SOLDIERS AND SLAVES *

American POWs Trapped by the Nazis' Final Gamble

By Roger Cohen

Knopf. 303 pp. $25.95

The question has often been asked -- not least by some Allied commanders back in 1945 -- whether it mattered that the final advance across northwestern Europe to crush Nazism was so sluggish. In fact, it mattered profoundly to some 8 million of Hitler's captives, who died by the thousands each day until deliverance came.

Slave labor had become a central feature of the Nazi industrial machine, as it was of the Soviet one. To the very end of World War II, vast numbers of men and women were worked to death by their German captors, who had long since ceased to measure the usefulness of tasks to which prisoners were committed.

One such group found itself digging tunnels at Berga, a concentration camp south of Leipzig in eastern Germany, for the storage of synthetic fuel. Such an activity was futile, since oil production was being bombed into collapse. But Jewish slaves had been earmarked and SS taskmasters appointed to supervise them. The tunnelers were set to work and to die -- some by starvation and exhaustion, others by willful savagery.

So far, this is a familiar story of the Third Reich. But in mid-February 1945 at Berga, a new dimension was added: A group of 350 American soldiers, most captured in the Battle of the Bulge and many of them Jewish, joined the civilian work gangs. In the 52 days before they were liberated, 22 died in the mines. A further 49 fell during a 125-mile march on which these broken men were dispatched as the SS made futile efforts to distance them from their approaching liberators.

The GI prisoners were traumatized to find themselves in a predicament they had supposed unthinkable for uniformed soldiers. One American remembered seeing German POWs being shipped across the United States to camps in the Midwest, better fed than they had ever been at the front.

Roger Cohen, a former New York Times foreign editor and Berlin correspondent, was amazed to learn that U.S. soldiers had suffered such an experience. He has researched the Berga story exhaustively, through interviews with survivors and study of U.S. Army records. One captive, Pvt. Edward Gorinac of Port Huron, Mich., kept a journal:

"February 16, 1945: We were called at 4:30 a.m. Started to work digging out a tunnel. We had to shovel stone. The dust is bad. . . . We have no dinners and only a cup of coffee and what bread we can save from supper, which isn't very much. . . . March 10 to March 12: Rogers died today. We are getting skinnier every day. March 13: Fred from Lansing died today. . . . March 19: Throat is sore as hell. Another man was brought in this morning. He died hour later."

Gorinac himself perished on March 20, leaving his journal to bear witness. When the men of Berga were freed at last, U.S. war crimes investigators were appalled by their condition. They were wasted to skeletons, in the fashion of death-camp survivors. One American Jewish soldier, Norman Fellman of the 70th Infantry Division, had joined the army weighing 178 pounds; by May 1945, he was reduced to just 86.

The families of those who had perished were appalled when only two Germans from Berga were indicted in the West. These killers were imprisoned for three and six years respectively, one having been granted a reprieve from execution by the postwar U.S. military government. The East German communist regime hanged the camp commandant, SS Lt. Willy Hack, in 1952. Cohen expresses his own anger, arguing that such a slender tally of convictions fell far short of justice for the guilty.

The problem with his book, however, is that it makes no attempt to set the story of Berga in the context of the wider experience of Germany's captives in 1945 -- and indeed shows scant awareness of it. Many thousands of Western Allied prisoners and millions of Russians suffered equally hideously, and for much longer. Tens of thousands died on the roads of Germany in the last weeks of the war on journeys that were at least as much "death marches" as the one endured by the Berga GIs.

Cohen remarks that many of those sent to the tunnels had been explicitly identified as Jewish and thus became as much victims of the Holocaust as if they had been shipped to death camps. He argues that war crimes prosecutors should have highlighted this fact so that their captors' crimes could be judged accordingly. Such a line would scarcely have been fair to the Nazis' non-Jewish prisoners, some of whom suffered quite as much. Nothing in the smallest degree mitigates the enormity of German behavior, but it is hard to accept Cohen's impassioned thesis that Berga represented a unique atrocity.

The same must be said of his criticisms of postwar judgment on the men responsible. If every German guilty of war crimes had been executed in accordance with the law after V-E Day, hundreds of thousands would have been sent to the gallows. As it was, by May 1945 many Allied soldiers were weary of killing and even skeptical about retribution. They were exhausted morally, as well as physically and emotionally, after the cataclysm that had engulfed Europe. Only the Soviets displayed much of an appetite for vengeance.

The well of Nazi inhumanity was bottomless, and it is fortunate that relatively few American soldiers, Jewish or otherwise, plumbed its depths. What happened at Berga was characteristic of a tyranny that, even in its last weeks, retained an insatiable appetite for death. Some of us are thankful that the Western Allies flinched from demanding a blood sacrifice more commensurate with the scale of Nazi crimes, even when they gained the power to enforce it. *

Max Hastings is the author, most recently, of "Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945."