Friday, August 14, 2015

Soviet Prisoners of War

Heinrich Himmler Visiting Russian POW Camp.

Even prior to the invasion of the Soviet Union, the German civilian and military leadership made provisions to separate and kill selected categories of Soviet POWs and to provide the remainder with grossly insufficient provisions and supplies. While this policy would undergo a number of modifications over time, it was never completely revised. In the end, of the 3.3 million Red Army soldiers captured before the end of 1941, nearly 2 million died in German custody. Of the 5.7 million Soviet troops captured over the course of the entire war, between 2.5 million and 3.3 million perished. 106 By 1945, mass graves for Soviet POWs littered Europe's war-ravaged landscape; mass graves were found in Norway and France, in Germany and Poland - although most Soviet POW victims died while still on Soviet soil. 

Plans to undersupply Soviet POWs systematically initially arose in the framework of a general policy of starvation directed at those populations living in Soviet territories occupied by the German army, designed in early 1941. These plans, intended both to ameliorate the critical supply situation on the Eastern Front and to buttress Germany's own limited food supplies, primarily targeted populations living in northern and central Russia, Byelorussia, and urban environments. It was, of course, tremendously naive to imagine that these populations would peacefully starve to death. With only skeletal occupation forces policing these areas, it was virtually impossible to prevent Soviet citizens from "illegally" procuring food (with the notable exception of besieged Leningrad, where approximately 600,000 civilians died). In the end, it was pressure from regional occupation authorities - who required a pliable urban workforce and a functioning infrastructure and who wished to avoid epidemics and public unrest - that led to the abandonment of the original starvation scheme. Given the enormous and growing supply needs of the German military on the Eastern Front, however, policy was not fully reversed in practice. Supplies allocated to the civilian populations remained grossly insufficient. It was in this context that from September 1941 on, a policy of selective extermination emerged. The largest group affected were prisoners of war. Soviet POWs viewed as "unfit for work" were, quite simply, left to die of starvation: they were physically separated from other POWs and placed on greatly reduced diets. Largely unable to attain food outside their rations, they had little chance of survival. The death rate among prisoners quickly skyrocketed; and, from October 1941 on, larger POW camps witnessed up to four hundred prisoners' deaths per day - a rate nearly as high as those achieved by the individual Einsatzgruppen during this same period. Between September and December 1941, an average of 15,000 Soviet POWs lost their lives each and every day - according to numerous reports, malnutrition was the leading culprit; disease was a distant second. 

Only in the spring of 1942, which brought an increased urgency to the utilization of forced labor, did the situation ease somewhat. Yet, even then, Soviet POWs did not receive adequate nutrition. Only a minor portion of all Soviet POWs killed died in large-scale executions. According to the secret "Commissar Order" of June 6, 1941, political officers among Red Army POWs were to be murdered. Practically, such special treatment meant that political officers either were shot by the troops who captured them, were killed by POW camp guards, or were handed over to police authorities, who either shot them themselves or sent them to concentration camps. The concentration camp, itself, was virtually equivalent to a death sentence: most perished within a few months under particularly harsh conditions reserved for political POWs or were outright murdered in gas chambers or gas vans or through other methods. It is estimated that 120,000 Soviet POWs were handed over to the SS and police during the course of the Second World War. Because the data are highly fragmentary, however, no reliable estimates exist for the total number of political officers murdered. In addition to political officers, there were also attempts to single out and murder Jewish and, until September 1941, "Asian" Soviet POWs. At varying times and in varying regions, other select POW groups also became the target of exterminatory policies: most notably, Red Army officers and female Red Army soldiers. 

Whereas the "Commissar Order" was largely abandoned by May 1942, as it inadvertently strengthened military resistance whenever Red Army soldiers were aware of such policies, other killings of Soviet POWs continued unabated: up to several hundred thousand Soviet POWs were shot by German guards during exhausting forced marches, while filing through the streets of occupied Soviet cities, or while being loaded and unloaded at railway stations. In these cases, the perpetrators were regular German soldiers, often on orders from low- or mid-ranking officers. On a typical forced march, for which insufficient provisions of food, beverage, and carts were provided, only a handful of officers and rank-and-file guards were allocated to accompany the prisoners. As senior officers usually planned these marches, the relatively junior officers and rank-and-file guards assigned to them were placed in a rather unenviable position. With a demanding schedule and vastly inadequate supplies, it was inevitable that many POWs would be unable to finish the journey, and, with so few guards, some would try to flee. In any event, a situation developed in which guards often chose to execute POWs unable to continue along the route - a strategy perhaps designed both to motivate the marchers onward and to forestall possible resistance. In occupied Ukraine, there were even army-level orders to shoot POWs who could not continue. Taking this practice into consideration, we must conclude that the German military was responsible for the direct murder of most Soviet POWs, not the SS or the police.

While it is broadly accepted that there existed a high-level extermination policy against certain groups of Soviet POWs in German captivity, it is important to remember that those who died were not the victims of some anonymous force or faceless system. High-level political orders coincided with the ground-level actions of German army officers and soldiers. Especially during the early days of the conflict, German troops regularly exhibited a tendency toward excessive violence by adhering to "no prisoner" policies, on orders originating everywhere from army corps to platoon level. On occasion, officers' orders not to shoot weak and injured Soviet prisoners during forced marches to the rear were willfully ignored by the troops assigned to them - usually Sicherungsdivisionen or Landesschu" tzenbataillone, units that primarily comprised older reservists. Once in camp, from October 1941, Soviet prisoners were separated into two groups: a group categorized as "fit for labor" - and, thus, selected for survival - and a group categorized as "unfit for work" - and, thus, slated for death. While those deemed "fit for labor" were spatially separated from their less fortunate comrades, they nonetheless remained subject to overly heavy labor demands and indiscriminately cruel treatment - in the camps as well as at the workplace - suggesting that different German troops were involved in the violence. As a result, the death rate among those "fit for work" remained extraordinarily high. Even after senior civilian and military authorities introduced a policy in the spring of 1942 that sought to keep workers alive, Soviet POWs continued to be overworked, underfed, and brutally treated, resulting in continued elevated mortality rates. It seems that the mentalities of many guards and lower-level commanders proved too inflexible for such rapid policy shifts. From a source perspective, it has been the personal statements and testaments of surviving Soviet POWs - a source base until recently neglected by Western researchers as "biased," despite their simultaneous reliance upon oral testimony in researching the fate of German POWs - that most fully demonstrate the intensity and unpredictability of the violence inflicted by German troops upon Soviet prisoners. At the same time, it should be remembered that many guards did not participate in beatings, torture, or killings. 

A number of factors influenced the violence inflicted upon Soviet POWs. In part, it was the product of a racist ideology deeply entrenched within the German military, an ideology that produced a sense of absolute superiority. Interestingly, with the exception of ethnic Germans and Jews, relatively little distinction was made between different ethnic groups among POWs. Anti-Communism represented another factor in the maltreatment of Soviet prisoners. Given the flight and evacuation of Soviet officials from territories conquered by the Germans, Soviet POWs were, by and large, the only representatives of the Soviet state ever to fall into German hands. Accordingly, the German military tended to treat them as if they were responsible for all Soviet "crimes." This mentality may have contributed to the fact that the death rate among Soviet POWs remained significantly higher than that of the 2 million Soviet civilians deported to Germany as forced labor from 1942. The combination of racist and anti-Bolshevik sentiments resulted in the assignment of particularly exhausting and dangerous work to Soviet POWs, such as quarry mining. Finally, local emergencies, whether concerning German troop supplies and transportation or the fear of civil revolt and resistance, often led regional occupation authorities to undernourish and undersupply Soviet POWs further, a policy that only elevated their already high death rates. The death rate in the General Government of Poland and in areas under the control of Army Group Center in late 1941, for example, exceeded 30 percent per month. The recurrence of such local emergencies helps to account for the substantial discrepancies in mortality rates in different regions at any given time. 

While economic, military, and political considerations were not fully independent of ideological motives, they played critical roles in the ongoing crescendo of violence against Soviet POWs. Indeed, it was precisely the combination of virulent racism, anti-Communism, and key moments in a deadly military conflict that produced conditions under which extreme political and military measures appeared justified and mass death seemed inevitable.

Hilfswillige – Hiwi

290. Infanterie-Division--Hilfswillige being awarded. September 1943

The Germans would allow no `Russian' political administration, but there was a considerable effort to recruit the local inhabitants at the grass-roots to aid the Axis cause. Millions of people were conscripted as forced labourers. The Germans were also able to secure the services of a very large number of Soviet citizens in their armed forces, as German Army auxiliaries (the Hilfswillige - Hiwi), but also even as military units, some directly involved in counter-insurgency duties. This recruitment to serve the Reich in fields, mines, factories and even in military uniform was most successful among the non-Russian nationalities. There were several distinct reasons for this, including the fact that most of the German-occupied territory was inhabited by minorities.  In European terms this contribution was large, partly due to the huge pool of potential personnel.

Operation "Blau" was launched on 28 June 1942, and by mid- September-that is, even before the battle of Stalingrad began taking its toll--over a third of a million men were lost. 45 Following the destruction of Paulus' 6 Army in the cauldron of Stalingrad, the Soviet counter-offensive of winter and autumn 1943, and the abortive German "Zitadelle" offensive, losses rocketed to unprecedented levels. Between November 1942 and October 1943 the Ostheer sustained well over a million and a half casualties (including the sick), of whom close to 700,000 were permanently lost. As replacements could not keep up with this rate of casualties, no less than 40 divisions were either disbanded or re-grouped into so-called "small divisions," and the establishment figures of the remaining formations were cut almost by half to 10,700 soldiers. Indeed, by December 1943 the Ostheer's overall strength was down by more than a million men to just over 2,000,000 soldiers. In an attempt to make up for this mammoth shortage, the army now greatly intensified the conscription of Soviet POWs and civilians, euphemistically called volunteers, or Hiwis, whose number ultimately reached some 320,000 men. While the Hiwis were distributed among German formations mainly as replacements for service troops ordered to combat duty, another 150,000 men belonging to Soviet national minorities were organized into semi-independent Ostlegionen, though even in this case most command positions were held by Germans. 46 Yet none of these measures, including the transfer to the front in the second half of 1943 of another half a million noncombat troops from the rear, young recruits, women, foreigners, and ethnic Germans, could make up for the increasing losses. 47 In summer 1944 the great Soviet offensive against Army Group Center claimed a monthly average of over 200,000 soldiers and almost 4000 Hiwis during the five months between 1 July and 31 December. Indicative of the much greater weight of the Eastern Front even following the Allies' landing in Europe is that in the West the monthly average of German casualties during the same period was just over 8000 men. 48 By November 1944 the Ostheer's total manpower had further declined to 1,840,000 men, and that in spite of the recruitment of yet more UK-Stellen personnel and the conscription of 16-year-old lads. 49 By the end of March 1945 the Ostheer's overall casualties mounted to 6,172,373 men, or double its original manpower on 22 June 1941, a figure which constituted fully four-fifths of the total losses sustained by the Feldheer on all fronts since the invasion of the Soviet Union. 50 And yet, among combat units at the front casualties were proportionately much higher still, with a corresponding impact on the formation and life-expectancy of "primary groups."

Friday, July 24, 2015

The First Eastern SS Legions Part I

In October 1941, when German victory still seemed certain, Professor Wolfgang Abel of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology Human Heredity and Genetics led a team of race examiners (Eignungsprüfer) lent by the SS Race and Settlement Office (RuSHA) to occupied Poland to conduct studies of some of the millions of Soviet POWs held in sprawling, open-air German camps. It was a journey into hell. Historians now believe that the German army killed 2.8 million prisoners through starvation, gross neglect and execution. This barely remembered slaughter has been called the Forgotten Holocaust. Historian Karel Berkhoff argues:

I submit that the shootings of the Red Army commissars and other Soviet POWs, along with the starvation of millions more, constituted a single process. It was a process that started in the middle of 1941 and lasted until at least the end of 1942. I propose to call it a genocidal massacre. It was a massacre because it was ‘an instance of killing of a considerable number of human beings under circumstances of atrocity or cruelty.’

This genocidal massacre was also a turning point in the evolution of German racial pseudoscience.

After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers surrendered to the Germans. Any identified as Jews or ‘Bolshevik Commissars’ were immediately executed according to Hitler’s notorious Commissar Order. They also killed Muslims and ‘Asiatics’ who were discovered to be circumcised and mistaken for Jews. Completely indiscriminate killing ended in September, when Nazi officials ordered that North Caucasians, Armenians and Turkic peoples, as well as Ukrainians and Belorussians, should be spared. After this spasm of killing, German troops and SS units began marching the Soviet captives to temporary camps known as ‘Dulag’ and then on to permanent ‘Stalag’ camps. During these forced marches, prisoners received minimal rations or none at all; guards often shot dead civilians who tried to supply food as the pitiful columns of starving, brutalised men passed through villages and towns. The Germans executed any stragglers who fell behind, even by a few metres. The survivors finally ended up penned inside an archipelago of vast, windswept camps enclosed by rudimentary barbed wire fences. Inside this cruel world, chaos ruled. Or seemed to: German policy was perfectly clear. In the words of Field Marshall Keitel, the purpose of this murderous internment was the ‘destruction of a Weltanschauung’ – meaning the Bolshevik world view that allegedly infested the minds of the prisoners.

According to the ethos of the German camp system, providing more than a few ladles of watery lentil soup was theft from the German people. Starvation was camp policy. Quartermaster General Eduard Wagner (who had negotiated the ‘Einsatzgruppe agreement’ with RSHA chief Reinhard Heydrich) insisted that the prisoners ‘should starve’. Provision of food, according to Keitel, was ‘wrongheaded humanity’. This German army policy reflected a radical ministerial strategy that had been formulated by SS-Obergruppenführer Herbert Backe which assumed that ‘the war can only be continued if the entire Wehrmacht is fed from Russia’. As a consequence, ‘there can be no doubt that tens of millions of people will die of starvation’. One Ukrainian official was told bluntly: ‘The Führer has decided to exterminate Bolshevism, including the people spoiled by it.’ Mortality rates varied from camp to camp, but, taken as a whole, were shockingly high. In some camps, over 2,500 prisoners died every day. This was the realm of hunger. To live a few days longer, starving, lice-tormented prisoners would eat anything, including bark. Some resorted, inevitably, to cannibalism. Alexander Solzhenitsyn provided this account of a German camp in The Gulag Archipelago: ‘around the bonfires, beings who had once been Russian officers but had now become beastlike creatures who gnawed the bones of dead horses, who baked patties from potato rinds, who smoked manure and were all swarming with lice. Not all these two-legged creatures had died as yet.’ There was just one way out: to be selected for service in the auxiliary police or for labour service, digging mass graves or rebuilding roads and bridges in the most gruelling conditions. Few Germans who discovered what was taking place in the camps protested – with one surprising exception. The German ‘eastern expert’ Alfred Rosenberg sent letter after letter to Keitel complaining about the murderous treatment of Soviet POWs. He recognised that Germany was squandering a reservoir of potential good will since many Soviet minorities hated Stalin. Now they were dying like flies in German camps. Rosenberg’s appeals fell on deaf ears.

Now in October, the prisoners who remained alive in the hellish German camps would be preyed on by German scientists led by anthropologist and SS officer Wolfgang Abel. Although the camp administrators referred to the prisoners as ‘Russians’, they came from every corner of the Soviet Empire; for Abel, the gulag was a tainted human treasure trove. The ‘Abel mission’ examined more than 42,000 prisoners from many different ethnic groups, which included Russians, Turkic peoples, Mongolians and various Caucasians. Abel’s team measured, photographed and blood tested their subjects. Then they returned to their spacious offices in Berlin. When they processed their data, Abel was astonished. Their captive subjects revealed that the ‘Slavic Untermenschen’ of the east exhibited a markedly higher level of ‘Germanic’ characteristics than he and his colleagues had anticipated. The new findings troubled Abel and other RuSHA race experts. His findings provided powerful evidence that ‘Asiatic peoples’ had, during periods of German expansion, been ‘strengthened by Germanic blood’; the colonisers, to put it another way, had enjoyed sexual congress with the colonised. History, as geneticist Steve Jones puts it, ‘is made in bed’ – or the wheat field. The troubling consequence, Abel realised, was a kind of biological theft: German blood had been stolen from its rightful bearers.

The findings of the Abel mission echoed Himmler’s remarks about ‘harvesting Germanic blood wherever it might be found’. Now he had scientific backing. Traditionally many German anthropologists had regarded the mixing of races or miscegenation as a weakening process. That was certainly the view of Adolf Hitler. But a number of German race experts came to more nuanced conclusions. One was Alfred Ploetz, who argued that racial mixing of peoples ‘not too far apart’ was a means of ‘increasing fitness’: he cited the Japanese as an example. Head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics, Professor Eugen Fischer had come to similar conclusions when he had studied the so-called ‘Rehobother Bastards’. Fischer recommended that the offspring of unions between Aryans and Jews or Africans should be compulsorily sterilised. But in cases where the two parents had closer ethnic bonds, then their offspring might be treated more leniently. This implied that, as Himmler put it, Germanic blood lines in non-Aryan peoples were a resource that might be ‘harvested’. When the Abel mission published its conclusions, the existence of far flung Germanic blood reservoirs had scientific backing. The time had come to exploit these prized corpuscles. The Abel mission to the German gulag would soon have a decisive impact on Waffen-SS recruitment strategy. For Himmler and the SS recruitment experts the question was where to start.