This post is about Nazi Germany’s murder of millions of Russian prisoners of war. A mass murder to compare with the concentration camp killings.
In Summer 1941 Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. In the following months they won a series of battles of encirclement. Few in the West have heard of these but they were military victories on a scale that the world had not seen before and has not seen since. They were only possible between such unmatched foes and in the vast steppes of Russia.
These victories produced huge numbers of prisoners of war.
Vyazma and Bryansk 512,000
During the war in Russia German forces captured 5,700,000 Russian POWs. About 3.3 million of the POWs died in German camps, 2.8 million of them in the short period between the start of Barbarossa and the Spring of 1942.
About half a million escaped from the camps or were liberated by the advancing Red Army. About a million were taken as forced labour when manpower shortages started to hit the German economy. Finally, some 930,000 more were found alive in the camps after the war.
Some were shot or gassed. In Gross-Rosen concentration camp the SS killed more than 65,000 Soviet POWs by starvation. In Flossenbürg, they burned Soviet POWs alive. In Majdanek, they shot them in trenches.
However, the vast majority were killed in Dulags [POW transit camps] and Stalags [POW camps] by starvation, desease and exposure. The Germans set up a number of camps, usually by doing nothing more than stringing up some barbed wire. Prisoners were herded inside and then left in the open with little or no food, sanitation or shelter. Starvation, exposure and epidemics (especially typhoid and dysentery) did the rest.
Most people have heard of Treblinka, Auschwitz II-Birkenau and other camps in which Jews and others were murdered. Very few have heard of Stalag 352 [where prisoners were packed so tightly they could scarcely move and 109,500 died], Dulag 185, Dulag 127 and Stalag 341 [with great heaps of unburied corpses] and Dulag 342 [where conditions were so bad that prisoners submitted petitions asking to be shot]. Prisoners were so hungry that cannibalism was common. (Snyder, T., 2011. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin First ed., Vintage.)
More people [3.3 million] died in the Russian POW camps than were killed in the extermination camps such as Treblinka and Auschwitz [2.6 – 3.2 million].
Why have we not heard of these camps? One reason is that the Russians had no reason to publicise Stalin’s military incompetence in allowing so many men to be captured. After the war they were happy to forget their losses. In the West we hardly cared. Western historians need to explain why they have ignored both the great Barbarossa battles and the POW holocaust.
Did the Germans treat the Russian POWs any worse than other countries treated their POW?
The figures for German POWs deaths in Allied custody may be suspect. At the end of the war the Allies found themselves with over five million German prisoners, about the same number the Germans had captured in Russia. Eisenhower had these designated as Disarmed Enemy Forces, not POWs, so that they would not be protected by the Geneva Convention on the treatment of POWs.
Nineteen camps, called Rheinwiesenlager, were set up to hold these prisoners. Open farmland close to a village with a railroad line was enclosed with barbed wire and divided into 10 – 20 camps each housing 5,000 to 10,000 men. Surrounding farm buildings were used for administration and kitchens and hospitals. No buildings were constructed for the prisoners. They were forced to dig holes in the earth by hand in which to sleep. The conditions were not much better than they had been in the Dulags and Stalags in the East. The difference was that they were closed before the start of winter. The camps were founded in April 1945 and remained in existence until September.
It has been claimed that Rheinwiesenlager deaths amounted to no more than 10,000. Some dispute that. In ‘Other Losses’ [Bacque, J., 2011. Other Losses: An Investigation Into the Mass Deaths of German Prisoners at the Hands of the French and Americans After World War II 3rd ed., Talon Books.] Bacque alleges that U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower caused the deaths by starvation or exposure of around a million German prisoners of war held in Allied internment camps after the Second World War.