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Labor Deployment of Soviet Prisoners of War

This leaflet, written and distributed by the German army high command in December 1941, announced the authorities intention to exploit Soviet prisoners of war for forced labor.
State Archive of the Russian Federation

During the invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941, the German army rapidly advanced through Soviet territory and captured millions of Soviet soldiers. As Nazi mobile killing squads known as Einsatzgruppen began murdering Jews and others targeted by the Nazi regime, Soviet soldiers captured by German forces were imprisoned in makeshift camps. With the onset of autumn in 1941, many Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) died from exposure and starvation.1 By February 1942, 3.4 million Soviet soldiers had been taken prisoner—and roughly two million of them had died from a combination of neglect and brutal treatment. Out of 5.7 million total Soviet soldiers held prisoner by German forces, roughly 3.5 million of them died.2

Initially, there were no plans to bring Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) to the Third Reich as forced laborers. The Nazi leadership considered Soviet soldiers both racially and politically dangerous to the German people because they were seen as Slavs and Communists—a threatening combination according to the Nazi worldview.3 However, by October 1941 a labor shortage in Nazi Germany threatened the war effort. In response, German leadership changed course and turned to Soviet prisoners of war as a desperately needed labor source.4

This leaflet—written and distributed by the German army high command in December 1941—was intended to explain this policy change to commanders of Soviet POW camps as well as the businesses that used their labor. The leaflet points out that the poor health of Soviet POWs as a result of their treatment made it difficult to use them as laborers. The authorities made clear that Soviet soldiers were to be cared for as much as possible—not for humanitarian reasons, but for economic ones.5 The leaflet used bureaucratic language to describe basic things like providing digestible food and heat in the the winter, noting that “[i]n addition to adaptation of the diet to physical requirements, it must be ensured that the food served to the POWs can be used as productively as possible by the body of the POW.”

Years of anti-Soviet and racist propaganda in Nazi Germany made it difficult to reach the goal of adequate care for Soviet POWs. Appeals to labor productivity were not always enough to convince businesses and camp commanders that they should care for the physical well-being of a supposedly inferior "racial enemy".6 Restoring the prisoners to health was further complicated by the fact that increases to the meager rations provided to Soviet POWs were not proposed at this time. The massive death counts of winter 1941–1942 were not repeated, but Soviet POW laborers continued to suffer from malnutrition—and continued dying in very large numbers.

Food rations, which were already insufficient, were drastically cut in POW camps on the eastern front in October 1941 "although those in charge fully realized that this meant certain death for many of the prisoners." Ulrich Herbert, Hitler's Foreign Workers: Enforced Foreign Labor in Germany under the Third Reich, trans. William Templer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 155. See also Christian Streit, "Soviet Prisoners of War in the Hands of the Wehrmacht," in Hannes Heer, Klaus Naumann (eds.), War of Extermination: The German Military in World War II, 1941-1944 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006); and Jürgen Förster, "Complicity or entanglement? Wehrmacht, War, and Holocaust," in Michael Berenbaum, Abraham J. Peck (eds.), The Holocaust and History: The Known, the unknown, the Disputed, and the Reexamined (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1998).

 Ulrich Herbert, "Forced Laborers in the Third Reich: An Overview," International Labor and Working-Class History 58 (Fall, 2000), 195. 

The Red Army was multiethnic, and Soviet soldiers came from all across the Soviet Union. But the German army attributed both a Russian identity and Bolshevik worldview to the captured soldiers, with the partial exception of Ukrainians. See Karel C. Berkhoff, "The Mass Murder of Soviet Prisoners of War and The Holocaust: How Were They Related?” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History vol. 6, no. 4 (Fall 2005): 790. 

Although the German army command pushed for the use of Soviet POWs as laborers in the Reich, German security offiicials in the SD and the SS continued to oppose the use of Soviet POWs on German soil. Herbert, Hitler’s Foreign Workers, 160–161. For a more detailed discussion on the push from German businesses and the German army to bring Soviet POWs into the Reich, see Rolf Keller, "Arbeitseinsatz und Hungerpolitik," 123–154; and Keller, "Racism versus Pragmatism: Forced Labor of Soviet Prisoners of War in Germany (1941–1942)," in Forced and Slave labor in Nazi-Dominated Europe, Symposium Presentations (Washington, DC: US Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2004): 109–124.

Even with these changes, roughly 400,000 Soviet POWs perished in the two months between November and the end of December 1941. Herbert, Hitler's Foreign Workers, 157. In contrast, as documented in another source in Experiencing History, some of these POWs successfully escaped imprisonment in German camps.

 Many simply refused to improve the conditions of Soviet POWs. Herbert, Hitler's Foreign Workers, 161.

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Fact sheet for the labor deployment of the Soviet POWs;

Here: Measures for the restoration of full ability to work.

The Soviet POWs, almost without exception, are in a state of severe malnutrition, which at present does not yet qualify them for normal work performance. However, in the interest of the economy, only those Soviet POWs fully capable of work should be employed. POWs who are not completely fit for work only hinder the production process and lead to work hold-ups and decreases in production figures. For these reasons, it is necessary to exhaust all means that might be appropriate for improving their physical condition, as the basis for their working capacity. 

The level of the food ration itself cannot be changed at this time. But an increase in its useful effect can indeed be achieved by efficient utilization, adapted to the physical requirements of the Soviet POWs. This can come about, for example, by dividing the hot meal and giving it out in two rounds, at midday and in the evening; by spreading the distribution of the bread ration over the individual mealtimes; by occasionally giving hot drinks in addition and, in the event of symptoms of diarrhea, providing easily digestible food; and by preventing the POWs from consuming raw field crops, food scraps, or other things that are hard to digest.

If the businessman/contractor himself feeds the Soviet POWs, the necessary adaptation of the food to the physical requirements of the POWs will entail a certain amount of additional work [for him]. This extra work, however, can justifiably be demanded of the businessman, as it is he, in the final analysis, who benefits from the enhanced output. 

In addition to adaptation of the diet to physical requirements, it must be ensured that the food served to the POWs can be used as productively as possible by the body of the POW. It is necessary, therefore, for the quarters assigned to the POWs to be made easy to heat and kept warm. Furthermore, an opportunity must be created for bodily cleansing and for drying wet uniforms and items of clothing, as cold living quarters and wet clothing will result in a loss of body heat by the Soviet POWs.  

From the outset, it will not be permissible to set excessive work requirements for Soviet POWs whose physical constitution is still poor, to avoid making the restoration of their full work capacity an illusory goal. It is therefore necessary, at the beginning, to demand only a reduced output from Soviet POWs who are not in full possession of their physical powers, and to increase their amount of work gradually, in keeping with the improvement in their physical health.

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
State Archive of the Russian Federation
Accession Number 2006.332
Source Number RG-22.014M
Date Created
December 1941
Reference Location
Soviet Union
Document Type Pamphlet
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