Götterdämmarung – the twilight of the gods – Hitler’s parting legacy to the German people. Nothing was to be left for the victorious Allies: where there had been cities they would find rubble, where there had been cultivated fields they would find wilderness.
That the Führer and his henchmen came close to achieving this goal can be seen in the Herculean difficulties faced by Eisenhower and his command on the surrender of Germany. Agricultural production had virtually ground to a halt, while in urban centres millions had been bombed out of their homes and were living precariously on the edge of starvation. In the western zone the population was swelling daily, as an estimated 12-14.5 million persons fled Russian-occupied territory. The survivors of the Nazi concentration camps and sites of slave labour were also in desperate need of aid, as were thousands of newly-released Allied POWs.
Distribution of the limited stockpiles of available aid was severely constrained by the smashed state of Central Europe’s rail and transport infrastructure. In Germany, only 1,000km of 13,000km of railroad track remained in serviceable condition. With limited rations available and a wrecked infrastructure to deliver them on, the Western Allies were forced to make some tough choices, particularly concerning German and Axis prisoners of war.
Under the Geneva Convention, enemy POWs would have been entitled to a 2000-calorie per day diet, a level of supply would have been impossible to maintain given the circumstances. To side-step this ruling, it was decided to label the waves of incoming prisoners as ‘Defeated Enemy Forces’ or, in the British case, ‘Surrendered Enemy Personnel’. This action was taken from a purely pragmatic and legalistic point of view and not, as some commentators have suggested, from a concerted and systemic desire to punish the prisoners.
Well aware of the North American agricultural surpluses and how they could be used to alleviate the food crisis, Eisenhower had asked his superiors in Washington for assistance, but was turned down. The general was reminded that the bulk of Allied shipping was now earmarked for the Pacific theatre; only when the war in the Far East had been won would it revert to supplying the European continent with aid. In short, Eisenhower and his staff would have to get on feeding the hungry millions as best they could with limited resources already to hand.
At the start of April 1945, the USA was responsible for 313,000 prisoners in the European theatre. By the month’s end this had shot up to 2.1 million. After the fall of the Third Reich, the USA was responsible for a staggering 5 million surrendered German and other Axis prisoners. It is estimated that about 1% – 56,000 – of them died, a rate roughly equal to the mortality level American POWs suffered in German hands.
Given the vast numbers involved, the initial holding camps were often hasty creations. Cases of starvation instrumental in the death of prisoners were recorded, although the overall scale was small. Diseases, lack of tents and poor weather were other key factors in raising the mortality rate. It should be stressed, however, that the Western Allies ironed out most of the severe problems in a relatively short space of time.
For those in British and French hands repatriation was relatively slow, primarily because the POW had become a vital component within the workforce of these countries, particularly in the agriculture and reconstruction sectors.
A second factor in the slow return of German POWs was the Allied denazification programme, a gargantuan but necessary task that sought to screen the prisoners’ histories and to ascertain where their sympathies now lay. That said, hundreds of thousands of old men and young teenagers were sent home within a very short period of time due, quite simply, to their unimportance.
‘We were like yo-yos!’
The approach of analysing facts and figures – although illuminating – affords little idea of what is was like on ground level for those held behind the wire. Examining the records and recollections of witness may well afford us greater insight into the issues at hand.
One man who experienced detention at the hands of the British was Rudi Janssen. A young country lad, Rudi volunteered for service a year early aged just 17 in the first months of 1943 and was later called up to the Waffen SS, SS Police Division. His unit was sent to Greece, where he trained up as a signalman. As the fortunes of the Third Reich ebbed, Rudi was sent to join a Panzerjäger Abteilung unit being formed up in Prussia. Having contracted yellow jaundice, Rudi missed his unit’s baptism of fire in Hungary, where many lost their lives.
By early 1945, Rudi’s unit was stationed south of Stettin, about to face the Red Army’s final offensives into Nazi territory. One branch of their attack swung north and severed German units in the east – including Rudi’s – off from the rest of the Reich. Amazingly, morale was still high. ‘Most people at the time sincerely believed that a big offensive would be made and reverse the situation,’ Rudi recalled.
But it was not long before Rudi found himself fighting alongside the infantry; except he carried a radio on his back and was responsible for maintaining contact with higher command. Often the unit was used to retake villages that the regular army, the Wehrmacht, had been pushed out of. ‘They often used us to retake lost Wehrmacht positions: we were like yo-yos!’ Rudi exclaimed, adding that at this stage they ‘were losing a lot of people. Whenever we were sent in it was usually pretty hot’.
By now, according to Rudi, the Russians were making constant raids into what were considered ‘secure’ German positions. ‘They would come into the villages in which we were stationed. On one occasion – I wasn’t there, but it happened to a friend of mine – a Russian popped his head over a hedge and shouted “You’re being pulled back again!” They knew perfectly well they had us on the run.’
‘Materially, the Russians were superior to us as well. For example, they were shooting at individuals with anti-aircraft guns. They could afford to use up the ammunition,’ Rudi added.
Survival and capture
Pushed back to positions near the Bay of Danzig, Rudi's unit suffered a heavy barrage that lasted several days, while higher command attempted to get the unit evacuated. It was at this point, Rudi says, that the scales finally fell from their eyes: ‘We had started to take a beating. Now there was a real feeling of defeat, a resignation that it was the end. Indeed, I now wondered what they hell we were doing there.’
Those lucky enough to be evacuated were taken to positions on a nearby peninsula, although still within range of the Red Army’s guns. Here Rudi was wounded. His luck still holding, he was evacuated to the port of Rostock by fast boat. After several days in the city’s hospital, a doctor made the rounds one night and announced to the walking wounded that they should leave: the Russians would be arriving shortly.
Rudi and five other comrades went to a nearby station and jumped on a slow-moving goods train heading westwards. When this stopped in the middle of nowhere – the locomotive was detached from the carriages and continued off on its own – Rudi and a fellow comrade travelled on by foot until they arrived at Travermünde, near Lubeck, on May 3. Believing the Allies were still bogged down on the Western Front, the pair were shocked when a passer-by told them that British forces were only 4km away.
Rudi’s wound was now giving him greater difficulty and so he went to the town’s hospital, where he was told to stay in the waiting room. He decided to first head back to the river Trave, where he flung his machine pistol and paybook into its waters: ‘We didn’t know what our reception would be, particularly as we were SS’. Returning to the hospital and sitting in the waiting room he soon heard the approach of military vehicles. The British were coming.
After being searched by British soldiers for weapons, the German troops in the hospital were told to wait until further instructions. The British soldiers then promptly left and it was only until evening that an officer with an excellent command of German arrived with orders. He instructed the prisoners to stay the night in the cattle trucks of a stationary goods train. On the next day they were moved into a hotel.
After a few days, the British separated the SS men from the rest of the prisoners and sent them, including Rudi, to a newly-liberated concentration camp near Hamburg. After ten days or so, they were moved on to a large bordered-off zone in the Schleswig Holstein region. There was no accommodation.
‘We slept in farm buildings and in hay,’ Rudi recalled, adding ‘some had made temporary holes in the ground with a roof made of sticks and brush and covered with sods of turf. We were left to our own devices. As far as food was concerned we had to grab what we could. A lot of stealing was going on – we grabbed potatoes from the fields. Ears of corn were stripped off around the cornfields. Most survived.’
Eventually winding up in the village of Lensahn, the presence of British troops was a rarity and, when seen, usually drew a crowd of curious POWs. One day, a batch of British soldiers arrived and announced they were looking for volunteers from among the Germans. Rudi put his name forward and soon found himself working as a clerk processing the repatriation of others. Tellingly, those prioritised for return worked in agriculture or other areas of food production.
In early 1946, his job as a clerk over, Rudi was taken to Belgium and detained in a vast transit camp that held roughly 36,000 men. From February to April he did his best to get by, although he admitted the situation there was ‘rough’ and starvation rampant. ‘Every single man there was undernourished. We would get three biscuits a day and, very occasionally, a piece of bread. We were given what was supposed to be soup that was little more than greasy water. We lacked salt too.’
Famished and demoralized, there was one night when Rudi faced the threat of a nervous break down: ‘I thought I was going to go crazy. There were 16 of us in a tent and if one turned, all had to turn. I was bathed in perspiration. All I could think of was Montgomery saying that all SS men should receive 25 years. This thought of 25 years imprisonment was going round and round my head. I thought I was going to start screaming. And, if I did start screaming, I wondered how I would ever make myself stop. In the end I must have collapsed and I woke up the next morning as right as rain.’
On April 6, Rudi joined a detachment sent to England. Once in the UK the men were given hearty rations at a transit camp, which Rudi fondly remembered, saying ‘[It was] almost like a holiday camp to us. We could eat as much as we liked, which was fantastic as, by this stage, we were undernourished – skin and bone.’ One of Rudi’s fondest memories was of the porridge they served up: ‘It was like cream – and it even had fruit in it. To me, we were getting more food than I could possibly eat. Hunger can drive you mad: when people say “I’m starving” they really don’t know what hunger is. When there is nothing and you get nothing, well you can not describe these things in words really.’
Performing various jobs – including building repair work for the British Army – Rudi found the conditions not only acceptable, but as time passed, almost comfortable. In 1948, his last year of captivity, Rudi took up a British offer to extend his time in the UK as a farm labourer in return for regular pay and the opportunity to wear civilian clothes.
Posted to picturesque rural Surrey and now knowledgeable in English, Rudi felt himself integrated with the local community. When he returned to Germany in Christmas 1948 he took up another offer for former POWs to go back to Britain and continue working as agricultural labourers. Returning to Surrey in 1949, Rudi met an Irish girl at a dance and later married her.
Being a POW, despite some tough times at the start, had led to the happiest of conclusions.
Houses of the dead
Officially, the Soviet Union took 2,388,000 Germans and 1,097,000 combatants from other European nations as prisoners during and just after the war. Of the German captives, over one million died.
The harsh treatment of the POWs may fill Western readers with a sense of unease, but it should be stressed how bitter the war had been for the Soviet people. The immense pain and suffering Germany and her Axis partners had caused was seared onto their collective and individual psyche and this played a key role in the treatment of surrendered enemy forces. The British military historian Max Arthur writes: ‘In 1945, in Soviet eyes it was time to pay. For most Russian soldiers, any instinct for pity or mercy had died somewhere on a hundred battlefields between Moscow and Warsaw.’
Initially, Stalin’s regime was woefully ill equipped to deal with prisoners: in 1943 with the tide turning and more enemy units falling into Soviet hands, the NKVD (precursor to the KGB) recorded death rates of around 60% among POWs. Roughly 570,000 German and Axis prisoners, it noted, had already died in captivity. In March 1944, for economic rather than humanitarian reasons, there was a drive to try and improve conditions. As the manpower of the USSR became swallowed up by war, it became increasingly important to use the prisoners as a surrogate workforce.
Technically speaking, the prisoners were not part of the Gulag system, but the lines were often so blurred that even the Soviet authorities were hard pushed to delineate the boundaries. Camps and detainment centres for the POWs were created, although these were often poorly-constructed huts that allowed the bitter Russian winter winds all too easy access. Sometimes the buildings were more solid structures. Taken prisoner in the dying days of the war, Hans Schuetz in his memoirs Tell ‘em recalled how his first detention centre was a particularly grubby brick building that crawled with bed lice, their bites leaving many prisoners seriously weakened.
POWs known to have specialist knowledge, however, often found themselves sent to laboratories and workshops, as described in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s book The First Circle. Here food and conditions were decidedly ‘upmarket’. The Soviet Union sent back batches of prisoners at irregular intervals. Sometimes the numbers returned could be large: even as early June 1945, for example, 225,000 were released. By 1953 there were still at least 20,000 German POWs clutching onto life in Russia. After Stalin’s death these men were finally repatriated.
Prisoner of fate
There were some German and Axis prisoners that were fairly treated by the Russians. The conditions they experienced were tough, but no worse than many of the prison regimes to be found elsewhere in the world at that time.
A young teenager in 1939, Milan Lorman witnessed the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis and the creation of an independent Slovakia, a satellite state of the Third Reich. Milan’s father, a poor countryside teacher, took the opportunity to trace the family’s Germanic roots and claim the generous benefits offered by the Third Reich to those of German origin.
But it was not long before the Third Reich came looking for repayment.
In 1943, a letter arrived asking Milan’s father why his son, now 18 and of serving age, had not volunteered for the SS. The letter alluded to the cessation of the family’s entitlements should Milan fail to join up. Under great pressure, the teenager was forced accept the fate set in motion by his father. Despite thinking himself Slovakian through and through, he volunteered for the SS.
Following basic training, Milan became a Pioneer. His field engineer unit (with a fair smattering of Slovaks in its ranks) was sent to Greece to work on coastal fortifications – which were never used – and then on to the Eastern Front as the Red Army advanced towards the Reich.
By early 1945, however, Milan was forwarded to become an NCO and joined roughly 1,000 men on an intensive training programme. Towards the end of the course, news arrived that the Russians had broken through the defence lines at nearby Poznan (Posen). The trainee NCOs were quickly formed into unit and rushed to the Front. Casualties were extreme: of the 1,000 men in the unit at the start of operations, by April 18 1945 only 60 were left to fight in positions alongside a canal between the Rivers Oder and Neisse. By that afternoon, only 17 men were left. They were gathered up by a surviving Feldwebel who ordered them to make for headquarters: wherever they may be.
Cigarettes and bullets
Milan ran into a nearby forest and came out stumbling towards a group of around ten men standing in a shallow depression. The Slovak was glad to see them, thinking they were a detachment from a Hungarian unit that had been stationed on Milan’s left. He was wrong. They were Red Army soldiers.
The enemy was manning an MG position and they beckoned Milan on. When he reached them, the Russians were amazed to find that they had bagged a Slovak. They had also captured another soldier: a young White Russian. Whites were considered traitors and could either expect to be sent to the worst of the Gulags or – a swifter form of death – a bullet on the way to a holding camp.
Milan was asked if he had any cigarettes. The Slovak promptly handed over his stash and was pleased to see they gave some back. ‘I began to hope that I would survive after all. Surely they would not bother handing back cigarettes to a man if they were going to kill him?’
But the smoking break was suddenly interrupted by incoming fire from the nearby woods. A Russian NCO ordered Milan to stand up and call out for those shooting at them to surrender. Amazed that he could understand the Sergeant so well, the Slovak then quickly realised the danger he faced. He had two options: stand up and get shot, or refuse to carry out the order – and get shot, but at close range.
He jumped up, called out and was given a prompt burst of automatic gunfire by way of reply. Amazingly, only one bullet hit him, passing through his thigh. The NCO obviously felt a pang of guilt for Milan’s wounding and, after his unit disengaged from the area, he had the Slovak patched up and sent to an aid station. That night, Milan slept in a goat sty with other POWs.
On the next day, Milan witnessed a Red Army soldier playing with a golden duckling in the spring sunshine. When called to report to a nearby house, the man suddenly dashed the bird to the floor and crushed it dead under his boot heel. For Milan it was an eye opening and terrifying moment. He wrote: ‘I can not describe my feelings at the time. Words really and truly fail me. A little later, when the initial shock wore off, I told myself to be very wary of these people. From that day on I was determined to humour them and to avoid the fate suffered by the Beautiful Duckling.’
Milan was sent to a hospital in what was then called Schwiebus (now Swiebodzin). Housed in a disused factory, the hospital gave him a chance to recuperate. Milan and other German and Axis POWs were used as orderlies to help the wounded to the operating theatre, to clean up, and to bury those who had died. Every day saw at least one or two unfortunates laid to rest.
His wound fast healing, Milan recognised that remaining in the hospital, an oasis of calm, was vital for his chances of survival. He improved his language skills and became a translator, while also making the effort to become a familiar and friendly face with the staff. ‘I didn’t miss a single opportunity to strike up a conversation with one or another of the Russians,’ he recalled.
Unaware of the danger they faced, others were less willing to work with the Russians. One evening a German officer and his men bluntly refused to clean the hospital yard, stating it went against the Geneva Convention to work after the last meal of the day. Milan and around 20 others broke ranks and started to clean up, while those who had protested, including the officer, were promptly taken away – the Gulag probably being their next port of call.
In October 1945, a Russian major working at the hospital informed the Slovak that his group was to be returned home. He casually asked whether he should allow the SS men among them to also return. Milan recalled saying: ‘Why not? They also have homes to go to.’ The major knew well enough that Milan had been in the SS and, to an extent, had been toying with him. He agreed, however, with Milan’s reasoning and, on October 13, 1945, the Slovak was given his discharge certificate.
Stuck inside of solitary
Travelling with a friend, Milan headed west, aiming to reach his family’s last address, a house in an Austrian village. He had briefly visited this home in the province of Steiermark during a short spell of leave in late 1944.
On October 18, the two men arrived in the ravaged city of Berlin and headed into the French sector. His travelling companion was from Alsace-Lorraine and a French national. To continue with their journey they would need documentation and so both men went to a French military police station to file for the necessary paperwork. They were handcuffed and detained instead. On discovering the pair had been in the Waffen SS, the French threw Milan into solitary confinement in Tegel prison. The man from Alsace-Lorraine was taken elsewhere for questioning.
Stuck in a cell measuring 2 x 3.5 metres, Milan now had to contend with loneliness and lack of exercise. The months ground by without conversation, while the food was poor in quality and small in quantity. ‘The food we were given was not quite enough for survival, only for gradual dying… But, to be fair, few people even outside the prison gates were eating very much better. By the end of the first nine months of this existence my weight was down to 47kg (I was 181cm tall) and my morale was lower than the proverbial snake’s belly.’
Some work was provided, although it often proved mind-bendingly dull. On one occasion Milan recalled half-hearted attempts at making straw footwear. After nine months the authorities allowed him to communicate with other prisoners and to work in the cookhouse. Altogether, it took the French 16 months to realise that Milan was harmless and of no importance. Imprisoned aged 21, Milan was released on 19 February 1947, aged 23.
Free, but informed he was considered stateless by the Czechoslovakian authorities, Milan continued in his attempt track down his family. After a spell being processed in American hands in the former concentration camp of Dachau (giving Milan the unique experience of captivity as a POW in the hands of three nations in three years), he finally arrived at the family home in Austria.
They were long gone, having returned to Slovakia once the war had ended. It was to be many years before Milan could visit them and be properly reunited. Until then, Milan went to work in England and then headed off to Australia, a land of opportunity. However, he never forgot his Slovak roots and was even able to forgive his father for the mistakes that set his fate in motion.
Survival as a POW in Western Allied hands was tough, especially in the months just before and just after the Third Reich’s surrender. That some men died in captivity because of hunger and disease is sad, but primarily a knock-on effect of Hitler and his henchmen’s decision to lay the nation to waste. With limited food stocks to hand, the Allies had to direct supplies to where they were needed most. The younger and fitter prisoners were placed lower on the list of priorities until the situation improved, which, in a relatively short space of time, it did.
For some POWs captivity even brought benefits. In Britain, for example, many took the opportunity once freed to return to work in a civilian capacity and earn good money. Some, like Rudi, even found love.
By contrast, the Soviet system afforded none of these opportunities and the roles assigned to the POW often straddled the fine line between life and death. But in considering the trials and sufferings of German and Axis POWs, it is important not to lose sight of the misery and suffering of those who fell into the Nazi’s clutches. In German captivity, those that ‘made it’ only did so because they had survived against the odds to be liberated and nursed back to health.
And it is also important not to forget the millions of Soviet citizens, most of them innocent victims of a paranoid surveillance society, who were also fed into Stalin’s Gulags. They too had to fulfil the same backbreaking ‘norms’ and kow-tow to the same brutal guards. And while Axis and German prisoners had the chance to return – even when at times this seemed a bleak prospect – the marked peoples of the Soviet Union had nowhere to go.
Nevertheless, ex German and Axis POWs willing to speak of their war and immediate post-war experiences deserve attention. The small case studies in this article and a plethora within other sources, warn us of the folly, danger and destruction that extremism in war can bring. These accounts also illustrate the ample rewards that can be reaped by treating POWs firmly but fairly and then – through education and honest work – by extending the hand of forgiveness.
Bischof G and Ambroise S, Eisenhower and the German POWs: Facts against falsehood, Louisiana State University Press, 1990
Thousands of German POWs march towards captivity after the Normandy breakout.
Rudi Janssen in uniform; the teenager was keen to join up and leave his job as a banking apprentice.
Before the storm
Rudi in Greece, working as a signalman. It was not long before he was sent to the Eastern Front to face the final onslaught of the Red Army.
'Now there was a real feeling of defeat, a resignation that it was the end. Indeed, I now wondered what the hell we were doing there'
The lucky ones
German POWs helping on an English farm. In the partly-industrialised countryside, these men proved invaluable. Many, like Rudi, were asked if they wanted to come back in a civilian capacity.
Rudi as a civilian farm labourer in Surrey soon after gaining his freedom. He was now getting a fair wage and had just met the love of his life. Not bad going for an ex POW.
Hammer to fall
German prisoners in Russian captivity, summer 1944. For these men the gulag system awaits.
Wheel of fortune
The young Milan always considered himself Slovak through and through. His father's decision to claim German status unwittingly set the wheels of fate in motion for his son.
'Surely they would not bother handing back cigarettes to a man if they were going to kill him?'
Made stateless because of his SS service, Milan was able to leave the Old World behind and build a new life in the new world. Resident and proud to live in Australia, he never forgot his Slovak roots; he was also able to forgive his father's mistake in 'Germanising' the family.