"9. The Camps Liberated
Over the coming months a whole network of slave-labour camps, prisoner-of-war camps and extermination camps were found throughout the territories formerly held by the Nazis. Treblinka was discovered shortly after Majdanek, and escapees and captured guards alike described a ‘hell’ where 900,000 Jews were murdered and roasted in furnaces ‘reminiscent of gigantic volcanoes’.9 Six months later the Red Army overran Auschwitz, where almost a million Jews, and over 100,000 Poles, Gypsies and Soviet prisoners of war were gassed, shot and worked to death.10 Even the Soviets, who had long had their own network of slave-labour camps, or gulags, were shocked at the speed, efficiency and comprehensive nature of the murder.11
...Another article in Pravda about Auschwitz also specifically mentions its Jewish victims.14 Nevertheless, the vast majority of Russian newspaper articles, speeches and later the memorials to the dead, referred to Hitler’s victims merely as ‘Soviet citizens’. Even while the death camps were being discovered the Kremlin was determined to portray the Nazi genocide not as a crime against the Jewish race, but as a crime against the Soviet state.
Even within Roosevelt’s administration there was scepticism, and senior figures like Secretary of War Henry Stimson and his assistant John McCloy regarded ‘special pleading’ by Jews with suspicion. Such attitudes were not born solely from anti-Semitism. Remembering that many of the atrocity stories of the First World War had turned out to be untrue – such as the ‘discovery’ of a factory to manufacture soap out of human fat – they were unsure how much of the information about the death camps they should believe.18
There was a similar scepticism about the death camps in some of the press. The Sunday Times correspondent Alexander Werth visited Majdanek shortly after it was liberated, and saw the gas chambers, mass graves and mounds of human remains for himself. And yet when he submitted the story to the BBC they refused to broadcast it because ‘they thought it was a Russian propaganda stunt’.19 The New York Herald Tribune was equally reticent about the story, claiming that ‘Even on top of all we have been taught of the maniacal Nazi ruthlessness, this example sounds inconceivable.’20
Such ‘double vision’ came to an end the following April, when the Americans liberated Ohrdruf, one of Buchenwald’s sub-camps. Ohrdruf is particularly important because General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, visited it on 12 April, just a week after it had been discovered. He brought with him Generals Omar Bradley and George Patton, and insisted on seeing ‘every nook and cranny’ of the camp, ‘because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda’.23 Here they observed torture devices, a butcher’s block used to smash the gold fillings from the mouths of the dead, a room piled to the ceiling with corpses, and the remains of hundreds of bodies that had been burned in a huge pit, as if on ‘some gigantic cannibalistic barbecue’.24 Patton, a man well used to the horrors of the battlefield, took one look at the ‘arms and legs and portions of bodies sticking out of the green water’ in the pit, and was obliged to retire behind a shed to throw up.25
Unlike other camps, Dachau was liberated by troops on the fringes of a major battle. Some of the American soldiers, who were psychologically prepared for fighting, were not willing to accept the atrocities they witnessed here calmly and decided to take the law into their own hands. One of the company commanders in the 157th Regiment, Lieutenant William P. Walsh, took a group of four SS men who had surrendered to him into one of the railway boxcars and personally shot them. One of his men, Private Albert C. Pruitt, then climbed into the boxcar and finished them off with his rifle. Along with another officer, Lieutenant Jack Bushyhead, Walsh then supervised the separation of the German prisoners into those belonging to the Wehrmacht and those belonging to the SS. The SS soldiers were lined up in a nearby coal yard, where a machine-gun team opened fire on them, killing at least twelve. In the official report that was prepared following an inquiry into this incident, Walsh, Bushyhead and Pruitt were specifically named, as was their battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Felix L. Sparks. The medical officer who appeared on the scene shortly afterwards, Lieutenant Howard E. Buechner, was also criticized for failing to administer any aid to the German soldiers, some of whom were still alive.32
In one of the towers on the perimeter of the camp a crew of about seventeen SS men were also shot as they tried to surrender. Elsewhere in the camp between twenty-five and fifty more were killed by angry inmates, often with the help of American soldiers. Jack Hallett, one of the GIs who witnessed these killings, later remembered how gruesome these revenge killings could be:
"Control was gone after the sights we saw, and the men were deliberately wounding guards that were available and then turned them over to the prisoners and allowing them to take their revenge on them. And in fact, you’ve seen the picture where one of the soldiers gave one of the inmates a bayonet and watched him behead the man. It was a pretty gory mess. A lot of the guards were shot in the legs so they couldn’t move and … and that’s about all I can say …"33
Although a report on these incidents was commissioned, no American soldiers were ever brought to trial for breaking the Geneva Convention on the rights of prisoners of war.
Over the coming days, one of the things that shocked the British most was the nonchalant way that the surviving prisoners lived their lives amongst the corpses, as if such sights were perfectly normal. One horrified medical officer described several such vignettes:
"a woman too weak to stand propping herself against a pile of corpses, as she cooked the food we had given her over an open fire; men and women crouching just anywhere in the open relieving themselves of the dysentery which was scouring their bowels; a woman standing stark naked washing herself with some issue soap in water from a tank in which the remains of a child floated."36
The hunger and deprivation here had become so bad that scores of people had resorted to cannibalism in an attempt to stay alive. One Czech prisoner, Jan Belunek, told British officers that he had witnessed corpses with their hearts cut out, and that he had seen another inmate‘sitting beside one of such corpses, and he was eating flesh that I have no doubt was human flesh’. This story was confirmed by two other inmates who worked in the infirmary, a doctor from Dresden called Fritz Leo and a Czech doctor called Zdenk Wiesner. Both reported the regular theft of corpses’ livers, which Dr Wiesner personally saw people eating. Dr Leo, who reported about three hundred cases of cannibalism in the camp, often saw people eating human flesh and even ‘boiled sexual organs’.38
Another soldier, BSM Sanderson of 369 Battery, claimed that British vengeance occasionally became more extreme.
"We gave the SS starvation rations, and put them to work without a break on the filthiest jobs. Our boys showed no squeamishness at all but struck them with rifle butts and jabbed them with bayonets to keep them working at the double. In one case an SS man was thrown half alive onto a mass grave, and it didn’t take long to smother him with corpses. He’d tried to escape, was fired at and wounded. So the men brought him back to a burial pit and treated him as he would have treated any internee."41
...Revenge was committed by men, women and even children. For example, after the liberation of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, Ben Helfgott saw two Jewish girls on the road to Leibnitz attacking a German woman with a pram. He told them to stop, but they refused to do so until he physically intervened. Later, inside the camp, he witnessed a mob beating an SS man to death. ‘I watched this and I felt sick,’ he said decades later. ‘I don’t hate anything, but I hate mobs. When people turn into mobs they are no longer human beings.’47
Chaskiel Rosenblum, who was also liberated at Theresienstadt, did not kill any Germans – not out of any particular moral scruples, but simply because he could not bring himself to do it. However, he knew a ten-year-old boy who had seen his parents murdered, ‘and he was killing one Nazi after another’.48 Pinkus Kurnedz saw one of the former kapos at Theresienstadt murdered by a mob of his friends when they discovered the man lying low in a nearby village. ‘He was hiding in a barn and we dragged him out. And there were a couple of Russian tanks there in the little square. The Russians helped as well. And we literally beat him to death.’49...In 1988, for example, a Polish Jew named Szmulek Gontarz recorded an interview for the Imperial War Museum in London in which he admitted that he and his friends had taken revenge on Germans during the liberation, and had continued to do so for a long time afterwards.
"We all participated. It was sweet. The only thing I’m sorry about is that I didn’t do more. Anything: throw them off trains. Wherever I thought I could take advantage, by beating them, we would. There was one particular instance in Austria. We stayed in stables, and there was a German officer hiding there. We found him, and we did exactly the same as they did to us: we tied him to a tree and we shot him. If you say to me now to do it, no way – but at that time it was sweet. I enjoyed it. There was no other satisfaction at that time that any of us could have had. And I’ll tell you now: I challenge any person in a similar situation who would not have enjoyed it … It was perhaps the only thing that it might have been worth to survive the war, to be able to do that. And the satisfaction was great."50
...Arek Hersh, for example, claims that ‘The Russians gave us twenty-four hours to do whatever we wanted to the Germans.’52 Harry Spiro, another survivor liberated at Theresienstadt, also remembers the Russians telling them that they had twenty-four hours ‘to do whatever we wanted, even kill Germans’.53 According to Max Dessau, a Polish Jew liberated at Belsen, the British too ‘let you do it for a certain time, to get out your revenge’ but ‘after a time they said enough is enough’.54 The Americans were equally willing to let the prisoners have their way. Kurt Klappholz, a Polish Jew who was liberated while on a forced march, was presented with an SS soldier by an American lieutenant who had already beaten the man black and blue. ‘What the American roughly said to me was, “Here is one of your torturers, you can take your revenge.”’55 None of these people took advantage of the opportunity offered them, but it is quite clear that plenty of others did.
...One such group was the so-called ‘Avengers’, founded by the former Jewish partisan Abba Kovner. This group appears to have arranged the assassination of more than a hundred suspected war criminals, as well as the placement of a bomb inside a prison camp for SS men that killed eighty of its inmates. Their philosophy involved deliberately indiscriminate attacks on large numbers of Germans, and the impersonal nature of their revenge was designed to mirror the impersonal way that Jews had been killed during the Holocaust. Their slogan was ‘a German for every Jew’, and their express intention, according to one of the group’s members, Gabik Sedlis, was that ‘six million Germans will be killed’. To achieve this aim they hatched a plot to poison the water supply of five German cities, but were foiled when Kovner himself was arrested trying to smuggle the poison from Palestine back to Europe.58 An alternative plan to poison the bread of 15,000 SS men in an internment camp near Nuremberg was more successful. At least 2,000 German prisoners indeed fell sick with arsenic poisoning, although it is not clear how many, if any, died.59
# 10. Vengeance Restrained: Slave Laborers
At the time, amongst the Allies at least, there was much less distinction between racial groups – indeed, the Allies often deliberately did not differentiate between them, choosing instead to group Hitler’s victims by nationality. Confronted by the vast array of horror stories, relief organizations like UNRRA did not at first recognize the Jewish story as a special case, but lumped Polish Jews together with other Poles, Hungarian Jews with other Hungarians, and so on. It was not until September 1945 that Jews won the right to be housed separately, and looked after by specifically Jewish relief agencies.2
For many Allied soldiers and relief workers on the ground, it was not immediately apparent that Jews had suffered any more than many of the other groups they came across. Suffering was everywhere. Concentration camps were only one kind of camp in a vast network of exploitation and extermination that covered the whole of the Reich. Prisoner-of-war camps, in which Soviet prisoners had been left to starve in their millions, dotted eastern Europe. Slave-labour camps were attached to every major factory, mine, farm and construction site. (For example Dachau might have hit the headlines in British, French and American newspapers, but it was merely the hub of a system that had supplied prisoners of all nationalities to 240 sub-camps throughout southern Bavaria.) In addition there were scores of transit camps that were only supposed to process prisoners as they moved from one area to the next, but which by the end of the war had become dumping grounds for internees who were effectively abandoned behind barbed wire without food or care. There were also special camps for orphans and juvenile delinquents, and penal camps for criminals and political prisoners. When taken together these thousands of barbed-wire encampments made up what one historian has described as a ‘landscape of error’.3
At their peak, foreign workers made up around 20 per cent of the workforce in Germany, and in certain industries, such as armaments and aircraft manufacture, often 40 per cent or more.4
Alcohol, especially, played a huge part in the disorders that occurred in the wake of the liberation. In Hanau hundreds of Russians drank industrial alcohol which killed at least twenty and left more than 200 semi-paralysed.14 In Wolfsburg hundreds of labourers who used to work in the city’s Volkswagen plant broke into both the city arsenal and the local vermouth factory. As one American company commander who was called in to help disarm the mob remembers, ‘Some of them were so drunk they’d stand on dikes or up on buildings and fire a gun and it’d knock ’em flat on their back.‘15 When the journalist Alan Moorehead drove into the village of Steyerberg in the Weser valley, he came across villagers and refugees looting a wine cellar stocked with ‘the most beautiful wine I have ever seen’. Most of them were drunk or ‘half-demented’, and they plundered and smashed bottles until the cellar was empty except for the slush of broken glass and Chateau Lafite 1891 that lay ‘ankle deep’ on the floor.16
Some of the wildest scenes occurred in Hanover. During the chaos of the liberation, tens of thousands of former forced labourers rampaged through the town looting liquor stores and setting fire to buildings. When the remnants of the German police tried to intervene they were overwhelmed, beaten and hung from the city’s lamp posts.17 Some former forced labourers rounded up German civilians to do the work that they themselves would have been forced to do in previous weeks – such as burying the bodies of 200 Russian officers shot by the SS – and ‘lashed them with sticks or beat them with weapon stocks’ while they worked.18 Others sought out the women of the city and raped them in their homes and even in the streets. According to a British battery commander stationed in the town, one group of drunken Russians ’seized an abandoned German 88mm gun, dragged it around and, to their obvious pleasure, loosed off rounds at whatever took their fancy, prominent buildings or houses getting in their way’.19
In June 1945, after the city had been under Allied control for ten weeks, the British war reporter Leonard Mosley arrived to find Hanover still in a state of near-chaos. The new military government had managed to get the electricity, gas and water supplies working again, had cleared roads through the rubble and had recruited a German mayor and a makeshift police force, but had still not managed to impose anything close to law and order. ‘The problem was too much. No scratch police-force of this kind could keep order among over 100,000 foreign slaves who were tasting their first real freedom for years.’20
The extent of the problem was demonstrated when the military governor drove Mosley from the Rathaus to his living quarters a few miles away. On the journey the car was halted five times by full-scale riots that filled the street, which the military governor himself, Major G. H. Lamb, would break up by repeatedly firing his pistol into the air. ‘This is the sort of thing that goes on all day,’ he reportedly told Mosley. ‘Looting, fighting, rape, murder – what a town!’21
Much of the looting and violence in Hanover appeared to be occurring just for the sake of it. In one of the most telling eyewitness reports of the postwar chaos Mosley described the frantic looting of warehouses on the outskirts of the city:
"Someone once told me that when the looting fever is in a man he will kill or maim to get something, even if that ‘something’ isn’t worth stealing, and Hanover confirmed it. We saw one crowd on that short journey which had just broken into a storehouse; there were Germans as well as foreign workers among the milling mass of screaming people; they burst through doors and windows and then came out, their arms full – of door knobs! It was a store for door knobs, and what these people could want with such objects, in a city where half the doors no longer existed, is beyond me; yet they not only looted those door knobs, but they fought over them. They kicked and scratched and beat with iron bars those who had more door knobs than themselves. I saw one foreign worker trip up a girl, tear the door knobs from her arms, and then kick her repeatedly in the face and body until she was covered with blood. Then he raced off down the street. Halfway down, he seemed to come to his senses; he looked down at the objects he was carrying, and then with a visible gesture of distaste he flung them all away."22
In May 1945 Ray Hunting was travelling along a quiet country road near the city of Wesel when he witnessed an event that would stay with him for the rest of his life.
"I saw two men ahead: a Russian making his way to Wesel and an old German with a walking stick, moving slowly towards the Station. As we approached, the men stopped, the Russian apparently asking the time, because the old man removed a chained pocket watch from his waistcoat pocket. In a combined movement, the Russian snatched the watch and plunged a long-bladed knife into the German’s chest. The old man staggered and fell backwards into the ditch. When we drew up, his feet were in the air and his trouser legs slipped down, showing two thin white calves.
The Russian had pulled out the knife and was calmly wiping the blood from the blade on the old man’s coat when I rammed the muzzle of my revolver into his ribs. When the Russian was standing on the road with his hands in the air, I gave the revolver to Patrick whilst I jumped down into the ditch to help the victim. The old man was dead. The Russian, an inarticulate brute, looked down at me kneeling by the body without a trace of emotion or remorse.
I took possession of the knife and watch, then pushed him into the back of the truck and sat facing him with the revolver. We went to the Military Government Office to hand him over to Captain Grubb, but he was out. We took the prisoner to the Kaserne, so he could be dealt with in accordance with Soviet law.
I flung the prisoner into the Leaders’ Room by the scruff of the neck, and accused him of murder, producing the knife and watch. One of the Leaders, who identified himself as the Administrator (the Russian word is the same as in English), came forward.
‘You say this man killed a German?’ he asked with a smile. I showed him the murder weapon. He moved across to a colleague and removed a red star badge from his cap, then pinned it on the murderer’s breast and kissed him on the cheek! The murderer of the old man, wearing his decoration, slipped out of the room and lost himself among the hundreds in the barracks. I never set eyes on him again."25
# 11. German Prisoners of War
In his multi-volume history of the conflict, Winston Churchill told a story that demonstrates the prevailing attitude towards prisoners of war at the time, which reveals a tendency to vengeance even at the very highest levels. The episode occurred at the first conference of the ‘Big Three’ in Tehran at the end of 1943. Churchill was having dinner with Stalin and Roosevelt on the second day of the conference when Stalin proposed a toast to the liquidation of ‘at least 50,000, and perhaps 100,000, of the German Command Staff’. Churchill, who knew all about the mass shootings of Polish officers at Katyn at the beginning of the war, was disgusted by this remark, and stated baldly that the British people would never tolerate mass executions. When Stalin still insisted that 50,000 ‘most be shot’, Churchill could stand it no longer. ‘I would rather be taken out into the garden here and now and be shot myself,’ he said, ‘than sully my own and my country’s honour by such infamy.’
In an ill-judged attempt to lighten the tone, Roosevelt interjected at this point with a suggestion that they compromise on a smaller number to be shot, say, 49,000. It appears he meant this as a joke, but given what he also knew about Stalin’s past it was in very poor taste. Churchill was unable to make a reply before Roosevelt’s son Elliott, who was also present at the dinner, added his twopenn‘orth. ‘Look,’ he said to Stalin, ‘when our armies start rolling in from the West, and your armies are still coming on from the east, we’ll be solving the whole thing, won’t we? Russian, American and British soldiers will settle the issue for most of those fifty thousand in battle, and I hope not only those fifty thousand war criminals will be taken care of but many hundreds of thousands more Nazis as well.’
At this, Stalin rose to his feet, embraced Elliott and clinked glasses with him. Churchill was dismayed. ‘Much as I love you, Elliott,’ he said, ‘I cannot forgive you for making such a dastardly statement. How dare you say such a thing!’ He got up and stormed out of the room, leaving Stalin and his Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, to hurry after him with claims that he was taking things too seriously – they had all only been ‘playing’.1
During the course of the war more than 11 million German soldiers were taken prisoner by the Allies. Given the vast scale of the battles that took place on the Russian front, one would expect the most prisoners to have been taken by the Soviets, but in fact under a third of the total – only about 3,155,000 – were captured by the Red Army. More prisoners were taken by the Americans (some 3.8 million) and by the British (3.7 million). Even the French managed to capture almost a quarter of a million men despite only being involved in the business of taking prisoners for less than a year and having a comparatively tiny army.4
This disparity in numbers says less about the relative prowess of the Soviets than it does about the German fear of them. In the final days of the war German soldiers did whatever they could to avoid being taken prisoner by the Red Army. Many units continued fighting long after it was sensible to surrender simply because they were afraid of what might happen to them if they fell into Soviet hands; others did their best to disentangle themselves from the eastern front so that they might be able to give themselves up to the British or Americans instead. In the run-up to the capitulation this became a priority at all levels of the German army: when the German Chief of Staff, General Alfred August Jodl, arrived at Eisenhower’s headquarters to sign the capitulation agreement he deliberately stalled for two days in order to give German troops as much time as possible to fight their way westwards.5 In Yugoslavia, Germans and Croatians defied orders to surrender on 8 May and continued fighting their way towards the Austrian border for another whole week.6 Thus, while there was an explosion in the numbers of soldiers surrendering to the Western Allies at the very end of the war – the Americans took some 1.8 million men in April and May 1945 alone – there was no corresponding increase in the east.7
One of their greatest concerns was the lack of food. The huge concentration of prisoners meant that when the camp in Remagen was first opened daily rations were just a single loaf of bread between twenty-five men. This later rose to a loaf between ten, but it was still not enough to sustain life. In Bad Kreuznach there was no bread for six weeks, so that when it finally arrived it caused a sensation. Until then, the daily ration consisted of ‘three spoonfuls of vegetables, one spoon of fish, one or two prunes, one spoonful of marmalade and four to six biscuits’. In Bad Hersfeld the prisoners survived on only 800 calories per day, until a fifth of them became ‘skeletons’. To supplement their meagre diet prisoners were forced to forage for whatever edible weeds they could find growing in the camp, and reports of men cooking soups out of stinging nettles and dandelions over tiny camp fires are common. Many dug through the earth with tins in search of turnips, which they would then eat raw, leading to an outbreak of dysentery.14
The lack of water was an even greater problem. ‘For three and a half days we had no water at all,’ claimed George Weiss, a tank repairman.
"We would drink our own urine. It tasted terrible, but what could we do? Some men got down on the ground and licked the ground to get some moisture. I was so weak I was already on my knees, when finally we got a little water to drink. I think I would have died without that water. But the Rhine was just outside the wire."15
At Bad Kreuznach there was only a single water tap for more than 56,000 men, and water had to be delivered to the perimeter fence each day by truck. In Büderich the five taps that served over 75,000 prisoners were turned on for only an hour each evening. When the American commander of the camp was asked why the prisoners were suffering such inhumane conditions, he allegedly answered: ‘So that they will lose their joy of soldiering once and for all.’16
It is unsurprising that such camps had a high mortality rate, especially amongst men already wounded and exhausted by battle. But exactly how high has been a subject of debate ever since. In his controversial book Other Losses James Bacque suggested that Roosevelt’s tasteless jokes about killing Germans were symptomatic of a culture of revenge throughout the US administration. He claimed that 800,000 German prisoners died in US captivity – a number that would put American vengeance on a par with some of the worst Soviet and Nazi atrocities of the war. This absurdly high figure has since been comprehensively discredited by academics in several countries, as have many of Bacque’s other claims.17 The official figure is more than 160 times smaller: according to the German government commission chaired by Erich Maschke, just 4,537 are supposed to have died in the Rheinwiesenlager.18 Other academics entertain the possibility that the true number of deaths might have been substantially higher, especially when one takes into account the chaos of the time, which was never conducive to accurate record-keeping. But it is generally agreed that the figure cannot have exceeded 50 – 60,000 at the very outside.19
...From the official figures drawn up by the Maschke Commission, set up by the German government in 1962 to investigate the fate of German prisoners of war, it appears that the American military government, as well as that of the French, does indeed have a case to answer. The loss rate in American camps, though not as high as in the Soviets’, was still more than four times as bad as that in POW camps run by the British (see Table 1). Worse still were the camps run by the French, where, despite housing fewer than a third as many prisoners as the British camps, almost twenty times the number of deaths (24,178 in total) were recorded. We must remember that these are conservative figures: even the official historians concede that thousands of deaths probably went unrecorded.
...The only substantial difference between the British and American figures is in the speed with which their prisoners were released. While the British had released more than 80 per cent by the autumn of 1945, the Americans held on to most of theirs through that winter.46 The reason for this was that Roosevelt had insisted on trying German soldiers for war crimes all the way down to the lowest ranks: American-held prisoners therefore had to stay longer in the camps so that they could be screened.47
...And while both nations agreed to use prisoners as forced labour long after the war was over – the British actually for rather longer than the Americans – it was only the Americans (and the French) who proposed using them for clearing minefields.50
Of the 3 million prisoners taken by the Soviets during the war, more than a third died in captivity. In Yugoslavia the situation was proportionally even worse: around 80,000 prisoners of war were executed, starved, denied medical care or force-marched to their deaths – that is about two prisoners in every five. Such figures would have been inconceivable in the west. A glance at Table 1 confirms that German soldiers were right to be so wary of capture by the Red Army or their associated partisans. Prisoners taken in the east were ninety times more likely to die than those taken in the west.
Up until the spring of 1945 Soviet soldiers had been subjected to the most strident hate propaganda, which demonized Germans and Germany in every possible way. The Soviet army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda carried poems by Alexei Surkov with titles like ‘I Hate’, whose last line claimed ‘I want to strangle every one of them.’20 Pravda printed poems by Konstantin Simonov such as ‘Kill Him!’, published on the day that Voroshilovgrad fell, which exhorted Russian soldiers to
"… kill a German, kill him soon –
And every time you see one, kill him."21
Other writers such as Mikhail Sholokhov and Vasily Grossman also wrote vitriolic stories and reports which were designed to increase Soviet hatred for all things German. But it was Ilya Ehrenburg who occupied a special place in the hearts of the Soviet soldiers. Ehrenburg’s inflammatory chants in Krasnaya Zvezda were printed and repeated so often that most soldiers knew them by heart.
"The Germans are not human beings. From now on the word ‘German’ is for us the worst imaginable curse. From now on the word ‘German’ strikes us to the quick. We shall not get excited. We shall kill. If you have not killed at least one German a day, you have wasted that day … If you cannot kill your German with a bullet, kill him with your bayonet. If there is calm on your part of the front, or if you are waiting for the fighting, kill a German in the meantime … If you kill one German, kill another – there is nothing more joyful than a heap of German corpses."22
The dehumanization of Germans was a constant theme of Ehrenburg’s writings. As early as the summer of 1942 he claimed,
"One can bear anything: the plague, and hunger and death. But one cannot bear the Germans … We cannot live as long as these grey-green slugs are alive. Today there are no books; today there are no stars in the sky; today there is only one thought: kill the Germans. Kill them all and dig them into the earth.23"
These ‘grey-green slugs’ were at other times portrayed as scorpions, plague-carrying rats, rabid dogs and even bacteria.24 Just as Nazi propaganda had dehumanized the Slavs as Untermenschen, so had Soviet propaganda reduced all Germans to vermin.25
Countless Germans were shot while or after surrendering, despite orders to the contrary, and countless more were killed by drunken Red Army soldiers who saw revenge as part of their victory celebrations. Occasionally Soviet soldiers took pot shots at the columns of German prisoners for fun – just as the Germans had done to Soviet prisoners in 1941.28 In Yugoslavia too, German prisoners were shot for the slightest misdemeanours, for their clothes and equipment, for revenge, or just for sport.29
We should remember that it was not only German soldiers who paid this price, although German prisoners were certainly the most numerous. Seventy thousand Italians were also taken prisoner by the Red Army, many of whom never returned.30 More than 309,000 Romanian soldiers went missing on the eastern front, though how many survived long enough to become prisoners is still not known.31 Nor were all the prisoners fighting men – indeed, it is often impossible to separate civilians and soldiers in the official statistics. In the aftermath of the war at least 600,000 Hungarians, civilians and soldiers alike, were scooped up by the Red Army for no better reason than that they were of the wrong nationality, and were sent to labour camps across the Soviet Union.32...‘Woe betide anyone who wore riding boots,’ wrote Zoltan Toth, a Hungarian doctor who was captured after the fall of Budapest in February 1945. ‘If the Russians spotted a prisoner with usable boots, they took him out of the line, put a bullet through his head and pulled off his boots.’33...Zoltan Toth, who worked in a makeshift gulag medical centre in 1946, regularly saw bodies in the mortuary that had been cut open and their organs stolen – presumably to be eaten – just as they had been in Bergen-Belsen. When he reported this to the chief doctor his concerns were dismissed with the words, ‘If you had seen what went on here a year ago …’38
Some lucky prisoners of war were sent home as early as 1947, but most remained in Soviet gulags until 1950, when Stalin issued an ‘amnesty’ for those Germans who had been ‘good workers’.39 Some of those who had not managed to keep out of trouble, however, had been redesignated as political prisoners, and were not released until Khrushchev granted further amnesties after Stalin’s death in 1953. The last ones to return to Germany did so in 1957, some twelve years after the war was over. After years of working in remote Soviet mines, forests, railways, tanneries, collective farms and factories, many of them were broken men. Count Heinrich von Einsiedel later described the people he returned home with on one of the earliest transports. ‘But the cargoes those trains carried! Starved, emaciated skeletons; human wrecks convulsed with dysentery due to lack of food: gaunt figures with trembling limbs, expressionless grey faces, and dim eyes which brightened up only at the sight of bread or a cigarette.’ Einsiedel, once a devout Communist, found his faith well and truly shaken by the sight. Each of these prisoners, he said, was ‘a living indictment of the Soviet Union, a death sentence to Communism’.40"
- Wow. It doesn't get much more harrowing than this. Reminded of "If This Is A Man" by Primo Levi.Dec 11, 2014