Military history

THE PRISONERS OF WAR

Though it was a flagrant violation of the Hague and Geneva conventions to use prisoners of war in armament factories or in any labor connected with the fighting at the front such employment, massive as it was, constituted the least of worries for the millions of soldiers captured by the Third Reich.

Their overwhelming concern was to survive the war. If they were Russian the odds were greatly against them. There were more Soviet war prisoners than all others put together—some five and three-quarter million of them. Of these barely one million were found alive when Allied troops liberated the inmates of the POW camps in 1945. About a million had either been released during the war or allowed to serve in the collaborator units set up by the German Army. Two million Russian prisoners of war died in German captivity—from starvation, exposure and disease. The remaining million have never been accounted for and at Nuremberg a good case was made that most of them either had died from the above causes or had been exterminated by the S.D. (S.S. Security Service). According to the German records 67,000 were executed, but this is most certainly a partial figure.31

The bulk of the Russian war prisoners—some 3,800,000 of them—were taken by the Germans in the first phase of the Russian campaign, in the great battles of encirclement which were fought from June 21 to December 6, 1941. Admittedly it was difficult for an army in the midst of combat and rapid advance to care adequately for such a large number of captives. But the Germans made no effort to. Indeed the Nazi records show, as we have seen, that the Soviet prisoners were deliberately starved and left out in the open without shelter to die in the terrible subzero snowbound winter of 1941–42.

“The more of these prisoners who die, the better it is for us,” was the attitude of many Nazi officials according to no less an authority than Rosenberg.

The clumsy Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories was not a humane Nazi, particularly in regard to the Russians, with whom, as we have seen, he had grown up. But even he was moved to protest the treatment of Russian prisoners in a long letter to General Keitel, the Chief of OKW, dated February 28, 1942. This was the moment when the Soviet counteroffensive which had hurled the Germans back before Moscow and Rostov had reached its farthest penetrations that winter and when the Germans had realized at last that their gamble of destroying Russia in one short campaign—or perhaps ever—had failed and that just possibly, now that the U.S.A. had been added to Russia and Britain as their enemies, they might not win the war, in which case they would be held accountable for their war crimes.

The fate of the Soviet prisoners of war in Germany [Rosenberg wrote Keitel] is a tragedy of the greatest extent. Of the 3,600,000 of them, only several hundred thousand are still able to work fully. A large part of them have starved, or died because of the hazards of the weather.

This could have been avoided, Rosenberg continued. There was food enough in Russia to provide them.

However, in the majority of cases the camp commanders have forbidden food to be put at the disposal of the prisoners; they have rather let them starve to death. Even on the march to the camps, the civilian population was not allowed to give the prisoners food. In many cases when the prisoners could no longer keep up on the march because of hunger and exhaustion, they were shot before the eyes of the horrified civilian population and the corpses were left. In numerous camps no shelter for the prisoners was provided at all. They lay under the open sky during rain or snow …

Finally, the shooting of prisoners of war must be mentioned. These … ignore all political understanding. For instance, in various camps all the “Asiatics” were shot…32

Not only Asiatics. Shortly after the beginning of the Russian campaign an agreement was reached between OKW and the S.S. Security Service for the latter to “screen” Russian prisoners. The objective was disclosed in an affidavit by Otto Ohlendorf, one of the S.D.s great killers and like so many of the men around Himmler a displaced intellectual, for he had university degrees both in the law and in economics and had been a professor at the Institute for Applied Economic Science.

All Jews and Communist functionaries [Ohlendorf testified] were to be removed from the prisoner-of-war camps and were to be executed. To my knowledge this action was carried out throughout the entire Russian campaign.33

But not without difficulties. Sometimes the Russian captives were so exhausted that they could not even walk to their execution. This brought a protest from Heinrich Mueller, the chief of the Gestapo, a dapper-looking fellow but also a cold, dispassionate killer.*

The commanders of the concentration camps are complaining that 5 to 10 per cent of the Soviet Russians destined for execution are arriving in the camps dead or half dead … It was particularly noted that when marching, for example, from the railroad station to the camp, a rather large number of prisoners collapsed on the way from exhaustion, either dead or half dead, and had to be picked up by a truck following the convoy. It cannot be prevented that the German people take notice of these occurrences.

The Gestapo didn’t care a rap about the Russian captives falling dead from starvation and exhaustion, except that it robbed the executioners of their prey. But they didn’t want the German people to see the spectacle. “Gestapo Mueller,” as he was known in Germany, therefore ordered that

effective from today [November 9, 1941] Soviet Russians obviously marked by death and who therefore are not able to withstand the exertions of even a short march shall in the future be excluded from the transport into the concentration camps for execution.34

Dead prisoners or even starved and exhausted ones could not perform work and in 1942, when it became obvious to the Germans that the war was going to last considerably longer than they had expected and that the captive Soviet soldiers constituted a badly needed labor reservoir, the Nazis abandoned their policy of exterminating them in favor of working them. Himmler explained the change in his speech to the S.S. at Posen in 1943.

At that time [1941] we did not value the mass of humanity as we value it today, as raw material, as labor. What after all, thinking in terms of generations; is not to be regretted but is now deplorable by reason of the loss of labor, is that the prisoners died in tens and hundreds of thousands of exhaustion and hunger.35

They were now to be fed enough to enable them to work. By December 1944, three quarters of a million of them, including many officers, were toiling in the armament factories, the mines (where 200,000 were assigned) and on the farms. Their treatment was harsh, but at least they were allowed to live. Even the branding of the Russian war captives, which General Keitel had proposed, was abandoned.*

   The treatment of Western prisoners of war, especially of the British and Americans, was comparatively milder than that meted out by the Germans to the Russians. There were occasional instances of the murder and massacre of them but this was due usually to the excessive sadism and cruelty of individual commanders. Such a case was the slaughter in cold blood of seventy-one American prisoners of war in a field near Malmédy, Belgium, on December 17, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge.

There were other occasions when Hitler himself ordered the murder of Western prisoners, as he did in the case of fifty British flyers who were caught in the spring of 1944, after escaping from a camp at Sagan. At Nuremberg Goering said he “considered it the most serious incident of the whole war” and General Jodl called it “sheer murder.”

Actually it seemed to be part of a deliberate German policy, adopted after Anglo–American bombing of Germany became so extensive from 1943 on, to encourage the killing of Allied airmen who had bailed out over Germany. Civilians were encouraged to lynch the flyers as soon as they had parachuted to the ground and a number of these Germans were tried after the war for having done so. In 1944 when the Anglo–American bombings were reaching their peak Ribbentrop urged that airmen shot down be summarily executed but Hitler took a somewhat milder view. On May 21, 1944, in agreement with Goering, he merely ordered that captured flyers who had machine-gunned passenger trains or civilians or German planes which had made emergency landings be shot without court-martial.

Sometimes captured flyers were simply turned over to the S.D. for “special treatment.” Thus some forty-seven American, British and Dutch flyers, all officers, were brutally murdered at Mauthausen concentration camp in September 1944. An eyewitness, Maurice Lampe, a French inmate at the camp, described at Nuremberg how it was done.

The forty-seven officers were led barefooted to the quarry … At the bottom of the steps the guards loaded stones on the backs of these poor men and they had to carry them to the top. The first journey was made with stones weighing about sixty pounds and accompanied by blows … The second journey the stones were still heavier, and whenever the poor wretches sank under their burden they were kicked and hit with a bludgeon … in the evening twenty-one bodies were strewn along the road. The twenty-six others died the following morning.37

This was a familiar form of “execution” at Mauthausen and was used on, among others, a good many Russian prisoners of war.

From 1942 on—that is, when the tide of war began to surge against him—Hitler ordered the extermination of captured Allied commandos, especially in the West. (Captured Soviet partisans were summarily shot as a matter of course.) The Fuehrer’s “Top-Secret Commando Order” of October 18, 1942, is among the Nazi documents.

From now on all enemies on so-called commando missions in Europe or Africa challenged by German troops, even if they are in uniform, whether armed or unarmed, in battle or in flight, are to be slaughtered to the last man.38

In a supplementary directive issued the same day Hitler explained to his commanders the reason for his order. Because of the success of the Allied commandos, he said,

I have been compelled to issue strict orders for the destruction of enemy sabotage troops and to declare noncompliance with these orders severely punishable … It must be made clear to the enemy that all sabotage troops will be exterminated, without exception, to the last man.

This means that their chance of escaping with their lives is nil … Under no circumstances can [they] expect to be treated according to the rules of the Geneva Convention … If it should become necessary for reasons of interrogation to initially spare one man or two, then they are to be shot immediately after interrogation.39

This particular crime was to be kept strictly secret. General Jodl appended instructions to Hitler’s directive, underlining his words: “This order is intended for commanders only and must not under any circumstances fall into enemy hands.” They were directed to destroy all copies of it after they had duly taken note.

It must have remained imprinted on their minds, for they proceeded to carry it out. A couple of instances, of many, may be given.

On the night of March 22, 1944, two officers and thirteen men of the 267th Special Reconnaissance Battalion of the U.S. Army landed from a naval craft far behind the German lines in Italy to demolish a railroad tunnel between La Spezia and Genoa. They were all in uniform and carried no civilian clothes. Captured two days later they were executed by a firing squad on March 26, without trial, on the direct orders of General Anton Dostler, commander of the LXXVth German Army Corps. Tried by a U.S. military tribunal shortly after the war, General Dostler justified his action by contending that he was merely obeying Hitler’s Commando Order. He argued that he himself would have been court-martialed by the Fuehrer if he had not obeyed.*

Some fifteen members of an Anglo–American military mission—including a war correspondent of the Associated Press, and all in uniform—which had parachuted into Slovakia in January 1945 were executed at Mauthausen concentration camp on the orders of Dr. Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the successor of Heydrich as head of the S.D. and one of the defendants at Nuremberg. Had it not been for the testimony of a camp adjutant who witnessed their execution, their murder might have remained unknown, for most of the files of the mass executions at this camp were destroyed.40

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