The saga of the Russian prisoners of war may be the forgotten holocaust of World War II. It was probably the most concentrated killing in human history. The German army killed nearly 3 million Russian prisoners of war in only eight months. From June 1941 through February 1942, the German Army was responsible for the deaths of millions of Russian prisoners through starvation, exposure and summary execution. This forgotten genocide certainly vies and probably exceeds the genocide in Rwanda where anywhere from 500, 000 to 1 million people were slaughtered in a 100 day period in 1994.
In the summer of 1941, Germany invaded Russia and won a series of “battles of encirclement” that were on scales never seen before in the history of warfare. Over 512,000 Russian prisoners of war were captured at Vyazma and Bryansk. Another 452,000 were captured in Kiev and 300,000 more at Smolensk. The Germans would also capture 290,000 at Bialystok/Minsk and 103,000 at Uman. Most of the Russian soldiers would never see home again.
During the Second World War the Germans captured nearly 6 million Russian prisoners of war. Nearly 4 million would die in captivity. Approximately 3.5 million of them would die in German camps. The Germans starved 65,000 Russians to death at the Gross-Rosen concentration camp. In the Flossenburg camp, the Germans burned Russian prisoners alive. They shot them in the trenches at Majdanek. The local streams near the Mauthausen camp turned blood red with the continuous execution of Russian prisoners. Most Russians prisoners simply died of disease, exposure and starvation in German transits camps called Dulags or prisoner of war camps called Stalags. The Germans could count only 930,000 Russian prisoners in captivity in January 1945 near the end of the war.
Why is so little known about this dark chapter of the Second World War? Most people have heard of Auschwitz or Treblinka where millions of Jews were murdered. But what about Stalag 350/Z or Dulag 205? Why have we never heard of these camps? The answer may lie in Joseph Stalin’s reluctance to admit to these catastrophic defeats. The Stalin regime had also considered prisoners of war to be traitors. Stalin issued Order 270 which forbade any solder from surrendering. Many of the prisoners of war who survived the war faced long prison terms in Russian gulags in Siberia. They were accused of collaborating with the Germans. The Russians were just happy to forget the past and in the West nobody cared, especially with the beginning of the cold war.
During the First World War, the Germans captured approximately 2.4 million Russian soldiers. Just under 200,000 died in captivity. This is hardly less than a tragic figure. In contrast, during the Second World War the Americans interned 425,000 German prisoners of war in the United States, where approximately 600 died in captivity. Why did over 60 percent of the Russian prisoners of war die in captivity in the Second World War, while only approximately nine percent died in captivity in the First World War? Like the genocide in Rwanda, the German war in the East was a war of extermination. The responsibility for genocide alone cannot be blamed on Nazi ideology or one particular person or group. The blame relies entirely on the thousands of German officers who made a conscious decision to ignore the conventions of war and refuse to offer humane treatment to Russian prisoners of war, unlike the officers of an earlier generation in the First World War.
Opinion by John J. Poltonowicz