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Photograph of Prisoners Forced to Exercise

Soviet prisoners of war are forced to exercise while imprisoned in a camp.
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Because Nazi ideology placed a high value on physical strength, exercise became an important part of the Nazi regime’s public health initiatives. Nazi public health officials urged the entire German nation to exercise regularly, declaring that "wholesome life is a national duty."1 Nazi propaganda films depict young men hiking mountains and performing military-style physical exercises, while young women are shown performing graceful movements and assisting children with their gymnastics training.2 Nazi ideology valued strength and athleticism, and Nazi propagandists often exploited German athletes’ achievements to demonstrate the supposed superiority of the "Aryan" race.3

The Nazi regime used physical exercise as a way to increase the strength and overall health of the so-called "German racial community" (Volksgemeinschaft), but Germans in different positions of power also used exercise as a form of humiliation, punishment, and torture. Camp guards routinely used physical exercise to punish concentration camp prisoners and forced laborers.4 Because Nazi ideology claimed that "re-educating" people required physical work and exercise, concentration camp guards also used forced exercise and grueling physical labor to "rehabilitate" gay men and other German citizens whom the regime had imprisoned for "degenerate" behavior.5 Throughout occupied Europe, German forces made Jewish men publicly exercise to the point of exhaustion in order to humiliate them and demonstrate their supposed physical and racial inferiority.

In the featured photograph, a group of Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) is forced to perform exercises in an internment camp located at the small town of Rymanów in occupied Poland. Following top-level directives to wage a war of annihilation against the Soviet Union, the German military and security forces systematically neglected, abused, and murdered Soviet POWs. Roughly 3.3 million Soviet soldiers died in German captivity during the war.6 Although the photographer is unknown and this image is undated, the rags tied around the mens' heads and feet suggest that the weather is cold. What other details might be revealed through a close examination of the men’s clothing and facial expressions?

See the related item in Experiencing History, "Nazis Hit Alcohol, Tobacco."

According to Nazi propaganda, young men were to become soldiers while young women were expected to aspire to motherhood. To view examples in Experiencing History, see the Hitler Youth Training Film and "Healthy Woman: Healthy Nation."

For more in Experiencing History on the Nazi myth of "Aryan" physical superiority, see the Program for the 1936 Schmeling-Louis Bout.

In violation of the Geneva Convention, German forces subjected Soviet POWs to brutal treatment due to their supposedly "racially inferior" status.

For more on the Nazi regime's persecution of gay men and lesbian women, see Günter Grau, Hidden Holocaust? Gay and Lesbian Persecution in Germany, 1933-45, translated by Patrick Camiller with a contribution by Claudia Schoppmann (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1995); and Gregory Woods, "The Pink Triangle," in A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998): 247–56.

For more on the experiences of Soviet POWs in German captivity during World War II, see Gerhard Hirschfeld, ed., The Policies of Genocide: Jews and Soviet Prisoners of War in Nazi Germany (London: German Historical Institute, 1986); Jacek Lachendro, Soviet Prisoners of War in Auschwitz, translated by William Brand (Oświęcim: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, 2016); and Aron Shneyer, Pariahs among Pariahs: Soviet-Jewish POWs in German Captivity, 1941–1945, translated by Yisrael Cohen (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2016). For more in Experiencing History on the treatment of Soviet POWs, see the related item Labor Deployment of Soviet Prisoners of War.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Source Number 060705
Date Created
1941 to 1945
Location
Rzeszow, Poland
Still Image Type Photograph
Description This photograph depicts a group of Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) forced to perform exercises in an internment camp located at the small town of Rymanów in occupied Poland.
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