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

After Hitler's war had been lost, millions of ethnic Germans in regions that are today part of Eastern Europe were expelled -- often under horrendous circumstances. It has been proven that at least 473,000 people died as they fled or were expelled. The Nazis' crimes had been far worse, but the suffering of ethnic Germans was immense.

National Archives/DER SPIEGEL

By Christian Habbe

It was a deceptively beautiful summer. Never before had the light of East Prussia seemed so bright, the sky so high, the countryside so vast, as in 1944, wrote Hans Graf von Lehndorff, a doctor and chronicler, in his diary. And yet the streets were already filling with columns of refugees; Germans from Lithuania, whose abandoned cattle roamed the countryside. Light tremors echoed distant detonations. Sometimes at night, a red glow was visible in the east, where border towns along the Niemen River were burning: Unmistakable signs that Soviet forces were moving inexorably closer.

They arrived on October 21. Red Army soldiers pushing through the East Prussian village of Nemmersdorf massacred some 30 old people, women and children, leaving in their wake houses full of dead bodies. Thoughts about the sky, light and countryside were replaced by shock. When the East Prussian front collapsed in mid-January, the destruction and violence wrought by the Soviet troops surpassed anything the Germans had ever suffered. The inhabitants of eastern parts of East Prussia were the first to flee in blind panic.

An Unprecedented Shifting of Populations

But the wave of terror soon swept over all the areas inhabited by Germans between the Baltic and the Danube. Hitler's ruthlessly waged total warfare had ended. Now the time of retribution was dawning everywhere. Red Army forces took revenge for the burning of Mother Russia and its millions of victims, revenge for Poland, where Germans had carried out the "physical destruction" decreed by their Nazi dictator with horrific zeal, and revenge for the six-year bloody suppression of the Czechs. The Yugoslavs, who tormented tens of thousands of members of the ethnic German minority in detention camps before chasing them out of the country, had previously experienced how the occupiers had waged anti-partisan warfare with massacres of civilians.

Millions of Germans in eastern Europe met the same tragic fate, paying with life and limb for the crimes of Nazi Germany. They were hunted down, humiliated, raped, bludgeoned to death, or carted off as slave laborers. "A tempest of reprisal, revenge and hatred swept through the land," writes historian Klaus-Dietmar Henke.

At the end of World War II, an unprecedented shifting of populations took place in eastern parts of central Europe, as Germans became pawns shuttled to and fro at the whims of the victors and their deal-making. But the people fleeing the Red Army were unaware that the Allies had already agreed with the Polish government-in-exile to hand over large parts of eastern Germany to Poland and resettle the Germans who were living there.

All those who didn't manage to escape in time fell victim to the frenzied expulsions that were carried out until July 1945. The organized resettlement of Germans and ethnic Germans from Germany's former eastern areas and the Sudetenland began in January 1946. In all, some 14 million Germans lost their homes.

'Unimaginable Suffering'

As Lehndorff noted in his diary, columns of "refugees marked by unimaginable suffering" began moving westward from January 1945 onward, past destroyed towns, war rubble and piles of dead bodies. Later on these treks became interwoven with others heading in the opposite direction; hundreds of thousands of people who had been overtaken by the Red Army and were now trying to get back to their home towns.

One of these was East Prussian refugee Hermann Fischer, who later recounted the picture of horror he found upon his return to his village:

"I saw the graves of 11 people at the bottom end of the village, including that of Paul Bisler, who was buried in front of his own house at dawn (He had died or been shot to death, and his rotting body was found in bed by the school-aged boy Max Neumann). At the home of Neumann-Zölp there were the graves of two women who had taken their own lives. The Wersels had taken in the child of one of them. Gustav Anders-Horn had been shot dead. His corpse had been eaten by pigs. Altsitzer Gruhn had been shot dead. So there were graves everywhere. The villages looked sad and desolate, with rubble everywhere, furniture, doors, windows ripped from their hinges and smashed. The wind howled through the open houses and buildings."

Convoys of carts carrying displaced, half-starved people were heading in all directions. Hordes of children abandoned or separated from their families languished in the forests in the east. Somehow these "wolf children" survived, straying from one bullet-riddled farmstead to the next. The fate of these approximately 5,000 children is a particularly heart-wrenching episode borne out of circumstances reminiscent of accounts of the Thirty Years' War, the last in Europe that had seen depopulation on this scale.

Hundreds of thousands of people didn't survive their flight, expulsion or imprisonment. They starved or froze to death, or succumbed to epidemics or injuries. Some died as a result of the chaos and of the cold, wanton behavior of Russian soldiers. This also befell the Lehndorff family. Red Army soldiers seized the family's estate in East Prussia on January 25. "In the ensuing chaos," Lehndorff's diary recalled, "my brother was seriously injured with a knife. My mother was only able to bandage him up provisionally. Then other Russians came, asked who he was, and shot him and my mother together." Who cared that his mother had previously been detained by the Gestapo?

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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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