Soviet POWS in Auschwitz-Birkenau

Although there were a large number of Nazi concentration camps, the one that since World War II has come to represent them all and act as a symbol of the atrocity of the Holocaust is Auschwitz-Birkenau, whose remains continue to be visited by many thousands of tourists every year. Situated just outside the Polish town of Oswiecim, near Krakow, Auschwitz-Birkenau is also the largest mass murder site documented anywhere in history. Established first in May 1940 on territory occupied by Germany at the onset of World War II, Auschwitz soon emerged as the central killing center for Jews murdered by National Socialism and its allies. In less than five years some 1.1 million victims perished, overwhelmingly Jews, but also 75,000 Poles, 25,000 Roma and Sinti travelers, 15,000 Soviet POWs, and thousands of others—including many clergy and other persons opposed to Nazism on conscientious grounds. Its sheer size, slave labor facilities, and its bureaucratic management of genocide have made Auschwitz a central—often exemplary—part of the Holocaust story.

Finally, Nazi population policy— especially following the invasion of the USSR in June 1941—grew more intense and ambitious toward “undesirable elements.” By the summer of 1941, Russian prisoners quickly outnumbered surviving Polish workers at Auschwitz, receiving even worse treatment and being worked to death at even greater rates: of nearly 12,000 laborers, only 150 Russian POWs survived their first year building Auschwitz. In a related development for “solving” Nazism’s “demographic problems,” Russian POWs were also the first group gassed by the pesticide Zyklon-B, in September 1941, at the initiative of Höss’s deputy, Karl Fritsch, in the infamous punishment cells of Block 11. Previous attempts at mass murder by the Third Reich through shooting, explosives, injections, and carbon monoxide tanks and engine fumes were all superseded by the efficiency and availability of Fritsch’s successful experiment with Zyklon-B.

Ship Development II

Northern and western Europe

The archaeological evidence indicates that from at least as early as the second millennium BC seagoing ships were making their way between the coasts of northern and western Europe, carrying people and goods over long distances. We have already noticed the importance of skin or hide boats in colder waters and it is clear from several Classical Roman writers that this type of vessel was considered highly suitable for the mariners of France, Ireland and the British mainland. A framework of relatively slender timbers with hides stretched over it was also very light in weight, which was another useful feature for mariners who would often need to carry their craft over considerable distances and also be in need of extra buoyancy. Both sails and oars were used for propulsion, but very large oared galleys of the Mediterranean type were employed by the Romans only when their naval forces operated in northern waters.

Early medieval seafarers in north-western Europe and Scandinavia used the virtually double-ended vessels with upswept prow and stern characteristic of many later medieval craft. These features enabled the ships to be beached and launched easily and were useful when running before the wind, which seems to have been a favoured sailing technique. The building method was usually shell-first and consisted of light, overlapping planks, laid clinker-fashion, fastened to the keel by lashing, strengthened by strakes and attached to each other by iron clenches. By the ninth century ad Nordic shipwrights had developed a vessel type with a fairly broad keel that relied mainly on a single square sail for propulsion, with the oars being an auxiliary power source for use in calm weather or inland waterways. The typical Viking raiders’ ship was a buoyant, fast sailing vessel that needed very little depth of water and few or no docking facilities.

Ship designs were adapted to suit the needs of the communities that used them. The Norwegian and Danish vessels that crossed the North Sea and the Atlantic were generally smaller than the Swedish ones that operated in the Baltic, sacrificing carrying capacity for seaworthiness in the harshest of conditions. By the thirteenth century the Scandinavians and their Germanic neighbours were using bulkier, less elongated ships for trade and even military activity. There were two predominant types, the hulk, or hulc, a word which originally seems to have meant something hollowed out like a peapod and was characteristically banana-shaped, with a curving hull, high prow and stern, but little or no sternpost or stempost. Side rudders were commonly used for steering. A good depiction of this type can be seen on the fourteenth-century seal of Winchelsea. The hulk may have originated in the Low Countries, but it spread to England and across northern Europe and was the most common cargo vessel of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The other was the cog, probably of Frisian origin, and distinguished by its angled prow and stern, flat bottom and high sides. The cog was the preferred vessel of the Hanseatic traders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Both had a main square sail on a mast fitted amidships. Gradually larger sails and more masts were added. Stern-castles and fore-castles were used on both merchant and naval ships. One reason for the development of the hulk and the cog may be that harbour duties and maritime taxes encouraged merchants to use fewer, larger ships. Another reason may be the adoption of the centrally mounted stern rudder, gradually introduced to northern Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which could be more easily incorporated in these types of ships. It has also been argued that high-sided sailing ships were more difficult for pirates to attack. By the sixteenth century, however, three-masted ocean-going vessels based on a sturdier, more flexible skeleton-first form of ship construction began to replace these earlier types.

The ships that launched European seafarers across the oceans of the world in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries represent a combination of design and construction elements from the maritime traditions of the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and northern Europe. The caravels that were the favoured ships of the Portuguese in the fifteenth century had blunt, transom-built sterns with large rudders. They were carvel-built, that is with the planks joined edge-to- edge, rather than overlapping in the northern style. They could carry both square and lateen rigged sails, as Vasco da Gama’s fleet did in his epic voyage to India, using the former style in the Atlantic, but converting to the latter style in the Indian Ocean.

Over the next few centuries the main developments in European shipping were in terms of size and speed. Sailing ships were made larger and sleeker, and were rigged with more masts and sails to use the available winds as effectively as possible. Displacements of a few hundred tons were typical of the ships of the late sixteenth century, but in later centuries ships displacing a thousand tons or more were built. Bulk cargoes, carried over long distances in large, fast ships also required protection. The Spanish, needing to transport the wealth of the New World in large amounts and securely, developed the most celebrated ship of the sixteenth century, the galleon, a long, single- or double-decked, ocean-going ship with sharply raised foredeck and quarter-deck and a hull pierced with ports for heavy guns. It was the increasing number of guns on the European warships of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that were to make them particularly effective against the ships and coastal fortifications of the Orient. The Chinese, for example, had long used artillery in warfare, but they did not employ large guns on their ships.


Ship Development I

Mediterranean and Indian Ocean regions

Strong metal tools, initially made of bronze, were obviously a major element in the development of shipping technology. They were available in central Europe by the early fourth millennium bc and were introduced into the Mediterranean and Near East probably a little later. By the latter part of the third millennium BC wooden ships large enough to carry cattle were being used to ferry animals between the mainland and Cyprus. Oars and paddles were the methods of propulsion employed by the earliest seafarers, but by the end of the fourth millennium BC the sail was being used in the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. We cannot say where or when it was first developed, although it seems likely that there were several, roughly simultaneous ‘inventions’ of the sail in these regions. The idea of attaching a broad wind-trap to a post or pole, fixed to the body of a ship, in order to use the wind to propel the vessel is taken so much for granted nowadays that we can easily overlook how ingenious and bold the concept must have seemed to those who saw it for the first time. The sailing ship is one of humankind’s great technical innovations, to be ranked alongside the potter’s wheel or the printing press in the history of civilization. Wooden sailing ships were to be the preferred means of maritime transport in the Mediterranean and adjacent regions for nearly two thousand years.

By the middle of the first millennium BC the two main methods of propulsion, sail and oars, were in widespread use across the Mediterranean region and beyond. Ship designs had begun to specialize according to function. The typical seagoing vessel of the first millennium ad might use oars or sails or both. There were many variations in the size, the depth, breadth and length of its hull, according to the needs of the ship’s owner. The long, multi-level oared warship with a ram on its prow, best exemplified by the celebrated trireme and quinquereme, is the type of vessel most readily associated with ancient seafarers. Yet these impressive-looking galleys with their huge crews of oarsmen were only for naval use. Less elegant, shorter, more rounded ships with a greater cargo capacity would have been commonplace in the harbours of the Mediterranean, the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf. Warships were far less specialized outside the Mediterranean, where rougher seas and stronger winds made the oared galley less effective and where naval activity was less regular.

The number of masts and the types of sails used by ancient mariners varied considerably, as did the techniques of building, rigging and sailing seagoing ships. By the third century AD the square sail was being gradually supplanted by the triangular, lateen sail, which, together with multiple oars, offered considerable advantages in the relatively calm conditions of the Mediterranean. A major advantage of the lateen sail is that it can be cut much larger and baggier than a square-cut sail, and thus it will catch and use the wind more efficiently, especially when sailing to windward. Exploitation of the monsoon winds, which was widespread from c.600 BC onwards, led to much larger, sturdier sailing vessels in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. From an early stage, therefore, the shipbuilders of the Arabian Sea produced sewn plank boats with lateen rigged sails. These were the ancestors of the dhow, a term used by Europeans for a range of sailing vessels. Looking further afield it is not surprising that light, bamboo and timber craft with outriggers were very popular in South-east Asia, especially for use in shallow seas and among the islands.

In these seas and elsewhere experiments with sailing rig, steering methods and other aspects of seafaring gradually produced a diversity of ships built and sailed according to the dictates of local conditions. In general terms the factors influencing maritime ship design were similar throughout the world. They include the range of locally available materials, cargo sizes and weights, costs of crews (important for both merchant and naval requirements), the typical strengths of winds and currents and the depths of coastal waters. The interplay of these factors was complex. For example, larger cargo ships were produced where the cargoes were usually in bulk (e.g. timber, cloth, grain and cheaper metals), whereas smaller vessels might be favoured for luxury or high value cargoes (e.g. gold and ivory). But very large cargo ships were not common until more recent times, partly because individual merchants or ship owners lacked the resources and capital to produce them and run them effectively. Only the very rich or the ruling elites could afford to use them. A compromise was often sought in terms of mixing bulkier and smaller cargoes so that the typical merchant ship or trading vessel of the pre-industrial era was of a modest size and crew.



Book Review: Der Weg zurück: Die Repatriierung sowjetischer Zwangsarbeiter während und nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg.

Ulrike Goeken-Haidl. Der Weg zurück: Die Repatriierung sowjetischer Zwangsarbeiter während und nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg. Essen: Klartext Verlag, 2006. 574 pp. EUR 39.90 (paper), ISBN 978-3-89861-615-7.

Reviewed by Leonid Rein (International Institute for Holocaust Research Yad Vashem)
Published on H-German (July, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher

The Origins of the Cold War

The front cover of Ulrike Goeken-Haidl’s book is somewhat misleading. It shows happy Soviet citizens returning home after the years of experiencing forced labor, POW, and concentration camps at the hands of the National Socialists. But the story told in this book is anything but happy. It begins with the story of Lieutenant Jakob Dzhugashvili, the son of Josef Stalin from his first marriage, who was captured by Germans in July 1941 and committed suicide in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, knowing that at home in the Soviet Union, he and his comrades in misfortune, Soviet soldiers and officers taken prisoner by the Germans, were classified as “traitors of the Motherland.” This striking example opens a very interesting, quite readable study that makes an important contribution to research on the processes that followed World War II, the origins of Cold War, and especially the problem of repatriation, which is still insufficiently studied.

Using Soviet and American records, Goeken-Haidl shows in eight chapters of her voluminous study the origins of the problem of displaced persons and the entire process of the repatriation of the 2.3 million Soviet citizens who, for various reasons, found themselves outside the borders of the Soviet Union at war’s end. This problem dwarfed that of the 360,000 citizens of western Allied countries in similar situations, including some 50,000 British and American soldiers and officers captured by Wehrmacht and Japan strike forces. This huge displacement and its resolution stretched from the years when hostilities in Europe and the Far East were still in progress, through several decades beyond the end of World War II. The author places the repatriation problem in the broader context of the beginning of the Cold War. Paradoxically, the hardline position of the Soviet Union and its insistence upon repatriation of all its citizens outside its borders for any reason actually hindered the growth of the minority problem in Europe, which had been one of the main causes of the outbreak of the war.

In her study, Goeken-Haidl analyzes the reasons behind the decisions of all sides in the repatriation question. The United States adopted a mixed stance in response to the harsh Soviet position, which insisted on the return of all of its citizens, no matter the reason for their capture–including people with explicit or implicit reasons to avoid repatriation, such as Wehrmacht soldiers who had deserted the Red Army to fight against the Soviet regime or former residents of areas such as the Baltic states, which had been annexed in 1939-40 as a consequence of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. (The Soviet Union also insisted that Soviet repatriation personnel be accredited to work in U.S. or British DP camps.) Although the U.S. military had pursued what the author calls an “appeasement” strategy during the war, making every effort to meet Soviet demands and respond to complaints, no matter how absurd, in order not alienate their Soviet allies, the State Department had advocated a more rigid response to Soviet demands and pretensions right from the start. As Goeken-Haidl shows, the United States and Britain were quite vulnerable, as the Soviets held a number of British and American soldiers who had been held prisoner in German POW camps that were situated in the Soviet theater of war or its later zone of occupation. The USSR did not shrink from using these soldiers as hostages to forward its demands. Thus, although forced repatriation of Soviet or former Soviet citizens and side effects of this process–such as attempted or completed suicides by the affected parties–aroused public protest in both Britain and United States, the practice continued unabated until all of the British and U.S. soldiers in Soviet hands were released. Only afterwards was it revised.

Goeken-Haidl also analyzes the motives that defined the Soviet position on repatriation. According to her, from the very beginning, the Soviets viewed the policies adopted by the western Allies with great suspicion. The decision not to repatriate people from West Byelorussia, Western Ukraine, and the Baltic states, as neither the United States nor Great Britain had ever acknowledged annexation of these territories by the USSR, only enhanced these suspicions. The fact that many Soviet citizens did not rush back to the USSR after the war not only compromised the reputation of the Soviet state, it was also incomprehensible to Soviet authorities. From their point of view, if people did not wish to return to the victorious, “mighty” Soviet Union, their reluctance was attributed to the “intrigues” of the American and British imperialists. Moreover, the Soviet Union wished to conceal as thoroughly as possible the fact that quite a number of its citizens had defected to the enemy, instead of defending their “superior” system. Above all, the tradition of paranoid fear of the West and of its alleged destructive intentions toward the Soviet Union came to expression in the Soviet position.

Obsessive fear of the West was also expressed in the treatment of repatriates transferred to the Soviets. Throughout eastern Germany, the Soviet authorities established a complete system of gathering and filtration camps, at which returnees were to be checked for political reliability. Everyone who came in contact with the “capitalist world” in any way was seen with suspicion. Goeken-Haidl tells stories of humiliation, verbal and physical violence, and economic exploitation, all of which were prevalent in these camps. People who had been released from forced labor or liberated from POW or concentration camps only a short time before were now denigrated as “German lackeys” and “Nazi whores” by the personnel of the repatriation camps, most of whom had been recruited from the NKVD. In the absence of effective control from above, inmates of these camps were at the mercy of camp guards. The camps also possessed wide networks of spies, who came from the ranks of potential repatriates and had been promised advantages such as an acceleration of the repatriation process. Spies were supposed to uncover active Nazi collaborators and anyone critical of Soviet rule. Inhumane treatment of inmates led to a wave of escape attempts (many of them successful) and of suicides. On average, two repatriates escaped from each camp per week. Even for those who survived this process and returned home, reintegration into Soviet society was not easy. Many former forced laborers were dispatched immediately to various construction projects. Those who returned to their home villages and cities suffered from suspicious attitudes on the part of both local authorities and neighbors. Such attitudes lasted many years; in some cases, even to the present.

Goeken-Haidl has written a fascinating book, though the account sometimes sacrifices precision and thoroughness. For instance, she mentions only briefly the loophole created by the U.S. decision not to transfer persons from eastern Poland and the Baltic states, and mentions only one or two of the most spectacular cases of war criminals from among Nazi collaborators who exploited this decision to pose as anti-Soviet fighters and escape justice. I mentioned an example of this pattern in a recent article on the 30th Waffen-Grenadier Division of the SS, or “1st Byelorussian,” many of whose members had been auxiliary policemen before entry into the SS, and had participated actively in the genocide of Byelorussian Jewry and in the so-called anti-partisan warfare, in course of which thousands of innocents were killed. After the bulk of this division’s soldiers found themselves in DP camps in the American zone, they posed as Poles, escaped transfer to the Soviet authorities, and were able to live in the countries against which they had fought during the closing stages of the World War II.[1]. At the same time, while depicting at length the hardline position of Soviets in questions of repatriation, Goeken-Haidl either omits or ignores the fact that during the Cold War, U.S. military intelligence did not hesitate to exploit the anti-Soviet sentiments of DPs and later, of non-repatriated immigrants, for strategic purposes, especially in view of the possibility of the transition from a “cold” war to a hot one. In such efforts, the authorities often ignored the problematic past of such people.[2] At the same time, while criticizing the study of Nikolaj Tolstoj, whose main focus falls upon the forced repatriation of Soviet citizens, Goeken-Haidl can be seen as moving too far in the opposite direction by focusing on unwilling returnees. A stronger treatment of voluntary repatriation might have created a more balanced picture.

Finally, Goeken-Haidl’s study is not free of some technical problems, inaccuracies, and omissions. Thus, for example, the Byelorussian city of Slonim is termed a village (p. 381), though during the Nazi occupation, it was large enough to be a center of German civil area administration (Gebietskommissariat). On the same page, she also mentions the activities of the infamous Latvian Arajs Kommando as a guard unit of Salaspils concentration camp near Riga, but omits mention of the role played by the same group in the extermination of the Latvian Jews. Konrāds Kalējs, a member of this commando, was accused not only of maltreatment of Salaspils’s inmates, but explicitly of participation in the execution of the “Final Solution.” It would have been appropriate, moreover, to include at least an index of names or locations in order to facilitate navigation through such a long book, and lengthy footnotes occasionally disturb the smooth reading of the book.


[1]. Leonid Rein, “Untermenschen in SS Uniforms: 30th Waffen-Grenadier Division of Waffen SS,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies (April 2007): 329-345.

[2] Thus, for example, Stanislav Stankevich, who occupied the post of mayor of Borisov during the Nazi occupation of Byelorussia and was directly involved in the murder of 7,000 Borisov Jews in October 1941, served for many years after the war in the Byelorussian service of Radio Free Europe and was never prosecuted for his wartime activities. The postwar fates of Stankevich and many other Byelorussian collaborators are tracked in John Loftus’s controversial study, The Belarus Secret (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982).