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Thread: The Fate of Soviet Prisoners of War

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    Post The Fate of Soviet Prisoners of War

    The Fate of Soviet Prisoners of War
    by
    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 Minsk.
    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)

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    Post Re: The Fate of Soviet Prisoners of War

    I have to note, that majority of Russian POWs were murdered by Germans in the first year of war. Later the mortality rate was much lower, as Germans feared the revenge...

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    Post Re: The Fate of Soviet Prisoners of War

    Quote Originally Posted by Ross
    I have to note, that majority of Russian POWs were murdered by Germans in the first year of war. Later the mortality rate was much lower, as Germans feared the revenge...
    And what about the Germans prisoners ,the foreign volunteers of Wermacht,the Russians of ROA ,the Polish officers at Katyn and numerous German females who suffered at the hands of Soviet ''liberators''?
    ME NE FREGO

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    Post Re: The Fate of Soviet Prisoners of War

    EYTYXEITE!

    Dear PRINZ EUGEN,
    you have to be on watch that Mr. Ross, forgeting the Catyn case, mentioned the term of "Russian Empire"!
    So don't wast your time trying to ask proves about nothing. Mr. Ross is talking about "murdered" without any proof.
    Mr. Ross is kindly requested to make some mention about the Catyn-case as well as about the occupation of Poland by Soviets in the beginning of Second World War. And since then, we have so many points to discuss concerning Soviet "ethic"...
    Kindest Regards!




    Quote Originally Posted by PRINCE EUGEN
    And what about the Germans prisoners ,the foreign volunteers of Wermacht,the Russians of ROA ,the Polish officers at Katyn and numerous German females who suffered at the hands of Soviet ''liberators''?

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    Post Re: The Fate of Soviet Prisoners of War

    Quote Originally Posted by PRINCE EUGEN
    And what about the Germans prisoners ,the foreign volunteers of Wermacht,the Russians of ROA ,the Polish officers at Katyn and numerous German females who suffered at the hands of Soviet ''liberators''?
    1. German POWs... What about them, I wonder? I don't think it's good... that both the absolute number and the percentage of Germans who died in the Soviet captivity is significantly lower in comparison with the number and the percentage of Russian who died in German death camps... that's really not good, as, among other things, it gives a reason to Inet Nazi to boast about higher "efficiency" of "brave Third Reich soldiers".

    And, of course, the death of German POWs wasn't planned. They died along with 13 M of Russians of un-occupied territories.

    2. International SS? What about that scum, I wonder?

    3. The Russians of ROA? Yeah, when they were able to fight Wehrmacht, they immediately kicked its ass in the Prague Saluto to heroes!

    4. Katyn? What about 75 000 Soviet POWs, starved within a year in Polish death camps?

    5. German females? Well, what do expect from the people (the Russians) which were doomed to die in the Nazi DreamWorld? You believe they had to present to German females some flowers? LOL

    And of course, ulike with the German Army, the rapes were fobidden in the Red Army... If I recall properly, more than 5 000 of Red army soldiers and officers were executioned for it.

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    Post Re: The Fate of Soviet Prisoners of War

    To avoid misunderstandings here i'm a proslavic person!I believe that Third Reich's policy at occupied and Ucranian territories was wrong!
    The Soviet regime was the worst enemy of Russian people.What about gulacks?
    Soviet regime was anti Russian a cretion of international jew.
    More Russians died by Stalin than by Germans!
    About the crimes of Soviet Army is a historical fact not a fiction.I suggest to read mr David Irving books!
    The worst enemy of slavic people was tha communism!
    ME NE FREGO

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    Account Inactive Ross's Avatar
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    Post Re: The Fate of Soviet Prisoners of War

    Quote Originally Posted by PRINCE EUGEN
    To avoid misunderstandings here i'm a proslavic person!
    rather un-educated

    I believe that Third Reich's policy at occupied and Ucranian territories was wrong!
    rather henocidal

    The Soviet regime was the worst enemy of Russian people.
    no

    What about gulacks?
    tell us

    Soviet regime was anti Russian a cretion of international jew.
    only initially

    More Russians died by Stalin than by Germans!
    rubbish

    About the crimes of Soviet Army is a historical fact not a fiction.
    1. Crimes of the RA ARE NOTHING in comparison with the crimes of Wehrmacht and SS.
    2. Crimes weren't allowed.

    I suggest to read mr David Irving books!
    you better entertain us with some quotes from them

    The worst enemy of slavic people was tha communism!
    no, it was nazism

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    Post Re: The Fate of Soviet Prisoners of War

    You must have a conversation with some Russians N.S. friends i have !
    Maybe i'm an uneducated but i'm not a commie !
    ME NE FREGO

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    Post Re: The Fate of Soviet Prisoners of War

    Russian NS simply don't exist.

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    Post Re: The Fate of Soviet Prisoners of War

    In your dreams!
    ME NE FREGO

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