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

National Archives/DER SPIEGEL

By Christian Habbe

Part 3: Nazi Evacuation Delays Worsened Suffering

Eyewitness account No. 15 from the Bonn investigation report gives an inkling of what hundreds of thousands of women must have gone through: Thirty-nine-year-old E.O. from Elbing in West Prussia was fleeing with her young children, 7-year-old Horst and 1-year-old Christa, when Soviet soldiers picked them up and locked her in a specially prepared room with other women.

"I was raped twice a day for seven days, each time by several soldiers," she said. "The seventh day was my worst. I was picked up in the evening, and released the next morning. My genitals were completely ripped open, and I had an arm-wide sore all the way down to my knees. I could neither walk nor lie down. There were three more terrible days like this one before the Russian soldiers decided we had had enough, and chased us naked out of that hellhole."

Together with other victims, she was sent on a death march -- barefoot. She survived, though 600 others like her did not. She even managed to return home with her children, but her apartment had been completely ransacked. Somehow she found the strength to obtain a handcart and trek to the west with Horst and Christa. Only when she reached the safety of the village of Weyer in the Oberlahn district in Germany did she finally break down and try to drown herself. She was saved at the last minute.

Any Attempts to Flee Were Punished

How much suffering could have been avoided if the cynical Nazi leaders hadn't delayed the evacuation of Germans time and again? Any attempts to flee were punished. As late as August 1944, Himmler blustered in a speech to Gauleiters, provincial governors under Hitler, about cultivating "a botanical garden of Germanic blood" in the East.

This policy led to a human tragedy in Breslau, known today as Wroclaw, where 700,000 inhabitants, refugees and injured people had held out until the Russians were almost at the gates to the city. Almost 90,000 people perished in the ensuing panicked evacuation of the city and the subsequent siege. By contrast, Gauleiter Karl Hanke was able to save his skin aboard a Fieseler Storch light aircraft, the last plane to leave the city.

The order to evacuate East Prussia came so late that Soviet tanks were able to cut off hundreds of thousands of refugees when they reached the Baltic Sea. Virtually encircled, the masses only had one route open to them: Through the relative safety of the as yet unoccupied region around Danzig (today's Gdansk) -- and across the frozen Vistula Lagoon. Thousands set out onto the brittle ice, and the makeshift route Wehrmacht soldiers marked with trees and branches became a treacherous and often deadly path. Night and day, artillery shells rained down and fighter bombers fired on the fleeing refugees, huge craters opened up in the ice, carts sank in the icy water, the bodies of the shot and frozen lay all around.

Gertrud Dannowski, from the village of Deutsch Thierau on what is now the Russian-Polish border, witnessed the icy nightmare:

"Bullets and pieces of ice ricocheted off the tin roof of our cart. Shooting, cries, and screams pierced the still of the night. It was every man for himself in a desperate attempt to get off the brittle ice again as quickly as possible. Dawn broke over a horrific scene: Body upon body, man and horse alike. Often enough, only the drawbars of the carriages protruded out of the ice. The Angel of Death had claimed a great many victims."

Immune to the Horror

Almost a half-million people managed to flee across the Vistula Lagoon and reach the other side. Hundreds of thousands were already there. It was a scene of terrible chaos. Men carried frozen relatives, women threw their children into departing boats in the hope they would be saved. Many families were split up forever. Injured people patched up with bloody paper bandages lined up by the gangplanks. One hundred thousand refugees were already waiting on the Hel peninsula for the next rescue ship. "We had a hard time burying all those who were killed in air raids," recalled one navy officer. "Our men became so immune to the horror that dead women and children who had bled to death no longer affected them."

Nazi Party officials sometimes commandeered boats for their exclusive use. East Prussian Gauleiter Erich Koch even wanted refugees to be thrown overboard. Often enough, if an air raid occurred, ship's crews quickly cast off, leaving refugees being brought out on rowboats to their fate in the icy sea.

A ramshackle flotilla of refitted torpedo boats, icebreakers, freighters and cruise ships desperately shuttled refugees to Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg in northern Germany and to Denmark. The boats, most of them completely overloaded, were moving targets, shot at by fighter bombers and fired on by Russian submarines. Almost 33,000 refugees perished while attempting to flee overseas, 9,000 alone when the SS Wilhelm Gustloff was struck by Soviet submarine torpedoes and sank on Jan. 30, 1945. Nevertheless, the maritime operation managed to rescue more than a million people.

Further south, the forced resettlement of the German inhabitants of Silesia and Pomerania had already set the stage for yet more mass suffering. Back in late summer 1944, the Soviet Union had signed a secret pact with the Kremlin-friendly Polish National Liberation Committee confirming the Oder-Neisse Line as the eastern border of Poland no matter what future conferences with the Western Allies would agree at a later date. In so doing, Russia had secured itself regions inhabited by some 7.5 million Germans.

The first major flood of refugees there began streaming westward in January 1945. In the following months, more than 3 million Germans tried to flee the oncoming Red Army.

When the Soviets and Poles divided the country into five voivodeships, or administrative districts, in March of that year -- again in secret -- the forced resettlement of Germans had already been planned in detail. It began immediately after the cessation of hostilities, first in the new West Poland, and then throughout Pomerania, Silesia, Masuria and the Gdansk region from mid-June onward.

The organizers wanted the resettlement to be "quick and ruthless," though the survivors remember it as more of a "wild expulsion." With the backing of police officers and militiamen, army units encircled the inhabitants in their towns and villages.

"The Germans are to be treated like they treated us," ordered the leadership of the 2nd Polish Army. The aim was to be so "tough and decisive" that the Germans would end up fleeing of their own accord. "The Germanic vermin should thank God they still have a head on their shoulders," boomed one general.

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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