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The Psychological and Physical Condition of Prisoners of War Returning from the East (undated report)

At the end of World War II, millions of German men were being held as prisoners of war in Allied camps. While the Western Allies released their prisoners fairly quickly, the Soviet Union put its prisoners to work as part of German reparations and did not release the last Germans until 1955. This report from the returnee hotel Willingen, a church-run facility in Hesse, describes the disastrous physical and psychological effects of the harsh living conditions in Soviet labor camps.

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Observations and Experiences in the Returnee Hotel Willingen

I. The Eastern returnee

a) His psychological makeup. He is a person who has been affected to a special extent, in part by his terrible existence as a prisoner in Russia, in part, however, also by the completely different way of life in that country. His nature and facial expression have become Russian.

He arrives in tatters. Deep-set eyes peer out of a pale, yellow face, as though his life and soul have been extinguished. Without any apparent inner interest he stands where he is put and waits indecisively for commands, which he then mechanically carries out. In terms of emotional stirrings, he knows only strong insecurity and mistrust toward everyone. If he sees things that seem desirable or somehow useful to him, an unrestrained yearning breaks out (food, clothing, gadgets).

Psychological explanation: the terrible experience compelled

a) emotional withdrawal;
b) the most brutal exploitation of all possibilities of preserving one’s own life.
– Wolf pack morality –

Serious psychological complexes and repressions have developed. Captivity did not chasten or improve these men. They have lost much of their real humanity. They have become Dostoevskian natures. The ‘flotsam’ of the Eastern returnees comes to us: the homeless, people who are completely bombed out, people who have lost their families. Anyone who still has someone [to go to] is rarely willing to come to us, since the last ounce of energy drives him to his relatives.

Examples of what has been described:

1. In the Munster camp, two returnees who were fighting over a cigarette butt were rebuked by an English sergeant. Both dropped to their knees, lifted their hands, and cried out beseechingly: “Have mercy, master!”

2. After being unloaded in the Munster camp, figures wrapped in rags stood cold and shivering and waited completely apathetically for further directives, while the prisoners from England who arrived at the same time were impatiently demanding transportation and making the necessary preparations. When their duffel bags were unloaded, several prisoners coming from Russia pushed forward and were staring with greedy eyes, lurking around to see if they might be able to abscond with something.

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