BARBAROSSA POWS

Yugoslavs, Greeks, and other minor Allies suffered harm commensurate with their ethnic ranking in the perverse Nazi racial view of Europe, and with the degree of resistance offered to Nazi occupation of their home countries. The worst treatment of enemy prisoners, by far, was reserved for enemies of Germany wearing the uniform of the Red Army. BARBAROSSA saw the capture of millions of Red Army prisoners, then their deliberate starvation, massive ill-treatment, and malign neglect by the Wehrmacht. Out of 5.7 million Red Army men taken prisoner during the war about 3.3 million died in German captivity, most in the first eight months of the war in the east: 2.8 million of the first 3.5 million captured died, or 10,000 per day over the first seven months of the German–Soviet war. Some 250,000 were shot outright. Many of the executed were Jews and Communists pulled out of primitive enclosures for immediate murder. Ukrainian and Belorussian peasant conscripts were encouraged by German guards to point out politruks and identify Jews. The selection process led to several hundred thousand executions by the end of 1941. The rest were left to huddle together against killing-cold temperatures in barbed-wire enclosures left open to winter elements, to sleep on frozen ground without shelter beyond hard-packed snow, and to perish en masse from hunger and virulent camp epidemics. Starvation was so extensive in the eastern Dulags and Stalags —POW transit and holding camps, respectively—that there were outbreaks of cannibalism in some. Non-Slavic prisoners fared somewhat better than Slavs, mainly because of spurious Nazi race theories that saw non-Slavs as a higher class of humans. In addition, the Germans pursued a policy of deliberate extermination through starvation of most of the Slavic population of occupied territories. The mass deaths of Soviet military prisoners in its care was the single greatest war crime of the Wehrmacht, and perhaps the gravest war crime in all military history: total deaths of helpless soldiers in German hands was exceeded only by the mass murder of unarmed Jews.

The Germans generally respected the Geneva Conventions with regard to Western prisoners, but refused to honor its provisions concerning Soviet POWs. Among the first experiments using poison gases to “exterminate” large populations were those carried out on Red Army prisoners of war. Some German officers worried that such gross mistreatment of prisoners in the east would have negative military consequences. And so it did: Red Army men fought increasingly desperately, often to the death, once they learned what surrender and German captivity really meant. By mid-1942 the Germans also realized that Soviet prisoners represented a huge pool of potential forced laborers. Therefore, even after the worst excesses of malign neglect over the winter of 1941–1942 stopped, more prisoners were worked to death as slaves. Altogether, about 55 percent of all krasnoarmeets taken prisoner from 1941 to 1945 died in German hands. As German casualties mounted in the east through 1943 the Wehrmacht looked to recruit low-grade military replacements and frontline workers among anti-Soviet prisoners. Men agreed to serve as “ Hiwi ” (Hilfswilliger) in return for food and shelter, or to join so-called “legions” of Baltic, Cossack, Georgian, or Turkmen fighters as Osttruppen, or to serve with the Waffen-SS. Until the great military reverses of 1943, Red Army prisoners were kept near the German front lines. By the end of the war, over half were no longer crammed into Stalags but worked on German farms, in mines or factories, or served as Hiwis with Wehrmacht units. During 1944–1945 German treatment of POWs improved as larger numbers of Landser were captured by the Red Army, and fear of reprisal mounted within the Wehrmacht as defeat clearly loomed in the east.

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