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"Soviet PoW in Germany " Topic

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Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP31 Aug 2017 12:58 p.m. PST

"Some ten years ago I began the enormous task of researching the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war in the hands of the Axis in World War II. I worked through masses of material in various languages, and grew familiar with the fate of Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, etc, in Germany, Italy, Finland and Bulgaria. It was horrible. I'd never read about such suffering.

World War II was total war. Few were spared some misfortune, many were the war's victims. Some of those victims have been forgotten, but few have been more forgotten than those members of the Red Army who became prisoners of war of Hitler's Germany. Statistics, based on Germany's own records, show that out of 5,700,000 Soviet soldiers captured by Germany between 1941 and 1945 3,370,000 of them died in captivity.

Soviet prisoners of war were the responsibility of Germany's armed forces, the Wehrmacht, an organization which stressed that it fought a clean war and that Hitler and the SS were to blame for the darker aspects of the conflict. But, on the Eastern Front, and in the Army's treatment of Soviet prisoners in particular, there was no question of honourable warfare. And no question that international law, which did in fact protect Soviet soldiers (contrary to what is often claimed), would be applied to troops whom the Germans saw as untermenschen…"
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14Bore31 Aug 2017 1:47 p.m. PST

It was a two way street, the Russians didn't keep their prisoners any better. But its after the war I am finding interesting.

Mark 1 Supporting Member of TMP31 Aug 2017 3:17 p.m. PST

"Our strength lies in our speed and brutality. Genghis Khan hunted millions of women and children to their deaths, consciously and with a joyous heart. History sees in him the great founder of a state… I have issued a command and I will have everyone who utters even a single word of criticism shot that the aim of war lies not in reaching particular lines but in the physical annihilation of the enemy. Thus, so far only in the east, I have put my Death's Head formations at the ready with the command to send man, woman and child of Polish descent and language to their deaths, pitilessly and remorsely …. Poland will be depopulated and settled with Germans."
- Hitler, August 22, 1939, in conference with Generals regarding the upcoming campaign against Poland
(Source: THE THIRD REICH AT WAR, Richard Evans, p. 11)

Total war is one thing. Genocidal war is another.

Stalin wanted to extend his empire by subjugating whole populations. The Soviets were ruthless, pitiless, and deserve almost every criticism that is sent their way. But ruthless empire-building is unfortunately a common phenomenon in history, even in modern times and among well-developed (highly literate) nations.

Hitler wanted to extend his empire by exterminating whole populations. It's different. There is no "compliance" other than dying. It is present in history, but is fairly rare, particularly in modern times and/or among developed countries.

There was no deliberate Russian policy of killing PoWs (that I have ever seen). Given the privations the country was suffering there was not a lot of concern for their well being, and MANY perished in the harsh conditions. The same could be said of Russian factory, agricultural and mine workers relocated to the East. Different mortality rates, to be sure. But it seems likely that much of that was due to the deplorable condition of many when they were taken into captivity (wounded / ill, or starved into surrender in in one of the many encirclements). I have seen the argument made, with some stats (of unknown reliability) that PoWs who were in reasonable condition when captured had about the same mortality rates as Soviet citizens in the relocation areas.

On the other hand the German policy was for the most part to kill Soviet PoWs. It was only a question of how, and how fast, and at what cost.

Tens of thousands died of exposure and disease in each of many PoW camps. I've seen listings of individual camps where 40 to 60,000 inmates died. Estimates for the number that went straight to the death camps (concentration camps) range from 150,000 to 500,000. But killing them outright was expensive, so in January 1942 Hitler authorized efforts to extract economic output from them.

The network of slave labor camps was largely a mechanism for extracting economic value (labor) from prisoners while slowly killing them (working them / starving them to death).

Large numbers of Soviet prisoners went into the labor component in the concentration camp system, more than 600,000 being the peak. Something like 1,000,000 went into the Organization Todt (another slave labor program, but less lethal). It was in these organizations that the largest portion of the PoW deaths occurred.

(aka: Mk 1)

Mikasa31 Aug 2017 3:29 p.m. PST

My maternal Grandfather was taken prisoner in North Africa in 1942 and wound up in a POW camp in East Germany after Italy switched sides.
We talked a lot about the war and his experiences when I was very young, my mum told me I was one of only two people he talked to about it, partly because I lapped it up and partly because I was too young to really understand. I remember asking him over and over again why he didn't keep fighting when his recon platoon was surrounded and wiped out (19 dead out of 21), I was too young to understand.

But the thing that stuck with me more than anything else was when he told me about the guilt he felt seeing the Soviet prisoners going out to dig pits, into which their bodies were placed following their execution.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP31 Aug 2017 5:10 p.m. PST

On the specific point of treatment of Soviet POWs, no argument that overall during the war, it was better to be a German captured by the Soviets than a Soviet captured by the Germans--not even considering that the released Soviet POWs were headed for the gulags. Perhaps worth noting the exception of von Paulus Sixth Army--about a 10% survival rate among the officers and about 1% among the enlisted men.

Mark, you might take a look at Bloodlands some time. Less difference than you might think between a policy of exterminating race enemies and exterminating class enemies--especially when the latter include family members. I'm going through "The House of Government" right now, with its descriptions of death quotas by district--and praise for those who exceed the quotas. Moscow 1937 covers very similar ground.

Despite that Hitler quote--directed at the Poles, please note: not his Soviet allies--the Polish officers captured by the Germans by and large lived through the war--even the Jewish ones, which surprised me--while the Soviets killed virtually all of their Polish officer prisoners. And while the Germans are still pursuing war criminals, the Soviet killers lived to old age on government pensions.

I seldom game Eastern Front WWII.

Andy ONeill01 Sep 2017 11:30 a.m. PST

I'm not so sure Stalin's flavour of ethnic cleansing was any better than Hitler's.
Some pretty sobering numbers in the link below.

14Bore01 Sep 2017 2:08 p.m. PST

There are no winners in this argument, From the Democide site.

Mark 1 Supporting Member of TMP01 Sep 2017 2:39 p.m. PST

Some pretty sobering numbers in the link below.

Andy thanks for the link to a very interesting article!

There are, I think, two critical issues addressed with scholarly rigor.

The first is a perspective I already had:

All in all, the Germans deliberately killed about 11 million noncombatants, a figure that rises to more than 12 million if foreseeable deaths from deportation, hunger, and sentences in concentration camps are included. For the Soviets during the Stalin period, the analogous figures are approximately six million and nine million. These figures are of course subject to revision, but it is very unlikely that the consensus will change again as radically as it has since the opening of Eastern European archives in the 1990s.

It has been a personal observation that many folks who grew up in the cold war period have a lot of difficulty giving up on the "Soviets were worse than Nazis" mindset.

The main reason, I believe, is that in that era the Soviets were the bad guys, and the Germans were not. So the mind wanted to believe more bad things about the Soviets, and looked for rationalizations to put them into the "bad guys" camp.

The article touches on that, highlighting the adversarial relation with the Soviets and the friendly relations with Germany as contributing factors, but also calling out, appropriately, the lack of access to credible archival information of the times.

After archives in Eastern Europe started to become available, it took some years for well researched work compiling and de-compiling the numbers to become available. But today the primary reason that the "old" numbers are still tossed about seems to be just that some folks are more comfortable with their old cold war era belief systems.

For myself, I try to shy away from debates of "who was worse?" Rather, my interest is more "what was behind it all?"

That said, the second perspective in the article I find more enlightening (or challenging?):

We know now that the Germans killed more people than the Soviets did. That said, the issue of quality is more complex than was once thought. Mass murder in the Soviet Union sometimes involved motivations, especially national and ethnic ones, that can be disconcertingly close to Nazi motivations.

Prior to reading this, my thought processes tended away from comparative death counts and more towards the implications of the differing motivations.

I know, I know, people will be thinking "dead is dead -- the victims take no solace in having been killed for political vs. ethnic reasons". But I still maintain that there is a difference. The heart of that difference is the motivation to rule, versus the motivation to exterminate.

The article gives some good evidence of ethnically based motivations by the Stalinists. This is new information for me, that I will keep in mind during my further readins.

But there is a more fundamental motivation that is evidenced from history, that the article touches but only tangentially.

The article identifies good evidence that a disproportionate number of the deaths that occurred under Stalin happened BECAUSE of the war. The article points this out with some reasonable analysis -- the survival rate in the Gulags was high before and after the war, it was only during the war that there was a shockingly high mortality rate. I would extend the same (without immediate access to credible statistics) regarding PoWs. Most German prisoners present in the Soviet Union at the end of WW2 survived their captivity. They may have faced many additional years of captivity and labor, but the mortality rate in those years was not greatly different from the population in general. From that I infer that the motivation was to rule, but not exterminated.

If Germany had won the war, or even managed to negotiate an end to hostilities that allowed the Nazi regime to remain in power, I believe no Soviet prisoners would have survived German captivity.

The same might be said of the population of Poland.

I have seen folks of Polish decent decry being "abandoned" by the western allies at the end of WW2, fairly lamenting the injustice of fighting to victory only to exchange one occupying megalomaniac for another.

But this fails to recognize what the alternative would have meant.

There is a nation called Poland in this world today. There is a population we call Poles, who have an identified language, a culture, a history. This, despite almost 50 years under Soviet occupation.

If the war had ended with the Nazis as the occupying force, we would not be able to say the same thing. We would be describing the Poles as a historical phenomenon -- a nation, a people, a language, a culture that had once existed in a particular part of eastern Europe, but that existed no more.

The article concludes that non-combatant mortality rates went up under Stalin during the war. More people died because too many resources were needed for the fighting. I believe non-combatant mortality rates under Hitler were held back by the war. He could not kill as many, as fast as he wanted to, because too many resources were needed for the fighting.

Give Hitler as many post-war years as Stalin had, and his death count would be at least an order of magnitude higher than Stalin's, 10x and more, rather than 2x or less. Give the Nazi regime as many decades as the Soviet regime, and it may well have been multiples of 10x.

Dead is dead. But that does not mean that understanding a crime ends with the death of a victim. Nor with a count of the number of victims.

Motivation IS a critical factor. Ask any homicide detective, and he/she will tell you that the key factors are motivation, means and opportunity. You can never understand the crime based only on the presence of a victim. You also investigate the motivation, means and opportunity.

Or so I believe.

(aka: Mk 1)

Dynaman878901 Sep 2017 5:08 p.m. PST

The difference that is not there. It makes no difference if someone wants to kill you due to ethnicity or religion. That is the only difference between Stalin's purges and Hitler's. The reason why in cases of murder (which is what a homicide detective cares about) is some motivations mean there was no crime committed – or that it would be harder to prove it was a crime.

Fred Cartwright02 Sep 2017 2:52 a.m. PST

Mark do you have any evidence that non combatant rates were held back by the war? From my reading it seems the Germans ran a very efficient system that considerable resources were allocated to, bearing in mind that significant death rates weren't reached until after the war started and numbers went up despite Germany's declining fortunes and worsening resource situation.

Mark 1 Supporting Member of TMP02 Sep 2017 11:37 p.m. PST


The Generalplan Ost (English: Master Plan for the East), was the Nazi government's plan for the genocide, ethnic cleansing, and colonization of Central and Eastern Europe by Germans. It was to be undertaken in territories occupied by Germany. The plan was partially put into action during the war, but its full implementation was not considered practicable during the major military operations, and was ultimately prevented by Germany's defeat.

The Generalplan Ost called for eliminating huge numbers of people from Eastern Europe.

The Kleine Planung (Small Plan) was for activities during the war. It was to be followed by the Grosse Planung (Big Plan) to be extended over a period of 20 to 30 years after the war had been won.

If the Nazis had been in power as long as the Soviets, the Generalplan Ost called for reducing populations in Eastern Europe by:
50+% of Czechs
50+% of Russians
80+% of Poles
65+% of Ukrainians
75+% of Byelorussians

and more (substantial portions of the Lithuanians, Latvians, etc. etc.).

This was the basis of my statement: The Nazis only managed to kill about 11-12 million non combatants during the ~6 years of their war in the East. But their plans revealed an intention to kill well more than 10x that number, if only they could complete their war aims first.

(aka: Mk 1)

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