Introductory note: I can’t believe how many times I’ve heard Nazis being talked about by various people as if the only mass atrocity they were guilty of was the murder of the 5-6 million Jews in the Holocaust.
The image many people seem to have of Hitler is of someone, who except for his attempted extermination of the European Jewry was just another European conqueror like say Napoleon.
Moreover the public at large seems completely unable to explain the rationale behind this slaughter except to say that Hitler was a “racist”, as if all racists strove for the physical destruction of inferiors.
The centrality of Holocaust in retelling horrors of WWII at the expense of all others not only erases from the wider public awareness the great majority of Hitler’s victims—who were not Jewish and did not die in the Holocaust—it also robs the Holocaust of its context necessary to understand how it was possible.
In the Soviet Union alone the Nazis were responsible for over 15 million civilian and POW deaths, 85 percent of them non-Jewish and the vast majority of them connected to deliberate policies of racially motivated killing and starvation.
Yet that is something the western public in particular knows very little about. — For a variety of reasons, not all of them the fault of westerners.
On the one hand there was the Cold War era fixation on Soviet crimes and the speedy rehabilitation of former Nazi accomplices from the Wehrmacht and their influence in telling the story. This was coupled with the Soviet Communist’s own deliberate understating of the extent of human tragedy they had allowed to be inflicted on their people by such extraordinary levels of incompetence, miscalculation and blunder in 1941 and the preceding years as to very nearly allow the Russians’ total physical destruction at Nazi hands.
It was a rare confluence of interests where glossing over the true cost of Nazi crimes suited Washington and Moscow alike, and it made for a perfect storm of glossing over and downplaying of the largest killing programs the world had ever seen. It was the Jewish historian Raul Hilberg who first broke through that and in the 1960s reached the public and textbook history with at the time very politically inconvenient, even un-PC, but factual account of the Holocaust. No Hilbergs however have managed to do the same for the vast array of other crimes of the Third Reich which collectively destroyed even more people, chiefly Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians.
That said, specialist history on the subject is extensive and getting better by the day, especially since the opening in Russia in the late 1980s. The article that follows is the first installment of my attempt to do my part with a brief series looking at the worst Nazi crimes in the Soviet Union.
The necessary companion to it should be another series examining where Hitler was coming from and why all of this made sense to him. In fact as far as he was concerned it would have been immoral not to do what he had done. It was not madness. Hitler was perfectly rational, and was acting perfectly in line with the latest in cutting edge “scientific” thinking of his time, and Germany’s specific geopolitical realities as he saw them.
Contrary to a maniac engaging in a series of “hate crimes” Hitler saw himself as highly moral, possibly sent by providence, acting in the highest interest of the human kind by way of ensuring and speeding up its biological evolution, and vehemently denied harboring any feeling of hatred towards the majority of his victims, which included at least a quarter million Germans most of them slain on the same altar of evolutionary progress.
There are monsters among us, but they are not 2D, drawn in crayon and sporting a maniacal laugh. Those who stack bodies by the millions inevitably do so convinced of their impeccable morality and insight.
Operation Barbarossa was a strategic failure for the Third Reich. It had failed to break organized Soviet resistance which the German military before the invasion estimated would take only 11 weeks. However it was a great operation victory. By December 1941 it had destroyed as many Soviet divisions as the Soviets had at the start of the war. Most of these were destroyed in massive encirclements which netted millions of Soviet captives.
Up to 3 million were captured in 1941, including up to 2.2 million Red Army men, 0.5 million mobilized reservists en route to their units, and hundreds of thousands of Opolchenie militias, border troops, NKVD, police, railway guards, civilian workers involved with running the railways, civil aviation and the river fleets and constructing military fortifications and airports, and men of fighting age rounded up on suspicion they were reservists trying to join the fight, or encircled soldiers trying to sneak out.
The great majority of them were dead by spring 1942, deliberately left to starve in Wehrmacht’s “POW camps” but actually conceived from the beginning as places where it would be arranged for the captured Russian soldiers to die. (Survivors were mainly those who were released if they belonged to the right ethnic minority.)
The main German concern was to “waste” as little food as possible on these men. Only enough to conceal from them what fate they had planned for them until they were behind barbed wire or had grown too weak to resist.
In the first war winter 20,000 of the 60,000 Soviet POWs the Finns had captured died of hunger and disease as well. Scarcity of food was real and there was a failure in planning as well as a measure of callousness and criminal neglect. However, the Finns, who did not plan to arrange for a mas extinction of their prisoners reacted to deaths by improving conditions.
Germans who had planned to “fail” from the start, did not. Russian POW deaths were a policy and a success, and the quicker the Russians died the less manpower and food would be wasted on them.
By mid-1942 2.5 million had perished. More people were destroyed at a faster rate in Wehrmacht’s POW camps in late 1941 and early 1942 than were later destroyed in SS’s death camps of Operation Reinhard.
This was part of German planning for the post-war where the 100 million rural population — which was also slated for eventual destruction and replacement by German settlers — would be tolerated for the time being as needed food growers, but the 30 million urban population and millions of captured soldiers would be starved to death immediately in the first winter to create food surpluses that could be shipped west (and in the soldiers’ case to make the remaining helot population less of a security threat).
The problem for Nazis was that contrary to expectations the Red Army was still in the field fighting which made manpower extremely scarce. Situation grew even worse when the great Soviet winter counter-offensive forced what little police, SS and garrison regiments the Germans had assigned to the rear to be transferred forward to plug the gaps in the failing front.
Even so, even during such a manpower crisis, the Germans nonetheless attempted to enforce a hunger blockade on the occupied Soviet cities of Minsk, Kharkov and Kiev — the three largest in their hands. During the winter of 1941-42 people were not allowed out, and food was not allowed in. But since there were so many gaps in the attempted encirclements they largely failed — most people survived. The cities however dramatically depopulated as hundreds of thousands escaped into the countryside. (Similar orders were issued for Moscow and Leningrad but the Germans never managed to encircle the former.)
It turned out these killing programs were a huge blunder. Nazis assumed food would be the most scarce resource, but with six million men in the armed forces it turned out the bigger scarcity was labor. Starving millions of prisoners of war and thousands of urban workers had been a huge, ideologically driven mistake depriving the war effort of countless useable bodies.
The Germans would start rounding up Soviet civilians to be sent to Germany as involuntary agricultural and industrial laborers, and begrudgingly after mid-1942 Soviet POWs would be treated better so they could be exploited for their labor. Instead of arranging for them to die on death marches and in open-air encampments in the western Soviet Union, they were transferred further west to work as concentration camp labor and in mass construction works across occupied Europe.
Majority of the some 2.5 million Soviet POWs captured after this gradual change in policy survived. Nonetheless they continued to be poorly fed, the Nazis enforced lethal discipline, and work was often dangerous so that hundreds of thousands of them still perished, as they died at much higher rates than the civilian forced laborers.* The racial-ideological imperative to see them dead remained despite the pressures of war necessity to keep them alive, and even now they were thought of by the center as a strictly consumable resource that would be in the end destroyed through work.
Up to a million of those captured were released, usually into German service. This too was accepted by the center only belatedly and begrudgingly, and was dictated by war necessity against the Nazi ideological imperative for the post-war. Initially army commanders hard-pressed for manpower added captured POWs, usually minorities, to their ranks against explicit directives not to do so. After a while Hitler, to whom it was absurd to arm those slated for destruction in the post-war, relented and retroactively allowed the practice while imposing strict limits. Releases of Russians were particularly resisted and did not happen in meaningful numbers until 1945 when the war had turned particularly desperate.
Arguments that Soviet POWs died simply as part of general privation and horror of the war do not stand up to scrutiny. It was precisely the necessity of sustaining an exhausting total war of attrition which saved many of them, as it had saved many civilians in German-conquered USSR. The POWs went from having the life expectancy measured in weeks or months, to being slaves, to being given rifles and released into Vlasov’s “Liberation Army” — for the very reason that the tide of war was increasingly turning against Nazi Germany. It is precisely when the Germans were at their high point and the crisis was least that prospects for Soviet POWs were grimmest. Ant it was precisely as the German situation grew grimmer that status captive Russians could attain in the Nazi wartime order belatedly grew from the modest starting point of fertilizer.
All told 3 to 3.3 million Soviet “POWs“** of the 5.3 to 5.7 million the Germans captured during the war perished in their hands. (Over 50 percent, over 80 percent for early captives.) The number would have been greater still but Nazi racial goals were tempered by necessity of sustaining the war effort.
Conversely 450,000 German POWs of the 3 million taken died in Soviet captivity (15 percent). One difference is that German POWs were held longer, some into the 1950s. Another is that Soviet Union once the Germans overrun the Ukraine was a net food deficit area and 4 million of its free citizens in unoccupied USSR and 1 million of its gulag inmates died during the war from hunger and disease. Another 1-1.5 million Soviet citizens perished in the famine of 1946-47. Wartime Germany knew no such food crises. (Albeit it would come to know some of that after the war.)
Was there a measure of callousness in Soviet treatment of POWs of an invading army? Yes there was, but there was never an attempt to arrange for their deaths. To the contrary, albeit suffering through a worse food crisis than Finland in 1941/42 the Soviet Union managed to better supply a far greater number of POWs. Like the domestic captive population they were not a priority population to feed, but neither did the system regard their deaths as a desirable goal in of itself.
According to one theory a million German POWs in American captivity died in 1945. This is nonsense. The myth stems from the fact Americans released Volkssturm POWs almost immediately and without paperwork. In fact the Americans, eager to ditch the burden of feeding them, were extremely quick to release their POWs which wouldn’t be the case if they desired to inflict mass mortality on them as this theory likewise claims. There was no mass mortality among prisoners of war in Western Allied hands.***
Neither was there mass mortality among the 2 million Western Allied, chiefly French, prisoners in Germans hands, that you would expect if Soviet POW deaths were a result of food scarcity and not of a deliberate policy of destruction.
*200,000 civilian laborers and children born to them of the 3.2 million transferred from the Soviet Union died.
**Some were merely suspected fighters or civilians in support roles, and none were actually provided protections of a POW status.