When the Wehrmacht transported Soviet prisoners by train, it used open freight cars, with no protection from the weather. When the trains reached their destinations, hundreds or sometimes even thousands of frozen corpses would tumble from the opened doors. Death rates during transport were as high as seventy percent. Perhaps two hundred thousand prisoners died in these death marches and these death transports. All of the prisoners who arrived in the eighty or so prisoner-of-war camps established in the occupied Soviet Union were tired and hungry, and many were wounded or ill.
Ordinarily, a prisoner-of-war camp is a simple facility, built by soldiers for other soldiers, but meant to preserve life. Such camps arise in difficult conditions and in unfamiliar places; but they are constructed by people who know that their own comrades are being held as prisoners by the opposing army. German prisoner-of-war camps in the Soviet Union, however, were something far out of the ordinary. They were designed to end life. In principle, they were divided into three types: the Dulag (transit camp), the Stalag (base camp for enlisted men and noncommissioned officers), and the smaller Oflags (for officers). In practice, all three types of camps were often nothing more than an open field surrounded by barbed wire. Prisoners were not registered by name, though they were counted. This was an astonishing break with law and custom. Even at the German concentration camps names were taken. There was only one other type of German facility where names were not taken, and it had not yet been invented. No advance provision was made for food, shelter, or medical care. There were no clinics and very often no toilets. Usually there was no shelter from the elements. The official calorie quotients for the prisoners were far below survival levels, and were often not met. In practice, only the stronger prisoners, and those who had been selected as guards, could be sure of getting any food at all.
It was the Wehrmacht that established and ran the first network of camps, in Hitler’s Europe, where people died in the thousands, the tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands, and finally the millions.
Some of the most infamous prisoner-of-war camps were in occupied Soviet Belarus, where by late November 1941 death rates had reached two percent per day. At Stalag 352 near Minsk, which one survivor remembered as “pure hell,” prisoners were packed together so tightly by barbed wire that they could scarcely move. They had to urinate and defecate where they stood. Some 109,500 people died there. At Dulag 185, Dulag 127, and Stalag 341, in the east Belarusian city Mahileu, witnesses saw mountains of unburied corpses outside the barbed wire. Some thirty to forty thousand prisoners died in these camps. At Dulag 131 at Bobruisk, the camp headquarters caught fire. Thousands of prisoners burned to death, and another 1,700 were gunned down as they tried to escape. All in all at least thirty thousand people died at Bobruisk. At Dulags 220 and 121 in Homel, as many as half of the prisoners had shelter in abandoned stables. The others had no shelter at all. In December 1941 death rates at these camps climbed from two hundred to four hundred to seven hundred a day. At Dulag 342 at Molodechno, conditions were so awful that prisoners submitted written petitions asking to be shot.
The camps in occupied Soviet Ukraine were similar. At Stalag 306 at Kirovohrad, German guards reported that prisoners ate the bodies of comrades who had been shot, sometimes before the victims were dead. Rosalia Volkovskaia, a survivor of the women’s camp at Volodymyr Volynskyi, had a view of what the men faced at the local Stalag 365: “we women could see from above that many of the prisoners ate the corpses.” At Stalag 346 in Kremenchuk, where inmates got at most two hundred grams of bread per day, bodies were thrown into a pit every morning. As in Ukraine in 1933, sometimes the living were buried along with the dead. At least twenty thousand people died in that camp. At Dulag 162 in Stalino (today Donetsk), at least ten thousand prisoners at a time were crushed behind barbed wire in a small camp in the center of the city. People could only stand. Only the dying would lie down, because anyone who did would be trampled. Some twenty-five thousand perished, making room for more. Dulag 160 at Khorol, southwest of Kiev, was one of the larger camps. Although the site was an abandoned brick factory, prisoners were forbidden to take shelter in its buildings. If they tried to escape there from the rain or snow, they were shot. The commandant of this camp liked to observe the spectacle of prisoners struggling for food. He would ride in on his horse amidst the crowds and crush people to death. In this and other camps near Kiev, perhaps thirty thousand prisoners died.
Soviet prisoners of war were also held at dozens of facilities in occupied Poland, in the General Government (which had been extended to the southeast after the invasion of the Soviet Union). Here astonished members of the Polish resistance filed reports about the massive death of Soviet prisoners in the winter of 1941-1942. Some 45,690 people died in the camps in the General Government in ten days, between 21 and 30 October 1941. At Stalag 307 at Dęblin, some eighty thousand Soviet prisoners died over the course of the war. At Stalag 319 at Chełm some sixty thousand people perished; at Stalag 366 in Siedlce, fifty-five thousand; at Stalag 325 at Zamość, twenty-eight thousand; at Stalag 316 at Siedlce, twenty-three thousand. About half a million Soviet prisoners of war starved to death in the General Government. As of the end of 1941, the largest group of mortal victims of German rule in occupied Poland was neither the native Poles nor the native Jews, but Soviet prisoners of war who had been brought west to occupied Poland and left to freeze and starve. Despite the recent Soviet invasion of Poland, Polish peasants often tried to feed the starving Soviet prisoners they saw. In retaliation, the Germans shot the Polish women carrying the milk jugs, and destroyed whole Polish villages.
The German prisoner-of-war camps in the East were far deadlier than the German concentration camps. Indeed, the existing concentration camps changed their character upon contact with prisoners of war. Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen, and Auschwitz became, as the SS used them to execute Soviet prisoners of war, killing facilities. Some eight thousand Soviet prisoners were executed at Auschwitz, ten thousand at Mauthausen, eighteen thousand at Sachsenhausen. At Buchenwald in November 1941, the SS arranged a method of mass murder of Soviet prisoners that strikingly resembled Soviet methods in the Great Terror, though exhibiting greater duplicity and sophistication. Prisoners were led into a room in the middle of a stable, where the surroundings were rather loud. They found themselves in what seemed to be a clinical examination room, surrounded by men in white coats—SS-men, pretending to be doctors. They would have the prisoner stand against the wall at a certain place, supposedly to measure his height. Running through the wall was a vertical slit, which the prisoner’s neck would cover. In an adjoining room was another SS-man with a pistol. When he saw the neck through the slit, he would fire. The corpse would then be thrown into a third room, the “examination room,” be quickly cleaned, and the next prisoner invited inside. Batches of thirty-five to forty corpses would be taken by truck to a crematorium: a technical advance over Soviet practices.
The Germans shot, on a conservative estimate, half a million Soviet prisoners of war. By way of starvation or mistreatment during transit, they killed about 2.6 million more. All in all, perhaps 3.1 million Soviet prisoners of war were killed. The brutality did not bring down the Soviet order; if anything, it strengthened Soviet morale. The screening of political officers, communists, and Jews was pointless. Killing such people, already in captivity, did not much weaken the Soviet state. In fact, the policies of starvation and screening stiffened the resistance of the Red Army. If soldiers knew that they would starve in agony as German captives, they were certainly more likely to fight. If communists and Jews and political officers knew that they would be shot, they too had little reason to give in. As knowledge of German policies spread, Soviet citizens began to think that Soviet power was perhaps the preferable alternative.