Perspectives Daily

Beyond the Archive

What GIS Mapping Reveals about German POWs in Soviet Russia

Susan Grunewald | Feb 26, 2019

The Soviet government kept roughly 1.5 million German POWs in forced-labor camps after the end of World War II through 1956. The POWs constituted the largest and longest held group of prisoners for any victor nation. Why did the Soviet government delay repatriation for so long? Many scholars who have examined the GULAG forced labor system in the Soviet Union have asserted that it was developed and maintained as a form of political punishment or even terror for those imprisoned. Many educated non-experts, including German families, believe that GULAG and POW camps existed only in the frozen far reaches of Siberia. Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping of the locations of POW camps challenges both these tenets. It demonstrates how digital mapping can allow historians to further interpret traditional archival sources and make broader arguments based on space, place, and natural resources.

Although archival sources can provide answers to questions about locations and types of labor deployment of POWs, they cannot tell us the total economic contribution of their labor. Despite the USSR being a centrally planned economy, comprehensive economic accounting for POW labor output does not exist, or at least not in the collections of declassified sources in accessible archives. Fragmented archival sources imply that the Soviets primarily held onto German POWs out of economic necessity caused by the war’s destruction. GIS mapping supports this hypothesis by providing much more immediate, large-scale, and comprehensive data derived from a variety of different sources. By plotting the approximate locations of German POW camps in relation to sites of Soviet industry, infrastructure, and resources, we can answer a number of key questions about the role of forced labor in the wartime and postwar Soviet economy, including which industrial sectors and sites were most important to reconstruction.

The main data source for my maps is a joint German and Russian project that produced an encyclopedia of the German POW camps in the USSR from 1941–56. After scanning the book, turning the images into text though optical character recognition (OCR), and cleaning much of the data by hand, I worked with programmers from my university’s Digital Humanities program to write scripts that would ask Google Maps for the latitude and longitude coordinates of the camps. I then imported these coordinates into the mapping software ArcGIS.

The data cleaning and mapping went through numerous iterations. I started out by mapping the camps in Ukraine and then did a rough plot of camps across the entire Soviet Union. The first-generation All-Union map had many errors due to the automatic retrieval of latitudes and longitudes from Google Maps, but nonetheless provided a great deal of insight into POW labor camp distribution and policy. Even from the incomplete initial maps (Fig. 1), it was clear that economic imperatives drove camp distribution.

Most German POW camps were in, or close to, European Russia or on the territories of the republics that saw vast battles during the war. The maps suggested that German POWs actively worked to rebuild the destruction that their invasion caused. In Ukraine (Fig. 2), as well as in the USSR, there were large clusters of camps around cities with either resource deposits or industrial importance. Over 70 percent of the camps in Ukraine, for example, were within a three-mile radius of coal basins. Knowing this information allowed me to target specific camps or regions, such as Ukrainian SSR or the Dnepropetrovsk region, during my subsequent archival research in Russia. It also steered me toward the documents of certain commissariats or ministries within the Russian State Archive of Economics.

Fig. 1. First round geocoding of German POW camps in the USSR, 1941–56.

Fig. 1. First round geocoding of German POW camps in the USSR, 1941–56, using the programming language R with the packages ggplot and ggmaps. All of my maps include approximate camp locations. The most granular data for camp location is a village or city, not a direct address in the city. Although Soviet citizens knew of the existence and location of the POW camps, the secret police (The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or NKVD) documents still classified information about them as top secret. Official documents listed camp addresses as Post Box [Camp No.] NKVD, USSR, [City, Region].

Fig. 2. Map of POW camp locations in Ukraine and coal basins, 1942–54.

Fig. 2. POW camp locations in Ukraine and coal basins, 1942–54. In the map, the dots represent the location of the camps. The banding and shading indicate coal basins. The tighter the banding, the higher the concentration of coal. The coal data is used with permission from Michael Brownfield et al., “Coal Quality and Resources of the Former Soviet Union: An ArcView Project.”

This additional archival research corroborated the information suggested in the maps. Historians like Wendy Goldman and Donald Filtzer have written about how the mining industry was short on labor both during and after the war, and that coal was essential to defense and industrial production. Sources in the State Archive of the Russian Federation revealed that Stalin himself assigned contingents of German POWs to work in various Soviet coal basins. The maps show where camps were located and how important coal was to the Soviet effort to rebuild. In Russia, camps were also heavily clustered in the Urals region, where much of Soviet industry had been evacuated during the early stages of the war. An imported map of Russian rail lines showed that camps fell only on the rail networks of the Russian Soviet republic (Figure 3). POW camps were placed on central transport lines rather than in remote locations where they might be hidden from view. 

Fig. 3. Map of Russian rail lines and German POW camps, 1941–56.

Fig. 3. Russian rail lines and German POW camps, 1941–56. The railroad layer represents more contemporary Russian rail lines from 2002. Many of these lines, such as the main line of the Trans-Siberian railway, existed long before the start of World War II. The layer was downloaded from “Transportation,” Land Resources of Russia.

Taken together, these intersections between camp location, resources, industrial centers, and infrastructure illustrate that economics rather than punishment dictated camp distribution. If the Soviets wanted, above all, to punish their German captives, they could have sent them all to inhospitable locations in Siberia, but they did not. Due to the tremendous loss in human life and property resulting from the war, the Soviet Union relied on able-bodied POWs to rebuild the economy. The physical distribution of the camps, moreover, aligned closely with the USSR’s population centers, showing that the prisoners were not isolated from Soviet free citizens. Indeed, archival sources, memoirs, and anecdotal evidence show that the Germans interacted frequently with Soviet citizens while incarcerated.

Digital mapping works best in conjunction with more traditional sources. It can be crucial to making research conclusions, but not without the context and evidence of the standard building blocks of historical studies. Indeed, GIS mapping and the traditional methods and sources of history are symbiotic. As my research process shows, initial mapping work can help scholars refine their research questions and navigate information contained within written documents and oral testimonies.

Susan Grunewald is a PhD candidate in history at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her research is supported by two Andrew W. Mellon Digital Humanities Fellowships at Carnegie Mellon as well as a Cohen-Tucker Dissertation Research Fellowship from the Association of Slavic, East-European, and Eurasian Studies. She thanks Jessica Otis, Scott Weingart, and Wendy Goldman for assistance in crafting and revising this essay. She also thanks Elizabeth Dunn, Emanuela Grama, and Alex Lichtenstein for the inspiration to write this piece.

Tags: Perspectives Daily Digital History Europe

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.

The American Historical Association welcomes comments in the discussion area below, at AHA Communities, and in letters to the editor. Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.


Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.