Friday, July 18, 2008

Prisoners of War REPLY


Nicholas Strakon to Morley Evans

Dear Mr. Evans:

According to the conventional accounts, the majority of Soviet POWs taken by the Germans in 1941 succumbed to starvation, disease, and exposure. The number of POWs was unexpectedly huge, testing German resources and logistics, and in any case the Germans were indifferent to their welfare, thanks to the Nazi "Untermenschen" ideology and the fact, which the Germans made much of, that the Sovs were not signatory to the Geneva Convention.

I am prepared to cautiously accept those conventional accounts, because there is a lot of detailed, credible documentation backing them up (as there is not, for example, for the stories about mass extermination of Jews in gas chambers). German commanders in the East and senior officials in Berlin seem to have explicitly stipulated to the mass die-off of the POWs. I think it was Goering who cracked a very bad joke about the cannibalism that became endemic in the camps.

After 1941-42, it seems to have dawned on the Germans that they could exploit the labor of the Soviet POWs for the war effort. Also (and against Hitler's explicit orders, at least at first), commanders in the East began recruiting Soviet POWs to conduct behind-the-lines anti-partisan operations and to support front-line units (these were the "Hiwis"). One Establishment historian -- David Glantz, I think -- estimates that a million ex-POWs actually =fought= in the front lines alongside the Germans and against the Red Army. They can have had little love for Hitler or Hitlerism, so we can only imagine the bottomless hatred they had for Stalin and Stalinism.

The Axis POWs who had made it safely to camps in Britain, the U.S., and Canada were repatriated after the war in the normal way, except for a handful who were held and tried for "war crimes" -- or, alternatively, hired as rocket scientists. Also, I believe some ordinary German and Italian ex-POWs in the U.S. were allowed to stay as immigrants and resident aliens, if they chose.

After the terror bombing really got underway, Hitler kept threatening to execute the Allied "air gangsters" whom the Wehrmacht had captured, but he never did, except for a relatively small number of escapees who were then recaptured. My own idea is that murderers deserve to die.

Your account of the winter march of the "Kriegies" westward rings a bell. As a lad, I read a book (maybe a memoir) about that. I suppose those POWs had almost as hard a time as the millions of civilian refugees fleeing westward to escape the onrushing Bolshevik savagery.

Dear Mr. Evans:

First, a clarification of a statement in my message of yesterday: "Once Axis POWs reached Allied camps, they were mostly safe and well cared for." I speak of camps run by the =Western= Allies, of course, not camps run by the Soviets. But beyond that, I've never actually seen any account of how the French treated German and Italian POWs in the camps they ran. I do recall reading that in the early days of the occupation of Germany, the French were beastlier in their conduct -- toward both German civilians and POWs -- than the Americans or British were.

Now to Stalingrad. In his STALINGRAD: THE FATEFUL SIEGE: 1942-1943 (Viking, 1998), the British historian Antony Beevor cites figures (calculated by other historians) of 250,000, 268,000, and 294,000 Germans, Italians, Romanians, and ex-Soviet "Hiwis" ("helpers") being surrounded after the Sovs pulled off their great Operation Uranus in November '42.

Beevor reports that "all writers are agreed that around 25,000 wounded and specialists were flown out, but there is little certainty over the numbers killed or taken prisoner," from November '42 to February '43. He writes further that "just under 52,000 members of the Sixth Army" (Germans and Hiwis) died between Nov. 22 and Jan. 7. Usual estimates for the number of Germans surrendering at the beginning of February are about 60,000, according to Beevor.

Naturally, only a few thousand ever made it back to Germany.

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