History / Warfare

Soviet Showa POWs

My Second World War focus has for decades been squarely focused on the Pacific, for a variety of reasons.  My forefathers fought the Japanese in that huge expanse, and a long-time interest in naval aviation draws one to the sea battles that raged there.

However, the chief reason was how awful the worst part of the war, the slaughter inflicted on the Russians by the Germans and returned in kind, really was.  But until last month I had no idea that the Holocaust started when the Wehrmacht began slaughtering Soviet POWs:


The brutal treatment of Soviet POWs by the Germans violated every standard of warfare. Existing sources suggest that some 5.7 million Soviet army personnel fell into German hands during World War II. As of January 1945, the German army reported that only about 930,000 Soviet POWs remained in German custody. The German army released about one million Soviet POWs as auxiliaries of the German army and the SS. About half a million Soviet POWs had escaped German custody or had been liberated by the Soviet army as it advanced westward through eastern Europe into Germany. The remaining 3.3 million, or about 57 percent of those taken prisoner, were dead by the end of the war. Second only to the Jews, Soviet prisoners of war were the largest group of victims of Nazi racial policy.


This death toll was neither an accident nor an automatic result of the war. It was the Nazi state’s deliberate policy. German treatment of Soviet POWs differed dramatically from German policy towards POWs from Britain and the United States, countries the Nazis regarded as racial equals to the Germans. Of the 231,000 British and American prisoners held by the Germans during the war only about 8,300—3.6 percent—died in German custody.

The entry above might read like a Wikipedia article, but it actually comes from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.  

But is an American source really very objective, especially one dedicated to Holocaust research and remembrance? Well, consider this source.  The book is American, but the essay contained is translated from the original 1996 Vienna article:

On 26 August 1941, two months after the attack on the Soviet Union, Hellmuth James Graf von Moltke wrote to his wife: “Once more the news from the east is terrible.  Clearly we are suffering very heavy losses.  And yet that would be bearable if we did not bear the responsibility for hecatombs of corpses.”

“Hecatombs of corpses:” Moltke, certainly one of the most impressive figures in the German opposition, well informed concerning events in the east due to his work with Wehrmacht High Command (OKW), was referring neither to the Wehrmacht’s losses, which were already immense, nor to the much heavier losses sustained by the Red Army.  He was speaking of the thousands of Jews, prisoners of war, and civilians who in the first weeks had already fallen victim to the German policy of annihilation in the east. In contrast to the vast majority of his contemporaries, he saw very clearly what monstrous crimes were being committed in the east and to what degree the Wehrmacht was involved.

Except for the Jews, Soviet prisoners of war suffered the worst fate of all victims of National Socialist Germany.  Between 22 June 1941 and the end of the war, roughly 5.7 million members of the Red Army fell into German hands.  In January 1945, 930,000 were still in German camps.  A million at most had been released, most of whom were so-called “volunteers” (Hilfswillige) for (often compulsory) auxiliary service in the Wehrmacht.  Another 500,000, as estimated by Army High Command, had either fled or been liberated.  The remaining 3,300,000 (57.5 percent of the total) had perished.

The horror of the fate suffered by the Soviet prisoners becomes even clearer when one considers that, of the 232,000 English and American soldiers in German hands, 8,348 (or 3.5 percent) died.  In the autumn of 1941 8,348 died on a single day.

A brief sketch of how mortality rates fluctuated over time reveals the monstrous degree to which half an army of prisoners numbering in the millions was killed.  As early as August 1941, epidemics such as dysentery and typhus were breaking out in the camps in the east–and soon spread to the territory of the Reich.  When winter weather set in, the mortality rate rose sharply.  By 20 October 1941, 54,000 had already died in the camps of occupied Poland.  In the next ten days alone, another 45,690 deaths were recorded–almost 4,600 a day.  In November the death rate reached 38 percent; in December, 46 percent.  Of the 361,000 prisoners who were being held in the Government General in the fall of 1941, more than 85 percent had died by April 1942.  In the camps in the rest of the German sphere of influence, prisoners were similarly decimated.  In sum, by February 1942, roughly two million of the 3.3 million who had been taken prisoner in the year 1941 had died.

Members of the military indicted at Nuremberg ascribed these mass deaths to an unavoidable crisis.  They claimed that they had not anticipated such masses of prisoners and that feeding them had proved impossible.  This explanation, which is still touted by representatives of veterans’ organizations, is untenable.  The entire design of the campaign meant that large numbers of prisoners were predictable, and feeding the prisoners was not an inherently impossible task.  The more fundamental cause of the mass deaths was not the number of prisoners but the war aims that were pursued in the east.  Those aims were formulated and the methods by which they were to be achieved were designed with the active participation of the command staffs of the Wehrmacht.

One of the most important war aims of all was seizing the USSR’s food sources.  Hitler and his generals regarded hunger on the “home front” during World War I as an important cause of Germany’s defeat. Ruthlessly plundering the food sources in the east was supposed to make it possible to feed the German people as in peacetime and thus preserve “wartime morale.”  In May 1941 it was already perfectly clear to the planners in the OKW and the ministries that the result would be “without a doubt the starvation of tens of millions of human beings.”  There was agreement among military leaders that Soviet prisoners should receive “only those rations that are absolutely necessary.”  The result was rations far below the minimum required for survival.  In 1941, for example, during westward marches often lasting for weeks, prisoners frequently received daily rations such as “20g of millet and 100g of bread without meat” or “two potatoes.”

By September 1941 the signs of the approaching catastrophe were already unmistakable.  Documents exist showing that in a number of camps desperate prisoners were driven by hunger to eat grass, leaves, or tree bark.  In some camps in the east, epidemics caused by hunger were already claiming thousands of lives.  On 19 October 1941 an officer on the staff of the Military Commander in the Government General noted: “OKW is aware of the fact that mass deaths among the [Soviet] war prisoners cannot be prevented because the prisoners are at the end of their strength.”

Nevertheless, two days later, the General Quartermaster of the army, General Eduard Wagner, ordered a drastic reduction in rations in the theater of army operations.  The most severely affected were those already too weak to work.  They were now to receive roughly 1500 calories per day, less than two thirds of the absolute minimum required to survive.  Wagner was thus acceding to demands by Goring, who was intent on maintaining the nutritional standard of the German populace at any price.

The army leadership, in full consciousness, accepted the starvation of Soviet prisoners as a matter of fact. That much is perfectly clear from a statement made by General Quartermaster Wagner (who, incidentally, was one of the 20 July 1944 conspirators).  In a conference with the chiefs of staff of the armies in the east in November 1941, when it was pointed out to him that the Soviet prisoners needed as workers were starving in the camps, Wagner stated tersely: “Non-working war prisoners…are supposed to starve. Working prisoners may be fed from army rations in individual cases.”

By that point,mass deaths had already reached epidemic proportions.  Now the decimation of prisoners was accelerated by the onset of winter, against which they had virtually no protection.  Hardly any preparations had been made for housing them.  Because the goal was to devote minimal resources to the task, commandants charged with constructing the camps received only barbed wire, kettles for cooking, chlorine, and tools.  The prisoners were expected to built their own housing with the most primitive materials.  Even in the Reich, housing conditions were not substantially better than in the east.  There, too, up to the spring of 1942, prisoners were forced to vegetate in “Russian camps” such as Stukenbrock or Bergen-Belsen, living in holes and earthen bunkers that they had built for themselves.  The files contained no indication that participating Wehrmacht authorities tried to change the policy, the consequences of which had to be clear even to someone deficient in imagination.

Tens of thousands lost their lives on the roads from the front to the camps.  Most prisoners who were captured in the year 1941 were moved to the west in forced marches lasting many weeks under miserable conditions over many hundreds of kilometers.  Marching units of tens of thousands of Red Army men were guarded by but a few companies of German soldiers, who were forced by necessity to resort to the most brutal violence in order to drive the starving prisoners to the next poorly prepared rest area.  Thousands of exhausted prisoners were shot out of hand, even in the middle of large cities such as Minsk or Smolensk.  Individual troop commanders condemned the practice in orders expressing their outrage, but–like the commander of Army Group Center, Field Marshal von Bock, or the commander of his rear area, General von Schenckendorff–did nothing to address the causes.  In any case, other commanders had a different view: in Field Marshal von Reichenau’s 6th Army there was a standing order “to shoot all collapsing prisoners of war.”

At the same time, the transport problem was exacerbated by the troops themselves.  Army High Command (OKH) had ordered that as many prisoners as possible be transported by trains making their return empty or in columns of trucks so that the roads used as supply routes would not be blocked by marching prisoners.  In practice transport officers typically refused to cooperate, arguing that the prisoners were infested with lice and dirtied up the vehicles.  Despite the consequences both for the prisoners and for its own operations, the OKH did nothing to compel obedience to its original orders.  When the prisoners were moved by rail, the OKH would permit only the use of open freight cars, which caused enormous loss of live with the onset of winter.  In Army Group Center’s area of operations, the use of closed railway cars was not permitted until 22 November 1941, after a hard freeze lasting more than three weeks.  The immediate cause for the change was that 1,000 prisoners of a transport numbering 5,000 had frozen to death.  According to a report of the Reichskomissariat Ostland, “between 25 percent and 70 percent of prisoners” who were transported by rail were dying at that time.

Between October 1941 and March 1942, thousands of Soviet prisoners of war died each day in German-controlled areas.  It is doubtful that dying would have achieved such a gruesome dimension if the leadership of he Wehrmacht and the army had not made it clear in its orders to the German soldiers that it attached no value to the lives of Soviet prisoners and civilians.  The so-called “Barbarossa Decree” limited the purview of military justice to the prosecution of criminal acts by German soldiers.  The troops were to avenge every “attack” by Soviet civilians with executions.  The aim was the complete subjugation of the Soviet population and the elimination of any hint of resistance.  The army leadership defined as an “attack” even the distribution of leaflets or failure to obey the order of a German.  By contrast, crimes committed against Soviet citizens by German soldiers for which the perpetrators claimed political motivation were excused in advance.

The commissar order, the second infamous order to be mentioned in this connection, required the troops to identify political commissars among the masses of prisoners, separate them out, and shoot them.  Investigations have confirmed that, in contrast to what former soldiers repeatedly claimed, this order was almost universally followed in the summer and fall of 1941.  In May of 1942 the order was rescinded at the urging of front-line commanders because knowledge of the shootings had drastically stiffened Red Army resistance.

Army leaders did not shrink from deception and manipulation in order to overcome possible resistance to this policy on the part of the troops.  When General Eugen Muller clarified the orders to representatives of the eastern armies on 11 June 1941 on behalf of the Supreme Commander of the Army, Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, he explained that in the east “a sense of justice may have to take second place to the necessities of war.”  What was required, he went on to say, was a “return to the old customs of warfare,” and pointed out that current law regarding war had been “established only after the World War.”  That was simply false; for all the actions required by the orders, including the method of treating prisoners, amounted to a clear violation of principles regarding the conduct of land warfare that had been adopted in The Hague in 1907.  That the USSR had neither ratified the Geneva Convention on war prisoners nor recognized as binding the Hague convention was of secondary importance, because German policy also violated general provisions of international law on warfare that were universally binding.

Members of the resistance tried in vain to persuade the military leadership to change orders.  As early as April 1941, following a conversation with Generaloberst Beck, former Chief of Army General Staff, Elrich von Hassell had noted: “What the documents reveal as having been communicated about orders issued to the troops and signed by Halder [Chief of the Army General Staff] regarding our conduct in Russia and the systematic perversion of military justice vis-a-vis the population [the reference is to the Barbarossa Decree] into a caricature mocking all law–is enough to make one’s hair stand on end…By yielding to Hitler’s orders, Brauchitsch is sacrificing the honor of the German Army.”

By transmitting these orders the military leadership quite consciously lowered the threshold of inhibitions in the Wehrmacht.  So also did the dissemination of Wehrmacht propaganda representing the enemy as “subhumans.”  All of this was an absolute prerequisite for the development of a climate characterized by a propensity for extreme violence within days after 22 June.  The orders regarding the treatment of Soviet war prisoners also need to be see in this context.  They reflect National Socialist ideology even more clearly than other orders.  They proclaimed that the Bolshevik soldier had “lost any right to be treated as an honorable soldier.”  The troops were repeatedly exhorted to “strike ruthlessly” (rucksichtsloses Durchgreifen).  General Hermann Reinecke, who was generally responsible for war prisoners, declared in an order dated 8 September 1941 laying down general guidelines that weapons needed to be used liberally with these prisoners on disciplinary grounds.  Anyone failing to make energetic use of weaponry in enforcing an order “will be subject to punishment…The use of weapons against Soviet prisoners of war is, as a general rule, regarded as legal.”

This was clearly a license to murder, and many soldiers understood it as such.

Resistance to abandoning the traditional principle that defenseless prisoners of war were to be humanely treated and properly fed arose only in isolated instances, and only at lower levels.  Protests by the army leadership or by officers leading the troops cannot be verified.  One of the most significant attempts to bring about fundamental change was undertaken by Graf von Moltke, who has been already mentioned.  At his urging Admiral Canaris, Chief of German Intelligence, demanded of Field Marshal Keitel, head of the OKW, that Reinecke’s order of 8 September be rescinded.  Keitel categorically refused: “These misgivings reflect the soldierly conception of a knightly war!  At issue here is the annihilation of a world view!  For that reason I approve the measures a[nd] support them.”

Both Canaris’s protest and Keitel’s response applied to systematic murder as well.  By this time Wehrmacht involvement in extermination policy went far beyond murdering commissars.  In the middle of July 1941, shortly after the invasion, the OKW had reached an agreement with Reinhard Heydrich that extended the commissar order.  Einsatzkommandos of the Security Police (SIPO) and the Security Service (SD) were to single out for murder among the war prisoners all “political unacceptables” in the Reich, in occupied Poland, and in the Reichskommissariats Ostland and Ukraine.  With one stroke the number of victims was multiplied several times, because the victims included not merely Communist party functionaries but, along with other categories, “all Jews.”

It is significant in the context of our study that the actual front, which was controlled by the OKH, was initially exempted from this regulation.  On 24 July 1941, in accordance with Chief of Staff Halder’s maxim that the army must “aid in the ideological struggle,” General Quartermaster Wagner had ordered that the affected categories of prisoners be shot by the troops.  An exception was made only for Jews, who were to be isolated, made clearly identifiable, and recruited as forced laborers.  Wagner refused to permit SS Einsatzkommandos to participate.  Three months later, at the end of October 1941, it was ordered that SS Einsatzkommandos carry out the selections in the OKH region as well.  Wagner’s express order forbidding such SS involvement had been widely ignored.  Camp commanders had, on their own authority, summoned the Kommandos to make the selections.  In the rear area of Army Group South, the commander, General von Roques, had ordered as much on 24 August 1941.  Thus, with complete disregard for the principle of obedience of higher authority, the impetus toward a more radical procedure had arisen among the troops themselves.  The number of war prisoners killed as “politically unacceptable” is estimated at far more than 140,000.  The connection of this mass murder with the genocide of the Jews is obvious.

A further connection between the Holocaust and the mass annihilation of Soviet prisoners of war also deserves a brief mention: The method that made possible the assembly-line murder of millions of Jews with the poison gas Zyklon B was developed in Auschwitz while the SS was looking for a “simpler” way to murder the many hundreds of Soviet war prisoners who had been selected for execution.  The infrastructure of the extermination camp at Birkenau–and of the camp at Majdanek as well–had been created for more than 100,000 Soviet prisoners of war whom the OKW had turned over to the SS to serve as slave laborers in Himmler’s projected industrial empire.

The fate of the wounded prisoners shows that even in the measureless misery of the prison camps an intensification of horror was still possible.  The criminal character of the treatment of prisoners finds its most naked expression here because both the USSR and the German Reich were signatories of the Geneva convention of 1929 on the treatment of the wounded.  Thus there existed in international law a quite unequivocal and precise obligation, which was consciously ignored by the German leadership.  Up until the summer of 1942, German leaders were interested in only those prisoners who could be rendered able to work cheaply and quickly.  The OKH ordered that only Soviet medical supplies be used in treating the wounded.  Thus only the physically robust who had been but slightly wounded were able to survive. Seriously wounded prisoners, even if they survived their wounds, had virtually no chance to survive to the end of the war.  The OKW ordered in September 1942 that prisoners that were “no longer fit for service” be turned over to the Higher SS and Police Leaders, who then arranged for them to be murdered. This development was actually initiated by the leaders of the army.  In an effort to preserve food supplies, beginning in the fall of 1941, the seriously wounded were expelled from the camps into the civilian population, where they could only starve.  The commanders of the army were thus operating according to the National Socialist principle of euthanasia, which denied the right to live to so-called “unproductive consumers” (unnutze Esser).

At the end of October 1941, the German leadership made a decision that initially appeared to make possible a fundamental change in the treatment of Soviet prisoners.  Since the collapse of the notion of a Blitzkrieg made it impossible to solve the serious labor shortage in the war economy by demobilizing soldiers, large numbers of Soviet prisoners were now to be used as laborers.  Even Hitler conceded that this required “appropriate nourishment.”  It soon turned out, however, that National Socialist leader were not prepared to reduce the amount of food available to the German population for that purpose.  The rations for prisoners were indeed increased but remained below the minimum required for survival.  Only at the end of October 1944, after the situation had become quite desperate, was the ration for Soviet prisoners made equal to that of German civilians.  That meant that they, in the best cases, received food in the same amount but certainly not the same quality.  As far as one can tell from the sources, the often-described, watery rutabaga soup continued to be the standard fare.  It should be stressed that the fact that Soviet prisoners of war were significantly more poorly nourished than the German civilian population marks an important difference in the treatment of war prisoners in Germany and in the Soviet Union. German prisoners suffered from hunger along with the Soviet population, while hunger in the German population was avoided, among other things, at the expense of the Soviet prisoners.

Even so, heightened interest in the value of prisoners as laborers at the end of 1941 had the effect of reducing mass deaths in the spring of 1942 as well as limiting the number of mass shootings.  But Soviet prisoners continued to be shot in significantly higher numbers and with significantly less reluctance than other allied prisoners.  Soviet prisoners who escaped and were recaptured were turned over to the SD for execution as a matter of principle.  Here we can also observe the corrupting influence that the treatment of Soviet prisoners exerted on the treatment of all other prisoners.  In March 1944 the OKW ordered that unproductive officers and non-commissioned officers of all enemy nations who were captured after having escaped were to be turned over to the Gestapo under the code-word “Kugel;” the Gestapo would then take them to the concentration camp at Mauthausen, where they would be murdered.

Beginning in the middle of 1942, a certain rethinking is detectable in the leadership of the army and among the troop leaders.  Decisive was the realization that the prisoners were urgently required for the labor force and that something must be done to win sympathy among the population of occupied regions. Instructions concerning the treatment of prisoners now stressed the need to maintain them as laborers. Orders issued repeatedly in various armies show, however, how hard it was to put the new principles into effect.  As before, prisoners were mistreated or forced to work until they died of exhaustion.

The measures that German leaders were now prepared to introduce could never come close to reducing mortality among Soviet prisoners to anything like a normal level.  On the contrary, it rose again beginning at the end of 1943 because more and more prisoners came down with diseases such as tuberculosis as a result of protracted privation.  In April 1945 as many as 100 per day were again dying in some camps.

Basic interest in the value of Soviet prisoners as a source of labor offered soldiers with humane inclinations some leverage for working toward more compassionate treatment.  In the Reich itself a number of cases have been documented in which soldiers far down in the chain of command turned on entrepreneurs who exploited prisoners with excessive unscrupulousness.  But these soldiers found no support at higher levels.  Industrial and party leaders regarded the application of even more brutal methods as the best guarantee of increased productivity.  General Reinecke helped see to it that this policy prevailed.  He was one of the most fanatical National Socialists in the OKW and, form 1941 on, had steadily increased party influence on matters regarding prisoners of war.

Thus, even if it can be demonstrated that there were soldiers in the Wehrmacht who attempted to bring about a more humane treatment of Soviet war prisoners in their spheres of influence, there is no doubt that these soldiers constituted a minority who were able to have any effect only when they encountered like-minded men–and that they had little influence on the reality of war in the east.  Among Wehrmacht leaders they found no support at all, among troop leaders very little.  In any case, devoted National Socialists had completely different ideas.  Hitler seems to have remarked to his inner circle in 1941 that the deaths of Soviet prisoners was one way of achieving the desired decimation of the “Slavic masses.”  In the initial phase of the war in the east, not only units of the Waffen-SS but also army units had, without orders and sometimes in contravention of express orders, shot Red Army men in the act of surrendering.  As late as February 1945, Field Marshal Schorner, Supreme Commander of Army Group Center and one of the most fanatical Nazis in the Wehrmacht, was praising soldiers that took no prisoners.

In the fall of 1941, the prevailing attitude in some prison camps–though certainly not all–was: “The more of these prisoners die, the better for us.”  In some regions conscious extermination had become a “self-starter” no longer requiring concrete orders.  In contrast to the extermination of the Jews, however, this tendency in the treatment of war prisoners was constrained by the fact that a fundamental interest in them as a work force was being stressed.  The conflict inherent in the simultaneous pursuit of exploitation and annihilation was never fully resolved.  From the NSDAP came increasingly radical demands, which found support in the OKW.  Extermination remained an option for the period following “final victory.”

–Translated by Roy Shelton

*This essay was originally published in Walter Manoschek, ed. Die Wehrmacht im Rassenkrieg.  Der Vernichtungskrieg hinter der Front (Vienna: 1996), 74-89.

The USHMM seems to have used this German publication as a primary source; both for the slaughter statistics and the Museum’s entries concerning the slaughter of Soviet POWs in 1941-42, the ridiculous evil effects of Lebensraum and the Commissar Order, and the plight of the POWs from 1942-45.

This leaves one or two questions hanging–did the Russians really conduct themselves with far greater discipline (and humanity, in comparison to Deutschland’s demonic behavior) than the Wehrmacht?  How did Red Army commanders prevent their soldiers from unleashing Carthaginian-level slaughter in retaliation from 1943 onwards?  

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