The article contains the following claims, among others:
The enlisted men among the Malmedy Massacre accused averaged less than 22 years in age. There were only 30 men who were original members of the Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler, including Lt. Col. Peiper and General Sepp Dietrich. Many of the accused SS soldiers were baby-faced, uneducated 17 and 18-year-olds with little combat experience, but a few others were some of the toughest and most battle-hardened men in the German armed forces, who had been in combat for six years. They had fought some fierce battles on the Eastern front and seen unbelievable atrocities committed by our Russian allies, including mutilated bodies on the battlefield, sodomy on German POWs and cannibalism in which parts of the bodies of German POWs had been sliced off and eaten.
The photograph below, taken in the fall of 1941 on the eastern front, was published in a book by Professor Franz W. Seidler who found it in the files of the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, Case 304, after the war.
Body of German soldier in Russian POW Camp 2, Stalag 305, 1941
Because the Soviet Union had not signed the Geneva Convention of 1929, the Germans were not required to observe the international rules of warfare with regard to our Russian allies who were committing the most sickening atrocities on the battlefield with no regard for the unwritten rules of civilized warfare.
I’ll start with the last paragraph.
The claim that the Germans were not required to observe the international rules of warfare in regard to the Soviet Union flies in the face of the Geneva Convention’s text, first of all. Article 82 of the Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Geneva, 27 July 1929 stipulates the following:
The provisions of the present Convention shall be respected by the High Contracting Parties in all circumstances.
In time of war if one of the belligerents is not a party to the Convention, its provisions shall, nevertheless, remain binding as between the belligerents who are parties thereto.
Germany being one of the contracting parties of the 1929 Geneva Convention, she was thus obliged by its terms notwithstanding the Soviet Union not being a party to that convention.
Second and perhaps more important, the international rules of warfare valid at the time were not limited to the 1929 Geneva Convention, which was just a codification of what were already accepted rules and principles of international law prior to its signature. The Germans were well aware of this, as was pointed out by German jurist Alfred Streim ("International Law and Soviet Prisoners of War", in: From peace to war: Germany, Soviet Russia, and the world, 1939-1941, edited by Bernd Wegner, Germany, Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt, pp. 293-308) The following is an excerpt from Streim’s article; emphases are mine.
The Foreign/Defense Department (Amt Ausland/Abwehr) of the OKW under Admiral Canaris said much the same in a memorandum of 15 September 1941, in reply to regulations issued by the OKW/AWA in a directive of 8 September 1941. This directive replaced that issued on 16 June 1941 concerning the analogous application of the Geneva Convention, and the new regulations for the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war in all German POW camps were mostly at odds with the rules of humanity in wartime. At the same time the memorandum clearly pointed out that the basic international principles (of war) concerning the treatment of prisoners were applied in the conventionless war. This was not affected by the escape clause in the Hague convention because the rules contained in this agreement had been accepted as customary law in the meantime. In this regard the memorandum referred to an enclosed Soviet directive on the treatment of POWs dated 1 July 1941, which largely corresponded with the fundamental principles of international law.
The ideas expressed by the Amt Ausland/Abwehr in its memorandum on the validity of customary law in the field of the law of war were nothing new; this was the opinion prevailing at the time. The source of jus in bello, the law of warfare, is not just limited to the above positivist rulings. The source can be extended to unwritten customary law, as was emphasized after the was in the War Crimes Trial and the subsequent trials conducted by the United States in Nuremberg.
The Amt Ausland/Abwehrs memorandum had no effect. The Chef OKW, Keitel, rejected it, noting that: These reservations correspond to the soldierly views of chivalrous warfare; this war is about the annihilation of a Weltanschauung, and therefore I approve of and vouch for the measures. Keitel had been swayed by Hitlers opinion concerning the nature of war with the Soviet Union, and had thus squashed the plans of the AWA, his department responsible for prisoners of war, to treat captured Russians according to customary law analogous to the Geneva Convention.
German historian Christian Streit makes similar points in his article "Deutsche und sowjetische Kriegsgefangene" (published in Kriegsverbrechen im 20. Jahrhundert, edited by Wolfram Wette and Gerd R. Uebeschär, 2001 Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft Darmstadt, pages 178 to 192). The following is an excerpt from my translation of this article; emphases are mine.
Due to the opening of the Soviet archives the Soviet rulings regarding the treatment of prisoners of war are also known. (4) However, the decisions and decision procedures are not documented in nearly as much detail as on the German side. An essential motivation for the USSR's rejecting the ratification of the Geneva Convention had been the avoidance of the controls of prisoner of war camps by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), provided for therein. At the same time, however, the guideline was internally formulated that prisoners of war were to be treated no worse than according to the Geneva Convention. (5) Article 193 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federal Socialist Republic and the Red Armys field service rule PU-36 forbade a bad treatment of prisoners of war. A few days after the German attack a basic order from the Council of the Peoples Commissars regarding the treatment of prisoners of war, which complied with the requirements of the Hague Rules of Land Warfare and also with essential provisions of the Geneva Convention, was distributed down to division level.(6) Thus at the start of the war the provisions on the Soviet side were compliant with international law in their essential aspects, whereas the German side had placed international law at disposal for the war against the Soviet Union. Practice was to show the significance of these decisions.
For the German leadership both for the military leadership and for Hitler the issue of commitments to international law was basically without significance. This is shown most clearly by the following circumstance: the USSR had, just like the German Reich, ratified the 1929 Geneva Convention Relating to the Wounded and thus shown that it did not generally reject commitments to international law.(7) Germany and the USSR were thus unequivocally obliged to comply with this convention. This, however, was neither mentioned nor taken into account in German planning. The German leadership, in ideological fixation, postulated that the Soviet Union would not comply with provisions of international law anyway. It should be pointed out that at that time Soviet crimes like the murder of Polish officer prisoners at Katyn were not yet known, and no effort was made to find out how the Soviets had treated the Polish and Finnish prisoners of war in 1939/40. Even more important than this ideological certainty was the conviction that the Wehrmacht would defeat the Red Army in a matter of weeks and Germany would then be the unchallenged ruler on the European continent. Commitments of international law were thus considered completely superfluous obstacles to the shaping of the conquered east. When the Soviet Union on 17 July 1941 offered adhering to the Hague Rules of Land Warfare, the Wehrmacht High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht OKW), declared that it was more advantageous from the point of view of the conduct of war if this did not happen. Hitler decided that there must be no legal agreements whatsoever with the Soviet Union about the issue of prisoners of war. The still reduced number of German missing at that time had little weight compared to the masses of Soviet prisoners of war.(8)
Contrary to what the Scrapbookpages article might suggest, there is also no evidence that the Germans’ treatment of Soviet prisoners of war, including the massacre of surrendering Red Army soldiers on the battlefield, was necessarily motivated by outrages committed by Soviet troops against German soldiers who fell into their hands. Regarding crimes committed by German frontline units against surrendering Soviet soldiers on Belarusian territory in 1941, German historian Christian Gerlach wrote the following (my translation, emphases mine):
The outbreak of violence in the very first days of the war and the simultaneous Wehrmacht crimes against civilians at that time was basically not related to the confrontation with the allegedly cruel enemy contrary to the still reigning opinion of historians, which in this respect constitutes a rather strange mixture between criticism of the criminal orders and posterior solidarity with the perpetrators against the Bolshevik beasts. This view frequently fails to take into account that the Germans had attacked the Soviet Union and not the other way round. After the sequence of events including the breaches of law it would be more appropriate to grant the Soviets that were enraged by the German crimes, although this can be no excuse for violations of the laws of war and international law by the Soviet side.
However, from Belorussia no Soviet excesses against members of the Wehrmacht or against their own prison inmates on a larger scale (like at Lvov or Dubno in Ukraine) have become known. What seems characteristic is the report of the counterintelligence of Panzer Group 3 that of both types of such crimes there had been none other so far besides the killing of two tank crews after capture. While the subordinate units had reported many Soviet excesses, these had generally proved to be unsubstantiated upon closer examination. Rumors and propaganda reports far exceeded the actual crimes by the Soviet side. This had been prepared by an intensive propaganda of the military leadership at Hitlers orders in the previous months about the treacherous fighting practices of the Soviets. Individual cases already served German troop leaders as a welcome pretext to order murders on a large scale, as in the case of the 23rd Infantry Division. Panzer Group 3, which according to its own statements did not have such pretexts, made do without a justification and ordered to kill Soviet soldiers who had put up resistance in the fighting.
The heroic troops of the 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler were as inclined as any to massacre Soviet prisoners of war on a large scale, on or without the pretext of atrocities committed by Soviet forces against their own. When the Leibstandarte took Taganrog, for example, it found the bodies of some of its men who had been captured and literally hacked to death by the local Soviet security police. Their commander Sepp Dietrich thereupon ordered that the Leibstandarte take no prisoners for three days, and so over 4,000 captured Red Army soldiers were executed on the spot (Gordon Williamson, The SS: Hitler's Instrument of Terror, p. 77). Leibstandarte troops were also responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Soviet wounded in a hospital in Kharkov in March 1943. And they took part in mass killings of Soviet civilians like the massacre of Taganrog’s Jewish population in the Petrushino gully in October 1941, as mentioned by German historian Andrej Angrick (Besatzungspolitik und Massenmord. Die Einsatzgruppe D in der südlichen Sowjetunion 1941-1943, pp. 315-16, my translation):
The entire complex of the Petrushina-Balka was sealed off by members of the Leibstandarte. Sepp Dietrich supported Seetzen in Taganrog as best as he could – and he would also do this in the future. The course of events shows that units of the Waffen-SS could simultaneously act as experienced army frontline troops and as members of Himmler's order at the same site, without this leading to a contradiction. In the view of the SS this combination even was what made the image of the typical SS-man in the east. The victims were taken in columns of 100 into the Balka or to additional pits.
A complete translation of Angrick’s account of the Petrushino gully massacre is included in the blog The Atrocities committed by German-Fascists in the USSR (2), which also contains images of some of the massacre’s victims (film stills from the Soviet documentary shown at the Nuremberg Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal on 19 February 1946). Stills from the same documentary probably showing victims of the aforementioned Kharkov hospital massacre are included in the blog The Atrocities committed by German-Fascists in the USSR (1).
None of the German historians cited above disputes the factuality of atrocities committed by Soviet troops against German soldiers. German historian Christian Hartmann (Wehrmacht im Ostkrieg. Front und militärisches Hinterland 1941/42, hereinafter "Hartmann, Wehrmacht", p. 547) mentions "several thousand reports" about the murder of German prisoners of war by Soviet troops that were collected by the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau (Wehrmachtsuntersuchungsstelle), and notes the following in a related footnote (my translation):
Franz W. Seidler has partially edited the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau’s reports in Verbrechen an der Wehrmacht. There is no doubt as to the substance of the cases presented by Seidler, a part of which is documented not only by reports and witness interrogations, but also by numerous photos. It is scandalous, however, that Seidler also included cannibalism among Soviet prisoners of war in this volume and thus suggests that this was also a Soviet war crime.
This takes us to the graphic photo shown in the Scrapbookpages article, which according to Scrapbookpages shows the cannibalized body of a German soldier in "Russian POW Camp 2, Stalag 305, 1941", the previous mention of "cannibalism in which parts of the bodies of German POWs had been sliced off and eaten" suggesting that the victim was a German prisoner of war sliced up by his captors in a Soviet camp for German POWs. Someone should have told the Scrapbookpages webmaster that the abbreviation "Stalag" stands for Stammlager, which means base camp in German and was the designation of the permanent POW camps of Nazi Germany in World War II, as opposed to "Dulag", which stands for Durchgangslager and referred to the transit camps through which POW were transported to the Stammlager. Or maybe she knew and was counting on her readers’ ignorance. The latter is to be assumed if she actually read the "book by Professor Franz W. Seidler" in which the photo was published, which is none other than Seidler’s Verbrechen an der Wehrmacht mentioned by Hartmann.
The photo, together with other graphic photos of cannibalized emaciated bodies such as the one shown below, is part of the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau’s Case 304, an investigation into cannibalism among Soviet POWs in October and November 1941 at Stalag 305 in Kirowograd, Ukraine.
An English translation of documents from this investigation and from other investigations of cannibalism in German camps for Soviet POWs, published in Seidler’s book, is proudly presented on "The Website of Carlos Whitlock Porter". Seidler’s Verbrechen an der Wehrmacht is advertised on Porter’s website as «a winner of the "Pour le Mérite" prize for military history in Germany». Actually there is no such prize in Germany; the Pour le Mérite was the highest military order in Imperial Germany, and "Pour le Mérite" is the name of the book’s editor, as can be seen on the Amazon page advertising the book. Hartmann’s above-quoted comment further suggests that Seidler is not held in high regard by at least some of his professional colleagues, which is not surprising given Seidler’s obvious ideological agenda and his sometimes rather sloppy research, for instance when he accepted at face value from an unchecked secondary source what turned out to be a falsification of Stalin's Order 0428 of 17 November 1941 (see the blogs Blame it on the Germans and Kudos to Mr. Wilfried Heink …).
With one exception regarding "two dead German soldiers" (apparently killed in combat or following capture) "from whose bodies the Russians had also cut pieces of flesh" (Case 305), the documents quoted by Seidler and translated by Porter – mostly official records of eyewitness testimonies – refer to Soviet prisoners of war who either cannibalized the bodies of dead fellow prisoners or (less frequently) killed weakened fellow prisoners in order to remove and eat or trade their flesh. The witnesses say little about what induced these acts of cannibalism, and when they do they deny or obfuscate the obvious explanation for this phenomenon, i.e. desperate attempts by the more unscrupulous among the prisoners to keep themselves from starving. Instead some witnesses (whose statements are gratefully highlighted in red letters by Porter) surmise or claim that prisoners belonging to "Asian ethnic tribes" satisfied their "craving for meat" by cannibalism because the camp food contained no meat (which doesn’t explain why, as becomes apparent from other reports, there were also Ukrainians and Russians among the cannibals – in Case 303 "it was almost always found that almost all the peoples in the camp representative of the Russian nationalities, in particular, the Russians as well, as well as the Ukrainians, cut out flesh from the bodies of the dead or killed fellow inmates or traded in it, and ate it boiled or roasted"). Where mentioned at all, camp rations are claimed to be "sufficient" (at least for "ordinarily nourished people"), and the blame for starving on such "sufficient" rations, where starvation is explicitly mentioned at all, is placed on the conditions in which the prisoners arrived at the respective camp, on the prisoners themselves or on the circumstances in which they grew up. Most eloquent in such analyses (and accordingly most highlighted by Porter) are the testimonies of two prisoners who for some reason (coercion, privileges, perhaps also their own preconceived notions) seem to have said what their captors wanted them to say, the Grusinian Leonti Kapanadze and the Ukrainian Iwan Petrishenko. Petrishenko blamed deaths from undernourishment (which he said happened every day) not on insufficient camp rations but on "the following circumstances: one, the prisoners already arrived at the camp completely undernourished, and two; that the people are so dirty and filthy that their health must necessarily suffer" – as if lack of hygiene had been a "personal habit" (Petrishenko uses this term) that the prisoners indulged in despite sufficient hygienic facilities, and as if being "dirty and filthy" caused a person to die more easily from undernourishment. For Kapanadze, even "the sight of the completely emaciated bodies, which only consisted of skin, bones and sinews" was due not to the prisoners not having been sufficiently fed in the camp, but to their having been transported there "in a completely undernourished condition" and furthermore to their having been born in 1918-21 ("i.e. years during which famine prevailed all over the country, as a result of the collapse of the Czarist regime and the Soviet revolution") and thus having had "less resistance from birth onwards" (which strangely didn’t keep them from surviving not only the penuries of their childhood but also the later misery of life in Stalin’s USSR until their capture by the Germans and evacuation to the camps, including the famines of the early 1930s).
The claim of sufficient camp rations comes across as a sick joke to who has read documents like Rosenberg’s letter to Keitel of 28 February 1942, in which the letter’s author raised the following complaints, among others (emphasis added):
The fate of the Soviet prisoners of war in Germany is on the contrary a tragedy of the greatest extent. Of 3.6 millions of prisoners of war, only several hundred thousand are still able to work fully. A large part of them has starved, or died, because of the hazards of the weather. Thousands also died from spotted fever. It is understood, of course, that there are difficulties encountered in the feeding of such a large number of prisoners of war. Anyhow, with a certain amount of understanding for goals aimed at by German politics, dying and deterioration could have been avoided in the extent described. For instance, according to information on hand, the native population within the Soviet Union are absolutely willing to put food at the disposal of the prisoners of war. Several understanding camp commanders have successfully chosen this course. However in the majority of the cases, the camp commanders have forbidden the civilian population to put food at the disposal of the prisoners, and they have rather let them starve to death. Even on the march to the camps, the civilian population was not allowed to give the prisoners of war food. In many cases, when prisoners of war could no longer keep up on the march because of hunger and exhaustion, they were shot before the eyes of the horrified civilian population, and the corpses were left. In numerous camps, no shelter for the prisoners of war was provided at all. They lay under the open sky during rain or snow. Even tools were not made available to dig holes or caves. A systematic delousing of the prisoners of war in the camps and of the camps themselves has apparently been missed. Utterances such as these have been heard: "The more of these prisoners die, the better it is for us".
It shouldn’t be ruled out, of course, that the camps claimed by Seidler’s witnesses to have handed out sufficient rations were among the few with "understanding camp commanders" mentioned by Rosenberg. Also, unlike the "personal habits" and "less resistance from birth onwards" conjectures of Petrishenko and Kapanadze, the conditions under which prisoners were transported to the base camps are less far-fetched an explanation, though only a partial one, for their mass dying at these camps. Hartmann describes these conditions as follows (Wehrmacht pp. 554-558, my translation):
These marches from the combat zone were mostly a horrendous torture for the Soviet prisoners of war. Often they were already "in a very bad state" after days of fighting and the stress of being taken prisoner. If they received any food at all thereafter, it was usually improvised. Nevertheless these exhausted people were sent on forced marches, which could last days because the distance between the main combat line and the stationary camps quickly increased during the war of movement. The use of freight train cars or "empty columns" [of trucks] was at first the exception; most prisoners of war had to cover "distances of up to 500 km as the crow flies" on foot.
For this reason already many died on these marches of misery. "The corpses of Russian prisoners, which lay in high numbers along all roads to the front" because "they had fallen out of the prisoner transports due to exhaustion or disease" made unmistakably clear how brutal the German guards could proceed. Sometimes they were simply overburdened, in other cases there was a system to their actions. The German framework guidelines provided that in case of "contumacy, revolt" or attempts to escape "the weapon must be used immediately". This could be interpreted extensively, in some cases the "bleak prisoner columns" were accompanied by German trucks with "machine guns ready to fire". If a prisoner "could not go on anymore after days of hunger", this was nor rarely his death sentence. Complaints like those of Rear Area Command (Korück) 580, which mocked itself about the "scenes" in Orsha, "where German soldiers beat prisoners exhausted to death before the eyes of the civilian population" and where "countless shootings" occurred, are not known from this command area alone.[…]
Already in the summer of 1941 there were prisoner transports in which the death rate was reportedly 80 per cent; after a prisoner transport in January 1942 it was estimated that "1 000 to 2 000 corpses of prisoners lay in the Minsk main street Sovietskaya". The fact that even for General Field Marshal von Bock, one of the highest-ranking German soldiers on the Eastern Front, the evacuation of the Soviet prisoners of war remained "a particularly difficult problem" was not only an expression of helplessness. Given their limited logistical capacities the German leadership simply considered other problems more important. To be sure, their regular admonishments and "abrasive orders" made clear that in a sense they were not willing to tolerate "crude behavior". However, things were allowed to drag on for much too long. In the first months it was an everyday phenomenon that Soviet prisoners were taken to the rear in endless columns, largely at the mercy of their guards’ arbitrariness, and that scenes occurred, which even the military command considered "horrible".
Only nature made those responsible on the German side gradually change their minds. With the beginning of the "mud period" they started to realize that now longer foot marches of prisoners were "out of the question". Instead in the autumn of 1941 transportation by train or truck was increasingly used as an alternative, with the cold leading to murderous conditions also here. The camp officer of Dulag 131 reported about a "transport with 50 to 60 open freight wagons […] onto each of which they loaded 80 to 100 persons", but which never reached its destination because "all prisoners of war froze to death and their corpses were thrown down the embankment along the way".
Hartmann (Wehrmacht, p. 566) estimates that the number of Soviet soldiers murdered immediately after capture or surrender in 1941 was in the same order as that of German soldiers murdered by the Soviets during the same period (out of 60-70,000 Wehrmacht soldiers captured by the Soviets until the end of 1941 only 9,147 reached the camps in the rear – Wehrmacht, p. 544) and that the number of Soviet prisoners who perished during evacuation to the rear could well amount to a six-digit figure.
Far more Soviet POWs died in the base camps themselves, though in the summer of 1941 the mortality rate was still comparatively low at most of these camps. This was not due to the rations being sufficient – they never were, as demonstrated by Streit in his groundbreaking study Keine Kameraden. Die Wehrmacht und die sowjetischen Kriegsgefangenen 1941-1945 (2nd edition, Bonn 1997). On page 189 of his study Streit pointed out the following (my translation, italics are Streit’s):
The rations that, according to the Army Sanitary Inspection, were "sufficient", may actually have been enough to keep the prisoners alive under certain specific conditions: if the prisoners were not required to work, if they were granted a lot of rest and protected from the weather, especially from the cold. As the basic physiological requirements were not met, it was known from the start that there would be hunger and malnourishment. This, however, was the most favorable alternative. If during battle or after capture the prisoners were subjected to even short periods of hunger, if they were required to do heavy physical work or march long distances, if they were exposed to cold or wetness for a longer time, the resulting loss of energy could no longer be recovered with the rations granted, and mass dying was the unavoidable consequence.
Gerlach attributes the still relatively low mortality in most camps in the summer of 1941 to the fact that despite drastic underfeeding most prisoners still had a rest of physical resistance, and the weather conditions were favorable. In the autumn of 1941, as exposure to cold and wetness began taking its toll, high-level German policy decisions led to a mass dying such as has rarely occurred in the history of warfare. These decisions and their consequences are rendered in Gerlach’s book Krieg, Ernährung Völkermord, see my translation of the pertinent pages. The key decisions in this respect were taken on 16 September 1941, when Göring issued the directive that the feeding of Soviet prisoners of war would be guided only by the work they performed for the Germans, and on 21 October 1941, when General Quarter Master Eduard Wagner reduced the rations for non-working prisoners by 27 % to 1,490 calories, at a time when rations should have been increased to make up for the loss of energy due to the cold and wetness that the prisoners were exposed to. Even these lowered rations were only to be handed out insofar as they could be obtained from the conquered lands, which means that in many cases the prisoners actually got much less. At a meeting in Orsha on 13 November 1941 between the chiefs of staff of all armies and army groups fighting on the Eastern Front and the Head of the Army General Staff Franz Halder, Wagner invoked Göring’s aforementioned directive of 16 September 1941 and made the following explicit statement (record in State Archive Nuremberg, NOKW-1535, see my RODOH post of 25-Jul-2005 10:45; my translation):
Non-working prisoners of war in the prisoner camps are to starve to death.
Working prisoners of war can in individual cases also be fed out of army supplies. Given the general food situation this cannot be generally ordered, however.
The food supply situation at Army Group Center is currently such that immediate help cannot be provided.
While Gerlach links the decision to let non-working prisoners starve to death to genocidal programs directed against the Soviet population, namely the Hunger Plan, Hartmann’s assessment is more conservative, but also damning (Wehrmacht, pp. 630-31, my translation; italics are Hartmann’s):
The decisive characteristic in the preparation phase of this gigantic crime was not so much its having been planned as its having been largely plan-less. The German leadership had only taken care of what seemed important to them, while all other issues – to use an expression coined by Head of the General Staff Halder – were to be "answered" by the war. The guilt of the German leadership – not only Hitler’s, but also that of his military "experts", Messrs. Keitel, von Brauchitsch, Halder, Reinecke und Wagner – was in this case a mixture of fathomless irresponsibility and a superiority thinking legitimized on racist and nationalist grounds. When the consequences became apparent during the war, this small group of leaders tried to calm itself with the belief that "forces of nature" were at play. Actually they were the ones who had created the pre-conditions for one of this war’s most horrible and meanest crimes.
This was not to remain their only guilt. When in the autumn of 1941 they realized to what extent their speculations regarding "Operations Barbarossa" had gone wrong, they didn’t hesitate to abandon to death by starvation the Soviet prisoners of war as "the last and weakest link" of the German occupation society. On two occasions this was also more or less clearly spelled out: while Göring’s dictum of 16 September 1941 whereby the "feeding of the Bolshevik prisoners" must be guided only "by the work they perform for us" had still been relatively general, this can no longer be said of General Quarter Master Wagner’s infamous demand on 13 November 1941, whereby non-working prisoners of war were meant to starve to death. The fact that it was a top officer of the Army High Command who spelled out this death sentence shows what a moral bottom the army leadership had reached in the meantime. However, even now the Army High Command did not so much intend to implement a genocidal project as attempt to "somehow" control the contemporary supply crisis. This cannot diminish the guilt of those responsible. They knew no better than to roll off their own failure onto those most helplessly at their mercy. Nevertheless: the mass dying of the Soviet prisoners of war that now commenced was not the goal; in the German military leadership’s perverse logic it was a means to re-stabilize the eastern armies’ supplies.
The consequences of this "perverse logic" are not disputed among historians. Gerlach describes them as as follows:
In practice the radical instructions, the worsening of the feeding and transport situation and other factors yet to be described led to an enormous increase of the mass dying of Soviet prisoners of war, which gained spectacular dimensions since October 1941. The number of Soviet prisoners who died is likely to have been around 300,000 to 500,000 in each of the months October, November and December 1941; in January 1942 it was 155,000, in February 80,000 and in March 85,000. For December German data add up to more than 300,000 dead. In November the number, according to extrapolations of several individual data, was even higher. In the General Government alone 83,000 men died, in the rear area of Army Group Center obviously around 80,000. In October the number of deaths is likely to have been as high as in November; extremely high numbers become apparent for the General Government and the areas of Army Groups South and Center. In the latter alone 160,000 men seem to have died until the beginning of December 1941. In the Reich Commissariat Ukraine the losses in October amounted to no less than 125,000 men, thereof at least 80,000 deaths.
This shows that the mass dying began simultaneously in wholly different areas and groups of prisoners of war. It affected both the 665,000 prisoners from the battle of Kiev in September 1941 mainly in the area of Army Group South and the Reich Commissariat Ukraine and, with little delay, the more than 600,000 prisoners from the battle of Vjazma and Brjansk in the area of Army Group Center and the Reich Commissariat Ostland, as well as the prisoners from the battles between June and August 1941 who were in the General Government. The parallel development indicates common causes. Yet neither in the General Government, nor in the rear area of Army Group Center, nor in the Reich Commissariat Ukraine were the previously expected numbers of prisoners reached. Even in the two great battles in September and October 1941 the number of prisoners made by the Germans was considerably below those 1.9 million who in 1940 had been captured in France within a similar period of time and by now means allowed to starve to death.
With prisoners dying like flies mostly from starvation (a situation which in some camps was present already in September 1941, for example in Stalag 342 at Molodechno in the General Commissariat White Ruthenia on the territory of today’s Belarus, where according to Gerlach prisoners even asked the guards in writing to shoot them), some of them turned to cannibalism in order to stay alive. This context becomes clear from contemporary evidence such as the diary entries of Franz H. and those of German captain Hanns H. Pilz, stationed at Rovno (Rivne), Ukraine, quoted on pp. 141-42 of the document collection «Gott mit uns». Der deutsche Vernichtungskrieg im Osten 1939-1945, edited by Ernst Klee and Willi Dreßen (my translation):
Stables that once kept the horses of the Polish cavalry now house several hundreds of Red Army troops. Ragged and famished the figures stray behind barbed wire in silence, a race mixture from two continents. The latrines, no more than ditch-like cavities, are occupied all the time, which can easily be explained because hunger causes the prisoners to even eat grass.
An unforgettable image of human helplessness and the prisoners’ desolate misery is the tree at the camp’s corner, for it is completely debarked and naked up to the highest twigs; in its crown two prisoners try to reach the last remains of bark in order to satisfy their hunger with it.
The non-commissioned officer of the guard personnel, who we inquire about conditions in the camp, simply states that the generals had not been prepared for such masses of prisoners.
Sometimes also foreign reports, whose reception is forbidden, are like a dazzling flashlight. The whip lashes, however, come from the own camp/from the own Wehrmacht sector, and one of the most horrible is the doctor’s report from Szepetowka POW camp. The doctor reports that famine has become unbearable, that cases of cannibalism occur because prisoners overpower their comrades in order to consume human flesh, that inside the camp human excrement has become a coveted delicacy, and that in the face of these unsustainable conditions he asks for the only solution possible: to shoot the starving so as to free them from their suffering.
In order to prove cannibalism to the commandant the doctor sends a film with photos that we develop, and indeed the pictures show a number of dead whose thigh flesh is missing, while in other victims the abdominal cavity was opened because in this way the perpetrators took out the inner organs.
In another report it is said that those identified as cannibals are almost all Uzbeks, whose immediate shooting has been ordered.
Stalag 357 in Szepetowka was the camp mentioned in the report of Case 303 edited by Seidler and translated by Porter, where according to the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau’s report cannibalism mostly "occurred on the bodies of persons who had already died" and where, according to one compliant witness "all prisoners received warm food twice daily" and were therefore " sufficiently well fed".
Cannibalism and its causes were also mentioned in Soviet investigation reports about liberated POW camps, like the one issued at Rovno on 11 March 1944 whose translation is partially transcribed on pp. 139-141 of Klee and Dreßen’s document collection. The following is my translation of an excerpt from this transcription.
Unbearable hunger, constant mistreatment and torture, a painful death – this reigned in the camps for the Soviet prisoners of war in the city of Rovno. There were three such camps in Rovno. These were small areas surrounded by high barbed-wire fences. On the camp area there was a barracks, which could accommodate only a part of the prisoners of war. The majority of the prisoners were forced to live all day in the open, regardless of the cold and the weather. An eyewitness of the horrible conditions reigning in the Rovno prisoner of war camps, the Director of the Rovno City Museum of History and Applied Geography, I. I. Dubowskij, reports the following: »The situation in the camps was terrible. The prisoners were very badly fed. Only once a day food was handed out. It consisted of a small plate of soup that had been cooked from kitchen refuse (from potato peels), or from bran or buckwheat not ground. … In order to save their lives the people at everything: there were cases of cannibalism, both German guards and deceased comrades were torn apart. Hunger forced the unfortunate people to eat grass, bark and the shrubs growing in the camp.
A case in which an incautious German guard was killed and cannibalized by starving prisoners was also mentioned by Göring, who apparently considered it a source of amusement, as mentioned by British journalist Alexander Werth (Russia at War 1941-1945, Second Edition 2000 by Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., New York, p. 703):
Next to the Jews in Europe, six millions of whom perished at the hands of the Germans (and it took rather more than a handful of "bad" Germans to carry out all this "work"), the biggest single German crime was undoubtedly the extermination by hunger, exposure or in many other ways of perhaps as many as three million Russian war prisoners. Many were shot, many died in concentration camps during the later stages of the war (especially at Mauthausen), some were even used for vivisectionist and other "scientific" experiments. The evidence is so vast and overwhelming that one can only pick at some of it at random.
Thus, at the beginning of 1942, Rosenberg, writing to Keitel, thought it scandalous that out of the 3,600,000 Russian prisoners, only a few hundred thousand were still fit for work, so appalling were the conditions in which they had been kept. Goering about the same time complained to Ciano of the cannibalism among Russian war prisoners, adding, as a great joke, that it was now going a bit to far: they had even eaten a German sentry! Hitler’s policy during the pre-Stalingrad period was, clearly, to demonstrate the Untermensch nature of the Russians, precisely by reducing them to cannibalism.
A similar assessment of the Germans’ focus on POW cannibalism was made by historian Alexander Dallin, who wrote that "German policy had caused, or at the very least had tolerated, the degradation of the prisoners -- and then held it up to its own people as something to be reviled, as something typical of a sub-human who could never be like Western man" (quoted in Gendercide Watch, Case Study: Soviet Prisoners-of-War (POWs), 1941-42).
A more reasonable assessment of cannibalism under desperate circumstances was provided by Russian literary scientist Dimitri Likhachov, a survivor of the Siege of Leningrad:
Cannibalism began. From the corpses lying in the street they first cut off the soft parts. First the corpses were undressed, and then they cut off everything up to the bones. The corpses had hardly any flesh left. These mutilated, naked corpses were horrifying.
One should not condemn cannibalism from high up. In most cases it did not occur consciously. Those who cut off the flesh rarely ate it themselves. Either they sold the flesh by cheating the buyer, or they gave it to relatives to keep them alive. The most important thing about the food was the protein, after all. If your child is dying and you know that only meat can save it, you will also cut off some from a corpse.
However, there were also criminals who killed people to sell their flesh. In the gigantic red house of the former Philanthropic Society the following crime occurred: someone was allegedly selling potatoes there. The buyer was asked to look below the sofa, where the potatoes were supposed to be lying, and when he bent down he was hit on the neck with a hatchet. The crime was revealed by a buyer who saw traces of blood on the floor. They found the bones of many people.
In this manner an employee of the Academy of Sciences' printing house, Mrs. Vavilova, was eaten. She went to buy meat (she had been given an address where one supposedly could trade things against meat) and didn't come back. She died close to the Sytni market. Even during the day we were afraid to let the children on the street.
Situations of extreme privation and misery bring out the best and the worst in people, as further pointed out by Likhachov:
No, hunger cannot be compared to anything else, to no other reality. Hunger cannot exist besides another life: one of the two is a fata morgana, either hunger or life in plenty. I think that hunger is the true life, everything else is a vision. During the famine people showed their true face, they dropped the external gewgaw. Some turned out to be wonderful heroes beyond compare, while others were bad, criminals, murderers, cannibals. There was no in between. The clouds broke apart, and God became visible. The good could see him.
Far from being particular to those the Nazis considered "sub-human" (a notion obviously shared by their present-day admirers like Seidler and Porter and by the crypto-"Revisionist" author of Scrapbookpages), this applies to people of all ethnic groups and cultural backgrounds, as will be illustrated by the following text, back-translated from the German translation published by Heyne editors of William Craig’s 1972 book Enemy at the Gates: The Battle of Stalingrad (p. 347):
There were prisoners who in their determination to survive shied from nothing, especially in camps in which military self-discipline had broken down. In Susdal Felice Bracci suddenly discovered corpses missing arms or legs, and Dr. Capone found human heads from which the brain had been extracted, as well as bodies missing the kidneys or the liver. Cannibalism was spreading.
At first the cannibals were still shy; they crept up to the corpses at night, hacked off a member here and there and devoured the flesh raw. But their abandon quickly grew, and soon they were looking for deceased who had not yet grown cold and were therefore supposedly more eatable. Finally they operated in groups breaking all resistance and even "helping out" the dying.
Their voracity for flesh made them into predator animals hunting day and night. At the end of February the height of barbarism seems to have been reached. In Krinovaya an Alipini soldier ran through the camp in search of priest Don Guido Turle. »Come quickly, Padre«, he screamed, »they want to eat my cousin!« Horrified, Turla ran after the desperate man over the camp road, passing gutted-out corpses, hacked-off heads and arms and legs robbed off their flesh. Then he saw a mob of madmen who were hammering with their fists against a locked barracks door behind which lay their prey, an Italian shot at by Russian guards and mortally wounded. The cannibals had followed the trace of fresh blood and now tried to break open the door to access the dying man.
Disgusted, Turla screamed at the possessed men that they were committing an infamous crime, that they would soil their conscience forever and that God would never forgive them.
Thereupon the cannibals let go of the door, and some even asked the Padre for forgiveness. The Padre stepped into the barracks to take the dying man’s last confession. The boy asked the priest to save him from the cannibals, and Turla stayed with him to the last. The cannibals had disappeared. After all there were so many corpses they could help themselves to.
The cannibals in this account were not Russians, Uzbeks or other Soviet "sub-humans" but soldiers of the Italian 8th Army who had been taken prisoner by the Soviets. Cases of cannibalism are also reported to have occurred among German soldiers taken prisoner at Stalingrad:
One of the consequences of this undernourishment which had been going on for about half a year and now worsened was cannibalism. Although there are no official investigations about this, there are accounts from several prisoner [of] war camps about prisoners who were seen cutting chunks of meat out of the bodies of dead comrades.
Messrs. Seidler and Porter, as well as the closet "Revisionist" who writes the Scrapbookpages, would probably resent the claim (which, of course, would be as stupid as any such claim regarding Slav or Asian "sub-humans") that these cases of cannibalism indicate the inferiority of Italian or German people or culture.