Economics / History / Warfare

The Ghosts of Horrors Past: Hunger Versus War Crimes

When we launched this series more than five years ago on the 72nd anniversary of the Battle of Midway, we had in mind to explore why the Second World War was so devoid of mercy, especially on the side of the Axis Powers.  We never explored this directly–the closest we came being a look at the merciless slaughter of Soviet POWs by the Wehrmacht nearly two years ago. 

Over three million Soviet soldiers were starved or otherwise murdered by German troops after being captured.  Statistics show conservatively that Soviet POWs captured by the Germans stood a 57.5% chance of dying after capture, compared to 35.8% of German POWs dying after Soviet capture while the British suffered 3.5% POW dead in German custody while Wehrmacht personnel suffered 0.15% and 0.03% fatality rates under American and British administration, respectively.  These figures show a shocking disparity, though this is on account of convenient mislabeling.

The Hungry of World War II

Official statistics concerning Axis POW losses in the Second World War almost never take into account Disarmed Enemy Forces (DEF):

For all but fringe debaters on the subject, the book is closed. The horror and death caused my maltreatment or murder in German, Japanese and Russian prisoner of war (POW) camps stains the history of these countries red, and is still painful for many, on all sides of Word War II, to even mention.

However, over the years, controversy has lingered over another group of camps. Many still claim that these camps were another war crime, this time committed by the Americans, under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower: the Rheinwiesenlager.

The Rheinwiesenlager were a group of American prison camps built along the Rhein river in April 1945 as the Allied Forcers were taking control and occupation of Germany. Around half of German soldiers captured in the West at the end of the war were placed in these camps. Most of the rest were placed in British and French custody.

It is certainly true that some facts about the Rheinwisenlager are shocking, the behavior of some of the Allied troops atrocious. These facts and their greater context will be presented along with the conclusions of historians and experts who have dived deep into this subject and the controversy around it.

There were 19 camps built in total, housing between 2 and 3 million prisoners. Some of these camps were turned over to British control in June, as they were in the “British Zone” in post-war Germany. Over 180,000 prisoners were sent to France at the request of the Charles de Gaulle’s government for forced labor. By September 1945, most of the Rheinwisenlager camps were closed.

The camps were beyond overcrowded. Prisoners mostly slept without shelter, exposed to the elements. Rations were generally between 1000 and 1550 calories per day. There was often little or no access to clean drinking water. Thousands died. How many thousands depends on who you ask. Regardless, given the facts, these camps did not hold up to the conditions mandated by the Geneva Convention.

This issue was circumnavigated, however, by a decision made in 1943 to declare German soldiers taken prisoner not as POWs, but as Disarmed Enemy Forces (DEF). With this characterization in place, things like lower rations and poor living conditions were inflicted without officially breaking what amounted to a binding international treaty.

If this was a war crime, it was by far the worst atrocity committed by the Western Allies during the Second World War.  Yes, we’re going there, but in the service of being thorough, we must also weigh the evidence.  The accusations against the Allies were leveled primarily from a single book published in 1989…

Much of the controversy over these camps is centered around a book published by James Bacque in 1989 titled Other Losses. Bacque, a fiction writer, and amateur historian, found himself investigating what he saw as very disturbing deception and grievous disregard for life that lead to the death of probably over 1 million Germans.

Bacque posits that Eisenhower, out of a spirit of vengeance denied the DEFs food that was readily available throughout Europe and through the offers of the Red Cross.

…and rather than attack Bacque, a conference weighed the evidence:

With all the sweeping and horrifying claims made in Bacque’s book, a conference was held at the Eisenhower Center of the University of New Orleans to examine the history of the Rheinwiesenlager. The conference was attended by several historians and experts from America, Canada, Britain, Germany, and Austria specializing in that period of post-war Germany.

One attendant (who worked at the Eisenhower Center), Stephen E. Ambrose, wrote a summary of their findings in the context of Bacque’s claims.

Their first conclusion was in line with Bacque: that German prisoners were beaten, had water, food and mail withheld, and lived in exposed, over-crowded conditions. However, on almost everything else, they disagreed with Bacque. As Bacque claims that Eisenhower hated and wished to punish Germans, the conference cites numerous sources that show a true effort to rebuild Germany. An understanding of the difference between the German people and the Nazi’s that committed atrocious crimes, and that most of the policies that can be construed as vengeful came from higher up in U.S. Command than Eisenhower.

They did find that rations were kept frighteningly low for the DEFs and that the Americans did, in fact, prevent Red Cross aid and inspection of the camps.

But this raises an question–why? 

Hunger For Blood…

The obvious, if dubious, answer was the horrors Allied forces suffered had lead to widespread reprisals:

Ronald Speirs was said to have shot German Prisoners of War on D Day, after the initial landings 1, 2, 3, 4 An interview with Private Art DiMarzio, published on YouTube in 2012, describes how he, Speirs and a sergeant from his Dog Company platoon became lost and disorientated as a result of being landed away from their intended drop zone – before encountering three German soldiers. With no means of managing the prisoners and needing to reach their military objective, Speirs gave the order to shoot them. According to fellow Dog Company member, Art DiMarzio, each man shot a prisoner.5 A few hours later four more German soldiers were encountered and this time Speirs shot all of them himself.6

Many paratroopers in the early morning hours of 6th June were also alleged to have shot German prisoners of war. Herman Oyler – a member of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne – recollects in the book “D-Day battle for Normandy” by Anthony Beevor that a sergeant in the 101st, having been prevented from killing one group of prisoners, turned to his men and said, ‘Let’s go and find some Krauts to kill!’7 In some cases paratroopers shot prisoners captured by others.8

In the Eisenhower Centre Archive of The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, there are accounts of troopers receiving speeches from their commanders designed to induce incitement and strengthen morale, prior to leaving England. Parker A Alford of the 26th Field Artillery, 9th Infantry Division, who was attached to the 501st PIR says, ‘There was a great feeling in the air; the excitement of battle’ One commander, Colonel ‘Jump’ Johnson of 501st PIR gathered his men around him and gave a short speech to arouse their fighting spirit. After which, he bent down and pulled a large commando knife from his boot and brandishing it above his head he said, ‘before I see the dawn of another day, I want to stick this knife into the heart of the meanest, dirtiest, filthiest Nazi in all of Europe.9 This reportedly elicited the required reaction from the assembled paratroopers.

General Maxwell Taylor, commander of the 101st Airborne instructed his paratroopers to ‘take no prisoners’ during the Normandy Invasion.10 One paratrooper – Don Malarkey, E Company, 506th PIR – said General Taylor told them that ‘if you were to take prisoners, they’d handicap our ability to perform our mission. We were going to have to dispose of prisoners as best we saw fit’.11

One 82nd Airborne trooper remembers being told ‘Take no prisoners because they will slow you down’.12

Historian Peter Lieb has found that many US units were ordered to not take enemy prisoners during the D-Day landings in Normandy.13

Paratroopers boarded their planes – riled by their commanders with fighting talk and directives of ‘take no prisoners’ fresh in their minds – and began their journey to the Carentan peninsula. The journey started uneventfully but quickly turned nightmarish. The National Archives in Maryland records that the landings in Normandy were confused and disordered – initially due to pilots encountering an unexpected low cloud bank which panicked them. This caused them to break formation but aircraft targeted by ack-ack fire and tracers meant the pilots were forced to make sudden violent manoeuvres. Paratroopers who were standing were forcefully thrown back and struggled to regain their balance. Tracer bullets made popping noises as they pierced the skin of the aircraft creating holes in the fuselage.14 These actions resulted in many paratroopers missing their drop zones.15 Sergeant Gordon Carson, a paratrooper in the 101st Airbourne recalls that most paratroopers just wanted to jump out of the plane as quickly as possible.16

As the paratroopers landed, some less fortunate found themselves caught in trees but as they struggled to free themselves, they were swiftly shot by the Germans. Hilter had issued a standing order – Kommandobefehl – which demanded that all special forces, such as paratroopers, be shot.17 As more paratroopers landed and began to make contact with other troopers, stories of dead American paratroopers whose bodies had been grossly mutilated by Germans soldiers spread. Coming upon such a scene, one 101st Captain – William Oatman – turned to his soldiers and said ‘don’t you guys dare take any prisoners! Shoot the bastards!’18

These actions were at odds to the Third Geneva Convention which, in 1929, decreed that Prisoners of War were due special protection. The United States of America was one of forty-four countries which signed this document – which also included Germany. Provisions in treaties and other international agreements are given effect as law in domestic courts of the United States.19

An article published in the Boston Globe dated 7th February, 1946 states Lt Ronald Speirs was “awarded the Bronze Star for singlehandedly killing 13 Nazis after parachuting into Normandy on D-Day.”20

An American unwillingness to take prisoners in June 1944 was so strong it came through in spades 54 years later through the work of Steven Spielberg:

The pinned comment makes the above sequence even more horrifying:

Fun Fact: The two “German” Soldiers who were shot were speaking Czech. They were saying “Please do not shoot me. I’m Not German. I am Czech, I didn’t kill anyone. I am Czech!” Many Czech and Polish Citizens were forced into German military after their hometowns were taken over.

But Saving Private Ryan was a work of fiction.  Lt. Ronald Speirs was actually there, in Normandy with Dog Company, and really was accused of massacring German POWs.  The factual deadly actions of Speirs towards his enemies are front-and-center in 2001’s Band of Brothers, first as a mysterious lieutenant on D-Day…

…then as a legend:

Okay, time to face facts.  First of all, he certainly killed the American sergeant:

Question:  Did Speirs actually shoot an American soldier under his command?

Answer:  Yes.

It is factually indisputable that Speirs did so, as he himself reported the incident afterwards.  As the commander to whom he reported it was killed shortly thereafter, it does not appear that a full investigation was ever conducted.  However, under the circumstances his actions appear defensible.

Art DiMarzio was a witness to this incident.  Here is the relevant portion of his oral account:

Had Speirs shot a merely disobedient soldier, this might be a legitimately controversial case.  However, in this case an apparently drunken sergeant had threatened him with a firearm during combat.

Second, we must answer another question.  Could the U.S. Army afford to lose a man to Fort Leavenworth that was renowned for doing this?

Yes, this sequence in a Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg production was mostly historically accurate, though Shifty Powers in reality didn’t need Lipton to act as bait:

On January 13, 1945, when Easy Company was attacking Foy, several of the men were pinned down by a sniper. For some time, no one could locate. Suddenly, Powers yelled, “I see him.” and fired his rifle. The sniper was silenced and the men were no longer pinned down. Later when Carwood Lipton and Wynn found the body of the sniper, they were shocked to see the bullet hole centered in the middle of his forehead. Wynn commented, ‘You know, it just doesn’t pay to be shootin’ at Shifty when he’s got a rifle.’

The common argument for why someone like Speirs, bloodthirsty enough to earn nicknames such as “Bloody” and ‘Killer,” remained on the line center around a shortage of brave line officers, though the kid glove treatment of Ernest Medina and William Calley to the ongoing saga of Eddie Gallagher indicate that the horrors of war do not usually flow back upon its worst perpetrators.  Command responsibility is hilariously termed the Medina Standard when the company commander at My Lai getting off scot-free despite there being documentary evidence that Ernest Medina murdered unarmed noncombatants in the hamlet.

But in the case of the ETO circa 1945, why, if the Allies were to rebuild West Germany with the Marshall Plan, did the Americans treat DEFs so poorly?  Did Eisenhower’s Rheinwisenlager camps constitute anything more than a massive, unprosecuted war crime?

…Versus The Consequences Of Der Hungerplan

Unquestionably the DEF designation was a violation of international law, but it came from a horrifying calculus brought on by Axis policy:

This Slate image, along with this one from the BBC…

…are from the First World War’s aftermath, but 30 years later the same demon stalked Europe:

In April 1945, Eisenhower wrote to the Combined Chiefs of Staff of the Western Allies that the food situation in Germany was going to be desperate and that much needed to be done, and fast, to prevent starvation and chaos throughout the country. As Germany surrendered, and the occupation began, more slave laborers were freed than expected, more German soldiers surrendered than were expected as well, and around 13 million German civilians fled from the Russian occupied zone into the West.

In total, 17 million more people than Eisenhower expected when he saw the situation as desperate, now needed food as well.

The situation Eisenhower faced in the American occupied zone of Germany was very grim, as it was for the rest of Germany and much of Central and Western Europe. The reason the Eisenhower Conference cites for the tough rationing in the camps is that the General didn’t want to feed the prisoners more than the civilians or displaced people in a famine that affected the entire region’s food supplies for years to come.

Deliberate Nazi policy had starved out Greece from 1941-44, Leningrad over the same timeframe, the Netherlands from 1944-45, the Warsaw Ghetto on top of the other horrors, and triggered the Soviet postwar famine.  The Ghetto famine was particularly clinical, yet typically horrifying and rage-inducing simultaneously:

In fall 1940, the Germans established the Warsaw a walled, sealed district solely for Jews. Half a million people were herded into an area of little more than one square mile. The Germans’ policy was designed to starve them from the outset. Food rationing in occupied Poland allowed Germans 2,613 calories a day, gentile Poles 699, and Jews 184 – the equivalent of a bowl of watery soup and a piece of bread.

How much you got to eat in the ghetto depended on what you were able to buy on the black market. The richest consumed perhaps 1,700 calories a day, the poorest fewer than 800. People literally dropped dead in the streets.

The ghetto had two hospitals: Czyste and, for children, Berson and Bauman. In 1941, Czyste’s director Joseph Stein wrote that the word “hospital” might as well be scrapped from the name: it didn’t even qualify as a poorhouse. A visitor to remarked that it would be kinder not to extend the poor children’s lives.

Without medicine or food, the doctors and nurses of the ghetto could do little or nothing for patients. They were forced to stand by while the sick slowly starved to death. But if they couldn’t save their patients, at least they could learn from their agony. If future generations could benefit from knowledge gained, the looming deaths would not be entirely in vain.

In deepest secrecy, the doctors set up an ambitious study. They selected as subjects 140 patients whose primary problem was not illness but malnutrition.

The doctors recorded their findings in the research report, chapter by chapter. The first symptoms of hunger in adults: a dry mouth, frequent urination, rapid weight loss and an irrepressible yearning for food.

In a later phase, the craving for food became less urgent. Apathy took its place, along with a general feeling of weakness. The starving person preferred to curl up in the fetal position; he was always cold. Fluid accumulated in his cells, beginning with the face, feet, and legs. The condition became known as hunger edema.

At this stage, accelerated aging set in. Deprived of food, the young person turned elderly. Her skin grew papery: pale, dry, and scaly. Brown blotches appeared all over her body. Her hair fell out.

In the final period, the person’s movements became slow and clumsy. He was a skeleton tripping over his own feet. His heartbeat slowed; his blood pressure and body temperature dropped further. His voice grew hoarse. One of the report’s authors wrote: “Death from longlasting hunger is like a candle burning out slowly.”

Autopsies on 500 patients showed that of all the vital organs, the only one that retained its weight in the face of starvation was the brain. Muscle tissue dwindled to one-third of what it had been. Heart, liver, kidneys shriveled. An autopsy report on a 16-year-old girl noted that her heart was smaller than her fist.

The doctors presented their findings at a secret conference on July 6, 1942. Two weeks later, mass deportations from the ghetto to the death camps began. The research was hastily collected and smuggled out. In October 1942, the doctor who headed the study, Israel Milejkowski, wrote in an introduction to the report: “In spite of this, nobody interrupted the work, and quietly, modestly, without any advertising, the work was done.”

Milejkowski concluded his preface with the words “Non omnis moriar”: “I shall not wholly die.” Three months later, he was deported to the Treblinka death camp. The research report was published in France in 1946. Its scientific and historical importance was immediately recognized.

Is it surprising that the Ronald Speirs of the world had a deep desire to kill the cretins that perpetuated such abominations on children, let alone the far angrier Russian men like Vasily Zaitsev?  Even when certain of defeat, the Wehrmacht could not help but to be barbaric:

Important information on hunger and malnutrition was amassed in the Netherlands, too, during the war. (It’s easy to take a cynical view here. Dutch hospitals kept their patient administrations in order, just as cities carefully kept their population registries up to date: it was part of what enabled the detention and deportation of record numbers of Jews in the country.)

By September 1944, the southern Netherlands had been liberated. In support of the Allied advance, the Dutch government-in-exile in London called for a national railway strike. The Germans retaliated by banning food transport by train to the urbanized west. Supplies in the cities quickly ran out. To make matters worse, the cold weather arrived early that year, and it was unusually harsh. Thus began the “Hunger Winter” – Hongerwinter – which cost an estimated 20,000 lives.

In the winter of 1944-45, the average pregnant Dutchwoman didn’t gain weight – she lost it. We know this from birth records, which paint a detailed picture of the prevailing malnutrition. The average mother-to-be weighed 150 lbs. at her initial checkup. Just before giving birth, she was down to 137 or less, even as her fetus had gained 5 lbs. in the preceding 12 weeks.

Babies conceived and born during the Hongerwinter weighed less than those whose lives had begun in peacetime. Their bodies and heads were smaller. They were more likely to die at birth or in the first three months of life.

Dozens of research projects since the 1960s have examined birth records from the period. The most famous make up the Dutch For 20 years and counting, researchers have been tracking the health of men and women born in winter 1944-45 at Amsterdam’s Wilhelmina Gasthuis hospital.

The findings are staggering. They show that malnutrition in a mother has lasting negative effects on her child’s health. The foundations for many illnesses – cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer – are laid in the womb. A baby suffers the consequences of its mother’s hunger all its life.

The effects are most severe when the mother goes without sufficient food in the first three months after conception, when vital organs like the heart, brain and liver form. Children conceived or born during the Dutch famine were more likely to encounter psychological problems, such as depression and schizophrenia. Since their bodies had learned in the womb to process nutrients as efficiently as possible, they were prone to becoming overweight later.

Fuck you, Fritz.  Perhaps the Allies should have handed the West German nation over to the Dutch in 1949 to teach the bloody bastards some manners?  Remarkably, the Germans began fucking around with food supplies before 1939.  Before the war even began, German policy guaranteed a future of uninterrupted famine:

The combatant nations of World War I learned through logistical error and terrible suffering the importance of securing adequate food supplies in a prolonged armed conflict. Not least as a result of this experience, as Lizzie Collingham shows in her superb new study The Taste of War, these same nations went to considerable lengths to keep their armies and civilian populations alive and well fed during World War II. For Germany and in particular its leader, Adolf Hitler, the memory of mass malnutrition and starvation during the earlier conflict was an ever-present trauma. From early in his political life, Hitler wanted to conquer “living-space” for Germany in Eastern Europe and draw on the huge grain resources of Ukraine to feed the German armed forces. The Nazis had no intention of repeating the mistake of World War I, when rationing was introduced too late to save the situation. Indeed, although Collingham claims that rationing was introduced in Germany in August 1939, it had already been in place for two years before that. Already by the mid-1930s, military and arms industry conscription, the requisitioning of huge tracts of agricultural land for military purposes and the imposition of foreign exchange controls to curb food imports had led to a dramatic fall in food production and a concomitant rise in food prices. In 1936 prices were frozen, and on January 1, 1937, rationing was introduced for butter, margarine and fat; consumption of coffee and citrus fruit was restricted early in 1939. The German economy was on a war footing long before the war began.

{Emphasis Added}.

Nazi mismanagement having caused a collapse in domestic food production, the Germans turned their sights east:

Hitler managed to keep people at home in Germany reasonably well fed until the later stages of the war. Collingham reckons that around 40 percent of the bread and meat eaten by the armed forces and civilians in the Reich was produced in the occupied territories or by laborers deported from these countries to work on German farms. Her claim that “in Germany the population only began to experience hunger after May 1945,” however, rests on too easy an acceptance of postwar memories, when many Germans blamed the Allied occupation for failing to feed the German population. Food supplies in Germany had already begun to break down in the fall of 1944, as the armed forces lost control over Eastern Europe with the westward advance of the Red Army, and road and rail communications within Germany were being severely disrupted by Allied bombing. The Nazi regime cut domestic bread rations from 12,450 grams in May 1944 to 9,700 in August, 8,900 in December, and 3,600 in April 1945. The meat ration was reduced from 1,900 grams to 550 over the same period. Nobody could live on what they were officially allowed to buy; a huge black market, run by escaped foreign workers, emerged, with gangs engaged in regular shootouts with the Gestapo. The incidence of diseases like tuberculosis, boosted by malnutrition and debilitation, rose sharply in 1944. And indeed, Collingham concedes that there were “worsening food shortages in Germany’s cities until, in the last months before the Allied victory, the supply system broke down.”

These nimrods even gave a name to this demented policy, der Hungerplan:

In the east, Nazi plans were worse even than Nazi reality.

As German leaders prepared for the invasion of the Soviet Union in spring 1941, they agreed a quick summer victory would be followed by the starvation of some 30 million people. A Hunger Plan foresaw the “extinction of industry as well as a great part of the population”. Soviet cities would be destroyed, Soviet industry destroyed, and eastern lands reduced to depopulated prairie ripe for German agrarian colonisation.

But the Red Army resisted and Stalin remained in the Kremlin. It proved difficult to starve large numbers of civilians without total control of territory. Stalin had managed to starve millions of his own citizens in these same lands a few years before, but he had at his disposal, then, an apparatus of terror and a loyal party organisation that the invading Germans could not match.

Though the Hunger Plan proved impossible, it provided the moral premises for the Wehrmacht’s treatment of civilians and prisoners of war after the invasion of June 1941. Starvation proceeded where German soldiers had total control of land and people. Kharkiv, Kiev and, above all, besieged Leningrad were starved, killing more than 1 million Soviet civilians.

The main victims of the starvation policy were Soviet soldiers taken captive. Huge numbers of Red Army men (and women) were taken prisoner in that summer of 1941, largely because Stalin opposed retreats. In one engagement near Smolensk, 348,000 prisoners were taken; after the Battle of Kiev, the figure was 665,000. The wounded and sick were shot where they were found. Most of the prisoners who reached German camps would be dead by 1942.

In the German POW camps in occupied Soviet Belarus, Soviet Ukraine and Poland, prisoners were not even registered by name. As the German quartermaster general of the German army indicated, prisoners who could not work “were to be starved”. At a single camp near Minsk, some 109,500 prisoners died. At another at Molodechno, prisoners submitted written petitions asking to be shot rather than dying slowly of hunger in the cold.

Many prisoners were indeed shot. The German Einsatzgruppen made selections of those whom they believed to be Jews and political officers, and killed them on the spot.

Some 3.1 million Soviet prisoners perished in German captivity: about 500,000 were shot; the remaining 2.6 million died of starvation and hunger-related disease. More Soviet prisoners died in German camps on a given day in autumn 1941 than American and British prisoners did during the entire war.

As of the end of 1941, by which time the Germans, with local help, had already murdered about 1 million Jews, the starvation of Soviet prisoners was still the greatest German crime. Even in occupied Poland – in 1942 to become the major site of the Holocaust – the mass murder of POWs brought from the east was, in 1941, still the central horror. As of December 1941, more Soviet POWS had died in occupied Poland than had either Jews or Poles.

This crime has been forgotten, in part because Stalin presented the prisoners as deserters, and in part because the victims, of dozens of nationalities, have no coherent group to remember them.

The German mass murder of Soviet POWs has been overshadowed by the Holocaust; yet, the two policies are best understood together. The concentration camps in Germany became killing facilities when they received Soviet prisoners, who were murdered in shooting campaigns at Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen and Auschwitz. Soviet prisoners were gassed experimentally, using both carbon monoxide (at Sachsenhausen) and hydrogen cyanide (at Auschwitz) – the two agents then used to asphyxiate millions of Jews.

When the Germans began to release Soviet prisoners of war, one of their tasks was to guard the new German death facilities at Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka, where the Jews of Poland were gassed in 1942. Thus some survivors of the first major German killing policy became collaborators in the second.

In late 1941, as the Soviet Union fought on, Nazi ideology and German policy shifted to accommodate a longer war in the east. As millions of Slavs, some of them surviving Soviet prisoners of war, came to Germany to replace the workers sent to the eastern front, the image of the enemy who must be exterminated changed. No longer was it both the Slavs and the Jews, the former supposedly led by the latter, but chiefly the Jews as such.

Slavs were treated horribly in Germany after 1942, but never as murderously as in the starvation camps of 1941. Jews, on other hand, were targeted in 1942 for a policy of complete annihilation, even when their work was valuable for the Reich. The Jewish people were the ultimate enemy of the Reich, and their fate was the worst of all. But to appreciate just what that superlative “worst” means, we must grasp the fate of the Soviet prisoners of war.

But starving Soviet POWs wasn’t enough.  To keep Germans fed, everyone else in Europe had to go without food:

If food shortages were bad in Germany, they were catastrophic in Eastern Europe. Germany, as Collingham notes, “exported wartime hunger to the countries it occupied.” Beginning with a “hunger plan” hatched by the leading civil servant in the Food Ministry, Herbert Backe, and expanding in scope and ambition into the “General Plan for the East,” devised at the behest of SS chief Heinrich Himmler, Nazi food policy envisaged the deliberate starvation of between 30 and 45 million Slavs (Collingham’s claim of 100 million seems exaggerated), its effects to be accelerated by denying them access to medical care. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, cities like Kharkov, bombed and blasted by air attacks and house-to-house fighting, were left without basic facilities such as water, sewerage, gas and electricity. The infrastructure was destroyed. The occupying German forces banned civilians from entering or leaving the city. The retreating Soviet forces had already implemented a scorched-earth policy, denying the incoming Germans food by burning or ruining all the warehouses stockpiled with grain, corn, flour and vegetables. Half the population was evacuated; those who remained were condemned by the Soviets as traitors. “There are no stores,” wrote a contemporary living in the city, “no markets, no shops of any kind…. The town is void of eatables like a desert.” By the end of 1942 a third of the remaining 450,000 inhabitants were dead, almost all of them from starvation. In Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg), besieged for more than two years by German forces under orders to starve the city out rather than take it by storm, with all the heavy military losses that would imply, at least a million people died of starvation, and there were widespread reports of people eating dead bodies in their desperation to stay alive.

• • •

The mass murder of “useless eaters” began as early as September 1939, as the invading Germans crammed Poland’s Jews into unsanitary and overcrowded ghettos, where they were forced to live on what were literally starvation rations. In the Warsaw ghetto one observer saw only “nightmare figures, ghosts of former human beings” suffering from “emaciation and sickliness.” Desperate inhabitants fought over scraps, losing all human dignity. Thousands died every week; altogether as many as 100,000 starved to death, according to Collingham, though many of the dead had in fact succumbed to diseases such as typhus that were a consequence more of lack of public hygiene than lack of food. Worse was to come. Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union was followed by massive victories and the capture of millions of prisoners of war, who were herded into makeshift enclosures in the open and left to starve to death. Cases of cannibalism were reported here too. Collingham says that 2.35 million died, but this is an underestimate: the generally agreed-on figure is as high as 3.3 million.

The invasion and war in general had an enormous impact on the Soviet Union. Collingham estimates that a third of all people worldwide who died during the war lived in the Soviet Union. Fully 15 percent of the Soviet population did not survive the war—eighty-five people for every Briton or American dead. Around 9 million Red Army combatants were killed, a reflection, among other things, of Stalin’s callous disregard for life as he forced his generals time and again to throw their troops into the fray. In Moscow in 1942, after the German assault had been turned back, it was said that “the sight of men and women falling dead of starvation on [the] streets became too commonplace to attract crowds.” The disruption of communications caused by the German invasion meant that troop rations, meager at the best of times, could be interrupted for days on end. Red Army soldiers became expert foragers, digging up crops, stealing peasants’ honey and potatoes, requisitioning animals and killing them to eat. Some would make a stew of boiled nettles or pine needles to ward off scurvy.

Not only peasants but also town-dwellers suffered. The entire economy was geared ruthlessly to war production. Civilian production virtually collapsed. This happened not least because everything, including food production and distribution, was entirely state-run. Nevertheless, the regime squeezed the agricultural sector into supplying not only the armed forces but also munitions and armaments workers and their families with food, above all with bread, handed out in factories rather than in distribution centers to ensure it went to sustain the war production effort directly by feeding the workers first. People marginal to war production—the elderly, the sick, the disabled, the very young—were denied the basics of existence and died. Overall perhaps as many as 3 million Soviet citizens perished from starvation during the war, though this figure is difficult to square with Collingham’s claim that the total number of civilian dead in the Soviet Union was as high as 20 million.

The U.S.S.R. was cold in winter, wasn’t it?  Driving people out of their homes in January was probably a death sentence, especially if the whole town is burned or razzed to the ground.  Moreover, the Second World War also had a lot of ordnance thrown at the Soviet Union over nearly a four year period, so the 17 million dead unaccounted for might have something to do with these two additional factors.  So, where were the Americans in all this?  Studying famine.

The Study Of Famine

For reasons that boggle the mind, the U.S. found thousands of volunteers to go hungry for science during the Second World War:

Of the World War II hunger studies, an at the University of Minnesota was perhaps the most unusual – first of all because there was no famine in the United States. Of course, the researchers knew about the widespread hunger in occupied Europe. They wanted to find out how best to help starving Europeans regain their health after liberation. Which nutrients in which amounts would be most effective?

But they needed starving people for the experiment. Where could they find them in a hurry? They appealed to the 42,000 Americans whose moral or religious convictions had led them to become conscientious objectors, earning them social opprobrium. Many wished to demonstrate their willingness to make sacrifices on behalf of humanity. Of hundreds of volunteers, the researchers selected the 36 most physically and mentally healthy to serve as

The experiment began in November 1944 and lasted a year. The first three months were devoted to getting the volunteers to their optimum base weight. They were allowed to eat what they wanted. Each day, they put away an average 3,500 calories.

A six-month period of hunger followed. In this phase, they were given approximately 1,570 calories’ worth of food a day. The goal was to reduce their body weight by 24%.

At first, the volunteers were full of energy and fascinated by the experiment. As hunger set in, they became quieter and more obsessed with food. Their faces narrowed; their jaws became pronounced; their buttocks shrank. They carried pillows, since sitting was painful.

Their wrists and ankles swelled up from edema, concealing their weight loss. They developed anemia and lay shivering under two blankets in the middle of a hot summer. They no longer had the strength to make their beds. They became depressed, antisocial and nervous. They lost interest in everything and became withdrawn.

Once the six months were up, the worst appeared to be over. The three-month recovery period began. The volunteers’ daily ration was raised to between 2,000 and 3,000 calories. After five weeks, though, they looked no less skeletal. They had gained little or no weight. They still felt tired and depressed. Their blood pressure and pulse rates remained low. And they were still hungry – some more so than ever.

Their food intake was increased to 4,000 calories a day. Slowly, the men began to recover. Their heart and lung capacity increased, but much more slowly than the researchers had expected. Vitamin and protein supplements had no effect whatsoever. At the end of the three months, none of the volunteers were anywhere near their starting weight.

They took months to recover completely. Some ate up to 10,000 calories a day. Within a year, many had become slightly overweight.

Shockingly, this information would have been immensely useful had the study begun in 1942, so this regimental surgeon would know that starving men cannot eat themselves to death:

So, what did the Americans learn from this and the Germans’ starvation studies?  Anything helpful?

Because of the Dutch famine, we know babies suffer the consequences of maternal malnutrition all their lives. From the Warsaw ghetto, we know in detail how starvation gradually destroys the body and mind. Thanks to the Minnesota experiment, we know that giving patients extra vitamins and protein during rehabilitation doesn’t help. Since World War II, it’s been an established scientific fact that chronic hunger inflicts lasting damage.

A quarter of the world’s population is still experiencing it firsthand every day.

Ouch.  But something useful did come out of American starvation studies, specifically that saving the Soviets from starvation will lead to them massacring millions of Germans…albeit the U.S. military was just as willing to do the killing:

The United States, worried about the Soviets’ ability to survive under such conditions, shipped huge quantities of food under the lend-lease agreement. An American officer who accompanied one shipment was shocked by the sight of groups of “starved wretches” who gathered on the quayside where shipments were being unloaded to scoop up and eat on the spot “raw meat, scraps or steaming chicken guts thrown out with the [American] ships’ galley garbage.” But however bad life may have been under the Soviet regime, it was far worse under German occupation. Death awaited Red Army soldiers who surrendered, so they fought on. Hunger did not destroy morale. The Soviet Union was “fighting on empty” but it continued to fight, ultimately all the way to victory. The German submarine fleet’s attempt to stop American supplies from reaching the northern seaports of the Soviet Union scored some successes, but ultimately it succumbed to the Allied convoy system, the superiority, in the end, of Allied intelligence and decrypting ability, and the inadequacies of the U-boat fleet. And the situation slowly improved: by 1943 the Soviet Union was receiving more lend-lease food than Britain.

1943, by which point the Germans were unquestionably doomed.  These people (barbarians seems a better moniker), never having had enough food supplies without imports, implemented der Hungerplan.  With memories and fears fresh from the First World War, they short-circuit the inevitable Allied naval blockade by targeting the European breadbasket in Ukraine.  The Nazi Hunger Plan murdered millions of Soviet POWs, enraging the Red Army that razzed Germany flat in response. 

But the devastation of the Soviet Ukraine guaranteed food shortages were always close at hand in Eastern Europe, triggering even a postwar famine in the U.S.S.R. until 1947 and a massive dislocation of refugees westward from the former German regions east of the Oder-Neisse:

After World War II, the Allied powers ceded the German lands east of the Order and Lusatian Neisse rivers to Poland — creating a border dispute that would last all through the Cold War.

It were the Soviets who insisted on the change. Joseph Stalin wanted to annex the Eastern Borderlands of the former Polish Republic — which were only lightly populated by ethnic Poles — to Russia proper while still putting a strong Polish buffer state in between it and Germany. Hence the need to add Germany’s eastern provinces to the new Poland.

The north of East Prussia, around the city of Königsberg, was sliced off to create Kaliningrad for Russia, giving it the warm-water port on the Baltic Sea it had long coveted.

The Americans and British felt this dismemberment of Germany went too far, but they eventually relented at Potsdam in the summer of 1945 under a combination of Soviet intransigence and pressure from the Soviet-aligned Polish government.

The Western Allies were also led to believe there were only around one million Germans still living in East Prussia, Eastern Pomerania and Silesia.

In fact, there were millions. Up to 31 million ethnic Germans and German citizens were cleansed from Eastern Europe after the war. Between twelve and fourteen million resettled in Austria and West Germany. Recent studies suggest around half a million died in the expulsion.

The expulsion, while created a massive refugee problem in East and West Germany, wasn’t the only adverse effect of losing these regions.  Far worse was the loss of the territories themselves:

The German provinces east of the Oder-Neisse line comprise 25 percent, or one-fourth, of the effective agricultural land of all Germany.  The grain production of the region equaled that of Australia, the potato production equaled that of France, the butterfat production equaled that of Denmark.

We have come full circle.  Germany, having experiencing food shortages beginning in 1935, imposing food price controls in 1936 and rationing on New Year’s Day 1937, loses a quarter of its arable land while absorbing tens of millions of its citizens displaced from the lands lost.  How were the victorious Allies supposed to feed these people?

Answer–you don’t:

By May 8, 1945, the Allies were responsible for 7 million displaced persons in Germany and 1.6 million in Austria, including slave laborers from all over Europe.[10][11][12] Soon thereafter, German populations had swollen by 12 to 14.5 million ethnic Germans expelled from Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union.[13] Bavarian villages in the American zone faced 15% to 25% population increases from displaced persons, with Munich alone having to deal with 75,000 displaced persons.[13]

The worst dislocation of agriculture was caused by the German zonal partitions, which cut off Western Germany from its “breadbasket” of farm lands east of the Oder-Neisse line that had accounted for 35% of Germany’s prewar food production,[5] and which the Yalta Conference had given to Poland to compensate for lands of Eastern Poland.[5] The Soviet Union, with millions of its own starving citizens at home, was not willing to distribute this production to the population in western Germany.[14] In January 1945, the basic German ration was 1,625 calories/day, and that was further reduced to 1,100 calories by the end of the war in the British zone, and remained at that level into the summer, with levels varying from 840 calories/day in the Ruhr to 1,340 calories/day in Hamburg.[14] The situation was no better in the American zones of Germany and Austria.[14]

These problems combined to create severe shortages across Germany. One summary report estimated that just prior to Victory in Europe (V-E) Day, German consumer daily caloric intake was only 1,050, and that after V-E Day it dropped to 860 calories per day, though actual estimates are confusing because of the wide variation by location and because unofficial estimates were usually higher.[15] It was clear by any measure that, by the spring of 1945, the German population was existing on rations that would not sustain life in the long term.[15] A July 1945 CCAC report stated that “the food situation in western Germany is perhaps the most serious problem of the occupation. Average consumption is now about one third below the general accepted subsistence level of 2000 calories per day.”[16]

In the spring of 1946 the International Red Cross was finally allowed to provide limited amounts of food aid to prisoners of war in the U.S. occupation zone.[17] By June 1948, DEF rations had been increased to 1990 calories and in December 1949 rationing was effectively discontinued and the food crisis was over.[18]

The Allies had a terrible dilemma.  The Geneva Convention required (and still requires) feeding POWs rations equal in size as normal military rations.  This wasn’t an issue with the 425,000 POWs shipped from the ETO to the U.S. to work in North American agriculture, which was the typical route prior to 1945.  But with millions captured, they had to be housed and fed in Europe under the same conditions…while the tens of millions of homeless, hungry and dispossessed refugees were afforded no such international protections.

As the Americans had a surfeit of supplies behind them, adhering to the Geneva Convention was Allied SOP so long as Axis prisoners were being transported out of Continental Europe:

Prisoners captured in Normandy in 1944 [and held in the United Kingdom] were issued a ration which did not differ greatly from that supplied American troops [balanced; 3612 calories].  No distinction was made in the rations for working and nonworking prisoners.

POW on the continent were issued a similar ration until 7 December 1944, except that nonworkers received 20% less than workers.  At this time the worker’s ration was reduced from 3860 to 3258 calories; nonworkers received 10% less [2932 calories].  Another reduction was made in April 1945.  For the first time separate rations were authorized nonworkers because it was not feasible to make an overall percentage deduction in the worker’s ration to bring the caloric level down to the 2000 calorie level ordered by the Theater Commander [(e.g.: Eisenhower)] for nonworkers.  These ration decreases were the result of the disparity between tremendous numbers of captured prisoners and the relatively small stocks of available foodstuffs. 

Why April 1945?  Well…


Dwight D. Eisenhower famously stated in Paris on 27 March 1945 “the German army as a military force on the western front is a whipped army.”  The number of POWs captured in February and March 1945 certainly suggest this was true.  Yet the following month the Americans were clearly overstretching their foodstuff supply line.  This was the result of the torrent of German civilians pouring west from the Soviet onslaught.  For decades, the assertion that the Western Allies could and did refuse surrender to Wehrmacht forces that were not engaged against or not on the lines opposite the Anglophone and Francophone forces was, shall we say, incomplete.  In reality the massive burden that the surrender of a large German land formation imposed on the Western Allied armies became an insurmountable problem in the spring of 1945 unless the American, British, Canadian or French formation was directly engaged in combat with its opposite number:

Feeding prisoners of war.—Experience with messing problems and nutritionally inadequate diets among prisoners of war because of lack of mess gear and cooking facilities pointed out the need for forethought and action regarding supplies, disciplining capturing troops in obedience to the Geneva Convention, and maintaining the interests of preventive med icine. Mess gear and water canteens are among the “effects and objects of personal use” which Article 6 of the convention specifies “shall remain in the possession of prisoners of war” (fig. 40) Through violations of this requirement, and through both thoughtlessness and misjudgment, mess gear and canteens were often taken from prisoners of war to their detriment and to the increase of the burden upon the detaining forces.

Admittedly, however, the lack of these implements and facilities was frequently caused by the fact that U.S. supply could not furnish them in the numbers needed. Whatever the reasons, numerous reports and photo graphs testify to those deprivations. The following is an example:

During the closing phase of the war, General Bradley received a message that a German corps commander wanted to surrender his entire corps. General Littlejohn, who was at dinner with General Bradley, recom mended that the offer of surrender be declined unless the Germans brought in all their unit mess equipment, and also all individual mess gear, blankets, and bedding.”

General Bradley told about the following episode:

The PW tally [on 14 April 1945] had now outrun our ability to keep daily count. In one cantonment alone we had caged 160,000. The feeding of these PWs and DPs exerted an additional strain upon our overburdened supply lines and we instructed Army commanders not to accept prisoners streaming westward from the Russians. When a few days later the 11th Panzer Division in Czechoslovakia sent word that it wished to surrender to U.S. forces, we invited them to come in “but only if you bring your own kitchens and can take care of yourselves.”

Because of this burden, Western Allied forces were selective about taking large-scale surrender and the concomitant responsibility for the newly-captured POWs.  However, this same policy could not be taken against noncombatants.  Tens of millions of civilians streamed through the Western Allied lines, increasing the burden on the units further.  This might have been a major factor in Eisenhower’s decision not to advance on Berlin–not only would the additional German territory overrun by the Western Allies have be turned over to the Soviet Zone (the DDR) per the Yalta Conference, the Western Allied lines would absorb far more POWs and fleeing civilians from densely-packed Berlin (then and now Germany’s largest city) than they did in reality.  The Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), which was commanded by Eisenhower over its entire existence from 1943 to 1945, made a drastic decision:

Furthermore, the 2000 calorie ration was authorized as the theater ration for displaced persons and others whose subsistence was the responsibility of G-5 [Assistant Chief of Staff for Civil Affairs-Military Government, G-5, SHAEF).  The earlier rations supplied nonworkers were in accordance of the Geneva Convention and were in excess of the actual requirements of the prisoners.  The original policy was bitterly criticized by allied civilians because nonworking prisoners had more to eat than allied workers.

Essentially, SHAEF could choose to feed the soldiers of a vanquished army more than, the same as, or less than those soldiers’ victims.  Eisenhower chose the middle option, despite the decision being an immediate violation of the Geneva Convention.

Following the German surrender in May 1945, practically all the prisoners held by the Armies inside of Germany were classified as “disarmed forces” and their subsistence became the responsibility of the civilian food administration.  POW in the Communications Zone remained on the POW ration.

The components of the POW ration were mostly Quartermaster supplies originally intended for use in the troop ration.  The quality, therefore, was good.  The method of preparation preferred by the Germans was the concoction of a stew containing nearly all the ration components.  This was fortunate because it was possible to issue dehydrated potatoes and vegetables, which served the purpose admirably and were less acceptable in the troop ration.  Captured enemy flour was used as long as it lasted.

Contrarians the world over argue that the words written and evidence presented by victorious armies accused of war crimes cannot be trusted is often well-taken, except when the medical evidence clearly contradicts the conspiracists.  The book we are referencing for this nutritional data is The Medical Department of the United States Army in World War II, by the United States Army Medical Service.  While the USAMS could also accused of being hopelessly biased, their reports and research instead appears unimpeachable, as we shall see.

Hunger, starvation and famine are complex processes, which only becomes apparent when there is abundant medical data available.  Thankfully, the Medical Department of the U.S. Army was taking copious notes throughout the war and its aftermath, and its data leads to striking conclusions about the health of German POWs in 1945.  Complicating the historical record was the fact that German forces, both under DEF and POW status were generally malnourished in their last months of service prior to capture:

In February and March 1945 the Nutrition Branch was directed to investigate the nutritional status of POW in American custody.  The survey team examined 800 prisoners in representative work camps and enclosures.  The results showed that the nutrition of prisoners who had been in American hands for 50 days or more was satisfactory and considerably superior to that of newly captured Germans.  This indicated that the POW ration in use during the early part of 1945 was superior to the ration of the German Army.

This really shouldn’t be surprising.  Germany was in a state of total collapse at the time in question, and the dismal state of the Wehrmacht’s rations reflects the disintegration of the German economy in general and their agriculture in particular.  This was further reflected by the severe vitamin deficiencies the POWs were suffering from:

There were several factors responsible for the vitamin deficiency of the German prisoner-of-war ration. Colonel Pollack reported as follows:

Previous survey, * * * 15 May 1945, has shown that the standard German Army ration had been deficient in riboflavin and nicotinic acid for some time. Superimposed upon this deficiency intake of fairly long standing was the variable period of severe deprivation of all nutrients during the final weeks of active campaign and [of unavoidably inadequate rations] in the forward POW enclosures. At best, the POW ration could only be expected to maintain an existing state; it was never designed as a therapeutic diet.

The Medical Department’s reports are also highly authoritative on account of acknowledging the general deficiencies in American rations…

Florid deficiency syndromes related to the B complex vitamins were evident in the non-workers subsisting on American rations. While there was evidence, of these deficiency syndromes in those prisoners subsisting on locally procured German food, it was not as marked as in the group subsisting on the American ration. It is believed that this difference is due to the usage of some highly milled unenriched flour in the American ration, which furnishes a large proportion of the energy value of the ration. The German ration included a 95% extraction [of] flour [which supplied many of the B vitamins].

On the other hand, rations were good in the overrun German-operated hospitals caring for sick and wounded German prisoners of war.

…and taking action to correct these deficiencies in real-time:

Increase in caloric value of prisoner-of-war rations.—The findings, and recommendations for increased caloric value of prisoner-of-war rations, as set forth in Colonel Pollack’s report (August 1945), had an immediate and beneficial effect. On 15 September 1945, Maj. Gen. Robert M. Littlejohn, Chief Quartermaster of the European theater, forwarded the report to the Deputy Chief of Staff, European theater,” with this comment, among others: “From the attached report you will see that certain corrective action is immediately needed.” Thereafter, the caloric value of the prisoner of-war ration for nonworkers was increased to 2,200 calories, and was held at 2,900 calories for workers.

But most critical was the overall state of European agriculture:

Food shortages.—Authorities of U.S. occupying forces were well aware of the food shortages in Germany and Austria and also in U.S. supply after V-E Day. The nutritional state of civilians, displaced persons, prisoners of war, and disarmed enemy forces was, therefore, a matter of constant concern, as many reports attest. Nutritional surveys were made by teams of experts.

Food production in Europe stood at just 36 percent of its prewar levels on V-E Day.  Famine set in:

Yet as the conflict subsided, there was hunger everywhere, especially in the defeated nations. By the end of the war, indeed, food production in Europe had fallen to 36 percent of its prewar levels.

The desperate situation in the Soviet Union was made worse by the failure of the harvest in 1946. A year later perhaps 2 million Soviet citizens had died from starvation and associated diseases. In many places rationing remained in place well into the 1950s. The Americans viewed deprivation in Germany as a punishment for the crimes of Nazism, and stopped food relief from entering the country until they realized that a discontented and depressed population might become nostalgic about Hitler or could succumb to the lure of communism, as Stalin, even at the cost of his own population’s survival, sought to gain support in satellite states and the Soviet zone of occupied Germany by pouring in food. Only gradually, as the world economy recovered and then began to boom, did the situation improve.

Maybe, but this isn’t quite the full story.  Creating the Disarmed Enemy Forces (DEF) designation didn’t absolve the British and U.S. militaries of their duties under the Geneva Convention…they simply offloaded the duty to feed DEFs to civilian authorities, at a time when European agriculture stood at barely a third of its collective prewar output.  As famine set in, it became the resposnibility of the Germans to feed the millions of their men that manned the Wehrmacht.  This forced these same civilian administrators, after 8 May 1945, to cut German prisoner rations below the 2000 calorie level:

In August 1945 the Nutrition Branch was directed to make a second theater survey of the adequacy of the feeding of POW and of German disarmed forces. The 2000 calorie ration was found to be insufficient for German prisoners under 21 years of age and for others who were classed as nonworkers but whose caloric needs were significantly increased by fatigue duties, calisthenics or marching. The 2000 calorie ration was adequate for individuals who were inactive in fact. The German civilian ration issued to disarmed forces varied from 1200 to 1500 calories at that time and was inadequate. This was especially true because there was no opportunity for the men in the enclosures to supplement their rations as German civilians were able to do from gardens, household supplies, etc.

Critically, this last factor influenced the fervent imagination of fiction writers like James Bacque more than 40 years later, but in a bizarre way:

In Ambrose’s summary of the conference’s findings, he writes that Bacque misreads, misinterprets, and even ignores much of the documentation of the Rheinwiesenlager. Bacque claims the American’s used the category of “other losses” in their records of prisoners to hide the deaths of some one million people.

Ambrose writes that hundreds of thousands of people under this heading that Bacque supposed dead were actually young boys and old men from the Volkssturm (People’s Militia) who were released. These, along with those transferred between different zones in Germany which Bacque didn’t mention, debunk the idea that so many thousands in “other losses” were wide-spread murder and death.

In total, it is thought that the mortality rate in the camps was as high as one percent and that no more than 56,000 German prisoners died.

Releasing Volkssturm and other Wehrmacht men, like Susi Hansel Mundy’s father Franz, that could work in the fields or urban gardens, was a high priority to release men that weren’t suspected of war crimes:

Within weeks of the camps being established, some prisoner releases were started. First to be allowed to leave were members of the Hitlerjugend and female personnel who were deemed to have no affiliation with the Nazi Party. Professional groups, such as farmers, drivers and miners, soon followed because they were urgently required to assist in the reconstruction of German infrastructure. By the end of June 1945, the camps at Remagen, Böhl-Iggelheim and Büderich had been emptied.

Most of the accussations against the Americans concerning the Rheinwiesenlager forget that war crimes trials were underway simultaneously.  Keeping men imprisoned in the Rheinwiesenlager was probably less about punishment and retribution than about security.  A Nazi guerilla movement, the werewolves, operated against the Allied occupation until 1947:

The second attempt at recruiting “werewolves” came from Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels—and this time it was more successful. Beginning early in 1945, national radio broadcasts urged German civilians to join the Werewolf movement, fighting the Allies and any German collaborators who welcomed the enemy into their homes. One female broadcaster proclaimed, “I am so savage, I am filled with rage, Lily the Werewolf is my name. I bite, I eat, I am not tame. My werewolf teeth bite the enemy.”

While most German civilians were too exhausted by years of war to bother joining this fanatical crusade, holdouts remained across the country. Snipers occasionally fired on Allied soldiers, assassins killed multiple German mayors working with the Allied occupiers, and citizens kept caches of weapons in forests and near villages. Although General George Patton claimed “this threat of werewolves and murder was bunk,” the American media and the military took the threat of partisan fighters seriously. One U.S. intelligence report from May 1945 asserted, “The Werewolf organization is not a myth.” Some American authorities saw the bands of guerrilla fighters as “one of the greatest threats to security in both the American and Allied Zones of Occupation,” writes historian Stephen Fritz in Endkampf: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Death of the Third Reich.

Newspapers ran headlines like “Fury of Nazi ‘Werewolves’ to Be Unleashed on Invaders” and wrote about the army of civilians who would “frighten away the conquerors of the Third Reich before they have time to taste the sweets of victory.” An orientation film screened for GIs in 1945 warned against fraternizing with enemy civilians, while the printed “Pocket Guide for Germany” emphasized the need for caution when dealing with teenagers. Soldiers on the ground reacted strongly to even a hint of subterfuge: In June 1945 two German teenagers, Heinz Petry and Josef Schroner, were executed by an American firing squad for espionage against the U.S. military.

While the werewolf propaganda achieved Goebbels’ goal of intimidating Allied forces, it did little to help German citizens. “It stoked fears, lied about the situation and lured many to fight for a lost cause,” wrote historian Christina von Hodenberg by email. “The Werewolf campaign endangered those German citizens who welcomed the Western occupiers and were active in the local antifascist groups at the war’s end.”

Local acts of terror continued through 1947 and Biddiscombe estimates that several thousand casualties likely resulted from Werewolf activity, either directly or from reprisal killings.

This doesn’t excuse forbidding the Red Cross to intervene and other abuses committed by Allied personnel, but it also calls into question the motivations of the men that were not immediately released and eventually reported on the horrors in the American concentration camps.  Perhaps a bit of projection was occurring?

The Rheinwiesenlager were not the worst camps to be held as prisoner in, during and after WWII, though the Americans could have been much more humane in their treatment. Mostly, the tight rations often blamed for the deaths of thousands of German prisoners were the result of mass hunger in most of Europe at the end of the war.

In 1945, Eisenhower said that “The success or failure of this occupation will be judged by the character of the Germans 50 years from now. Proof will come when they begin to run a democracy of their own and we are going to give the Germans a chance to do that, in time” (Ambrose).

We don’t insult the intelligence of author James Bacque because he died in September and cannot defend himself; he earned revilement when he doubled down with a second tomeCrimes and Mercies, in 1997:

Blaming the Allies for their war record has become fashionable. Recent charges include bombing Dresden, not bombing Auschwitz, not suing for peace after the Battle of Britain, not negotiating with German resisters, bungling war crimes trials, and letting Nazi war criminals escape. Many of the arguments are profoundly unhistorical, depending on hindsight and the what if? scenarios beloved of “faction” thrillers. They assume that the Allies could – and should – have kept a morally clean sheet.

In 1989, a little-known Canadian novelist, James Bacque, published Other Losses, alleging that “800,000, almost certainly over 900,000 and quite likely over a million” German servicemen died from starvation or neglect in American and French camps following the Second World War. This was, Bacque claimed, a deliberately genocidal policy on the part of Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower. Other Losses became an international best- seller, and the subject of four television documentaries.

There followed numerous letters to German and North American newspapers from witnesses on both sides, confirming that conditions for German prisoners in 1945 had indeed been grim. Some camps, especially in the Rhine meadows, lacked adequate shelter, food and medical care. Prisoners were sometimes deliberately deprived of water and mail, and atrocities certainly took place.

These were far from original discoveries: 17 years previously a Federal German Commission on POWs had published an exhaustive 22-volume study. The value of Other Losses lay in its insistence that Germans had needlessly and illegally suffered not just in Soviet but American and French hands.

Unfortunately, Bacque’s answers to the inevitable questions about numbers and responsibility seemed too sensational to be true. Where were the bodies of his “missing million”? How could Eisenhower have got away with acting like an American Hitler? And how does this fit in with his presidential record in transforming West Germany into a successful democracy with an independent army?

Common-sense objections were joined by debunkings from scholars. Bacque’s 30 per cent death rate for US-held prisoners was a generalisation based on a typing error; all other figures in the document in question indicate a 3 per cent rate. The overall rate was 1 per cent (about 56,000).

Bacque interpreted a discrepancy of a million between columns headed “Other Losses” in two US Army reports as deaths. These were transfers to other zones, or releases without discharge, which included more than 660,000 conscripts from Hitler’s last-minute Dad’s Army. His only authority that “Other Losses” was a cover-up term for deaths was a retired US colonel. Now a nonagenarian who confesses to an unreliable memory, Philip Lauben has continually repudiated the claims Bacque attributed to him. In 1992, a collection of papers, Eisenhower and the German POWs, edited by Gunther Bischof and Stephen E Ambrose, burst the bubble once and for all.

But, as John Keegan has noted, Bacque is a true believer. Crimes and Mercies is his response to Bischof and Ambrose. Not that Bacque engages with their arguments: Ambrose is dismissed as an “American professor … who adores Eisenhower”. When Bacque quotes negative reviews of “a” book about Allied atrocities against Germans, he does not reveal that the book is his own Other Losses. He mentions the reviews only as examples of “denials” which “rest on delusion, not evidence”. Nor does his new book correct his previous errors. Lauben is still chief witness for the prosecution, though a footnote explains how he was “re-educated” by “a Pentagon official”.

Instead, Crimes and Mercies ups the ante: the Allies are now responsible for between 9.3 and 13.7 million deaths between VE day and 1950. To the German POWs in Western hands, Bacque has added ethnic Germans expelled from the eastern territories, residents of occupied Germany and Soviet- held POWs. There are dizzying parades of sources and calculations, designed to suggest Bacque has plenty of new evidence, especially from the recently opened KGB archives.

However, a Mad Hatter logic renders this useless. Bacque sniffs out statistical discrepancies, even between guesses for German population numbers, as if all were cover-ups for mass deaths: 5.7 million, according to one discrepancy on census returns between 1946 and 1950. He ignores the contrary evidence and the lack of reliable records. The millions of displaced persons, army personnel and refugees who turned up in Germany in the war’s chaotic aftermath were hardly a predictable or measurable population.

As in Bacque’s first book, lost opportunities can be glimpsed, particularly when he highlights ethnic cleansing of Germans from the Baltic to the Danube. Destroying centuries-old communities such as the Sudeten Germans may have seemed sensible after Hitler used them to justify his expansion, but the full extent of their suffering has yet to be recognised. A major reason for this neglect is, of course, the Holocaust, beside which German suffering can look trivial.

Bacque’s strategy is to expunge the word “Holocaust” from his vocabulary; there is one passing reference to “the slaughter in Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz”, but only as “war crimes” which have been used as justifications for vengeance and continuing “war hatred” towards Germany. David Irving and company will lap this up. Bacque crowns this nonsense by blaming Roosevelt and Churchill for not declaring war on the Soviet Union after the defeat of Hitler.

If true it is more than claptrap.  FDR died on 12 April 1945, while Hitler perished 18 days later.  Was Roosevelt expected to rise from the grave?

Crimes and Mercies reads like apocalyptic fantasy. The only mystery is why it has appeared between the hard covers of a reputable publisher instead of on sandwich boards in Oxford Street. Admittedly, it resembles much news reporting of historical material: a sensational treatment based on decontextualised sources, the uncritical use of oral history, and conspiracy theories. One appendix relates how a man he calls “Jean Le Spy” revealed that Bacque was being spied on by “Canadian, American, British, French and Russian agencies”. Further proof for this conspiracy comes from the academics and journalists who refuted his first book and the 15 publishers who turned down the manuscript of his second. Did nobody at Little, Brown rumble Bacque? Or did they just see another best-seller?

So in sum, what war crimes should the U.S. own up to?  The obvious answer is all, especially considering the fact that very few of the perpetrators still live.  Ronald Speirs died in 2007, so if there is additional evidence that he or other perpetrators of POW killings are under wraps, perhaps it s time to let it all out into the light.  His actions at Foy are to be commended…but he was also quite possibly a merciless mass murderer.

The bigger, policy questions are tougher.  Was starving German POWs a war crime?  Maybe, but if it was, the crime was in the commission of international policy, specifically agreements between the Allied Powers.  Do the Allied councils override existing international treaties, such as the Geneva Convention?  Maybe not legally, but ultimately a policy is only effective if it is enforced.  Until there is greater pressure to adhere to Geneva than to adhere to national policy, the latter will win out.

As for Axis policy, we need to consider all sides.  What about the Japanese?

One thought on “The Ghosts of Horrors Past: Hunger Versus War Crimes

  1. Pingback: The Ghosts of Horrors Past: Failed Famine or Failure to Feed? | In The Corner, Mumbling and Drooling

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