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WWII: 3.3 Million Soviet POWs and Forced Laborers Perished in German Hands

Some 3.1 million POWs and over 200,000 forced laborers and children born to them. They were alternatively seen as useless eaters to be starved to death, or as captive labor to be exploited without regard to their health or survival

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Note: With the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War just around the corner we are publishing more material related to that epic conflict that is so important to Russian collective memory.

Comprehending the massive human and material losses suffered by Russians and other peoples of the Soviet Union is crucial to understanding why this is so.

This article is the third chapter of a research paper from the pen of RI deputy editor and contributor Marko Marjanović. Other chapters are to follow in the coming days. Links to previous chapters:

Soviet Prisoners of War in German Custody

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The Germans themselves did not have a clear idea of how many prisoners of war they had taken in the east. Archival records which are fragmentary and sometimes in contradiction with one another indicate a tally of between 5.25 and 5.75 million.[26] There is good reason to believe, however, that many German reports tended to overestimate the number of prisoners captured, and that the lower number is far more likely to be closer to the truth.

For example, in the Kiev encirclement the Germans reported capturing 665,000 prisoners of war, however, the entire Southwestern Front defending Kiev had only 627,000 men on its rolls. Of these tens of thousands successfully slipped out of the cauldron and therefore avoided capture, many others were killed in combat attempting the breakout and another 150,000 had never been encircled by the German pincers in the first place. Thus it is highly unlikely the Germans netted many more than 450,000 Red Army men in the Kiev pocket. 

Though many German reports overestimated the actual number of prisoners taken a part of discrepancy between Soviet and German tallies at Kiev, and the war at large, is explained by the fact the Germans rounded up many men besides Red Army soldiers listed on their unit strength rolls. They also captured numerous opolchenie militiamen, police, and fighters from various other smaller Soviet paramilitary organizations, at least 500,000 mobilized reservists intercepted on the way to their unit, and civilian workers involved with running the railways, civil aviation and the river fleets and constructing military fortifications and airports, as well as ordinary men of fighting age captured as suspected or potential fighters.[27]

Regardless of whom the Germans regarded as a Soviet prisoner of war, however, none so designated were actually given the protection of POW status. Instead they were first regarded as useless eaters to be starved to death and latter on as a labor force to be ruthlessly exploited without regard to their health or survival. Subsequently they were deliberately left to starve in 1941 and 1942 in Wehrmacht's POW camps in the western Soviet Union, or were killed in death marches en route to these camps. Many others died later when employed as forced laborers in Germany. A portion were also handed over to the SS and the police to be shot. 

The number of Soviet citizens whom in the German imagination counted as Soviet prisoners of war and who perished in German custody is most often given as 3.3 million. The figure stems from the German historian Christian Streit who arrived at the figure by taking the estimated 5.7 million captured as his starting point and then subtracted from it the number of those who were known to be still alive in German custody in January 1945 (930,000) and those who may have been released (1 million) or liberated (500,000).[28]

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Streit's figure is problematic because he uses the inflated 5.7 million figure as his starting point. Starting with the low German estimate of 5.25 million total captives instead his method would result in a much smaller estimate of 2.8 million deaths of Soviet POWs in German custody. On the other hand, in the same way that Streit inputs an overestimate of total captives he could be using too high figures for released and liberated prisoners. Indeed he states that "at most" 1 million were released implying the number is easily smaller. Additionally the estimate of those liberated or escaped is from the Army High Command (OKH), which is the same body that produced the inflated 5.7 million estimate of the total. Using 5.25 million as a starting point and lowering the release and liberated figures by 20% Streit's method would result in a point estimate of 3.1 million deaths among Soviet POWs in German hands, which is easier to defend.

Soviet Prisoners of War in Finnish Custody

Soviet POWs suffered mass mortality in German, but also in Finnish hands. Between 1941 and 1944 Finland took about 64,000 Soviet troops prisoner of whom just over 19,000 perished in Finnish custody. The majority of these succumbed to disease in the period between November 1941 and September 1942. Unlike the Germans, the Finns had not planned to let their Soviet POWs die in advance, however, they did treat captured Red Army soldiers with callousness and neglect and it was the miserable conditions the Soviet soldiers in Finnish hands were kept in, particularly those in the largest POW camps, that were the cause of the mass mortality among them.[29]

Forced Civilian Workers in German Hands

Germans rounded up numerous civilians in the Soviet Union for forced labor in Germany and German-occupied Europe. For a long while the generally accepted estimate of such deportees stood at 2.8 million as established by Alexander Dallin in the 1950s. This figure has been recently modified upwards. Mark Spoerer, a German historian specializing in the subject of forced labor in the Third Reich, puts the number at 2.9-3.1 million, but without including Polish forced laborers who were citizens of the Soviet Union in this figure. The Russian historian of forced population transfers, Pavel Polian estimates the number of all civilian forced laborers from the Soviet Union at 3.2 million.[30]

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In his 2001 book Spoerer estimated 170,000 deaths among the approximately 3 million forces laborers from the Soviet Union or "Ostarbeiters". The estimate seems to be the best available, but with the understanding it is easily uncertain since in an article Spoerer penned a year later he speaks of a "10 percent death toll" of Eastern workers, which would imply a far greater number of deaths.[31]

In addition to the deaths among captive Soviet laborers there were also thousands of deaths among the children born to them. As they were of no use to the German war effort mortality among the newborn was extremely high, between 25 and 50 percent according to Spoerer. In majority of cases after December 1942 the newborns were taken from their mothers and unloaded at "boarding homes for foreign children" where more than half of them starved to death. In mid 1944 the Reich Interior Ministry estimated there was a total of 75,000 Ostarbeiter children in Germany.[32] This can easily indicate 100,000 births overall and between 20,000 and 50,000 of Ostarbeiter children who did not survive the war. This means that altogether there were probably more than 200,000 deaths among Soviet forced laborers and the children born to them.


Soviet POWs and civilian forced laborers constituted by far the largest groups of Soviet citizens in custody of Axis states. More than 8 million Soviet citizens at one point in time counted as either a Soviet prisoner of war, or a captive civilian laborer. Taken together there were some 3.3 million deaths among them.

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Soviet POW deaths in German hands 3,100,000
Soviet POW deaths in Finnish hands 22,000
Deaths of Soviet forced laborers in German-run Europe and children born to them 200,000
Total deaths of Soviet citizens in Axis captivity (excluding civilians held within Soviet borders) 3,300,000

26. Reinhard Otto, Rolf Keller and Jens Nagel: "Sowjetische Kriegsgefangene in deutschem Gewahrsam 1941– 1945". Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte 56, no.4, (2008) 
27. Krivosheev, Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century, 236-37.
28. Christian Streit, ―Soviet Prisoners of War in the Hands of the Wehrmacht in War of Extermination: The German Military in World War II, ed. Hannes Heer & Klaus Naumann (Berghahn Books, 2000), 81.
29. Lars Westerlund, "The Mortality Rate of Prisoners of War in Finnish Custody between 1939 and 1944" in Prisoners of War Deaths and People Handed over to Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939-1955: A Research Report by the National Archives, ed. Lars Westerlund (Helsinki: Nord Print Oy Ab, 2008), 31, 63-65.
30. Christine Glauning, "Ostarbeiter" im Deutschen Reich citing Alexander Dallin, Deutsche Herrschaft in Russland 1941-1945 (Düsseldorf: 1958), 465. Mark Spoerer, Zwangsarbeit unter dem Hakenkreuz (Stuttgart/München: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2001), 79, 32, 34. Pavel Polian, "Sowjetische Staatsangehörige im "Dritten Reich" während des Zweiten Weltkrieges" in Wir sind die Heren dieses Landes: Ursachen, Verlauf und Folgen des deutschen Überfalls auf die Sowjetunion, ed. Babette Quinkert (Hamburg: 2002), 148.
31. Glauning, "Ostarbeiter" im Deutschen Reich citing Spoerer, Zwangsarbeit unter dem Hakenkreuz, 228. Mark Spoerer "Forced labor under the Nazi regime: Recent findings and an Agenda for Future Research." in Revisiting the National Socialist Legacy. Coming to Terms with Forced Labor, Expropriation, Compensation, and Restitution, ed. Oliver Rathkolb (Innsbruck: Studien-Verlag, 2002), 77.
32. Mark Spoerer, Forced Labor in the Third Reich (Frankfurt am Main: J.W. Goethe-Universität / Fritz Bauer Institut, 2010), 15. Bernhild Vögel, "Entbindungsheim für Ostarbeiterinnen" Braunschweig, Broitzemer Straße 200 (PDF-Ausgabe 2005) 86.

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