Breaking Down Soviet WWII Losses
Likeliest Soviet war dead in the Soviet-German War of 1941-1945 may at present be estimated as 25.3 million people. Of this the loss of 1.5 million is attributable to Soviet state repression leaving 23.8 million deaths of Soviet citizens due to war and occupation. The circumstances of these deaths are extremely varied. The largest groups of victims are soldiers who died on the frontlines (7.25 million) and civilians who died of malnutrition and disease. Including 3.1 million deaths among Soviet prisoners of war in German custody the Soviet Union sustained up to 11 million military deaths. The Soviet population suffered over 14.3 million civilian deaths, of which 7.6-8 million due to general privation induced by the war and occupation, 2.55 million in the Jewish Holocaust, 1 million in prisons and colonies and camps of the gulag, 0.9 million in the siege of Leningrad and an estimated 650,000 in German anti-partisan reprisals, and more in other circumstances. The Germans and the Axis caused some 15.7 million deaths among Soviet civilians and combatants they had already captured and disarmed. Discounting the deaths of Soviet citizens fighting against the USSR the Soviet Union caused roughly 1.7 million deaths among its civilian population and servicemen in the military.
Table of Contents
1. The Total Losses of Soviet Union in the Soviet-German War
2. Wartime Deaths Due to Soviet Repression
3. Deaths of Combatants due to Combat, Accidents and Disease
4. Deaths of Soviet Prisoners of War and Forced Laborers
5. The Holocaust, Anti-Partisan Reprisals and the Siege of Leningrad
6. Other War-Related Violent Deaths
7. Indirect Deaths Due to Privation Induced by the War and the Occupation
1. The Total Losses of Soviet Union in the Soviet-German War
The most widely used figure of Soviet losses in the Soviet-German war is 26.6 million. This number stems from the report of an expert commission set up under Gorbachev which found that 26-27 million is the most accurate estimate of Soviet losses during the war, with 26.6 million being a good possible point estimate (1). Specifically the calculated losses refer to the period from 22.6.1941 to 1.1.1946 and are based on expected mortality rates as they were recorded for 1940.
The figure has its detractors, including those who posit the actual number of losses is significantly greater, as well as those who assert the real figure is lower. Perhaps the most well known personality to posit higher figures is Boris Sokolov who asserts that a far higher figure of 43.4 million dead is the true cost of the war for the Soviet Union. Perhaps the most notable critic of the semi-official 26.6 million figure is Viktor Zemskov who comes on the other side of the debate, and maintains the lower, pre-Gorbachev figure of 20 million dead is the most accurate estimate to date (2).
Even so, the 26-27 million figure is cited extensively, ad verbatim, or with minor reservations and adjustments both in the former Soviet space and in the West and it is mostly accepted that Gorbachev’s commission had done a conscientious and generally capable job in establishing this figure as the best estimate of Soviet wartime losses.
Nonetheless there are important issues connected not to the figure itself, but to its interpretation. First of all the figure is regularly taken as an estimate of excess deaths, when it is actually an estimate of excess population loss, including due to emigration (3). Secondly it does not include all deaths caused by the war. It leaves out the number of people who died of war-related causes, if they would have died in this timeframe anyway, but of other causes. Thirdly, it includes most, but not all, deaths due to Soviet repression. It includes only repression deaths from the timeframe beyond the number of deaths expected to occur based on the rate of mortality due to repression in 1940.
Thus the 26.6 million figure does not actually equal the figure of Soviet war dead. It is instead merely the best starting point to establish such an estimate. To get total Soviet war dead the 26.6 million figure of excess population loss should be reduced by the estimated migration deficit of the Soviet Union, increased by the number of non-excess, seemingly normal deaths that are actually war-related and finally either increase it for the number of repression deaths expected to occur in the 4.5 year period based on 1940 mortality due to Soviet state repression, or else decrease it by the estimated additional repression deaths beyond the expected rate – depending on whether one is interested in total Soviet war dead including deaths attributable to Soviet wartime repression, or else only the deaths directly due to war and occupation.
The most detailed calculation of Soviet migration balance for the war and its immediate appears to have been produced by the Dutch and the émigré Soviet scholar, Michael Ellman and Sergei Maksudov. The pair estimates an emigration deficit of 2.7 million for the period. The figure is justified by migration currents given as 2.3 million Poles transferred to Poland, 0.4 million Germans transferred to Germany, 0.3 million Jews emigration to Israel and 0.5 million all-union migration to the West, offset partially by 0.6 million Ukrainians transferred from Poland, 0.1 million Armenian immigrants and 0.1 million Russian immigrants from Manchuria and Europe (4). Inasmuch as the 2.7 million estimate of net emigration balance is the best available then the best point estimate of Soviet wartime excess deaths is not 26.6 million, but instead 23.9 million.
The flaw of taking estimated excess deaths beyond the expected rates among the Soviet population to be the same as the estimate of deaths caused by the war was first pointed out by the British historian Michael Haynes. This would actually mean leaving out the number of people who died of war-related causes, if they would have otherwise died in this timeframe anyway, but of other causes. This is easy to understand if one imagines a person who would have otherwise died in 1944 of old age, but instead fell victim to war-induced malnutrition in 1942. The death of such a person would have slipped under the radar as a “normal” death. It would not contribute to the figure of excess wartime deaths, though it occurred in the relevant timeframe and was caused by the war (5).
British economic historian Mark Harrison seized upon this and established there were between zero and 1.9 million of such non-excess but war-related deaths, with a figure somewhat above the mid-point being the most likely. 0.95 million being the mid-point 1.1 million will be understood as the most likely number of such deaths (6).
As will be substantiated later in this article the number of Soviet citizens who died in this timeframe due to Soviet state repression may be estimated at 1.5 million. Based on the lower occurrence of death due to Soviet repression in 1940, however, only 300,000 repression deaths were expected to occur in the 4.5 years from mid-1941 through 1945 (7). This means 1.2 million repression deaths are excess deaths encompassed in the 26.6 million excess population loss, but the expected 300,000 deaths due to repression are not.
The 26.6 million figure of excess population loss is composed of an estimated 2.7 million net emigration balance, 1.2 million repression deaths in excess of the expected level of mortality due Soviet repression and 22.7 million excess deaths due to war and policies of the enemy. It does not encompass 1.1 million war-related deaths of people who would have died in the timeframe anyhow, but at a later date and of different causes and 0.3 million repression deaths that are not in excess of 1940 levels.
The total Soviet population loss in the war is actually 28 million of which 2.7 million is due to emigration. The total war dead is 25.3 million of which 1.5 million is due to Soviet state repression and 23.8 million is due to war and the occupation.
2. Wartime Deaths Due to Soviet Repression
The Soviet Union under Stalin engaged in repression of its citizens on a vast scale. Its repression was deadly and resulted in numerous deaths, even when the state had not explicitly set out to cause the death of those it repressed. What is more, the four years of the Great Patriotic War were characterized by a sharp increase in the scale of repression and the occurrence of deaths of repressed persons relative to most peacetime years under Stalin, including the immediate pre-war time.
Archival data shows the gulag administration in the years 1941 through 1945 presided over the deaths of 1.02 million inmates of whom 622 thousand prisoners in labor camps of the gulag, 312 thousand in labor colonies of the gulag and 85 thousand in prisons. The total number of deaths the gulag was responsible for in this time frame may be even higher on the account of deaths among former inmates who died after their release but as a consequence of the conditions they had been subjected to during their imprisonment (8).
During the war mortality among the inmates of the gulag increased sharply so that one half of those who perished in the gulag did so in the war years, particularly between 1941 and 1943 and mainly of malnutrition-related causes. German invasion of the USSR caused food shortages everywhere in the Soviet Union, however, malnutrition and the consequent mortality in the gulag was much more severe than among free Soviet citizens in the unoccupied USSR.
The most proximate cause of the crisis for the inmates of the gulag was that they were being kept imprisoned, mostly unjustly, with little access to food, not that the Germans had invaded the Soviet Union and caused a general shortage of food. Had the regime released the inmates it was unable to feed they would have stood a far better chance of surviving than they did in the camps. This would have only benefited the war effort as a gulag inmate was only half as productive as a free laborer.
Internal Exile and the Labor Army
Another major category of Soviet citizens who suffered lethal repression at the hands of the Soviet regime during the war were deportees in internal exile. Deportees were usually stripped of their civic freedoms, lost most of their property and were often dumped in some of the most inhospitable parts of the Soviet Union – condemned to live in “special settlements” that often did not yet exist and they would first have to build themselves. Besides performing labor in their colonies the exiles were routinely lent out to industries as unfree labor, or else, during the war, conscripted into the Labor Army.
The exile groups experienced a far higher rate of mortality compared to the rest of the Soviet population, particularly in the first several years of their exile. As they gradually settled into their new environments their mortality rates decreased and eventually normalized. Both because they gradually succeeded in improving their circumstances, and because by this time most of their infirm, who were the most likely not to survive the exile, had already died off. Indeed the Australian historian Stephen Wheatcroft has shown that mortality of kulak exiles, who were mainly deported in the early 1930s, by 1938 no longer exceeded mortality among the general population (9).
This means that excess wartime deaths among deportees likely occured almost exlusively among the exiles deported in subsequent national deportations, particularly among the exile contingents deported during the war itself, but also those exiled immediately before the war and in the late 1930s. During the war some 2.4 million people were deported in the wholesale deportations of Germans and Finns in 1941 and of Karachais, Kalmyks, Chechens, the Ingush, Balkars, Crimean Tatars and Meshketian Turks in 1943 and 1944. Additionally 380 thousand people were deported in 1940 and the first half of 1941, as well as 240 thousand in 1936-1939, and 465 thousand in 1935.
The Russian-Karachai scholar D.M. Ediev has calculated that up to 1952 there were 474 thousand excess deaths among the nine nationality groups deported wholesale during the war, including 247 thousand among exiled Germans and Finns and 226 thousand among Karachais, Kalmyks, Chechens, the Ingush, Balkars, Crimean Tatars and Meshketian Turks .
From this starting point it may be estimated that deportations, banishment and unfree service in the Labor Army caused the deaths of some 300,000 internal exiles during the war. This presupposes that one half, or 240 thousand, of the total loss of the deportees deported during the war occurred before 1.1.1946, and that there were several tens of thousand of additional deaths during the war among exiles deported in 1940-41 and the late 1930s. This figure is roughly in line with the estimate of the The Cambridge History of Russia which estimates a somewhat smaller number of 250,000 deportee deaths.
It is well documented that in 1941 through 1945 civilian courts in the USSR sentenced to death 22,572 people for criminal offenses and 42,149 people for political offenses.
Additional executions occurred in the context of NKVD prison massacres in 1941 in the western USSR. Due to the speed of the initial German advance across USSR territory and the existing demands on the Soviet transportation system the Soviet authorities found it impossible to evacuate the prisons lying in the path of the Germans in time. Rather than leave them to the enemy the center ordered local NKVD guards to evacuate some categories of prisoners, release others and execute still others. Subsequently the NKVD massacred about 8,789 inmates in prisons in Ukraine and 530 in Belarus, an additional 940 prisoners during the evacuations from these prisons, and an unknown number in the prisons in Baltic republics and western Russia. The number executed in such circumstances is therefore not fully certain, however, the losses among the prisoner population that were sustained in this way are counted in the 85 thousand wartime losses among the prison population as it is.
Furthermore, 135,00 Red Army men were executed after a court martial. The research conducted in the pertinent archives by the Russian scholar G.F Krivosheev, shows that Soviet military tribunals passed sentences against 994 thousand soldiers, of whom 423 thousand were transferred to penal battalions, 436 thousand were imprisoned and the remaining 135,000 were shot.
In summary, during the Soviet-German war of 1941-45 there were around 1.5 million deaths of Soviet citizens due to repression of the Soviet authorities. These encompass the 1 million deaths among the captive population in the gulag and the prisons, 200 thousand condemned to death and executed of whom 65 thousand civilians and 135 thousand military, as well as roughly 300 thousand internal exiles who perished during the war as a consequence of deportations and conscription into the labor army.
3. Deaths of Combatants due to Combat, Accidents and Disease
G.F. Krivosheev has established that Soviet records indicate the Red Army and the NKVD sustained 8.67 million irrecoverable demographic losses in the Soviet-German War. This is probably the most widely cited figure for Soviet military losses in WWII particularly in Russia, but also in the West. It is the case, however, this figure is not actually synonymous with deaths among Soviet military persons.
First of all Krivosheev himself points out his estimate refers only to losses from listed strength. They do not include losses among 500,000 reservists who were called to service in the first days of the war, but were captured by the enemy before they could be integrated into their units and by and large perished in Wehrmacht’s POW camps in 1941-42.
Even more importantly Krivosheev’s figures permit just 1.1 million deaths from listed strength to have taken place in German POW camps. He estimates the Red Army and the NKVD lost 4,059,000 men from listed strength captured. Of these he maintains 1,836,000 were repatriated after the war and 939,700 were re-taken on strength before the end of the war and nearly 180,000 managed to avoid repatriation and emigrate. This leaves a difference of 1,103,000 who perished in German custody.
German historiography, however, has established that a far greater number of Soviet POW died in such circumstances. The lowest figure given is at least 2.5 million, with usually figures above 3 million being cited. It is the case that numerous reservists en route to their units, militiamen and members of various Soviet paramilitary formations, as well as simple civilians of fighting age were captured as prisoners of war and left to starve to death in German camps, however, the great majority must have been Red Army regulars, meaning there must have been far more than 1.1 million of them.
Krivosheev’s figures can not be reconciled with what we know about the occurrence of death among Soviet prisoners of war. His total of 8.7 million irrecoverable losses (or 8.5 million deaths after accounting for losses due to prisoners of war who avoided repatriation after the war) is therefore almost certainly a sizable underestimate.
Krivosheyev’s research, however, is nonetheless the best starting point in determining the extent of deaths among Soviet regulars due to causes not connected to mortality in German POW camps. According to their records the Red Army and the NKVD sustained 5227 thousand killed in action, 1103 thousand died of wounds, 270 thousand died of disease and frostbite, 155 thousand died of other causes, mainly accidents.
Additionally of the 3396 thousand Red Army regulars reported missing in action and 1162 thousand unreported losses from units in encirclement Krivosheyev estimates that 4059 thousand entered captivity, but the other 500 thousand fell in combat.21 In sum there were some 7.25 million deaths of Soviet regulars due to combat, accidents and disease.
The figure for combat deaths in reality includes a small number of Soviet soldiers who were shot by their officers for refusing to carry out orders without procedure in the heat of battle and a greater number of Soviet soldiers executed by German combat troops immediately upon capture. From the onset of the German invasion of the Soviet Union the Germans treated any Red Army soldiers who in the course of a retreat found themselves behind their lines as franc-tierurs and especially targeted female soldiers and political officers for execution. Occasionally they massacred captured soldiers deemed to have put up too much of a fight prior to capture.
Most Soviet citizens who fought in the Soviet-German War fought as regulars in the units of the Red Army or the NKVD. Many others, however, ended up fighting and dying in the various auxiliary and irregular forces. These included local anti-aircraft defense units, the paramilitary formations of policeman and railwaymen and the istrebitel’nyi militia. By far the biggest of such organizations, however, were the opolchenie militia and the Soviet partisans. Deaths in the ranks of these two forces made a significant portion of deaths among Soviet combatants as a whole.
It is without a doubt the case that Soviet partisan guerrillas in fighting the much better euqipped, provisioned and positioned enemy troops took much greater casualties than they inflicted themselves. Thus the Swiss historian Christian Gerlacht has established on the basis of German records that major German anti-partisan operations on the territory of Belarus cost the occupier the lives of 1,500 German and auxiliary troops but killed some 9,500 Soviet partisans. Altogether Gerlach estimates the Germans suffered between 6,000 and 7,000 dead against the partisans in Belarus. Gerlacht also accepts as reliable the work of Pjotr Kalinin according to whom the partisan formations in Belarus reported the loss of 37,800 dead and missing.
The British military historian Matthew Cooper estimated that across the entire USSR some 15 to 20 thousand German troops were killed fighting the Soviet partisans. Presuming the basic ratio of German to partisan losses of 1:6 that may be gleaned from some of the indices relating to the partisan war in Belarus this would imply the Soviet partisans suffered some 100 thousand combat deaths in turn. Accounting for deaths from disease and deprivation and unreported deaths the partisan dead may be in the ballpark of 150,000.
In 1941-42 about two million men, who were mainly volunteers from the Soviet urban centers, served in the battalions and divisions of the opolchenie militia. These units were hastily assembled directly by the Communist Party apparatus rather than the military and were normally terribly under-equipped. When employed on the front they often suffered grievous losses with numerous captured and killed. Several of people’s militia divisions suffered annihilation or near-annihilation, particularly in the Vyazma cauldron, as well as did numerous opolchenie battalions in the Kiev encirclement.
Total opolchenie losses may number in the low hundreds of thousands, however, a very high portion of its losses came in enemy encirclement operations. This means a very high percent of its losses was in terms of captured rather than dead. The casualty reports of the regular army themselves indicate that in 1941 it lost three or four captured for every soldier killed. Opolchenie then likely primarily died in German POW camps rather than in combat, with the front perhaps directly claiming the lives of some 100,000.
Many other Soviet citizens fought and died from 1941 through the end of 1945, but not as part of Soviet forces. The most numerically significant of these were the deaths among Soviet citizens in German service. They include a relatively small number of members of the Polish and Lithuanian nationalist resistance, a comparatively tiny number of anti-Soviet partisans in Estonia and Latvia, as well as a large number of UPA fighters in Western Ukraine.
During the war up to one million Soviet citizens entered into German service. They served in the Waffen-SS, the Wehrmacht and the Auxiliary Police. For many the motivating factor was local nationalism from which stemmed a principled opposition to rule from Moscow. For many others it was a matter of basic survival. Entering into German service meant escape from starvation rations, access to sometimes badly-needed medical care, or a shot at winning the release of a relative in German captivity. For numerous people carrying a rifle for the Germans was not a matter of politics, but the difference between life and death of disease or malnutrition in captivity or under the occupation. In any case Krivosheev estimates some 215,000 Soviet citizens in German service lost their lives in battles against Soviet forces. A much smaller number would have also fallen in other theaters, in Italy and France against the Western Allies and in the Balkans against the Yugoslav partisans.
The Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) was organized by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and became active in early 1943. Under the German occupation it mainly fought the Soviet partisans, albeit between August and December 1943 it also took on the Germans. When it moved to expel ethnic Poles from Volhynia and Galicia it clashed heavily and bitterly with the Polish Home Army. After the Soviets reoccupied Western Ukraine it resisted Soviet rule battling the Red Army, the NKVD, police and the government-sponsored Istrebitel’nye militia into late 1940s and early 1950s.
Unlike the UPA the Polish Home Army (AK) was active against the Germans from the start. However, until 1944 it fielded fewer than 7,000 active fighters across the entire pre-war Poland. For the most part it did not seek battle against the Soviet partisans who were instructed by Moscow to do the same and the engagements between the two were limited. The Polish government in exile in November 1944 instructed the Home Army to cease any operations against the Soviets and in January 1945 the movement was formally disbanded by its leadership. Though many Polish fighters disregarded these instructions this nonetheless meant that Polish nationalist resistance after Soviet reoccupation was limited.
The Lithuanian nationalists did not offer armed resistance against the German occupation, but organized a number of guerrilla formations to combat the Soviets.
Soviet reports indicate the various Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Polish anti-Soviet guerrillas suffered nearly 120,000 deaths in 1944-1945, the great majority of them UPA members in Western Ukraine, but including 12,000 in Lithuania. This figure is almost certainly greatly inflated, since the same reports indicate only 6,000 deaths among the Soviet NKVD, police, militia and army members, which would give a fantastic casualty ratio of 20:1.25 If the 120,000 figure for the losses of anti-Soviet guerrillas is halved this produces a more plausible death ratio of 10:1.
The Ukrainian Insurgent Army may have lost some 60,000 members from 1943 through 1945, the majority of them after Soviet reoccupation, but with some 10,000 during the German occupation. Perhaps some 10,000 Soviet citizens lost their lives in the ranks of the Polish Home Army, the majority of them under the German occupation, with a few thousand at most in the Polish anti-Soviet struggle after the Soviet reconquest. By the end of 1945 some 5,000 Lithuanians fell in the Lithuanian nationalist anti-Soviet struggle.
In all about 7.5 million fighters for the Soviet side died due to combat, accidents and disease (as opposed to dying in German captivity or being executed by the Soviet military authorities), of whom 7.25 million were regular soldiers and 250 thousand were militiamen and partisans. Some 290,000 Soviet citizens simultaneously lost their lives as part of various non-Soviet fighting forces, including 215 thousand in German service and the rest as part of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the Polish Home Army and the Lithuanian anti-Soviet resistance.
4. Deaths of Soviet Prisoners of War and Forced Laborers
Soviet Prisoners of War in German Custody
The Germans themselves did not have a clear idea of how many prisoners of war they had taken in the east. Archival records which are fragmentary and sometimes in contradiction with one another indicate a tally of between 5.25 and 5.75 million (26). There is good reason to believe, however, that many German reports tended to overestimate the number of prisoners captured, and that the lower number is far more likely to be closer to the truth.
For example, in the Kiev encirclement the Germans reported capturing 665 thousand prisoners of war, however, the entire Southwestern Front defending Kiev had only 627 thousand men on its rolls. Of these tens of thousands successfully slipped out of the cauldron and therefore avoided capture, many others were killed in combat attempting the breakout and another 150 thousand had never been encircled by the German pincers in the first place. Thus it is highly unlikely the Germans netted many more than 450,000 Red Army men in the Kiev pocket.
Though many German reports overestimated the actual number of prisoners taken a part of discrepancy between Soviet and German tallies at Kiev, and the war at large, is explained by the fact the Germans rounded up many men besides Red Army soldiers listed on their unit strength rolls. They also captured numerous opolchenie militiamen, police, and fighters from various other smaller Soviet paramilitary organizations, at least 500,000 mobilized reservists intercepted on the way to their unit, and civilian workers involved with running the railways, civil aviation and the river fleets and constructing military fortifications and airports, as well as ordinary men of fighting age captured as suspected or potential fighters (27).
Regardless of whom the Germans regarded as a Soviet prisoner of war, however, none so designated were actually given the protection of POW status. Instead they were first regarded as useless eaters to be starved to death and later on as a labor force to be ruthlessly exploited without regard to their health or survival. Subsequently they were deliberately left to starve in 1941 and 1942 in Wehrmacht’s POW camps in the western Soviet Union, or were killed in death marches en route to these camps. Many others died later when employed as forced laborers in Germany. A portion were also handed over to the SS and the police to be shot.
The number of Soviet citizens whom in the German imagination counted as Soviet prisoners of war and who perished in German custody is most often given as 3.3 million. The figure stems from the German historian Christian Streit who arrived at the figure by taking the estimated 5.7 million captured as his starting point and then subtracted from it the number of those who were known to be still alive in German custody in January 1945 (930,000) and those who may have been released (1 million) or liberated (0.5 million) (28).
Streit’s figure is problematic because he uses the inflated 5.7 million figure as his starting point. Starting with the low German estimate of 5.25 million total captives instead of his method would result in a much smaller estimate of 2.8 million deaths of Soviet POWs in German custody. On the other hand, in the same way that Streit inputs an overestimate of total captives he could be using too high figures for released and liberated prisoners. Indeed he states that “at most” 1 million were released implying the number is easily smaller. Additionally the estimate of those liberated or escaped is from the Army High Command (OKH), which is the same body that produced the inflated 5.7 million estimate of the total. Using 5.25 million as a starting point and lowering the release and liberated figures by 20% Streit’s method would result in a point estimate of 3.1 million deaths among Soviet POWs in German hands, which is easier to defend.
Soviet Prisoners of War in Finnish Custody
Soviet POWs suffered mass mortality in German, but also in Finnish hands. Between 1941 and 1944 Finland took about 64,000 Soviet troops prisoner of whom just over 19,000 perished in Finnish custody. The majority of these succumbed to disease in the period between November 1941 and September 1942. Unlike the Germans, the Finns had not planned to let their Soviet POWs die in advance; however, they did treat captured Red Army soldiers with callousness and neglect and it was the miserable conditions the Soviet soldiers in Finnish hands were kept in, particularly those in the largest POW camps, that were the cause of the mass mortality among them (29).
Forced Civilian Workers in German Hands
Germans rounded up numerous civilians in the Soviet Union for forced labor in Germany and German-occupied Europe. For a long while the generally accepted estimate of such deportees stood at 2.8 million as established by Alexander Dallin in the 1950s. This figure has been recently modified upwards. Mark Spoerer, a German historian specializing in the subject of forced labor in the Third Reich, puts the number at 2.9-3.1 million, but without including Polish forced laborers who were citizens of the Soviet Union in this figure. The Russian historian of forced population transfers, Pavel Polian estimates the number of all civilian forced laborers from the Soviet Union at 3.2 million (30).
In his 2001 book Spoerer estimated 170,000 deaths among the approximately 3 million forces laborers from the Soviet Union or “Ostarbeiters“. The estimate seems to be the best available, but with the understanding it is easily uncertain since in an article Spoerer penned a year later he speaks of a “10 percent death toll” of Eastern workers, which would imply a far greater number of deaths (31).
In addition to the deaths among captive Soviet laborers there were also thousands of deaths among the children born to them. As they were of no use to the German war effort mortality among the newborn was extremely high, between 25 and 50 percent according to Spoerer. In majority of cases after December 1942 the newborns were taken from their mothers and unloaded at “boarding homes for foreign children” where more than half of them starved to death. In mid 1944 the Reich Interior Ministry estimated there was a total of 75,000 Ostarbeiter children in Germany (32). This can easily indicate one hundred thousand births overall and between 20 and 50 thousand of Ostarbeiter children who did not survive the war. This means that altogether there were probably more than 200 thousand deaths among Soviet forced laborers and the children born to them.
Soviet POWs and civilian forced laborers constituted by far the largest groups of Soviet citizens in custody of Axis states. More than 8 million Soviet citizens at one point in time counted as either a Soviet prisoner of war, or a captive civilian laborer. Taken together there were some 3.3 million deaths among them.
5. The Holocaust, Anti-Partisan Reprisals and the Siege of Leningrad
Compared to the other categories of Soviet civilian losses of World War II there are now relatively precise and reliable calculations for the number of Soviet Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Israeli historian Yitzhak Arad calculates there were between 2,509,000 and 2,624,500 civilian Soviet Jewish victims of the Holocaust, which makes for a mid-point estimate of 2.55 million (33).
This estimate includes only direct victims of the Holocaust, and leaves out Soviet Jewish deaths in unoccupied USSR, for example among Jewish refugees from western USSR and in the Siege of Leningrad. It leaves out 120,000 deaths of Jewish Red Army men killed in combat, Jewish civilians killed in the course of battles such as the Siege of Odessa, as well as of the 80,000 Jewish Red Army soldiers who were killed in German captivity as Soviet POWs.
Naturally the 2.55 million figure is given for the Soviet Union within its expanded borders. It covers all losses from all areas part of the Soviet Union in 1941 that were retained after 1945. Sometimes a far smaller figures of about 1 million Soviet Jewish victims of the Holocaust can be encountered, but this is because such estimates cover only the victims from territories part of the Soviet Union in its 1939 borders.
In response to partisan activity in a given area the Germans in the occupied Soviet Union carried out what were essentially clearance operations targeting the civilian population of the area. Areas deemed to be infested by partisans or “bandits” were descended upon by security units and its population subject to mass killings and deportations. When the population of a given place was deemed to have been “infested” by partisan influence it was wiped out. It was the policy of eliminating civilian support for partisans by eliminating civilians.
The number of Soviet civilians killed in anti-partisan reprisals is highly uncertain. The German historian Christian Hartmann estimates 500 thousand deaths, whereas the British historian Richard Overy estimates these to be in excess of 1 million. American historian Timothy Snyder talks of 700 thousand dead, but that is for Poland and the Soviet Union combined (34).
Meanwhile the German historian Christian Gerlach estimates that German anti-partisan operations killed 345,000 people in rural Belarus alone, of whom barely ten percent were actual partisans. Gerlach also reports that in the 55 largest anti-partisans operations about ten percent of the 150,000 killed were Jews (who are properly counted as Holocaust victims). This may mean that about eighty percent, or 275,000, of the 345,000 victims of anti-partisan reprisals in the Belarusian countryside were non-Jewish civilians (35).
Gerlach’s estimates are based on the reports of German perpetrator units and are difficult to argue against. Since his figures cover only a part of occupied Soviet Union, however, the challenge is determining what proportion of overall civilian deaths in anti-partisan reprisals do these 275,000 deaths constitute.
Belarus with its pre-war population of 9 million represented only a small part of occupied USSR. By the end of 1941 the Germans occupied Soviet territory previously home to 80 million people and added even more in summer and spring of 1942. On the other hand, the liberation of Belarus in the war came relatively late so that it had spent considerably more time under German occupation than most other Soviet regions that temporarily fell to the Axis. Furthermore, the Soviet partisan movement in Belarus was famously strong and active. In sum there is little doubt Belarus lost people to anti-partisan reprisals in greatly disproportionate numbers to the rest of the occupied USSR.
Gerlach estimates that between six and seven thousand German soldiers were killed in the partisan war in Belarus. Meanwhile the American historian Mathew Cooper estimates that between 15,000 and 20,000 German soldiers were killed in the entire partisan war in the USSR. Provided both estimates are close to the truth the Germans may have sustained a portion of between 0.3 and 0.47 of all of their casualties to the partisans in the Belarusian SSR. Assuming that the German rear area security apparatus enacted collective reprisals through the Soviet Union roughly proportionally to the severity of personnel losses it sustained it would mean that overall it murdered between 600,000 (275,000/0.47) and 900,000 (275,000/0.3) non-Jewish non-combatants in the entire USSR. It is the case, however, that German reprisals became more lethal over time. Likely more Soviet civilians were murdered per a German soldier killed in 1944 than in 1941. This means that the losses in Belarus, which was liberated a full six months after Ukraine, likely constitute an even greater portion of overall Soviet losses to anti-partisan reprisals than 0.3-0.47.
Thus it is likely safer to assume there was a somewhat smaller number of between 500,000 and 800,000 non-Jewish non-combatants murdered in German anti-partisan reprisals in the occupied Soviet Union, giving the mid-point estimate of 650,000. This is without counting victims of anti-partisan actions in cities and towns. Also this is estimating the number of victims who were shot, burned alive or killed when herded into minefields. It does not include people who died of privation in the wake of anti-partisan reprisals due to the wholesale plunder and destruction that accompanied them.
Civilian Deaths in the Siege of Leningrad
Numerous civilians were caught in the blockade of Leningrad and perished as a result of the siege, mainly of hunger. These included residents of Leningrad itself that had not been evacuated or drafted into the army before the city was put under a blockade, residents of surrounding areas under siege and refugees from elsewhere who had earlier taken shelter in the city. For a long while the Soviet Union, in line with its tendency to downplay the extent of its WWII losses, insisted that some 650 thousand civilians perished in besieged Leningrad. In fact the real number is certainly considerably higher.
Before the war Leningrad was a city of just over 3 million people. About half a million of these were successfully evacuated eastwards, or drafted into the Red Army before the city was cut off from the rest of the Soviet Union. Another 100,000 of its residents were conscripted into military units defending the city after the blockade had been established. Also just over 1 million civilian inhabitants of the city set out to evacuate the city once the siege was already in progress.
This should have left the size of the city’s civilian population when the siege was broken in January 1944 at minimally 1.4 million. Instead it counted merely 600 thousand souls — a deficit of over 800 thousand people. Additionally of the 1 million who attempted to evacuate the city during the siege, easily one in ten perished in the attempt, or else died in the aftermath of their escape as a result of deprivation sustained preceding the evacuation. In total the Siege of Leningrad killed more than 900 thousand civilians (36).
It should be noted that while civilians in Leningrad died in the course of a military operation the German leadership regarded their deaths as a positive good in itself. Indeed, going into the USSR inJuly 1941 the Germans anticipated and planned for the deaths of tens of millions of conquered Slavs, particularly the city-dwellers in the winter of 1941/42. The German forces advancing on Leningrad and Moscow in late 1941 received instructions not to accept the surrender of these cities and to keep them blockaded so as to starve their inhabitants to death even should resistance against German forces cease. Indeed in 1941/42 the Germans attempted something similar when they cordoned off the occupied cities of Minsk, Kharkov and Kiev to prevent food from being “wasted” on the inhabitants of these urban centers.
The mass killings of Jews, the anti-partisan reprisals and the blockade of Leningrad were among the most lethal German policies enacted on the territory of the Soviet Union that aimed to cause massive civilian death. Together they killed some 4.1 million non-combatants of whom 2.55 million were Jews killed in the Holocaust, 0.65 million were non-Jewish civilians killed in collective reprisals for partisan activity in the countryside and 0.9 million were civilians starved in besieged Leningrad.
6. Other War-Related Violent Deaths
Civilian Deaths in the Ukrainian-Polish Conflict in Volhynia and East Galicia
In summer and spring of 1943 the Ukrainian Insurgent Army conducted a campaign of terror against the Polish population of Volhynia, massacring and eradicating their villages with a view to terrorize them into fleeing the region. The next year it attempted a similar campaign against the Poles in East Galizia. UPA massacres meant war with the Polish Home Army and triggered a smaller number of massacres by the latter against Ukrainian settlements.
The estimates of death toll of the Ukrainian-Polish conflict on civilians are plentiful but varied depending on the source. For Volhynia and East Galicia combined they range between 50,000 and 130,000 Polish victims and between a few thousand and as many as 20,000 or 30,000 Ukrainian victims. American historian Timothy Snyder estimates 40,000 killed in UPA massacres in Volhynia along with 5,000-10,000 in East Galicia. Polish historian Ewa Siemaszko speaks of 88,700 “documented” deaths of Poles at the hand of the UPA of whom she has been able to track down the names of 44,100, but estimes the total number of Poles murdered by the UPA to be 130,000 (37).
A fellow Polish historian, Grzegorz Motyka, warns any estimates at this point whether of Ukrainians or Poles are uncertain and should be treated as preliminary figures until more research and a firmer consensus. He estimates 40,000-60,000 Polish victims in Volhynia and 30,000-40,000 in East Galicia along 3,000-8,000 Ukrainian victims in these two regions (38). For the purpose of this paper it will be estimated there were 90,000 civilian victims from the Polish and Ukrainian ethnic community combined.
Deaths due to Soviet Partisan Reprisals
The Soviet partisans routinely carried out reprisals against civilians whom they saw as collaborators with the occupiers, such as officials of the civil administration under the Germans. The number of people killed in reprisals carried out by the Soviet partisans may be estimated as being between 40,000 and 100,000 with 60,000 being the most likely estimate.
Soviet Partisan formations in Belarus reported killing 17,431 people as collaborators by January 1st 1944 (39). This was six months before Belarus would be liberated in mid-1944 and the partisan units in Belarus dissolved. Additionally the deaths of some victims of reprisals may have gone unreported, for example if they were killed for reasons other than perceived collaboration. All things considered the number of people killed in partisan reprisals in Belarus probably falls in the range of 20,000-30,000.
Deaths connected to partisan warfare in Belarus may constitute anywhere between 0.3 to 0.55 of the total for the entire Soviet Union. This gives a wide range of possibilities for the total figure of people killed in partisan reprisals in USSR – from a low of 40,000 (20,000/0.55) to a high of 100,000 (30,000/0.3). Still the variant where Belarus amounts for just over 0.4 of the total violence connected to partisan warfare in the USSR has been deemed the most likely elsewhere in this article. This nets the estimate of 60,000 (25,000/0.4) people killed in Soviet partisan reprisals against perceived collaborators, class enemies and criminals.
Civilian Deaths in the German Strategic Bombing of Soviet Cities
The Germans conducted a limited strategic bombing campaign in the Soviet Union against cities and railway targets. The Soviet officials made considerable effort to count and record the casualties from such raids. According to the contemporary Soviet tally the German strategic bombing against Soviet population centers resulted in 51,526 deaths on the ground (40).
The figure is not entirely accurate as it is partly based on preliminary or incomplete reports from cities such as Minsk or Stalingrad, which found themselves under attack and occupation soon after they were struck from the air making a definite count impossible. Nonetheless, considering the attention the Local Air Defense organization (MPVO) paid to assessing the damage and tallying the dead, the 50,000 figure must be considered to be a very well-supported estimate.
Care, however, should be taken what the figure represents. The estimate encompasses deaths sustained from bombing well behind the front lines. It does not encompass casualties sustained of tactical bombing in support of troops on the ground or of opportunistic strafing of civilian targets by the tactical aviation. The figure refers strictly to fatalities due to strategic bombing, which is only one component of losses inflicted from the air.
Victims of Other German Killing Policies, Repression and Forced Evacuations
During the Soviet-German War the Germans purposefully targeted Soviet prisoners of war, ethnic Jews, the inhabitants of Leningrad and the villagers and townsfolk of “bandit infested” regions for the murder in cold blood. This is by no means an exhaustive list, however. In addition it was German official policy to target the Roma, Communists, Soviet functionaries, those who helped the Jews, suspected activists and helpers for the urban underground, the members of the intelligentsia and mental patients.
Furthermore, civilians from all backgrounds and walks of life could find themselves rounded up and executed as hostages in town and city-based anti-partisan reprisals. Finally, numerous civilians were shot or perished of exhaustion in forced marches and in places of German detention in forced evacuations that the Germans carried out as part of their scorched earth tactics that accompanied their retreat.
Christian Gerlach estimates that about 100,000 civilians were executed or otherwise died under all of these various killing policies in the Belarusian SS (41). If Gerlach’s estimate for Belarus is anywhere near the truth the total for the entire Soviet Union must be in the hundreds of thousands. For now the figure will be estimated as being between 200,000 and 400,000.
Obviously much more work should go toward painting a picture of these other killing policies and assigning the impact of each in terms of inflicting deaths against Soviet civilians. For now it may be said at least 40,000 Soviet citizens were murdered as part of the Nazi genocide against the Roma. There were an estimated 30,000-35,00 such deaths in the USSR within its 1939 borders, as well as between 2,500-4,500 victims in the Baltic countries. Additionally there would have been several thousand more in parts of western Belarus and Ukraine annexed from Poland (42). This are really merely lower-bound estimates, however, since Nazi killings of the Roma were poorly documented and carried out under a number of different euphemisms. Civilian Deaths in fighting between the Armies
1941-1944 the Soviet Union was a scene of gigantic land battles – the largest and the most intense the world has ever seen, before or since then. Without a doubt numerous civilians were killed in the course of these military operations mostly, but not exclusively, without being specifically targeted. Civilians could be pulverized by artillery fire in their homes, strafed from the air on the roads and trains, or blown up by land mines or unexploded bombs and shells in their fields. The number of Soviet civilians who died during the war in such or similar manner, may seemingly only be guessed at but it very likely exceeds 100,000. Most likely the real number is somewhere in the low hundreds of thousands, albeit given the scale of the battles even a figure as high as half a million may not be unthinkable. For now it will be conjectured as being between 200,000 and 400,000.
7. Indirect Deaths Due to Privation Induced by the War and the Occupation
Soviet scholar A.A. Shevyakov estimated in 1991 that about 8.5 million Soviet civilians perished during the war due to malnutrition and disease induced by the war and occupation. Of these 8.5 million deaths Shevyakov reckoned 5.5 million occurred in parts of the Soviet Union that suffered the Axis occupation and 3 million in parts that did not experience occupation. In 1992 Shevyakov updated his estimates, now figuring that in total about 6.5 million Soviet civilians had perished due to war-induced privation (43). Krivosheev in 2001 estimated there had been 4.1 million excess civilian deaths due to malnutrition and disease in the occupied USSR. He reported findings according to which 1941-45 there had been an estimated 8.5 million deaths of natural causes in the parts of the USSR under occupation, but only 4.4 million were to be expected under pre-war mortality rates. A German historian Hans-Heinrich Nolte estimated that of the estimated total 27 million war deaths 7 million were indirect deaths of civilians due to malnutrition and disease. In 1972 a British writer, Elliot Gil, estimated 7-8 million civilian deaths due to privation (44).
This article so far has tallied 11.05 million military and POW deaths among Soviet citizens, leaving 14.3 million non-combatant deaths. Of the latter 6.25-6.65 million have been tallied between various causes, leaving 7.6-8 million undistributed civilian deaths that may be attributed to privation induced by the war and occupation. This is without counting privation deaths of civilians in the Siege of Leingrad (0.9 million), privation deaths of forced laborers in German-run Europe outside the USSR (0.2 million), privation deaths of Soviet citizens repressed in the gulag and internal exile (1 million and 0.3 million respectively), civilian privation deaths in forced evacuations accompanying German retreats.
Almost all of 1.3 million excess deaths among children born after 22.6.1941 probably occurred due to malnutrition and disease. This is likely true of the great majority of 1.1 million war-related deaths of mainly elderly people who would have died in the 1941-45 timeframe anyway but at a later date. This means that some 2 million of the 7.6-8 million privation deaths in the Soviet Union during the Soviet-German War are fairly invisible to statistics. In about one quarter of cases malnutrition and disease induced by the war and occupation took the lives of either children not yet born when the war begun, or else of the elderly who were not expected to live past 1945 even had there not been a war.
Given Krivosheev’s estimate it seems likely that of 7.6-8 million privation deaths among civilians just over one half occurred in the occupied western Soviet Union and just under one half occurred in the unoccupied interior of the country. The parts of USSR that fell under German occupation were home to 77.5 million people before the war. 16.5 million of these fled or were evacuated by the authorities leaving just over 60 million in areas under German control. Meanwhile the interior Soviet Union hosted 130 million original inhabitants and refugees from the west (45). In other words Soviet citizens under German occupation were at least twice as likely to perish due to war-related malnutrition and disease than were civilians in the interior, unoccupied Soviet Union.
By far the most important immediate reason why chronic malnutrition struck the interior of the Soviet Union was that the German attack and advance had deprived it of its connection to the fertile agricultural regions of Ukraine and Russia that made the USSR into a net food producer. The Soviet Union deprived of Ukraine and parts of the southern and the Black Earth regions of Russia was simply not a food surplus area. Without a doubt the Soviet Union with agriculture that was not laboring under the constraints of collectivization and central planning and possessed a more responsive food distribution system would have weathered the crisis better and allowed fewer deaths (46). However, for the most part it is the case that the inflexible Stalinist system made its populace exceedingly vulnerable to such a crisis, but it was the German invasion that delivered the blow that threw it over the precipice and caused mass death.
Occupied, western Soviet Union was a net surplus food area, but regardless of this suffered a food crisis even more severe than that of food deficient areas of the Soviet interior. The root source of this hunger was that the Germans confiscated even larger portions of foodstuffs from the producers than the Soviet authorities had, all the while distributing far less of the food back to Soviet civilians (47).
In parallel with the German advance in 1941 the Soviets carried out a scorched earth policy in territories they were forced to yield. In the popular imagination this tactic is synonymous with destruction of foodstuffs, but actually this was a relatively small component of Soviet scorched earth compared to its evacuation aspect and had a comparatively small effect on the food supply. In Ukraine in 1941 the Soviets destroyed 0.2 million tons of foodstuffs, successfully evacuated 1.9 million tons of grain into the interior, while also leaving 0.9 million tons of grain that had already been harvested behind (48). An even bigger evacuation effort involved the removal of agricultural mechanization and livestock. Up to one half of tractors and combines were successfully evacuated from the regions of the USSR that would fall to the Germans (24,000 from Ukraine and Belarus alone), as well as more than two million head of livestock — albeit the herds of the latter were soon slaughtered due to a lack of fodder and did not meaningfully contribute to herd sizes in the interior Soviet Union in the long term.
It is safe to say the evacuation of agricultural machinery and livestock from the western USSR had an immense impact on the ability of the western regions of the Soviet Union to grow food in itself. However, the food crisis that followed during the occupation was far more severe than could be explained by the Soviet scorched earth campaign of 1941. The latter was followed by the ruthless and exploitative (but probably counter-productive) policies of the German occupation. First of all the Germans set out to confiscate such proportions of food grown that they greatly reduced the incentive to produce. Secondly, they confiscated so much food for the needs of the Wehrmacht and the German civilians at home that what was left was nowhere enough to satisfy the needs of the Soviet civilians in territories under their control.
What is more the Germans had envisioned and planned for their confiscation policies to create a catastrophic food shortage for the Soviet civilians under their control since before the onset of the war. Given the intent of the German occupation to withhold food from much of the Soviet population it is doubtful many fewer people would have perished without the massive Soviet evacuation of food, agricultural mechanization and livestock. Most likely the larger yields that would have been possible would have meant the Germans would have been able to extract greater quantities of food for the needs of their army and the civilians at home, but very little of this would have benefited the Soviet civilians under occupation, millions of whom the Germans had intended to eliminate by way of hunger all along.
Indeed, it has been estimated that even in the abysmal year of 1942 the Ukraine had been able to produce a small grain surplus of 0.3 million tons above its needs of some 7.2 million tons (49). Without German appetites occupied Ukraine should have been able to feed itself even in the disarray of the war. However, since the Germans simultaneously removed 1.2 million tons of grain and millions of horses, cattle and pigs what actually occurred was a catastrophic shortage of food and consequent chronic malnutrition, deterioration in health and widespread death of malnourished civilians due to disease.
Finally as the Germans were gradually forced to retreat west they carried out a destructive scorched earth policy of their own. Albeit similarly uneven theirs was generally even more damaging than the effort of the Soviets in 1941. Seeing it took the Soviets two years after the Stalingrad battle to expel the Germans from the territory they had yielded to them in 1941 in just six months, the Germans were better positioned to strip value from the land they were vacating and were just as determined to do so, as well as still more ruthless than had been the Soviets.
The categories of people who were the most likely to die due to privation were young children and the elderly as the frailest, most vulnerable part of the population. Next were the city-dwellers in the occupied USSR whom the Germans perceived as useless eaters, the inhabitants of areas plundered in the course of German anti-partisan reprisals, the population of areas sacked in the course of German retreat and scorched earth, people whose homes were destroyed in battles between the armies, evacuees who fled the German advance into the interior, the populace of areas that received large numbers of evacuees and others.
In all the German invasion and the exploitative policies of the German occupation may be identified as the most immediate cause of privation and deaths due to privation for the vast majority of the 7.6-8 million Soviet civilians who perished in the course of the war in this way (outside Leningrad and the gulag). Soviet policies were a contributing factor for many as well, particularly in the sense that they made the population more vulnerable to depredation of the invaders and amplified the negative consequences of the latter’s policies and actions. For example the pre-war internal passport system and movement controls discouraged people from attempting to flee before the German advance into the interior, and the collectivization of agriculture made it far easier for the German occupiers to extract vast quantities of food from Soviet peasants and leave them hungry.
Total demographic loss of the Soviet Union in the Soviet-German War is 28 million people. This includes 26.6 million estimated loss in excess of expected deaths calculated by ADK, the 1.1 million deaths due to war-related causes of people expected to die in the time frame in accidents and of natural causes and 0.3 million expected deaths due to Soviet repression. Of the 28 million loss 2.7 million is migration loss and 25.3 million is actual war dead. Of the second figure 1.5 million deaths are due to Soviet state repression and 23.8 million are due to war and policies of the occupier.
Of the 25.3 million deaths due to war 11.05 million are what are usually deemed “military deaths”. These, however, include 3.1 million deaths of Soviet POWs in German custody, not all of whom were actually military personnel, 20,000 POW deaths in Finnish custody and 135,000 Red Army men executed by Soviet military tribunals, as well as 7.25 million deaths of Red Army men due to combat, accidents and disease, 250,000 deaths of Soviet partisans and militiamen and 290,000 deaths of Soviet citizens who fought as part of non-Soviet forces, mainly in German service.
Not counting prisoners of war and soldiers condemned in courts martial who were the victims of enemy states and of their own state, and fighters who died as part of non-Soviet forces, the proper Soviet military dead adds up to 7.5 million regulars and irregulars, of whom more than 300,000 died due to frostbite and disease and 150,000 in accidents (50).
Of the upwards of 14.25 million civilian deaths 7.6-8 million occurred due to general privation associated with the German invasion and occupation. Just over half of such deaths occurred in the western USSR mainly due to ruthless economic exploitation of the occupation. The remainder occurred in the interior USSR mainly due to the fact the German advance eastwards had cut off the Soviet Union from the majority of its food surplus areas. A further 0.9 million civilian deaths occurred in blockaded Leningrad, and 200,000 among Soviet forced laborers in German-run Europe and the children born to them. 1 million perished in the course of the war in the prisons, camps and colonies of the Soviet penal system, and 300,000 during deportations or internal exile, again mostly due to malnutrition, exhaustion and disease.
2.55 million Jews, citizens of the Soviet Union, were murdered in the course of the Jewish Holocaust, mainly by application of direct violence. The Germans further shot or otherwise directly caused the deaths of some 850,000-1,050,000 non-Jews. Mainly in anti-partisan reprisals in the countryside, but also as part of killing policies or repression against Communists, the Roma, the intelligentsia, the urban underground, mental patients and in forced evacuations accompanying their retreat. 50,000 civilians perished in the German strategic bombing of Soviet cities and towns, and some 200,000-400,000 were killed in the course of, and in the aftermath of battles between armies by German and Soviet battle munitions — shells, rockets, bombs, land mines and the like. The Soviet state executed 65,000 Soviet civilians for political, or ostensibly criminal offenses, and the Soviet partisans killed probably about 60,000 in reprisals against perceived collaborators. A further 90,000 civilians were murdered in the course of the Polish-Ukrainian conflict in western Ukraine.
Roughly speaking there were over 4 million civilian deaths due to hard violence by all sides, as well over 10 million such deaths due to privation and associated deterioration in health.
POW and Civilian Deaths Inflicted by the Germans
3.1 million Soviet prisoners of war, who were neither exclusively soldiers, nor were they actually afforded the privileges of POW status perished in German custody. Majority of them in 1941 and 1942 when the Wehrmacht carried out a conscious policy of eliminating its Soviet POWs by deliberately arranging for them to starve to death. 0.9 million Soviet civilians perished in besieged Leningrad. These died as a result of a starvation blockade of the city that occurred in the course of a battle, but which the Germans intended to put up even had they broken the resistance of the Soviet defenders of the city. 200,000 Soviet forced laborers and their newborn children died having been deported to Germany, or German-occupied Europe. 7.6-8 million civilians died during the war due to general privation and shortage of food, mainly caused by the German invasion and exploitation under the occupation. Of these just over one half among the 60 million under German occupation, and just under one half among the 130 million (including the 16 million refugees from the west) in the interior Soviet Union which had been cut off from its agriculturally most productive regions by the German advance.
2.55 million Soviet Jews were murdered in the Nazi program to exterminate Jews across their empire in Europe. The German security apparatus shot or killed using other violent means an estimated 650,000 people in anti-partisan reprisals in the countryside. Some 200,000-400,000 Soviet civilians were murdered in all other German policies of mass killing and political and social repression. 50,000 people died in the German strategic bombing of Soviet cities. 200,000-400,000 civilians may have perished due to military battles, probably one half due to German munitions.
In total the Germans inflicted some 15.7 million deaths among Soviet civilians and soldiers they had already captured and disarmed. Of this figure one quarter were killed due to hard violence such as being shot. Three quarters died due to privation, mainly of hunger and disease.
Deaths of Soviet Citizens Inflicted by the Soviet Side
215 thousand Soviet citizens died fighting against Soviet forces in the German-organized auxiliary police (Schuma), the SS and the Wehrmacht. Of the 75,000 guerillas of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), the Polish Home Army (AK) and the various Lithuanian nationalist fighting organizations nearly 60,000 may have been inflicted by the Soviet army, the NKVD, police forces, militia and partisans.
One million Soviet citizens, victims of Soviet repression, perished in prisons and as forced laborers in camps and colonies of the gulag, mainly due to malnutrition, exhaustion and disease. 300,000 Soviet citizens, also victims of Soviet repression, perished of much the same causes in internal exile after being deported, mainly in nationality-based deportations. 65,000 Soviet citizens were executed by the Soviet civil authorities and some 135,000 citizens serving in the Red Army by the Soviet military authorities. Most likely some 60,000 people were killed in reprisals carried out by the Soviet partisans. If military battles killed 200,000-400,000 people Soviet munitions may have accounted for one half of this number.
In total the Soviet side directly inflicted nearly 2 million deaths among inhabitants of the USSR, of whom some 275,000 were Soviet citizens fighting against the Soviet Union in German service and as Ukrainian, Polish and Lithuanian anti-Soviet guerrillas. Counting just the deaths among civilians and its own soldiers the Soviet side inflicted 1.7 million deaths among its citizens.
Losses by Gender
Research conducted by Russian demographers Andreev, Darskii and Kharkova suggests the Soviet population from 1941 through 1945 lost 13.5 million more males than females (51).
In the Soviet-German War the USSR suffered 11.05 million military deaths which would have been overwhelmingly of males. 1941-1945 65,000 Soviet citizens were executed by civil authorities and a further 1,020,000 people died in prisons, camps and colonies of the gulag. These deaths too would have been overwhelmingly of males. Also about 500,000 Soviet prisoners or war, or Soviet citizens in German service successfully avoided repatriation to the USSR at the end of World War II. Thus 12.6 million, or the great majority of the male to female deficit in Soviet population, is accounted for by military deaths, judicial executions, deaths in the gulag and emigration of collaborators and prisoners of war. This may attest to at least a rough validity of estimates presented in this paper.
The unaccounted difference between 12.6 and 13.5 million may mean that males were, somewhat counter-intuitively, slightly overrepresented among civilian deaths as well. Possibly particularly due to being overrepresented among victims of German anti-partisan reprisals and other killing policies. It may also mean the number of 500,000 is an under-estimation of how many more males than females managed to emigrate. It may also mean that 11 million is an underestimation of Soviet military deaths in the Soviet-German War. Krivosheev himself estimates 500,000 Red Army deaths due to combat in excess of reported fatalities, but it could be the Soviet reporting system was off by more than that number. Indeed a noted Russian scholar, S.N. Mihkhalev, estimates the USSR lost 10.9 million Red Amy and NKVD regulars on the front, to military tribunals or in captivity.
This would push the combined military casualties from the Soviet population to 11.4 million. Naturally, it may be the 0.9 million difference is a combination of any of the three factors mentioned.
The scale of migration deficit is possibly the most uncertain of all causes of Soviet population losses in the Soviet-German War. The 2.7 million estimate from Ellman and Maksudov used here is twenty years old and is based on only a very rough and preliminary calculation (52). Even as such, however, it remains seemingly the most-well supported of all such estimates (most of whom are not nearly as high). This article then uses the seemingly best available, but still rather uncertain figure. Hopefully scholars will return to this question and eventually produce a more certain estimate, so that the question of how much of the Soviet population deficit in the war may be attributed to emigration may be answered more reliably.
Population of Newly Annexed Territories
Since the Soviet Union conducted a population census in 1937 and then again in 1939 we have a fairly good idea how large the population of the USSR in its 1939 borders was. The far bigger unknown is how many new citizens were added through Soviet territorial expansion in 1939-40. This means that the size of the Soviet population on the eve of the war is not fully certain, which makes estimating its losses all the more difficult. Andreev et al estimate that through annexations the Soviet population increased by 20.3 million. On the one hand Ellman and Maksudov reckon this is more likely to be an underestimate than an overestimate. Indeed there are other estimates which go up to 23 million. On the other hand there are rival lower estimates as well. S.N. Mihkhalev reckons newly annexed territories were populated by between 17 and 20 million inhabitants (53).
The interplay between the uncertainty connected to the size of net emigration balance and the size of population added through annexations on the eve of the war makes estimating the likeliest number of Soviet war dead all the more difficult. For example if 2.7 million is actually an overestimate of how many people the USSR lost through migration and 20.3 million is an underestimation of how many lived in the newly added territories then 25.3 million would be considerably less than the actual war dead. On the other hand if 2.7 million is an overestimate of emigration balance and 20.3 million an overestimate of the number of people in the annexed territories then 25.3 million could well be a basically right estimate even though these two inputs were off.
The significance of the breakdown of Soviet WWII losses presented here is in relative rather than absolute terms. It is not anything approaching a definite breakdown, but it does represent an improvement over anything else produced so far. There is a definite limit on how clearly anyone will ever be able to estimate and break down the losses from a war that is even now 70 years old, but more than that much more research still needs to be done. A considerably more reliable breakdown is possible, but only after historians have done more work on topics such as the partisan war in the USSR, the life under the German occupation, the food supply in wartime USSR and so on. Counter-intuitively despite being so vast the human cost of the Soviet-German War 1941-45 can be said to remain a woefully understudied subject.
Table 1 – Total Soviet Losses
|Calculated loss in excess of expected deaths (Andreev, Darskii, Kharkova)||26,600,000|
|War-related deaths of people expected to die in the timeframe of other causes (Harrison)||1,100,000|
|Expected deaths due to Soviet repression||300,000|
|Total deficit of the Soviet population in the war||28,000,000|
Table 2 – Soviet Losses by Cause
|Demographic loss of the Soviet Union in the Soviet-German War||28,000,000|
|Of that losses in migration deficit (Ellman, Maksudov)||2,700,000|
|Total Soviet war dead||25,300,000|
|Of that losses due to Soviet state repression||1,500,000|
|Total losses due to war and occupation||23,800,000|
Table 3 – Losses due to Soviet State Repression
|Deaths in prisons and camps and colonies of the gulag||1,020,000|
|Deaths in deportations, internal exile and the labor army||300,000|
|Executions by civil authorities||65,000|
|Executions by military tribunals||135,000|
|Total deaths due to Soviet state repression||1,500,000|
Table 4 – Losses due to War and Occupation
|Red Army and NKDV losses due to combat, accidents and disease||7,250,000|
|Soviet partisan deaths||150,000|
|Opolchenie militia deaths||100,000|
|Soviet citizens killed fighting in German service||215,000|
|Killed fighting as part of the UPA, the Polish Home Army or the Lithuanian anti-Soviet insurgency||75,000|
|Deaths of Soviet prisoners of war in German captivity||3,100,000|
|Deaths of Soviet prisoners of war in Finnish captivity||20,000|
|Deaths of Soviet forced laborers in German-run Europe and the children born to them||200,000|
|Jewish citizens of the Soviet Union murdered in the Holocaust||2,550,000|
|Civilian deaths in the Siege of Leningrad||900,000|
|Non-Jewish Civilians killed in German anti-partisan reprisals in the countryside||650,000|
|Non-combatants killed in the Polish-Ukrainian conflict in Galicia and Volhynia||90,000|
|Killed in reprisals of the Soviet partisans||60,000|
|Civilian deaths in the German strategic bombing of Soviet cities||50,000|
|Civilians killed in all other German killing policies and repression||200,000-400,000|
|Civilian deaths due to battle munitions in, and in the aftermath of, battles||200,000-400,000|
|Civilian deaths due to general privation due to invasion and occupation||7,600,000-8,000,000|
|Total deaths due to occupation and war||23,800,000|
- For more on the background of the 1988-1991 breakthrough in Soviet historiography on this question see L.L. Rybakovskij, “Lyudskie poteri SSSR v Velikoj Otechestvennoj vojne”, Sotsiologicheskie issiedovaniya 8 (2000): 89-92
- Boris Sokolov, “The cost of war: Human losses for the USSR and Germany, 1939–1945”, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 9, no. 1 (1996): 152-193. Viktor Zemskov, “K voprosu o masshtabah ljudskih poter’ SSSR v Velikoj Otechestvennoj vojne (v poiskah istiny)”, MIR i Politika 68, no. 5 (2012).
- E.M. Andreev, L.E. Darskiy and T.L. Khar’kova, Naselenie Sovetskogo Sojuza 1922-1991 (Moscow: Nauka, 1993), 73. Michaell Ellman and Sergei Maksudov, “Soviet Deaths in the Great Patriotic War: A Note”, Europe-Asia Studies 46, no. 4 (1994): 671-680. Michael Haynes, “Counting Soviet deaths in the Great Patriotic War: a note”, Europe-Asia Studies 55, no. 2 (2003): 303–309.
- Michaell Ellman and Sergei Maksudov, “Soviet Deaths in the Great Patriotic War: A Note”, Europe–Asia Studies 46, no. 4 (1994): 671–680.
- Mark Harrison, “Counting Soviet Deaths in the Great Patriotic War: Comment”, Europe-Asia Studies 55, no. 6 (2003): 939-944.
- 1940 saw the deaths of 60 thousand people in prisons, and the labor camps and colonies of the gulag. Given such prevalence of deaths among inmates the 4.5 years from mid-1941 through 1945 would be expected to see 270 thousand deaths in this population.
- Additionally in 1940 2,044 people were executed for criminal offenses and 1,649 for political offenses. Given these rates the subsequent war years would be expected to produce 17 thousand judicial executions.
- Occurrence of death due to repression among the internal exiles in 1940 predicted a relatively small number of deaths on the order of tens of thousands for the subsequent 4.5 year period. There are two major reasons to believe the occurrence of deaths due to repression among internal exiles in 1940 was just a fraction of the same in an average war year. First of all 1940 was a non-crisis year when the food supply in the USSR was adequate. Secondly, compared to the war years 1940 represented an early year of exile for a comparatively small number of deportees. 1940 saw the deportation of 276 thousand people, and 1938-39 of just 6 thousand. In 1936-37 233 thousand were deported. Small numbers compared to the 2.4 million deported during the war. Occurrence of death due to Soviet repression in 1940 stretched over 4.5 years thus predicted somewhat over 300,000 deaths (270 thousand + 17 thousand + tens of thousands).
- Michael Haynes and Rumy Hasan, A Century of State Murder? Death and Policy in Twentieth-Century Russia (London: Pluto Press, 2003), 214-215.Stephen Wheatcroft “The Scale and Nature of German and Soviet Repression and Mass Killings, 19301945”. Europe–Asia Studies 48, no. 8 (1996): 1319-1353, Table 11.
- Dalkhat Ediev, Demograficheskie Poteri Deportirovannyh Narodov SSSR (Stavropol’: StGAU “AGRUS”, 2003), 302, Table 1
- Pavel Polian, Against Their Will: The History and Geography of Forced Migrations in the USSR (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2004), 327-333.
- Ediev, Demograficheskie Poteri Deportirovannyh Narodov SSSR, 302–303.
- A big portion of the 380 thousand deported from 1940 to mid–1941 were Poles from the newly annexed territories. Seeing they were subject to the amnesties of August 17th 1941 and June 30th 1943 their exile was much shorter and presumably less deadly. Thus, compared to the exiles deported after 22.6.1941 there must have been relatively fewer deaths during the war among those deported 1940–41.
- John Barber and Mark Harrison, “Patriotic War, 1941–45″ in The Cambridge History of Russia Volume 3: The Twentieth Century, ed. Ronald Grigor Suny (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 226.
- Stephen Wheatcroft “Victims of Stalinism and the Soviet Secret Police: The Comparability and Reliability of the Archival Data — Not the Last Word”. Europe–Asia Studies 51, no. 2 (1999): 337–338.
- Aleksandr Gur’yanov and Aleksandr Kokurin “Èvakuacija tjurem. 1941”. Rossijskij istoricheskij zhurnal “Karta”, no.6 (1994): 16-27.
- G. F. Krivosheev, ed., Rossiya i SSSR v voynah XX veka: poteri vooruzhyonnyh sil. Statisticheskoe issledovanie (Moscow: OLMA-Press, 2001), 246.