Wehrmacht and prisoners of war
„'We must move away from the standpoint of soldierly comradeship. […] In the east, severity [now] is gentle for the future. Commanders must demand of themselves the sacrifice of overcoming their scruples.' Chief of General Staff F. Halder wrote these notes during Hitler's speech of 30 March 1941, when Hitler prepared all his generals ideologically for the imminent 'battle of annihilation' against the Soviet Union.
The Armed Forces High Command (OKW) issued directives on the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war that violated the provisions of international law under the Geneva Convention and Hague Convention. A circular for camp guards dated 8 September 1941 stated: 'Escaping POWs are to be fired upon immediately without warning […]. Leniency, even towards the hard-working and obedient POW, is out of line.'
Malnutrition was the primary cause of the widespread deaths among Soviet prisoners of war. In 1941 and 1942 in particular, prisoners' rations were intentionally set at a level that led to thousands of deaths by starvation. Although rations were repeatedly increased as the war progressed, they invariably remained below those of non-Soviet prisoners until the end of the war.
Disastrous conditions in the camps led to epidemics of dysentery and typhus in 1941-42 that claimed tens of thousands of victims. Chronic malnourishment coupled with strenuous hard labour and lack of medical care meant that Soviet prisoners of war remained susceptible to disease even in the latter phase of the war. Mortality stabilised at a high level.
The 'commissar order' of 6 June 1941 stipulated that political commissars in the Soviet army were to be '... immediately dispatched by force of arms' at the front. Many ended up in captivity nonetheless. In 1941-42, Sipo and SD killing squads conducted systematic 'filtering operations' to identify commissars and Jews held in prisoner of war camps. These prisoners were then removed from the camps and murdered. These screening inspections were discontinued on German territory in mid-1942. From then on, 'filtering' became subject to the decisions of the respective camp commandant. Camp commandants were given greater discretion in other cases as well. For example they could punish an escape attempt with simple disciplinary action, or they could have the prisoner turned over to the Gestapo. This tyrannical power also led to the death of many Soviet prisoners of war.
Of the approximately 5.7 million Red Army soldiers held as prisoners of war, about two-thirds did not survive German captivity.