What motivated people to become gulag guards

Return in granite

Not much has remained: remains of the foundation, pieces of barbed wire - and a Hollywood film. The Nazi prisoner-of-war camp Stalag XVII B Krems-Gneixendorf was built 70 years ago. About "Kriegies", Typhus, Ruhr and "Russenbrot".

The numbers speak for themselves: of 5.7 million Soviet prisoners of war, 3.3 million perished in the “Third Reich”. A death rate of around 60 percent. That of the US and British prisoners of war was around one percent. The reasons for this: a targeted extermination of the “Slavic subhumans”, inhumane transports, chronic malnutrition, catastrophic medical care, epidemics. The Soviets were at the bottom of the racially and ideologically motivated prison hierarchy. They were only given the leftovers from the leftovers or a specially prepared "Russian bread" made from sawdust. The provision and accommodation in the prisoner-of-war camps in the "Ostmark" was no exception. The largest of them was the Stalag XVII B Krems-Gneixendorf.

From May to July 1941, the Wehrmacht High Command issued several orders that seriously violated the principles of international martial law. The “Guidelines for the Conduct of the Troops in Russia” and the “Commissar's Order” make one thing particularly clear: the war against the Soviet Union was a war of ideology from the start. The reason given was that the USSR had not signed the 1929 Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War.

The specially issued “guidelines” formed the basis for the troops' appearance in the “east”. In the fight against the “mortal enemy of the German people”, “ruthless and energetic crackdown on Bolshevik agitators, militants, saboteurs and Jews” was called for. Accordingly, every form of “active or passive” resistance had to be “completely eliminated”.

On June 6, 1941, the "Commissar Order" followed. Here the elimination of the most elementary rules of international law - prisoners of war should be treated with humanity - comes to light even more clearly: Soviet political commissioners were "to be dealt with immediately with the weapon" on the battlefield. Because they were considered to be the "originators of barbaric Asian fighting methods".

To accommodate the prisoners of war, the Wehrmacht set up a close-knit network of prisoner-of-war camps in the occupied territories and in the Reich. In September 1941 there were 127 of these camps in the “Third Reich” - almost every one of them became a place of suffering and death for Soviet prisoners. This also includes the majority of the camps in what was then "Ostmark".

A total of eleven of these prisoner-of-war team main camps (Stalag) and officers camp (Oflag) were located on Austrian territory, in the two military districts XVII and XVIII: in Kaisersteinbruch, Krems-Gneixendorf, Pupping, Edelbach, Wolfsberg, Spittal an der Drau, Markt Pongau, Lienz, Wagna and in Marburg. The name resulted from the Roman numeral of the responsible military district, a capital letter and the name of the next town. The largest of them was the Stalag XVII B Krems-Gneixendorf. A multinational warehouse with a clear hierarchy. At times there were 66,000 prisoners of war: French, Belgians, Serbs, Poles, British, Soviets and Italian military internees. The majority of them were housed on one of the many work detachments.


From the Dulag to the Stalag

The camp was founded 70 years ago: In September 1939, a transit camp (Dulag) was set up on the area of ​​several hectares. The conversion to the Stalag took place just a month later. For the confiscated fields, the landowners received goods in South Moravia, among other things.

In October 1943, a "Luftwaffe sub-camp" was also set up in Gneixendorf: for 4,300 US aviator NCOs. About a quarter of them showed injuries on their arrival at Stalag XVII B, which resulted from the crash of their aircraft. According to the Geneva Convention of 1929, they were not forced to work as non-commissioned officers. The "Kriegies" founded a camp school and a theater, played poker, played sports, published a camp newspaper, planned escape attempts, wrote poems, drew or tried "goon baiting" to escape boredom. Their supplies were also secured through food parcels from international aid organizations, which provided them with food, books and sports equipment.

Soviet prisoners of war were exempt from supporting such facilities. Work also had an entirely different role. Even before the attack on the USSR, the expected "Soviet Russians" had not planned to work. After all, the National Socialists did not want to bring any Slavic “subhumans” into the Reich or to keep them alive in a targeted manner. After the German attack on the USSR, the focus was initially on the economic burden of the “useless eaters”. This argument justified the intention to destroy. As a result, more than half of the approximately 3.5 million Soviet prisoners of war in 1941 died, 1.4 million of them before the beginning of December.

Mortality was also high in Stalag XVII B Krems-Gneixendorf in the winter of 1941/1942: the Soviets who had arrived were emaciated, and many suffered from dysentery. A typhus and typhus epidemic broke out in December. The whole area was quarantined. Four French Jewish prisoners of war took care of the sick. One of them lost his life on New Year's Eve. He was infected by a needle. 700 Soviet prisoners of war died within a month as a result of the epidemic. Their corpses were placed in mass graves in the forest cemetery.

The situation should only slowly improve. Purely pragmatic reasons were decisive for the turning point in the thinking of the Nazi ideologues: They urgently needed workers. However, in February 1942, only just under eleven percent could be used for the "Russian deployment". The rest were too sick or too weak. By August 1944, a third of the Soviet prisoners were integrated into the war economy: To a certain extent, “exploitation” had triumphed over the Nazi intention to exterminate.

Use in agriculture in particular was a welcome opportunity to escape the dreary camp. The prisoners' clothing was marked with the letters "SU" as an abbreviation for "Soviet Union". Dmitrij Čirov describes this in his memoirs, the only one of a former Soviet prisoner of war from Krems-Gneixendorf: “'Skoro ubegu‘ -' Soon I will flee, we deciphered this visible sign with bitter irony. Because where and how far can you flee with wooden slippers? ”But the prisoner of war, who was born in Kazakhstan in 1921, was lucky: he came to a wine grower in Gedersdorf in Lower Austria and survived.

The “Russians” in the Krems-Gneixendorf camp could only have dreamed of artistic or sporting activities. They were even forbidden to write letters. There was neither paper nor pencil in the camp, not even deliveries from aid organizations such as the International Red Cross. First, because the Detaining Power did not want that. Second, because the prisoners of war were viewed as traitors to the fatherland in their own homeland.

In the notorious Order No. 270 of the High Command of the Red Army of August 16, 1941, Stalin held members of the Red Army responsible for their capture. The order ordered the fight to the last drop of blood. Suicide is preferable to imprisonment. Otherwise, those who, instead of dying a heroic death, let themselves be captured by the Nazis would face punishments along with their family members.

On Stalin's orders, a network of “testing and filtration camps” was set up towards the end of the war, in which the Soviet secret service interrogated freed prisoners and forced laborers and decided on their future fate - such as being sent to a Gulag camp.

In the USA, the Stalag XVII B developed into one of the most famous prisoner-of-war camps of the Second World War. The reason for this does not lie in the extensive memorial literature or the annual meetings of the former inmates, but in Hollywood: In the authentic camp, two US prisoners wrote the play "Stalag 17" about life behind barbed wire. In part, it was based on real events. After the war ended, the play was performed on Broadway - and was a huge success.

Billy Wilder happened to be attending a performance. Based on this play, he shot his film "Stalag 17" in 1953 with William Holden in the lead role, which received an Oscar for its portrayal. Wilder's film served as a template for the 168 episode TV soap “Hogan's Heroes”, whose producers lost a lengthy plagiarism procedure. And the striking opening scene with an ultimately unsuccessful escape attempt by two prisoners of war can be found as a quote in the cartoon "Chicken Run".


Barracks demolished as early as 1945

The Stalag XVII B is now invisible at first glance. In 1945, a few months after the evacuation of the walking prisoners of war towards Braunau and the liberation on May 9, 1945 by the Red Army, the barracks were demolished. The locals used the building material down to the last brick. Only on closer inspection can traces be seen on the former camp area: pieces of barbed wire, a small forest in which the “forest cemetery” with around 1640 Soviet prisoners of war was, remains of foundations. The access road to the Gneixendorf sports airport is lined with several memorial stones. A few years ago, the Krems artist Christian Gmeiner attached iron panels to the corner points, which - now rusty red - illustrate the dimensions of the former warehouse.

And memories, of course. Older locals have - often hidden - reminiscences of the camp, of "their Belgian" who worked on the farm. Yellowed photos, handicrafts or "Wartime logs" thrown away during evacuation form an integral part of private collections. In many of the villages where prisoners of war were used, they also left descendants, often disrespectfully referred to as "French children". Affected women were shaved or imprisoned for their "violation of the healthy public sentiment". Sometimes former inmates and their family members also visit the area, embark on a journey into the past. In 1995, “We did return” had a group of former American “waries” carved into granite. The stone memory fights against the increasing forgetting of this aspect of the Nazi era. ■

("Die Presse", print edition, December 5th, 2009)