet prisoners of war. As a result of consideration of the protests of the military prosecutor's office made in the second half of 1956, the courts terminated cases with full rehabilitation against 253 convicts, and another 13 convicts changed their sentences with retraining. For example, on 11 December 1956, the plenum of the USSR Supreme Court terminated the criminal case against the former prisoner of war P. Okhotin - for lack of corpus delicti. When the case was reconsidered, it turned out that Okhotin, who performed the duties of a cook in a German camp, became the victim of a slander in beating prisoners of war who disturbed the order in the kitchen (because of this slander, on 16 July 1948, he was sentenced by the tribunal of the Leningrad Military District to 25 years in forced labor camps). On 20 September 1956, a decree of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet extended the amnesty decree of 17 September 1955 to former Soviet servicemen convicted of aiding the enemy. For former prisoners of war, the punishment was reduced to actually served and they were subject to release. The cases of the deceased former prisoners of war were not checked.
Inhumane treatment of Soviet prisoners included proceedings at Shitomir in August 1941 where a group of them were shot with captured Red Army dum-dum bullets so that German military doctors could precisely observe, and write up, the effects of these munitions upon the human body.95(See Streim reference below for original source).
Six kilometres from Pogostie Station (Leningrad region) German troops, retreating from Red Army units, shot over 150 Soviet prisoners with dum-dum bullets, after terrible floggings and bestial tortures.
Yes, at the end of World War II, Stalin incarcerated returning Soviet prisoners of war, but now we know that most of them were released quickly after routine processing in temporary camps.