For many years, the topic of POWs in Norway has been widely neglected in scholarly research. It was first in 1988 that Birgit Koch wrote an essay on the subject at the University of Oslo, and it took until 2004 before Marianne Soleim (in her doctoral dissertation) gave a comprehensive overview of the living conditions, work detachments and deaths of Red Army soldiers in this Scandinavian country. Soleim’s paper provided the foundation for Mari Olafson Lundemo’s (University of Helsinki) recently written Master’s thesis on the causes of death of these POWs.1

In total, more than 13,700 Soviet POWs died in Norway between 1941 and 1945, mostly in the northern part of the country.2 After the war, several common graves were created and the remains of most of the deceased POWs were transferred and reburied there. The biggest is the common grave site at Tjøtta, situated in Fylke Nordland, where the inscription on a memorial stone states that altogether 7,551 people were buried, 826 identified by name.3 Overall, the Norwegian national war grave commission lists about 2,700 deceased Soviet POWs who were identified by name, 102 of them civilians. In the cases of 768 prisoners, only the identity tag number is known today, and there is no information at all about the rest except for place of death.

An official pamphlet of Falstadsenteret ascribes this to the way the Germans handled deceased POWs: «Around 13,700 Soviet POWs died in Norway. The high mortality count makes these POWs the largest group of war losses on Norwegian soil. Exact mortality figures are still uncertain, as the source material was destroyed when the Germans capitulated and the Nazis had little respect for human life. POWs were thrown into common graves or never properly buried. Today, only 2,700 of the victims have been identified by name. In 2008, the Norwegian authorities launched the research project «Krigsgraver søker namn» (war graves seek names) with a view to identifying more of the Soviet victims. Since March 2011, information about POWs who have been identified is available in a database that can be searched for answers concerning the fate of individual prisoners».4

The Falstadsenteret pamphlet describes German Wehrmacht behaviour that fundamentally contradicts its effective military rules at the time. The Geneva Convention of 1929, regulating the treatment of POWs in future military conflicts, had been effective law in the Reich since 1933. In 1939, still before the start of the war, the treatment of enemy soldiers in German captivity was determined on this basis. The registration of prisoners was regarded as an essential element in being able to notify the next of kin, but also in having a general overview of the POWs held. In the case of death, this inevitably entailed the need to know exactly where and when a POW had died and was buried.

In this article, I demonstrate how the German military in Norway handled deaths among POWs during the period of occupation. To comprehend this, however, it is crucial to know how policies within the Wehrmacht regulated this process. If everything went according to regulation, the question that inevitably arises is why, today, more than three-quarters of prisoners buried in Norwegian POW cemeteries are not identified. An answer can be found in the time after 1945, but is not the subject of this article.

The relevant Wehrmacht regulations form the basis of this presentation. In addition, I use the Personal Cards of deceased POWs, which were filled in upon arrival at the POW camps and are available in large numbers today via the Internet.5 Finally, the files of the Wehrmachtbefehlshaber Norwegen (Armed Forces Commander of Norway) and of the Armeeoberkommando (AOK; Field Army Command) 20 stationed in Finland, to be found at the Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv (BA MA) Freiburg, offer important information.

Soviet POWs in Norway

It is difficult to determine exactly the number of Soviet POWs in Norway between 1941 and 1945, but based on a German source Marianne Soleim assumes a total of about 100,000 people, 9,000 of them civilians,6 whereas Michael Stokke estimates 93,000 POWs and, in addition, 7,000 civil Soviet citizens.7

Based on German POW manpower status reports, the situation was as follows: For January 1st, 1945, the three German POW camps in Norway, namely Stammlager (Stalag; POW main camps) 303, 330 and 380 reported 26,423 Red Army soldiers captive. The Verstärkte Kriegsgefangenen-Arbeitsbataillone (reinforced POW working battalions) recorded 35,569 and the Bau-Pionier-Bataillone (POW construction engineer battalions) 3,201 POWs. There were therefore 65,193 POWs, 1,284 of them officers.8 In addition, there were approximately 22,000 prisoners who were moved to northern Norway when the AOK 20 retreated from Finland in late fall 1944.9 By August 31st 1944, this AOK comprised a total of 21,094 POWs and other prisoners, 10 as well as 3,307 Hilfswillige (Hiwis; Russian auxiliary military forces), former POWs with a very unstable legal status which could be changed back to POW at any point in time. Adding up these numbers, it becomes clear that at the beginning of 1945 there were more than 86,000 Soviet POWs in Norway.11 Assuming that approximately 12,000 POWs had died up to this point, there must have been at least 98,000 members of the Red Army in Norwegian POW camps between 1941 and 1945, not including civilians. At the present time it is not possible to determine the exact number of POWs transported from Norway back to the German Reich. It is known, however, that a great many POWs buried in cemeteries in Germany received their ID tags at Stalag 303 or 330.

The above-mentioned authors have written extensively about the living conditions and deaths of Soviet POWs in Norway, so these topics are only briefly summarized here. Just as in all areas the Germans had occupied, in Norway, too, the Geneva Convention in regard to Soviet POWs was only followed in certain respects, and certainly not where accommodation, diet and medical care were concerned. In Northern Norway in particular the rarely heated barracks provided little protection from the cold, wind, rain and snow, and it was virtually impossible for POWs to recover from the day’s long, hard labour. The constant humidity in the buildings promoted tuberculosis and pneumonia, which were two of the most common causes of death. The food rations served up by the Wehrmacht were insufficient to maintain the physical condition of hard-working men and decomposition of strength ensued. The camp administrators tried to improve conditions by frequently reporting the situation to the higher authorities, but they rarely succeeded in improving things.

As early as October 22nd, 1941, a letter to the Armeearzt (army medical officer) in Norway concerning the situation of prisoners in the north of the country read: «A reason for concern are the Russian prisoners. In the area of care for the POWs much needs to be done if they are supposed to be labourers and not a burden – not only in terms of medical care, but especially concerning accommodation, provisions, and clothing.»12 Up to the end of February 1942, approximately 10% of the 3,200 Soviet soldiers in forced labour in Norway died.13

Only a few beds, personnel and drugs were available for medical care, so referral to the military hospital often came too late. The unfavourable geography further complicated the situation: The distance between the different work sites and the medical facilities, which were usually located at the Stalags, was often too far to make the transport of a sick prisoner «worthwhile» in the eyes of the Wehrmacht. Only in the south and central parts of Norway did referral to a military hospital occur fairly regularly. At least attempts were made to determine the cause of death, as can be proved by numerous autopsy reports.14

Often the prisoners died shortly after arrival, many even during transport to the camps. They were usually put to rest at sea and only on rare occasions would the body be brought ashore for burial in a cemetery such as Oslo-Vestre Gravlund.15 These early deaths were caused by the living conditions in the camps in the German Reich and the occupied territories, where in many cases the situation was much worse than in Norway. Consequently, emaciated prisoners started the long northbound journey with the worst possible prospects; sometimes they even needed to be «made transportable through additional provisions in special camps».16 In 1941, Stalag commanders complained that it was mainly men from the Asian republics of the Soviet Union, men physically rather unsuited for the Nordic climate, who were being referred to Northern Norway. The high number of deaths among the people from this region until spring 1942 is strong proof of this assessment.17

The National Socialist (NS) view of the Soviet soldiers worsened the situation: they were looked upon not just as «Slavic Untermenschen», but also as personifications of Bolshevism, the ideological foe of NS ideology. They were considered people whose sole aspiration was to harm Germany and lead Communism to victory. This view was generally approved of and shared by the German people, especially the German soldiers. The treatment of Soviet POWs thus did not conform to the conventions of international law. In cases of doubt, resolute use of weapons was advised, according to a directive from September 8th, 1941, «with the firm intention to strike».18 For this reason, the cause of death is very often marked as «shot in an attempt to escape», which in many cases can be read as shot after the actual attempt, which means nothing short of murder.19 The same is true of the transferral of «ideologically intolerable subjects», e.g. Jews or «instigators», to the SD, where they were usually executed.

Altogether approximately 11,000 prisoners lost their lives on Norwegian territory between 1941 and 1945. Another 3,000 drowned when the steamboats Palatia and Rigel sank.20

Mari Olafson Lundemo has pointed out that the mortality rate lies by «only» about 10% of the total number of POWs and thus differs considerably from rates in other areas under German control, which in some parts were higher than 50%. The only exception is the area of the AOK 20 in Northern Finland, where the death rate was also about 10%, while in Finnish camps approximately 25% of Soviet POWs died.21

The Administrative Structures of Registration22

Nearly all prisoners who were sent to work in Norway had undergone «registration» in the occupied territories or the German Reich beforehand. Only on rare occasions did this take place in Norway or in Finland.23

The registration process had been standardized by the OKW in February 1939 in the «Instructions for the commander of a Kriegsgefangenen-Mannschafts-Stammlager» (Stalag). Upon arrival, every POW received an ID tag bearing the appellation of the respective camp and, starting at 1, the registration number of the individual prisoner.24 This usually occurred at the first or second camp the prisoner went through. He had to wear the tag on a piece of string around the neck at all times. In the event of death, the upper half of the tag stayed with the body while the lower half, along with personal records, was sent to the «Wehrmachtauskunftstelle für Kriegerverluste und Kriegsgefangene» (WASt; information office for war losses and POWs) in Berlin. The WASt had been established within the OKW in August 1939, on the one hand to comply with section 77 of the Geneva Convention of 1929 and be able to inform enemy states about the POWs in German camps at any point in time, and on the other to document the German Reich’s own losses.

When the ID tag was handed out to the POW, the camp administration created a so-called personal card I (PK I) containing a photograph and/or fingerprint of the prisoner as well as personal data, information on transfers to other camps, hospitalisations and working detachments. The card remained with the POW throughout his captivity.25 In addition, there was a personal card II (PK II) for comments regarding forced labour. The most important criterion for identification though was the individual number on the ID tag. It was so significant that it also served as the means of sorting the camps’ filing systems. The most important data concerning prisoners were sent to WASt immediately after registration, and a comprehensive archive containing all records from every camp, called Stammkartei, was created, where any subsequent changes and additions, such as hospitalisations or transfers, were documented as well. Thus, the WASt had a slightly delayed but accurate overview of the number of prisoners in individual camps as well as the total number of POWs.

Registration took place only once, with the prisoner keeping his ID number throughout captivity, even when transferred to another camp. Consequently, once a number had been given out, it could not be used again, not even when the respective prisoner had died. The loss of an ID tag had to be reported to the WASt and if it was recovered it was confiscated and destroyed. If recaptured escapees were no longer in possession of their original tag, they were registered again under a different number.

Every camp had its own directory of ID tags, which included a number, first and last names, details about family and place of residence and in the last column the current location of the prisoner. Official registration of the POWs’ personal data was thus the beginning of a complex administrative process which only ended with the end of the war, or earlier, if the POW escaped from captivity, was released or died.26 Therefore each number existed only once.

Since the National Socialist war against the Soviet Union was planned and conducted as a war of conquest and extermination in which POWs were not necessarily to be treated in accordance with international law, the Wehrmacht established a large number of new POW camps.

Their appellations between the numbers 301 and 399 did not conform with those of camps already in existence, but they were still regular POW camps based on the respective rules. On June 26th, 1941, about two weeks before the first transports arrived in Germany itself, the OKW demanded a few «preliminary changes» to some of the existing regulations for the so-called «Russian Camps» within the borders of the Reich. However, this order for «the registration and treatment of Russian POWs» hardly affected the rules concerning the registration process. The PK II for all kinds of economic information was to be created only once the decision for a work detachment had been made. The PK I though, the ID of the prisoner so to speak, had to be administered regardless, and each POW had to be equipped with an ID tag as usual. There were no changes or restrictions to this part.27 Thus the administrations of the respective «Russian Camps» were obliged to handle the registrations of new arrivals in the same manner as in all other camps, the only difference being that they solely included citizens of one single state – the Soviet Union.28

The highly accurate registration of POWs was matched by the precise registration of deaths.29 The order from 1939 contains several references to this fact. Instructions concerning the ID tag demanded the same procedure as applied in the event of a German soldier’s death, i.e. the upper half of the tag had to remain with the body while the lower half was sent to the WASt along with a casualty report and the PK I and II. Every 10 days the camps had to send a report concerning deaths to Berlin. In column 14 of this form, the specifics of «wounds, injuries, death (place of burial)» were noted, and in column 15 («comments») whether the deceased had been killed while attempting to escape or during a mutiny. It was also the camp administration’s obligation to record «the designation of the exact place of burial» for every single dead prisoner. The Wehrmachtgräberoffizier (Wehrmacht officer responsible for graves) in charge of this area received the casualty report, notification of place of burial and the death certificate, which had to include the personal data of the deceased as well as the camp physician’s detailed description of the circumstances of death and location of the grave. A duplicate of the death certificate was kept in the record office of the respective camp.

The bodies were laid to rest at the camp’s own cemetery, which, for hygienic reasons, was located a certain distance from the actual barracks. There were precise instructions regulating the setup and structure of POW graveyards. They had to be «as level as possible or suited for laying out terraces». To prevent «crooked burial grounds within the cemetery» the regulations dictated strict axes, with the middle axis intersecting the level curves at a right angle. Grave sites «were to be structured in a way that the deceased could be buried head to head» with no separation into single graves. The passage reads: «The deceased rest below a common blanket planted with grass, heather or a similar local plant. The ensuing burial grounds are to be raised up 15 cm higher than the paths in between.» If several prisoners passed away at the same time, it was not always possible to bury each of them in a single grave, although every single POW was recorded in connection with this common burial site. Each grave had to be marked and noted in the camp’s cemetery allocation plan so that immediate verification of a prisoner’s burial place was possible at any point in time. To ensure this, cemeteries were structured in fields, rows and graves once they exceeded a certain size. The lists were managed in a register of deaths or a cemetery register.

These regulations also applied to Soviet POWs, with only minimal restrictions. The first essential orders concerning the registration and treatment of POWs did not mention this at all and thus presupposed the usual procedures for death reports and burials. The OKW underlined this on March 24th, 1942: «In common graves the bodies (…) have to be provided with their ID tag, so that at a later point in time their identity can be confirmed based on the files containing all their personal data.» A crucial exception concerned the hitherto common notification of the next of kin. On January 7th, 1941, the OKW demanded that in the event of death of a POW an additional questionnaire was to be filled out to ensure a prompt report to the POW’s home state by way of the Red Cross. In the case of Red Army soldiers this was not necessary – the OKW informed the camps on July 23rd, 1941 – but it was necessary to provide a precise description of the place of burial to prevent eventual inquiries. Nonetheless, the German military authorities explicitly stood by their standard of a meticulous registration process. On November 11th of the same year, the OKW felt compelled to inform the camps «upon request» that «in case of death of Soviet POWs the obligation to notify the authorities is the same as in the case of death of POWs of other nationalities, as long as the Soviet POWs are registered with the WASt.» Even if prisoners died during transportation to the camp and had not been registered beforehand, their «identifiable personal data [had to be] recorded in a list and sent for safe-keeping to the respective camp the transport was intended for». Because of the high numbers of deaths at the beginning of the winter of 1941/42, it was decided to simplify the notification procedure, but the location of the grave site had to be recorded in any circumstances. In mid-1942 the Reich’s Ministry of the Interior ordered that the Soviet graves be arranged «in the simplest way possible; the main intention is to generally maintain the condition of the graves. The single graves are to be marked with a number plate, the names of the deceased are to be recorded in layout plans of the cemeteries.» The military authorities repeatedly demanded strict compliance with these regulations.

To summarize, deviations from the usual procedures mainly concerned simplifications to the administration, the burial process and cemetery maintenance. Not affected were policies regarding the registration of deaths and the locations of grave sites, nor whether a prisoner died at his place of work detachment, in which case the local commune was responsible for the grave and had to follow the regulations.

It should have been easy to prove these insights based on the registry of ID tags and personal cards, but the WASt files of Soviet POWs were considered to have been lost since the end of the war. Only a few people knew that US troops had come across the undamaged personal files at Meiningen, where the WASt had relocated to in 1943 because of the aerial war, and had handed them over to the Red Army in August 1945. Also the files of survivors liberated from the camps by the Allies have only recently been rediscovered. It is therefore understandable that the lack of information regarding the prisoners has led even historians to believe that for ideological reasons the Soviet POWs had not been registered at all or at best starting in spring 1942. In fact, the bulk of the seemingly lost files from the WASt concerning deceased POWs and those who did not return to their home states are in the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation (CAMO) in Podolsk, southwest of Moscow.30 Since the year 2000, an international cooperation of organisations from Germany, Russia and Belarus has been working on making all these files accessible. All material, including a large amount of PK I, is being digitized and can be accessed by different criteria on the Internet at www.obd-memorial.ru.

Cemeteries in Norway

The many big cemeteries of Soviet POWs, for example in Germany where visitors often find just a sizeable grass field, seem to prove the opposite of accurate administration. In a place like this it is difficult to imagine a well-structured burial ground with identifiable numbered and recorded graves. It is now possible to prove exactly this, i.e. a recorded structure, for the big so-called Russian Cemeteries of camps 326 (VI K) Senne in East Westphalia, 311 (XI C) Bergen-Belsen in the northwest of Germany, 304 (IV H) Zeithain in Saxonia, and the officers’ camp 62 (XIII D) in Hammelburg, Lower Franconia.31 For these graveyards, tens of thousands of deceased can be matched, and in some cases even their exact grave sites can be located. For the Occupied Eastern Territories, there is for example a sketch available of the graves in the cemetery at Kowno (Kauen). It remains to be seen whether this was also the practice in Norway.

When visiting the cemetery at Jørstadmoen of camp 303 Lillehammer, the biggest burial ground in Norway since 1945, first impressions do not evoke the notion of accurate administration. As a matter of fact, the details of this cemetery have been passed on more precisely than those of most others. All in all, there are 954 people buried here32, the first laid to rest on April 20th, 1942, the last after the end of the war on May 23rd, 1945. A PK I exists for about two-thirds of the deceased; on the front page, as in the case of Gontscharow Sachar Grigorij, 326/165831, the following is marked, usually in red:33

Day of death: 20.11.1944

Cause of death: Tuberculosis of the lungs

Place of grave: Jørstadmoen

Number of Grave: 696

23.11.1944

Kaluza, Gefr.(eiter)

Information about those whose PK I has not yet been retrieved can be added from a cemetery list which was created by the Germans under British supervision, probably in the summer of 1945.34

In addition to first and last names, in most cases this list contains the number on the ID tag, so it is not difficult to relate an unknown dead man in grave 1 to the number 315/28537, which can be matched to the easily retrievable PK I identifying the deceased as Norez Grigorij Andrej. The exact location of the grave within the cemetery can be found on a plan that was probably an attachment to the German list. Every single grave is recorded there up to the number 697; after that, recording is by row. It can be seen from the plan that not all graves in the rows were used. Therefore the empty plots were not considered in the count.35 The present-day list of graves of the Norwegian War Grave Commission counts 934 deceased POWs, usually with name and ID tag number; that is 20 people fewer than were buried there up until May 1945. The missing 20, mostly Serbs, can also be identified, so the cemetery at Jørstadmoen can be reconstructed in its entirety.

Administration of camp 303 Lillehammer was actually more comprehensive than was stipulated by the regulations. For example, it was not a requirement to note the death on the PK I; in fact, there was not even a column for this purpose on the card. Apparently, soldiers in the registry were free to handle this at their discretion. In Norway, this was all the more important since the different work detachments had to act largely independently because of the difficult geographic and climatic conditions and was the main reason they were often called labour camps, branch camps or side camps. Therefore many of these side institutions developed their very own characteristic recording patterns, a feature which has made it easy to identify them today.36

The most distinctive example is the cemetery at Bjørnelva in Saltdal, Nordland. For this grave site today, 100 deceased people can be proved via PK I. Only in rare cases were the grave numbers recorded, but the soldier responsible for entering the details substituted the numbers with a sketch of the grave site on the front of the PK I and marked the respective grave with an arrow. In the few cases where grave numbers were noted, in combination with the sketches and dates of death, we are able to decipher the cemetery fairly accurately.

As an example, see the detail from the PK I of Efimenko Georgij Kornej with the number I B 45389; he was most probably buried in grave number 82:

Place of burial: Björn-Elva

Distance: about 1 km north-west of the camp

For the Soviet POW

Georgij Efimenko

ID-tag 45389

Day of death: 22.11.1944

Died from: Dysenteria

Just like Bjørnelva, other places (some of them literally) had very distinctive handwriting as well, such as the work detachment in Sola (e.g. Dmitriew Wassilij Kusma 330/2994).37

Died: 7.4.1942

Died from: B. Avitaminose

Place of grave: Cemetery near Haus Waltraud, 100 m south of the street Sola/Forus

Number of the grave: on grave 35

One last example is the cemetery of camp 322 at Elvenes close to Kirkenes. This camp was established in July 1941 and existed until the German retreat in October 1944. It was important for work detachments because it was from there that workers were sent not only to eastern Finnmark, to the area of the Wehrmachtsbefehlshaber Norwegen, but also to northern Finland to the Gebirgskops Norwegen (later XIX. Gebirgskorps), who were in action along the Murmansk front.38 A large POW hospital was established in the camp at a very early point in time to treat battlefield injuries and later many cases of disease caused by a lack of care and provisions: general physical weakness, cardiac or circulatory insufficiencies and tuberculosis were among the most common causes of death of prisoners who died there and within the camp. At Elvenes, there were two different ways in which a death was usually noted on the PK I;39 either it was marked on the back in the following way (Rykow, Petr Iwan 302/25470):

Died June 18th 1944 from pneumonia in POW hospital Elvenes and buried in the POW cemetery Elvenes

… or it was recorded at the bottom of the front page, as here in the case of Sidnew, Sergej Iwan (309/11643):

Died May 20th 1944 in a POW hospital and buried in the POW cemetery at Elvenes in Northern Norway

The PK I from Elvenes don’t exactly identify a burial site, but some grave and hospital files give a precise overview of the structure of a cemetery at Elvenes. In many cases the administration wrote «grave labelled by name» (Krjutschkow, Wassilij Leon 309/1734) or «grave labelled by name. Double grave No. 30» (Nikiforow, Matwej Igor 322/1237).40 Here is the so-called grave file (Grabkarte) of Krjutschkow as an example.

In some cases there were even grave numbers, so it can be assumed that there was a detailed plan of the cemetery. All in all, there is proof today at Elvenes of at least 603 Soviet soldiers who lost their lives. This is another sign of the administration’s accurate management of the cemetery until liberation of the camp; as one of the last ones, Schujkin Tichon Ewstegnej (326/164063) was buried there on September 20th, 1944.

Knowing all this, the question arises whether the deceased at these cemeteries are indeed resting in the graves they were assigned to by the administration. Contrary to the burials of prisoners from Western nations, the interments of Red Army soldiers were usually undertaken lacking any dignity: their bodies were stripped – the clothes could be of further use – wrapped in paper bags and hastily buried; more than once, and contrary to the regulations, they were left without the required half of their ID tag, since this was considered reusable material. Taking into account the manner in which these procedures were conducted, how can we be sure that the person noted in the cemetery index under a particular number is really resting in the corresponding grave and not in the one next to it, especially if several prisoners died on the same day?

For one thing, the cemeteries in Norway were relatively small, as was the number of deaths compared to the so-called Russian camps in the East or within the Reich; Jørstadmoen was (until 1945) by far the biggest one, with «only» 954 deceased buried there.41 The low numbers were mainly due to the fact that about 95% of the prisoners were only taken to Norway after the severe autumn and winter 1941/42.42 With such a low daily number of deaths, the probability of bodies being mixed up and buried in the wrong burial lot was extremely low, so the allocation of grave and person should be accurate in the large majority of cases. In addition, photographs of exhumations, the transfer of remains and the newly created cemeteries43 show clearly that the deceased, now in a dignified resting place, had usually been identified at the time of reburial: if their ID tag could be recovered, their identity could be acquired via the cemetery index or the mark on the grave and finally confirmed via the German register.44 If they could only be connected to a name from the grave list, their identity could be confirmed, although perhaps not with 100% certainty.

The cemetery at Tennebekk, June 1945. The memorial plate was made after the end of the war by former POWs.Information from Michael Stokke who has the copyright.

An example of a very small burial ground is the cemetery at Skipagurra (Finmark), where the four deceased resting there were later transferred to Tjøtta and reburied.45

There were certainly camps where death and grave site were not noted on the PK I. This is true especially of the many construction and working battalions employed in Norway. At this point it is important to mention again that it was not necessary to record a death on the PK I because other cards, such as the grave files or the 10-day death report lists for the WASt, explicitly asked for this information and were filled in with the respective data anyway. A clear hint of this practice can often be found on the actual PK I: in many cases the Soviet administration subsequently added the exact date of death of the POW, which they could only have garnered from other German sources.46

The thoroughness of the German bookkeeping is most obvious in the cases of blatant breach of international law, which at least the officers must have been aware of. To date, «shot in attempt to escape» can be proved in 221 cases. POWs who were shot were buried at the nearest cemetery, with the cause of death added to the PK I – wouldn’t it have been «better» to note an invented «natural» cause of death? The same is true of POWs who were handed over to the SD, often after an unsuccessful escape attempt. Although it was prohibited to hand them to an institution outside the military, this still happened and was even put in writing. This shows the importance of the registration process for the Wehrmacht, but is also a definite sign that in Norway every single death was accurately recorded. Knowing this, the following note on the PK I of Piskarew Wladimir Iwan (II A 87425) is no longer surprising: «Shot dead by the Grenzschutzwacht (border guards) East of Graddis. The body was hastily buried in the mountains», painfully close to safety on the other - the Swedish - side of the border. In this case there was no grave sign for sure.47

Essentially, there is only one problem when it comes to identifying the graves, and this concerns the year 1945, for which only a very few PK I have been recovered up to the present day. From the end of 1944 the files of the dead could only be brought to the WASt in Meiningen sporadically. The question is what happened to the files that were probably never sent there because of the course of the war. There are two possibilities. The end of the war went peacefully, the British took over the camps but left most of the administration to the Germans up until late summer 1945. Together and in cooperation with the Norwegian authorities and individuals, efforts were made to locate further grave sites and identify dead prisoners, which suggests that the British might have taken over the files and, consequently, these could be deposited in British archives today.

Evaluation of the files at CAMO opens up a different possibility though, which has not been considered up to now. The 620-page-long file 18003/1613, which the Soviet authorities apparently compiled in 1945/46 based on the German PK I and which can also be accessed via the Internet, contains lists of Red Army soldiers who died in imprisonment in France, Germany and Norway. On page 3 of this document there is a passage: «Files in the quantity of about 318.200 cards have been destroyed. See: File N 29146 – 46 (signature) April 20th, 1946. Act of destruction N 3316c – 47. Leader division 1. Captain. January 28th, 1947.» According to this note the Soviet authorities would have destroyed the German files themselves, even though they contained much more information than they recorded in their lists (usually last name, first name, father’s name, date of birth and date of death, cause of death, camp).48 In total, the file contains the names of about one thousand prisoners who died in Norway mostly in 1944/45; for most of them, no PK I has been discovered, nor can they be found on the Norwegian list of war graves to date. Since the place of death has usually been recorded in the Russian list though, they can be ascribed to specific cemeteries with a fair amount of certainty.

So, until the end of the war the German troops in Norway were meticulous in their administration of POWs, and up to the highest ranks the whereabouts of every single one of them were recorded, including date of death and grave site. Simple proof of this is the project «Krigsgraver søker namn» of the Falstadsenteret (mentioned at the beginning) based on the very material that, according to its own argument, should not even be in existence today,49 namely the German files regarding the dead POWs which were sent by the camps to the WASt in Berlin or Meiningen. This contradiction has apparently not been noticed.

Today, a total of about 8300 deceased can be identified by name, in most cases also by grave site and a great deal of additional personal data; the uncertainty in the number arises from the different spellings of names in German, Norwegian and Russian which in some cases makes it difficult to determine whether two slightly different names actually match the same person. Besides Jørstadmoen and Elvenes there were big cemeteries at Engeløy (496 dead), Harstad/Trondenes (454), Beisfjord (381), Alta/Elvebakken (313) and Kroken-Engan (158; most current numbers), to name just a few. A maximum of 8,500 to 9,000 deceased POWs (of about 11,000 in total) might be identifiable. The nearly 3,000 victims who died with the sinking of the steamships Palatia and Rigel will unfortunately most likely remain anonymous.50

There are also several reasons contradicting the thesis mentioned on page 532 assuming an obliteration of the graves before the retreat at the end of the war:

Høybuktmoen near Kirkenes, August 1945. Published with the permission of Morton Kasbergsen

  • The plan and the list of Jørstadmoen were created after the liberation, when no German soldier would have risked changing anything about the cemetery; and why would there have been any interest in doing so anyway? It should be added that the British troops would probably have intervened rather quickly.

  • In the summer of 1945 the Deutsche Oberbefehlshaber Norwegen had a «List of Russian Graves in Drontheim zone» produced which included the names and grave sites of those who had died in 1942, e.g. for Øysand. For Opdal, there are, among others, 55 prisoners who died between the beginning of February and early May 1945. However, the list is not complete because there are deceased in the official grave list who are not mentioned in the overview of 1945.51 In addition, there are PK I’s of prisoners whose names don’t show up in either of the two lists. Here, further research is necessary.

  • The cemetery at Nikel (formerly Kolosjoki), on the Russian side of the border, can be used as an example of the way the graves were marked. Soviet POWs were employed in the local nickel mines under terrible conditions. For the deceased, a cemetery was established close by. Today, it is in a desolate state and will probably become submerged under the advancing mine dump within the foreseeable future. In the surrounding shrubbery, small slabs of wood stick out of the earth, evenly spaced in three rows of at least 15 in each row. This corresponds with the way many of the cemeteries were set up, i.e. the graves marked by simple wooden plates with an ID tag number.52 No further information was necessary, since the person could always be matched with the tag number via the respective list. Of course the markings at the cemetery at Nikel have long been weathered, but test excavations several months ago prove that in fact POWs were buried there. There is no reason to believe this should not have been the case at other cemeteries in 1945, namely, they looked at least similar to the one at Nikel before the POWs were transferred and reburied.53

The claim that the large number of unidentified dead Soviets in Norwegian cemeteries was the fault of the German Wehrmacht is no longer sustainable. The Germans are rightly being reproached for their inhumane treatment of POWs, which defied all international conventions, but the same cannot be said of the administrative processing of cases of death. This was handled accurately by the book in accordance with rules similar to those applied in the case of their own soldiers.

POW cemetery in Nikel (Russia), 2008. Photo by the author

In 1945 the German military administration along with the British troops in most cases knew who had been buried where and when,54 so information was passed on correctly up to that point. The first transfer and reburial in the area of Finnmark apparently still happened under protection of the deceased’s individuality. Only in the later reburials, for example in the context of «Operasjon Asfalt», did the single dead prisoner become part of an anonymous mass.55

The way that individuality could be lost can be demonstrated clearly in the following example. Six POWs resting in the cemetery at Tjøtta had been transferred from the cemetery at Høybuktmoen close to Kirkenes. Their ID tag numbers are known as opposed to those of 1558 others.56 All six can be identified, and it is clear that they died in a penal camp known as «Sonderlager» (special camp), at km 25 on the road from Taarnet to Parkkina, and were buried in the adjoining cemetery. From there they were apparently moved to Høybuktmoen and then transferred to Tjøtta. Somewhere along the way their identities were lost. If these six bodies were transferred from the penal camp at km 25, the same is certainly likely to be true of at least 46 other POWs whose graves have so far been identified by PK I at the cemetery of «Sonderlager». Their tracks have been lost completely though.57

Some smaller local cemeteries seem to have been neglected in the same way, since there is no other explanation for the fact that more people were buried there than were later transferred, or that today locally the names of the people buried there in the past are no longer known.58 One would need to direct the reproach, that the memory of the deceased was handled in a way that made an individual remembrance at a specific place impossible, at the Norwegian authorities of the time. The effort to at least recover the names of the POWs today only means compensation for past mistakes.

This way of organising the cemeteries of Soviet citizens after 1945 was certainly not a specific Norwegian phenomenon. Most graveyards in Germany and in the occupied territories were intact at the end of the war. The start of the Cold War and Europe being separated by the Iron Curtain left deceased Soviets in the West appearing once more to be what they had been prior to 1945, i.e. members of an ideological enemy. Why maintain their graves if their sole existence gave the Soviet government reason to inspect these places in northern Norway, NATO’s strategic north flank and a tangent between East and West, just as precarious as in the Federal Republic of Germany. The creation of a few large common grave sites could only be beneficial. The individual became irrelevant.59

But the Soviet Union was not interested in a cemetery overview by name either.60 The family of every deceased POW whose burial site was known would inevitably want to travel to his last resting place to pay their respects and remember him. For millions of Soviet citizens, however, this would have meant gaining an insight into capitalism. Consequently, the relatives of a missing soldier were given no information from the authorities if they asked about what had become of him even although they had the respective German documents. Organising the cemeteries as common graves of people who had been tortured by fascism and died far from home enabled the state to establish them as heroes and to erect huge monuments for them.

Fortunately, this attitude has changed on both sides: today, families can freely visit their relatives’ graves. Whether they can find them is another question, however, and for this reason it should be the moral duty of a state, be it Norway, Germany or Russia, to mark a last resting place once it is identified – if only by a name – on a list or on a plate. It is hardly possible to imagine a better way of international understanding put into practice.