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

By Christian Habbe

Part 4: Systematic Torture and Murder

Photo Gallery: Tormented, Beaten to Death, Expelled Photos
National Archives/DER SPIEGEL

Torture was systematic and murder commonplace in many of the Polish detention camps. An estimated 60,000 Germans are believed to have died in this way. Countless other candidates for deportation were beaten, plundered, and humiliated before being herded onto freight trains bound for the West. Many died from the violence and stress associated with these deportations by train.

The expulsion applied to all Germans. Poles who had been classified as German citizens under the Nazis' "German People's List" were made to undergo "rehabilitation" procedures. Anyone who was rejected by this process was deported as a "hostile element." A law enacted on May 6, 1945 threatened the death penalty for any Poles who aided such people.

The mass deportation continued until the end of 1946. On Dec. 17 of that year, some 1,800 Germans were chased out of the region in and around the city of Stolp (known today as Slupsk). At 7 a.m. they were told they had until midday to leave the city. One of those affected told the West German parliamentary investigators that most of their luggage was stolen from a courtyard "where a Pole stood with a whip in his hand, wildly lashing out at us." He recalled that some "men and women had to strip naked. Jewelry and valuables were taken off them." The last of the expellees were made to wait at the train station until late at night in temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit) before militiamen pushed and kicked them onto unheated freight trains.

Many Poles had themselves been driven westward by the Soviets during the Russian occupation of eastern Poland. Some of them therefore sympathized with the hounded Germans, and tried to help. The new administrative chief of Lower Silesia threatened to punish "the use of indiscriminate or excessive cruelty." But this had little impact on the brutality with which the Germans were thrown out.

Angry Protest from the West

Politicians and the media in the West protested against the violence. The first train-loads of misery were chugging westward even as the Potsdam Conference was still underway. At the Lehrter Bahnhof train station in Berlin, American GIs pulled about ten corpses a day out of the freight cars that arrived there. The arrival of a ship carrying 300 half-starved children at Westhafen in Berlin provoked angry protest. The US government is deeply dismayed, the State Department wrote in a cable to Poland, complaining about what US officials described as the massive misery and poor treatment of weak and helpless people.

In late fall 1945, German émigré Robert Jungk reported about the "land of death" in the east: "We literally breathed a sigh of relief as we left the Polish zone and entered the Russian-occupied area. We had finally left behind us the pillaged towns, disease-riddled villages, concentration camps, desolation, untended fields and body-strewn roads along which bandits waited to rob us of our last remaining possessions."

Because the Wehrmacht had only retreated from Czechoslovakia in early May 1945, more than 3 million Germans there suddenly found themselves completely defenseless. On May 5, an uprising of communist and radical nationalist groups began against the last remaining occupiers. Here too, ethnic Germans were hunted down.

The "elimination of the German minority," which the Czech government-in-exile had planned back in 1944, became the official policy of the Czech National Front, and one it pursued ruthlessly from early April 1945 onward. The main players in this were the partisans and forces belonging to the "Svoboda Army," which consisted of Czech units that had fought alongside the Red Army. Across the country, Sudetenland Germans, named after the German-settled region near the Sudeten Mountains, were forced to leave.

Thousands of Germans living in Prague were interned, robbed and mistreated. Else S., who was held at the country estate of a certain Prince von Lobkowitz, later described how she was forced to work "from early morning into the night" for 13 months. "Food," she said, "was available in the pig troughs. … We were so starving that we even ate the poisoned rodent bate we were supposed to put around the potato sacks. One old man went to get a tin can from the garbage pile and was caught by a guard. We all had to line up and watch as the old man was made to strip to the waist, stand on one leg with his arms raised and shout: We thank our Führer -- all the while he was whipped until, covered with blood, he collapsed."

Armed troops fell upon the Germans in towns like Tetschen (Decin), Aussig (Usti nad Labem), and Königgrätz (Hradec Kralove), killing thousands in the process.

Excuses were easy to find. For instance, when fire broke out at a factory in Aussig, the finger of suspicion was immediately pointed at German saboteurs. Thereupon an armed mob staged a bloodbath in which an estimated 2,000 people -- mostly elderly people, women and children -- were beaten to death, shot or simply flung off the bridge into the Elbe River.

At 9 p.m. on the evening of May 30, 27,000 German inhabitants of Brünn (Brno) were given just ten minutes to dress their children and pack. Armed men then forced them into long columns headed out of the city for a march toward Austria. Women and children were interned on open fields for many months. A writer for Britain's Daily Mail newspaper reported that the field had "become a concentration camp." Such intimidation proved effective: Three-quarters of a million Germans had been chased out of the country even before their expulsion was legitimized at the Potsdam Conference.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
12 total posts
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1. A Time of Retribution
Billi 05/28/2011
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.
2. War Crimes Committed Against Germans Are Not Recognized!
wmspryor 05/29/2011
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!
3. Victims then and now!
heitgitsche 05/29/2011
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.
5. Europe - a negative role model
heitgitsche 05/30/2011
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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Graphic: A Decimated Reich Zoom

Graphic: A Decimated Reich

Graphic: Home Away from Home Zoom

Graphic: Home Away from Home

About the Center for Flight and Expulsion
The German government agreed in 2008 to create a “visible symbol” against flight and expulsion in Berlin. The main element will be a documentation center that provides a historical overview of flight, expulsion and integration from World War II until the present day in Germany and Europe. The museum is to be conceived by the federal government’s Flight, Expulsion and Reconciliation Foundation, which will be a part of the German Historical Museum in Berlin. The foundation’s board will include representatives of the German parliament and federal government as well as three representatives of German expellee groups. Members of the German Federation of Expellees (BdV) called for their seat to be occupied by Erika Steinbach, their president, sparking conflict between Poland and Germany.

Erika Steinbach initiated the idea back in 2000 as president of the German Federation of Expellees together with Peter Glotz, founder of the Center against Expulsion. Their plans generated some criticism in Germany, but the complaints from Poland and the Czech Republic were very vocal. Steinbach was accused of attempting to whitewash World War II history and present Germans as victims of the war. The German government rejected Steinbach’s plans, but it nevertheless moved to establish a Flight, Expulsion and Reconciliation Foundation that has been bestowed with responsibility for creating a museum and memorial center.

Exhibition Plans
The government plans to set up a documentation center dedicated to the memory of the expellees in Berlin. The focus of the permanent exhibition will be German expellees, but it will also look at other instances of flight and expulsion in Europe during the 20th century – including groups forced out of Germany. Temporary exhibitions are also planned.
Historical Context
At the Potsdam Conference in summer 1945, the anti-Hitler coalition agreed to the Potsdam Treaty. The area areas of German east of the Oder and Neisse rivers were placed under the administration of Poland. The East Prussia region to the north was transferred to the Soviet Union. The expatriation of the German population living in Poland (including what, up until then, had been part of Germany), Czechoslovakia and Hungary was supposed to take place in a “humane manner. Over 10 million either fled or were forced to leave their homes. At least 473,000 instances of death as people fled or were expelled have been proven. In 1950, East Germany recognized the Oder-Neisse Line as its border with Poland under the Treaty of Görlitz. As Germany reunified in 1990, Germany gave up any demands for its former eastern territories in Poland and recognized the line as the permanent German-Polish border.
Expulsion of Germans
Up until 1950, when the main wave began to ebb, several million ethic Germans had been expelled from the areas they had settled. 2.1 million from Silesia; 1.9 million from Czechoslovakia; 1.3 million from East Prussia; 891,000 from Pomerelia; 410,000 from Poland; 225,000 from Danzig (today’s Gdansk); 178,000 from Hungary; 158,000 from the Soviet Union, the Baltic States and Memel Territory; 149,000 from Romania; 148,000 from Yugoslavia; and 131,000 from East Brandenburg (in today’s western Poland). Several hundred thousand people died during the difficult trip or fell victim to soldiers of the Red Army seeking revenge.

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