While many of the atrocities of World War II are widely known to the general public, the deaths of an estimated 2.8 million Soviet prisoner-of-war in the hands of the Nazi regime during a mere eight months in 1941-1942 remains surprisingly unknown.
With approximately 2.8 million prisoners-of-war perishing in just eight months in 1941-1942, the event is one of the most concentrated mass killings of all time, and it even eclipses the peak-death-months of the Jewish holocaust. It is also the most concentrated act of gender-selective killing of men that we know of from human history.
Some of these Soviet prisoners-of-war were killed outright, but the bulk of the prisoners died from starvation and exposure because they were imprisoned in camps without sufficient food and shelter, and their imprisonment included the winter of 1941-1942. Forced marches to reach prison camps also contributed to the large death toll. It is one of the most concentrated mass killing in human history.
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.” (Source: Alexander Werth, ”Russia At War”, p. 634).
During the early stages of World War II, there was no conflict between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. In August 1939, what is commonly referred to as the Molotov – Ribbentrop Pact had been signed by representatives of each of the two governments. It was not an alliance, but rather a stipulation of non-aggression. Both parties declared that neither government would ally itself or aid an enemy of the other. There was also a non-public part of the agreement, which essentially divided Eastern Europe into a German sphere and a Soviet sphere, with part of the border running right through Poland. Germany invaded Poland from the east on September 1, 1939 and sixteen days later the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east. Soon, they had divided Poland between them according to plan.
The harmony between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was to be short-lived, however. As early as July 1940, the German High Command began planning an invasion of the Soviet Union. Authorization from Hitler came in December that year, and the invasion started on June 22, 1941. During the course of the operation, Nazi Germany and some of its allies invaded the western Soviet Union along a 2,900-kilometre long front. The Nazi plan was to topple the Communists, conquer a part of the western Soviet Union, use some of its residents as slave labour for the war effort, exterminate or forcibly move non-desirable parts of the population (such as anyone deemed Slavic), and then repopulate the area with “Aryan” Germans. An important goal was control over the oil reserves of the Caucasus and agricultural lands in fertile regions of western Soviet.
Millions of Soviet men become prisoners-of-war
As mentioned above, Nazi forces invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Initially, the attacks were highly successful for the Nazis, partly because the Soviet armed forces had already lost a lot of skilled officers during Stalin´s massive purges in the Soviet Union.
In a series of attacks, the Nazi army captured Soviet conscripts on a massive scale. As winter arrived, millions of Soviet prisoners-of-war were being held by the Nazis in camps that offered hardly any protection from the elements.
Many prisoners-of-war were simply kept behind barbed wire in open-air camps. Unsurprisingly, the death toll was enormous from the deadly combination of exposure, starvation and contagious disease. Prisoners-of-war were also executed en masse by the German army, and some died during forced marches to other camps. Many rudimentary camps for prisoners-of-war were in Eastern Europe, but the army also moved hundreds of thousands of prisoners-of-war to Germany.
Where these prisoners-of-war only from the military?
No, the Soviet prisoners-of-war held by the Nazi´s were not exclusively military.
The Nazi policy for these occupied areas did not make any distinction between soldiers and civilians in this regard.
“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” (Omer Bartov, “The Eastern Front”, p. 110).
Conditions in the camps
The mass deaths among the Soviet prisoners-of-war due to starvation and exposure did not come as a surprise to the German leadership. It was a deliberate decision to not put resources into building shelters and providing enough food.
“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.” (Source: 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.)
A chilling description of how life in camp could be has been left for us by a Hungarian tank officer who visited one of the enclosures:
“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” (Source: Alexander Werth, “Russia At War”, pp. 635-36).
Many prisoners were sleeping without shelter, even during the harsch winter of 1941-1942.
“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” (Source: Omer Bartov, “The Eastern Front”, p. 110).
The lack of shelter is noted in other sources as well:
“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.” (Source: 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.)
According to Alexander Dallin, cannibalism became rife under these desperate conditions, and those acts were then held up as further evidence for how the Soviets were really sub-human compared to Aryan Germans.
“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.” (Alexander Dallin, “German Rule in Russia”, p. 415).
In the famous “The Gulag Archipelago”, Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes the scene in one POW camp: (…) “the evening mist hovering 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.” (Source: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “The Gulag Archipelago” [Harper & Row, 1973], p. 218.)
Many of the Soviet prisoners-of-war died during forced marches, as they were moved on foot to prison camps, and these marches could last for hundreds of kilometres.
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 (…)” (Source: 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.)
A shift: The German war effort needs more slave labour
Eventually, there was a shift in how Soviet prisoners-of-war held by the Nazi regime were treated, and this shift was prompted by the realization that the regime could no longer afford to waste labour resources as massively before. Germany needed more slave labour, and this gave the regime some incentive to keep prisoners alive longer if they were capable of work.
Still, conditions in the camps continued to be atrocious. In his book ”The Eastern Front”, Omer Bartov writes about how horrifying maltreatment of prisoners continued until the very end. (Source: Omer Bartov, “The Eastern Front”, p. 110). )
Alexander Werth agrees, noting how ”Many [prisoners] were shot, many died in concentration camps during the later stages of the war, … [and] some were even used for vivisectionist and other ‘scientific’ experiments.” (Source: Alexander Werth, ”Russia At War”, p. 635).
It should be noted that the regime´s wish for more slave labour was not limited to men; hundreds of thousands of Soviet women were also captured and kept as slaves.
How many died?
When it comes to the Soviet soldiers who were captured and held as prisoners-of-war by Nazi Germany, we have fairly reliable numbers available since they belonged to a modern-style army with its own bureaucracy. Still, exact numbers will of course vary somewhat depending on your source, and are also subject to debate among scholars.
According to researcher Daniel Goldhagen, 2.8 million Soviet prisoners-of-war were killed in less than eight months in 1941-1942, chiefly through starvation. This quick death rate then went down, as Germany needed more slave labour and therefore had incentives to keep prisoners alive longer. (Source: Daniel Goldhagen, ”Hitler’s Willing Executioners”, p. 290) Still, prisoners-of-war were being killed; the death rate had just slowed down from its peak in 1941-1942.
If we look at more than just 1941-1942, Peter Calvocoressi and Guy Wint claims that at least 3.5 million Soviet prisoners-of-war had died by the middle of 1944.
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. (…) 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.” (Source: Peter Calvocoressi and Guy Wint, “Total War, Story of WWII”, 1972)
A source of error in our numbers
It should be noted that many Soviet soldiers who surrendered to the German forces on the eastern front were never registered as prisoners-of-war, as they were executed immediately by German units. They are therefore not included in the official statistics.
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.” (Source: Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide [City Lights Books, 1997], p. 48.)
Approximately 2 million Soviet POWs were returned to the Soviet Union
Roughly 2 million Soviet prisoners-of-war survived and were sent back to the Soviet Union.
In a horrible twist of fate, they were generally not received as war heroes or even allowed to live free in their native lands. Instead, the paranoid Josef Stalin suspected them of collaboration with the Germans and sent them to his horrifying prison camps.
“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?” (Alexandr Solzhenitsyn,” The Gulag Archipelago”, p. 256.)