Approximately three million German prisoners of war were captured by the Soviet Union during World War II, most of them during the great advances of the Red Army in the last year of the war. The POW were employed as forced labor in the Soviet wartime economy and post war reconstruction. By 1950 almost all had been released. In 1956 the last surviving German POW returned home from the USSR. According to Soviet records 381,067 German Wehrmacht POW died in NKVD camps (356,700 German nationals and 24,367 from other nations). German estimates put the actual death toll of German POW in the USSR at about 1.0 million. They maintain that among those reported as missing were men who actually died as POW.
German POWs in the USSR
In the first months of the Soviet-German war, few Germans were captured by Soviet forces. After the Battle of Moscow and the retreat of the German forces the number of prisoners in the Soviet prisoner of war camps rose to 120,000 by early 1942. The German 6th Army surrendered in the Battle of Stalingrad, 91,000 of the survivors became prisoners of war raising the number to 170,000 in early 1943. Weakened by malnutrition and ill-equipped for the Russian winter many froze to death in the months following capture at Stalingrad; only approximately 6,000 of them lived to be repatriated after the war. As the desperate economic situation in the Soviet Union eased in 1943, the mortality rate in the POW camps sank drastically. At the same time POWs became an important source of labor for the Soviet economy deprived of manpower. With the formation of the “National Committee Free Germany” and the “League of German Officers”, pro-communist POWs got more privileges and better rations. As a result of Operation Bagration and the collapse on the southern part of the Eastern front, the number of German POWs nearly doubled in the second half of 1944. In the first months of 1945 the Red Army advanced to the Oder river and on the Balkans. Again the number of POWs rose - to 2,000,000 in April 1945.
A total of 2.8 million German Wehrmacht personnel were held as POWs by the Soviet Union at the end of the war according to Soviet records. A large number of German POWs had been released by the end of 1946, when the Soviet Union held fewer POWs than the United Kingdom and France between them. With the creation of a pro-Soviet German state in the Soviet occupation zone of Germany - the German Democratic Republic - in October 1949, all but 85,000 POWs had been released and repatriated. Most of those still held in had been convicted as war criminals and many sentenced to long terms in forced labor camps - usually 25 years. It was not until 1956 that the last of these Kriegsverurteilte were repatriated, following the intervention of West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer in Moscow.
British historian Richard Overy estimated that 356,000 out of 2,880,000 million German prisoners of war died in Soviet labor camps. According to Anne Applebaum, 570,000 Axis powers POW died in Soviet custody and that the real totals may be higher. "In the few months of 1943, death rates among captured POWs hovered to 60 percent ... Similar death rates prevailed among Soviet soldiers in German captivity: the Nazi-Soviet war was truly a fight to the death." An estimate by a West German commission states that almost a million of German prisoners died in the Soviet camps between 1941 and 1952.
According to Edward Peterson, the U.S. chose to hand over several hundred thousand German prisoners to the Soviet Union in May 1945 as a "gesture of friendship". Niall Ferguson maintains that it is clear that many German units sought to surrender to the Americans in preference to other Allied forces, and particularly the Red Army. Heinz Nawratil maintains that U.S. forces refused to accept the surrender of German troops in Saxony and Bohemia, and instead handed them over to the Soviet Union.
Thousands of prisoners were transferred to Soviet authorities from POW camps in the West, e.g. it is known that 6,000 German officers were sent from the West to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp which at the time was one of the NKVD special camp and from which it is known that there were transfers further east to Siberia.
The West German government set up the Maschke Commission to investigate the fate of German POW in the war, in its report of 1974 they found that about 1.2 million German military personnel reported as missing more than likely died as POW, including 1.1 million in the USSR. The German historian Rüdiger Overmans puts the number of German POWs dead in the Soviet captivity at 1.0 million. Based on his research, Overmans believes that the deaths of 363,000 POWs in Soviet captivity can be confirmed be the files of Deutsche Dienststelle (WASt), he maintains that it seems entirely plausible, while not provable, that 700,000 German military personnel listed with the missing actually died in Soviet custody.
According to the section of the German Red Cross dealing with tracing the captives, 1,300,000 German military personnel are still officially listed as missing, most are believed to have died as POW.
|Year||Quarter||Number of German POWs|
Source of figures: Rüdiger Overmans, Soldaten hinter Stacheldraht. Deutsche Kriegsgefangene des Zweiten Weltkriege. Ullstein., 2000 Page 246
Below is the total number of German Wehrmact prisoners of war reported by the NKVD as of 22 April 1956 (excluding USSR citizens who were serving in Wermacht). The Soviets considered ethnic Germans of Eastern Europe conscripted by Germany as nationals of their country of residence before the war, for example the Sudeten Germans were labelled as Czechs.
|Nationality||Total accounted prisoners of war||Released and repatriated||Died in captivity|
|German||2 388 443||2 031 743||356 700|
|Austrian||156 681||145 790||10 891|
|Czech and Slovak||69 977||65 954||4 023|
|French||23 136||21 811||1325|
|Yugoslav||21 830||20 354||1476|
|Polish||60 277||57 149||3128|
|Wehrmacht totals||2 733 739||2 352 671||381 067|
- G. I. Krivosheev. Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses. Greenhill 1997 ISBN 1-85367-280-7 Pages 276-278.
- In his revised Russian language edition of Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses Krivosheev put the number of German military POW at 2,733,739 and dead at 381,067 G. I. Krivosheev Rossiia i SSSR v voinakh XX veka: Poteri vooruzhennykh sil ; statisticheskoe issledovanie OLMA-Press, 2001 ISBN 5-224-01515-4 Table 198
- Rüdiger Overmans, Soldaten hinter Stacheldraht. Deutsche Kriegsgefangene des Zweiten Weltkriege. Ullstein., 2000 Page 246 ISBN 3-549-07121-3
- Rüdiger Overmans, Soldaten hinter Stacheldraht. Deutsche Kriegsgefangene des Zweiten Weltkriege. Ullstein., 2000 Page 272 ISBN 3-549-07121-3
- Nicolas Werth, Karel Bartošek, Jean-Louis Panné, Jean-Louis Margolin, Andrzej Paczkowski, Stéphane Courtois: The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, Harvard University Press, 1999, hardcover, 858 pages, ISBN 0-674-07608-7, page 322, They put the number of POW captured at Stalingrad at 100,000 of whom 6,000 survived
- The Great Patriotic War: 55 years on The BBC put the number of POW captured at Stalingrad at 91,000 of whom 6,000 survived
- Rüdiger Overmans: Soldaten hinter Stacheldraht. Deutsche Kriegsgefangene des Zweiten Weltkriegs. Ullstein, München 2002, ISBN 3-548-36328-8, p.258
- Andreas Hilger: Deutsche Kriegsgefangene in der Sowjetunion 1941-1956. Kriegsgefangenschaft, Lageralltag und Erinnerung. Klartext Verlag, Essen 2000, ISBN 3-88474-857-2, p. 137 (Tabelle 3 and Tabelle 10)
- Richard Overy The Dictators: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia (2004), ISBN 0-7139-9309-X
- (cited from Anne Applebaum: Gulag: A History, Doubleday, April, 2003, ISBN 0-7679-0056-1; page 431.Introduction online) The Soviets held POWs from Italy, Romania, Hungary and Japan as well as Germany.
- The Black Book of Communism Nicolas Werth, Karel Bartošek, Jean-Louis Panné, Jean-Louis Margolin, Andrzej Paczkowski, Stéphane Courtois, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, Harvard University Press, 1999, hardcover, 858 pages, ISBN 0-674-07608-7, page 322
- German POWs and the Art of Survival
- Edward N. Peterson: The American Occupation of Germany, pp 116, "Some hundreds of thousands who had fled to the Americans to avoid being taken prisoner by the Russians were turned over in May to the Red Army in a gesture of friendship."
- Niall Ferguson: Prisoner Taking and Prisoner Killing in the Age of Total War: Towards a Political Economy of Military Defeat War in History, 2004, 11 (2) 148–192 pg. 189
- Heinz Nawratil Die deutschen Nachkriegsverluste unter Vertriebenen, Gefangenen und Verschleppter: mit einer Übersicht über die europäischen Nachkriegsverluste. Munich and Berlin, 1988, pp. 36f.)
- Desmond Butler (December 17, 2001). "Ex-Death Camp Tells Story Of Nazi and Soviet Horrors". New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/12/17/world/ex-death-camp-tells-story-of-nazi-and-soviet-horrors.html.
- Erich Maschke ,Zur Geschichte der deutschen Kriegsgefangenen des Zweiten Weltkrieges Bielefeld, E. und W. Gieseking, 1962-1974 Vol 15 P 185-230
- Rüdiger Overmans. Deutsche militärische Verluste im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Oldenbourg 2000. ISBN 3-486-56531-1 Page 286-289
- Willi Kammerer; Anja Kammerer- Narben bleiben die Arbeit der Suchdienste - 60 Jahre nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg Berlin Dienststelle 2005 ( Published by the Search Service of the German Red Cross. The forward to the book was written by German President Horst Köhler and the German interior minister Otto Schily)
- stern-Serie: Besiegt, befreit, besetzt - Deutschland 1945-48 "Die Schätzungen über die Zahl der in Haft gestorbenen Männer schwanken zwischen 600 000 und einer Million. Nach Angaben des Suchdienstes des Deutschen Roten Kreuzes ist bis heute das Schicksal von 1,3 Millionen Kriegsgefangenen ungeklärt - sie gelten offiziell als vermisst."
- In his revised Russian language edition of Soviet Casualties and Combat LossesKrivosheev put the number of German military POW at 2,733,739 and dead at 381,067 G. I. Krivosheev Rossiia i SSSR v voinakh XX veka: Poteri vooruzhennykh sil ; statisticheskoe issledovanie OLMA-Press, 2001 ISBN 5-224-01515-4 Table 198
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