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.
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.
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?
- 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'