A Time of Retribution Paying with Life and Limb for the Crimes of Nazi Germany
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
- Part 1: Paying with Life and Limb for the Crimes of Nazi Germany
- Part 2: A 'Tragedy on a Prodigious Scale'
- Part 3: Nazi Evacuation Delays Worsened Suffering
- Part 4: Systematic Torture and Murder
- Part 5: Stalin's Interpretation of 'Reparations in Kind'