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 english for kids in Krasnogorsk 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.
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. 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. 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. 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Barbarossa began in 1941, the Wehrmacht determined that Soviet prisoners taken during the upcoming campaign were to be withdrawn from the protection of international and customary law.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. Commissar Order,’ which clearly spelled out the future nature of the war in Russia.
It also instructed Hitler’s subordinates to execute commissars and exonerated his soldiers of any future excess. 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. Bolshevik soldier forfeited every claim to be treated as an honorable soldier and in keeping with the Geneva Convention. 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. 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.
With their plans for invasion and treatment of POWs well in place, the Wehrmacht unleashed Operation Barbarossa on June 22. Its initial success shocked even the victors. The mechanized panzer columns rolled forward almost effortlessly and left in their wake tens of thousands of bewildered Soviet soldiers who were quickly and easily scooped up by infantry units following behind. The cruelty was apparent from the outset. Later, as their excesses ignited a protracted partisan war, the Germans reacted by issuing harsh orders calling for the execution of any Red Army personnel found in civilian clothing. Soldiers in plain clothes mostly recognizable by their short hair are to be shot following their identification as Red Army soldiers.
As a reflection of the racial nature of the war, Jewish prisoners were often held for execution by mobile SD squads or by Wehrmacht commanders. In October 1942, wounded prisoners being held at Stalag 355 were being shot rather than treated. POWs were soon herded westward to begin their captivity. The marches were often as terrifying as combat itself. Nikolai Obrynba, a medic in a Soviet militia battalion hastily raised as the Germans pushed on toward Moscow, was captured in the fighting around Vitebsk. It was the fourth day of our march toward Smolensk.
The prisoner would continue sitting, with his head down. Then the escort would take a carbine from his saddle or a pistol from his holster. Understandably horrified by what it was seeing, the civilian population became restless and uncooperative. POWs was a major source of hatred for the Germans. Deliberate brutality and forced marches thinned the ranks of the POWs, but it proved to be an insufficient means of ridding the Germans of their unwanted burden.
To further winnow the ranks, rations were systematically withheld from the prisoners. Food was earmarked for German use, and the army was to live off the land and dispatch any surplus to the Reich. Captured food worth 109 million Reichsmarks was sent to Germany from Russia between July and December 1941 alone. Prisoners marched through the rear area of Army Group Center, for example, were getting only 300 to 700 calories a day. Those attempting to supplement this bounty by grabbing food from fields passed along the way were instantly shot. In many cases even the civilian population was barred from assisting the prisoners. The peaceful civilians came to meet us, and tried to supply us with water and bread.
While the initial success of Barbarossa had been significant, the Germans failed to subdue the Soviet Union by the time the first snows fell in November 1941. The worsening weather made combat operations difficult for the German soldiers struggling to reach Moscow and caused the lot of their prisoners to grow even worse. When winter weather made it impossible to move prisoners by road, Wehrmacht directives were issued to have most men transported by rail but only in open wagons. Whether by foot or by rail, the ultimate destination of most prisoners in 1941 were Russenlager, camps built specifically to house Russian prisoners and managed by the Wehrmacht. Organizational Order Number 37 of April 30, 1941, stipulated that the camps were to consist of barbed-wire enclosures and watchtowers. The Wehrmacht discounted the need for hospitals or canteens — quicklime and cooking pots were to be provided instead. Few of the camps had barracks of any kind.