Permitted under International Law


BERLIN (Own report) - The German government is still refusing reparations to Soviet prisoners of war, seventy years after the German invasion of the Soviet Union. This refusal is in spite of the fact that hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers were held in camps similar to concentration camps and were forced to do slave labor for German agricultural and industrial enterprises under deadly conditions. Even though the Foundation "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future," founded by Berlin in 2000, envisaged reparations for surviving slave laborers, Red Army prisoners of war as well as "Italian military detainees" were excluded from the defined scope of application of this foundations act. German courts have always dismissed lawsuits of reparation claims brought by surviving Soviet POWs - with the argument that "slave labor was permitted under international law."

Conditions Similar to Concentration Camps

The historian Ulrich Herbert discovered that during World War II, up to twelve million people had been deported from their Wehrmacht occupied homelands to Germany, where they had been detained in camps. By the end of the war, most of them found themselves still on the territory of the former German Reich and were classified by the allies under the catch-all term "Displaced Persons" (DPs). They included around six million so-called alien workers, more than half of whom were from Poland and the Soviet Union. They, for the most part, had been deported to Germany as laborers. In addition, approx. 750,000 concentration camp inmates - more than 90 percent non-Germans – had been sent mainly to work in the arms industry under murderous conditions. The DPs also included approx. two million prisoners of war, who were also used as slave labor in industry and agriculture. The largest portion of these were soldiers of the Red Army, the French and the Italian military.[1] In 1944 alone, more than 600,000 Soviet POWs were forced into slave labor in the "Greater German Empire." They had been imprisoned in conditions similar to those of the concentration camps, under persistent death threats and deadly harassment by their German "employers." If they had been fed at all, then very insufficiently. And yet, they have never received reparations for their suffering at the hands of the German side.[2]

Half a Turnip Daily

The former Soviet soldier, Vladimir Ivanovich Margevski, from the region of Zhytomyr in the Ukraine, recounts his experiences as a prisoner of war of the Germans. "Once a day, we ate dried turnips and greens. We were doing hard, dangerous work in the fertilizer factory in the city of Beuthen, at the Bobrik train station, which also produced carbide. I will not mention here all the humiliation, which is still painful. Neither French, nor Serb, Italian, Czech and Polish POWs were treated as cruelly as we Russians. When the Germans started their retreat, we were put out in the winter like dogs, with nearly nothing to wear and barefoot. They gave us half a turnip daily to eat. En route we were locked into stalls like sheep. I will not say more. My heart bleeds, when I think back on those horrors. I, myself, am surprised that I survived at all and am still alive."[3] Renowned historians estimate that the number of Soviet soldiers, who had been killed in Wehrmacht captivity was nearly three million. In a recent study, the historical scholar Wigbert Benz writes that their "number 1 cause of death" was starvation.[4]

Definition Exclusion

Reparations for Soviet prisoners of war, at least for those among them, who performed slave labor, have been strictly refused by the German side. Though the Foundation "Remembrance, Responsibility, Future" (EVZ), created in 2000 by the German government, foresaw the payment of reparations to the surviving slave laborers, Soviet prisoners of war along with "Italian military detainees" were excluded from the defined scope of application of this foundations act. Their deportation to Germany and the ensuing slave labor in industry and agriculture, it is argued, was legal under the laws of war ("ius in bello") in force at the time, explained the international jurist, Christian Tomuschat in an expertise for the German government.[5] The foundation act had been formulated accordingly. Article 11, Paragraph 3 of the act stipulates, "prisoner of war status is no grounds for reparations claims."[6]

Murdered through Work

Attempts by Soviet POW survivors to have their claims of reparations honored through lawsuits have always seen their cases dismissed by German courts. As the lawyer, Stefan Taschjian explained in an interview with, sometimes the courts argued with the EVZ-Foundation Act or, if they were prepared to pay reparations at all, only to the surviving Soviet soldiers who had been held in Nazi concentration camps. Therefore, according to Taschjian, "95 percent of the former Soviet POWs are excluded from any form of reparations," since they were in the Wehrmacht's "Stalags" or POW camps. It was this justification for refusing reparations that was so "bewildering," says Taschjian. "The conditions of incarceration in the Stalags were often worst than those in concentration camps. Fifty-five percent of the Soviet prisoners were deliberately murdered through work." Besides, explains Taschjian, in German courts, slave labor still is considered "permissible under international law."[7]

[1] Ulrich Herbert: Nicht entschädigungsfähig? Die Wiedergutmachungsansprüche der Ausländer. In: Ludolf Herbst/Constantin Goschler (Hg.): Wiedergutmachung in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. München 1989
[2] Dietrich Eichholtz: Zwangsarbeit in der deutschen Kriegswirtschaft. In: Ulrike Winkler (Hg.): Stiften gehen. NS-Zwangsarbeit und Entschädigungsdebatte. Köln 2000
[3] KONTAKTE - KONTAKTY e. V. (Hg.): "Ich werde es nie vergessen". Briefe sowjetischer Kriegsgefangener 2004-2006. Berlin 2007
[4] Wigbert Benz: Der Hungerplan im "Unternehmen Barbarossa" 1941. Berlin 2011. Siehe auch unsere Rezension
[5] Peer Heinelt: Die Entschädigung der NS-Zwangsarbeiterinnen und -Zwangsarbeiter;
[6] Gesetz zur Errichtung einer Stiftung "Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft";
[7] s. dazu unser Interview mit Rechtsanwalt Stefan Taschjian