Soviet Prisoners of War, 1941 to 1945

Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) constitute one of the major groups that fell victim to Nazi German mass violence. For territories under German military occupation, the Department of Military Administration, Quartermaster General in the Supreme Command of Ground Troops (OKH) was in charge of Soviet POWs, whereas in Germany and areas under German civil administration, responsibility lay with the General Administration of the Armed Forces under the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (OKW). Prior to the attack on the USSR on June 22, 1941, German military authorities had decided that international law would not apply to Soviet POWs (unlike Polish, French, or British prisoners), with minimal provisions made for their shelter, food, transport, and medical supplies. Later Soviet proposals that both sides act in accordance with the Hague and Geneva Conventions were refused by Germany. On OKW instructions, most Soviet POWs were not registered by name in the camps in Soviet areas under German military occupation (Durchgangslager, or Dulags), and consequently no lists were passed on from these camps to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Following the German invasion, huge numbers of Red Army soldiers were captured, especially in July, September, and October 1941. Crammed into camps of up to 100,000 men, poorly fed, often without housing or sanitary provisions, the prisoners soon suffered from debilitation. Certain groups of military personnel were denied POW status: On Adolf Hitler’s instruction, the OKW issued its “commissar order” on June 6, 1941, according to which political officers in the Red Army were shot in 1941 and 1942. Other groups killed by German troops included Soviet soldiers shot on the battlefield although they had surrendered, alleged Jews, in many camps so-called Asians, women in the Red Army, and in some camps Soviet officers. Orders for these killings originated from platoon to army command levels. More than 100,000 prisoners were handed over to the SS and police in 1941 and 1942; very few survived. In addition, an undetermined number of Soviet POWs, believed to be in the six-digit range, were shot by military guards because of their fatigue during marches or when unloading trains that had transported POWs. In certain German-occupied Soviet areas, Soviet military stragglers were killed instead of being taken prisoner, as were most Soviet partisan fighters. The Germans arbitrarily interned Soviet civilians in several POW camps in 1941.
The German capture of large numbers of prisoners in similarly short time periods had not led to mass deaths in the German campaign against France in 1940. The majority of Soviet POWs died as a result of the deliberate undersupply of food, consequent starvation, frost, and hunger-related diseases. Prior to attacking the USSR, German authorities had planned the killing of tens of millions of Soviet citizens in “food-deficient” regions and in urban areas through starvation and a policy of brutal occupation. Racist and anticommunist, that scheme was to make good the overall German food deficit and to relieve the critical shortage of supplies for troops at the Eastern Front, perceived as crucial for the success of the giant military campaign. Thus, the plan was backed and co-initiated by the military. As military supplies always took priority, Soviet POWs became one of the specific groups targeted for extinction.
In October 1941 food rations particularly for Soviet POWs considered “unfit for labor” were significantly reduced. On November 13 the German Quartermaster- General Eduard Wagner stated, “Soviet POWs unfit for labor in the camps have to die of starvation” (Notes of the Chief of Staff of the 18th Army, quoted in Streit, 1997, p. 157). In many camps those “fit for labor” were separated from those deemed unfit. Yet as guards often mistreated both groups equally and prisoners were worked to exhaustion with insufficient food, this intended distinction scarcely made any difference and initially fit prisoners perished, too. Death figures shot up to 2 percent daily, especially in the German-occupied Soviet and Polish territories. Nearly two out of three million Soviet POWs had died by the end of 1941. Measures to reduce the mortality rate, adopted from December on, only succeeded in the spring of 1942. However, hard labor, poor rations, and bad treatment continued to take their toll until 1945. Orders by the German leadership were countered with brutality, violence, or gross neglect on the ground. Military and economic considerations, racism against Slavs, Jews, and so-called Asians, and anticommunism were at the core of interrelated motives.
In total, out of 5.7 million Soviet POWs, about three million died in German captivity, almost exclusively at the hands of the German military. Serious calculations, based on the interpretation of fragmentary German documents, range from “at least” 2.53 million to 3.3 million (Streit, 1997), with death figures revised downward for camps inside Germany on the basis of German records discovered in Russia and Germany in the late 1990s. Adding to their suffering, Soviet POWs returning to the USSR encountered collective suspicion and many were imprisoned without proper trial, as about a million had been forced or agreed under pressure to work for the German army, with hundreds of thousands fighting for the German army or SS under arms.
Streim, A. (1981). Die Behandlung sowjetischer Kriegsgefangener im “Fall Barbarossa.” Heidelberg, Germany: C. F. Müller.
Streit, C. (1978/1997). Keine Kameraden: Die Wehrmacht und die sowjetischen Kriegsgefangenen, 1941–1945, 4th edition. Bonn, Germany: Dietz.
Streit, C. (2000). “Soviet Prisoners of War in the Hands of the Wehrmacht.” War of Extermination: The German Military in World War II, 1941-44, eds. Hannes Heer and Klaus Naumann. New York: Berghahn.

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