Huge numbers of prisoners were being taken by the Germans in the encirclement battles where whole armies were captured. The Wehrmacht was totally unprepared to handle them all and a very high proportion of those captured in the early battles would die by the end of the year – from starvation, sickness, maltreatment, exhaustion from the long marches, and exposure to the elements.
For some the end was a much swifter – perhaps, with hindsight, mercifully swift. Erich Stahl was fighting with Waffen SS at this time and his brutally honest memoir gives plenty of examples of what was going on at this time:
At noon next day an order was received by Division to the effect that all prisoners captured during the last three days were to be shot as a reprisal for the inhuman atrocities which the Red Army had committed in our sector.
It so happened that we had taken very many prisoners during those fatal days, and so the lives of 4,000 men fell forfeit. They scarcely looked up when our interpreter told them in a cold voice of their fate.
They lined up eight at a time at the side ofa large anti-tank ditch. As the first volley crashed, eight men were hurled forward into the depths of the ditch, as if hit by a giant fist. Already the next row was lining up.
It was strange and incomprehensible to us how these men used their last minutes in this world, a world which had treated them so unmercifully. One took off his greatcoat and folded it neatly before laying it sadly on the ground; then he rose for his last walk. Textiles were rare in the workers’ paradise, and he may been instilled in them for so long.
Others greedily smoked a last cigarette, which they had clumsily rolled from a filthy scrap ofnewspaper. Nobody wrote a last message home; there were no tears.