Module S: Deportations, Selections, Mass Murder: The Treatment of Soviet POWs in the Concentration Camps

Marco Kühnert


Target groups
This seminar is suitable for all kinds of groups, including groups of adults (especially members of the armed forces) as well as school classes from the 10th grade up and vocational school classes


Themes and goals
There is a consensus among historians that the treatment of Soviet POWs by the Nazi regime was criminal – also because of its extraordinary dimensions. The soldiers of the Red Army were victims of mass killings, starvation, deportation, selection, concentration camp imprisonment and forced labour. They belong to what since the 1980s has been called the “forgotten victims”. While this group also included Italian military internees (IMIs) in Germany, the Soviet POWs were the majority. And yet so few know about these victims except for a handful of experts. In terms of research, it was Christian Streit’s study Keine Kameraden (No Comrades) from 1978 that conclusively established Soviet POWs as the second largest group of victims of Nazi mass crimes after European Jews. Between 22 June 1941 and the end of the war, roughly 5.7 million Red Army soldiers were taken prisoner by the Germans. Of these, about 3,300,000 (or 57.5%) died. The extent of this crime is made even more apparent when compared to the roughly 232,000 British and American POWS, of which 8,348 (3.5%) died. Epidemics of dysentery and typhus and other diseases broke out in the camps where the Soviet POWs were imprisoned as early as August 1941. While there were 361,000 Soviet POWs in camps of the German General Government in the autumn of 1941, 85% of them had died by April 1942. In all, roughly two million Soviet POWs had died by February 1942.
These mass crimes are little known in German society, even today. The fate of the Soviet POWs is thus often overlooked in teaching materials and curricula in schools as well as in the German culture of remembrance – even at sites where Soviet POWs were imprisoned and killed during the Nazi era. In this seminar, participants learn about these crimes and talk about the reasons why these particular victims of Nazi crimes still have not received the attention they deserve to this day. The following issues are explored: What role did Nazi ideology play as a basis for these mass crimes? How were the political and military leaders’ orders to commit crimes communicated to lower-level personal, and how were these ultimately carried out? Who were responsible? What chances to act differently did those who did not want to participate in crimes have – who resisted and under what conditions? How did German post-war society deal with these crimes after 1945?


During the seminar, we explore those parts of the grounds and exhibitions of the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial that relate to this topic. The seminar can be booked for one, two or several days and can serve as an addendum to the module Criminal Behaviour within the Wehrmacht under the Nazis (module R).