Soviet prisoners-of-war

“Next to the Jews in Europe,” wrote Alexander Werth, “the biggest single German crime was undoubtedly the extermination by hunger, exposure and in other ways of . . . Russian war prisoners.” Yet the murder of at least 3.3 million Soviet POWs is one of the least-known of modern genocides; there is still no full-length book on the subject in English. It also stands as one of the most intensive genocides of all time. The large majority of POWs, some 2.8 million, were killed in just eight months of 1941–42, a rate of slaughter matched (to my knowledge) only by the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

The Soviet men were captured in massive encirclement operations in the early months of the German invasion, and in gender-selective round-ups that occurred in the newly occupied territories. All men between the ages of 15 and 65 were deemed to be prisoners-of-war, and liable to be “sent to the rear.” Given that the Germans, though predicting victory by such epic encirclements, had deliberately avoided making provisions for sheltering and feeding millions of prisoners, “sent to the rear” became a euphemism for mass murder.

“Testimony is eloquent and prolific on the abandonment of entire divisions under the open sky,” writes Alexander Dallin:
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 percent.

Hungarian tank officer who visited one POW enclosure described “tens of thousands of Russian 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.” Cannibalism was common. Nazi leader Hermann Goering joked that “in the camps for Russian 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.”

Hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners were sent to Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz, which was originally built to house and exploit them. Thousands died in the first tests of the gas chamber complex at Birkenau. Like the handicapped and Roma, then, Soviet POWs were guinea-pigs and stepping-stones in the evolution of genocide against the Jews. The overall estimate for POW fatalities – 3.3 million – is probably low. An important additional group of victims comprises Soviet soldiers, probably hundreds of thousands of them, who were killed shortly after surrendering.

In one of the twentieth century’s most tragic ironies, the two million or so POWs who survived German incarceration were arrested upon repatriation to the USSR, on suspicion of collaboration with the Germans. Most were sentenced to long terms in the Soviet concentration camps, where tens of thousands died in the final years of the Gulag. Most were sentenced to long terms in the Gulag, with hundreds of thousands consigned to mine uranium for the Soviet atomic bomb; “few survived the experience.” As Solzhenitsyn noted sardonically: “In Russian captivity, as in German captivity, the worst lot of all was reserved for the Russians.”

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.

KEELHAUL

In February 1945, Major Denis Hills, an officer of the British Eighth Army in Italy, was given command of a POW camp at Taranto containing 8,000 men of the 162 Turkoman Infantry Division, classified as ‘repatriates’. His charges had been conscripted into the Red Army, been captured on the Eastern Front by the Germans, and had endured starvation and cannibalism under arrest before volunteering for service with the Wehrmacht. Having sailed with them to Odessa, whither they were transported under the terms of the Yalta Agreement, he had no doubts that all such Soviet repatriates were being sent home to be killed.

In subsequent assignments, Hills repeatedly faced the age-old dilemma of a soldier whose conscience did not match his order. In the case of the SS Fede, which was trying to leave La Spezia for Palestine with an illegal shipload of Jewish emigrants, he advised his superiors that regulations should be waived to let them sail—which they did. ‘I had wished to extinguish a small glow of hatred before it grew into a flame.’

During Operation Keelhaul (1946–7), Hills was given 498 ex-Soviet prisoners for screening in a camp at Riccione. His orders were to repatriate to the USSR (1) all persons captured in German uniforms, (2) all former Red Army soldiers, and (3) all persons who had aided the enemy. By inventing spurious categories such as ‘paramilitaries’ and by privately urging people to flee, he whittled down the number of repatriates to 180. When they left, the Russian leader of the group told him: ‘So you are sending us to our deaths … Democracy has failed us.’ ‘You are the sacrifice’, Hills replied; ‘the others will now be safe.’

In the case of Ukrainians from the Waffen-SS Galicia Division held at Rimini, Major Hills was one of several British officers who personally rebuffed the demands of the Soviet Repatriation Commission. When the Division was reprieved, he was sent a letter from the division’s CO, thanking him ‘for your highly humane work … defending the principles in the name of which the Second World War has been started’. According to international law, the Galicians were Polish, not Soviet citizens.

Hills admitted that he ‘bent the rules’. Shortly afterwards, he was court-martialled and demoted on a charge of unseemly conduct, having been caught doing cartwheels and handsprings at dawn in the city square of Trieste.

The Allied policy of forcibly repatriating large numbers of men, women, and children for killing by Stalin and Tito has been called a war crime. In the Drau Valley in Austria, where in June 1945 British troops used violence to round up the so-called Cossack Brigade and their dependants, it provoked mass suicides. But it was well hidden until a report written by Major Hills came to light in the USA in 1973, and the opening of British archives. Solzhenitsyn called it ‘The Last Secret’. It only reached the wider public through books published thirty and forty years after the event.

More recently, an unusual libel trial in London awarded £1.5 million damages against Count Nikolai Tolstoy, author of The Minister and the Massacres, who had written of an official British conspiracy and cover-up. The plaintiff was not the minister accused of ordering the handover of the Cossacks, but a British officer who, faced with the same problem as Hills, had pursued a different policy. He did not receive a penny of his award, as the defendants fought on in the European courts.

POWs – A Comparison of Treatment

The Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS took 232,000 British, Commonwealth, and American prisoners during the war, most in the course of the last year of fighting in Italy and France. The short duration in captivity of most, along with the prospect of pending Allied victory in the west, meant they enjoyed relatively decent conditions in the Stalags in 1944–1945. That permitted most Western prisoners to survive captivity, though there were individual cases of brutality and murder of Westerners by German or other Axis guards. The Germans shackled over 1,000 Canadian POWs after the failed Dieppe raid, during which the Germans discovered British orders to bind the hands of prisoners to prevent destruction of documents. The British and Canadians retaliated immediately by chaining German prisoners, leading to a riot by several hundred Germans in Canadian POW camps. Mutual shackling lasted for a year before everyone backed down. More deadly abuse of British prisoners by the Germans followed a commando raid on the Channel Islands. That led to Hitler’s issuance of the commando order of October 18, 1942, to shoot all commandos taken prisoner. Still, only about 3.6 percent of Western prisoners died while in Axis captivity, a rate that was highly favorable compared to other classes of Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS prisoners and which included captured wounded.

It is noteworthy that Jews in the armies of the Western Allies, in particular captives from the Jewish Brigade of the British Army, were not singled out or killed, not even after the Schutzstaffel ( SS) took over the Stalags. That was not the case for Jews in the Red Army, who along with Communist political officers ( politruks and Commissars ) were pulled out and murdered from the first days of the war in the east. The main reason for the discrepancy was that the Germans were desperate to arrange a prisoner exchange with the Western powers for several thousand Wehrmacht medics and doctors held by the British and Americans, whom they needed to treat mounting numbers of German wounded. Four large prisoner exchanges occurred between the Western Allies and the Germans during the war. They were carried out using the Swedish passenger liner “Gripsholm,” with the physical exchanges made in Lisbon and Goteborg. Germany proposed a still larger exchange, looking to recover men for combat on the Eastern Front. The British were interested in helping long-term captives in German camps, but the Americans rejected the offer: they had few prisoners in German hands before June 1944. The worst experiences of these Western prisoners came in 1945, when they were force marched westward to prevent their liberation by the Red Army.

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.

After the Soviet Union invaded Poland on Sept 17, 1939, the NKVD murdered many thousands of captured Polish Army officers at Katyn, Kharkov, and Tver. From the start of the German–Soviet war in mid-1941 the Red Army and NKVD also murdered or badly mistreated many German POWs, usually spontaneously and quickly in hot blood, before they got to rear area camps. Official Russian figures thus record that only 17,000 German prisoners were in Red Army hands in June 1942, a figure reflecting a low survival rate in captivity. Killing and mistreatment was more selective from the end of 1942 through 1945, a period in which the Red Army took ever larger numbers of German and other Axis prisoners. By mid- 1943 there were nearly 540,000 German and Axis prisoners in Soviet POW camps. By mid-1944 another 340,000 were added, with 950,000 more taken prisoner in the second half of 1944. German historians have calculated that of the 3,155,000 Germans taken prisoner by the Soviets, about 1,186,000 died in captivity. Most of those died of cold, disease, and hunger, for a death rate of about 38 percent. Prisoners from the lesser Axis states fared no better: of 49,000 Italians taken by the Red Army, 28,000 died in some NKVD camp. Unlike the Germans, who recruited prisoners for combat or combat-support units, the Soviets recruited among Axis prisoners primarily for propaganda purposes. An exception was the “Tudor Vladimirescu Division,” which was formed from Rumanian POWs and saw extensive fighting against Germans and Hungarians. The Nationalkomitee Freies Deutschland (NKFD) served a mainly propaganda function, with some late-war air drops of small espionage and guerrilla units into East Prussia. The NKFD comprised hundreds of captured Wehrmacht officers, including many generals and Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus.

Hundreds of thousands of German POWs, and some Allied prisoners and civilians liberated from the Germans, were detained in the Soviet Union for many years after the war; in some cases for the rest of their natural lives. German prisoners were kept as a form of unilateral reparations, put to forced labor beyond the Urals or in reconstruction work in the western Soviet Union. Winston Churchill predicted this would happen in a letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt in November 1944: “[Stalin] certainly contemplates demanding two or three million Nazi youth, Gestapo men, etc. doing prolonged reparation work.” He added: “and it is hard to say that he is wrong.” Many Germans died in postwar captivity in Soviet work camps. Most were not allowed to return to Germany for upwards of 10 years, until after Stalin died in 1953. Others married local women and settled down somewhere in the Soviet Union, lost to earlier lives and families. Stalin’s treatment of his own returned men was not much better. Having suffered severe torments in German captivity, liberated krasnoarmeets faced draconian punishment at the hands of the NKVD upon going home. Some Americans and Western civilians were kept by Moscow for narrower reasons pertaining to Soviet policy in Poland and the Baltic States, and refusal to recognize a legal right of expatriation and foreign naturalization. Those questions related to the start of the Cold War rather than to animosity from World War II. The Western Allies also retained Germans for forced labor. The Americans released most fairly quickly. The British and French retained German prisoners to clear up the vast disorder left by the war, to de-mine and perform other necessary, dirty postwar tasks.

The greatest travesty to befall World War II prisoners was suffered by Soviets returning home upon liberation in 1945. In the desperate days of massive losses and surrenders by Red Army men in August 1941, Stalin issued Order #270 decreeing that surrender was treason. As he later put it: “There are no Russian prisoners of war, there are only traitors.” Neither time nor looming victory tempered the brute in the Kremlin’s lust for vengeance on those who dared surrender during the vast Kesselschlacht (“cauldron battles”) of 1941–1942. The Soviet constitution was even rewritten during the war to make surrender a capital crime, although the men of the NKVD hardly required legal justification for their many summary executions. On May 11, 1945, two days after the German surrender to the Red Army, Stalin issued a decree establishing 74 clearing camps for former prisoners of war liberated in what became Soviet-occupied eastern Europe, with a further 69 camps ordered erected inside the Soviet Union. These camps and others were used to detain liberated Red Army POWs until Smersh and the NKVD could vet them (“filter” was the official term) for anti-Communist or anti-Russian nationalist views, and for other suspect categories of political or social “crimes” defined by the Soviet state. About 1.8 million returning POWs (“repatriant”) were being processed in Smersh “filtration camps” (“filtratsionnyy lager”). Out of five million surviving Soviet prisoners repatriated from Nazi captivity after the war, including hundreds of thousands liberated by the Western Allies and forcibly returned to Stalin’s grasp at gunpoint, some 1.1 million were either executed or sent directly to forced labor camps in Siberia. Others were sent back into the Army. Only 18 percent were allowed to go home. All suffered social and economic discrimination for decades, as did their families, until they were finally and officially “rehabilitated” in 1994, three years after the state they served and saved had itself expired.

Barbarossa – German Arrogance

On 22 June 1941, at 0330 hours, mechanised Wehrmacht divisions, supported by Luftwaffe fighter-bombers, poured across the Niemen River into Russia. The date had been carefully chosen for its historical significance. Exactly 129 years before, on 22 June 1812, an apparently invincible Napoleon Bonaparte had also crossed the Niemen to attack Russia. However, Hitler should have studied his history a little more closely; Napoleon was forced to begin his disastrous retreat only six months after invading, eventually losing 95 per cent of his troops to combat and the Russian winter. Although it would take longer, and cost even more lives, a similar fate would befall the German invaders.

Despite its having started late – the original launch date was May – ‘Operation Barbarossa’ initially made fantastic progress, raising expectations of a repeat of the Blitzkrieg against Poland. Hitler’s plan, which he had been formulating since shortly after the signing of the Russo-German Pact, called for 120 German divisions to annihilate Russia within five months, before the onset of the winter. Hitler wasn’t the only one so confident of a German victory. In July, the American General Staff had issued ‘confidential’ memoranda to US journalists that the collapse of the Soviet Union could be expected within weeks.

But Russia, a vast country tremendously rich in natural resources, manpower, and a fierce patriotism, was far from finished. If unprepared for the precise moment of the German attack, the Red Army was neither as small, as ill-equipped, nor as lacking in fighting spirit as the Nazis’ ideology proclaimed it to be. A month and a half into the campaign, on 11 August, the Chief of the German General Staff, Franz Halder, wrote in his diary:
‘It is becoming ever clearer that we underestimated the strength of the Russian colossus not only in the economic and transportation sphere but above all in the military. At the beginning we reckoned with some 200 enemy divisions and we have already identified 360. When a dozen of them are destroyed the Russians throw in another dozen. On this broad expanse our front is too thin. It has no depth. As a result, the repeated enemy attacks often meet with some success.’
Not only had the Germans underestimated the sheer number of forces available to the Red Army, they had also underestimated how well equipped it was. Many of the Wehrmacht’s best generals reported with astonishment and a large amount of fear on the appearance of the Russian T-34 tank, the existence of which German intelligence had not an inkling. So well-constructed and armoured that German anti-tank shells bounced off it, the T-34 instilled in the German soldier what General Blumentritt later called ‘tank terror’. These kinds of intelligence miscalculations would plague the Germans throughout the rest of the war.

But possibly the Germans’ greatest miscalculation was their ideologically driven belief that Slavic soldiers would be no match for the ‘Aryan’ Germans and that the Soviet Union, once attacked, would disintegrate into chaos and revolution. ‘We have only to kick in the door,’ Hitler assured his generals, ‘and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.’ Instead, the German invasion – launching what the Russians still call ‘the Great Patriotic War’ – loosed among the peoples of the Soviet Union a tremendous surge in patriotism, both Soviet patriotism and Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian and other national patriotisms. At this point, nearly a quarter century after the revolution, and just after the terrible purge years of 1934 and 1940, there could have been little naiveté about the nature of the Communist regime. Despite a tremendous amount of resentment and antipathy towards the Communist leaders, the peoples of the Soviet Union remained, for the most part, passionately committed to the sovereignty of the state, as well as to the individual nations of which it was made up. This was a fact which westerners have never properly understood, and the Germans were to pay dearly for their misunderstanding.

Soviet PoW and Polish and Soviet Civilians – The Holocaust?

Of the 5,700,000 Soviet soldiers who surrendered to the Germans during World War II, more than 3,000,000 were either shot shortly after capture, starved to death in prisoner of war camps, gassed in extermination camps, or worked to death in concentration camps. They are usually ignored in books about the Holocaust because at the time they were not targeted for total extermination. Those who offer explicit or implicit arguments for including them among the victims of the Holocaust, such as Bohdan Wytwycky in The Other Holocaust and Christian Streit and Jürgen Förster in The Policies of Genocide, point out that the appallingly high losses among Soviet prisoners of war were racially determined. The Germans did not usually mistreat prisoners from other Allied countries, but in the Nazi view Soviet prisoners were Slavic “subhumans” who had no right to live. Moreover, young Slavs of reproductive and fighting age were dangerous obstacles to resettling Eastern Europe with Germans. Hence it is reasonable to conclude that all of them were destined to be killed or else sterilized so that their kind would disappear.

POLISH AND SOVIET CIVILIANS

Slavic civilians, ordinary citizens of Poland and the Soviet Union in particular, were held no higher in Nazi racial ideology. Millions were forced to work for the Germans under frequently murderous conditions. Their natural leaders, such as teachers, professors, lawyers, clergymen, and politicians, were ruthlessly exterminated by the Germans. Others perished in massive German reprisals against various forms of resistance. Three million Poles (10 percent of the population) and 19,000,000 Soviet citizens (11 percent of the population) died at the hands of the Germans. Because these deaths were far more selective than was the case with Jews, Gypsies, and the handicapped, it is possible to place them in a different category. Those who would exclude them from the Holocaust emphasize that the Germans did not plan to kill all the Slavs. On the contrary, Germany considered the Slavs of Slovakia and Croatia as valuable allies, not candidates for extermination. Complicating the issue is the difficulty of distinguishing racially motivated killings of Poles and Soviet citizens from those that resulted directly or indirectly from German military actions. Bohdan Wytwycky has estimated that nearly one-fourth of the Soviet civilian deaths were racially motivated, namely, those of 3,000,000 Ukrainians and 1,500,000 Belarusans.

Those who would include Polish and Soviet civilian losses in the Holocaust include Bohdan Wytwycky in The Other Holocaust, Richard C. Lukas in The Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles Under German Rule, 1939–1944, and Ihor Kamenetsky in Secret Nazi Plans for Eastern Europe. These scholars point out that the deaths were a direct result of Nazi contempt for the “subhuman” Slavs. They note that the “racially valuable” peoples of Western European countries like France and the Netherlands were not treated anywhere near as badly. Moreover, Nazi plans for the ethnic cleansing and German colonization of Poland and parts of the Soviet Union suggest that a victorious Germany might well have raised the level of genocide against the civilian populations of those areas to even more appalling proportions. Slovakia and Croatia did not figure as victims in Hitler’s plans to secure Lebensraum, and their Slavic populations could be spared. In A World At Arms: A Global History of World War II, Gerhard Weinberg suggests that experiments done on concentration camp inmates to perfect methods of mass sterilization probably were chiefly aimed at keeping Slavs alive to perform slave labor in the short term while assuring their long-term disappearance.

Foundation gives voice to Nazi-era forced laborers

 
Many forced laborers became pariahs once they returned to their home countries.

The Remembrance, Responsibility and Future Foundation no longer pays out compensation to victims of Nazi forced labor in 2007. But it hasn’t stopped working to publicize the former forced workers’ suffering.

The Remembrance, Responsibility and Future Foundation (EVZ) began paying compensation to victims of Nazi forced labor in 2000. Funded by the German government and about 6,500 German companies, EVZ paid 4.4 billion euros ($5.7 billion) to 1.7 million former forced workers over seven years.
When payments ended in 2007 – and with them EVZ’s original mission – the organization faced the challenge of redefining itself.
Part of a European culture of remembrance
For EVZ board member Guenter Saathoff there was no question that the group should continue to exist.
“Considering the 13 million people who were brought to Germany as forced workers, you have to recognize that forced labor was a European occurrence,” Saathoff told Deutsche Welle.
“It must be a permanently anchored and fundamental element of the history of wrongdoing in a European culture of remembrance,” he added.
The EZB has holdings of about 400 million euros, which it has used to fund over 2,100 projects, including a program called “Europeans for Peace.” So far over 100,000 young people from 28 countries have participated in the program aimed to help victims of anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism.
Labeled traitors to the fatherland
Still of particular importance to the foundation are projects that support former forced laborers and their families through local initiatives. One such project in eastern Europe encourages dialogue about the once-taboo topic of forced labor. The dialogues initiated by the program give long-needed acknowledgement to the “other” victims of Nazism, according to Saathoff.
“Under Stalin many returning forced laborers were seen as traitors to the fatherland,” Saathoff said, adding that many of them lived as pariahs within their societies.
“This project attempts to give those people a voice again in their communities, and we also want to encourage the communities to give the victims their attention, so intergenerational dialog and local initiatives are at the center of our efforts,” he said.
Jewish Museum exhibition
Berlin’s Jewish Museum is set to host a large exhibition on Nazi-era forced labor beginning this September with the EVZ’s financial support.
One of the exhibition planners, Jens-Christian Wagner, explained that the exhibition will show “when and how Germans had to decide what position to take on forced labor.”
Wagner, who is also the director of the Dora-Mittelbau Concentration Camp Memorial, added that the exhibition will “use the frame of forced labor to tell the social history of Nazism, the history of a social order that was ideologically anchored in extreme racism.”
He said the exhibition is not simply a “commission” by the EVZ but will critically examine both at forced labor and at compensation paid to victims by the EVZ.
To that end, Wagner said the exhibition will also “consider the Italian military detainee or the Soviet prisoner of war, who were denied compensation and humanitarian aid, but who, of course – in the eyes of historians – were also forced workers.”
An injury to justice

Wagner said it would have been impossible to make the distribution of compensation absolutely fair. He said this “injury to justice” is yet another result of Germany’s coming to terms with Nazi forced labor.
The exhibition will move to Warsaw in 2011, with further stations planned in Russia to mark the 70th anniversary of Germany’s 1941 attack on the Soviet Union.
Author: Marcel Fürstenau (dl) 
Editor: Sean Sinico

Vlassov’s Army

Prague 1945

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Russia was far from a monolithic structure. It contained numerous diverse ethnic groups, many of which had long histories of resenting Russian suzerainty and domination. Combined with the long standing hatred of Russia, the new Soviet regime was often even more hated, even by the Russians, so when the Germans invaded, their initial reception was often one of liberator than one of conqueror. Deserters appeared in the hundreds before German units offering their services in any capacity and they were taken in gladly. They were given the names “Hilfsfreiwilliger” (Volunteer Helpers) or Hiwis for short. Initially, their functions were the various menial tasks such as cooking, digging latrines, officers’ batmen, etc., but more than once they jumped into combat roles when the opportunity arose. Hundreds of the Hiwis were gradually sucked into the role of combatant, despite the lack of orders and the German ethnic attitudes of the period.

The 134th Infantry Division began openly enlisting Russians in July 1941. Other divisions refrained from such overt violation of Hitler’s orders, but more than willingly took the Russians on an unofficial basis. During the winter of 1941/42 the first Osttruppen or Eastern Troops were formed. By early 1942 six battalions of Ostruppen were formed in Army Group Center under Oberst von Tresckow. These units were given territorial designations, like Volga, Berezina, and Pripet. Initially they were used in the rear on anti-partisan operations with the security divisions, but slowly they were brought forward into the front lines.

In early 1942 racist elements of the German hierarchy brought this to Hitler’s attention. He responded to the movement by prohibiting the use of Russian “sub humans” as soldiers and on 2/10/42 issued a Fuhrer Order that limited their use of those existent units to rear area operations only. Despite his obvious displeasure, the Osttruppen continued to expand. The OKH was to authorize the use of Hiwis up to 10% to 15% of divisional strength and by August 1942 official regulations were issued governing uniforms pay, decoration, and insignia. By early 1943 an estimated 80,000 Russians were serving the Wehrmacht in Ostbataillonen.

The formation of Russian units in the German army would have been quite limited had not the Soviet General Vlassov been captured in July 1942. He had been a prominent general after the war erupted, but in March 1942 he was ordered to liberate Leningrad with the 2nd Soviet Assault Army. His attack failed and his army of nine infantry divisions, six infantry brigades, and an armored brigade were surrounded, abandoned by Stalin, and crushed, leaving the Germans with 32,000 prisoners. Amongst the German High Command there had always some hope of forming a Russian army to assist them in the conquest of Soviet Russia. As time progressed, it became apparent that Vlassov was the ideal man to form this army.

As the war progressed and the German effort in Russia began failing, Hitler was eventually persuaded to permit the formation of the army. The first steps occurred in August 1942 when General Koestring formed an Inspectorate which was to organize Caucasian troops. Koestring, however, ignored this limitation and took all volunteers possible. When Koestring retired in January 1943 the post of General der Ostruppen was created and given to General Hellmich, who had no previous experience with the Russians. Fortunately, Hellmich and Koestring’s service overlapped and the two men agreed on Koestring’s earlier decisions.

The Osttruppen was absorbing not only Caucasians, but Ukrainians, Russians, Azberjainis, and Turkistanis. In January 1944 Koestring, now apparently out of retirement, took over from Hellmich with the new title General der Freiwilligen Verbaende (General of Volunteer Units). In the meantime, Hitler had authorized the formation of a Russian army under Vlassov. In November 1942 a Russian National Committee was established in Berlin with Vlassov serving as Chairman. It then issued the Smolensk Manifesto, calling for the destruction of Stalinism, the conclusion of an honorable peace with Germany, and Russian participation in the “New Europe.”

The German Army intelligence then proceeded to drop copies of leaflets over the Russian lines, as well as a carefully planned accident which resulted in their being dropped over German lines as well. It appears that Hitler had forbidden any release of this in the German press. During the winter of 1942/43, faced with the destruction of the 6th Army in Stalingrad and Rommel’s expulsion from North Africa, Hitler began to reconsider the role he had allocated to Vlassov’s Russkaia Osvoboditelnaia Armiia or ROA.

The desertion rate from the Soviet army rose to 6,500 in July 1943, compared to 2,500 the previous year, as a result of ROA propaganda and the future looked bright. However, in September 1943 Hitler announced that the ROA was to be dissolved. The German generals pleaded with him, pointing out that the Russian front would collapse, as there were currently 78 Ost battalions, 122 companies, one regiment and innumerable supply, security, and other units then serving with the German army, not to mention the thousands of Hiwis in the German units. Certainly there were 750,000 Russians then serving in the German army and some estimates go so far as to suggest that 25% of the German army on the Russian front was made up of ethnic Russians.

A screaming and raging Hitler was eventually brought to compromise and only those units whose loyalty was suspect were to be disbanded and the rest would be transferred to the West. This, being left in Wehrmacht hands, the disbandings were limited to 5,000 men and serious procrastination prevented many transfers westwards. However, by October 1943 large numbers of Ostruppen did begin moving west. This was accomplished by exchanging Ost Battalions for German battalions in the west. These Ost battalions were then formally incorporated into the German divisions where they were assigned.

The morale of the Osttruppen began to collapse. Vlassov was persuaded to write them an open letter announcing these transfers were only a temporary expediency and hinted at bigger and better things. When the allies invaded Normandy they were startled to find that many of their German prisoners were, in fact, Russians and soon had 20,000 ROA prisoners in custody. Though Himmler refused to believe Koestring’s reports, at that time there were 100,000 eastern volunteers in the Luftwaffe and Navy and another 800,000 in the German Army.

The continuing reversal of German military hopes was slowly bringing even the SS around to reconsidering the desirability of Russian troops. In the east the SS was, by late 1943, regularly rounding up 15-20 year olds to serve as Flak helpers. There was discussion of the creation of an Eastern Moslem SS Division and several Slavic legions were forming in the SS. Himmler soon began considering himself as the leader of the “Army of Europe” and began taking any non-German human material he could find into his hands. It was not long before he saw Vlassov’s ROA as another force that could be added.

Himmler approached Vlassov and proposed the formation of a Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia (Komitet Osvobozhdeniia Narodov Rossi or K.O.N.R.) It was to be allowed to raise an army of five divisions, two of which were to be raised immediately. The personnel would be drawn from the existing ROA units and from among the Ostarbeiter then in Germany. The first two units formed were placed under Vlassov’s command on 1/28/45, the 600th and 650th Russian Divisions. In Neuren an airforce or air division, was organized that consisted of an air transport squadron, a reconnaissance squadron, a flak regiment, a paratrooper battalion, and a flying training unit. This force of some 4,000 men was assigned to General V.I. Maltsev. On 2/1/45 Goering formally handed this division over to Vlassov’s command.

By March 1945 the KONR numbered some 50,000 men. The Cossack Cavalry Corps was promised to Vlassov by Himmler, as was the Russian Guard Corps in Serbia, but in fact neither was ever placed under his command. The KONR fought its first battle in February 1945 when a force of the 600th Division attacked in Pommerania and its engagement was a complete success. Hundreds of Soviet soldiers changed sides and joined it. In March it moved to the Oder front and was ordered to attack the Soviet army near Frankfurt. However, it was so pounded by the Soviets that it withdrew to the south and back into Czechoslovakia. On 5/5/45 the Czech communists began a revolt in Prague and Buniachenko ordered the 600th Division to assist them. Their assistance was refused by the Czechs and, as the war ended the next day, the division was taken prisoner by the Americans. The 650th Division, except for one regiment, were captured by the Russians and either executed or sent into the Russian Gulag. Vlassov was snatched from American hands by the Russians, suffered through a short show trial, and was quickly executed along with the major leaders of the KONR.

599TH RUSSIAN BRIGADE: Formed in April 1945 in Aalborg, Denmark, as part of the Liberation Russian Army under Vlassov. It contained:

1/,2/,3/1604th Grenadier Regiment (from 714th (Russian) Grenadier Regiment) 1/,2/,3/1605th Grenadier Regiment 1/,2/,3/1606th Grenadier Regiment

The division was intended to be expanded to form the 3rd Vlassov Division.

600TH (RUSSIAN) INFANTRY DIVISION Formed on 12/1/44 as part of the Russian Liberation Army under Vlassov with what was to have become the 29th Waffen SS Grenadier Division (1st Russian). On 2/28/45 it contained:

1/,2/1601st Grenadier Regiment 1/,2/1602nd Grenadier Regiment 1/,2/1603rd Grenadier Regiment 1/,2/,3/,4/1600th Artillery Regiment 1600th Division Support Units

650TH (RUSSIAN) DIVISION Formed in March 1945 as part of Vlassov’s Russian Liberation Army. The division was organized with prisoners of war and contained, on 4/5/45:

1/,2/1651st Grenadier Regiment 1/,2/1652nd Grenadier Regiment 1/,2/1653rd Grenadier Regiment 1/,2/,3/,4/1650th Artillery Regiment 1650th Divisional Support Units

The division was not fully formed and remained in Munsingen until overrun. On 17 January 1945 the organization of the 650th Infantry (Russian) Division was established as follows:

DIVISION STAFF: Division Staff (2 LMGs) 1650th (mot) Mapping Detachment 1650th (mot) Military Police Detachment (3 LMGs)

1651ST INFANTRY REGIMENT: REGIMENTAL STAFF Staff Staff Company (3 LMGs) 1 Signals Platoon 1 Engineer Platoon (6 LMGs) 1 Reconnaissance Platoon (3 LMGs) 1 Signals Platoon 2 BATTALIONS, each with 3 Infantry Companies (9 LMGs ea) 1 Heavy Company (8 HMGs, 4 75mm infantry support guns, 1 LMG & 6 80mm mortars)

13TH INFANTRY SUPPORT COMPANY: (2 150mm leIG, 1 LMG, 8 120mm mortars & 4 LMGs)

14TH PANZERJAGER COMPANY (54 Panzerschreck, 18 Reserve Panzerschreck & 4 LMGs)

1652ND INFANTRY REGIMENT: same as 1651st 1653RD INFANTRY REGIMENT: same as 1651st

1650TH (MOUNTED) RECONNAISSANCE BATTALION: 4 Squadrons, each with (9 LMGs, 2 80mm mortars)

1650TH PANZERJAGER BATTALION: 1 Staff 1 (mot) Staff Company (1 LMG) 1st Company (12 75mm PAK & 12 LMGs) 2nd (armored) Company 14 Assault Guns (sturmgeschutz) & 16 LMGs Detachment captured Russian tanks 3rd (mot) Flak Company (9 37mm Flak guns & 5 LMGs)

1650TH ARTILLERY BATTALION: 1 Staff 1 Staff Battery (1 LMG) 1ST, 2ND & 3RD BATTALIONS, each with: 1 Staff 1 Staff Battery (1 LMG) 2 105mm leFH Batteries (4 105mm leFH & 4 LMGs ea) 1 75mm Battery (6-75mm guns & 3 LMGs) 4TH BATTALION: 1 Staff 1 Staff Battery (1 LMG) 2 150mm sFH Batteries (6-150mm howitzers & 4 LMGs ea)

1650TH (BICYCLE) PIONEER BATTALION 2 (bicycle) Pioneer Companies, each with: (2 HMGs, 9 LMGs, 6 flame throwers & 2 80mm mortars) 1 Pioneer Company (2 HMGs, 9 LMGs, 6 flame throwers & 2 80mm mortars)

1650TH SIGNALS BATTALION: 1 (mixed mobility) Telephone Company (4 LMGs) 1 (mixed mobility) Radio Company (2 LMGs) 1 (mixed mobility) Signals Supply Detachment (2 LMGs)

1650TH FELDERSATZ BATTALION: 1 Supply Detachment 5 Replacement Companies, with a total of: (50 LMGs, 12 HMGs, 6 80mm mortars, 1 120mm mortar 1 75mm leIG, 1 75mm PAK, 1 20mm/37mm Flak, 2 flame throwers, 1 105mm leFH 18 , 6 Panzerschrecke, & 56 Sturm Gewehr 41

1650TH DIVISIONAL SUPPORT REGIMENT: SUPPLY TROOP: 1650th (mot) 120 ton Transportation Company (4 LMGs) 1/,2/1650th Horse Drawn (30 ton) Transportation Companies (2 LMGs ea) 1650th Horse Drawn Supply Platoon OTHER: 1650th Ordnance Troop 1650th (mot) Vehicle Maintenance Troop 1650th Supply Company (3 LMGs) 1650th (mot) Field Hospital 1650th (mot) Medical Supply Company 1650th Veterinary Company (2 LMGs) 1650th (mot) Field Post Office

In a parallel formation to the ROA and KONR another large force of Russians was formed in March 1942 by German Intelligence. This force was the Versuchsverband Mitte (Experimental Formation of Army Group Center). Though officially known as Abwehr Abteilung 203 the unit was to have several names – Verband Graukopf, Boyarsky Brigade, Russian Special Duty Battalion, Ostintorf Brigade, and finally the Russian National People’s Army (Russkaia Natsionalnaya Narodnaya Armiya or RNNA). The unit was started when a Russian émigré, Sergi Ivanov, recruited several prominent Russian prisoners of war and other Russian exiles, to the German cause. Ivanov, acting as a liaison officer for the Abwehr, worked with Igor Sakharov, son of a White Russian General and émigré to Germany, and slowly they organized a force of 3,000 former prisoners of war.

By December 1942 they had 7,000 men training. A brigade was formed consisting of four battalions, an artillery battalion, and an engineer battalion. The organization of the units was based on the Russian model. In August 1942 Colonel Boyarsky took command in December Feldmarschal von Kluge inspected the brigade, was pleased with what he saw, and expressed his pleasure with its actions in combat in the German rear in May 1942. He then stated that he would issue the unit German uniforms and weapons and split it into a number of infantry battalions, which would be assigned to various German combat divisions. This offhanded command shattered the brigade’s morale and 300 men promptly deserted. It had seen itself as the cadre of a Russian army of liberation. Despite their protests, the brigade was broken into the 633rd, 634th, 635th, 636th, and 637th Ost Battalions and employed in anti-Partisan operations.