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GERMAN MIDNIGHT: THE DIVISION OF EUROPE, 1945
THE SPRING OF 1945
THE WAR IN EUROPE ended officially on 8 May 1945, a date that marks the death of the Third Reich and the birth of a new Europe. To those present, however, death seemed far more apparent than renewal. Hitler's armies had laid waste to the continent, murdered millions of people, waged ideological warfare upon the nations of Europe, and undertaken a horrific plan to exterminate Europe's Jews. There was nothing in the smoldering cinders to suggest that the future held anything but toil and pain.
In the early years of the war, Germany had been spared the sort of destruction that the Wehrmacht so readily inflicted upon other countries. The chief victims then had been Poland, the Soviet Union, the Low Countries, France, Greece, and Yugoslavia. By 1943, however, Germans began to get a taste of the sort of suffering other Europeans knew well. In the last year and a half of the war, the Allied bombing offensive exacted a terrible toll against German cities, taking over a million lives. In July 1943, for example, bombers from Britain's Royal Air Force struck the industrial city of Hamburg, a major port on the North Sea. Incendiary bombs created a firestorm that ultimately engulfed eight square miles, killing 45,000 people. From November 1943 to March 1944, the RAF and US Army Air Force concentrated on Berlin, leaving the city in ruins but doing little to bring the government closer to surrender. In February 1945, just three months before the end of the war, Allied bombers launched a massive air assault on the city of Dresden. This ancient capital of Saxony, once called the Florence of the Elbe for its magnificent baroque architecture, possessed little heavy industry. Following an assault by some eight hundred RAF bombers and 311 American B-17s, the city was swallowed by fire, and over 50,000 people were incinerated. By the end of the war, most of Germany's major industrial cities in the Western part of the country were completely shattered. Ninety percent of the buildings in DYsseldorf, the major city of the industrial Ruhr Valley in Western Germany, were uninhabitable. Nearby Cologne lost 72 percent of its buildings, and 95 percent of its population had fled the city.
Vengeance came not just from the skies. It also came at the hands of the occupying armies, particularly the Soviet Red Army. Recent scholarship now puts the Soviet death toll during the Second World War at the staggering figure of 25.5 million. In the era of total war, civilians died in greater numbers than combatants: the Soviet Union suffered 8.6 million military and 16.9 million civilian deaths.1 Most of the civilians died as a result of the exterminationist occupation policies imposed by the Germans in Ukraine and Belorussia, where the population was enslaved and starved to death. It should come as no surprise that after four years of ferocious war between Russia and Germany, the victorious Red Army was primed to return the favor in equal measure. Russian soldiers were urged on by their commanders to behave as brutally as possible. In January 1945, as his vast army was about to cross onto German soil, Soviet marshal Georgi Zhukov, victor of Stalingrad and soon to become the commander of the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany, exhorted his men to crush the Germans without pity:
The great hour has tolled! The time has come to deal the enemy a last and decisive blow, and to fulfill the historical task set us by Comrade Stalin: to finish off the fascist animal in his lair and raise the banner of victory over Berlin! The time has come to reckon with the German fascist scoundrels. Great and burning is our hatred! We have not forgotten the pain and suffering done to our people by Hitler's cannibals. We have not forgotten our burnt-out cities and villages. We remember our brothers and sisters, our mothers and fathers, our wives and children tortured to death by Germans. We shall avenge those burned in the devil's ovens, avenge those who suffocated in the gas chambers, avenge the murdered and the martyred. We shall exact a brutal revenge for everything.
Sadly, it was the weak and defenseless, the villagers and townspeople of Eastern Germany, who first felt the impact of the Soviet army. Pumped up with Zhukov's rhetoric, Soviet soldiers unleashed a campaign of terror in the Eastern German lands of Pomerania, Silesia, and East Prussia that was barbaric even by the standards of an already ghastly war. Not only were Germans abused, terrorized, and driven off their land, but they were murdered in large numbers, and women in particular were made into targets of abuse. German women were raped in unimaginable numbers, then often killed or left to die from their wounds. Some women's bodies were found raped, mutilated, and nailed to barn doors. Hundreds of thousands of women have given testimony to the rapes they endured at the hands of the Russians; historian Norman Naimark has estimated that as many as 2 million may have been sexually assaulted. Worse, most women were victims of repeated rapings; some were raped as many as sixty to seventy times.
With cruel irony, this outburst of violence seemed to confirm the wartime fulminations of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, that the Russians were inhuman beasts. One member of an anti-Nazi cell in Berlin, a woman named Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, has left a vivid account of the sense of shock and fear that these assaults left upon German people. Writing in her diary on 6 May 1945, she observed:
These days have become dangerous to many. Panic prevails in the city. Dismay and terror. Wherever we go, there is pillaging, looting, violence. With unrestrained sexual lust our conqueror's army has flung itself upon the women of Berlin.
We visit Hannelore Thiele, Heike's friend and classmate. She sits huddled on her couch. "One ought to kill oneself," she moans. "This is no way to live." She covers her face with her hands and starts to cry. It is terrible to see her swollen eyes, terrible to look at her disfigured features.
"Was it really that bad?" I ask.
She looks at me pitifully. "Seven," she says. "Seven in a row. Like animals."
Inge Zaun lives in Klein-Machnow. She is eighteen years old and didn't know anything about love. Now she knows everything. Over and over again, sixty times.
"How can you defend yourself?" she says impassively, almost indifferently. "When they pound at the door and fire their guns senselessly. Each night a new one, each night others. The first time when they took me and forced my father to watch, I thought I would die."
..."They rape our daughters, they rape our wives," the men lament. "Not just once, but six times, ten times and twenty times." There is no other talk in the city. No other thought either. Suicide is in the air ...
"Honor lost, all lost," a bewildered father says and hands a rope to his daughter who has been raped twelve times. Obediently she goes and hangs herself from the nearest window sash.
For a generation of Germans, then, the spring of 1945 would forever be linked with the image of a grime-encrusted, battle-scarred Russian soldier, boots on, forcing himself upon a German woman.
We must stretch our imagination to place these scenes of raped and tortured women into a broader whole, one even more grisly when considered in its full scale. In the months after the war's end, all of Europe was crawling with disoriented people, moving in all directions, most of them crossing into or out of Central Europe. In a continent overrun with armies, the face of war did not belong to the soldier but to the refugee.
The displaced persons (DPs), as they were clinically termed, numbered about 13 million in the summer of 1945. Among these were 10 million foreign workers who had been shipped into Germany from all across Europe to provide slave labor for the German war machine. They now began to drift home, though without any easy means of transportation. Millions of prisoners of war and concentration camp survivors joined this flood. The bulk of these people passed through massive refugee camps established by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). This organization provided relief--albeit very limited--to an astonishing array of nationalities. In addition to millions of West Europeans, who found it on the whole fairly easy to return to their nations of origin, UNRRA gave shelter to Russians, Poles, Balts, Yugoslavs, and Central European Jews, for whom the return home was made more difficult by the broken transport networks and the far greater war damage.
UNRRA did not exist simply to provide a meager plate of soup. Its purpose was to bring some sense of order to the massive population flows. UNRRA established demarcation lines all across Germany and set up assembly centers where DPs could be collected and sorted and classified. The DPs were given a cursory medical examination, deloused, and issued ration cards. Security checks were made in order to prevent the escape of wanted enemy nationals from Germany. Then the DPs were sent on their way, the goal being to get them out of Germany, and out of UNRRA camps, as soon as possible.
Life in the UNRRA camps was terribly hard. Every sort of accommodation was used for housing people, including barracks, concentration camps, schools, factories, barns, stables, and tents. DPs interned in such facilities were looked after by a skeletal team of Allied soldiers, doctors, and orderlies, who attempted to establish at least some basic order. German POWs were used to dig latrines and build temporary shelters. Supplies were requisitioned from the local German population, though the Germans themselves were already in bad shape. DPs were provided with meager rations of potatoes and soup, and were lucky to receive fifteen hundred calories a day--barely enough to survive. The official British history of this period acknowledges the failings of Allied policy toward the DPs:
For the individual displaced person the actuality of conditions in the centers fell sadly short of the hopes and excitement that had filled him when he knew the war was over and that he had been liberated from his Nazi masters. Accommodation was often damaged and squalidly patched up with salvaged or improvised material. Water, electricity, and sanitation were scarce. In the circumstances of the time such conditions were inescapable. They were better than those of many Germans, but in all these respects displaced persons were frequently worse off than they had been under the Nazis.
Perhaps the most tragic group among Europe's woeful refugees were the Soviet DPs. While the French, Italians, and Poles were on the whole eager to get back to their homes, many Soviet citizens were anxious about the fate that awaited them upon their return. They had good reason to worry, as Stalin viewed DPs, as well as Soviet POWs, with great suspicion. They had spent time abroad, had worked for the enemy, had betrayed their nation and their ideology. Nonetheless, thousands were forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union under an international agreement between the Allied powers. Soviet displaced persons would be sent back, the agreement had said, "regardless of their individual wishes." Under this agreement, some 2 million Soviet DPs were repatriated from the Western portion of Germany under Anglo-American control; to these may be added another 3 million in Eastern Germany already in Russian hands. Upon their arrival in Soviet-held territory, DPs were sorted into categories, and anyone considered to be politically suspect or in any way a potential threat to the regime was simply liquidated. Of the 5 million returning Soviet citizens, only about one-fifth were allowed to return to their homes and families. The rest were sent to forced-labor camps or executed.
Alongside these bedraggled refugees, another of Europe's tragedies now unfolded, generated not by the war itself but by the territorial changes instituted at the war's conclusion. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the three great powers--the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union--agreed that the postwar territory of Germany would be considerably diminished. Poland was granted control of Pomerania, Silesia, and half of East Prussia--some 40,000 square miles, with a prewar population of 9 million Germans. (This transfer of territory would compensate for the loss of 70,000 square miles of eastern Poland that was to be incorporated into the Soviet Union.) The tentative deal struck at Yalta was confirmed at the Potsdam Conference of July-August 1945, where Roosevelt's successor, Harry S. Truman, lifted his initial objections to the plan in the interests of maintaining good US-Soviet relations.
In light of these territorial changes, the millions of Germans in these eastern lands now under Polish control instantly became targets of vilification and abuse at the hands of Polish authorities. The same was true in Czechoslovakia, where hundreds of thousands of Germans, especially in the west of the country, were targeted for expulsion. In a gruesome echo of Nazi policy toward the Jews, Polish and Czech authorities rounded up Germans in internment camps or simply placed them on rail cars and shipped them into Germany, there to be dealt with by the already overwhelmed occupation authorities. The numbers involved in this immense transfer of population are not exact, but German authorities have estimated that some 11.7 million people of German descent were expelled from the lands of the old German Reich, from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other countries such as Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia. Many of these Germans had fled voluntarily from what they rightly expected would be a marauding Red Army. The rest were forcibly expelled. The expulsions were accompanied by intense violence, the revenge of Poles and Czechs upon the ethnic Germans who for the six previous years had so cruelly treated them. Over 2 million of these expellees were killed or went missing during this ghastly chapter of ethnic cleansing. All of this was undertaken with the tacit approval of the great powers. To make matters worse, about two-thirds of these Germans flooded into Western Germany, there to be added to the already large numbers of refugees. Despite losing a quarter of its territory, Germany's population grew by 17 percent--and this in a country already ground into rubble by six years of war.7
So to the hungry of Berlin, the raped women of Eastern Germany, and the multinational flood of refugees--to this collective portrait of tormented Europe add the saga of the Volksdeutsche, the ethnic Germans, who were now forcibly uprooted, packed onto cattle cars with doors nailed shut, and sent westward.
From the Hardcover edition.