Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him - Donald Rayfield (2005)


Chapter 57. Prisoners of War

THE DEATH AND MISERY inflicted on the USSR between June 1941 and May 1945 are of course primarily Hitler’s responsibility. In all, 11,285,100 Soviet citizens in the armed forces were killed, reported missing, or taken prisoner. Of these, 939,700 missing reappeared and about half came back of the 3 million prisoners of war—the POW figure is a round one since the Germans and Soviets used different definitions. Thus, over 8 million men and women—predominantly young men—in uniform were killed. Civilians under German occupation fared even worse: the figure of 9,987,000 deaths produced at the Nuremberg trials is roughly correct. Perhaps 4 million—mainly Jews—were shot; the remainder died of cold, disease, famine, and massacre as a result of the German occupation exacerbated by the Soviet scorched-earth retreat. Thus approximately 18 million deaths in the USSR from 1941 to 1945 can be attributed directly to the Nazis. 16

But how much blame must Stalin and his hangmen take? Did Stalin criminally shed the blood of his armies in futile attacks or last stands? Was the scorched-earth policy a legitimate means of denying the enemy sustenance? Beria, Abakumov, Merkulov, and Mekhlis shot and hanged soldiers, civilians, and prisoners indiscriminately to a level far exceeding the official figure of 40,000 executions for the four years of war. The conditions in Soviet camps became atrocious, as bad as Dachau or Buchenwald. In 1942 alone, 352,560 prisoners, a quarter of the GULAG, died. Some 900,000 GULAG prisoners died of maltreatment during the war, though their camps were thousands of miles from the front. Civilian mortality in both cities and countryside in the unoccupied part of the USSR soared. At the worst periods, the spring of 1942 and the winter of 1943, in some areas half the infants died before their first birthdays. During the blockade of Leningrad, 750,000 perished. 17 The actual 37 million civilian deaths in the occupied and unoccupied areas of the USSR from 1941 to 1945 exceed by some 23 million the expected number, had mortality stayed at peacetime levels. The structure of the surviving population was distorted to the extent that in some country areas there were three women for every man left alive. Moreover, the draconian retribution exacted on the Soviet population in reconquered areas cannot be blamed on Hitler, while the deaths of half a million deportees and of one and a half million German POWs are entirely due to decisions made by Stalin and carried out by Beria and other commissars.

About half the Soviet prisoners in German hands and just over half the German prisoners in Russian hands survived. Both sides felt untrammeled by the Geneva convention. The atrocities committed by the German army from the very start of the war made the Russian military disinclined to take prisoners; particularly when retreating, they shot surrendered Germans. Red Army men knew the Germans shot all Soviet prisoners who were Jewish or who held party posts. Most Soviet prisoners were captured in the first years of the war and had to endure four years of starvation and abuse before liberation; the vast majority of German prisoners were captured only in the last eighteen months of the war. The annual mortality of German POWs in Soviet hands was twice as high as that of Soviet POWs in Germany.18 Until mid-1943, when the Soviets were sure of victory, their treatment of POWs was horrific. A typical document dated May 4, 1943, sent to Major General Ivan Petrov, who ran the NKVD’s Main Directorate for POWs and Internees (GUPVI), reads: “I inform you of the movement of POWs to Pokrovskoe camp 127. From March 4 to 13, 1943, we had three trainloads of POWs totaling 8,007. Of these by May 1, 1943, 6,189 died, including 1,526 en route. . . . Causes of death: dystrophy 4,326, typhus 54, frostbite 162, wounds 23, others 98. . . .” Of the 91,000 Germans who surrendered at Stalingrad, 27,000 died within weeks, although von Paulus’s army was starved and frostbitten when captured, and only 5 percent, mainly officers, survived.19

In 1943, after Stalingrad, tens of thousands of Germans flowed into the GULAG, and the authorities began to see some point in keeping them alive. Soprunenko, who had managed what were in essence death camps, was replaced by Ivan Petrov, who had worked with Beria in the NKVD blocking forces in the Caucasian passes. Petrov picked out from the POWs those capable of useful work. German prisoners of late 1943 and 1944 were fresher, and as civilians had often been artisans; 80 percent of them could be used. As the war progressed, Russian guards became more forgiving. German artisans had a work ethic, and in mines, forestry, and construction outshone even free Soviet workers. In the camps German prisoners staged operas, carved ornaments, and grew tomatoes: their 50 percent survival rate over several years was higher than that of civilian prisoners thanks to their contributions to the GULAG economy and to the comforts of the camp commandants.

The work ethic of the German prisoners was also their undoing. When the war ended Stalin was reluctant to lose this workforce so 35,000 of the best POWs were charged with crimes—plotting to invade the USSR, aiding world bourgeoisie—and given twenty-five-year sentences. In the last months of the war, the number of prisoners virtually doubled and 1,500,000 foreign slave workers doubled the output of the GULAG, just as Hitler’s program of Ostarbeiter slavery had boosted the German war effort. Most POWs in the USSR built roads and railways, many worked for the Ministry of Defense. In the postwar period, it is calculated that 8 percent of Soviet GNP came from POW labor. By 1950 they had contributed a billion working days to the Soviet economy, and had rebuilt several main highways and a dozen ruined cities.

German war guilt was thus partially expiated, but Nazis who had committed atrocities were prosecuted haphazardly. Trials began with three SS officers and their Russian driver in Kharkov in December 1943; they were hanged for massacring hospital patients and wounded POWs. Some 37,600 Nazi POWs were sentenced for war crimes: of these only 400 were executed, the others receiving twenty-five-year sentences so that their knowledge or skills could be exploited. Many known perpetrators of atrocities were treated benignly. Those publicly hanged in Kiev and a dozen other cities were not necessarily the most guilty while the Germans hanged in Minsk could not have committed the Katyn atrocities for which they died.

Only after 1946 could POWs receive mail or Red Cross parcels, and the repatriation process dragged out until the end of 1955. By then, however, there was a new source for the camps, millions of former Soviet citizens and other east Europeans garnered by the Red Army, SMERSH, and the NKVD.