The Fate of Soviet Prisoners of War

Joined: 5:44 AM - Jul 21, 2009

6:30 PM - Mar 25, 2012 #1

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.
Last edited by Roberto on 6:16 AM - Nov 28, 2017, edited 4 times in total.
Custom Signature

Denial of generally known historical facts should not be punishable. For those who maintain, for instance, that Germany did not take part in World War I or
that Adenauer fought at Issus in 333, their own stupidity is punishment enough. The same should apply to the denial of the horrors and crimes of the recent
German past.
~ A German jurist by the name of Baumann in the German juridical magazine NJW, quoted in: Bailer-Galanda/Benz/Neugebauer (ed.), Die
, Berlin 1996, page 261 (my translation).

Joined: 5:44 AM - Jul 21, 2009

6:42 PM - Mar 25, 2012 #2

The following are excerpts from Christian Gerlach, Kalkulierte Morde. The numerous source notes in the original were left out.

Part 1 - Pages 774 to 781

Part 2
The 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.
Continuation in Part 2
Last edited by Roberto on 6:19 AM - Nov 28, 2017, edited 6 times in total.
Custom Signature

Denial of generally known historical facts should not be punishable. For those who maintain, for instance, that Germany did not take part in World War I or
that Adenauer fought at Issus in 333, their own stupidity is punishment enough. The same should apply to the denial of the horrors and crimes of the recent
German past.
~ A German jurist by the name of Baumann in the German juridical magazine NJW, quoted in: Bailer-Galanda/Benz/Neugebauer (ed.), Die
, Berlin 1996, page 261 (my translation).

Joined: 5:44 AM - Jul 21, 2009

7:17 PM - Mar 25, 2012 #3

My translation of the article “Deutsche und sowjetische Kriegsgefangene”, by Christian Streit, which appeared in Wolfram Wette/Gerd R. Ueberschär, Kriegsverbrechen im 20. Jahrhundert, 2001 Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft Darmstadt, pages 178 to 192.

Christian Streit

 German and Soviet Prisoners of War

 Even among the mass of atrocities and horrors that characterize the war between Germany and the Soviet Union, the fate of prisoners of war on both sides stands out. At first sight the fates of prisoners on both sides are strikingly similar to each other: here as there tens of thousands died already while being transported for weeks under miserable conditions to the camps in the rear; on both sides the millions of prisoners where horribly decimated by hunger and hunger-related epidemics; on both sides the prisoners were without any rights, at the mercy of a custodian state that did not acknowledge and violated the provisions of international law meant to protect prisoners of war; both Germany and the USSR exploited their prisoners in merciless forced labor, which made a large part of the survivors into physical wrecks. This similarity of phenomena, under the influence of the totalitarianism theory, led to the treatment of the prisoners of war being seen as further proof for the essential equality of the National Socialist and the Soviet Communist system. 

The fate of these prisoners of war is basically different, in what concerns their suffering and the number of victims, from that of all other prisoners in World War II. Both on the German and on the Russian side the incomplete surviving documentation makes it impossible to state unequivocally established figures. On the basis of the available Wehrmacht files it must be assumed that about 5.7 million Soviet soldiers fell into German hands, of whom about 3.3 million (57.8 %) lost their lives.(1) In what concerns the German prisoners of war the numbers are even more insecure. Were there 1,094,000 dead out of 3,155,000 taken prisoner (34.7 %), as a commission of West German scientists calculated in the 1960s, or 357,687 out of 2,388,443 (14.9 %), as per the NKVD files, or about 700,000 out of more than 3 million, as is
estimated – in my opinion plausible – by Rüdiger Overmans? (2) The following juxtaposition can only outline the most important aspects of comparison. The required shortness does not allow for completely presenting the required differentiation.

An essential factor in the treatment of prisoners of war on both sides was that the obligations under international law were not unequivocal. The USSR had not ratified the 1929 Geneva Convention Relating to Prisoners of War (Geneva
Convention). It also did not consider itself obliged to comply with the provisions of the 1907 Hague Rules of Land Warfare, even though it was factually a“successor state” of the Czars’ empire. The German leadership took advantage of
this to claim that the Soviet Union was generally not interested in complying with international law of war and the erman Reich was bound to no provisions of international law in regard to her. This was not so, as in such a case, also according to German international law doctrine at that time, both sides remained bound by the principles of general
international law of war.(3) According to these principles, the life of prisoners of war was protected, they were to be treated humanely, and to be fed, clothed and accommodated in the same manner as the custodian state’s reserve troops.

Due to the opening of the Soviet archives the Soviet rulings regarding the treatment of prisoners of war are also known. (4) However, the decisions and decision procedures are not documented in nearly as much detail as on the German side. An essential motivation for the USSR's rejecting the ratification of the Geneva Convention had been the avoidance of the controls of prisoner of war camps by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), provided for therein. At the same time, however, the guideline was internally formulated that prisoners of war were to be treated no worse than according to the Geneva Convention. (5) Article 193 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federal Socialist Republic and the Red Army’s field service rule PU-36 forbade a bad treatment of prisoners of war. A
few days after the German attack a basic order from the Council of the People’s Commissars regarding the treatment of prisoners of war, which complied with the requirements of the Hague Rules of Land Warfare and also with essential
provisions of the Generva Convention, was distributed down to division level.(6) Thus at the start of the war the provisions on the Soviet side were compliant with international law in their essential aspects, whereas the German
side had placed international law at disposal for the war against the Soviet Union. Practice was to show the significance of these decisions.

For the German leadership – both for the military leadership and for Hitler – the issue of commitments to international law was basically without significance. This is shown most clearly by the following circumstance: the USSR had, just like the German Reich, ratified the 1929 Geneva Convention Relating to the Wounded and thus shown that it did not generally reject commitments to international law.(7) Germany and the USSR were thus unequivocally obliged to comply with this convention. This, however, was neither mentioned nor taken into account in German planning. The German leadership, in ideological fixation, postulated that the Soviet Union would not comply with provisions of international law anyway. It should be pointed out that at that time Soviet crimes like the murder of Polish officer prisoners at Katyn were not yet known, and no effort was made to find out how the Soviets had treated the Polish and Finnish prisoners of war in 1939/40. Even more important than this ideological certainty was the conviction that the Wehrmacht would defeat the Red Army in a matter of weeks and Germany would then be the unchallenged ruler on the European continent. Commitments of international law were thus considered completely superfluous obstacles to the “shaping” of the conquered east. When the Soviet Union on 17 July 1941 offered adhering to the Hague Rules of Land Warfare, the Wehrmacht High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht – OKW), declared that it was “more advantageous from the point of view of the conduct of war“ if this did not happen. Hitler decided that there must be “no legal agreements whatsoever with the Soviet Union about the issue of prisoners of war“. The still reduced number of German missing at that time had little weight compared to the masses of Soviet prisoners of war.(8)

The fate of these prisoners was mainly determined by the German war aims and the methods chosen for their realization. The worst consequences resulted from the goal of mercilessly exploiting the East’s food resources in order to
secure a “peacetime-like” feeding of the German population and thus – unlike in the First World War – a stable “war morale”.(9) The planners in the ministries and in the OKW were completely aware that the result would be “many millions of people” starving to death in the East. The Soviet leading elites were to be removed, the rest of the population was meant to lead an existence of helots. The complex of “criminal orders” worked out in the spring of 1941 in the high
commands of Wehrmacht and army – the “War Jurisdiction Decree” the “Guidelines for the Conduct of the Troops”, the regulation of the activity of the SS-Einsatzgruppen and the “Commissar Order” – were the instruments for conducting a war of annihilation. There orders made clear to the German soldiers that not only the political, but also the military leadership placed no value on the lives of Soviet people. The “Commissar Order” was of special significance, because by shooting all captured political commissars the Wehrmacht was to provide its own contribution to the liquidation of the Soviet leading elites.

The first order from the OKW about the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war of 16 July 1941(10) mentioned the 1929 Geneva Convention Relating to Prisoners of War as a basis, but this was only meant to mislead the German soldiers, for of the spirit of the Convention nothing had remained. The German soldiers were expected to act “ruthlessly and aggressively” towards these prisoners, described as extremely dangerous, and to “completely break any active and passive resistance”. Contrary to the principles of international law the prisoners were to be used exclusively “for the troops’ immediate needs”. Work was not to be paid, officers and medical personal were to receive no pay. More important was that the prisoners were not to be registered with the central Wehrmacht Information Service – a clear indication that at the OKW they did not wish to document the expected losses. Contrary to the principle that prisoners of war must receive the same rations as the custodian state’s reserve troops, the armies ordered, even before a regulation by the OKW was issued, that the prisoners were to be “fed by the most primitive means (for instance horse meat)”. Available rationing guidelines provided for rations well below the subsistence level “in case of full work performance”.(11) In August 1941 the OKW established higher rations, which, however, were seldom reached in all areas under German domination. The prisoners received only low-value food, the main nourishment being turnips and a special “Russian bread”, of which 50 per cent consisted of sugar beets, cellulose flour and straw flour.

The consequence was a horrendous decimation of the prisoners between the late summer of 1941 and the spring of 1942. After hunger-related epidemics had already broken out in August, mortality took a leap with the coming of cold
weather. At what pace this occurred is shown by the development in occupied Poland. There, 54,000 dead had already been reported by 20 October. In the following ten days alone, however, another 45,960 dead were counted. Most of them, accommodated in the open in “summer camps”, were “at the end of their tether”.(12) The peak of dying was reached in December 1941, when in the General Government and the eich Commissariat Ukraine alone there died respectively 46 per cent of the risoners existing at the beginning of the month. Until the beginning of ebruary 1942 about 2 million of the 3,350,000 Soviet prisoners of 1941 had ied. The most important cause was the hunger policy, which had already been ordered before the attack. On 21 October 1941, when the dying from hunger was
already in full swing, the General Quarter Master of the Army, General Eduard Wagner, decreed a further lowering of the rations. He thereby complied with a demand of Hermann Göring, who wanted to secure the German population’s feeding standard at any price. The General Quarter Master emphatically defended this policy. When in November 1941, at a meeting with the chiefs of staff of the eastern armies, he was told that the armies urgently needed the starving prisoners of war as a labor force, he succinctly stated the following:

“Non-working prisoners of war […] must starve to death. Working prisoners of war can in individual cases be fed also from army stocks.” (13)

A further cause for the fast decimation of the prisoners was the completely insufficient accommodation.(14) Hardly any preparations had been made for this. On the Reich territory and in East Prussia parts of troop training areas were detached, and there the prisoners themselves had to build shelters – earth bunkers, unheated barracks of the simplest kind – with the most primitive means. In the East conditions were even worse. In the area of Army Group Center there were camps, as later as December, where thousands lay in unheated halls or earth bunkers. How fast the prisoners were decimated under these conditions is shown for example by transit camp (Durchgangslager – Dulag) 131 at Bobruisk: until mid-November 158,000 prisoners had been sifted through the camp, and of these 14,777, almost one-tenth, had died.

If the mass dying diminished in the spring of 1942, this was not due to humanitarian efforts. Rather the German leadership had recognized, at the end of October 1941, that the blitzkrieg concept had failed and that the grievous
lack of labor in war industry required the use of Soviet prisoners. Hitler had before strictly rejected this, because he feared a communist influencing of the German workers. Characteristically the NS-leadership was not prepared even now
to downgrade the feeding of the German population. The prisoners’ rations were raised, but remained below the subsistence level. Only at the end of October 1944 the rations of Soviet prisoners of war were equaled to those of the German civilian population in terms of quantity, but not of quality. The mortality rate could never be even remotely reduced to that of the western prisoners of war.(15) On the contrary, it rose again from the end of 1943 onward, when
diseases like tuberculosis showed up as a result of long-time privations.

The transport to the rear also led to enormous losses. As a rule, the period of increased danger between capture and being taken into a base camp in the hinterland was especially long on both sides. In the periods in which the highest numbers of prisoners of war occurred – for Germany from June to October 1941, for the Soviet Union from July 1944 to the end of the war – the Wehrmacht clearly had the better possibilities. Except during the mud period in October 1941, the supply system and the means of transportation were intact, and the transport network was better to use than in 1944/45, after the western Soviet Union had twice been a theater of war and the retreating Wehrmacht had systematically tried to destroy the bases of living. If the mass of Soviet prisoners of war was taken away in extremely loss-intensive foot marches until November 1941, this was neither planned that way by the army leadership nor due to the lack of transportation means. The cause was mostly the ideologically motivated refusal by Wehrmacht authorities to make trains or trucks available for the “lice-ridden” prisoners. (16) Already in August reports reached the OKW according to which “out of prisoners transports […] only 20 % arrive”. During the transport to the rear of the prisoners from the battle of Kiew in September/October 1941, the daily death rate in the 17th Army’s area was one per cent. During the marches, which often lasted weeks, the prisoners received hardly any food. For the area of Army Group Center the sources mention daily rations like “20 grams of millet and 100 grams of bread”; in the area of Army Group South, for instance, the prisoners received “at most two potatoes per day”. For the transport to the rear by rail the Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres – OKH) only permitted the use of open freight cars, which with the coming of winter caused many deaths. But also the use of closed, but unheated freight cars from mid-November on brought no marked improvement. According to a report from the Reich Commissariat Eastern Territories (Ostland) of December 1941, “between 25 and 70 percent of the prisoners” died on transports, among other things because they received no food during the trips lasting several days.(17) Also in this area significant improvements only occurred in 1942.

During the foot marches thousands of exhausted prisoners were shot, also in the middles of large cities like Minsk and Smolensk. Some individual commanders condemned this practice with indignant orders, but did nothing to remove the causes. Others thought differently. The Head of Economic Staff East, Lieutenant-General of the Luftwaffe Dr. Wilhelm Schubert, spoke in December 1941 of the “treatment of the prisoners necessary these days”, in which “sick prisoners not able to march […] must be shot”. The High Command of the 6th Army under Field Marshal von Reichenau ordered “to shoot all prisoners who become flabby”. A change of this practice only occurred in the summer of 1941, when the OKW repeatedly pointed out in orders that the prisoners were urgently needed as laborers. (18)

The shootings of prisoners were to a large extent the consequence of the “criminal orders” and of the “sub-humans” propaganda that was also spread by the OKW, and also of the orders regarding the treatment of the prisoners. To be sure, it was stated in the orders that prisoners “obedient and willing to work” were “to be treated decently”. The further provisions, however, were suitable for removing any reservations. The officer in charge of prisoner of war matters at the OKW, General Hermann Reinecke – one of the most fanatical Nazis in the Wehrmacht leadership – declared in his basic order of 8 September 1941 that the “Bolshevik soldier” had lost “any claim to being treated as an honorable
soldier”. The “use of arms against Soviet prisoners of war is generally considered lawful”. (19)

The execution of the Commissar Order, which contrary to postwar claims by Wehrmacht officers was carried out in the majority of divisions up to its revocation in May 1942 (20), was also an important contribution to many German soldiers believing that the prisoners were fair game. This order was expanded already in mid-July 1941, with devastating consequences for the prisoners. Reinecke agreed with the Head of the Reich Main Security Office(Reichssicherheitshauptamt – RSHA), SS-Gruppenführer Heydrich, that all “politically intolerable” prisoners were to be “selected” for execution by special detachments of the Security Police and the Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst – SD). The victims included, among others, communist officials of all kinds – and all Jews. This decision played an important part in the steady radicalization of extermination actions that
finally ended in the genocide of the Jews, as the Wehrmacht leadership had thus
given its consent to the murder of all Jewish Soviet prisoners of war. These
murder actions victimized far over 140,000 Soviet prisoners.(21)

There were some isolated efforts to put an end to these mass murders and improve the treatment of the Soviet prisoners of war. Helmuth James Graf v. Moltke, one of the most important heads of the German resistance, made the most important attempt, with a memorandum drafted for the head of the counterintelligence department (Amt Ausland Abwehr) of the OKW,  Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, to achieve a general change. He demanded not only the revocation of Reinecke’s order of 8 September 1941, but also a stop to the special detachments’ murder actions. However, the head of the OKW, Field Marshal Keitel, rudely turned back the protest: “These reservations correspond to the soldierly views of chivalrous warfare; this war is about the annihilation of a world-view, and therefore I approve of and vouch for the measures”.(22) When the selections were nevertheless restricted half a year later, this was not due to Moltke’s arguments founded in international law. Rather the German leadership, as the Reichsführer SS, Heinrich
Himmler, put it, had recognized the value of the Soviet prisoners “as raw material, as a labor force”. “Intolerable” prisoners considered less dangerous were now sent to the concentration camps for “destruction through work”. In a new issue of Reinecke’s order in March 1942 the use of arms against Soviet prisoners was restricted a little.(23) Also the Commissar Order was revoked, as it had become clear that the shootings had decisively contributed to the hardening of the Red Army’s resistance.

Also among the German prisoners of war, hunger was the main cause of high mortality. Of the few thousand prisoners taken in 1941 only one in ten survived. Especially high also was the mortality of the about 110,000 soldiers taken prisoner after Stalingrad, of whom only one in twenty returned –– a fact that is often pointed out as especially drastic proof of the Soviet system’s inhumanity. However, in this case, most of all, it would be wrong the blame the Soviet side in the first place. The soldiers of the 6th Army were close to
starvation when Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus was finally prepared to capitulate; Paulus had not wanted to spoil the tenth anniversary of the “taking of power” on 30 January 1943. Already six weeks before the first 64 starvation dead had been reported to the army, and since mid-January the soldiers had received almost no more food.(24) The Soviet side had the greatest difficulties in accommodating and feeding the debilitated prisoners in an area that had been completely destroyed by the fighting.

The dying from starvation made many German prisoners believe that the Soviet side deliberately wanted to starve them. A closer look, however, reveals essential differences towards the German policy especially in what concerns the food factor. First of all, the material preconditions must be taken into account. The USSR was barely able during the war to feed its own population, as the Wehrmacht had conquered the most important agricultural regions. In 1945 the grain production was 45 percent below that of 1940, and in 1946 it was even lower because of a catastrophic bad harvest. Due to the horrendous population losses and the enormous destruction in the country, the Soviet government saw the prisoners as an indispensable labor force. The German prisoners received – and this is a key difference – the same rations as the Soviet civilian population; they went hungry “together with and like the Soviet civilian population”. (25) Many prisoners even recognized that the civilian population was off just as badly or even worse.(26) The problems were worsened by the inefficiency of the state-directed economy system and by corruption, by no means only among the Soviet camp administration: the “corruption of the Germans in the camps of the Soviet Union was one of the saddest chapters of war captivity”.(27) Also
completely insufficient accommodation conditions made the mortality go up. Unlike on the German side, where the Soviet prisoners were put at the end of all priority lists due to ideological reasons, this was here mainly due to the destruction caused by the war and to general scarcity. Only in 1947/48 the accommodations could be considered “more or less worthy of human beings”. (28)

Like on the German side the losses during the transport of the prisoners to the rear in the USSR were shockingly high. The lack of transportation means and the destructions in
the transportation network led to long foot marches with many victims. During railway transports to the polar circle, to Siberia and to the Asian Soviet republics the prisoners were often on their way for weeks; lack of food and extreme climate conditions claimed the lives of thousands. About the height of the losses there are only rough estimates. Soviet sources about this have not yet been systematically evaluated.(29) Especially high
losses are reported for the about 150,000 prisoners from the collapse of Army Group
Center (20 – 25 %) andfor the 115,000 prisoners from Army Group South Ukraine in August 1944 (35 – 45 %). (30) Unlike the above-mentioned numbers for the transport to the rear of Soviet prisoners, however, these are the losses not only on one stage, but
during the whole way from capture to the base camps. During foot marches Soviet soldiers shot exhausted prisoners in considerable numbers. This was especially
reported by the surviving “Stalingrad prisoners”. However, it seems that on the whole this did not occur as massively as in the summer and autumn of 1941 on the German side.

Shootings during capture there were also on the Soviet side. Especially in the summer and autumn of 1941 considerable numbers of German prisoners of war perished this way.(31) The extent of this cannot be established, but it is certain that the order of magnitude remained far behind the shootings by the Wehrmacht and the special detachments. An essential factor that led to Red Army soldiers arbitrarily shooting prisoners was the Soviet propaganda with the stereotypically repeated formula “Death to the German occupiers!”. The Wehrmacht propaganda used this to strengthen the notion among German soldiers
that the Red Army generally killed prisoners. Although the murder of prisoners was in part ordered by division commanders, the German military leadership soon knew that high-ranking troop commanders and political commissars turned against this practice.(32) Finally the Soviet leadership itself tried to counter this development. On 23 February 1942 Stalin declared in an order that the Red Army only killed soldiers who did not surrender. At the same time he endeavored to remove the previous undifferentiated view of the enemy: “It would be […] ridiculous to see the Hitler clique […] as identical with the German people.
The experience of history tells us that the Hitlers come and go, but the German people, the German state, remains.“(33) One the whole it can be concluded – thus states a historian who otherwise sharply condemns the Soviet side’s violations of international law – that the Red Army leadership generally endeavored “to avoid the murder of prisoners of war and secure an adequate treatment”.(34) Thus also the Russian files, which have become accessible in the meantime, provide no indication that the Soviet side “at any time planned
or even carried out extermination measures against the German prisoners of war”. (35) This is another basic difference in the fate of the prisoners on both sides: to the shooting of the political commissars and the special detachments’ murder actions there is no equivalent on the Soviet side. A comparatively small number of German prisoners were executed, mainly on account of war crimes. (36) Although these trials did not meet a constitutional state’s standards, one cannot dismiss them as pure injustice. At these trials a minimum of formal principles were adhered to, unlike in the “five minutes trials” of 1949/50, in which about 20,000 German prisoners of war were sentenced to long years of forced labor. Also in these trials, however, those sentenced were by no means only innocents.(37)

Certain aspects of the comparison can only be briefly outlined. Characteristic differences show in the treatment of wounded and sick prisoners. As already mentioned, both states were bound by the Geneva Convention Relating to the Wounded. The German side completely ignored this. What mattered were pure utilitarian considerations and euthanasia thinking.(38) For the German leadership only such prisoners were of interest who could without much cost be soon made able to work again. According to the OKH’s orders only Soviet medical material could be used for this purpose, and the prisoners were to be treated by Soviet medics, only in exceptional cases by German ones. Only physically
robust slightly wounded could survive. In the autumn of 1941 several army commanders ordered to push off heavily wounded from the camps to the civilian population, as they “burdened the food situation”. These prisoners had to starve to death, as only working civilians received food allotments. In September 1942 the OKH ordered that such prisoners be turned over to the Higher SS and Police Commanders, in order to be murdered.

At first glance the treatment of German prisoners again shows parallels, for also of the heavily wounded Stalingrad prisoners hardly any survived. However, in this case, as generally in what concerns medical treatment, the reason was not bad will on the part of those responsible, but general scarcity. The German returnees generally spoke with
great respect of what Soviet camp medics achieved with the most modest means. The continued efforts of the prisoner of war administration to reduce the sickness level generally failed because the specialized ministries’ demands for laborers to fulfill the central economic plan were given priority.(39)

The prisoners’ labor was seen by the USSR, like by the other Allies, as an important contribution for the reparation of the immense war damage suffered. Unlike the NS leadership, which saw the Soviet prisoners as working slaves “for the next 20 years”, it was not planned on the Soviet side to keep the prisoners permanently. The sharpening East-West conflict then led to the Soviet leadership in 1948 deciding not to fulfill the original agreement with the Western Allies, according to which all prisoners were to be freed until the end of 1948, and to use the labor force of about 420,00 prisoners until the end of 1949.(40) The decision to keep 15,000 of those convicted in 1949/50 beyond this date was meant to create a dead pledge for political negotiations and, considering the beginning efforts for rearmament, to retain German officers.

In what concerns the prisoners’ use as labor one can state that the USSR certainly complied more strongly with the principles of international law of war. The prohibition to use prisoners of war for work in connection with the conduct of war was generally complied with on the Soviet side. According to the first OKW order regarding the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war, dated 16 June 1941, the prisoners were allowed to work on the German side only “for the troops’ immediate needs”. Throughout the war they were used even in the front area as ammunition carriers and for building defensive positions. From the end of 1941 on the prisoners also worked directly in the ammunitions industry. Until the end of the war, the USSR also observed the rule that, according the Hague Convention and the Geneva Convention Relating to Prisoners of War, officers did not have to work. From February 1946 onward younger officers up to the rank of captain had to work, but continued to receive officer rations and officer pay. Officers from the rank of major upwards had to work since 1949. Soviet officers in German captivity were generally forced to work, on grounds that, according to an OKW order, “the lack of any tradition, posture, upbringing or education […]” did not in any way set them apart from the rank and file.”(41)

Finally, the postwar fate of the prisoners should be taken into account. The German prisoners were received in honors and could count on the sympathy of the public. The efforts for help and reintegration were not always considered satisfactory by those concerned, but on the whole they constituted a great achievement of the early Federal Republic.(42)

Unlike in the Western world, where war captivity is seen as honorable, in the Soviet Union it was considered a disgrace, and the Soviet prisoners were looked upon as cowardly traitors.(43) Already in August 1941 they were branded deserters by Stalin’s order no. 270; even their families were subject to reprisals. Prisoners who managed to flee through the front or were liberated were at best “allowed” to “atone for their guilt with blood” as cannon fodder in penal battalions. In May 1945 100 “filtration camps” for 10,000 prisoners each were established. The prisoners liberated by the Western Allies were made to believe that they would not be punished. According to recent Russian research, however, “practically all male repatriates – prisoners of war and civilians – above the age of 16” were conducted to various forms of forced labor.(44) They were registered with the NKVD, which even for their relatives meant, for instance, banning from professions. In the course of de- Stalinization the convicted prisoners were amnestied, characteristically only months after
convicted collaborators. Also after this amnesty the former prisoners of war remained social outcasts. In the phase of glasnost efforts for their rehabilitation started being made in 1987; after much resistance these culminated in a decree by president Yeltsin issued on 24 January 1995. How much the former prisoners still had to suffer after the war is shown by the fact that in 1998 only one per cent of them were still alive, as opposed to 10 per cent of the other veterans.(45)

In summary one can state that the USSR’s policy regarding prisoners of war was largely in accordance with international law in what concerns the respective directives and orders, but then in practice the German prisoners of war were not granted the protection provided for in the rules of international law. A considerable part of the violations of law was directly or indirectly caused by the enormous material problems resulting from the losses and the
destruction in the war started by Germany. It is worth noting that the Soviet Union acted even far more unscrupulously towards its own soldiers. These were victims first of National
Socialist policies, which consciously brushed international law aside in the war against the Soviet Union, then of their own state, which cynically ignored heir suffering with consequences up to the present day. 

 (1) Regarding the calculation see Streit: Keine Kameraden. Die Wehrmacht und die sowjetischen Kriegsgefangenen 1941-1945, Bonn 1997, pages 244 ff. Lower numbers are mentioned by Alfred Streim: Die Behandlung sowjetischer Kriegsgefangener im „Fall Barbarossa“. Heidelberg 1981, page 246 (at least 2,530,000 out of 5.2 million); Joachim Hoffmann: Die Kriegsführung aus der Sicht der Sowjetunion. In: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg. Vol. 4. Stuttgart 1983, page 730: “around two million” of “exactly 5 245 882”. A commission of the Red Army estimates less than 1.7 million out of 4,059,000, see: Grif sekretnosti snjat. Edited by G.F. Krivoseev, Moscow 1993, page 131; the members of the militia and other formations, which made up a considerable part of the
prisoners of war, are not counted. For criticism of these numbers see Christian Streit: Sowjetische Kriegsgefangene in deutscher Hand. Ein Forschungsüberblick. In: Die Tragödie der Gefangenschaft in Deutschland und in der Sowjetunion 1941-1956. Edited by Klaus-Dieter Müller et al, Cologne 1998, pages 286 ff. 

 (2) See Erich Maschke: Die deutschen Kriegsgefangenen des Zweiten Weltkrieges. Eine Zusammenfassung. Bielefeld 1974, pages 208, 224; Stefan Karner: Der Archipel GUPVI, Munich 1995, page 79; regarding Rüdiger Overmans’ estimate see: Gefangene in deutschem und sowjetischem Gewahrsam 1941-1956: Dimensionen und Definitionen. Edited by Manfred Zeidler et al, Dresden 1999, page 18.

 (3) Friedrich Giese/Eberhard Menzel: Deutsches Kriegsführungsrecht. Berlin 1940, page IV.

 (4) Most comprehensive mention in Andreas Hilger: Deutsche Kriegsgefangene in der Sowjetunion. Essen 2000; also Karner, Archipel GUPVI.

 (5) Hilger, Deutsche Kriegsgefangene, page 52

 (6) Printed in: “Unternehmen Barbarossa”. Der deutsche Überfall auf die Sowjetunion 1941. Edited by Gerd R. Ueberschär and Wolfram Wette. Paderborn
1984, pages 356-359. 

 (7) RGBl.[Reich Legislation Gazette] 1934, Part II, pages 232-254.

 (8) Streit, Keine Kameraden, pages 226 ff.

 (9) See regarding this and following Streit, Keine Kameraden; Rolf-Dieter Müller: Von der
Wirtschaftsallianz zum kolonialen Ausbeutungskrieg
. In: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg. Vol. 4, pages 113-157; with greater emphasis on deliberate planning Christian Gerlach: Kalkulierte Morde. Hamburg 1999. 

 (10) Streit, Keine Kameraden, pages 73 ff. 

 (11) See as above, page 79; regarding what follows as above, pages 137-162.

 (12) As above, pages 133-136, 128; also for what follows. 

 (13) As above, pages 157 f.

 (14) See as above, pages 171-177; the number for Bobruisk on pages 156 f. 

 (15) Of the 232,000 Anglo-American prisoners 8,348 died, i.e. 3.6 per cent: as above, page 293. 

 (16) As above, page 163; regarding the prisoners’ transportation to the rear pages 162-177. 

 (17) As above, pages 131; 152f.; 165f.

 (18) As above, pages 171; 239f. 

 (19) The order of 8.9.1941 is printed in: “Unternehmen Barbarossa”, pages 351-354. Regarding Reinecke see Christian Streit: General der Infanterie Hermann Reinecke. In: Hitlers militärische Elite. Vol. 1. Edited by Gerd R. Ueberschär. Darmstadt 1998, pages 203-209. 

 (20) See Streit, Keine Kameraden, pages 83-89 with notes; Förster, Die Sicherung des
. In: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg. Vol. 4, pages 1062-1070; further evidence in Gerlach, Morde, pages 834-837.

 (21) See Streit, Keine Kameraden, pages 87 ff.; Reinhard Otto: Wehrmacht, Gestapo und
sowjetische Kriegsgefangene im deutschen Reichsgebiet 1941/42
. Munich 1998; Streim,
Behandlung, page 244. 

 (22) Canaris’ memorandum with Keitel’s remarks in: “Unternehmen Barbarossa”, pages 355 f.  

 (23) Streit, Keine Kameraden, page 182 f. – The Himmler quote there on page 105

 (24) Rüdiger Overmans: Das andere Gesicht des Krieges: Leben und Sterben der 6. Armee. In: Stalingrad. Ereignis, Wirkung, Symbol. Edited by Jürgen Förster. Munich
1992, pages 421, 446.

(25) Erich Maschke: Die Verpflegung der deutschen Kriegsgefangenen in der Sowjetunion im Rahmen der sowjetischen Ernährungslage. In: Hedwig Fleischhacker: Die deutschen Kriegsgefangenen in der Sowjetunion. Der Faktor Hunger. Munich
1965, pages XXIf., XXXIV.

 (26) See the returnee accounts, as above, pages 525-532. 

 (27) Maschke, Verpflegung, page XXXIV.

 (28) Hilger, Deutsche Kriegsgefangene, page 146.

 (29) See: Gefangene in deutschem und sowjetischem Gewahrsam, pages 22f.

 (30) Kurt W. Böhme: Die deutschen Kriegsgefangenen in sowjetischer Hand. Eine Bilanz. Munich 1966, pages 55f.

 (31) See Alfred de Zayas, Die Wehrmachtuntersuchungsstelle. Munich 1984; Hoffmann, Kriegsführung, pages 783-790; differentiated Hilger, Deutsche Kriegsgefangene, pages 56-62. 

 (32) Streit, Keine Kameraden, page 400.

 (33) Quoted after Hans-Adolf Jacobsen: Der Zweite Weltkrieg. Frankfurt a.M. 1965, page 145 f.

(34) Hoffman, Kriegführung, page 790.

 (35) Hilger, Deutsche Kriegsgefangene, page 56. 

 (36) As above, page 283, Hilger estimates “probably far less” than 1,000 cases; see Karner, Archipel GUPVI, page 176 and Gerd R. Ueberschär: Die sowjetischen Prozesse gegen deutsche Kriegsgefangene 1943-1952. In: Der Nationalsozialismus vor Gericht. Edited by  Gerd R. Ueberschär. Frankfurt a.M. 1999, pages 240-261.

 (37) See as above and Manfred Messerschmidt: Der Minsker Prozeß 1946. In: Vernichtungskrieg. Edited by Hannes Heer/Klaus Naumann. Hamburg 1995, pages 551-568, especially pages 559, 566; Hilger, Deutsche Kriegsgefangene, pages 287-301.

 (38) See regarding the following Christian Streit: Das Schicksal der verwundeten sowjetischen Kriegsgefangenen. In: Vernichtungskrieg, pages 78-91.

 (39) Karner, Archipel GUPVI, page 90; Hilger, Deutsche Kriegsgefangene, pages 175 f. 

 (40) See Streit, Keine Kameraden, page 197; Hilger, Deutsche Kriegsgefangene, pages

 (41) Streit, Keine Kameraden, page 74. BA[Federal Archive] Berlin, R. 41/172, Sheet 151: OKW/Chef Kgf. dated 4.7.1942

 (42) See Traugott Wulfhorst: Der „Dank des Vaterlandes“. In: Die Wehrmacht. Edited by
Rolf-Dieter Müller and Hans Erich Volkmann. Munich 1999, pages 1037-1057.

 (43) See regarding the following Christian Streit: Zum Schicksal der sowjetischen Kriegsgefangenen in deutscher Hand. In: Deutsch-russische Zeitenwende. Krieg und Frieden 1941-1995. Edited by Hans-Adolf Jacobsen et al, Baden-Baden 1995, pages 451-454.

 (44) Vladimir Naumov – Leonard Resin: Repression gegen sowjetische Kriegsgefangene und zivile Repatrianten in der UdSSR 1941-1956. In: Die Tragödie (as note 1), pages 335-365, page 350.

 (45) Gefangene in deutschem und sowjetischem Gewahrsam, page 29.
Last edited by Roberto on 3:36 PM - Nov 28, 2017, edited 3 times in total.
Custom Signature

Denial of generally known historical facts should not be punishable. For those who maintain, for instance, that Germany did not take part in World War I or
that Adenauer fought at Issus in 333, their own stupidity is punishment enough. The same should apply to the denial of the horrors and crimes of the recent
German past.
~ A German jurist by the name of Baumann in the German juridical magazine NJW, quoted in: Bailer-Galanda/Benz/Neugebauer (ed.), Die
, Berlin 1996, page 261 (my translation).

Joined: 5:44 AM - Jul 21, 2009

2:26 PM - Apr 04, 2012 #4

The Fate of Soviet Prisoners of War
Christian Streit

 Among the different groups that fell victim to the Nazi politics of extermination, the Soviet prisoners of war must be accorded a special place. After the Jews, they were the numerically largest group of victims, and there are close ties between their fate and that of the Jews.

What happened to the Soviet prisoners of war in the years between 1941 and 1945 has been largely ignored. A total of approximately 5.7 million Red Army soldiers were taken prisoner between June 22, 1941, and the end of the war. In January 1945, there were some 930,000 Soviet POWs left in the prison camps of the Wehrmacht. About 1 million more had been released from captivity, most of them as so-called “Hilfswillige”, that is, helpers of the Wehrmacht. According to estimates from the German Army staff, another 500,000 of the prisoners either had escaped or were eventually liberated by the Red Army.

The remaining 3,300,000 or about 57 percent of the total number, had perished by 1945. To make these figures more meaningful, they should be compared with statistics on the British and American prisoners of war. Of the total of 231,000 such prisoners in German hands, 8,348 or 3.6 percent, died before the end of the war.

The losses of the German prisoners of war at the hands of the Red Army by far exceeded those of the British and American soldiers. Some 3,250,000 Wehrmacht soldiers were taken prisoner by the Red Army and about 1,200,000, or 36 percent, perished in Soviet camps. The number is huge if compared to Anglo-American losses, but still almost three times as many Soviet soldiers lost their lives in German captivity.

Before I go into the reasons for the death of more than half of the Soviet prisoners, I want to outline briefly the development of the mortality rate.

How rapidly their numbers were decimated is shown by the example of those in occupied Poland. In the fall of 1941, 361,000 Soviet prisoners vegetated in the camps there. Of these, only 44,000 were still in the camps by 1942. Approximately 7,500 had escaped, but 310,000 - more than 85 percent - had perished, and a sizable number had been shot.

The mortality rate in the camps seems to have been relatively low in July and August 1941, but in August epidemics like typhoid and dysentery broke out in a number of camps in the East. The increase in mortality did not bother the German authorities at this point. In October, however, the rate shot up to dreadful levels in the General Government areas of occupied Poland. Fifty-four thousand Soviet
prisoners had died before October 20, 1941, but in the next ten days another 45,690 died, almost 4,600 persons a day. The peak of mortality seems to have been reached between October and December, and signs indicate that even the German authorities were surprised by the extent of the deaths.

From December 1941, the death rate dropped slowly to between 8 and 9 percent for the month of March 1942; this decrease was due to the fact that by the end of October 1941, the German leaders had realised that they needed the Soviet prisoners as workers in the German war industry. The measures taken - slightly raised rations, slightly improved housing - were, however, still far from sufficient
to force the mortality rates down to a level comparable to that of the other prisoners of war in German custody. The rate was reduced in the summer of 1942, but in late 1943 it started climbing again, and in 1944 there were again camps with dozens, if not hundreds of deaths every week.

There are four main reasons for the death of so many prisoners. The most obvious is hunger. The others are lack of shelter, the methods used in transport, and the general treatment meted out to the prisoners. Supplying provisions for the vast numbers of Soviet prisoners certainly posed immense problems for the German Army, but that was not the true cause of starvation.

Obtaining foodstuffs from the East was one of the principal objectives of the German Reich in the war against Soviet Russia. The breakdown of Germany in 1918 had been a traumatic experience for the German leaders, and it was still remembered by Hitler and his generals. The merciless exploitation of food resources in the East was designed to make it possible for the German people to enjoy food consumption as in peacetime and, thus, to stabilise wartime morale.

The bureaucrats involved in planning this exploitation were perfectly aware of the fact that this implied “without doubt the starvation of umpteen million people.” From the very beginning, the rations handed out to the Soviet prisoners of war were far below the minimum required for subsistence. For example, the prisoners who during the summer of 1941 were marched through the rear area of the army group centre in White Russia received daily rations of “one ounce of millet and three ounces of bread, no meat”; or “three ounces of millet, no bread.” These rations supplied less than a quarter of what an average man needs for survival.

The consequences soon became evident. In August reports reached the Wehrmacht High Command that often only 20 percent of a transport of prisoners arrived at its destination. In that month the Wehrmacht High Command decreed fixed rations for all Soviet prisoners: those who worked were to receive an equivalent of 2,100 calories a day, which fell below the minimum required for existence, but the records indicate that usually the prisoners received much less.

The state of health among the prisoners became desperate in September 1941. Numerous reports show that the despairing prisoners turned to eating raw grass and leaves. In spite of the rapidly climbing death rates in the camps, Army Quartermaster General Eduard Wagner, following the demands of Hermann Goering, ordered the drastic reduction of rations for the prisoners in the front areas. This
reduction particularly hurt the weaker prisoners, because non-working prisoners were to receive no more than 1,500 calories a day.

The decimation of large numbers of prisoners was accelerated by winter because the prisoners were without any protection. Even in the Reich area and in occupied Poland, the prisoners had often been left for months to vegetate in trenches, dugouts, or sod houses.

When daily death rates climbed above 1 percent in October, authorities improvised winter shelters in unused factories and prison buildings, but they were not able to put all the prisoners in such shelters before December.

In occupied Soviet areas, conditions were even worse. For example, in many camps in White Russia only roofs were available to protect the prisoners from snow and cold. Even in January 1942 there were camps where many of the prisoners still lived in dugouts.

Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, lost their lives on the way from the front to the prison camps. Most of the prisoners taken in 1941 had to march for hundreds of miles to the rear areas, even if winter had started. During these marches, thousands of exhausted prisoners were shot. Again and Again, such instances were reported even from the centres of cities like Smolensk and
There were army commanders who repeatedly issued orders trying to stop these shootings, but only in May 1942 did the army and Wehrmacht high commands call for a change. Earlier, in the fall of 1941, however, there were army commanders who had entirely different notions. Field Marshall Walter von Reichenau, commander of the Sixth Army - the one that later perished at Stalingrad - ordered guards “to shoot all prisoners who collapse.”

If prisoners were carried by train, an order from the Army High Command permitted only the use of open freight cars. This order did not merely limit the transportation available; it also caused enormous losses when temperatures began to drop below the freezing point. In the rear area of the army group centre, transportation in closed freight cars was not permitted until November  22, 1941, after more than three weeks of severe frost. The immediate cause for the change was the fact that out of the transport of 5,000 prisoners, 1,000 had frozen to death.

But even transportation in closed but unheated freight cars was no decisive improvement. A December 1941 report to the Ministry of Labor said that “between 25 and 70 percent of the prisoners” died during transportation. In some cases the prisoners had been left without food for several days.

In 1941 the German soldiers were led to think that the life of a Soviet prisoner of war had very little value indeed. This evaluation was not only a result of Nazi propaganda, which depicted Soviet citizens as “subhuman”, it was also the result of the basic Wehrmacht directives issued for warfare in the East. The most notorious of these was the so-called Barbarossa Directive of May 13, and the Commissar Order of June 6, 1941.

The Barbarossa Directive limited the military jurisdiction to the maintenance of discipline. In accordance with Hitler’s demands, the troops were expected to deal ruthlessly with any “criminal attacks” committed by Soviet civilians. Crimes that Wehrmacht soldiers committed were to go unpunished if the perpetrator claimed political motives for his actions.

The Commissar Order charged the troops to shoot all political commissars of the Red Army upon capture. Recent research has established beyond doubt that during the summer and fall of 1941, Red Army commissars usually were shot by frontline troops.

From the very beginning, the orders for the treatment of the Soviet prisoners were more than harsh. The orders stressed that Bolshevism was the deadly enemy of Nazi Germany. They called for ruthless and forceful action in order to break any resistance. Guards were told to shoot escaping prisoners without warning and to use their weapons to implement their orders. One of the basic directives for the treatment of Soviet prisoners concluded, “the use of arms against Soviet prisoners of war is generally considered lawful.” That was clear license to kill.

The order, however, did not go unchallenged. On the initiative of Helmuth James von Moltke, one of the most impressive minds of the German opposition to Hitler, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of the Wehrmacht High Command Counterintelligence Department, wrote to the commander in chief, Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel, demanding the repeal of this order.

Canaris not only drew Keitel’s attention to the violation of international law, but also made serious military and political objections. Keitel’s response rejecting the protest left no doubt about his own attitude: “The objections reflect the soldierly concept of chivalrous warfare! What we are dealing with here is the destruction of a world view (Weltanschauung). Consequently I approve of measures as ordered and I support them.”

Keitel’s endorsement of the policies of destruction included actions that have not yet been mentioned. With the killing of the Red Army commissars, the Wehrmacht had accepted a share of the liquidation of the Soviet political system, but the Wehrmacht’s involvement in the war of extermination went even beyond that.

About three weeks after the attack on the Soviet Union had started, General Hermann Reinecke, the general responsible for prisoners-of-war affairs in the Wehrmacht High Command, and the chief of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, Reinhard Heydrich, negotiated an agreement stating that special units of the SS, so-called Einsatzkommandos, were to “sort out” and do away with “politically and racially intolerable elements” among the Soviet prisoners.

Immediately the number of victims multiplied, because such “intolerable elements” consisted not only of “all important state and party functionaries”, but also “all fanatical communists,” “the intelligentsia,” and “all Jews”. Several thousand prisoners became victims of the ensuing selections, which continued to the end of the war.

The connection between these murderous activities and the so-called Final Solution is obvious, but it is more than a purely factual connection. For one thing, the Wehrmacht collaborated very intimately with the Einsatzgruppen. Furthermore, both Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek extermination camps were originally built to shelter Himmler’s share of the Soviet prisoners. He wanted to use them as
slaves in the industrial complexes he planned together with major corporations such as I.G. Farben.

Of the 15,000 prisoners taken to Birkenau and Majdanek in 1941, only a few hundred survived in January 1942. Since no more Soviet prisoners could be expected, six days after the Wannsee Conference Himmler decided to fill these two camps with 150,000 German Jews. The camps built for Soviet prisoners of war thus became part of the infrastructure needed for the destruction of the Jews.

In dealings with the Soviet prisoners of war at Auschwitz, Camp Commandant Rudolf Höss and his deputy Karl Fritzsch discovered the means that made industrial murder feasible. In early September 1941, some 600 Soviet prisoners who had been selected for extermination by the SS arrived at Auschwitz. Anxious to avoid the task of shooting such a large group, Fritzsch decided to use the pesticide Zyklon B to gas them and another 250 camp inmates selected as “unfit to work”. He thus found the way to kill thousands with a minimum effort.

There are many reasons why so many prisoners died, but one reason, in my opinion, has not been given enough attention. After all, it was not part of the tradition of the German Army to kill defenceless prisoners of war by the thousands and to deny them shelter and food. The popular explanation is that the entire Wehrmacht had adopted the Nazi concept that all Soviet citizens were “subhumans” and that the German soldiers acted accordingly. There is some truth in this statement, but I do not think this was the single most important reason. Were this the case, it would be very difficult to explain why a significant number of senior officers, who were committed opponents of Hitler, and who later had a share in the 1944 movement, participated in the policy of destruction in 1941. Their behaviour
may be explained only if we identify anti-bolshevism as a powerful motive.

It is very significant that the first murderous activities that the military leaders were asked to accept were designed to eliminate Communist leaders. When the army leadership permitted the employment of the SS Einsatzgruppen in the rear army group and army areas, they did so because these Einsatzgruppen would destroy the party infrastructure.

The same motives made them accept the Commissar Order. It is equally significant that the first Einsatzgruppen massacres were labeled “retaliatory measures for Bolshevist crimes” or “punitive actions”. It seems that most German soldiers, if they ever learned about such massacres, accepted them because the Einsatzgruppen succeeded in identifying them as an integral part of the fight against what was called Jewish bolshevism, or as retaliation against real or alleged crimes of the Soviet regime.

The following example demonstrates how this mechanism worked even with officers for whom the concept of soldierly honour, or chivalrous warfare, was not just a meaningless slogan. On June 30, 1941, one week after the attack had started, Lieutenant General Lemelsen, commanding general of an armoured corps, issued an order sharply criticising the fact that many Red Army soldiers had been shot upon capture in his command area. “This is murder!” The Soviet soldier who had fought bravely, Lemelsen continued, was entitled to decent treatment. These sentences were quite exceptional in an order pertaining to the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war. I have not been able to find anything comparable. But Lemelsen went on to say that this did not apply to commissars and partisans.
They were to be led aside and shot on the order of an officer. It was quite obvious that even for Lemelsen, who adhered to the traditional military code of honour, the long-cherished military principle of giving quarter to an enemy who surrendered did not apply to Communists.

Published in: A Mosaic of Victims. Non-Jews Persecuted and Murdered by the Nazis. Edited by Michael Berenbaum. New York University Press, 1990. Christian Streit, a West German scholar, is the author of Keine Kameraden: Die Wehrmacht und die sowjetischen Kriegsgefangenen 1941-1945, first edited in 1978, the
standard work about the subject in question.
Last edited by Roberto on 6:20 PM - Nov 29, 2017, edited 2 times in total.
Custom Signature

Denial of generally known historical facts should not be punishable. For those who maintain, for instance, that Germany did not take part in World War I or
that Adenauer fought at Issus in 333, their own stupidity is punishment enough. The same should apply to the denial of the horrors and crimes of the recent
German past.
~ A German jurist by the name of Baumann in the German juridical magazine NJW, quoted in: Bailer-Galanda/Benz/Neugebauer (ed.), Die
, Berlin 1996, page 261 (my translation).

Joined: 5:44 AM - Jul 21, 2009

6:48 PM - Nov 27, 2017 #5

The following are translated excerpts from Christian Gerlach, Kalkulierte Morde. The numerous footnotes in the original were left out, with some exceptions.

Part 1

Part 2 – pages 834 - 859
Open Mass Murder of Prisoners of War

a)     The Annihilation of Political and “Racial” Opponents among the Prisoners

The Execution of the Commissar Order

As has already been shown, there was no documented resistance from the ranks of Army Group Center against the Commissar Order before the German attack on 22 June 1941. Through the counter-espionage officers it was mostly transmitted orally down to company level still in June, in some units only later. Von Schenckendorff, for instance, communicated the “Directives for the Treatment of Political Commissars, Agitators and Instigators” to the 221st Security Division only on 10 July. It is characteristic, however, that this division had already before shot at least seven troop commissars on its own initiative. The 403rd Security Division had also ordered the transit camps already on 2 June – i.e. before the Commissar Order was even issued on 6 June – to “sort out” political commissars and to “guard them with especial severity”. This indicates that the troops were not only charged with the order to murder the commissars, as the Army High Command again pointed out by order of 24 July, but also developed an urge to act of its own, or that the order was transmitted informally and already carried out thereupon. Initiative from the top and the bottom once again met. On 6 July Army Group Center issued to the units subordinated to it the secret order to report the scope of executions of commissars. Representatives of the Eastern Ministry – v. Mende and Bräutigam – approved the order in principle in July and October 1941 and merely criticized its wide interpretation.
Research has long ago dismissed to the realm of myth the assertions made after the war that the commissar order had not been executed not at all, largely not executed or executed only by certain units, i.e. that it had been sabotaged. In fact there was hardly a transit camp or base camp, hardly an army and hardly a security division that did not commit these murders. This began in Belorussia – not surprisingly, after the findings about the barbaric conduct of war by certain Wehrmacht units – in the first days of the war and was continued throughout the following months. In transit camp 131 (Slonim) about 30 commissars were shot in July at the order of the deputy commandant. The already mentioned 203rd Security Division reported 62 “liquidations” of commissars in July 1941, 125 in August, 115 in September, 63 in October and 42 in November, of whom at least three quarters were “civilian political commissars”. At Panzer Group 3 until the beginning of August “170 were collected. The execution constituted no problem for the troops.” The 20th Panzer Division alone murdered 20 “commissars” until 18 July. The Supreme Commander of Panzer Group 3, however, declared before a US military tribunal that, as in the treatment of the prisoners his subordinates had always complied with “the principles of international law”, his intervention had never been necessary. Rear Area Command 559 (4th Army) had its subordinate units hunt down “arsonists, communists, agitators, commissars, etc.”, as did Rear Area Command 582 (9th Army) and the 2nd  Army, which until 24 July reported 177 and until 9 August 1941 another “36 cases”. From among the front line troops also the 52nd Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division (operation areas Bobruisk and Pinsk) can also be proven to have participated. In the area under civilian administration, where the events are again harder to document, this did not end. Thus allegedly at the order of the Commander of Prisoners of War Eastern Territories 600 established communists, commissars and Jews in the Regional Commissariat White Ruthenia were handed over to the security police and security service (SD). In the spring of 1942 there were several executions of up to 60 prisoners by security police and SD at the base camp 324 (Lososna near Grodno, district of Bialystok).

The services in the rear area of Army Group Center were especially busy at the annihilation of political opponents among the prisoners of war. They reported, however, about difficulties in making them out. At transit camp 155, which was presented to the other camp commands as an example by the District Commandant J for Prisoners of War, Colonel Marschall, it was possible through the use of informers to “establish commissars and treat them accordingly” – 50 until 7 August and another 75 until 21 August. At transit camp 126 (Minsk), on the other hand, “only very few commissars had been singled out”, as Marshall criticized. Transit camp 127 (Orsha) tried to establish them by means of interrogation. In the rear area of Army Group Center as late as January and February 1942 66 commissars (mostly Red Army men) were “shot by the troops”, while 32 were handed over to security police and SD. To indicate an order of magnitude: It is possible that about 3,000 to 5,000 “commissars” – military and civilian – were shot by the German military in Belorussia during the first year of occupation.

Not only this: the organs of the Wehrmacht tried to achieve an extension of the orders. While it is unknown which Army Group managed through its inquiry to also have the so-called politruks included at the end August 1941, it is clear that the services in the rear area of Army Group Center reacted thereto with especial eagerness. Partially the Army High Command order of 24 July was also understood in the sense that all communists among the prisoners of war were to be killed. Furthermore the Ic of the commander of the army rear area sent an inquiry to the Army Supreme Command whether all officers of the Red Army were not covered by the Commissar Order as well, which would have meant an enormous extension. The commander of transit camp 127, according to his own report, was reproached by Colonel Marschall for “our not having shot commissars”. These must not be transferred west. To his reply that the transit camp had handed over the suspects to the GFP (Geheime Feldpolizei – Secret Field Police), Marschall replied that “this was not a matter for the G.F.P., but it was up to us to shoot these people”. The provisions of the Commissar Order and the subsequent order of 24 July were thus interpreted in the narrow sense that the troops themselves had to murder the political officers.

Since August 1941 several commanders turned to the Army High Command and Wehrmacht High Command urging that the Commissar Order be abolished, among them the supreme commands of 2nd Army and Panzer Group 3. The main reason was that knowledge of the killing of all troop commissars had increased the Red Army’s resistance. Moral scruples were not part of the considerations, which in view of how prisoners were treated otherwise would not seem very plausible anyway. After Hitler had still rejected this in September 1941, the order was suspended on 6 May 1942 with his authorization for the area of military operations. Head of Gestapo Müller had discussed the modalities with Reinecke two days before. The occasion was a suggestion by the Supreme Command o Army Group Center. It is in fact known that selections and murders continued in the area of the Wehrmacht High Command. At least in July 1942 they can also be proven to have occurred in transit camp 131 (Bobruisk) in Belorussia, in the area of military operations. The murders were thus being carried out beyond the Führer order.

The Handing-over of Prisoners to Security Police and SD

As the examples already given show, Wehrmacht units at least in 1941 murdered the greater part of the “commissars”, and not security police and SD, as could be assumed according to literature. Later this task was increasingly turned over to the Einsatzgruppen and their stationary successor units. On 24 July General Wagner in his order had officially denied the Einsatzkommandos and special detachments the access to the prisoner of war camps; he allowed it only two and a half months later, on 7 October. In the so-called Wehrmacht High Command area – in Belorussia thus in the area of civilian administration – security police already in the middle of July had the right, after an agreement between Heydrich and Reinecke, to carry out selections in the camps. In the Wehrmacht High Command instruction of 8 September this was reinforced. Contrary to the Army High Command Order, however, detachments of security police and SD were also allowed to seek out political opponents in many camps in the area of military operations. This was also frequent in the area of Army Group Center; we remember the practice of selections in the camps for civilian prisoners, which were located inside the prisoner of war camps. The detachments were thus active in these camps. From the camp at Drosdy near Minsk they took away several hundred prisoners per day for shooting over a period several days. The 221st Security Division handed over commissars to the “order police” (apparently the Police Battalion 307 or 309).

The General Quarter Master’s order to October 1941 to allow the operation of detachments of security police and SD in the transit camps led to a protest by the supreme commander of Army Group Center, von Bock. This could so far be documented on hand of his diary and now also in the original; von Bock protested mainly against the killings in his area of command, but he suggested to carry them out in the area under civilian administration instead. The selections by security police and SD he did not wish for forbid, but preferred to leave the decision to the camp commandantsand in case of doubt to the commander of the army rear area. He thus renounced the right granted to him by the Army High Command to “exclude with regard to the operations” the activity of the special detachments. The practice of selections in the following years of occupation was hardly affected hereby. Sometimes prisoners of war were led by members of the camp personnel to the posts of security police and SD, at others the troops of these services were constantly at the camps, like in Minsk. The scope of these actions may be shown by the following examples: the 9th Army handed over 72 prisoners to security police and SD in August 1943, the whole Army Group Center 194 in December 1943; before in December 1941 (partially still under von Bock’s supreme command) there had been 433, in January 1942 704, in February 431, in March 373. On the basis of these numbers it can be estimated that in the three years of occupation about 10,000 prisoners of war were handed over by units of Army Group Center to Einsatzgruppe B, which in most cases murdered them.
[Footnote: On 5.12.1941 Head of Gestapo Müller declared to Reinecke, among other things, that security police and SD had until then selected 22,000 prisoners from the prisoner of war camps and shot 16,000 of them. This statement possibly refers only to the activity of the special detachments in the occupied Soviet territories, given that the selection and execution numbers including the concentration camps were higher.]

Some figures upheld by research regarding the handing over of prisoners to the Einsatzgruppen thus seem to be too high. 
[Footnote: Streit assumed 580,000 to 600,000 Soviet prisoners of war handed over by the Wehrmacht to security police and SD. Streim more realistically estimated at least 120,000 handed over in the Wehrmacht High Command area and 20,000 in the area of military operations. The last figure roughly corresponds to the findings explained here.]
It must however be taken into account that the number of military personnel covered by the Commissar Order was much higher than is mostly assumed. According to Ortwin Buchbender there were 171 such persons in each Soviet division of three regiments, about two percent of the roster. The fact that relatively few commissars were identified and murdered was not, however, related to any “sabotage” by the Wehrmacht – for in this case security police and SD, who had access to the prisoner camps most of the time, would have had to be accomplices thereto, which no one will seriously assume. The reason is more likely to have been that (as has been briefly mentioned) the investigations by Wehrmacht and SD often had no success and the “commissars” frequently managed to conceal what they were. 

The Killing of Jewish and “Asiatic” Prisoners of War

In the German prisoner of war camps not only “commissars” were persecuted, but also other groups of people. Among them were the Jewish prisoners of war. To murder them was part of the task of the Einsatzgruppen from the beginning. Among the Soviet prisoners of war handed over to them – see previous section – there were also many Jews. What part they made up can however neither be established nor estimated.

Other institutions, however, were also involved in the search for Jewish prisoners of war. Among them were the “Commissions for the Scanning of Prisoners of War” of the Eastern Ministry, who at the latest in September 1941 took up their activity and primarily had the task to pick out skilled workers and possible collaborators among the prisoners and to sort them by nationalities. It was also their task to scan out “political and criminal suspects, especially agitating Soviet functionaries, commissars, long-term professional soldiers of the Soviet army [!], Jews and criminal elements” and to report them to the camp commandants. There were 14 such commissions by the middle of October and at least 40 in total. With the participation of the infamous race referent in the East Ministerium, Dr. Wetzel, there were also racial investigations in the camps in 1941. Wetzel after the war admitted that in the camps there had also been “racially” motivated executions, for instance of prisoners with “Mongolian” aspect; these executions, it should be added, were possibly related to the investigations carried out at the time.

The Wehrmacht also murdered Jewish prisoners of war. Such happened for instance at the transit camp 131 (Slonim) in July 1941, There the ordinance officer of the District Commander J for Prisoners of War told by the transit camp commandant, Major v. Roeder,  “that the liquidation of the Jews should be carried out according to more reasonable criteria, for instance doctors should not be removed just like that because in case of an epidemic they could still render certain services. He suggests that the transit camp commandant may eventually and in agreement with the field commandant carry out a selection of those people that are under all circumstances to be spared.”

In fact the staff of the transit camps shot Jews, like at Baranovichi. The wording further indicates that there was a corresponding instruction. An order to kills Jewish prisoners of war also seems to have existed already on 20 June 1941 at the 22nd Infantry Division. General Major Wagner’s order of 24 July was understood by the District Commander J for Prisoners of War, Colonel Marschall, in the sense that the prisoners were not only to be sorted according to their nationality, but the first letter of their nationality was to be painted on their clothing with white oil paint – for Jews a J. At the provisional camp Drosdy near Minsk it was similar. Later the Jews there were separated, and after the camp was moved to Masjukovchinaq there was a barracks only for Jews. Also in other camps the Jews were registered. For a time there was the order to transfer Jewish prisoners west from the rear area of Army Group Center, i.e. not to kill them immediately.

However, the efforts for murdering Jews were obviously increased anew in the rear area of Army Group Center in the autumn of 1941. According to the former Colonel Marschall’s account, he had heard from camp commandants subordinated to him “that there was some order to kill all Russian Jews”. He said that he had sent an inquiry on this to von Schenckendorff, who had transmitted it to the Army High Command. There in turn the information had been confirmed and a new order for handing over prisoners to security police and SD been issued. This version is not credible in several aspects. But much indicates that Wagner’s order of 7 October, the background of which research has not been able to clarify so far, was meant not only to relieve the camp personnel from the murder work but also to provide for an increased persecution of the Jewish prisoners. The murder of Soviet Jews had been decided upon at
this time; on 2 October the Army High Command had thus issued directives for taking hold of all Jewish property in the area under military administration. At transit camp 131 (Bobruisk) there seems to have been a radicalization at this time, at any rate. According to eyewitness accounts at the beginning of November about 200 Jewish prisoners of war were first mistreated and then shot. In the same month 800 Jewish prisoners are said to have been identified at fake medical examinations on hand of their circumcision and taken away.

At the same time there was a conflict between the commandant of transit camp 185 (Mogilev), Major Wittmer, and Einsatzkommando 8 because Wittmer refused to hand over Jewish prisoners of war and civilian prisoners. In another context he declared that he objected to “plain and simple murder”. Wittmer can hardly be seen as a hero, however: at the beginning of July 1941 he had requested a company of Police Battalion 322 for the camp he led at Bialystok, which unit had then within 8 days shot 73 men due to alleged attempts to escape, more every day – and almost all were Jews. At his camp in Mogilev, with daily rations of partially only 1400 calories, starvation killed 40,000 men. His statements towards the representative of Einsatzkommando 8 thus seem somewhat hypocritical. As Wittmer in this respect had no full backing by the supreme commander of Army Group Center, von Bock, there was a selection by EK 8 in transit camp 185 soon thereafter, during which 196 Jews and functionaries were shot. Thereafter Jewish prisoners of war were continuously murdered in Belorussia, for example 207 men at the Vitebsk base camp by EK 9 in December 1941, regularly groups at base camp 352 (Minsk) in the years 1942 and 1943 and in the winter of 1942/43 at Gomel by the camp personnel, which in biting frost drained Jewish internees with water and let them freeze to death in the open. At Kritchev Jewish prisoners were first tortured with exceedingly heavy forced labor before they were shot.

Another group of prisoners of war who were annihilated especially in the first months of the war were the so-called Asiatics. Their killing was also part of the tasks of the Einsatzgruppen from the beginning. Although they were mentioned for the first time ion Heydrichs order no. 8 of 17 July 1941, selections and murders by Einsatzgruppe B in Minsk already occurred before that. In accordance with the General Quarter Master Wagner’s order of 24 July the camp and guard personnel registered the “Asiatics (according to their race)” under the term “Asiatics”, also in Belorussia. There are no report about their killing by the Wehrmacht from this area, however. At an unknown time, for instance, 200 to 250 Red Army soldiers considered Mongolian were selected from the prisoner of war camp at Mogilev and shot by EK 8. In part the detachments of security police and SD also murdered them as presumed Jews, as Muslims are also circumcised. After several months protests from the Eastern Ministry and the Amt Ausland/Abwehr of the Wehrmacht High Command piled up because these entities considered the Asiatics, especially the Muslim Caucasians and soldiers from Central Asia, to be predestined collaborators. These protests led to an order by Heydrich of 12 September 1941 putting an end to the shooting of the “Asiatics”, which order, however, was not immediately followed by all Einsatzkommandos

 b)     The Annihilation on Marches and Transports

 The murders described hereafter occurred in a different manner than the selection of certain groups of persons. They were directed against the mass of the prisoners and usually hit those who were in the worst physical condition. The perpetrators were also others, almost exclusively members of security divisions and home infantry battalions of the Wehrmacht. They shot those who could no longer keep on marching or disturbed the transport movements in another way.

This happened everywhere in Belorussia, but due to the lack of sources we must limit ourselves to some focal points. One of them was Minsk, whereto more prisoners of war were taken than to any other Belorussian city. As the freight train station was located in the south of Minsk while the prisoner of war camps were in the north, the exhausted Red Army men had to march through the whole city and were shot before the eyes of the civilian population in their thousands. This began already in July 1941.At this time there was the first instruction of a troop commander against such shootings. The commander of the 87th Infantry Division, General Major v. Studnitz, also pointed out that the right organization conditions had to be created to avoid such shootings. For it is true that it was the often numerically very weak guard detachments, usually lower ranks, who shot the weakened prisoners without an express order because
they saw no better solution for keeping the transport going, heartlessly but out of a so-called objective necessity. But the pre-conditions such as planned marching distance, time schedule, food supplies, means of transportation and strength of the guard detachment were less their responsibility than that of the staffs at various levels, who thus decided about the lives of many prisoners. Doubtlessly racism built up over years, national chauvinism, anti-Bolshevism and the criminal inciting orders of Hitler and the Army and Wehrmacht High Command in the spring and summer of 1941 played an important part. Without all these factors the killing would not have occurred. But the counter-orders of troop commanders, which were issued later and argued in another direction, improved nothing at all, because they either turned abstractly against “brutality” towards prisoners (v. Bock) or, while they addressed the causes of the shootings during marches – not always consequently – they could not change them or did not intend to bring about a fundamental change. Such would have required a modification of the Wehrmacht’s transportation and supply structure in favor of the prisoners, which the troops’ command was not willing to bring about, thereby incurring in a decisive co-responsibility for the mass killing of the prisoners. The guard detachments often thought: why don’t shoot the exhausted fellows it they will soon die of starvation anyway? Only the unchanging basic conditions for carrying out the prisoner marches and transports explain why the orders against the shootings were without effect – a so far open question.

Some troop commanders expressly authorized the execution of the “sick and debilitated” when the guard detachments told them of their difficulties in carrying out the transports, even General Major v. Ditfurth, who stood out for having issued a counter-order.

According to the reports and eyewitness testimonials the murders on marches and transports increased in a well nigh incredible manner in the autumn and winter of 1941. This was especially obvious in the city of Minsk. After a transport in January 1942 alone 1,000 to 2,000 corpses of prisoners are said to have lain in the Minsk main street Sovietskaja. That 80 out of 8,000 men were shot between Masjukovshtchina and the Minsk freight train station was nothing unusual. For instance, German soldiers of Home Infantry Battalion indicted by the Soviets stated that once on 3 October 1941 31 men and once in November 200 men, at other times between 100 and 500 men, had been murdered especially on the way to the secondary camp at the Pushkin barracks in the northeast of Minsk. And this happened on a relatively short trip – on overland marches in Belorussia things were no different, only harder to document. During a march of 3,000 Soviet prisoners of war from Bobruisk in the direction of Sluzk on 7 November 1941, according to a witness who went after the column in a horse cart and counted the bodies, 729 men were shot – then the march was cancelled, and the column
had to turn back. Whether in Minsk alone a total of 5,000 or 20,000 prisoners were shot in such actions, as becomes apparent from various eyewitness testimonials, can no longer be clarified.

For the killing of marching prisoners sometimes other reasons than their hindering the transport movement were given. Interned Red Army soldiers were shot for stealing food or for lack of discipline – because they had plundered a truck loaded with cabbages or fought over an insufficient amount of bread made available. Furthermore resistance and – a violation of international law – escape attempts were stated as reasons. At the end of July 1941 units of the 403rd Security Division massacred 94 prisoners of war during an escape attempt. “For recalcitrance and escape attempts” 30 were killed at the same time in the prisoner collection center at Sluzk. At the end of November 1941 200 men were shot as Base Camp 351 (Glebokie) for allegedly having attacked the guards. All this surely stands for numerous other cases. Such actions were directly attributable to various inciting orders regarding the guarding of Soviet prisoners, such as v. Kluge’s Army Order No. 3 of 29 June 1941, the Army High Command order of 25 July, the Wehrmacht High Command Order of 8 September (“Use of weapons against Soviet prisoners of war is as a rule deemed to be lawful”) and Reinecke’s statements in Warsaw on 4 September 1941. The corresponding guidelines were updated by the Commanders of Prisoners of War in the Eastern Territories, Gaissert and Pawel, in 1942.

Railway transports also served for the annihilation of Soviet prisoners of war. As late as mid-December 1941 they were partially carried out in open freight cars, causing many prisoners of war to freeze to death. During a railway transport Bobruisk – Minsk Center in mid-November 1941, for instance, “20 % died” (of 5,000 men = 1,000 men). This was not a single case. At the station Koljatitchi between Bobruisk and Minsk 600 dead were unloaded on a single night in November 1941; on a transport Gomel-Bobruisk 200 of 600 prisoners died; on other transports things were similar. It is unclear if these deaths, like those on the marches, were even included in the corresponding overall statistics or must be added thereto. The line to open mass murder was thin. Prisoners were run through a number of camps in a short time, which diminished their survival chances. The character of intended annihilation becomes especially clear when looking at what happened at the stations of destination. The deputy commander of Transit Camp 131 (Bobruisk), Languth, had a transport from Baranovichi consisting of 17 cars pushed onto a side track for two days, until almost all those inside had frozen to death. Not only those who had died during the trip were unloaded; the freight train stations also became execution sites. In Bobruisk, for instance, prisoners were shot if they seemed too slow or undisciplined in getting off the trains. At the railway station Lesnaja by Base Camp 337 near Baranovichi the weakest from the arriving railway transports were sorted out, shot and thrown into prepared pits. At the Minsk freight train station 5,000 to 20,000 prisoners of war are said to have been shot in this manner by the second, third and fourth companies of Home Infantry Battalion 332 at the orders of certain officers not very high in rank, one of them a first lieutenant. The perpetrators belonged to the Wehrmacht. These crimes [emphasis author’s] have so far hardly been taken notice of by German
historical research.
c)   Mass Executions of Soviet Prisoners of War

German soldiers and policemen shot Soviet prisoners of war in Belorussia in their thousands because they didn’t perish fast enough. This happened not only on occasion of transportation movements, but the victims were also directly taken out of the prisoner of war camps in order to be murdered.

West German research has in this respect mainly focused on the murder of Soviet prisoners of war who had been taken to the concentration camps of the SS. According to available research there died, insofar as this can be reconstructed, about 50,000 Soviet prisoners of war in these camps. An additional unrecorded number must be considered as equally high. The transfers to the concentration camps began around the turn of the months August/September 1941. The order to carry out executions of selected prisoners only in concentration camps close to the respective base camp is said to have been given by Heydrich already on 27 August 1941. After agreement with the Wehrmacht High Command in September Soviet prisoners of war meant for forced labor were delivered to the concentration camps since October 1941. Almost all of them died of hunger and mistreatment and are included in the above numbers. So much for the territory of the Reich; in Belorussia the presence of Soviet prisoners of war in camps of SS and police can be proven only for Trostinez, about 200 in the autumn of 1942. Maybe a transport of prisoners from Minsk was taken to Treblinka for extermination.

Into this context also belongs the action “Hühnerfarm” (“Chicken Farm”), which will be briefly described here although it happened at Biala Podlaska, 30 kilometers to the west of Brest in Poland, then the General Government. There the 2nd company of Police Battalion 306 between 21 and 28 September 1941 shot at least 6,000 prisoners (3,261 already on the first day) because the camp (Base Camp 359 B in Kalikov) was to be evacuated due to an epidemic of dysentery. The members of the company were told when the order was issued “that the feedingsituation of the Russian prisoners would lead to problems and that one was not in conditions to feed the mass of the prisoners”. The number of those murdered during the action “Hühnerfarm” was transmitted under the line “laid eggs”. This mass murder is especially well known, but of its purpose no notice has been taken so far. The time of the occurrence is again noteworthy, for like the history of transfers to the concentration camps it suggests a radicalization of the policy of annihilation towards Soviet prisoners of war in September 1941.

But this was not all. Contrary to all conventional accounts SS and police were not the only ones to commit such thoroughly organized massacres of Soviet prisoners of war. In Belorussia the perpetrators instead mostly belonged to Wehrmacht units, and the murder of prisoners regarded as no longer useful was sort of normal. Thus in a number of camps the sick internees were regularly wiped out. In Base Camp 324 (Lososna near Grodno) the sick were shot once a week; in Gomel the weakest, who could no longer defend themselves against this, were thrown with the dead onto the corpse heaps in winter, while special detachments executed those prisoners who had stayed in their barracks during the day; in the Minsk hospital the personnel murdered the sick with poison injections; in Transit Camp 131 (Bobruisk) and Polodzk sick prisoners were shot; in the outer camp Stolbzy prisoners with third degree frostbite “disappeared”. This was still a little below the level of the solution that had been proposed by the head of department for health matters at the Regional Commissariat White Ruthenia, Dr. Weber, i.e. to immediately shoot all prisoners sick with spotted fever in Base Camp 342 (Molodetshno), several thousand, which the Wehrmacht refused in the winter 1941/42. Such extermination actions, during which the inmates of whole barracks were wiped out, occurred in the following winter in the camps Daugavpils and Rezenke in Latvia. Wehrmacht units or their tools committed such crimes until the last minute. On the retreat prisoners were taken along, but those who were unable to march or to work were not left to the enemy but murdered. In Gomel 600 sick were transferred to a hospital in November 1943 and blown up with this hospital. On the march from Minsk to Mariampol at the end of June 1944 Belorussian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian guards killed 1,700 out of 3,000 prisoners of a column.

From eyewitness depositions and through the exhumation of mass graves in can be concluded that throughout the period of occupation massacres of Soviet prisoners of war occurred, beginning in the autumn of 1941. The motivation is mostly unknown, but it should generally have been about murdering the sick or “solving” supply problems.

Table 18: Examples of Mass Executions of Soviet Prisoners of War in Belorussia

Time; Site; Number of Victims; Remarks

10.8.1941; Pukhovichi; 32; perpetrators were “detachment of military police” (GFP)?

October 1941; Usda; 48; perpetrators were an SS detachment

October 1941; near Base Camp 352 (Minsk); 2,000 - 8000; lasted three days

Around 23.10.1941; Nevish; roughly 3,000; about at the same time as annihilation of Jews by 707th Infantry Division

25.10.1941; Pukhovichi; 60; perpetrators as on 10.8.1941

December 1941; Marina Gorka; 300; victims were burned

February 1942; Base Camp 352 (Minsk); 550 and 375; perpetrators Wehrmacht

11./12.4.1942; Slonim; 690

10.7.1942; Pukhovichi; 90; perpetrators as on 10.8.41

August 1942; Base Camp 352 (Minsk); 600

1942; Hansevichi; at least 60; perpetrators: local commandant’s office

10.8.1943; Bolshije, Tshutshevichi, R. Luniniez; 146; 84 civilians were shot at the same time.

unknown; Glebokie; ?; with machine guns

unknown; Lojev; 404

There was, however, also the killing for fun, out of sadism, like in the area of Lida, where on Sundays prisoners were used for target practice. Other, especially sadistic killing methods were also employed, like medical experiments on living persons (Baranovichi, Bobruisk), punitive roll-calls (one in Base Camp 352 near Minsk lasted seven hours and claimed 200 lives) and especially the method of letting prisoners freeze to death in winter in the open after they had been drenched with water (Bobruisk, Gomel, Minsk, Marina Gorka). The purpose, again, was often the destruction of the sick. It is not possible to state the number of victims.

Three murder actions shall be picked and pointed out here, which are a little less obscure due to lack of sources than the others. In Base Camp 357 (Lesnaja) between March 1942 and August 1943 communists and other politically unreliable prisoners were selected and either shot or - on several occasions - choked in gas vans. In August 1942 alone there were 720 officers whom the security police bumped off as reprisal for one officer’s refusal to become a collaborator. The vehicles must have come from the dependency of the commander of security police and SD at Lesnaja, which worked together with military intelligence. Among the victims there were also sick and especially frequently officers, who in Lesnaja were subject to special mistreatment. About them the Wehrmacht High Command had ruled at the beginning of September 1941: “Officers will often be subject to selection as ‘political undesirables’” and thus given the competent detachments or security police and SD a recommendation to draw the circle of murder victims very wide.

In January 1943 there occurred in the area of Minsk the greatest mass shooting of Soviet prisoners of war on Belorussian soil. According to the depositions of several witnesses, especially the German perpetrator Alois Heterich, the 3rd battalion of Infantry Regiment 595 was unloaded at Minsk during the transportation of the 327th Infantry Division to Krasnodar at the end of January 1943, and during three nights at the end of January or beginning of February had to shoot 10,000 people, mostly prisoners of war from the camp by the freight station, at a place a few kilometers away from the camp. Heterich’s platoon alone had executed 1,500 men. Allegedly there were also mass killings by gas vans in the following days. The victims (among them, according to the result of the exhumation, also a small proportion of civilians, among them women) were killed by a shot in the neck and wore uniforms of the Soviet tank troops. The number of dead in the mass grave of Uretshje 6 kilometers east of Minsk, which Soviet authorities, taking into account the depositions of witnesses, estimated at 30,000, was about 12,500, judging by the description of the mass graves.
 [Footnote: Ten mass graves with a ground area of 24 x 5 meters, into which corpses had been thrown in three rows and seven layers on top of each other.]
About the motivations of the deed only speculations are possible.

The most infamous mass killing of Soviet prisoners of war occurred on 9 November 1941 in Bobruisk. The sequence of it is disputed. It is clear that on the afternoon of that day a barracks of the Bobruisk citadel, many times overfilled with 17,000 prisoners and at that time used by Camp III of Transit Camp 131, caught fire. An unknown number of prisoners was crushed or trampled to death in the resulting panic, choked or burned. Another 1,700 prisoners were shot by units of Infantry Regiment 692, which before had posted machine-gun nests around the square before the barracks, with salvos into the crowd due to an alleged danger of breakout. According to the depositions of the deputy camp commandant Languth, accused in Minsk, the fire was laid under strictest secrecy at the roof of the barracks in compliance with an the order of the former District Commander K for prisoners of war, Major Sturm, in order to simulate a breakout attempt by the prisoners. Of the transit camp’s staff only Languth and camp commandant Roeder had known about this. West German justice, on the other hand, endorsed the official account in the Wehrmacht report, according to which the prisoners had tried to break out and the German reaction had been measured and lawful. A closer look at the argumentation of the competent German prosecution shows the same to be at least sloppy and not in accordance with the facts. The Belorussian version, which realistically assumes a total of 4,000 dead, in not proved and contains contradictions, but is on the whole more conclusive, especially if a look is taken at the surroundings of this event. On the morning of 7 November 1941, before the fire broke out, 3,000 prisoners were taken away to Sluzk, of whom the guards murdered no less than 729 until marching kilometer 20. The staying of an enormous number of prisoners (60,000) and the so far practiced form of transport Roeder on 20 November called “untenable”. This applied most of all to the food situation. On 7 and 8 November 1941, on the two days prior to the barracks fire, members of Einsatzkommando 8 and Police Battalion 316 shot the last 5,281 Jews in Bobruisk. Besides, according to German eyewitness testimonials, the prisoners in the barracks were mostly sick. As far as the person of Languth is concerned, he was described by a former comrade of his unit as a brutal murderer prone to excesses. Altogether these factors lead to the conclusion that in those days thousands of “useless eaters” should be and were murdered in the city.

On the whole the state of German research regarding the shooting of prisoners of war seems to require correction. Not security police and SD were the only perpetrators, but most shootings of prisoners, at least in Belorussia, were carried out by members and units of the Wehrmacht. The scale of these mass murders cannot be approximately quantified, but it was in any case a lot higher, and the process was more systematic, than has been hitherto assumed. There were more killings due to the selection of sick and weak than due to the selection of political opponents. On the other hand the overwhelming majority of Soviet prisoners of war on Belorussian soil were killed not by shooting, but through starvation - in the “custody” (v. Bock) of the army.

The Total Number of Victims and the Significance of the Mass Murder of Soviet Prisoners of War

According to official statements 790,596 Soviet prisoners of war were murdered on the territory of this republic. In regard to the biggest camps the Belorussian authorities give the following numbers, which as a rule are supported by verifiable calculations on hand of the size of the mass graves:

Camp; Number of Victims
Bobruisk; 40,000 (until 20.11.1941: 14,777)
Borissow; 10,052
Glebokie; 27,000
Gomel; 100,000
Grodno; 14 - 20,000
Kritshev; 18,000 ?
Lesnaja near Baranovichi; 88,407
Minsk; 109,500
Mogilev; 40,000
Molodetshno; 33,000
Orsha; 14,000
Polozk; 20,000 (more than 100,000?)
Vitebsk; 120,000
Volkovysk; 10,000
Total; at least 633,000

In view of the insecurities in the case of Polozk and the deaths in temporarily existing camps, secondary camps and principally on marches and transports the total result of the Belorussian investigation commission is thus mostly covered by the results of exhumations. Mainly on the basis of sources minimum figures were given above [ = in the previous chapters, translator’s note], which add up to 405,000 destroyed prisoners of war. As the sources are rather incomplete, however, this cannot be taken as a reason for correcting the official Belorussian data. As far as can be reconstructed, the Belorussian authorities in their evaluation of the excavation results arrived at numbers mostly accurate, rarely too high and in some cases even too low. A total of 700,000 murdered prisoners of war should therefore hardly be too high. Thus no less than 21 per cent of all 3.3 million Soviet prisoners of war who perished in
German custody died on Belorussian soil. Here was a center of the mass murder. In other words: a third of all at least 2.1 million prisoners of war of Army Group Center died in the first county of passage - which some Wehrmacht
strategists saw as the country of permanence -, Belorussia.

The Soviet prisoners of war were the largest group of victims of German crimes in occupied Belorussia and in the whole war against the Soviet Union. The prisoner of war camps factually developed into machines of destruction, instruments of a mass crime planned by the state as far as their function is concerned, although this genocide, superficially seen, seems “pre-industrial”, barbarian and
unruly. The remark should be sufficient that over a period of months as many prisoners died in a single larger transit camp or base camp as corresponded to the entire daily murder capacity of Einsatzgruppe B. The victims of this procedure, however, were not a stigmatized social group for which there was only a limited degree of solidarity among the population, like the Jews, but a cross-section of the Soviet society, made up of members of all nationalities except the ethnic Germans, thereof in Belorussia over-proportionally many Belorussians due to the short enlistment time. Even more than the Jews the prisoners of war were victims in public: from the first weeks of the war onward they were shot in rows before the eyes of the civilian population. No other circumstance - not even the deportation of forced laborers - made the Soviet population realize so quickly, irrefutably and brutally what the attitude of the German administration towards the whole Soviet population was really all about.

Together with the inhabitants of the encircled city of Leningrad, the prisoners of war were the only Soviet population group against whom the Hunger Plan developed at the beginning of 1941 could be carried out, as the Germans could effectively keep them from uncontrolled access to food. Thus rations that theoretically were higher than those of the Soviet civilian population in the cities led to a
horrendous mass dying among the prisoners such as did not occur among the civilians. The same applied to the obtaining of fire material. The carrying out of the Hunger Plan towards the prisoners entered a new phase in September of 1941, at the same time as the genocide of the Jews in Belorussia, when new difficulties in the supply of the Wehrmacht and the German food economy came
up. Previously vague ideas of underfeeding were replaced by a concrete strategy of annihilation by underfeeding. At the same time, insofar as can be deducted from the sources, the treatment of the prisoners in Belorussia also became more radical, especially the practice of shootings. The main responsibility for the sharper hunger policy lay with the civilian and military central authorities seated in Berlin and East Prussia, especially Göring, the Reich Ministry for Nourishment, the office Army High Command / General Quarter Master and the prisoner of war department of the Wehrmacht High Command. The camp commands often still showed the effort to improve the feeding of the prisoners, without being able to obtain enough food due to the lower priority given to this matter. The catastrophic accommodation at many places, which was the camp staffs’ own responsibility, the inhuman treatment and the completely emotionless reports about this unparalleled mass dying, however, show their participation in the death of the prisoners. These did not fall victim to anonymous forces, but the responsibilities can very well be delineated.
Custom Signature

Denial of generally known historical facts should not be punishable. For those who maintain, for instance, that Germany did not take part in World War I or
that Adenauer fought at Issus in 333, their own stupidity is punishment enough. The same should apply to the denial of the horrors and crimes of the recent
German past.
~ A German jurist by the name of Baumann in the German juridical magazine NJW, quoted in: Bailer-Galanda/Benz/Neugebauer (ed.), Die
, Berlin 1996, page 261 (my translation).

Joined: 5:44 AM - Jul 21, 2009

6:06 AM - Sep 04, 2018 #6

Nachweis des Verbleibs der sowjetischen Kriegsgefangenen
Stand 1.5.1944
Transcribed in:
Verbrechen der Wehrmacht – Dimensionen des Vernichtungskriegs 1941-1944
2004 by Hamburger Edition
Pp. 189-190
Archival reference:
Bundesarchiv/Militärarchiv, RH 2/2623, Bl. 21-23

NdV 1.5.44_1.jpg NdV 1.5.44_2.jpg
Custom Signature

Denial of generally known historical facts should not be punishable. For those who maintain, for instance, that Germany did not take part in World War I or
that Adenauer fought at Issus in 333, their own stupidity is punishment enough. The same should apply to the denial of the horrors and crimes of the recent
German past.
~ A German jurist by the name of Baumann in the German juridical magazine NJW, quoted in: Bailer-Galanda/Benz/Neugebauer (ed.), Die
, Berlin 1996, page 261 (my translation).