On this date in 1944, Wehrmacht Oberst Rudolf Körpert, his deputy Hauptmann Carl Frister, and officers Fritz Müsenthin, Otto Mäder, Richard Seidlitz and Kurt Wohlfarth, were shot in the Soviet Union for their treatment of Russian prisoners of war at Stalingrad.
This was nearly two years on since the Germans had surrendered the eastern front’s horrific signature battle.
The six captured men were principals at the little-known Dulag-205, a transit camp the Wehrmacht erected at Stalingrad for Soviet prisoners of war pending westward deportation to less extemporaneous prisons. (And less extemporaneous mistreatment.)
A minuscule 10 acres, the camp was eventually crammed with up to 3,400 prisoners, triple its anticipated capacity. There was nowhere to send them once the Germans were fatally encircled, and as supplies failed in the last terrible weeks of the besieged Kessel (“cauldron”), the subsistence prisoner rations of putrefying-horseflesh soup were cut off entirely.
Several dozen dropped dead of starvation, overwork, and summary execution each day thence until the merciful end. When the Red Army finally took control of the camp on Jan. 22, 1943, it discovered corpses with obvious signs of cannibalism.
Frank Ellis has the definitive treatment of this affair in “Dulag-205: The German Army’s Death Camp for Soviet Prisoners at Stalingrad” (Journal of Slavic Military Studies, March 2006), and the facts in this posts are drawn from Ellis’s examination of the Dulag-205 interrogation and trial records.*
The rescued Soviet soldiers — who were themselves suspect in the eyes of Stalinist authorities merely for having been captured — provided ample firsthand corroboration of Dulag-205’s miserable conditions.
“The guards were allowed to shoot without any warning at prisoners who approached the barbed wire barrier, who tried to jump the queue for food and at prisoners who tried to have a piss in the wrong place,” one POW told his Soviet interrogators. “Hardly any water or bread was given to the prisoners. The prisoners slept in the dugouts without any bedding, jammed tight. The prisoners were never able to rest since they had to sleep standing and sitting. … There were no baths in the camp. During my whole time in the camp — about 5 months — I did not wash once.”
Moscow had by this time already begun rolling out war crimes trials relating to the German invasion. The guys who were captured with starving Red Army prisoners cannibalizing one another were going to be a prime target.
The subaltern officers, according to Ellis, generally tried to put the blame on Körpert and further up the chain of command, and understandably so. Mäder was a mere adjutant. Siedlitz was the director of camp construction. They weren’t the ones who got the Sixth Army encircled or cut prisoner rations or even made camp-specific decisions like when to set the dogs on a disobedient captive. They had no ability to transfer the prisoners back to the Soviets or to any less horrible detention on their side of the lines. Otto Mäder:
My service in the Dulag was a great spiritual torment for me. It was dreadful to see the terrible condition of Russian prisoners.
I stand before the court at that time when the main culprits responsible for the death of 3,000 Soviet prisoners — Field Marshall Paulus, the army’s chief-of-staff, General Schmidt, Lieutenant-Colonel Kunowski and the army quartermaster — do not stand before the court. They are not only guilty of the death of Soviet prisoners-of-war, but have put us on the accused’s bench!
You’d expect the guy to say that to a Soviet tribunal, certainly — especially a lawyer, which Mäder was also — but that doesn’t make it untrue. This case was actually evaluated in post-Soviet Russia for possible posthumous rehabilitation. (No dice.)
Intriguingly, the Wehrmacht officers were not tried for violations of the Geneva Conventions; indeed, the USSR had not ratified all of the Geneva Conventions, and this put Germany (which had ratified them) in an ambiguous position relative to its non-ratifying belligerent. (A less kind way to say it might be that the difference served to rationalize dreadfully inhumane treatment.)
Rather, Körpert et al were charged under Soviet laws promulgated only after the Battle of Stalingrad, a sketchy maneuver which Ellis thinks suggests that prosecutors hoped to avoid setting a precedent that could be cited by Germany relative to the USSR’s none-too-gentle treatment of its own prisoners of war.
* Ellis also has a topical recent book out, The Stalingrad Cauldron: Inside the Encirclement and Destruction of the 6th Army.
On this day..
- 1998: Jeremy Vargas Sagastegui - 2020
- 1941: Bronislava Poskrebysheva - 2019
- 1762: James Collins, James Whem, and John Kello - 2018
- 1960: Tony Zarba, anti-Castro raider - 2017
- 1871: James Wilson, steely burglar - 2016
- 1909: Francisco Ferrer, martyred teacher - 2015
- 1990: The October 13 Massacre - 2014
- 1933: Morris Cohen, medicine-taker - 2012
- 1864: Ranger A.C. Willis, parabolically - 2011
- 1846: William Westwood, aka Jackey Jackey - 2010
- 1815: Joachim Murat, Napoleonic Marshal - 2009
- 1660: Major-General Thomas Harrison, the first of the regicides - 2008