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Case Study:
Soviet Prisoners-of-War
(POWs), 1941-42

Soviet prisoners-of-war are led away 'to the rear', where millions died.Summary

In a mere eight months of 1941-42, the invading German armies killed an estimated 2.8 million Soviet prisoners-of-war through starvation, exposure, and summary execution. This little-known gendercide vies with the genocide in Rwanda as the most concentrated mass killing in human history.

The background

Nazi forces invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, in the biggest military operation the world had ever seen. Hitler's "Operation Barbarossa" aimed to overthrow the Communist regime of Joseph Stalin (see the case-study of Stalin's Purges) and to impose a brutal system of slavery and colonial exploitation on the Soviet masses. The Soviet armies had been decimated by the prewar purges in their ranks, and they crumbled in the face of the Nazi onslaught. In the first few months of the war, the Nazis rounded up Soviet conscript troops in a series of huge encirclements around Minsk, Smolensk, Bryansk, and Kiev. By the time the brutal Russian winter descended, millions of Soviet POWs were dying in captivity, penned behind barbed wire with no protection from the elements, being executed en masse by the German Army (Wehrmacht), or being transported to Germany for extermination by the hundreds of thousands.

R.J. Rummel writes that prisoners-of-war through history have received "particularly lethal treatment ... If their lives were spared they were often sent to work as slaves in mines, on galley ships, in swamps, or at other labor that killed them off rapidly. The Mongols used their prisoners in the front ranks when attacking fortified cities and towns, and forced them to fill in moats or prepare catapults close to the dangerous walls. If not turned into slaves, prisoners of war were often simply killed, captured garrisons massacred." (Rummel, Death by Government, p. 67.) The young Soviet men who fell into German hands during these terrible years could expect treatment even more barbaric than the historical standard. As Slavs, they were considered "Untermenschen" -- subhumans -- by the Germans. As far as Nazi forces were concerned, the laws of war did not apply.

As an aside, it should not be assumed that the "POW" designation referred to men who had, in fact, seen military service. Nazi policy in the occupied areas was very explicit: "Men between the ages of 15 and 65 were to be treated as POWs ... [and] taken to POW camps." The 18th Panzer Division studied by Omer Bartov had "orders to arrest all men of military age and send them to the rear" (Bartov, The Eastern Front, p. 110). This rapidly became a euphemism for mass murder by execution, starvation, and exposure. Even those conscripted into formal military service had little opportunity to see battle: as noted, the majority of prisoners in these early phases of Operation Barbarossa surrendered en masse after being rounded up in huge encirclements.

The gendercide

Soviet prisoners-of-war jammed into
one of the open-air POW camps, summer 1941.

Soviet POWs jammed into one of the open-air POW camps."Testimony is eloquent and prolific on the abandonment of entire divisions under the open sky," writes Alexander Dallin of the fate of these Soviet POWs. "Epidemics and epidemic diseases decimated the camps. Beatings and abuse by the guards were commonplace. Millions spent weeks without food or shelter. Carloads of prisoners were dead when they arrived at their destination. Casualty figures varied considerably but almost nowhere amounted to less than 30 percent in the winter of 1941-42, and sometimes went as high as 95 per cent" (Bartov, The Eastern Front, p. 110).

Many of the captured Soviet men were forced to walk "hundreds of kilometers" to their designated places of detention. Colonel Erwin Lahousen, a German foreign intelligence officer, wrote in October 1941 that "The columns of [Soviet] prisoners of war moving on the roads make an idiotic impression like herds of animals. The guard details ... can only maintain some semblance of order ... by using physical force. Because of the physical exertion of the marches, the meager diet and poor conditions in the quarters in individual camps, prisoners of war often break down, are then carried by their fellow-soldiers [see the photo at the beginning of this document] or are left lying. The 6th Army has given orders that all prisoners of war who break down are to be executed. Unfortunately, this is done on the road, even in towns ..." (Quoted in The Hamburg Institute for Social Research, The German Army and Genocide: Crimes Against War Prisoners, Jews, and Other Civilians, 1939-1944 [New York: The New Press, 1999], pp. 100, 142.)

Conditions in the prison camps themselves were similarly atrocious. "There were no barracks or permanent housing. The camps were simply open areas fenced off with barbed wire. The prisoners had to lie in the sun, then in mud, and in the fall -- with temperatures as low as minus 30 degreees centigrade -- faced the possibility of freezing to death." (The German Army and Genocide, p. 142.) A Hungarian tank officer who visited one enclosure described it as follows: "Behind wire there were tens of thousands of [Soviet] prisoners. Many were on the point of expiring. Few could stand on their feet. Their faces were dried up and their eyes sunk deep into their sockets. Hundreds were dying every day, and those who had any strength left dumped them in a vast pit" (Werth, Russia At War, pp. 635-36). Cannibalism was rife, and deliberate, according to Dallin: "German policy had caused, or at the very least had tolerated, the degradation of the prisoners -- and then held it up to its own people as something to be reviled, as something typical of a sub-human who could never be like Western man" (Dallin, German Rule in Russia, p. 415).

In his epic masterpiece The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes the scene in one POW camp, with "the evening mist hoverng above a swampy meadow encircled by barbed wire; a multitude of bonfires; and, around the bonfires, beings who had once been Russian officers but had now become beastlike creatures who gnawed the bones of dead horses, who baked patties from potato rinds, who smoked manure and were all swarming with lice. Not all these two-legged creatures had died as yet. Not all of them had lost the capacity for intelligible speech, and one could see in the crimson reflections of the bonfires how a belated understanding was dawning on those faces which were descending to the Neanderthal." (Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago [Harper & Row, 1973], p. 218.)

Mass death through starvation was anticipated well in advance by Nazi military planners. "Daily rations amounted to only one-fourth of what a normal person needed to survive. These meager rations resulted from the decision reached before the campaign, i.e. that providing food for the Wehrmacht and for Germany had the highest priority. 'As a result, millions of people will surely starve,' was the terse conclusion formulated at a conference of German State Secretaries in Berlin in May 1941." (The German Army and Genocide, p. 142.)

Soviet prisoner-of-war killed in Nazi "medical"
experiments, probably at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Soviet prisoner-of-war killed in Nazi 'medical' experiments, probably at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Despite the eventual shift from outright extinction to slave labour, which also swept up hundreds of thousands of Soviet women, "maltreatment continued ... to the very end," with "instances of cruel atrocities ... reported as late as the winter of 1944-5" (Bartov, The Eastern Front, p. 110). "Many [prisoners] were shot," writes Alexander Werth, "many died in concentration camps during the later stages of the war, ... [and] some were even used for vivisectionist and other 'scientific' experiments" (Russia At War, p. 635).

Soviet POWs murdered by the Nazis.How many died?

Because the targeted group consisted for the most part of soldiers in a bureaucratically-run modern army, the gendercide against Soviet prisoners-of-war is one of the best-documented of these case studies. Daniel Goldhagen, in Hitler's Willing Executioners (p. 290), gives the astonishing figure of "2.8 million young, healthy Soviet POWs" killed by the Germans, "mainly by starvation ... in less than eight months" of 1941-42, before "the decimation of Soviet POWs ... was stopped" and the Germans "began to use them as laborers" (emphasis added). There is good reason to think that this rate of killing exceeds even the worst period of the Holocaust against the Jews, although the total number killed was lower, and the Soviet victims were drawn from a much larger population base. Peter Calvocoressi and Guy Wint write in Total War that "The total number of prisoners taken by the German armies in the USSR was in the region of 5.5 million. Of these the astounding number of 3.5 million or more had been lost by the middle of 1944 and the assumption must be that they were either deliberately killed or done to death by criminal negligence. Nearly two million of them died in camps and close on another million disappeared while in military custody either in the USSR or in rear areas; a further quarter of a million disappeared or died in transit between the front and destinations in the rear; another 473,000 died or were killed in military custody in Germany or Poland." They add that "This slaughter of prisoners cannot be accounted for by the peculiar chaos of the war in the east. ... The true cause was the inhuman policy of the Nazis towards the Russians as a people and the acquiescence of army commanders in attitudes and conditions which amounted to a sentence of death on their prisoners."

These losses must be placed in the context of a war that killed as many as 40 million Soviets, including large numbers of non-combatants apart from the POWs. Nonetheless, Alexander Werth writes that "Next to the Jews in Europe, six million of whom perished at the hands of the Germans ... the biggest single German crime was undoubtedly the extermination by hunger, exposure and in other ways of ... [Soviet] war prisoners" (Russia At War, p. 634). Given that the bulk of the gendercide took place in just eight months, it was, together with the genocide in Rwanda, the most concentrated mass slaughter of all time, eclipsing the most exterminatory months of the Jewish holocaust. It was also without doubt the greatest single act of gender-exclusive killing in human history.

An important group of Soviet victims is also left out of these calculations: namely, those soldiers who never even reached captivity after surrendering. According to Ward Churchill, "perhaps as many as a million troops ... were simply executed by Wehrmacht and Waffen SS units rather than being taken prisoner in the first place." (Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide [City Lights Books, 1997], p. 48.)

In one of the twentieth century's most tragic ironies, the two million or so POWs who survived to be repatriated to the USSR were arrested there en masse on suspicion of collaboration with the Germans. Almost without exception, they were sentenced to long terms in the Soviet death-camps. Gendercide Watch is unaware of any reliable estimates of the number who died there, but the total must have been in the tens if not hundreds of thousands. "In Russian captivity, as in German captivity, the worst lot of all was reserved for the Russians," writes Solzhenitsyn. "... It would appear that during the one thousand one hundred years of Russia's existence as a state there have been, ah, how many foul and terrible deeds! But among them was there ever so multimillioned foul a deed as this: to betray one's own soldiers and proclaim them traitors?" (Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, p. 240, 256.)

Who was responsible?

Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler inspects
a Soviet POW camp on the eastern front.

Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler inspects a Soviet POW camp.The mass killing of the Soviet POWs was a direct expression of "the ideological concepts of the Nazi regime, which strove physically to eliminate the 'Bolshevik Untermenschen'" (Bartov, p. 107). As such, it is the leaders of the Nazi regime, above all Adolf Hitler, who bear the greatest responsibility for inflicting their racist and genocidal vision on the Soviet people, the Jews, and many others. "Though clearly aware of the prisoners' plight," writes Alexander Dallin, "the Nazi authorities adopted a pose of righteous indignation over the behaviour of the sufferers." Nazi leader Hermann Goering joked about cannibalism in the camps, telling a diplomat that "in the camps for [Soviet] prisoners of war, after having eaten everything possible, including the soles of their boots, they have begun to eat each other, and what is more serious, have also eaten a German sentry" (Dallin, German Rule in Russia, p. 415).

But no one man or small group can commit genocide alone. The decision to ignore the laws governing the treatment of prisoners-of-war was also made by tens of thousands of German officers. "Except that some generals at Nuremberg [the war-crimes trials] tried to argue that it was difficult unexpectedly to have to feed so many POWs, there is nothing to show that the Army did anything to oppose the policy of extermination of the [Soviet] war prisoners, at least during the first twelve or eighteen months of the war. More than that: some of these 'gentlemanly' German generals were consciously starving the [Soviet] war prisoners" (Werth, Russia At War, p. 637).

Genocidal actions against the Soviet people, and against Soviet Jews in particular, were carried out by hundreds of thousands of "ordinary Germans" sent to fight on the Eastern Front and implement the Nazi occupation policies. Daniel Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners has done much to revive the debate about the role of "ordinary" people in inflicting genocidal atrocities. Ron Rosenbaum's Explaining Hitler surveys the different interpretations of Nazi rule and Hitler's personal evil, and includes a chapter on Goldhagen's work (see "Further Reading").

The aftermath

The Soviets stopped the Nazi armies at Moscow in December 1941 and eventually gained the upper hand at the Battle of Stalingrad (1942-43) and the Battle of Kursk (July 1943). By April 1945, Soviet forces had crushed all resistance and occupied the German capital, Berlin.

The Soviets took ferocious revenge on the millions of POWs who fell into their hands during the war. Many were simply executed; most were sent to concentration camps where they died of exposure, starvation, and overwork. German POWs (along with Romanians, Italians, and others) "were [not] treated even remotely in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Thousands froze to death and starved on the march or in unheated cattle trucks, and once in camps they were treated as slave labor. Heat, shelter, and clothing were all inadequate, diseases such as typhus were rampant, and food was so scarce that on occasion cannibalism occurred. In all, at least one million German prisoners died out of the 3,150,000 taken by the Red Army." (S.P. MacKenzie, "The Treatment of Prisoners of War in World War II," The Journal of Modern History, 66: 3 [September 1994], p. 511.)

The Russian Army today remains a death-trap for conscripted men -- though not at the hands of a foreign invader. As many as 10,000 soldiers die each year from hazing, assaults, murder, and suicide. See the case-study of military conscription for further details.


In October 2003, Gendercide Watch received the following correspondence about the Soviet POW case, from a Canadian reader:

Hello Gendercide Watch:

I just came across your site and found it very interesting. The genocide of Russian prisoners of war by the Nazis is one of the forgotten stories of World War II.

I know a man who witnessed the barbaric treatment of many of these prisoners in the summer of 1941.

That man was my father, who is now 93 years old. He was a Serbian Royalist officer who was captured in April, 1941, along with the entire Serbian Army of 250,000 men and sent to POW camps in Germany (another forgotten story).

He has often told me that the brutal treatment of the Russians that he witnessed is beyond description.

In the summer of 1941 he witnessed the arrival of thousands of Russian prisoners, who were herded into a vast open-air enclosure next to his camp. He watched as they ate the grass in the fields down to the ground.

The only other reference I have ever heard about Russian prisoners eating grass is to be found in David Irving's biography of Hermann Goering, when Goering actually talks about Russians eating grass.

Your description of the camps is the truth. I do not doubt the stories of cannibalism.

History is a strange thing. There is very little historical information about the treatment of the Russians. [...] Obviously one needs to speak German, and needs to do research in the German archives to really uncover the whole story. There is still much that has never been seen. I know that the Nazis made newsreel films and took many photographs of these camps, as they did with the Jewish extermination camps, and I believe that there is still much of this material to be uncovered in Germany.

There is also material in the United States that has not been made available. The most significant archive of information is that of Hitler's most important Russian Intelligence Officer, Reinhold Gehlen, who knew more than anyone else about the details of the invasion of Russia.

Gehlen, as you know, surrendered to the Americans at the end of the war. He brought with him the entire Nazi Russian Intelligence files. His knowledge was so valuable to the Allies that, instead of prosecuting him for war crimes, they made him the head of the West German spy network. Many SS men were hired by him and also escaped prosecution.

I have always believed that Gehlen knew all the details about the extermination camps but was so valuable to the Allies they chose to overlook his participation in the Holocaust. If you've read his biography, you'll know that he was extremely intelligent. Hitler had supreme faith in his abilities, and it was Gehlen's intelligence that allowed Hitler to plan the invasion of Russia.

Gehlen was complicit in genocide, but he was allowed to get away with his crimes. If you look at it from that viewpoint, it makes sense that information about the genocide of Russian prisoners is so hard to come by. They were now our enemies in the Cold War, and one of Hitler's most valuable subordinates in the history of that genocide, was now working for us (his previous resume was not publicized for obvious reasons). He was forgiven for his crimes, and the Russians were conveniently and deliberately forgotten.


Paul Vuk
North Vancouver, B.C.

FURTHER READING[ Further reading ]   [ Back to main ]   [ Back to top ]

Gendercide and Genocide


Gendercide and Genocide

Edited by Adam Jones

The most wide-ranging book ever published on gender-selective mass killing, or "gendercide," this collection of essays is also the first to explore systematically the targeting of non- combatant "battle-age" males in various wartime and peacetime contexts.

Link to ordering information and a full table of contents.


Genocide, War Crimes & the West

Genocide, War Crimes and the West

Edited by Adam Jones

"This exceptionally well selected, brilliantly edited collection provides the most comprehensive treatment of Western responsibility for mass atrocity yet published. The cumulative impact of the volume is a devastating indictment of state terrorism as practised by the West, both historically, and now after September 11 in the name of 'anti-terrorism.'" - Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus, Princeton University

Link to ordering information and a full table of contents.

Researched and written by Adam Jones.
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Copyright-cleared for educational and other non-profit use if source is credited.

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