During World War II, Nazi Germany sent its soldiers across much of Europe, the Soviet Union, North Africa, and the world’s oceans. After the Third Reich’s fortunes shifted decisively in the lost battle for Moscow in December 1941, the Allies began to inflict grievous defeats on the German army, which resulted in millions of casualties and prisoners of war (POWs).
At the time of the German surrender, on 8 May 1945, approximately twenty nations allied against former Nazi-controlled territories, held German POWs. The United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union held the vast majority of the eleven million who surrendered. Approximately 5 million were released almost immediately, and the last POWs in the Soviet Union would not return until 1956. Both the Western Allies and the Soviets committed crimes against the POWs. Thousands of POWs died in American stockades and French work camps. POWs in the Soviet Union, and in Soviet occupied countries such as Poland, had the worst luck. They were deployed in various kinds of work with few provisions and more often than not exposed to the harsh weather of Siberia. Hundred of thousands are estimated to have died.[i]
Post–1945 Germany was divided into four zones of occupation. The British and American zones merged in 1947 into the Bizone, and the French zone merged in early 1949 shortly before the new West German state was proclaimed. In the eastern zone of occupation, the Soviet Union was in control. The Soviets promoted the creation of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) out of the forced merger between German communists and the eastern Social Democrats. Thus, they ensured that communists controlled the eastern zone under the guise of democratic unity.
While this case study reviews the conditions for POWs held by several different countries, it primarily focuses on those held by the USSR. Poland and Yugoslavia are treated in separate case studies and evidence suggests that those held by no other single country exceed the 50,000 deaths threshold that defines this research project.
Conditions varied according to the state that held the POWs. At the war’s end, millions of German soldiers, fearing revenge, trekked westward hoping to surrender to the Americans or British, rather than the Red Army. Indeed, the Soviet Union had never signed the Geneva Accords and therefore German POWs were not subject to the laws of war, which forbade excessive work and required a certain number of daily calories for each prisoner. The POWs were employed to help rebuild the war-destroyed country. Many were sent to logging camps in Siberia or mining in the Ural Mountains. Imprisonment was generally harsh. A young POW recalled being subjected to “brutal assaults on a daily basis, hunger, disease, and the cold.” Only by 1948 did their situation improve.[ii]
The German occupation had wreaked havoc on Soviet soil, so the Soviet propaganda machine had little difficulty instilling hatred for Germans. Many POWs who died in captivity were almost certainly casualties of punitive revenge, but their exact numbers cannot be readily ascertained. There is a consensus, however, that most deaths were not the result of official policy. Most German POWs seem to have died before 1945 due to their poor health when falling captive after month-long fighting such as in Stalingrad. Many others died because of overwork, and because the Soviets did not allocate resources towards the POWs, but to their war effort. After the war, Soviet resources were in turn allocated towards their own population, and poor postwar harvests only made the POW’s situation worse. Until 1947 the single highest cause of death was dystrophy, a disease caused by undernourishment.[iii] Moreover, POWs often engaged in self-destructive behavior, such as refusing food, and/or inhaling, imbibing, or consuming dangerous substances in the hopes to be weakened to an extent to be let off work or be returned sooner to Germany. The deaths that resulted from this cannot be ascertained either. Still, for the Soviets, the German POWs had a use; they were to work to rebuild the country. In this, Soviet treatment of German POWs differed from the wartime policies of Nazi Germany, which intentionally sought to kill Soviet POWs. [iv]
The Soviets were not alone in their treatment of German POWs. An estimated 40,000 died in American stockades because of neglect and hunger between May and July of 1945. Another 20,000 died while working to rebuild war-ravaged France, often tasked with dangerous tasks such as removing explosives from mine fields. Here again historians generally agree that there were no deliberate attempts to annihilate German POWs en masse. While certainly the policies put in place came out of hatred and punitive sentiments, it was the difficult condition of the immediate postwar, especially low calorie diets, neglect, and overwork that ensured the death of POWs.[v]
Nonetheless, for the purposes of this study, fatalities that result when populations are kept under the direct control of a power (the “camp” is the signature such example) in conditions that produce high mortality are included.
It is difficult to ascertain the exact number of deceased POWs and whether they died before or after 1945. The reasons are patchy record keeping; the chaotic conditions the immediate postwar period, and the discrepancy between official figures and the number of actual disappeared POWs. Moreover, the POW topic is a favorite of the far right, always intent on inflating numbers of dead POWs and ethnic Germans in order to craft revisionist and Holocaust–denying narratives.
The numbers are most accurate for the POWs deaths in countries other than the Soviet Union. McDonough estimates that 80,000 German POWs died in Yugoslavia working to rebuild the country and as the result of abuse and malnutrition (see Yugoslavia case study). Close to 10,000 died in Polish mines and camps (see Poland case study). He estimates POWs under American, British, French, Belgian, Luxembourger, and Dutch control to have died to be 63,815. It should be noted that the American forces donated thousands of POWs to the French and the Belgians to perform rebuilding work.[vi] The deaths break down to 40,000 dead under American captivity on German soil, 1,254 dead under British captivity in Germany, 21,886 in France, 450 in Belgium, 210 in Holland, and 15 dead POWs in Luxembourg.[vii] Historians agree that 100,000 POWs held by non–Soviet forces remain missing, but it is not clear from the scholarship how much overlap there is between the “missing” POWs and the “confirmed” dead because of unreliable data.[viii]
The Soviet case is the most vexing for researchers. The official Soviet numbers are that 350,000 to 400,000 German POWs perished in Soviet imprisonment, which historians have determined to be far too low.[ix] Scholars agree that 1.1 million German POWs perished in Soviet captivity, fully one third of all German POWs under Soviet control.[x] The confusion comes when determining the exact period when the deaths occurred given the patchy (or perhaps even mendacious) record–keeping of Soviet officials. Scholars know that the NKVD organized German POWs beginning in 1943 according to the GULAG model, and integrating them into the Soviet war economy as workers. Their importance as a workforce ensured that the Soviets were interested in keeping them well after 1945, which meant continued mortality levels, albeit at lower percentages than during the war years. Whereas in 1945 mortality was 14.5%, by 1947 it had dropped to 1.7%. Since 3 million German POWs were under Soviet control in 1945, over 400,000 must have died in Soviet camps after 1945. Yet, this number remains an estimate.[xi]
The question of the POWs was a very important topic already in Nazi Germany. Bereaved families wanted their men back. After the war, the vast majority of ordinary Germans in east and west believed that they had suffered the most during World War II, and POWs were the very symbol of defeat and German victimization.[xii]
Occupied Germany was divided into a Western capitalist, and an eastern Communist part. In the western occupation zone, German politicians across the political spectrum and the vast majority of ordinary citizens lobbied for the POWs’ release, pressing hard on Allied High Commissioner John J. McCloy to release those who remained behind bars.[xiii] They had successes because the Americans and British desperately wanted German allies in their coming struggle against the Soviet Union. The Western Allies were signatories of the Geneva Convention which stipulated that POWs were to be released shortly after the war ended, but POW releases, and especially the amnesties of convicted war criminals must be seen in the light of West German lobbying in the context of the nascent Cold War.[xiv]
West Germans had less success in influencing the Soviet Union before Stalin’s death in 1953. Given the Cold War, the Western Allies could not influence the Kremlin either. The Soviet Union refused to discuss the question of POWs. Historian Andreas Hilger argues that the logic of pre–1953 POW releases by the Soviet Union defy consistent explanation. Often they were conditioned strictly by Soviet calculations. As long as a POW was fit and useful he was kept working, when they became too sick and weak they were repatriated. The Soviets also devised a scheme by which POWs who fulfilled a work quota could come home sooner. In neither case were Soviet authorities consistent about their promises.[xv] The East Germans were in no condition to challenge Soviet POW policies, even though they counted on the POWs, especially if they had become antifascists or even communists, to play a role in creating the new socialist Germany. Rather, East German communists sought to inculcate Stalinist values in the population, which included reviling all POWs as fascists. The Soviet Union subordinated POW repatriation to their reconstruction needs. The POWs who returned to both Germanys in the late 1940s were “ragged and emaciated.”[xvi]
It would take until 1953 and 1956 respectively for the last surviving POWs to return. The decisive factor was Stalin’s death in 1953 and Moscow’s desire to minimize the number of foreign prisoners in the country (many Japanese POWs were also released), secure the status quo in Europe, and normalize relations with West Germany. Moreover, they wanted to give the East German government a trump card after the June 1953 uprising in East Germany by crediting East Berlin with the repatriations. The Soviets released 10,200 POWs in 1953. The remaining 9,262 had been mostly accused of war crimes and sentenced to lengthy prison terms that would last until the 1980s. Still, the Soviets desired to establish diplomatic relations with West Germany, which would ensure the status quo in Eastern Europe, as Germany would effectively remain divided in East and West. Given the popularity of the POW question in West Germany, the West German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, flew to Moscow in 1955 and told Khrushchev that the POWs were to be released before diplomatic relations were established. This ensured the return of the last prisoners to East and West Germany.[xvii]
Biess, Frank. 2006. Homecomings: Returning POWs and the Legacies of Defeat in Postwar Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Bischof, Günter, Stefan Karner, and Barbara Stelzl–Marx, eds., 2005. Kriegsgefangenen des Zweiten Weltkrieges: Gefangennahme–Lagerleben–Rückkehr. Vienna and Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag.
Borchard, Michael.2000. Die Deutschen Kriegsgefangenen in Der Sowjetunion: Zur Politischen Bedeutung Der Kriegsgefangennfrage, 1949–1955. Düsseldorf: Droste.
Dieter–Müller, Klaus, 2005. “Die Geschichte hat ein Gesicht,” in Bischof, Günter, Stefan Karner, and Barbara Stelzl–Marx, eds. Kriegsgefangenen des Zweiten Weltkrieges: Gefangennahme–Lagerleben–Rückkehr. Vienna and Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag.
Hilger, Andreas. 2000. Deutsche Kriegsgefangene in Der Sowjetunion, 1941–1956: Kriegsgefangennenpolitik, Lageralltag Und Erinnerung. Essen: Klartext Verlag.
Hilger, Andreas. 2005. “Skoro Domoj?” in Bischof, Günter, Stefan Karner, and Barbara Stelzl–Marx, eds., 2005. Kriegsgefangenen des Zweiten Weltkrieges: Gefangennahme–Lagerleben–Rückkehr. Vienna and Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag.
Horton, Aaron. 2014. German POWs, Der Ruf, and the Genesis of Group 47: The Political Journey of Alfred Andersch and Hans Werner Richter. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press..
Lehmann, Albrecht. 1986. Gefangenschaft Und Heimkehr: Deutsche Kriegsgefangen in Der Sowjetunion. Munich: C.H. Beck.
Lucks, Günter, and Harald Stutte, 2010. Ich War Hitlers Letztes Aufgebot: Meine Erlebnisse Als SS–Kindersoldat. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rohwolt Verlag.
McDonough, Giles. 2007. After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation. New York: Basic Books.
Moeller, Robert G. 2005 “Germans as Victims?: Thoughts on a Post–Cold War History of World War II’s Legacies,” History and Memory, Vol.17, No 1–2 (Spring–Winter): 145–194.
Schwarz, Thomas. 1991. America’s Germany: John J. McCloy and the Federal Republic of Germany. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Steinbach, Peter. 1989. “Zur Sozialgeschichte der deutschen Kriegsgefangenschaft in der Sowjetunion im Zweiten Weltkrieg in der Frühgeschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland: Ein Beitrag zum Problem historischer Kontinuität,” Zeitgeschichte 17: 1–18.
[i] Lehmann1986, 10.
[ii] Lucks and Harald Stutte 2010, 253–254.
[iii] Hilger 2000, 20 in Bischof, Karner, and Stelzl–Marx 2005, 202–206.
[iv] Lehmann 1986, 10, 81–83; Biess 2006, 119–140.
[v] Borchard 2000, 38; McDonough 2007, 399, 408, 426.
[vi] McDonough 2007, 416, 419.
[vii] McDonough 2007, 399, 408, 420, 426.
[viii] Bischof 2005, 9.
[ix] Hilger and Dieter–Müller give different numbers for the official Soviet version. See Hilger 2000, 71, and Dieter–Müller 2005, 79.
[x] Borchard 2000, 11; Steinbach 1989, 1; Lehmann 1986, 10.
[xi] Hilger 2000, 206.
[xii] Moeller 2005.
[xiii] Biess 2006, 59; Schwarz 1991.
[xiv] Schwarz 1991, 168; Steiniger 2014.
[xv] Hilger 2005, 204–205.
[xvi] Hilger 2005, 206.
[xvii] Biess 2006, 126–27, 203–204; Hilger 2005, 212–216.