Soviet POWs on the Eastern Front, 1941-1942


Overcrowded transit camp near Smolensk, Russia, August 1941. Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons

The extraordinarily brutal Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, began on June 22, 1941. Of the roughly 5,700,000 Soviet soldiers taken as prisoners of war by the Nazis from June 1941 until February 1945, some 3,300,000 perished. Incredibly, over 2,000,000 of these deaths occurred within the first nine months of the war on the eastern front, from June 1941 through April 1942. The unprecedented brutality of the Nazi campaign against the Soviet Union was driven by the extreme ideological fervor of National Socialism. During preparations for the invasion, Adolf Hitler emphasized that the war was more than a battle of weapons, but was an existential conflict between two utterly irreconcilable worldviews. Nearly two decade’s worth of racist, right-wing propaganda had painted a picture of Asiatic Judeo-Bolsheviks threatening to destroy a Western civilization led by the Aryan race. This axiomatic worldview generally infused the entire German war machine, from the Nazi leadership and army commanders, to the ordinary men fighting in the Wehrmacht (the German army), and it ultimately justified the extraordinary depredations against the Soviet POWs.


A column of Red Army POWs captured near Minsk is marched west- Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons

The Nazi leadership cadre planned for genocide against the Soviet Red Army well before the invasion. In March 1941, Hitler addressed Wehrmacht commanders and declared that the impending war would not be fought according to customary military principles but rather as a war of extermination (Vernichtungskrieg). Accordingly, the High Command of the Wehrmacht began drafting operational procedures. They planned for a relatively shallow zone of military operations; their rear would be followed by special task forces of the Schutzstaffel, or the SS, the elite avant garde of the Nazi Party. Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the Reich Security Main Office of the SS, organized these units into Einsatzgruppen, or paramilitary death squads that ultimately killed over one million people in outdoor executions to the rear of main Wehrmacht military operations. On May 13, the High Command of the Wehrmacht issued its Barbarossa Directive, which preemptively granted immunity to German soldiers for participating in these genocidal operations. And on June 6, two weeks before the invasion, the High Command issued its Commissar Order, demanding that political officers in the Red Army be identified, segregated, and ultimately executed. Meanwhile, lower levels of the Nazi command structure, particularly those mid-level planners who would be conducting the economic policies of the soon-to-be occupied territories, were also deliberating unprecedented levels of brutality. A meeting of various state secretaries on May 2 agreed that, as a consequence of prioritizing food supply for the army, “umpteen million people” in the occupied territories would necessarily starve to death.


Naked Soviet prisoners of war delouse in Vitebsk, Belarus, August 1941- Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons

Once the invasion of the Soviet Union was underway, the reality proved to be just as devastating as its Nazi planners had envisioned. The early months of Operation Barbarossa were terrifyingly successful for the Nazis, and each success was followed by a radicalization of Nazi racial policies. The Einsatzgruppen campaign gradually expanded in scope, ultimately killing over one million people in the course of their operations. (While the Einsatzgruppen initially targeted political officers in the Red Army, as well as partisans, they eventually went after entire Jewish communities; after all, according to Nazi ideology, Jews and Bolsheviks were viewed as synonymous.) Most Soviet POWs deaths were the result of attrition. Makeshift POW camps were established, where incredibly few rations were provided for captured Soviet prisoners; on average, they were granted no more than 700 calories per day. There were rumors that the prisoners resorted to cannibalism in order to stay alive. Meanwhile, in September and October 1941, some 10,000 Soviet POWs were sent to the concentration camp Auschwitz, where Nazi engineers used them to test the lethal effectiveness of the Zyklon B gas that was soon to be used in the extermination centers of the Final Solution to the Jewish Question.


An improvised camp for Soviet prisoners of war. August 1942- Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons

The winter of 1941-42 also proved to be devastatingly severe, and bereft of proper shelter and clothing many Soviet POWs froze to death. Once it became apparent by the spring of 1942 that the German Blitzkrieg had failed to deliver a quick victory, the Nazis increasingly used Soviet POWs as slave laborers, however little this did to improve their dire conditions. All in all, the Nazi genocide against Soviet POWs remains one of the greatest crimes perpetrated in the history of humanity.


A group of Soviet POWs, taken to undefined Prison Camp- Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons