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What happened to Stalin's German prisoners-of-war?


H-GERMAN EDITOR Dan Rogers <drogers@jaguar1.usouthal.edu>
Date: Wed, 10 Jan 1996 07:41:58 -0600

EDITOR'S NOTE: Below is a review submitted by H-German subscriber Paul Boytinck. While we are happy to provide information on this book to the H-German community, we should also note that the review is not part of our H-German book review project and was sent totally at Mr. Boytinck's initiative. We should also strongly caution those who might be considering replies or comments on this review that we aired a variety of opinions on this subject in May 1995 and we will not be reopening debate on it. You may review past comments on the subject by using your WWW browser to go to this URL: gopher://h-net.msu.edu/11/lists/H-GERMAN/discuss/ve

Submitted by: Paul Boytinck <BOYTINCK@flint.bucknell.edu>

A R e v i e w of
Karner, Stefan. Im Archipel GUPVI; Kriegsgefangenschaft und Internierung in der Sowjetunion 1941-1956. Wien; Muenchen: Oldenbourg, 1995.

This book details the capture, executions, treatment and eventual release of German prisoners of war in Russia. It is based on materials found in different Soviet archives which, formerly classified top secret and barred to public scrutiny, have been declassified since the year 1990. It is the first of several projected volumes to be published under the aegis of the Ludwig Boltzman Institut fuer Kriegsfolgen-Forschung located in Graz-Wien. The author, Stefan Karner, is a Professor at the Institut fuer Wirtschafts-und-Sozial-Geschichte of the Karl-Franzens Universitaet located in Graz, Austria.

We must first distinguish between the GULAG archipelago made infamous by Solzhenitsyn and the GUPVI archipelago described by Professor Karner. The first acronym stands for Glanoe Upravlenie LAGerie (Hauptverwaltung fuer Lager=Central Administration of the Camps) while the second refers to Glavnoe Upravlenie po delam Voennoplennych i Internirovannych (Hauptverwaltung fuer Angelegenheiten von Kriegsgefangenen und Internierten=Central Administration for Affairs relating to Prisoners of War and Internees). Both of these administrative units were, of course, subordinated to the dreaded NKVD.

At the heart of the matter is a great and engrossing mystery: the virtual disappearance, without a trace, of 1,400,000 German prisoners of war after the end of World War II; and, if this otherwise admirable book has a fault, it is that the statistical scope of the issue, with all its potential for emotional tumult, is not properly set and defined.

You can get a better sense of the overall issue by studying the local memorials to be found all over West Germany. The small, North German town of Friesoythe includes the total of 76 missing and presumed dead. The equally small town of Nellingen, near Stuttgart, gives the total of 44 men who are missing as a result of World War II operations. The Mahnmal located in the larger town of Kempten gives astounding totals which effectively stopped me in my tracks on a recent visit. It included the totals of 224 dead and 650 missing and presumed dead. By comparison, the total of American MIA's in the Vietnamese Conflict has been officially set at more than 2,200 for the whole of the continental U.S.A.--and the hubbub and occasional recriminations fill the airwaves to this day.

Professor Karner believes that the 1,400,000 Germans died chiefly on the Russian front. The problem is that at least one of the central documents culled from the Soviet Archives, the statistical report of Colonel Bulanov, Chief of the Prison Division of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, clearly states the total number of German prisoners (2,388,443) and the total number of the German dead (356,687) along with the capture totals and mortality figures of Hungarians, Rumanians, Austrians, etc. (p. 79).

If the number of Germans missing and presumed dead stands at 1,400,000 and the highest possible Soviet source gives the total number of the dead at 356,687 then clearly somewhat in excess of a million dead Germans seem not to have died in the Soviet Union but may have died, as James Bacque has contended, on the Western (not the Russian) front as captives of the French and the Americans.

Karner deals with this possibility by arguing that the Bulanov report is exclusively devoted to stationary camps, hospitals and prisons within the Soviet Union, and that the missing Germans died in that hellish interval between their capture and their final transport to the 4,000 camps of the GUPVI scattered throughout the length and breadth of the Soviet Union.

He cites two top secret reports, one by Lavrentia Beria dated December 30, 1942 (p. 40) and one by Lt. Col. Dmitriev dated May 4, 1943 (p. 41) to support this contention. In the first document Beria, the Commissar of Internal Affairs, gives the reasons for the high death rates among the Germans. They often suffered from hunger before their captivity, or they were forced to march two to three hundred kilometers to the next railway station without adequate care and provisions, or the sick and the wounded were, contrary to the existing Soviet regulation that they were to be cared for in front-line hospitals before their departure, were often forced to march in their weakened state, with the result that one shipment of Germans from the Don Front to the interior suffered "approximately 800 deaths." (p. 40)

Colonel Dmitriev cites the mortality figures suffered by 8,007 German POWs, of whom 1,526 died in the course of transport, while an additional 4,663 died in the camp itself in the ensuing six weeks from the consequences of dystrophy (4,326), typhus (54), frost (162), wounds (23) and other causes (98). (p. 41)

Karner contends that the existence of numerous NKVD reports and eyewitness accounts confirm that, despite standing regulations to the contrary, the sick and the wounded were transported over long distances--and that this factor is one of the causes of the high death totals PRIOR TO REGISTRATION (p. 39, emphasis supplied.] It should be pointed out that this Russian practise, if true as alleged, was not confined to the Russians alone.

Numerous German eyewitness accounts--if not official American reports--record that it was American practise to take many classes of sick and wounded German POWs out of hospitals, including the sick, the blind and the amputees, and dump them in open air POW cages. An open air field devoid even of tents is no sanatarium even for veteran soldiers in otherwise good health. There are reports, by entirely credible observers, of the presence of blind and amputated Prisoners of War, including even amputees with bloody stumps, in Ebensee, Helfta and Rheinberg. It therefore follows that very vulnerable prisoners were also found in American POW cages; that they were exposed to the elements in early spring; and that many of them died miserable deaths from the complications of old wounds, exposure to the elements, extremely low calorie diets and a polluted water supply.

It is Karner's belief that that approximately half of all German Prisoners of War in Soviet hands never reached the permanent camps of the GUPVI.

Mit der entscheidenden Wende des Krieges in Stalingrand und dem sukzessiven Rueckzug der Deutschen Wehrmacht und ihrer Verbuendeten 1943 nahm die Zahl der aktenmaessig feststellbaren Kriegsgefangenen rapide zu, obwohl etwa die Haelfte der Kriegsgefangene in den stationaeren Lagern gar nicht mehr registriert werden konnte: Sie waren zwischen ihrer Gefangennahme und der Registrierung im stationaeren Lager, also noch im Eingangsbereich des Archipel GUPVI, ums Legen gekommen, verhungert, erfroren, total erschoepft, schwerst verwundet oder weil die entsprechende kaempfende Einheit der Roten Armee keine Gefangenen machte, kurzerhand erschossen worden. (58)

The book includes, on a quick count, some 81 pages of illustrations; but there are not, needless to say, illustrations of soldateska executing the German Landsers. We have, however, a tendentious paragraph from Harrison Salisbury, the Russian war correspondent of the NEW YORK TIMES, which proves that the killings occurred--but under special circumstances.

German prisoners with dead eyes stumbled among the corpses [in the Crimea], carting them off to endless trenches under the tommy guns of sullen Red Army men. I could not tell whether either Russians or Germans knew what they were doing. [?] The Germans moved like sleepwalkers. The hardest thing, they told us, was the moment of surrender. Unless you were in a big group, a hundred or a thousand, you didn't have a chance. The Soviet tommy gunners just mowed you down. The Nazis had been waiting for the boats to take them off, the boats that never came. This was war and now I understood it. War was the garbage heap of humanity. It was shit and piss and gas from the rump; terror and bowels that ran without control. Here Hitler's Aryan man died, [sic] a worse death than any he devised in the ovens of Auschwitz, anus open, spewing out his gut until a Red tommy gunner ended it with a lazy sweep of his chattering weapon. -- Salisbury, Harrison E. A JOURNEY FOR OUR TIMES; A MEMOIR. (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), p. 264.

Febrile journalism makes for feeble analysis. The impassioned journalist has undone the thinker. For Salisbury has not witnessed war but a war CRIME, and he cannot distinguish the one from the other without the help of a nearby court. No self-respecting bartender would concoct such nonsense. However, one of the points about the passage is that it makes clear that these executions--and war crimes--occurred under special conditions. They were not inevitable.

Karner, who has perhaps heard similar reports of drumhead executions of German POWs by certain Soviet soldiers from German and Austrian survivors, comes to the conclusion that 356,687 Germans died in the coils of the GUPVI along with another 161,793 Hungarians, Rumanians, Austrians, Czechoslovaks, Poles, etc. More momentously, however, he also concludes that the forces of neglect, cruel indifference and disregard for the laws of war, led to the deaths of an additional 500,000 to 1,000,000 Germans in Russian captivity before these men (and women) reached the (relative) safety of the GUPVI. (p. 178)

It appears, then, that Karner is in the anomalous position of assuming the existence of a DUNKELZIFFER [an estimated number of unreported or unrecorded cases] to make his point that Soviet forces killed, not the 356,687 of Colonel Bulanov's summary, but one million men (and women) more than this total. Given the somewhat limited evidence that Karner cites, the one memorandum by Beria and the one telegram by Colonel Dmitriev, it is not clear to me that the DUNKELZIFFER has any credibility. In any case, these archives were SECRET, and they recorded the deaths of some 350,000 or so Germans. Why should the Soviets have been reluctant to adduce proof of the existence of still another 1 million dead Germans? when the proof would merely moulder in another archive declared off-limits for all time and never see the light of day?

The book, considered as a physical object, is magnificent in every way. It is printed on photographic plate paper, and the signatures are gathered and properly bound as once ordained by Gutenberg. It is perhaps even comparable to that other work on the fate of German POWs, JAHRE IM ABSEITS by Ernst Helmut Segschneider (Bramsche: Rasch, c1991). The numerous photographs and facsimiles are utterly marvellous. They demonstrate that the coils of the GUPVI were multifarious. Here we see German officers, heads shorn and bald as billiard balls, attending a meeting of the Antifa, and every face is uniformly wary, glum and expressionless.

Here we see some of the buildings put up by the German prisoners: the Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences in Vilnius; apartment blocks in the Urals (Revda, Asbest, Sverdlovsk/ Ekaterinburg); passport photographs of poor Margarethe Ottilinger, the Austrian accused of espionage and sentenced to 25 years of forced labor--and her later return to Austria in 1955 on a train and on a stretcher; photographs of German prisoners, heads shorn, at work and even at play; photographs of numerous barracks and perhaps even more numerous graveyards with individual graves; photographs of Cossacks consigned to the untender mercies of Soviet forces marching and riding on the long bridge at Judenburg, Austria; photographs of Germans who, convicted after certain show trials, of war crimes, strung up on the gallows (Karner memorably remarks that German soldiers were similarly convicted of the crime of killing the Poles at Katyn, when we now know with certainty, after Gorbachev's admission, that the crimes were committed by the NKVD); but there are no photographs of the serried ranks of the German, Hungarian, Rumanian, Austrian and other dead.

Paul Boytinck

Postscript. The greater issue, and one we should perhaps discuss, is the effect the opening of the Soviet archives has had--and will have--on various facets of German history.


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