Although there is argument over the extent to which regular Wehrmacht units were aware of the activities of the Einsatzgruppen, few were ignorant of the treatment of the hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war coming into German custody. The German High Command had anticipated that they would take huge numbers of prisoners but they had made virtually no plans as to how to deal with them. Their main strategic aim was to fight huge battles of encirclement in which whole armies would fall into their hands. For the Red Army soldiers captured during 1941 this usually amounted to a death sentence.
The Germans disregarded all the usual conventions for the treatment of Prisoners of War when it came to the ‘Russians’ – although this term encompasses many different nationalities that were then part of the Soviet system. There were many instances of prisoners being routinely shot not just Soviet Commissars and Jews. There were few proper POW camps established during 1941 – most were simply barbed wire enclosures with no shelter. Most often the men were marched long distances with little food or water to reach the ‘camps’, those that fell by the wayside were shot. When they arrived starvation, disease and exposure to the elements were allowed to take their course.
During the course of the war 57.5% of the Soviet POWs in German hands died – nearly 3 million soldiers. Most of them died during 1941 – only later would they be recognised as a useful source of labour and allowed to survive in order to work, on a starvation diet, for the Germans. During this period it was far more lethal to be a Russian POW than to be in any German concentration camp. It is estimated that during the last months of 1941 more Soviet POWs died every day than American and British POWs died in German hands during the course of the entire war.
Some German soldiers recorded what they saw, Benno Zieser was one of them:
We suddenly saw a broad, earth-brown crocodile slowly shuffling down the road towards us. From it came a subdued hum, like that from a beehive.
Prisoners of war. Russians, six deep. We couldn’t see the end of the column. As they drew near the terrible stench which met us made us quite sick; it was like the biting stench of the lion house and the filthy odour of the monkey house at the same time.
But these were not animals, they were men. We made haste out of the way of the foul cloud which surrounded them, then what we saw transfixed us where we stood, and we forgot our nausea.
Were these really human beings, these grey-brown figures, these shadows lirching towards us, stumbling and staggering, moving shapes at their last gasp, creatures which only some last flicker of the will to live enabled to obey the order to march ?
All the misery in the world seemed to be concentrated here. There was also that gruesome barrage of shouts and wails, groans, lamentations and curses which combined with the cutting orders of the guards into a hideous accompaniment.
We saw a lone man shuffle aside from the ranks, then a rifle butt crash between his shoulder-blades and drive him gasping back into place.
Another with a head wound lost in bloodstained bandages ran a few paces out with gestures almost ludicrous in their persuasiveness to beg one of the nearby local inhabitants for a scrap of bread. Then a leather thong fetched him a savage lash round his shoulders and yanked him, too, back into place.
See Benno Zieser: Road To Stalingrad. For the one of the most recent studies surveying the research into this area see Timothy Snyder: Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.