The Fate of Russian Prisoners of War in World War II
In the first months of the war on the Russian front, the Nazis captured over a million Soviet servicemen. Many of them fell into captivity during the incredibly difficult early months of the war. Stalin declared these prisoners of war “missing in action”.
Russian prisoners were tortured and killed by the Nazis while their own government accused them of treason. Few survived. Such monstrous injustice toward prisoners of war has never happened happen in any past war. Ever.
The Last March: Missing in Action
During the last century’s largest and most destructive war, known as the Great Patriotic War in Russia and World War II elsewhere, millions of Russian servicemen, whom I will henceforth call Russian soldiers regardless of their origin, rank and title, ended up in German captivity. Most of them did so during the first two years of the war.
Individuals, companies and even whole divisions were encircled and taken captive. During this difficult period, even the most desperate and heroic attempts to break out of the encirclement often ended up in death or captivity. The Nazi captivity for Russian soldiers was worse than hell. It meant abuse, starvation, privation, and mass executions of wounded, sick, “racially inferior Asians”, and, above all, Jewish captives.
Worst of all, according to the Soviet military code, surrender was synonymous with treason. Not only does a soldier in this situation face distress, agony, and death, but under the law of his own country, he becomes a deserter as well, and thus his country turns away from him in this bitter hour of his life. How many of these men perished on death matches? Among them were two uncles of mine, brothers of my mother. In the Victory Park at the Poklonnaya hill in Moscow, almost lost among many structures and statues, there is a modest monument with the inscription “to the solders with no graves”, devoted to the captured Russian soldiers. In fact, they have their graves—their nameless places of eternal rest dot the land of the Eastern Front, stretching from Moscow outward toward the West. Their loved ones – mothers, wives, children – were told that they were “missing in action.” Yes, this happens in wars. People disappear, die unnoticed, get lost. Of them we justifiably say, “missing in action.” However, this was different – prisoners of war were falsely, accusingly called missing in action. Stalin once said to Churchill that his soldiers do not surrender, they fight to death; that those taken prisoner are not his soldiers, for him they don’t exist.
May of 1945 brought victory and liberation… but not for Russian POWs who survived. An unholy verdict awaited too many of them, from the Nazi concentration camps to the Russian Gulag. This has never happened before, in any war and in any time. This is unwitnessed and unheard of.
Yesterday’s Allies, who together shed rivers of blood on the fronts from Stalingrad to Normandy, now found themselves divided by something known as the “IRON CURTAIN” – a vicious barrier to common endeavors, human interaction, and understanding. As a form of self-sedation amid this madness, they invented the “Cold War.” I have already mentioned the meaninglessness of that phrase despite our having lived with this wasteful absurdity for a half-century. To this day, we are still sifting through the wreckage of this folly, and even in this new century, prodded by the memory of that “Cold War”, Russia and the West reflexively stir past misunderstandings.
In this project about the tragedy of the Russian POWs, like in its sister projects Holocaust and America-Russia, my goal is to the deliver KNOWLEDGE.
In order to remember, one must first KNOW.
When the very existence of civilization was challenged by Hitler in the middle of the last century, the alliance of great nations, chief among them America and Russia, brought about the defeat of Hitler and the Nazis.
President John Kennedy in a speech at American University in 1963 said: “No nation in the history of battle ever suffered more loses than the Soviet Union in the Second World War”.
American and Russian soldiers brought down the evil gates of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. It is my deep belief that peace in today’s world greatly depends on the friendship between America and Russia, between Russians and Americans. This is my wish. This is my dream.
Naum Medovoy. New York. 2018