A Time of Retribution Paying with Life and Limb for the Crimes of Nazi Germany

National Archives/DER SPIEGEL

By Christian Habbe

Part 2: A 'Tragedy on a Prodigious Scale'

It soon even dawned on the victors that something was going seriously wrong. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the mass expulsion of the vanquished a "tragedy on a prodigious scale."

And yet Churchill and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt had discussed the resettlement of populations of Germans or people of German heritage even before the US had officially declared war on Hitler. In the summer of 1941, the two men met on the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales anchored off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, to hash out the details of an Atlantic Charter for a postwar political order.

Once the Nazis had been destroyed, the two leaders decided, self-determination and other rights removed by violent means would be reestablished in Europe. However, there should be no territorial changes that did "not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned."

The Polish and Czechoslovakian representatives were briefly dumbstruck, but then vehemently rejected the very notion. Czech President-in-Exile Edvard Benes, for example, demanded the forcible resettlement of Germans, and even proposed what he called a "painful operation" -- with success. The Allies gave in. They said the charter didn't necessarily apply to Germany. After all, it wasn't a "bargain or contract with our enemies." As early as September 1942, British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden told the Czechs that his cabinet would "agree in principle to resettlement." Meanwhile, Roosevelt indicated to the Poles that he wouldn't object to resettlement.

When the victorious Allies met in Potsdam in the summer of 1945 to lay down the new borders of Europe's nations, Stalin flippantly remarked that there weren't any Germans left in the territories they were handing over to Poland. "Of course not," said US presidential advisor William Leahy to Harry Truman. "The Bolshies have killed them all!"

No Interest in Protecting the Barbaric Instigators

Hitler's Master Plan East, part of his Lebensraum policy, had foreseen both the Germanization of all the lands from the Baltic states to Crimea and the expulsion and enslavement of 30 million Poles and other Slavs, as well as, according to ministerial memo, the "scrapping of racially undesirable sectors of the population." Given those circumstances, the Western Allies weren't particularly interested in protecting the barbaric instigators of the war against reprisals from the east.

Nevertheless, Western negotiators worried that they had made too many concessions to the Soviets. "I regret being unable to see any sign of decisiveness on our part," US Secretary of State James Byrne commented in August 1945 after the conclusion of the Potsdam Conference. Even so, the Western powers did manage to slip a proviso into Article XII of the Potsdam Agreement that the "transfer" to Germany of German populations was to be carried out "in an orderly and humane manner."

The first bloodbaths in East Prussia in the fall of 1944 clearly showed that this would not apply to areas east of the Oder-Neisse Line. Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels used the massacre in Nemmersdorf to foment hatred of the "beasts" in the Soviet Union.

The Red Army rolled across eastern Europe faster than people could flee through the snow and bitter cold. Soon a brutal inferno broke out in Germany's eastern provinces.

'The Start of a Terrible Suffering'

A woman from Heiligenbeil (today's Mamonovo) remembers freight trains packed with refugees from Masuria in what is now northeastern Poland, all of whom had had to stand for days on end. "Pregnant women who had given birth had frozen to the floor. The dead were thrown out of the windows." There were equally horrific scenes out on the streets: Families with horse-drawn carts, handcarts or just their suitcases in their hands dragged themselves through blowing snow and icy winds, far too weak to move out of the way if a Russian T-34 tank rolled into their convoy, as they sometimes did.

But even the German army, the Wehrmacht, tried to stop would-be refugees from fleeing along the few roads that were still open. "We're organizing our defense, not a retreat," SS leader Heinrich Himmler declared. The Nazi leaders did little if anything to protect their people from Soviet tanks, fighter bombers and vengeful soldiers.

East Prussian refugee Herman Fischer recalls, "The Russians arrived on January 24. We had great difficulty getting the district official out of his party uniform and hiding it in the straw. If we hadn't, we'd all have been doomed. That evening my wife and I were stood up against a wall with a submachine gun pointing at our necks. Only the pleas of Polish girls saved us. The daughters of Ernst L. were raped by an entire Russian combat unit in an ordeal that lasted from 8 o'clock in the evening until 9 the next morning … It was the start of a time of terrible suffering."

Many people were so desperate that they took their own lives. But not everyone could get their hands on the poison that was handed out at pharmacies with the tacit approval of the Nazi Party. East Prussian Ella Knobbe reported, matter-of-factly, "An acquaintance of mine, Mrs. Emma Stamer, born Reisberg, from the neighboring village of Silberbach, committed suicide together with her husband, Fritz Stamer, by drinking battery acid because she could no longer bear the shame of having been raped repeatedly in front of her husband. The bodies of around 30 executed German soldiers lay in the barn of farmer Browatzki."

Countless Credible Accounts

In the 1950s, a team of historians commissioned by the West German government to investigate the events surrounding the flight and expulsion of Germans after World War II amassed more than 40,000 such eyewitness accounts and stories. Their findings were apparently so shocking that the government decided not to publish them for many years. Historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler believes Bonn had reason to fear that the "countless credible reports of tanks simply plowing through lines of refugees, of people forced to drink out of latrine barrels until they perished" would prompt the people to weigh the crimes of the Nazis against the suffering of the expellees.

Certain topics, particularly the mass rapes, were too sensitive for the nascent West Germany to consider. Even the women themselves mostly kept silent about their ordeals, out of embarrassment and a fear of being stigmatized. They therefore simply repressed the memory of their trauma. Psychological counseling wasn't available.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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Billi 05/28/2011
1. A Time of Retribution
About time Spiegel published an article showing what happened to German people at the end of WWII. I've always thought that the German media seem to view German civilian lives at that time as sacrifices to be given up in retribution for the crimes of the Nazis. Surely these peoples' lives were worthy of being recorded as well as the manner of their death. They couldn't ALL be guilty of Nazi crimes, but that's the feeling I have.
wmspryor 05/29/2011
2. War Crimes Committed Against Germans Are Not Recognized!
While the ICJ in the Hague hounds suspected German and East European (Fascist supporters) war criminals to the grave to this very day, other nations have not been touched. Name one Soviet or Italian war criminal that was even charged with a crime! The surviving henchmen responsible for carrying out Stalin's atrocities sleep comfortably every night without a worry. This hypocrisy is nauseating!
heitgitsche 05/29/2011
3. Victims then and now!
The greatest "ethnic cleansing" in European history, but still a taboo in German and European official politics. The German expellees - victims then and of PC now. We, the expelled children, hope for justice in future. We owe our commitment to our forefathers of about 20 generations.
BTraven 05/30/2011
That subject is still haunting us, and I believe it will do in the future, however, logically, will it be less interesting to read as most facts will be well known. However, there are still a few aspects we are informed about only rudimentarily so, for example, the deportation of Germans to Russia where they were forced to work in labour camps. A reason why the author just mentioned could be the lack of information from those who had to endure it. Many died, and all who survived were not allowed to speak about it or, which is much more likely, nobody was interested in their story when they came back and found out that Germany had changed a lot.
heitgitsche 05/30/2011
5. Europe - a negative role model
The conflicts started in the midst of the 19 th century with the rise of nationalism. The newly-founded national states Czechoslovakia and Poland did not grant minority rights after World WarI. During and after World War II they took their chance to get rid of unwelcome minorities, accepted then and accepted now. History and culture of 800 years gone. A bad role model for the rest of Europe and the world. EU and UNO have forfeit the right to stop other ethnic cleansers, too.
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