POWs – A Comparison of Treatment



The Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS took 232,000 British, Commonwealth, and American prisoners during the war, most in the course of the last year of fighting in Italy and France. The short duration in captivity of most, along with the prospect of pending Allied victory in the west, meant they enjoyed relatively decent conditions in the Stalags in 1944–1945. That permitted most Western prisoners to survive captivity, though there were individual cases of brutality and murder of Westerners by German or other Axis guards. The Germans shackled over 1,000 Canadian POWs after the failed Dieppe raid, during which the Germans discovered British orders to bind the hands of prisoners to prevent destruction of documents. The British and Canadians retaliated immediately by chaining German prisoners, leading to a riot by several hundred Germans in Canadian POW camps. Mutual shackling lasted for a year before everyone backed down. More deadly abuse of British prisoners by the Germans followed a commando raid on the Channel Islands. That led to Hitler’s issuance of the commando order of October 18, 1942, to shoot all commandos taken prisoner. Still, only about 3.6 percent of Western prisoners died while in Axis captivity, a rate that was highly favorable compared to other classes of Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS prisoners and which included captured wounded.

It is noteworthy that Jews in the armies of the Western Allies, in particular captives from the Jewish Brigade of the British Army, were not singled out or killed, not even after the Schutzstaffel ( SS) took over the Stalags. That was not the case for Jews in the Red Army, who along with Communist political officers ( politruks and Commissars ) were pulled out and murdered from the first days of the war in the east. The main reason for the discrepancy was that the Germans were desperate to arrange a prisoner exchange with the Western powers for several thousand Wehrmacht medics and doctors held by the British and Americans, whom they needed to treat mounting numbers of German wounded. Four large prisoner exchanges occurred between the Western Allies and the Germans during the war. They were carried out using the Swedish passenger liner “Gripsholm,” with the physical exchanges made in Lisbon and Goteborg. Germany proposed a still larger exchange, looking to recover men for combat on the Eastern Front. The British were interested in helping long-term captives in German camps, but the Americans rejected the offer: they had few prisoners in German hands before June 1944. The worst experiences of these Western prisoners came in 1945, when they were force marched westward to prevent their liberation by the Red Army.

Yugoslavs, Greeks, and other minor Allies suffered harm commensurate with their ethnic ranking in the perverse Nazi racial view of Europe, and with the degree of resistance offered to Nazi occupation of their home countries. The worst treatment of enemy prisoners, by far, was reserved for enemies of Germany wearing the uniform of the Red Army. BARBAROSSA saw the capture of millions of Red Army prisoners, then their deliberate starvation, massive ill-treatment, and malign neglect by the Wehrmacht. Out of 5.7 million Red Army men taken prisoner during the war about 3.3 million died in German captivity, most in the first eight months of the war in the east: 2.8 million of the first 3.5 million captured died, or 10,000 per day over the first seven months of the German–Soviet war. Some 250,000 were shot outright. Many of the executed were Jews and Communists pulled out of primitive enclosures for immediate murder. Ukrainian and Belorussian peasant conscripts were encouraged by German guards to point out politruks and identify Jews. The selection process led to several hundred thousand executions by the end of 1941. The rest were left to huddle together against killing-cold temperatures in barbed-wire enclosures left open to winter elements, to sleep on frozen ground without shelter beyond hard-packed snow, and to perish en masse from hunger and virulent camp epidemics. Starvation was so extensive in the eastern Dulags and Stalags —POW transit and holding camps, respectively—that there were outbreaks of cannibalism in some. Non-Slavic prisoners fared somewhat better than Slavs, mainly because of spurious Nazi race theories that saw non-Slavs as a higher class of humans. In addition, the Germans pursued a policy of deliberate extermination through starvation of most of the Slavic population of occupied territories. The mass deaths of Soviet military prisoners in its care was the single greatest war crime of the Wehrmacht, and perhaps the gravest war crime in all military history: total deaths of helpless soldiers in German hands was exceeded only by the mass murder of unarmed Jews.

The Germans generally respected the Geneva Conventions with regard to Western prisoners, but refused to honor its provisions concerning Soviet POWs. Among the first experiments using poison gases to “exterminate” large populations were those carried out on Red Army prisoners of war. Some German officers worried that such gross mistreatment of prisoners in the east would have negative military consequences. And so it did: Red Army men fought increasingly desperately, often to the death, once they learned what surrender and German captivity really meant. By mid-1942 the Germans also realized that Soviet prisoners represented a huge pool of potential forced laborers. Therefore, even after the worst excesses of malign neglect over the winter of 1941–1942 stopped, more prisoners were worked to death as slaves. Altogether, about 55 percent of all krasnoarmeets taken prisoner from 1941 to 1945 died in German hands. As German casualties mounted in the east through 1943 the Wehrmacht looked to recruit low-grade military replacements and frontline workers among anti-Soviet prisoners. Men agreed to serve as “ Hiwi ” (Hilfswilliger) in return for food and shelter, or to join so-called “legions” of Baltic, Cossack, Georgian, or Turkmen fighters as Osttruppen, or to serve with the Waffen-SS. Until the great military reverses of 1943, Red Army prisoners were kept near the German front lines. By the end of the war, over half were no longer crammed into Stalags but worked on German farms, in mines or factories, or served as Hiwis with Wehrmacht units. During 1944–1945 German treatment of POWs improved as larger numbers of Landser were captured by the Red Army, and fear of reprisal mounted within the Wehrmacht as defeat clearly loomed in the east.

After the Soviet Union invaded Poland on Sept 17, 1939, the NKVD murdered many thousands of captured Polish Army officers at Katyn, Kharkov, and Tver. From the start of the German–Soviet war in mid-1941 the Red Army and NKVD also murdered or badly mistreated many German POWs, usually spontaneously and quickly in hot blood, before they got to rear area camps. Official Russian figures thus record that only 17,000 German prisoners were in Red Army hands in June 1942, a figure reflecting a low survival rate in captivity. Killing and mistreatment was more selective from the end of 1942 through 1945, a period in which the Red Army took ever larger numbers of German and other Axis prisoners. By mid- 1943 there were nearly 540,000 German and Axis prisoners in Soviet POW camps. By mid-1944 another 340,000 were added, with 950,000 more taken prisoner in the second half of 1944. German historians have calculated that of the 3,155,000 Germans taken prisoner by the Soviets, about 1,186,000 died in captivity. Most of those died of cold, disease, and hunger, for a death rate of about 38 percent. Prisoners from the lesser Axis states fared no better: of 49,000 Italians taken by the Red Army, 28,000 died in some NKVD camp. Unlike the Germans, who recruited prisoners for combat or combat-support units, the Soviets recruited among Axis prisoners primarily for propaganda purposes. An exception was the “Tudor Vladimirescu Division,” which was formed from Rumanian POWs and saw extensive fighting against Germans and Hungarians. The Nationalkomitee Freies Deutschland (NKFD) served a mainly propaganda function, with some late-war air drops of small espionage and guerrilla units into East Prussia. The NKFD comprised hundreds of captured Wehrmacht officers, including many generals and Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus.

Hundreds of thousands of German POWs, and some Allied prisoners and civilians liberated from the Germans, were detained in the Soviet Union for many years after the war; in some cases for the rest of their natural lives. German prisoners were kept as a form of unilateral reparations, put to forced labor beyond the Urals or in reconstruction work in the western Soviet Union. Winston Churchill predicted this would happen in a letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt in November 1944: “[Stalin] certainly contemplates demanding two or three million Nazi youth, Gestapo men, etc. doing prolonged reparation work.” He added: “and it is hard to say that he is wrong.” Many Germans died in postwar captivity in Soviet work camps. Most were not allowed to return to Germany for upwards of 10 years, until after Stalin died in 1953. Others married local women and settled down somewhere in the Soviet Union, lost to earlier lives and families. Stalin’s treatment of his own returned men was not much better. Having suffered severe torments in German captivity, liberated krasnoarmeets faced draconian punishment at the hands of the NKVD upon going home. Some Americans and Western civilians were kept by Moscow for narrower reasons pertaining to Soviet policy in Poland and the Baltic States, and refusal to recognize a legal right of expatriation and foreign naturalization. Those questions related to the start of the Cold War rather than to animosity from World War II. The Western Allies also retained Germans for forced labor. The Americans released most fairly quickly. The British and French retained German prisoners to clear up the vast disorder left by the war, to de-mine and perform other necessary, dirty postwar tasks.

The greatest travesty to befall World War II prisoners was suffered by Soviets returning home upon liberation in 1945. In the desperate days of massive losses and surrenders by Red Army men in August 1941, Stalin issued Order #270 decreeing that surrender was treason. As he later put it: “There are no Russian prisoners of war, there are only traitors.” Neither time nor looming victory tempered the brute in the Kremlin’s lust for vengeance on those who dared surrender during the vast Kesselschlacht (“cauldron battles”) of 1941–1942. The Soviet constitution was even rewritten during the war to make surrender a capital crime, although the men of the NKVD hardly required legal justification for their many summary executions. On May 11, 1945, two days after the German surrender to the Red Army, Stalin issued a decree establishing 74 clearing camps for former prisoners of war liberated in what became Soviet-occupied eastern Europe, with a further 69 camps ordered erected inside the Soviet Union. These camps and others were used to detain liberated Red Army POWs until Smersh and the NKVD could vet them (“filter” was the official term) for anti-Communist or anti-Russian nationalist views, and for other suspect categories of political or social “crimes” defined by the Soviet state. About 1.8 million returning POWs (“repatriant”) were being processed in Smersh “filtration camps” (“filtratsionnyy lager”). Out of five million surviving Soviet prisoners repatriated from Nazi captivity after the war, including hundreds of thousands liberated by the Western Allies and forcibly returned to Stalin’s grasp at gunpoint, some 1.1 million were either executed or sent directly to forced labor camps in Siberia. Others were sent back into the Army. Only 18 percent were allowed to go home. All suffered social and economic discrimination for decades, as did their families, until they were finally and officially “rehabilitated” in 1994, three years after the state they served and saved had itself expired.

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