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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Barbarism in the 20th century

Total war in Ukraine and the fate of prisoners of war in Nazi captivity
7 October, 2008 - 00:00

The greatest military cataclysm in the history of humankind – the Second World War – will never be forgotten. Beginning on Sept. 1, 1939, this colossal military confrontation was imposed by the aggressive fascist and militaristic forces with aspirations for world domination. It was marked by its global scale, unprecedented destructive consequences, high mortality rate, and the physical and moral sufferings of civilians.

The unprecedented cruelty of this global slaughter was largely determined by the actions of its initiators-the Nazi Germans, Japanese militarists, and their allies, who were guided by the theory of total war. One of the German authors of this theory, General Hermann Franke, declared that this type of war boils down to the “primordial features of a merciless struggle of everyone against everyone. This kind of war does not recognize mercy for enemy nations.” In the view of the German theoreticians, the latter included all the so-called non-Aryan peoples, most of whom were slated for elimination. The surviving remnants were supposed to forget their origins and national identities and work as slaves for their Aryan masters-the Germans and their allies.

Having launched total aggression in conformity with its doctrine, the Germans immediately began systematically killing people in the conquered lands. Captivity was used to this end as well. Millions of soldiers who were taken prisoner by the German-Romanian-Hungarian fascists walked the difficult path of enslavement, torture, starvation, and humiliation, and most met their death.

During the Second World War the political and military leaders of the aggressor countries dismantled the traditional notions of captivity and related ideas of military dignity by flagrantly violating international treaties, in particular The Hague Conventions (1899 and 1907) and the Geneva Conventions (1864, 1906, and 1929). Contravening the regulations enshrined in these international legal instruments, which declare that captivity is merely temporary detention and cannot have the character of revenge or punishment, the Germans and their accomplices turned captivity into a continuation of war.

This led to the unprecedented cruel and cynical technology of mass destruction, humiliating forced labor, and physical and moral-psychological violence against POWs and captured citizens of conquered countries. More than half of them died at the hands of the Nazis, while the majority of Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, Italians, and other nationalities returned to their homelands after the war from Soviet, American, and British captivity.

The reason for this was that the 26 member countries of the United Nations, including the US, Great Britain, and the USSR, had signed a declaration on uniting their efforts to fight the newly proclaimed aspirants for world domination-dictatorships-rather than the peoples of their countries. These powers were guided by the notion that Hitlers may come and go, but the German people would remain. In the eyes of the United Nations the Second World War was a defensive, just war. In Britain it was called the “Battle for England,” in Yugoslavia, a national liberation war, and in Ukraine, as Viktor Yush­chen­ko noted on May 9, 2008, it was called the Great Patriotic War of 1939-1945.

German atrocities cannot be justified by the fact that in 1929 the USSR did not sign the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War because the Soviet Union had already signed the 1907 Hague Convention on the Laws and Customs of War on Land. The Appendix (articles 4-20) of the latter convention prescribes the humane treatment of prisoners of war. It formed the foundation of the 1929 Convention and the respective regulations of the Red Cross, and was ratified by the governments of the US, Great Britain, France, and many others. Among them were two countries-Czechoslovakia and Poland-to which some Ukrainian lands belonged in the pre-war period.

The Germans launched their aggression against the Ukrainian lands in 1939 and treated the captured soldiers, who were defending their native land, with unparalleled cruelty. In March 1939, with Adolf Hitler’s blessing, the Hungarians brutally declared war on Carpathian Ukraine and in barbaric fashion killed most of their prisoners, soldiers of the Carpathian Sich, among whom were gymnasium and college students from Khust. The Carpathian Sich Riflemen, who had crossed into Romania in an effort to escape the raging enemy, were handed over to the Hungarians by the local Romanian authorities. The Hungarians im­mediately shot the poor wretches and threw their bodies into the Tysa River, which turned red from the blood of those who had fallen victim to Miklos Horthy’s fascist regime. The surviving prisoners and all those who had fought against the Hungarian occupation regime were tortured in 16 concentration camps, prisons, and other places of detention.

On July 2, 1941, after laun­ching an attack on the USSR, Hitler issued an order stating that “any kind of humane treatment in relation to prisoners of war will be harshly censured.” As soon as they laid down their arms, many types of POWs were killed by the Germans: the wounded and seriously ill, invalids, political propagandists, Jews, runaways from concentration camps, partisans, members of underground organizations, etc. In many cases, German commanders issued criminal or­ders “to take no prisoners.” This is what Walter Model, General Officer Commanding the 3rd Panzer Di­vision, and Walther Nehring, General Officer Commanding the 18th Panzer Division did.

Shootings and mass executions of prisoners were ordered by operations commanders and the occupation authorities. Often, however, there were no orders or official decisions, only the instructions and discretion of active servicemen or, to be more precise, the criminal arbitrariness of any occupier-officers, soldiers, or officials of local fascist administrations.

POWs who survived their initial capture were often used as human shields against the on­slaught of attacking forces. Others were stripped to their underwear, and their uniforms and footwear were confiscated to meet the “needs of the German army.” The occupiers used prisoners of war to clear mine fields and other dangerous areas. Instead of providing them with food, clothing, and housing, as demanded by Article 7 of The Hague Convention, they were fed carrion. Often they were not given any food or water, and were kept outside, regardless of rain and snow. Prisoners were shot on sight for the slightest violation, and corpses were desecrated. Most prisoners of war died in transit.

A network of large prisoner-of-war camps was set up in Ukraine. POWs were killed in huge numbers as a result of immediate violence or the inhuman conditions that existed in Dulags (Durch­gang­slager, transit camps), Stalags (Stammlager, soldier and subaltern camps), Offlags (Offizierlager, officer camps), and so-called infirmaries. Tens of thousands died in transit on the way to these camps, as well as in prisons and other places of imprisonment. On Ukrainian territory the occupiers carried out the mass destruction of people, including prisoners of war, in 808 camps, prisons, and other places of incarceration, where the death rate reached 85 percent.

The largest camps were Darnytsky and Syretsky in Kyiv, the Citadel in Lviv, as well as camps in Uman, Poltava, Melitopil, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, and other Ukrainian cities. Nearly 140,000 people died of starvation and disease in the Citadel alone, while in the Khorol camps, over 57,000 perished. In Kremenchuk the Nazis killed 40,000 soldiers and officers through starvation and torture, and intentionally infected them with contagious diseases.

In Volodymyr-Volynsky 25,000 inmates were killed, including 7,000 to 8,000 who died during the winter of 1941-42 alone. In November 1941 the Germans set up a camp in Artemivsk, where the starving prisoners, on the brink of death, ate all the grass. In order to deprive them even of this nourishment, the Nazis placed a double row of barbed-wire fencing around the camp. In Uman over 70,000 prisoners were crammed into a small area, where there was no room to breathe and the sanitary conditions were horrific. Most were not even fed thin soup.

In the Rava Ruska camp the daily ration consisted of frozen potatoes that were boiled and given to the prisoners. This kind of food, as well as the exhausting labor, unheated barracks, and barbaric punishments (prisoners were tied to barbed wire outdoors in freezing conditions) decimated nearly all the Soviet prisoners of war.

In the “Gross-Lazarett” in Slavuta, a city in Kamianets-Podilsky oblast, doctors infected inmates with typhus, tuberculosis, dysentery, and other diseases, while the German guards sometimes killed prisoners for their own entertainment. During the two-year occupation of Slavuta, over 150,000 wounded and sick Red Army officers and soldiers were murdered in this infirmary by two doctors, Borbe and Sturm, and other medical personnel. General Hans von Graevenitz, the head of the Department for Prisoners of War at the Supreme Commander’s headquarters, issued an order to kill POWs with the help of medical personnel.

In another camp, located on the territory governed by the Troitske village council in Milove raion (Luhansk oblast), collective farmers were strictly forbidden to help prisoners of war in any way. Despite the ban, villagers risked their lives by passing food, clothing, and footwear to the emaciated captives. On the orders of F. Pasch, the camp commandant, inmates who were exhausted from starvation, beatings, and hard physical labor were killed, with some buried alive in prepared pits. In March 1943, in one of the wings of a Kharkiv hospital, 400 wounded people were shot and 300 were burned alive.

In Mariupil, a prisoner-of-war camp was set up in the buildings of the Illich Plant Training Center, where many wounded and sick prisoners were housed. Aware of the population’s sympathies, the Nazis organized the so-called Relief Committee. People donated money to the committee, but the collected funds went straight into the pockets of the German commanders and the police. Later, in February 1943, the captives, dressed only in their underwear, were loaded onto 18 freight trains and taken to a railway dead-end, where they froze to death. The train cars bore the images of a skull and bones and the words “Contagious! Keep away!”

One way to finish off prisoners was to force them to do the most difficult, often life-threatening, labor. In the camp located at Amvrosiivka Station in Stalino oblast, prisoners of war, 80 percent of whom had frostbitten arms and legs, were forced to do railway construction work. Many died in the so-called trawling teams that were created to remove mines.

According to the German rear troops commander, every day an average of 2,500 people died in Ukraine. The latest data show that in 1941-45 a total of 6,300,000 Soviet servicemen were taken prisoner by the Germans, and of these prisoners over 4,700,000 died, including more than two million in the camps and prisons based on Ukrainian territory.

The German-Romanian-Hungarian fascist aggression and the occupation regime in Ukraine were the implementation of the doctrine of total war. The criminal system of the agencies that were responsible for implementing this doctrine carried out a series of inhumane military-terrorist, so­cial, economic, medical, ideological, and other measures, which were aimed at the total destruction of the entire Ukrainian nation and other people, including prisoners of war, whom the occupiers labeled non-Aryan.

The killing of captured servicemen in the theater of military operations and their exploitation as human shields, the killing of captives in camps and prisons, sadistic medical experiments, and crimes against wounded and sick prisoners and war invalids-all this led to the death of the majority of those who were captured by the Germans.