Tag Archives: prison

The WW2 Russian Prisoner of War Holocaust

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

Kiev                                            452,000

Smolensk                                 300,000

Bialystok/Minsk                   290,000

Uman                                        103,000

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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.

Sowjetische Kriegsgefangene im Lager

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.

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Slavery Redux

After those Northern spoilsports made slavery illegal some ingenious good ol’ boys came up with a way of enslaving black people that was entirely legal. The system was called convict leasing. It began in 1865 and lasted until 1928.

The idea was simple. Convicts were leased out to plantations etc. to replace the slaves that had been emancipated. If normal criminality did not provide sufficient recruits then people could be arrested on trumped up charges.  Plantation owners could hire rather than buy and their capital outlays were less than when they had to buy their slaves. Also, since they did not own their labour force they had no particular incentive to look after their leased convicts.

Convicts did not only work on plantations. Alabama kept the system from 1875 to 1928 and most of the state’s convicts worked in the coal mines around Birmingham.

Often just convicted of minor offences, the leased convicts  served long periods of hard labor. They lived in  filth, were poorly fed, suffered torture and cruel punishments, and had no protection whatsoever from the labor contractors who hired them. Mine owners often faked “bad conduct” reports on prisoners to prolong their sentences and thus keep experienced men in the mine longer. A blind eye was turned to whippings and other forms of  abuse. Mines had high death rates.  Death rates among leased convicts were approximately 10 times higher than the death rates of prisoners in non-lease states. In 1873, for example, 25 percent of all black leased convicts died.

Convicts were whipped, a man standing at the head and another at the feet, while a third applied the lash with both hands. Men who failed to perform their task of mining from two to four tons of coal per day were fastened to planks by the feet, then bent over a barrel and fastened by the hands on the other side, stripped and beaten with a strap. Out of the fifty convicts worked in the mines from one to eight were whipped per day in this manner. There was scarcely a day, according to the testimony of the witness, James Frazier, in which one or more were not flogged in this manner.  In many cases convicts were forced to work in water six inches deep for weeks at a time getting out coal with one-fourth of the air necessary for a healthy man to live in, forced to drink water from stagnant pools  and the reports of the prison officials showing large numbers killed in ‘attempting to escape’.”

States made a lot of money from convicts leasing. In 1883, about 10 percent of Alabama’s total revenue was derived from convict leasing. In 1898, nearly 73 percent of total revenue came from this same source. No doubt corrupt officials also made a lot of money.

Whilst everybody knows about the practice of lynching in the South I doubt if many people are familiar with convict leasing, yet it probably claimed more lives and was equally a method of social control. Any black person who became ‘uppity’ could easily be arrested on a false charge and sent off to the convict leasing system for ten or twenty years.

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Tramp Chair

A tramp chair was used by small town police forces in the USA to retrain and torment individuals.  As its name suggests it was often used against vagrants.  A person would be locked in the chair and left in a public place exposed to the elements and public abuse, particularly by children.  Sometimes the victim would be stripped naked before being put in the chair.

The caption on the photograph below states that the use of the chair ‘eradicated tramps entirely’.

 

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The Guillotine in Nazi Germany

We associate the guillotine with France and particularly with the French Revolution. However Germany also used the guillotine and Nazi Germany used it a lot, decapitating thousands of people.

From 1928 to 1932 there were no more than  two or three executions a year in Germany. The rise of the National Socialist party in 1933 produced  a sudden increase in executions. Before 1933, only murder and high treason were capital crimes and in Berlin, beheading (with the axe) was the only lawful method of execution. (Other states used beheading with the axe or the guillotine).

When Hitler came to total power, he decided that criminals and enemies of the state should be executed by either guillotining [or hanging from 1942] and he ordered the construction of 20 guillotines. There were 64 executions  in 1933, 79 in 1934, 94 in 1935 and 68 in 1936.  Between 1933 and 1944, a total of 13,405 death sentences were passed. Of these, 11,881 were carried out.

Between 1943 and 1945, the People’s Courts sentenced around 7,000 people to death. In the first few months of 1945, some 800 people were executed, over 400 of them being German citizens.

Many executions were carried out in Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison. Between 1933 and 1945, some 2,891 people were decapitated or hanged in Plötzensee.  Some of them had belonged to Communist resistance groups, others to the Harnack/Schulze-Boysen Organization (the Red Orchestra), and still others to the Kreisau Circle. On the 20th of July 1944, an attempt was made on Hitler’s life by a group of army officers led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. The attempt failed, and between the 8th of August 1944 and the 9th of April 1945, a total of 90 people were executed in Plötzensee for their parts in the conspiracy.

Plötzensee’s guillotine was delivered on the 17th of February 1937 from Bruchsal prison in Baden. In late 1942, a steel gallows beam was erected in the existing execution chamber, and five, later eight hooks, for attachment of nooses.  The two execution areas were separated by curtains.  Condemned prisoners  spent their final hours shackled in special cells on the ground floor of a building which was known as the  ”house of the dead,” before being led across a small courtyard to the execution chamber.

Plotzensee Prison execution room

The executioners receive an annual salary of 3,000 Reichsmarks and a special bonus of 60 Reichsmarks for each execution, which was later raised to 65 Reichsmarks. The families of the executed prisoners had to pay an “invoice of expenses.”  The public prosecutor charged 1.50 Reichsmarks for every day of custody in Plötzensee, 300 Reichsmarks for the execution, and 12 Pfennigs to cover the postage for the “invoice of expenses.”

Initially Roettger, the Plötzensee executioner,  came twice a week and carried out his work in the early evenings. Guillotinings could be carried out at three minute intervals.  Hangings involved slow strangulation, not the more merciful neck breaking drop used in the UK and other countries.  The prisoner was led in with their hands tied behind them and made to get up onto the two step step-up, the executioner following them and placing the thin cord slip knot around their neck. They were not hooded or blindfolded. The executioner got down and simply pulled the step-up from under them leaving them suspended with little or no drop. Subsequent prisoners had to witness the struggles of the earlier victims before it was their turn.

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Executions in pre revolutionary China

An executioner, his sword and the results of his days work in a Canton prison.

Another executioner shows the result of his work.

After the executioner left.

This photograph supposedly shows the execution of some female students found guilty of anti state activity.

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Sing Sing Prison

A Panoptican Prison – prisoners could be kept under constant observation from the central guard tower, but they never knew if they were being watched.

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