In my collection, I have several photos of prisoners of war captured by Germans. Most of them are either columns of PoWs marching off to captivity, or of a few individuals who often even smiles at the camera. The photos express no ill will towards the captured enemies, and in some cases even curiosity and a certain respect. I know I might be projecting here, and that much is in the eye of the beholder, but then there are a handful of photos that make me ill at ease, as they seem to convey the photographer’s racism and sense of superiority.
People back in the first half of the 20th century were more racist then than most of us are today. The British and French had their colonies, and had no qualms about using Indians and Africans in battles far away from their home countries. The US Army was segregated, Afro-Americans thought to be too stupid to operate machinery like tanks. The Japanese perpetrated horrible war crimes against anyone they thought racially inferior, which was pretty much anyone not from Japan. The Germans, fed propaganda extolling the superiority of the “Aryan race” for years, went to war with the idea that they were the race that was entitled to Lebensraum – living space – that “lesser races” were unfit to occupy. This ideology was practiced in the East, starting with the idea that the Slavic peoples by and large were less worthy and in many cases Untermenschen (subhumans).
Coupled with unexpected successes in the beginning of Operation Barbarossa and the lack of planning to handle the enormous numbers of prisoners of war captured, this thinking resulted in the death of several million Soviet PoWs. What I find troubling with this photo is that in my mind, it expresses the German soldier’s view of this Russian. With his slightly crooked teeth, somewhat Asian features, dirty cap and rumpled uniform, as well as the perspective, this is pretty much the Nazi propaganda view of the Soviet subhuman that doesn’t have a place in the Thousand Year Reich. This soldier’s chance of surviving past the first year of captivity was minimal. No one knows his name, but now you’ve seen his face.
This photo, which is yet another by a soldier in Panzer-Pionier-Bataillon 49, shows a German and a French officer conferring while French PoWs assist German engineers in building a pontoon bridge across a small river.
About 1.8 million French soldiers were captured during the Battle of France, or about 10 % of the adult male population. Some were repatriated, but most were put in PoW camps, where they had to work for the Germans. Most of those camps were in France, but after repeated escapes, the majority were transferred to Germany and Eastern Europe. They had to perform agricultural and industrial work, as well as mining. Those who were repatriated, or managed to escape, or were released by the war’s end, found that it was hard being accepted back to French society. They weren’t even recognized as veterans until the 1950’s, which affected benefits they could’ve otherwise enjoyed.
In a way, the French PoWs were let down by their country twice. The errors by the military leadership caused the French defeat, not the purported cowardice of French soldiers ignorant people still like to joke about more than 75 years later. Then there were all the issues after the war. Few loves a loser, and the former PoWs, through no fault of their own, experienced what so many other soldiers in defeated armies had to live through.
“Vormarsch Stalingrad” is written on the back of this photo. Pressing east, the vehicles of Panzer-Pionier-Bataillon 49 pass a long column of Soviet prisoners of war, escorted by a few German guards. The Red Army lost about two million soldiers as PoWs alone during 1941. The German army wasn’t prepared to handle such vast numbers – the logistics system had problems getting supplies to the front as it was – and besides, Nazi racial policy called for the reduction of the Slavic peoples anyway. The result was that more than a million of the prisoners taken in 1941 didn’t survive. Some prisoners volunteered for German service in order to have a chance to survive. Meanwhile, political commissars were summarily shot.
The 10. Panzer-Division didn’t go to Stalingrad. It was withdrawn from the frontline in the spring of 1942 and sent to France for rest and refit. The final fate of the division lay elsewhere…
Luftwaffe soldiers meet French colonial troops, probably Algerian, taken prisoners of war during the campaign in the West, May-June 1940. While the photo conveys an air of curiosity and respect, colonial troops from North and West Africa were sometimes treated worse than white PoWs, all in accordance with Nazi racial policy. They were kept in special PoW camps under the pretext of preventing the spread of tropical diseases. Still, many of them were repatriated in 1941. Even when they were in the Vichy-controlled parts of France and its colonies, as well as when French territory had been liberated, the North Africans experienced discrimination by the authorities.