What follows is my translation from Christian Gerlach, Krieg, Ernährung, Völkermord, Hamburg 1998, pages 30 to 56 (without the footnotes, except where expressly stated otherwise).
When attacking on 22 June 1941 the German Wehrmacht met a Soviet enemy surprised, badly organized and partially inferior in weapon technology, who however often defended himself until the last. Army groups North and Center managed to almost completely conquer the Baltic countries and Belorussia until the middle of August, but then had to temporarily go over to the defensive. During this time Army Group Center made about 700,000 prisoners in two greater battles. Army Group South and the 11th Army, which advanced together with the Romanians, could at first only achieve small territorial gains. Only with the great encirclement battle of Kiev in mid-September they opened themselves the way to the eastern Ukraine; at the same time Estonia was completely conquered and Leningrad was encircled. In October and November Army Group Center advanced close to Moscow, Army Group South and the 11th Army into the Donets region, to the Crimea and to Rostov, before their offensives ran out due to embittered Soviet resistance and the additional hindrance of transportation problems. At the beginning of December 1941 the Red Army counterattacked everywhere and in the following months managed to drive the Germans back by 100 to 300 kilometers, especially in the central section.
The administration put into place on the German side was divided into the area of military administration in the east and that of a civilian administration in the west. The latter was subordinated to the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories in Berlin and consisted of the Reich Commissariats Ostland (Eastern Territories) and Ukraine. The first of these comprised four General Commissariats established in the summer and autumn of 1941, in the three Baltic countries and parts of Belorussia; in the Ukraine five General Commissariats were created in the autumn. Further areas in the utmost western part had been promptly added to the General Government (Galicia) or annexed to East Prussia. The area of military administration, which was administratively subordinated to the General Quarter Master of the Army, was divided from east to west into the frontline area, the army rear areas and the army group rear areas allocated to the respective army group. In the area of military administration the economic administration under the Wirtschaftsstab Ost (Economy Staff East) constituted a separate administrative thread, although subordinated to the military. The occupation
troops were security divisions of the Wehrmacht, battalions of the Order Police and Einsatzgruppen of the Security Police and the SD (Security Service) as well as stationary gendarmerie and Schutzpolizei (Protective Police), who, all relatively weak in numbers, created an atmosphere of terror and repression from the first day. Jews and people who had been politically active were arrested and shot in large numbers. Everywhere up to city and district level a dependent local administration and an auxiliary police (Schutzmannschaft = Protective Detachment, Ordnungsdienst = Order Service) were installed, led by opponents of the Soviet system and nationalists. No area was given political autonomy. Many
cities and the infrastructure were heavily destroyed, a part of the inhabitants had let itself be evacuated, the economy stood still.
In the first weeks and months the Soviet civilian population in huge areas did not receive any food. No rations were established; this was not the Germans’ task, it was said. But then the competent military administration changed its mind and imposed against the German economic administration the introduction of rations, which by themselves were too low to live on, however. The reasons [for this change] were, first, that the cities had to serve as bases for the German troops regarding billeting and transport, second, that the military administration with its weak forces could afford neither epidemics nor unrest, and third, that it was in no conditions to keep the population under control in such a way that it did not gain access to food. Actually thousands of civilians were soon moving along the country roads to obtain food, and the black market flourished. Thus the Hunger Plan in its original form turned out to be in-executable within two or three months. A counselor of the German military administration analyzed this as follows:
“It is natural that the population of the cities should defend itself against the starvation intended for it, i.e. the urban population tries to obtain food by trading utensils of daily use that the peasants need. This way out will always be possible for the Ukrainian medium cities and cannot be wholly prevented by any police executive, which to carry out there is also too little personnel.”
Yet at the same time, and also in the face of supply problems greater than expected, the principle
was upheld that the Eastern Army had to feed itself “out of the land”. This put the German occupation authorities under great pressure to act.
The prisoner of war administration was subordinated to the General Wehrmacht Department at the
Wehrmacht High Command (OKW) under General Reinecke in the area of civilian administration, and to the General Quarter Master of the Army in the area of military administration. From east to west the prisoners went through provisional collection camps, then army prisoner collection centers, transit
camps (Dulags) and, mainly in the area under civilian administration, base camps (Stalags). Especially in the latter two types of camps often tens of thousands of prisoners were packed together. Buildings there were none, also no sanitary installations and too little cooking facilities. Especially in the first weeks the prisoners, partially due to organizational problems, temporarily received very little food, even none at all for days on end. There was also a lack of water. The relatively high rations established by the Commander of the Reserve Army on 6 August 1941, ca. 2040 calories for non-workers and 2200 calories for workers, could in many places not be issued because the corresponding quantities of food could not be made available under the premises of the German distribution system.
It has so far been assumed that the mortality of Soviet prisoners was “very high” already in the summer of 1941. The mortality leap in the autumn of 1941 was thus partially recognized, but underestimated. Yet in the summer months the mass dying in the occupied eastern areas commenced at first locally and in phases; on the whole the death rate was far below what it would be in the autumn. In several camps in Belorussia, for instance, only one or two prisoners a day died. In the Reich and in the General Government the development was similar. Despite drastic underfeeding most prisoners still had a rest of physical resistance, and the weather conditions were favorable. The first epidemics appeared. Already in September 1941, before the battle at Vjazma and Brjansk, the death rate increased
considerably. In the rear area of Army Group Center there died – “quite acceptable”, as was later said – 0.3 per cent a day, i.e. 5,000 to 9,000 people in that month, and in the General Government the number was about 9,000 Soviet prisoners. At Stalag 342 (Molodetshno) in the General Commissariat White Ruthenia the death rate seems to have been horribly constant at 200 a day – possibly 6,000 during the whole month. Prisoners there even asked the guards in writing to shoot them.
And in regard to observations from the Ukraine the Economy Staff East reported:
“Food is already at this time (!) acquiring a decisive importance for the possibility to use Russian prisoners as a workforce in the occupied area. […] The impression currently gained of the working prisoners of war leads to the assumption that many of them will not survive the winter.”
Here a new development was making itself shown. If this was the condition of the “working” prisoners,
then what of those who were already considered as unable to work, if at the same time reductions of rations were being demanded?
In the overcrowded Stalag 359B (Kalikov near Biala Podlaska), where the prisoners were vegetating
in huge holes in the ground, the 2nd Company of Police Battalion 306 shot at least 6,000 prisoners of war between 21 and 28 September 1941 – 3,261 on the first day alone – in order to dissolve this camp, which had the heaviest epidemic in the General Government at the time. In this “Action Chicken Farm”
those murdered were reported as “lain eggs”. When they were issued their orders the policemen were told that “the food situation of the Russian prisoners was creating difficulties and that one was not in conditions to feed the masses of prisoners”. This action apparently remained a single case in this form, but it indicates that nervousness about possible negative consequences of the beginning mass dying, especially such resulting from epidemics, was increasing and with it the preparedness to kill. The further, extreme increase of the dying of the prisoners in October and November 1941 was the result of the step from a general last priority in feeding to a targeted, selective murder of the majority of the prisoners by starvation.
In this respect one must take into consideration the German food policy for the occupied Soviet territories. On 4 September 1941 the Economy Staff East had after lengthy quarrels for the first time
issued guidelines for rations that could be distributed to the Soviet population. Backe, however, had at a top-level meeting on the same day refused new, high supply requests by the Wehrmacht for 2.1 million tons of grain and 625,000 tons of meat, stating that otherwise the meat rations in the Reich
would have to be reduced; the troops were to feed themselves entirely out of the occupied Soviet territories. Backe put such pressure on the Wehrmacht because he unexpectedly had to change the war food planning to another year of war, given that it was foreseeable that the fighting on the Eastern Front would continue undiminished in 1942. In this he had Göring’s support. During pre-decision meetings with Backe and branches of the Wehrmacht on 16 September Göring, with reference to the German military collapse in 1918, issued the directive that in the German Reich the rations could by no means – as the competent bureaus were considering to do – be reduced once again; “reckless saving measures” were exclusively to be taken by other peoples. “Even if one wanted to feed all other inhabitants [besides those working in the German interest], one could not do so in the newly occupied eastern territory”, said Göring. Regarding the feeding of the Soviet prisoners of war one was “bound to
no international obligations […] Their feeding can thus be oriented only by the work performed for us.” The German food policy in the Soviet Union was to turn mainly against the Soviet prisoners of war,
selectively against the non-working ones. On 23 September Backe, as required, presented the new German war food planning to Hitler, who approved it. Reductions of rations in the Reich were avoided. A decisive item in the new planning was obviously the use of the occupied Soviet territories.
When the competent entities in October 1941 went about to implement the respective plans, the
tense transport situation due to the offensive against Moscow, which had begun on the 2nd of October, again came into play. On 8 October the head of the Chief Group Agriculture at the Economy Staff East and in the Eastern Ministry, Hans Joachim Riecke, and the Army General Quarter Master Wagner discussed “the feeding of the prisoners of war and the supplies of the Eastern army”. On the following
day Riecke’s Chief Group worked out new provisions about considerable reductions of rations for Soviet prisoners of war. On the previous day the Economy Staff East had required this also of the army supply departments through which the feeding of the prisoners was carried out. On 13 October Riecke and Wagner at another meeting agreed on a “strict separation […] between working and non-working prisoners of war” in the feeding guidelines that were soon to be issued. At the level of e.g. Army Group Center similar contacts can be proven to have taken place, but the contents of the meetings are not known. On 21 October General Quarter Master Wagner reduced the rations for non-working prisoners of war by 27 per cent to 1490 calories, while the rations for working prisoners of war remained almost unchanged. Otherwise rations were usually increased in the autumn, because the human body spends more energy in winter. To reinforce the instruction Wagner stated:
“The commanders of the units must he conscious that all food that is granted to the prisoners of war
unrightfully or in excess must be taken away from the relatives at home or from the German soldier.”
Ten days later a directive with the same tenor was issued to the German frontline newspapers. The additional result of several days of meetings between the Reich Food Ministry, the Chief Group Agriculture of the Economy Staff East, representatives of the Reich Commissariats Ostland and Ukraine, the Economy Inspection Center and South and the General Government, and Göring’s personal referent Gönnert about the “treatment of the Russian civilian population and the prisoners of war resulting from the impossibility to sufficiently feed the same”, was that the prisoners of war in
the occupied Soviet territories were to be fed in the “rank of urgency” after all other population groups – including the Soviet civilian population. Göring also now declared that it was “far-fetched to build borders between the urban and the rural population in the wide spaces of Russia”, which means that like the experts he considered it impossible to seal off the cities, keep the inhabitants from access to food and simply let them starve to death. The prisoners of war were the only population group regarding which this still seemed possible, and the starvation death of those no longer “able to work” was now under way.
When he informed Goebbels about the situation in October, Backe proposed “very radical measures”
against the Soviet prisoners of war to stabilize the food situation in the German Reich. Goebbels would try to convince Hitler of these “radical measures”. Indeed, and contrary to other assumptions, the leadership in state and Wehrmacht, be it Göring or Rosenberg, Goebbels, Jodl or Hitler, were
quickly informed about the mass dying and considered it unavoidable – under the premises of the German conduct of war, which were contrary to international law. Göring declared on 8 November that “in this war there would be the greatest dying since the Thirty Years War”, and on 25 November he mocked himself about the dying of the Soviet prisoners of war.
On 4 November the Economy Staff East had additionally reduced the food rations for the civilian
population in the occupied Soviet territories. Yet in November the German advance along the entire Eastern Front again came to a halt. Especially the militarily most urgent offensive, the one of Army
Group Center against Moscow, had reached its critical point; the transportation and supply situation had become dramatically tense. At a meeting of the General Chiefs of Staff of all armies and army groups fighting on the Eastern Front on 13 November 1941 in Orsha with the Head of the Army General Staff, Franz Halder, some officers nevertheless discussed possibilities to more or less feed the prisoners despite the Wehrmacht’s priority for food supplies. According to the notes taken by a participant the following happened at this point: “The General Quarter Master breaks into the discussion and declares: Non-working prisoners of war in the prisoner of war camps are to starve to death.” Given the “situation of food supplies at Army Group Center” also the working prisoners of war, although this was regrettable, could “only in individual cases be fed out of army stocks”. He invoked Göring’s decisions in this context. Wagner, one of the most important “economic strategists” of the Wehrmacht (Vaclav Dlugoborski) had thus issued the clearest available instruction for the murder of the “non-working” Soviet prisoners of war.
In practice the radical instructions, the worsening of the feeding and transport situation and other factors yet to be described led to an enormous increase of the mass dying of Soviet prisoners of war, which gained spectacular dimensions since October 1941. The number of Soviet prisoners who died is likely to have been around 300,000 to 500,000 in each of the months October, November and December 1941; in January 1942 it was 155,000, in February 80,000 and in March 85,000. For December German data add up to more than 300,000 dead. In November the number, according to extrapolations of several individual data, was even higher. In the General Government alone 83,000 men died, in the rear area of Army Group Center obviously around 80,000. In October the number of deaths is likely to have been as high as in November; extremely high numbers become apparent for the General Government and the areas of Army Groups South and Center. In the latter alone 160,000 men seem to have died until the beginning of December 1941. In the Reich Commissariat Ukraine the
“losses” in October amounted to no less than 125,000 men, thereof at least 80,000 deaths.
This shows that the mass dying began simultaneously in wholly different areas and groups of prisoners of war. It affected both the 665,000 prisoners from the battle of Kiev in September 1941 mainly in the area of Army Group South and the Reich Commissariat Ukraine and, with little delay, the more than 600,000 prisoners from the battle of Vjazma and Brjansk in the area of Army Group Center and the
Reich Commissariat Ostland, as well as the prisoners from the battles between June and August 1941 who were in the General Government. The parallel development indicates common causes. Yet neither in the General Government, nor in the rear area of Army Group Center, nor in the Reich Commissariat Ukraine were the previously expected numbers of prisoners reached. Even in the two great battles in September and October 1941 the number of prisoners made by the Germans was considerably below those 1.9 million who in 1940 had been captured in France within a similar period of time and by now means allowed to starve to death.
Also noteworthy, however, is the further, regionally different development of the organized mass dying. In December 1941 the death rates, measured by the number of prisoners at the beginning of the month in the respective area, were highest in the General Government (45.8 %). In the Reich Commissariat Ostland 29.4 % of all prisoners died, at Army Group Center 25 %. Mortality was lower on the Reich territory (18.5 %), in the Reich Commissariat Ukraine (15 %) and at the Army Groups North (12.3 %) and South (7.1 %). Within the area under military administration the center of mass dying was at Army Group Center, which had 47 per cent of all prisoners of the three army groups but recorded 71 per cent of deaths. Most deaths in turn occurred in the rear area of Army Group Center, where they are likely to have amounted to at least 35 per cent of the existing prisoners, whereas in the army group’s areas closer to the front – like in the case of Army Group North – prisoner mortality was significantly lower. The rear area of Army Group Center was the center of destruction of prisoners among the regions under military administration until February 1942, probably already since November 1941. In the regions under military administration, in turn, the mortality rate was now higher than in the Reich
and in the areas under civilian administration of the occupied Soviet territories.
The supply and feeding situation of Army Group Center was especially critical. Their food supplies were obtained more than anywhere else at the expense of the civilian population, on the one hand because, operating in a “food importing area", it was with 2.1 million men the largest of the three army groups, on the other hand because since September 1941 it came into a transportation crisis to a much larger extent than the other army groups. This crisis jeopardized its military offensive in the battle of Moscow, the most important offensive in the last months of 1941, to a decisive decree. In favor of its reckless efforts – during the advance on Moscow, then during the retreat – even more prisoners of war than elsewhere were systematically underfed and murdered there. This happened especially in the huge camps of the army group rear area. The former head of the Wehrmacht Command Staff, Alfred Jodl, stated the following at the Nuremberg Trial about the Soviet prisoners taken at the battle of Vjazma and Brjansk in October 1941:
“It was impossible to take them away. In this tight supply situation, in which we were with the railway network destroyed, it was impossible to take them all away by train. There was no shelter around.”
Thus, he argued, their death had been unavoidable. Apart from the things that Jodl didn’t mention in his deposition, he apparently didn’t consider that already the procedure he described – the unconditional subordination of the feeding of the prisoners to that of the German troops – constituted a crime.
[Footnote: Only one aspect shall be mentioned here: Most of the prisoners died not in the area of Vjazma and Brjansk, allegedly far away from all transportation roads and camps, but in regular base camps and transit camps in the rear area of Army Group Center and in the Reich Commissariat Eastern Territories, where again, however, the expected number of prisoners wasn't even
reached. Interrogation of Jodl on 05.06.1946, in: IMT, Volume 15, pages 451 and following.]
The General Government, another center of the destruction of the prisoners, was, like the previously mentioned area Belorussia/Central Russia, a hunger region. The food situation was extremely tense, after the troops of the Eastern Army marching up had fed themselves there until the summer of 1941 and previous food supplies had been cancelled. Thus the civilian population there in the late summer and autumn received lower rations than the inhabitants of the occupied Soviet territories – for non-Jewish “normal consumers” 600, for Jews even as little as 200 calories. Here as there this was not enough to live and forced the population to obtain food on the black market, but the lower rations in the
General Government show that the problems of the food administration there may have been even greater. For this reason the civilian administration not competent for prisoners of war at the end of September 1941 put pressure on the regional Wehrmacht authorities to lower the “too rich” rations of the prisoners. In the third region where organized mass dying reached the highest dimensions, the Ukraine, it was probably the extreme forced marches, to which an especially high number of prisoners was forced, which considerably contributed to their debilitation. Here also the orders to shoot prisoners who could no longer march along came from unusually high levels, like the 6th Army. Otherwise it was usual that corresponding, largely executed instructions came from a lower level.
In summary one may conclude that the competent authorities of economy and Wehrmacht at Reich
level, in the face of the tense food and transport situation of the Eastern Army, took the decision to considerably decimate the Soviet prisoners of war considered no longer able to work through additional measures, that is, to purposefully murder hundreds of thousands. In such areas where there were special problems especially with the feeding of the army, the regional authorities contributed with their system of food distribution to an increase of the death rates even beyond the level verified in other regions. Thus on the territory of the Reich 47 per cent of all prisoners existing there died until the spring of 1942, while in the General Government mortality was more than 85 per cent.
The mass dying has been impressively described by Christian Streit on hand of the septic language
of those responsible on the German side. These descriptions could be complemented at will with accounts of surviving Soviet prisoners, which he hardly used. In many camps 200 to 400 men died every day, according to later depositions of victims sometimes even more. At this place only a short analysis can be attempted. The prisoners in their majority died directly from starvation and debilitation. At the hospital of Stalag 352 (Minsk) 9,425 deaths could be reconstructed; in 6,829 cases the cause of death stated was undernourishment, in 772 cases it was colitis (intestinal infection) and in 665 it was typhus, i.e. more than 80 per cent of the deaths were directly – and the others indirectly – attributable to undernourishment. Among the prisoners of war in the winter of 1941/42 there were in the rear area of Army Group Center between 3,700 and 4,900 new cases of spotted fever per month (2 to 5 per cent of the existing prisoners, less than ten per cent of deaths resulting from these diseases). Members of the Wehrmacht, apart from a few guards, were hardly affected by contagion; the prisoners died a ‘clean death’ without great risk for the Germans. In the Reich Commissariat Ukraine 14 per cent of the prisoners deceased in February 1942 died of spotted fever.
The feeding of the prisoners was completely insufficient. The rations actually issued fell considerably below the official ration of just over 2000 calories, for non-workers since 21 October less than 1500 calories. Suppression of food by the camp personnel played a lesser part in this than the use of substitute substances, for instance the so-called Russian bread, and of spoilt edibles. What most diminished the rations, however, was the fact that their distribution in the occupied areas of the Soviet Union was always under the condition that food must be obtained “out of the land”, often out of the area where the respective camp was located – after satisfaction of the needs of the German Wehrmacht. Thus the prisoners often “could” not receive the full rations, especially no fat, meat and vegetables; often what they received was reduced to 100 to 200 grams of bread and one liter of a watery brew. Food was in most cases very unfavorably composed and hard to digest. Furthermore the camps often did not have enough cooking facilities and means of transportation for bringing in food.
As foreseen in the instructions and further required, the rations were in practice strongly differentiated between working and non-working prisoners of war. The prisoners deemed no longer able to work were often separated from the others, partially put into separate barracks where they were to die. Not rarely extremely weak prisoners, who could no longer defend themselves, were simply thrown by the camp personnel or at its orders upon corpse heaps or into corpse pits, where they were squashed or froze to death during the night.
A decisive factor for the mass dying of the prisoners was the cold. The accommodation possibilities
in the camps were insufficient by far; in part the internees were accommodated in self-dug earth holes, in part some of them vegetated until or throughout the winter under open sky, slept on the bare earth, often in unheated rooms. It was typical, for instance, that in Stalag 352 at Minsk overloaded bunks broke down during the night because too many had to crowd on them. The cold made the physical resistance of the troops break down. The death rates rose rapidly with the coming of bad weather in the autumn, even before the devastating cold of winter. Nevertheless one cannot say, of course, that the prisoners had thus died a natural or unavoidable death. On the contrary, they were purposefully murdered by those who reduced the rations for the non-working, i.e. the weakened and sick Soviet prisoners, of all times in autumn, instead of, as would have been necessary at this time of the year to keep them alive, raising the rations. In what concerns the food the camp commandants could do little
about the economic organization and the distribution system, but in what concerns accommodation they bore a great deal of the responsibility for the destruction of the prisoners. This all the more so as the number of prisoners in all administration areas remained smaller than originally expected. Wood for
barracks and heating could have been obtained more easily for instance in Belorussia than food, even without allocation.
The need for prisoners of war as a labor force was still low in the occupied Soviet territories eve in the autumn and winter of 1941. In most cases only a third, at most half the prisoners worked, which satisfied the demand. Unemployment was still widespread in the cities. The situation on the territory of the Reich was different. Numerous economy authorities considered it necessary since the summer of 1941, in the face of the manpower deficit, to use Soviet prisoners of war in the Reich. Yet only by the turn of the month October/November 1941 they managed to push through a basis decision for the use of prisoners in the Reich. Before that mainly negative political influences on the German industrial workers had been alleged against this. Yet the immediate demand of German economy in July
1941 was numbered at only 500,000 men, and in October 800,000 were called for, while the middle-term lack of manpower lay at 1.5 to 2.5 million. In 1941, on the other hand, a total of 3.35 million prisoners were taken, most of them until October inclusive. From the point of view of the German war industry these prisoners were thus by no means all needed. This applied all the more for those of whom it was assumed that only after a longer time and with the help of huge quantities of food they could be made able to work again, without the assessment of the food situation in the German-occupied areas having on the whole improved. In addition to this Göring in November 1941 communicated, after the previous discussions had focused on the use of Soviet prisoners of war in the Reich, that now also Soviet civilians should be brought to the Reich as a labor force in huge numbers. In their cases the reserves of forces seemed unlimited, so that they were seen as an alternative to the use of Soviet prisoners of war. Indeed in 1942 around 1.4 million Soviet civilians were brought to Germany, three times as many as Soviet prisoners of war in the same period. As by no means all prisoners of war were claimed for the German industry, it seemed possible to continue differentiating between so-called working and non-working prisoners, to accelerate the transport of the former to the Reich and to let the latter die, without harming the German economic interests. With the decision in favor of the massive use of Soviet civilians a solution seemed to have been found that made it possible to largely match labor use and food policy in an infamous manner.
These calculations didn’t work out as intended, however, because the additional food given to the
working prisoners of war was not enough, due to the cold and the hard work, so that they soon were mortally debilitated as well. The number of prisoners “able to work” reached extremely low figures in many regions. The contradiction between labor and food policy interests showed up again. New feeding guidelines by the Wehrmacht High Command (OKW) and the Army High Command (OKH) at the turn of the month November/December 1941, meant as a reaction to the mass dying also of those
“able to work” who it was intended to keep alive, either continued providing for the death of “such prisoners who are not foreseen to become able to work any more”, or ordered increases of rations in low amounts or maintaining the absolute priority of the supply of German troops in the occupied Soviet
territories. In addition there was the brutal treatment by the German guard personnel, which often made little distinction between “useful” and “useless” prisoners. The National Socialist terror system turned out to be too inflexible for a separation among both groups. Symptomatic was the behavior of the
personnel in Dulag 220 (Gomel), who didn’t only shoot 15 to 20 prisoners from the work detachments on the march to and back every day, but also staged a so-called marathon race to the station for choosing the labor force for the first transport to Germany: the 200 men who collapsed with exhaustion the guards shot, the others they drove into the railway cars.
This may considered simultaneously a symptomatic, but not unusual example for the behavior of the guards of Soviet prisoners of war, which cannot be addressed in detail at this place. Hundreds of thousands of them – the number can no longer be established even approximately – were shot between 1941 and 1945. In this respect the shooting of commissars, Jewish prisoners and “Asiatics” and the handing-over of prisoners to the SS weighed less in numerical terms; Wehrmacht units, not SS and police, killed the most prisoners, and this in turn mainly during marches and transports. The inhumane environment in the camps at the same time shows that the prisoners did not fall victim to anonymous “circumstances”. Against them a mass crime organized and planned by the state was committed. In a single larger camp in the occupied Soviet territories there died in 1941/42, over a period of months, as many people as a whole Einsatzgruppe could murder at the same time. The
responsibilities for the destruction of the Soviet prisoners of war, beginning with the Reich authorities and the Wehrmacht and Army commands over regional occupation and administration authorities and the camp commands down to individual soldiers and officers, can partially be still well delimitated. The
evaluation thereof shows that the destruction initiatives came from all levels, even if not all the personnel, especially at the lower levels, took part in them.
Part 1 - Pages 774 to 781
Continuation in Part 2The Annihilation of Soviet Prisoners of War on Belorussian Soil Crimes of German Front Line Units on the Battlefield in the Summer of 1941
Mass crimes against members of the Red Army did not only begin in the prisoner of war camps, but already during the fighting and soon thereafter. These murders and violations of the laws of war and international law, which have so far barely been taken notice of by research, can only be described on hand of some central orders and selected source studies at this place. They are likely to make the actions of the front line units – of common soldiers, the lower officer corps and the leadership – appear in a new light.
From the first days of the war on many units of Army Group Center shot Soviet soldiers who had surrendered with their hands up or wanted to defect, who had been put out of action or already taken prisoner. The commander of the XXXXVII Panzer Corps, General Joachim Lemelsen, wrote in his order of 25 June 1941 against the senseless shooting of prisoners of war and civilians which had repeatedly occurred according to his personal observation. He gave instructions to put an end to it, expressly exempting however the killing of commissars and partisans. Five days later Lemelsen declared in a proclamation:
“Despite my instructions of 25 June 1941, which don’t seem to have got through to company level, we again and again verify shootings of prisoners, defectors and deserters, which are carried out in an irresponsible, senseless and criminal manner. This is murder! […] soon there will spread among the enemy the picture of countless corpses lying along the advance routes of soldiers who, without weapons and their hands raised, have been clearly liquidated by shots in the head at close range. The scattered enemy will then hid in woods and fields and continue fighting out of fear, and we will lose countless comrades.”
Jews from the city of Slonim, who were forced to remove the corpses, testified to this as did the noncommissioned officer Robert Rupp at Minsk, who recorded the following in his diary:
“Many I saw lying there shot had their hands raised and no weapons, often even no belt. At least a hundred I saw lying like this. They say that even a parliamentary who came with a white flag was shot down. […] They also shot wounded.”
At many places the German troops took “no prisoners”. This was partially justified with violations of the laws of war by the Soviets. On 25 June 1941 the Infantry Regiment 9 of the 23rd Infantry Division in the area of Bialystok reported an incident at the 3rd battalion where due to the abuse of a white flag by Soviet soldiers six members of the Wehrmacht lost their lives. Thereupon the division commander, General Major Heinz Hellmich – later general of the Eastern troops, of all things – ordered that white flags were not to be respected in the whole division area. “There will be no quarter!” This regulation was extended on the very same day to the whole area of the VII Army Corps by the corps commander, General Fahrmbacher. On 28 June, on grounds of the alleged mutilation of German prisoners, the Infantry Regiment 9 again took “no prisoners”. In the first eight days such happened “often”, according to reports from the division, for which reason the number of prisoners (1507) had turned out “relatively low” – thus hundreds who had tried to surrender had been murdered. After that 28 June certain countermeasures were taken. The diary of First Lieutenant Fritz-Dietlof
Graf von der Schulenburg makes it possible to reconstruct the considerations within the officer corps:
28 June: “Doubtlessly […] there is a danger to discipline if our people start to bump off on their own initiative. If we permit this we descend to the level of the SS. Doubtlessly the Russian deserves no more quarter due to the way he fights. But then they must be shot in battle or only upon the order of an officer. Anything else simply removes all holds in such a way as to no longer allow for controlling the loose instincts.”
On 29 June he wrote the following about the new instructions:
“Only who fights with a weapon in hand, who shoots from the rear or who as a prisoners disobeys or flees may be shot. Otherwise (!) shooting may only be carried out at the order of an officer responsible.”
Shooting without a reason thus continued to be allowed, though in a disciplined manner, at the order of an officer, which also shows that such measures were by no means taken only on account of Soviet violations of rules – apart from the fact that the possible justifications (for instance “disobedience”) were rather elastic.
The Supreme Commander of Army Group Center, von Bock, received reports about the murders from several sides at the latest by 30 June. Bock didn’t mention that he intended to take countermeasures. All the more the alleged Soviet violations of the laws of war caught his attention. On the other hand the Supreme Commander of the 4th Army, v. Kluge, considered it necessary to on 1July issue a characteristically formulated counter-order, which was also passed on by the
VII Army Corps:
“The Russian as a dull half-Asian believes in what his commissars hammer into his head, that in case of being taken prisoner he will be shot. […] In order not to turn this propaganda [German leaflets for defectors] into its opposite, it is necessary that red soldiers who surrender and show the leaflet are treated as prisoners of war. Necessary executions must thus as a matter of principle be carried out in such a way that civilians and other prisoners don’t notice anything thereof.”
The express reason behind Kluge’s order, Lemelsen’s instruction and all other correction orders of this kind up to the Commander in Chief of the Army, von Brauchitsch, was the fact that the Soviet resistance in the cauldron of Minsk-Bialystok was steadily stiffening and becoming an operative problem for the whole German offensive, which had a strategic significance. Kluge’s order seems to have reached the units on the same day.
Nevertheless the slaughter continued. As late as 11 August Army Group Center considered it necessary to mention in a report the “corpses of soldiers without weapons with their hands raised and close range gunshot wounds lying around everywhere after the fighting”. At this time Red Army soldiers taken prisoner were relieved when German officers declared that they would not be shot.
The occurrences thus were neither isolated or the matter of a single army. Many such cases can also be proven for Lithuania. Hitler himself pointed out towards foreign journalists the massive character of the killing of defenseless opponents: the relation of prisoners to dead among the enemy forces was changed thereby. It was cowardly murder at close range, not killing from a great distance to avoid eventual ambushes. In most cases the killings were not reprisals either. And the murders were not limited to the first days of the war, for in future memoranda they kept being mentioned as undesirable situations to be approved upon. Orders for such shootings can so far be proved at platoon, company, regimental, divisional and army corps level. It seems to have been less a matter of individual soldiers running wild; the instructions emanated especially from the middle and higher levels of command.
The women of the Red Army drew especial hatred. There was even an army order to kill them all – at least one. On 29 June 1941 there was an instruction signed by General Field Marshal v. Kluge, in which it read: “Women in uniform are to be shot.” At the same time that v. Kluge intervened against mass shootings in one respect, he was ordering others. This order was passed on the same day by VII Army Corps and reinforced for instance by the 286th Security Division on 1 and 2 July. On 3 July a counter-order of the Army High Command reached the 286th Security Division, according to which uniformed women, armed or not, were to be recognized as prisoners of war. But even thereafter the hatred of German front line soldiers against the so-called gun broads didn’t remain behind the initial orders from above, and they were fought with enormous brutality or massacred after battle. New orders to kill all female Red Army soldiers were issued, so in July 1941 at Infantry Regiment 167 in the central section and in October 1941 at the 75th Infantry Division in Ukraine. As late as 6 March 1944 the Wehrmacht High Command ordered that captured female Soviet army soldiers were as a rule to be handed over to security police and SD as so-called unreliable elements. In Belorussia there were special prisoners of war camps for women, like at Bobruisk and Baranovichi.
Everything the Soviet soldiers did was considered a death-worthy crime, even the fact that they had, of course, fought against the Germans. Also in this respect there was an order at a high level, from Panzer Group 3. The “founded suspicion” of having engaged in espionage, sabotage and “measures against the German Wehrmacht’ was thereafter sufficient for the shooting not only of of Soviet civilians, but also of Red Army soldiers. Also without an order from high above German soldiers and units massively shot Red Army men only because they had defended themselves. Although there were hardly any partisans at this time and the intervention of popular militia is known to have occurred only at a later stage, for instance at the battles for Mogilev and Gomel, Wehrmacht units reported hundreds of executed alleged franctireurs who in reality were nothing other than Soviet military personnel – more rarely civilians declared partisans
by excessive orders from high above. The German military was surprised by the enemy’s strong resistance and in a certain way didn’t acknowledge the right thereto. This was all the more so due to fragmentation of the front caused by
the new German tactic of tank thrusts and the confused nature of the fighting. Members of the enemy armed forces were easily considered as franctireurs, treacherousness was attributed to them and considered as death-worthy and a confirmation of racist prejudices. The later brutal treatment of Soviet prisoners of war by the guards and camp commanders was among other things based on their being seen as representatives of the Soviet system, so to say the
spearhead of the Communist movement. Anti-Slavism played a part in the crimes against them, but their treatment differed clearly from that of the civilian population, which means that there must have been other factors beyond the
racist attitude towards the “Slav sub-humans”
The Wehrmacht’s criminal warfare also had other aspects. The bombing attacks targeting the living quarters of the population of Minsk, the pillage and acts of violence against inhabitants of the Belorussian capital, the establishment of civilian prisoner camps for the men by Wehrmacht units have already been mentioned (chapters 5.1 and 7.1). Let’s have a look at the example of Brest: the bridge over the Bug was taken in the morning of 22 June by the diversion unit “Brandenburg” in Soviet army uniforms, and a clearly identified hospital was bombed. On the second day of the war the 45th Infantry division, attempting to conquer the fortress by the city, drove 400 women and children as protection
shields before them; many were killed (the same happened later with prisoners of war at Gomel.) Under the German cannon they allegedly laid Soviet children to keep the enemy from firing at them. On 25 June the Infantry Regiment 187
forced Belorussian civilians to act as a “carrier column” to transport munitions and food through a swamp area. In Slonim, Mir, Stolzby and Klezk there were arbitrary shootings and acts of violence.
The outbreak of violence in the very first days of the war and the simultaneous Wehrmacht crimes against civilians at that time was basically not related to the confrontation with the allegedly cruel enemy – contrary to the still reigning opinion of historians, which in this respect constitutes a rather strange mixture between criticism of the “criminal orders” and posterior solidarity with the perpetrators against the “Bolshevik beasts”. This view frequently fails to take into account that the Germans had attacked the Soviet Union and not the other way round. After the sequence of events including the breaches of law it would be more appropriate to grant the Soviets that were enraged by the German crimes, although this can be no excuse for violations of the laws of war and international law by the Soviet side.
However, from Belorussia no Soviet excesses against members of the Wehrmacht or against their own prison inmates on a larger scale (like at Lvov or Dubno in Ukraine) have become known. What seems characteristic is the report of the counterintelligence of Panzer Group 3 that of both types of such crimes there had been none other so far beside the killing of two tank crews after capture. While the subordinate units had reported many Soviet excesses, these had generally proved to be unsubstantiated upon closer examination. Rumors and propaganda reports far exceeded the actual crimes by the Soviet side. This had been prepared by an intensive propaganda of the military leadership at Hitler’s orders in the previous months about the treacherous fighting practices of the Soviets. Individual cases already served German troop leaders as a welcome pretext to order murders on a large scale, as in the case of the 23rd Infantry Division. Panzer Group 3, which according to its own statements did not have such pretexts, made do without a justification and ordered to kill Soviet soldiers who had put up resistance in the fighting.
The mass murder of Soviet prisoners of war and the merciless persecution of scattered soldiers (see chapter 9.2) were a consequent continuation of the shooting of Red Army soldiers who had surrendered still on the field of battle. This was also begun by front line units, lower officer ranks seemingly having played a major part. Besides commissars and politruks the troops also shot Jewish soldiers and officers taken prisoner. Initiative from the top and bottom met. Thus the
bakery company of the 23rd Infantry Division shot a Soviet officer on 26 June 1941 not spontaneously, but only after consultation with the division command post. The more such murders occurred upon orders and the higher the level issuing such orders, the more the executing units and individuals must be seen as tools of a directed policy, even if their actions corresponded to their inner conviction.