Soviet Prisoners of War: Forgotten Nazi Victims of World War II
For more than 60 years, the Wehrmacht
has largely escaped scrutiny for its part in the deaths of more than 3.5 million Soviet prisoners of war.
By Jonathan Nor
As the dust settled over Europe in the summer of 1945 and war-ravaged Europeans began the slow process of recovery, the leadership of the Wehrmacht attempted to present itself as untainted by the crimes committed by the Reich. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein artistically painted a picture in his memoirs of the gulf that "separated soldiers' standards and those of our political leadership." He was not alone. Many other generals busied themselves glossing over the abundant explicit examples of their own complicity with the Nazi regime. Meanwhile, those in the dock at Nuremberg sought to deflect their own guilt by laying the blame at the feet of Adolf Hitler and his SS minions.
This campaign of selective memory picked up steam as relations between the former Allies deteriorated and experienced officers of the Wehrmacht were seen as possible assets in any future war between the West and the Soviet Union. By 1946 the impression that the Wehrmacht had fought a chivalrous war, despite the pressure from above to be brutal, was becoming accepted as gospel by some in the West. Even with the passage of 60 years, this impression remains largely unchallenged. While it is true that the Wehrmacht generally fought within the recognized rules of war in Western Europe, the conflict on the Eastern Front was entirely different. In the vast expanse of the Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht was responsible for some of the worst excesses of the war.
Hitler's war against the Soviet Union fused ideological aggression with racial impetus and colonial aspirations that resulted in a conflict of unsurpassed brutality. Rather than being an unwilling participant in this brutal struggle, the Wehrmacht was a loyal and enthusiastic player. One of the most telling examples of its participation in war crimes was its treatment of Soviet prisoners of war. Statistics show that out of 5.7 million Soviet soldiers captured between 1941 and 1945, more than 3.5 million died in captivity.
Several reasons have been advanced by those seeking to explain this gruesome statistic. The first is that the Soviet Union had not signed international conventions protecting prisoners of war, and therefore its soldiers could expect no protection under international law. Another frequently quoted explanation, one used by Wehrmacht officers testifying at Nuremberg, suggests that the German military was simply overwhelmed by the number of prisoners and that the mass deaths were an unfortunate but natural consequence of insufficient resources. Such factors as weather, battle conditions on the Eastern Front, epidemics and problems with food supply are often cited as other possible reasons.
Careful scrutiny, however, shows how frail these arguments are. Germany's armed forces played their role as the vehicle for the Reich's expansion to the full, and through their own deliberate policies caused the premeditated death of millions of POWs.
Before Operation Barbarossa began in 1941, the Wehrmacht determined that Soviet prisoners taken during the upcoming campaign were to be withdrawn from the protection of international and customary law. Orders issued to subordinate commands suspended the German military penal code and the Hague Convention, the international agreement that governed the treatment of prisoners. Although the Soviets had not signed the Geneva Convention regarding POWs, the Germans had. Article 82 of the convention obliged signatories to treat all prisoners, from any state, according to the dictates of humanity.
In March 1941, Hitler issued what has come to be known as the "Commissar Order," which clearly spelled out the future nature of the war in Russia. The coming conflict was to be "one of ideologies and racial differences and will have to be waged with unprecedented, unmerciful, and unrelenting hardness." It also instructed Hitler's subordinates to execute commissars and exonerated his soldiers of any future excess. "Any German soldier who breaks international law will be pardoned," the Führer stated. "Russia did not take part in the Hague Convention and, therefore, has no rights under it."
At a subsequent gathering to explain the application of this order to senior army officers, General Edwin Reinecke, the Reich officer responsible for the treatment of POWs, told his audience: "The war between Germany and Russia is not a war between two states or two armies, but between two ideologies -- namely, the National Socialist and the Bolshevist ideology. The Red Army [soldier] must be looked upon not as a soldier in the sense of the word applying to our western opponents, but as an ideological enemy. He must be regarded as the archenemy of National Socialism and must be treated accordingly." Reinecke continued with the admonishment that this must be made plain to every officer taking part in the operation, "since they were apparently still entertaining ideas which belonged to the Ice Age and not to the present age of National Socialism." Under the direction of the Commissar Order, immediately after capture all Soviet political officers should be killed and that thereafter, under a "special selection program of the SD [Sicherheitsdienst, the Nazi Party's security service], all those prisoners who could be identified as thoroughly bolshevized or as active representatives of the Bolshevist ideology" should also be killed.
On September 8, 1941, three months after the start of Operation Barbarossa, Reinecke reminded his subordinates, "the Bolshevik soldier forfeited every claim to be treated as an honorable soldier and in keeping with the Geneva Convention." Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of the Abwehr (German intelligence), objected to Reinecke's assertions but was quieted by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, who reminded the admiral, "This struggle has nothing to do with soldierly chivalry or the regulations of the Geneva Conventions." It is interesting to note that while Hitler's armies felt themselves relieved from the "niceties" of international law during the campaign, the soldiers of their Finnish, Italian and Romanian allies regularly acknowledged the rights of Soviet soldiers under their protection.
The other feeble line of reasoning to explain away the mass deaths of Russian POWs is that the supply problems were out of the generals' control. Here again, however, the facts fail to support the argument. From the very beginning, German military planners expected large numbers of prisoners. Four months before the opening of the campaign, the Wehrmacht calculated that it would capture at least 2 to 3 million prisoners -- 1 million in the first six weeks.
The true explanation for the millions of deaths lies in the Wehrmacht's very deliberate planning of how it was to treat its prisoners. With the war going Hitler's way in 1941, there seemed little reason to observe the customs of civilized warfare; soon there would be nobody left to object. Rather, what was more important was that the generals prove their worth by demonstrating they were reliable partners in Hitler's ideological war.
Traditional norms of conduct were discarded even before the campaign opened. In March 1941, as Reinecke was briefing Wehrmacht officers, plans were drawn up for how army units would collaborate with SS General Reinhard Heidrich's Einsatzgruppen murder squads as the Germans moved eastward. Although a product of Hitler's twisted mind, the manual explaining the particulars of how the Commissar Order would be applied was drafted by Wehrmacht lawyers. Guidelines for the Conduct of Troops in the East called for ruthless elimination of active or passive resistance. While it had been customary following earlier campaigns to issue orders absolving German soldiers of guilt, the Barbarossa Jurisdiction Order of May 13, 1941, had provided these protections before the campaign even began. Perhaps more important, German soldiers were informed of this protection and went into Russia believing there would be no consequence for their subsequent actions.