During the great encirclement battles of Operation Barbarossa in 1941 the Germans captured huge numbers of Soviet prisoners of war, whole armies fell into their hands. Around 3.6 million men were captured. By 1942 most of them were dead. It is a war crime that gets surprisingly little attention.
The realisation that there was going to be no quick victory over Soviet Russia led to a re-evaluation of the manpower needs of the Wehrmacht. Soviet PoWs were no longer to be regarded as completely disposable – to be left in open barbed wire enclosures and left to starve or freeze to death. Now they were a useful source of labour to support the German war machine.
On 28th February 1942 Afred Rosenberg, the Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, wrote to Wilhelm Keitel, head of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces:
Germany is conducting the fight against the Soviet Union because of ideological viewpoints. Bolshevism must be overthrown and something better must be put in its place. Even the prisoners of war themselves must realize that National Socialism is willing and in the position to bring them a better future. They must return later to their homes from Germany with a feeling of admiration and esteem for Germany and German institutions; and thus become propagandists for the cause of Germany and National Socialism.
This attempted goal has not been attained so far. The fate of the Soviet prisoners of war in Germany is on the contrary a tragedy of the greatest extent. Of 3.6 millions of prisoners of war, only several hundred thousand are still able to work fully. A large part of them has starved, or died, because of the hazards of the weather. Thousands also died from spotted fever.
It is understood, of course, that there are difficulties encountered in the feeding of such a large number of prisoners of war. Anyhow, with a certain amount of understanding for goals aimed at by German politics, dying and deterioration could have been avoided in the extent described. For instance, according to information on hand, the native population within the Soviet Union are absolutely willing to put food at the disposal of the prisoners of war. Several understanding camp commanders have successfully chosen this course. However in the majority of the cases, the camp commanders have forbidden the civilian population to put food at the disposal of the prisoners, and 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 of war food. In many cases, when prisoners of war 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 of war was provided at all. They lay under the open sky during rain or snow. Even tools were not made available to dig holes or caves.
A systematic delousing of the prisoners of war in the camps and of the camps themselves has apparently been missed. Utterances such as these have been heard: “The more of these prisoners die, the better it is for us”. The consequence of this treatment is now this, that spotted fever is spreading due to the escape and discharge of prisoners and has claimed its victims among the armed forces as well as among the civilian population, even in the old part of Germany.
Finally, the shooting of prisoners of war must be mentioned; these were partly carried out according to viewpoints which ignore all political understanding. For instance, in various camps, all the “Asiatics” were shot, although the inhabitants of the areas, considered belonging to Asia, of Transcaucasia and Turkestan especially, are among those people in the Soviet Union who are most strongly opposed to Russian subjugation and to Bolshevism. The Reich ministry of the occupied Eastern territories has repeatedly emphasized these abuses. However, in November for instance, a detail [Kommando] appeared in a prisoner of war camp in Nikolajew, which wanted to liquidate all Asiatics.
The treatment of prisoners of war appears to be founded for a great part on serious misconceptions about the people of the Soviet Union. One finds the opinion that the people become more inferior the further one goes East. If the Poles already were given harsh treatment, one argues, it should therefore be done to a much greater extent to the Ukrainians, White Ruthenians, Russians, and finally the “Asiatics”.
The memorandum was given in evidence during the Nuremburg War Crimes trials after the war. Rosenberg was to claim that the document had not been written by him, although he don’t seem to have disputed its factual content. The Tribunal was unconvinced, both Rosenberg and Keitel were convicted, sentenced to death and hanged.
Propagander has an extensive collection of original documents from the International Military Tribunal.
For the one of the most recent studies surveying the research into this area see Timothy Snyder: Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.