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

National Archives/DER SPIEGEL

By Christian Habbe

Part 5: Stalin's Interpretation of 'Reparations in Kind'


Time and again, Western officers attempted to intervene to stop the violent expulsions. US paramedics treated victims of violent attacks, but death swept through the temporary internment camps in the form of starvation, typhoid and abuse. Robert Murphy, the political advisor of the American military government in Berlin, reported that "ruthless evictions have occurred on a sufficiently large scale to antagonize many of our troops against the liberated Czech people."

After the Potsdam Conference, the Allied Control Council demanded a more ordered resettlement. Czech independence leader and later President Edvard Benes promised to proceed in a "humane, decent, right, and morally justifiable" manner, and vowed to punish abuse. But the humiliation continued unabated for a large majority of the approximately 2.5 million Germans who still awaited deportation. And they still had to wear a white sew-on badge with a black "N" (for "Nemecky") to identify themselves as German. They were forbidden from using public transport, visiting bars or parks, and made to take off their caps in the presence of Czech officers.

The American occupying force in Germany felt powerless to prevent it. General Lucius D. Clay, the commander of US forces in Europe, complained about Czech harassment as well as the "difficulties" with the authorities responsible for the deportation, who initially withheld "young, able workers while sending us the aged, the women and small children." Clay described the sight of the expellees spilling out of the freight cars when they arrived in the American sector as a "pitiful" one.

And yet a worse fate still awaited younger, stronger Germans. At the start of 1945, Soviet authorities began picking up workers to help rebuild the war-ravaged Soviet Union. The aim was to use German slave labor in Soviet mines, on construction sites, farms and in timber forests.

Indeed, the Soviet Union had been promised "reparation in kind" at the February 1945 Yalta Conference. Stalin's interpretation of this diplomatic jargon became a nightmare for more than 700,000 German men and women, who spent weeks on trains taking them to labor camps, in some cases beyond the Ural Mountains. The conditions both during the transports and in the camps were so terrible that approximately 270,000 of these deportees died.

Eva-Maria S. was just 16 when she was abducted by the Russians in this way. She recounted her deportation to Siberia in a series of eyewitness accounts that former East German human rights activist Freya Klier put together in the book "Verschleppt bis ans Ende der Welt" (Dragged Off to the End of the Earth). She recalled, "There were about 90 of us in one freight train wagon when we set off. Our journey took us through Poland, where stones often smashed against the sides of the wagons. I can't remember all the details of the journey any more, only that several people died in our wagon. So I immediately volunteered to help get rid of the bodies. These were passed out by other girls, and thrown on top of the coal in the coal-storage car. When the prisoners pulled coal out of the bottom for their little stove, the frozen bodies slid out too. Somewhere along the way, we once pulled about 30 corpses out of that coal car."

As the train trundled through the ruins left over from Nazi Germany's war effort, many of the prisoners realized why the victors were so hungry for revenge.

Eva-Maria S. reported, "I think Belorussia was the worst. Looking through barbed wire on the windows, all we could see was scorched earth, destroyed villages and blown-up factories."

Editor's note: This story originates from the "Germans in the East" issue of SPIEGEL's quarterly history magazine, DER SPIEGEL GESCHICHTE, which was published earlier this year. A second feature, " Germany's WWII Occupation of Poland: 'When We Finish, Nobody Is Left Alive," has also been posted in English.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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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
4.
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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