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W. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 2 (London:Cassell, 1949), 187. Stalin added that

50,000 of¬cers should be simply shot. Only after Churchill™s negative reaction to this statement
did Stalin reluctantly admit that he “was joking.”
S. Karner and B. Marx, “World War II Prisoners of War in the Soviet Union Economy,”

Bulletin du Comit´ international d™histoire de la deuxi` me guerre mondiale no. 27“28 (1995):
e e
But also valid for women between the ages of 18 and 30. According to Soviet sources, in

January“April 1945, over 208,000 German adults (157,000 men and 51,000 women) from
Eastern Prussia and Silesia were transferred to the Soviet Union and sent to “reconstruction
battalions” (M. M. Zagorul™ko, 33“4).
Report of L. Beria to Stalin, May, 11, 1945 (GARF, f. 9401. op. 2, d. 96, ll. 10“11); V. B.

Konasov, 126.
See the numerous GKO and NKVD orders of June“August 1945 on these questions (V. B.

Konasov, 125“6).
V. B. Konasov, ibid ; M. M. Zagorul™ko, 36“7.

V. B. Konasov, 128“9.
State Violence “ Violent Societies 169

construction-related industries. Another 22 percent were occupied in the energy
sector.138 In contrast, Soviet POWs in German hands worked, above all, for
the German military (as “personal slaves for the troops,” as one report put it)
at or near the front, although some also worked in the mining, construction,
and agriculture industries.139
The fate of German POWs in the postwar Soviet Union was certainly a
harsh one, but was it any harsher than that of Gulag inmates? Both were sub-
ject to the same Soviet system of norms, “a system where quantity counted
more than quality, illusion more than reality.”140 Similarly, food and, thus,
survival depended upon the ful¬llment of work quotas, which varied consider-
ably according to local conditions. An inspection of one of the “isolated labor
battalions” in October 1945, for example, discovered that orders and rules
were willfully ignored. Prisoners worked fourteen hours per day with minimal
rations. As a result, no more than 27 percent of inmates were able to work at
any given time.
Often, POWs actually worked side by side with Gulag inmates, Soviet repa-
triates, and former Soviet POWs assigned to “labor battalions.” According to
a number of interviewees,141 this shared experience, combined with increased
contact with Soviet citizens, helped to correct the biased ideological image they
had been fed of their former enemy.
Apart from the harsh conditions of everyday life, the main frustration for
German POWs was the continuous delay in repatriation. According to of¬cial
Soviet data from 1956, at the end of 1945, 1,448,654 German POWs remained
in captivity. At the end of 1947, 833,449 German POWs remained in the
Soviet Union; 495,855 at the end of 1948. Most prisoners were released only
in 1949, at the end of which the number of German POWs in Soviet custody
fell to 83,260. By 1950, that number had been further whittled to 28,711, the
majority of whom were held as “convicts” until 1955. Thus, there appear to
have been two major waves of releases: one in late 1945 (primarily of invalids)
and a second one lasting from the second half of 1948 through 1949.
These ¬gures and, in particular, the of¬cial death toll of 356,687 German
POWs (excluding Austrians), however, are highly controversial. V. B. Konasov
and others have shown that especially in the postwar period Soviet author-
ities constantly manipulated and corrected the number of POWs detained,
repatriated, disappeared, killed, and/or deceased. In 1947, the Sovinformbiuro

Hilger, Deutsche Kriegsgefangene, 173“219; Stefan Karner, Im Archipel GUPVI: Kriegsge-

fangenschaft und Internierung in der Sowjetunion 1941“1956 (Vienna and Munich: R. Old-
enbourg, 1995), 136“59, esp. 142; Werner Ratza, Die deutschen Kriegsgefangenen in der
Sowjetunion: Der Faktor Arbeit, zur Geschichte der deutschen Kriegsgefangenen des Zweiten
Weltkrieges, vol. 4 (Munich and Bielefeld: Giesekind, 1973).
Streit, Keine Kameraden, 268“88; the quote is from “Wirtschaftsinspektion Mitte, Aktenver-

merk uber die Dienstbesprechung am 31.5.1943 bei Heeresgruppe Mitte, O.Qu,” Bundesarchiv
(Militarisches Zwischenarchiv) Potsdam, F 42859: 1071.
S. Karner and B. Marx, 198.

See the Archive of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Research on War Consequences.
Christian Gerlach and Nicolas Werth

reported 3.15 million German POWs142 “ a vast and, perhaps, unbridgeable
discrepancy with the ¬gure of 833,449 POWs listed above. Another factor
supporting a critical assessment of these ¬gures is the number of unaccounted
deaths among Soviet and German soldiers captured, but not registered “ incal-
culable for Soviet POWs and perhaps as high as 275,000 to 550,000 for
German POWs.143 In any case, whereas Soviet POWs sustained by far the
highest mortality rates among all prisoners in German captivity, the of¬cial
death rate for German POWs in Soviet hands (15 percent) was actually signi¬-
cantly below that of Italian (57 percent) and Romanian (29 percent) POWs.144
The “war over ¬gures” (begun long ago by German historians contesting
of¬cial Soviet data)145 is not yet over. In the foreword to the recent and largest-
ever published volume of documents on Second World War POWs in the Soviet
Union,146 a volume that amply illustrates the point made by V. B. Konasov, one
reads: “In the USSR, 15 percent [approximately 357,000] of all POWs died; in
Germany, 57 percent [approximately 3 million]. This difference mathematically
demonstrates the fundamental differences between the two systems and shows
on whose side justice and the law resided.”147 Were the values of law and
justice ever really operative on either side, especially as concerned prisoners of
There are a number of parallels between the treatment of POWs in the Soviet
Union and in Nazi Germany.148 Hunger, forced labor, noncompliance with
international law, and violence led to high mortality rates among both groups of

See Karner, Archipel GUPVI, 204, and the extensive statistical annex in Hilger, Deutsche

Kriegsgefangene, 380“428.
Gerlach, Kalkulierte Morde, 774“9; Hilger, Deutsche Kriegsgefangene, 56“62, 371“2, 389;

Karner, Im Archipel GUPVI, 14, 58, 178. Karner estimates that between 500,000 and 1 million
POWs in Soviet hands died before registration, with 55 percent of all prisoners being Germans
and 3 percent Austrians. For the experience of the violence in the ¬rst days of captivity, see, for
example, accounts of German POWs Kurt Tappert, Heinrich Merck, and Karl Zacharias in
Kriegsgefangene im Osten: Briefe, Bilder, Berichte, ed. Eva Berthold (Konigstein/Ts: Athenaum,
¨ ¨
1981), 34“9, 51“60, and 154“7.
Karner, Archipel GUPVI, 79. Yet one has to keep in mind that most Italian military fell into

Soviet captivity in the winter of 1942“3, when death rates of POWs were generally at their
See Kurt Bohme, Die deutschen Kriegsgefangenen in Sowjetischer Hand: Eine Bilanz (Bielefeld:

E. und W. Giesekind, 1966), 3“50 and 106“26; Arthur L. Smith, “Die vermißte Million”: Zum
Schicksal der deutschen Kriegsgefangenen nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg (Munich, 1992), esp.
75“81, 87.
M. M. Zagorul™ko, ed., Voennoplennye v SSSR, 1939“1956: Dokumenty i materialy (Moscow:

Logos, 2000).
Ibid, 11.

Stefan Karner™s attempt at a comparison seems rather sketchy; Stefan Karner, “Konzentrations-

und Kriegsgefangenenlager in Deutschland und in der Sowjetunion: Ansatze zu einem Vergleich
von Lagern in totalitaten Regimen,” in In der Hand des Feindes: Kriegsgefangenschaft von der
Antike bis zum Zweiten Weltkrieg, ed. Rudiger Overmans (Cologne: Bohlau, 1999), 387“411.
¨ ¨
See also Christian Streit, “Deutsche und sowjetische Kriegsgefangene,” in Kriegsverbrechen
im 20. Jahrhundert, eds. Wolfram Wette and Gerd R. Ueberschar (Darmstadt: Wissenschaft
Buchgesellschaft, 2001), 178“92.
State Violence “ Violent Societies 171

prisoners. On both sides, POW supplies were inadequate and disorganized; on
both sides, corruption and embezzlement further reduced that which actually
reached POWs. Trends in mortality rates were also similar: from very high
levels in the early stages of the war, death rates generally diminished over the
course of captivity. Also, in both the German and Soviet cases, it is evident
that grassroots initiatives played an important role in the escalation of violence
and the killing of prisoners. It is dif¬cult to imagine an environment in which
citizens in either country could have been under less political control in the
wielding of violence. The mass rape of women in eastern Germany, Austria,
and Hungary demonstrates the low level of discipline among Soviet troops and
their readiness to in¬‚ict physical violence.149
The main difference in the two cases, vis-a-vis the treatment of POWs, lies
in the role played by political and military leaders. Only in the German case
were there a high-level intention to kill large numbers of Soviet POWs and a
program to realize it. At the level of policy, Soviet authorities more often sought
to improve the camp system and to ameliorate prisoners™ living conditions
through organizational change and the punishment of Soviet soldiers who had
violated their duties. Orders prohibiting abuse, which existed on the German
side as well, seem to have been more frequent on the Soviet side. Let us also not
forget that hunger for Soviet and German POWs had a different signi¬cance
than hunger in Germany. The starvation of prisoners in German hands served
to maintain comfortable levels of food consumption for Germans, whereas
in the Soviet Union, as a result of the German invasion and occupation of
large swaths of territory, food was scarce for both civilians and the military, a
situation that shifted to famine in 1942 and 1946“7.150

Given the complexity of each individual case, it is dif¬cult to draw overall
conclusions or make generalizations about a subset of mass crimes, let alone
about all of them together. We shall, therefore, con¬ne ourselves to making a
few key observations, rather than attempting to provide a general comparative
explanatory framework for German and Soviet violence.

Gerhard Keiderling, “˜Als Befreier unsere Herzen brachen™: Zu den Ubergriffen der Sowje-

tarmee in Berlin 1945,” Deutschland Archiv 28 (1995): 234“43; Andrea Peto, “Stimmen des
Schweigens: Erinnerungen an Vergewaltigungen in den Hauptstadten des ˜ersten Opfers™ (Wien)
und des ˜letzten Verbundeten Hitlers™ (Budapest) 1945,” Zeitschrift fur Geschichtswissenschaft
47 (1999): 892“913. See also Norman Naimark, The Russians in Germany: A History of the
Soviet Zone of Occupation 1945“1949 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University
Press, 1995).
See for this context Erich Maschke, “Einleitung,” in Die deutschen Kriegsgefangenen in

der Sowjetunion: Der Faktor Hunger, ed. Hedwig Fleischhacker (Munich: Kommission fur ¨
deutsche Kriegsgefangenen Geschichte, 1965), vii“xxxviii; for the wartime period see William
Moskoff, The Bread of Af¬‚iction: The Food Supply in the USSR during World War II
(Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
Christian Gerlach and Nicolas Werth

Mass violence is not simply a matter of police or other repressive state
organs. From the victim group case studies presented here (“asocials,” vic-
tims of ethnic resettlement projects, and prisoners of war), it would seem that
“initiative from below” and public participation or support were important
factors in the genesis of such violence. However, other factors were involved,
as well, such as what could be called a given polity™s “overall acclimation to
violence,” a factor related to that polity™s recent experiences of war, revolution,
and counterrevolution. In both cases, we selected relatively understudied and
underrecognized victim groups, groups that have been shown little remorse by
German or Soviet society, let alone by their erstwhile perpetrators. We selected
groups that have not stood in the limelight of intense historical interest. This
subject choice is also re¬‚ected in the relatively de¬cient state of research about
them. These groups remain marginal to, if they are at all re¬‚ected in, the col-
lective memory of the war, and they receive little empathy from the public or
professional historians. More such groups could have been discussed, such as
the more than 5 million civilians forced to work in Nazi Germany and the
several hundred thousand foreign workers brought into the Soviet Union.
To begin with, this analysis questions the assertion that secrecy hid mass
violence from the broader public “ a ¬nding corroborated by recent research
on the Holocaust and on political oppression in both countries. First and fore-
most, participation in violence and mass murder was much broader than previ-
ously thought. Secondly, we need to reconsider our understanding of the places
where violence occurred “ where Jews were shot; where POWs were starved,
beaten, and forced to work; and so forth. Working on construction sites and
in mines and factories, victim groups often remained in close contact with
the native population. In the Soviet Union, “special settlers” lived and worked
together with “ordinary” citizens. Third, there was an internal debate regarding
such policies. Fourth, there were many who pro¬ted from repression and vio-
lence: citizens claiming Jewish property; soldiers robbing POWs; individuals
taking over attractive jobs from people arrested, deported, or killed; work-
ers professionally bene¬ting from the arrest, deportation, or murder of their
colleagues; families residing in the apartments and homes of those deported.
Fifth, there were many different arguments used to demand violence against the
above-mentioned groups. However, every argument “ whether that of military
necessity, national security, labor, food, poverty, or criminality “ was couched
in language that aroused genuine public fears and concerns. Contextualizing
the arguments in this manner made violence appear almost as an imperative. It
should be added that, in combination with racial ideology and more traditional
forms of anti-Semitism, many of these arguments were also used in justifying
the extermination of European Jews.
Investigating the fate of Soviet and German prisoners of war reveals much
about the grassroots nature of the abuse, neglect, and killing of victims. Even
the direct orders of superiors to halt such violence “ something that happened
far more frequently on the Soviet side “ utterly failed. The existence of such
orders, however, clearly demonstrates that the violence meted out to German
State Violence “ Violent Societies 173


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