Useless Mouths

BERLIN/MINSK | | belarus

BERLIN/MINSK (Own report) - 70 years after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the German Federal government is still denying the existence of concentration camps run by the Wehrmacht. Over the past four years, alone, the Republic of Belarus has "repeatedly" asked Berlin to recognize the Ozarichi death camp that had been established by the Nazi army as a concentration camp. The German side has regularly rejected this request by referring to ambiguous "judicial obstacles." The Wehrmacht established the Ozarichi Concentration Camp on marshlands in March 1944, where relatives of slave laborers, who had been deported to Germany, were held captive in the open without shelter. The prisoners, most of whom were elderly, sick or children, were considered "unfit to work" and therefore deliberately exposed to death by starvation and cold. Under these circumstances, more than 9,000 people died in just one week. The German army command considered this a success: "We don't need to supply food to useless mouths," declared the Wehrmacht command responsible for the death camp. German historians have called this "one of the worst crimes the Wehrmacht ever committed against civilians." However, the survivors of the Ozarichi concentration camp have never received reparations for their suffering.

Recognition Denied

According to information released by the Belarusian Justice Ministry, 70 years after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Germany is still refusing to recognize the Ozarichi death camp, which had been erected by the Nazi military, as a concentration camp. Since July 2006, the Belarusian Justice Ministry has "repeatedly" addressed this request to the German side, and always received the answer "that it is impossible due to legal obstacles." In March 2010, the German Foreign Ministry unexpectedly explained, "concentration camp lists had been compiled in cooperation with the International Tracing Service" of the Red Cross. The Belarusian Republic then applied to the International Tracing Service, simultaneously sending a letter to François Bellon, head of the ICRC’s regional delegation for the Russian Federation, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine, "requesting assistance in a thorough and timely consideration of the possibility of recognizing Ozarichi as a concentration camp. For the sake of the victims, the Justice Ministry will do "its utmost" in this matter, declared the Belarusian Justice Ministry.[1]

Nine Thousand Dead in a Single Week

The Ozarichi Concentration Camp was erected under orders of the Supreme Commander of the 9th German Army, Josef Harpe, in March 1944. Units of the 35th Infantry division under the command of Johann-Georg Richert, reinforced by the special commando of the 7-A SS Battle Group B herded at least 40,000 civilians into several barbed wire enclosed and mined pens south of the Belarusian city of Bobruisk.[2] The prisoners were mostly family members of slave laborers - children under thirteen, sickly, mothers with infants and elderly - people for whom the Wehrmacht had no usage. The guards had already shot at least 500 of them on their way to this improvised camp, because they were too weak to continue walking. The others, many of whom had caught typhus, had to survive in the open in the marshlands - defenseless against the cold, lacking medical aid, sanitation, drinking water and food. Within one week at least 9,000 more had died.[3] "There was a gate with barbed wire, small watch towers with soldiers and German shepherds, but nothing else," recalls the survivor Larisa Stashkevich, and explains further that anyone, who even attempted to light a campfire, was immediately gunned down. To at least be able to have a bit of warmth, she laid "behind the corpses" of murdered prisoners.[4]

A Nutritional Burden

With their deadly operation, the Wehrmacht command was first pursuing the objective of eliminating all those behind the front lines, classified "unfit for work" and considered a burden for the foreseeable retreat ahead of the Red Army. The March 8, 1944 entry in the war diary of the 9th Army explained: "For the zone close to the frontlines, it is planned (...) to bring all natives unfit for work to the area to be evacuated and leave them behind, in the retreat from the front, particularly the numerous typhus infected, who, to avoid their possibly contaminating the troops, had been sent to particular villages. The decision to rid ourselves of this nutritional burden in this way has (...) been reached after due consideration and examination of all possible consequences."[5]

Residential Areas Relieved

In their planning, the Wehrmacht commanders apparently had two other aspects under consideration. On the one hand, the sick and starving, to be left behind, were intended, if not to halt the advance of the Soviet army, then at least to slow it down, because the Soviet troops would, first, have to treat those mishandled by the Germans. Moreover, on the other, because of the large number left behind infected with typhus, there was a good chance that many Red Army soldiers would also catch typhus. In any case, the high command of the Ninth Army considered their action a total success: "the consolidation provided an essential relaxation over the entire battle area. Residential areas were relieved making space available for troops. No more provisions were made available for useless mouths. Removing the ill significantly reduced the source of infection."[6]

One of the Worst Crimes

Dieter Pohl, a historian at the Institute of Contemporary History (IfZ) in Munich, characterized the mass dying in the Ozarichi Concentration Camp as "absolutely one of the worst crimes the Wehrmacht ever committed against civilians."[7] Hans-Heinrich Nolte, a scholar for East European Studies, places the German military's actions in the general context of the German war of predation, exploitation and annihilation against the Soviet Union: "That crime corresponds to how the Wehrmacht treated Soviet prisoners of war in the winter 1941/1942, and had similarities to the starvation of Jews as well as those 'unfit to work' when (...) labor was forced into deportation to the Reich. In many aspects, the crime corresponds to the general character of the German war against the USSR, precisely in the wish of not feeding 'useless' people."[8] In spite of these assessments by renowned scholars, the German government still refuses reparations to the survivors of the Ozarichi Concentration Camp - pointing to current legal standards.

[1] Justizministerium von Belarus bittet den Internationalen Suchdienst, "Osaritschi" als ein KZ anzuerkennen; news.belta.by 15.04.2010
[2] The Scholar of East European Studies, Hans-Heinrich Nolte, made also reference to the commanding general of the 56th Armored Corps, Friedrich Hossbach, as another initiator of the Ozarichi Concentration Camp. Nolte, Hans-Heinrich, "Osarici 1944. in Gerd R. Ueberschaer (ed.) Orte des Grauens. Verbrechen im Zweiten Weltkrieg, ("Locations of Horror, Crimes in World War II") Darmstadt 2003. During the years 1934 - 1938, the career soldier, Friedrich Hossbach (1894 - 1980) served as Hitler's Wehrmacht Adjutant. With his appointment as Supreme Commander of the 4th Army in September, 1944, he reached the height of his military career. Hossbach was at the origin of the so-called Hossbach-Protocol (1937), which contained the essential German wartime objectives and plans. Hossbach was awarded a "Hitler-Endowment" of 50,000 Reichsmark. (Hermann Weiss (ed.) Biographisches Lexikon zum Dritten Reich. Frankfurt a. M. 1998; Ernst Klee: Das Personenlexikon zum Dritten Reich. Wer war was vor und nach 1945. Frankfurt a. M. 2005
[3] Hans-Heinrich Nolte schätzt die Zahl der Opfer auf mehr als 13.000; Hans-Heinrich Nolte: Osariči 1944. In: Gerd R. Ueberschär (Hg.): Orte des Grauens. Verbrechen im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Darmstadt 2003
[4] Als lebendes Schutzschild missbraucht; www.esslinger-zeitung.de 23.01.2010
[5], [6] Zitiert nach: Hans-Heinrich Nolte: Osariči 1944. In: Gerd R. Ueberschär (Hg.): Orte des Grauens. Verbrechen im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Darmstadt 2003
[7] Dieter Pohl: Die Herrschaft der Wehrmacht. Deutsche Militärbesatzung und einheimische Bevölkerung in der Sowjetunion 1941-1944. München 2008
[8] Hans-Heinrich Nolte: Osariči 1944. In: Gerd R. Ueberschär (Hg.): Orte des Grauens. Verbrechen im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Darmstadt 2003