In the introduction to The Liberation of the Serfs, Jürgen Georg Backhaus writes:

The largest transaction in unfree labour ever recorded occurred in Yalta; more than 6.5 million prisoners of war were handed over to Russia and France, making Roosevelt the biggest slave trader in recorded history. (Google Books.)

My guess is that the above author is talking about the Yalta Conference, but I could find nothing when I googled "Yalta conference 6.5 million prisoners of war". So what on earth is the above author talking about? Did Roosevelt hand over 6.5m POWs to Russia and France?

  • 2
    Section V of the Yalta agreement specifies: Reparation in kind is to be exacted from Germany in three following forms [...] (c) Use of German labor. but it leaves the details to follow-up discussions for which I have found no data. Also, this wikipedia article talks about the transfer of German POW (or the refusal of their surrender) by the US Army, but does not mention any treaty and just "goodwill gesture".
    – SJuan76
    Oct 20, 2016 at 7:50
  • 5
    Spin isn't something invented last decade. Hyperbole is an old linguistic device. When reading, make sure you consider the source. Oct 20, 2016 at 15:47
  • Suggest adding clarity "Franklin Roosevelt". (Helps with searches too.) Nov 16, 2017 at 5:48

3 Answers 3


This relies in willfully mistaking figurative language for non-figurative speech.

Roosevelt didn't "trade" those people in the sense that a slave trader traded his captives. He made a political pact which included handing prisoners of war to a foreign power. There was no selling of human individuals in that; it is a "trade" only rhetorically, in that a political pact involves both sides making concessions, which may be roughly similar to the concessions made by people selling and buying things.

Also, those people were not "slaves" in any technical terms; there were no "slaves" in the Soviet Union. Slaves are property that can be bought and sold; we use the word "slave" in many different figurative senses, some very foolish, others not so much. And the condition of POWs returned to the SU may have been dire, even similar to slavery in the 19th century Americas, so the rhetorics may have some merit here. But to attempt to make a factual statement that "Roosevelt was the biggest slave trader in recorded history" and intend it to be taken as an accurate description of what really happened is to mistake electoral campaign rhetorics for a scientific description.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 23, 2016 at 19:54
  • 2
    The last sentence - brilliant! Oct 26, 2016 at 22:12
  • I had to downvote this - because it is fallacious. First of all, it relies on a very narrow definition of slave - basically the American model from the Civil War. This is American exceptionalism and it's also an equivocations fallacy. A slave can simply be considered as part of an indentured labour force. As many returned POWs ended up doing hard labour in Siberia - it's not inaccurate to call them 'slave labour'. Being bought and sold as property is neither a sufficient nor necessary condition for slavery. Contd...
    – Anaryl
    Dec 7, 2016 at 23:05
  • Secondly, Luis is relying on a very, very narrow view of what constitutes a trade - but in the same breath admits that the deal was transactional. You cannot have it both ways. The idea that there were no slaves in the USSR because the model didn't resemble the American model is simply fallacious - conquering armies in antiquity regularly took captives and added them to indentured workforces. Arguing that because they weren't bought and sold on a widespread scale like they were in the US it's not slavery ignores many other historical occurences where it was There's no evidence ....
    – Anaryl
    Dec 7, 2016 at 23:08
  • that workers were not bought and sold in the gulags in such a manner. We used to think slaves built the pyramids - and such labour would've been utilised in almost exactly the same way - rather than being bought and sold privately - they were indentured labour to the monarchy. I do agree with the last sentence that Roosevelt wasn't really a slave trader, but the entire post is unfortunately a fallacy fallacy. Whilst I appreciate the effort put in to the answer - slavery tends to carry a lot of intellectual baggage in the Americas.
    – Anaryl
    Dec 7, 2016 at 23:19

As SJuan76 has pointed out, this quotation is about GERMAN prisoners of war who were left in captivity in the Soviet Union and France, rather than repatriated to what was left of Germany. This was decided at Yalta. It is not about SOVIET prisoners of war. I do not know where the figure of 6.5 million comes from, and I am even less able to understand why the author blames this situation on Roosevelt, and not also on Churchill, or indeed Stalin, all of whom were signatories of the Yalta agreement. Herr Professor Backhaus evidently has an axe to grind.

  • 1
    Pretty hard to argue the United States started World War 2...or was somehow responsible for the atrocities on the Eastern Front. The Author fails to mention the Nuremberg Trial...such that the events that took place "of the Generalplan Ost" would not go unnoticed. A true slave is simply an unacknowledged being in an unknown context. Clearly that is contradicted by the author just bringing up the subject Oct 20, 2016 at 14:43

The reference here is to the forced repatriation of Soviet POWs, forced labourers, and émigrés after WWII. There is scattered information about it in wiki here.

However, the number 6.5 million seems a gross overestimate (2 million - which also is surely a huge number! - is the likelier figure).

I also don't quite understand why France is mentioned there.

Perhaps he is referring to the fact that returning French prisoners faced some opprobrium and shaming, though nothing like the harsh treatment given by the Soviet state to its returning prisoners. But I doubt that any significant number of French prisoners had to be coerced into returning to France at all, as in the Soviet case.

  • 3
    I think he is not talking about SU POWs returned to the SU but about German POWs in Soviet captivity; the French also used the Germans they captured for hard labor (including clearing minefields). That said, the numbers I have found for those seem to be way lower than the claimed 6.5m.
    – SJuan76
    Oct 20, 2016 at 8:48
  • @SJuan76 And more importantly, the Germans badly wanted to go home. Many of the Soviets did not. So I think he does... Oct 20, 2016 at 8:57
  • The wiki is unclear; can you clarify the statement from wiki: "Tolstoy estimates that overall, two or more million Soviet nationals were repatriated." Does this number include those who were repatriated directly by the Soviets, or is it only those repatriated by the non-Soviet allies? Oct 20, 2016 at 9:08