In the summer and autumn of 1941, vast numbers of Soviet prisoners were captured in about a dozen large encirclement’s. Due to their rapid advance into the Soviet Union and an anticipated quick victory, the Germans did not want to ship these prisoners to Germany. Under the administration of the Wehrmacht, the prisoners were processed, guarded, forced-marched, or transported in open rail cars to locations mostly in the occupied Soviet Union, Germany, and occupied Poland. Much like comparable events, such as the Pacific War’s Bataan Death March in 1942, the treatment of prisoners was brutal, without much in the way of supporting logistics.
Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, accompanied by an entourage of SS and Heer personnel, inspects a prison-camp for Soviet prisoners-of-war in the fall of 1941.
Soviet prisoners of war were stripped of their supplies and clothing by poorly-equipped
German troops when the cold weather set in; this resulted in death for the prisoners. Most of the camps for Soviet POWs were simply open areas fenced off with barbed wire and watchtowers with no inmate housing.These meager conditions forced the crowded prisoners to live in holes they had dug for themselves, which were exposed to the elements. Beatings and other abuse by the guards were common, and prisoners were malnourished, often consuming only a few hundred calories or less per day. Medical treatment was non-existent and an International Red Cross offer to help in 1941 was rejected by Hitler.
Some of the Soviet POWs were also experimented on. In one such case, Dr. Heinrich Berning from Hamburg University starved prisoners to death as “famine experiments”. In another instance, a group of prisoners at Zhitomir were shot using dum-dum bullets.
In January 1942, Hitler authorized better treatment of Soviet POWs because the war had bogged down, and German leaders decided to use prisoners for forced labour on a large scale Their number increased from barely 150,000 in 1942, to the peak of 631,000 in the summer of 1944. Many were dispatched to the coal mines (between July 1 and November 10, 1943, 27,638 Soviet POWs died in the Ruhr Area alone), while others were sent to Krupp, Daimler-Benz or other companies, where they provided labour while often being slowly worked to death. The largest “employers” of 1944 were mining (160,000), agriculture (138,000) and the metal industry (131,000). No less than 200,000 prisoners died during forced labour.
The Organisation Todt was a civil and military engineering group in Germany eponymously named for its founder Fritz Todt. The organisation was responsible for a wide range of engineering projects both in pre-World War II Germany, and in Germany itself and occupied territories from France to the Soviet Union during the war, and became notorious for using forced labour. Most of the so-called “volunteer” Soviet POW workers were consumed by the Organisation Todt. The period from 1942 until the end of the war had approximately 1.4 million labourers in the service of the Organisation Todt. Overall, 1% were Germans rejected from military service and 1.5% were concentration camp prisoners; the rest were prisoners of war and compulsory labourers from occupied countries. All non-Germans were effectively treated as slaves and many did not survive the work or the war.
Between 140,000 and 500,000 Soviet prisoners of war died or were executed in Nazi concentration camps. Most of those executed were killed by shooting but some were gassed..