Military history



Hitler’s last speech, broadcast on 30 January 1945, the twelfth anniversary of his appointment as Reich Chancellor, aroused more sympathy than enthusiasm among his listeners. He did not even bother to hold out the hope that the ‘wonder-weapons’ would turn the situation around. Instead, he railed as ever against the ‘Jewish-international world conspiracy’ that was hell-bent on the annihilation of Europe. Germans, he said, had to continue resisting until victory was achieved. There was to be no stab in the back as there had been in the First World War. Not even committed Nazis found the speech inspirational. As Melita Maschmann later wrote:

During the last months of the war I always had to fight back tears when I heard Hitler’s voice on the radio or saw him on the newsreels. One’s conscious mind might refuse to recognize the signs of an imminent collapse, which were becoming more and more obvious, but the immediate impressions one received through one’s eyes and ears could not be falsified, and one’s heart was gripped with fear at the appalling truth: the newsreels showed an ageing man, who walked with a stoop and glanced anxiously about him. His voice sounded shrill with despair. Was he, then, destined to fail? For us he embodied the unprecedented effort that had made the German nation take over the government of the continent. In looking at him one saw the sum total of all the countless sacrifices of lives, health and property which that effort had demanded. Had all this been in vain?88

Many of the most committed Nazis, or the most naive, continued to hope against hope that it had not. One fifteen-year-old girl, whose entire education had been aimed not least at building up an image of Hitler as a father-figure, could write in her diary after recording the latest military disasters: ‘Our poor, poor Leader, he can’t be sleeping at night any more, and yet he’s had Germany’s good in mind.’89

The tone of her remarks was far from exceptional in such circles. Now trained as an air force officer, Albert Molter joined in a party held to listen to Hitler’s speech in his officers’ mess. Patriotic songs were sung, and extracts from Hanns Johst’s play Schlageter were performed.90 Then the radio was switched on and everyone settled down to listen. ‘As always,’ Albert wrote to his wife Inge, ‘it was wonderful to hear the Leader’s voice. How heavy must be the burden he bears. Seen in this way it’s almost mean to listen to the Leader’s words in the hope that they will bring a decision. But actually a decision has been taken. No miracle will rescue us except that of German grit.’91 In response, his wife compared the cause of National Socialism to that of Christianity, and Hitler’s supposed sufferings to those of Jesus. Christ’s life, she recalled, had ended in crucifixion. ‘Fred, darling,’ she asked her husband, ‘are we to be asked for a similar sacrifice so that our idea can last for ever?’92 Their identification with Hitler was complete. ‘We must stand by Germany, by the Leader,’ wrote Alfred to his wife on 9 March 1945, ‘only in this way will we stand by ourselves.’93 Shortly afterwards, his unit was sent to Berlin to fight alongside the infantry defending the German capital. Within a few weeks, the British had occupied Nienburg, where Inge was now living, and arrested her Nazi father. ‘Our beloved, beautiful Germany,’ she wrote in despair to her husband, ‘all her sacrifices, all her heroism in vain.’94 He never replied. By the time she wrote this letter, he had gone missing in action. His body was never found.95

While the most faithful of his followers wallowed in maudlin pity for his plight, Hitler’s thoughts turned increasingly to suicide. Sheltering from an air raid in the bunker underneath the Reich Chancellery shortly after the German defeat in the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler briefly gave way to despair. The army had betrayed him, he said; the air force was a broken reed. ‘I know the war is lost,’ he told his adjutant, Nicolaus von Below, and he continued: ‘Most of all, I’d like to put a bullet through my own head.’ But if he was to perish, then Germany would perish too. ‘We’ll not capitulate. Never. We can go down. But we’ll take a world with us.’96 When it came to public propaganda, Hitler and Goebbels now focused increasingly on the threat of annihilation they saw coming from the east. Fear was to galvanize Germans into fighting on. On 21 January 1945, in an editorial for the Reich, Goebbels ranted despairingly against ‘the world conspiracy of a parasitic race’, the Jews, who had succeeded in mobilizing the entire world against National Socialism. Despite everything, he proclaimed defiantly, ‘not Europe, but the Jews themselves will perish’.97

Despite such bluster, it was clear to most Germans that the war was now drawing to a rapid close as the Red Army, now regrouped and re-equipped after its rapid advances of the previous months, resumed the attack once more. After the loss of the Romanian oilfields, the German army desperately needed to cling on to its source of supplies in Hungary or there would be virtually no fuel left to power its remaining tanks, lorries, mobile artillery and transport vehicles. Hitler refused permission to the German forces in Budapest to withdraw, and the Hungarian capital was soon surrounded by Soviet forces. A major offensive aimed at breaking the encirclement failed in February 1945, with the loss of nearly 30,000 men killed or captured. An armoured thrust by the Sixth SS Panzer Army, taken out of the Battle of the Bulge, failed just as decisively, and by the end of March the Red Army had occupied almost the whole of Hungary. In the north, the German forces in Latvia held out, but they were completely isolated. The main Soviet attack came in the central sector, in mid-January, when armoured formations of the Red Army took advantage of the removal of key German units to the Hungarian campaign to pulverize the German front and crush the remaining German armour. By the end of January, the Red Army had occupied most of prewar Poland. Some pockets of resistance remained, notably the city of Breslau, which held out until May. But the Red Army now stood on the river Oder, at the gates of the German Reich. It had captured the major industrial area of Silesia and gained control over the oilfields of Hungary, and it was nearing Vienna. Its commanders paused to regroup and build up munitions and supplies for the final offensive.98

In the west, after the failure of the German counter-offensive in the Battle of the Bulge, 1.5 million Americans, more than 400,000 British and Canadians and 100,000 Free French troops assembled at the end of January for an attack on the Rhine. They took more than 50,000 prisoners as they advanced, driving the German forces across the river. On 7 March 1945, as American troops reached Remagen, they noticed German soldiers desperately trying to blow up the bridge across the river, the last one left standing. Rushing up reinforcements, they drove across and established a bridgehead the other side, allowing many troops across before the bridge finally collapsed. By the time the Rhine had been crossed, another 300,000 German troops had been captured and a further 60,000 killed or wounded. The Americans pushed on eastwards, towards Saxony, while Canadian forces advanced into Holland. British forces drove north-east towards Bremen and Hamburg, and yet more American divisions mounted a huge encirclement operation in the Ruhr, capturing more than 300,000 German prisoners. On 25 April 1945 American troops met their Red Army counterparts for a ceremonial handshake at the small town of Torgau on the river Mulde, a tributary of the Elbe. Others were heading south-east towards Munich, aiming to meet Allied forces advancing towards the Brenner Pass from northern Italy, where a final assault had begun on 9 April 1945. The Red Army had already entered Vienna on 3 April 1945, as American troops were pushing into Austria from the west. Amidst constant negotiation, the invading forces agreed a rough division of territory between themselves as the final reckoning approached. Despite some doubts on the British side, the German capital was left to the Red Army to take. Soviet forces now held complete command of the skies, and possessed overwhelming superiority in armour, artillery, ammunition and manpower on the ground. In fierce fighting in March and early April 1945, they destroyed almost all the remaining German armies, and the fortresses on which Hitler had set such hopes, in East Prussia and Pomerania, while Rokossovskii launched a massive assault into Mecklenburg in the north. By the middle of April 1945, two and a half million men were now poised for the final attack on Hitler’s capital.

The German armed forces had little left to throw at the enemy. In March 1945, some 58,000 sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds were sent into the fray: their training was perfunctory, and however indoctrinated they might have been in the Nazi cause, they were no match for the tough veterans of the Red Army or the well-equipped battalions of the British and Americans and their allies.99 German losses on the Eastern Front had risen from 812,000 in 1943 to 1,802,000 in 1944. By the end of the year, over three and a half million German troops had been killed or captured by the Red Army. Overall, more than 450,000 members of the German armed forces were killed in January 1945, 295,000 in February, 284,000 in March and 281,000 in April: indeed, over a third of all German troops killed during the war died in its last four and a half months. By the end of 1944 some 800,000 German troops were in the custody of the Western Allies, a figure that had climbed to over a million by April and four million by the time the war was over. 700,000 members of the German armed forces were in Soviet camps. By April 1945 there were 600,000 sick and wounded soldiers, airmen and sailors in hospital.100 In the second half of 1944 alone, the air force lost more than 20,000 planes. The command of the skies passed to the Allied bombers, the Red Army and the invasion forces in the west.101 Speer was redoubling his efforts to increase arms production, and in September 1944 almost 3,000 fighter planes were completed. But the more territory Germany lost, the faster the war economy shrank. In particular, the loss to the Red Army of major industrial areas in the east, notably Upper Silesia, deprived the Reich of key economic resources. It was no longer possible to recruit fresh forced labour from the occupied areas. Germany’s sources of fuel in Romania and Hungary were gone. The attempt to provide a substitute by manufacturing synthetic fuel had proved futile. There was no longer any defence against the destruction now raining down continually on German cities from the air. The German armies were no longer disciplined, effective and motivated fighting forces but rapidly shrinking in number, demoralized and disorganized, little more than an armed rabble. 102


Nazi propaganda now concentrated increasingly on instilling fear of the invader into the German people. Hitler’s written message read out over the radio on 24 February 1945, the anniversary of the promulgation of the Nazi Party programme in 1920, warned that Germans would be shipped off to Siberia as slaves if the Red Army proved triumphant.103 The next day, 25 February 1945, Goebbels warned, in an article in The Reich, that, if Germany surrendered, Stalin would immediately occupy south-eastern Europe, and ‘an iron curtain would immediately fall on this huge territory, together with the vastness of the Soviet Union, and nations would be slaughtered behind it’.104 Hitler’s final appeal to the troops on the Eastern Front, issued to all ranks on 15 April 1945, used fear as its main weapon in calling for resistance to the last man: ‘The deadly Jewish-Bolshevik enemy with his masses is beginning his final attack. He is attempting to destroy Germany and exterminate our people . . . The old men and children will be murdered, women and girls will be degraded as barracks whores. The remainder will march to Siberia.’ But Germany would be spared this fate if they stood firm. ‘The Bolshevik . . . will bleed before the capital of the German Reich.’105 Goebbels made a point of repeating these warnings in detail in these final weeks. He dragged up once more the allegation that the Allies intended to exterminate the German race. His warnings were echoed by Heinz Guderian, Chief of the Army General Staff, who declared that all the Red Army wanted to do in Germany was to rob, rape and kill.106


20. The End of the War

But such dire warnings had for some time been just as likely to backfire as to succeed. Many Germans, as we have seen, felt that they had no right to criticize the Red Army in view of the atrocities that Germany had committed itself. It was not just the Jews whose maltreatment aroused such feelings of guilt. A Party member in the Stuttgart area was reported to have asked rhetorically: ‘Weren’t our SS people frequently even more cruel towards Germans, their own fellow-citizens, than the Russians have been towards the East Prussians? We have shown the others how to deal with political enemies.’107 Public exhortation to carry on fighting had equally little effect. On 24 February 1945 Bormann issued an appeal on the anniversary of the proclamation of the Nazi Party programme in 1920. Anyone who thought of retreat or surrender, he said, was a traitor to the nation. Self-sacrifice would be rewarded by victory. If only the German people’s will stood firm, Germany would triumph.108 Not long afterwards, in Berlin, three women were observed looking at a poster displayed in the shop window of the KdW department store, proclaiming: ‘Berlin is working, fighting and standing.’ A few more bombing raids like the previous day’s, one was overheard saying, ‘and the only thing standing will be ruins . . . We didn’t see much evidence of Berlin fighting last Sunday. The Americans dropped their bombs wherever they wanted. They flew all over the sky without any opposition, without any fighting.’109 In the invaded areas, people began to seek a way of surrendering. Their attempts did not go down well with Nazi fanatics. ‘In a session of the town council,’ noted Lore Walb, who had gone back from Munich to her home town of Alzey in the Rhineland, ‘Dr Sch. also pleaded for the surrender of the town, since further struggle is pointless, and in order to preserve everything that still remains. The District Leader [of the Nazi Party] was of course in favour of fighting to the finish.’110 In one rural part of western Germany, soldiers who tried to set off explosive charges in front of the advancing Americans were attacked by local people with pitchforks.111

As propaganda failed, terror began to take its place. On 15 February 1945 Reich Justice Minister Otto-Georg Thierack ordered that anyone attempting to avoid his duty to fight on, thus jeopardizing Germany’s determination to win, would be tried by a drumhead court-martial, consisting of a criminal court judge, a Nazi official and an officer of the armed forces, the Military SS or the police, and, if found guilty, executed on the spot.112 As these makeshift courts swung into action, the more fanatical and energetic Nazi Party officials quickly dispensed with the rules. On 18 March 1945 Field Marshal Model ordered the military police to shoot any soldiers or civilians engaged in acts of sabotage. ‘Where a white flag appears,’ Himmler instructed his officers in the SS and police, ‘all the male persons of the house concerned are to be shot. There must,’ he added, ‘be no hesitation in carrying out these measures.’113 And in his last orders to the soldiers of the Eastern Front, in mid-April 1945, Hitler repeated that there was to be no retreat, no surrender: ‘Anyone who gives you the order to retreat must be arrested immediately if you do not know exactly who he is, and if necessary is to be killed on the spot, quite irrespective of whatever rank he may carry.’114 ‘Strength Through Fear’ became the slogan of the hour, replacing ‘Strength Through Joy’ - in German the initials, KdF, were the same.

Up to 10,000 people were summarily executed in this final phase of terror and repression.115 They included a significant number of the 190,000 or so criminal offenders who now crowded Germany’s state prisons and penitentiaries, many of them put there by political repression or the wartime crackdown on looting, theft and ‘undermining morale’. As the Allied armies advanced, the prison authorities began to evacuate the jails. The governor of the women’s penitentiary in Fordon, near Bromberg, took out the 565 inmates under guard on 21 January 1945, and marched them to another women’s prison at Krone, 36 kilometres away. Only forty of them reached their destination. ‘It was about minus 12 degrees,’ reported the governor, ‘and it was very icy. As a result, the prisoners as well as the warders were falling over all the time . . . During the march,’ he continued, ‘I observed numerous prisoners who were left behind, struggling to drag themselves forward. Many were sitting or lying by the side of the road, and nothing could induce them to get up again.’116 When the Krone prisoners were evacuated in their turn, the same scenes repeated themselves. Coming across the column, an SS unit on the retreat gunned down one group of the prisoners, while other women prisoners were taken roughly out of the line by passing German soldiers and raped.117

All over Germany and the incorporated territories, state prisoners were forced to go on similar marches, some of them to concentration camps. Some, classified by penal officials as reformable, were released into a special formation of the Military SS. Thousands of the supposedly incorrigible, on the other hand, were simply taken out and shot. At Sonnenburg, a penitentiary located to the east of Berlin, the regional state prosecutor, Kurt-Walter Hanssen, a former personal assistant of Martin Bormann, had most of the prisoners murdered by a unit of SS and police officers brought in for the purpose on 30 January. The prisoners were made to kneel down in groups of ten, and were shot in the back of the neck; sick inmates were shot in their beds in the prison infirmary. More than 800 prisoners were killed in the space of a few hours, the majority of them foreign forced labourers who had been jailed for infringements of the harsh rules under which they had been obliged to live and work. The rest - a mere 150 - who had been classified as ‘useful’, were marched out in the direction of Berlin. For those left behind, conditions worsened dramatically with the arrival of evacuated prisoners from elsewhere; food supplies became even more scarce, disease was rife, and death rates rocketed. Reich Justice Minister Thierack personally ordered a large number of prison executions as late as April 1945. Army commanders who saw prison inmates as a military threat also ordered executions: Field Marshal Walter Model, surrounded by the Americans in the Ruhr area, ordered penitentiary inmates to be selected and executed if they were found to be ‘dangerous’: these included a number of German political prisoners as well as foreign workers. Altogether, 200 prisoners, including a number who were only on remand, were shot in this area over the following week.118

Model’s murderous actions paralleled those of Hitler himself and reflected a similar mentality. The more desperate the military situation became, the more vital it seemed to such men to eliminate anyone who might threaten the regime from within. Obsessed to the end with the imaginary precedent of 1918, Hitler did not want another ‘stab in the back’. ‘I’ve ordered Himmler, in the event of there some day being reason to fear troubles back at home,’ he had said some years earlier, on the night of 14-15 September 1941, ‘to liquidate everything he finds in the concentration camps. Thus at a stroke the revolution would be deprived of its leaders.’119 This included foreigners, such as the 141 French resistance workers who were shot in Natzweiler the day before the camp was evacuated in the face of the advancing Allied armies. Most of all, however, Hitler’s murderous attention was turned towards his internal enemies.120 The trials and executions of those involved in the bomb plot of 20 July 1944 continued almost to the end. On 4 April 1945 an evil chance led to the discovery of Admiral Canaris’s personal diaries. Reading them in his Berlin bunker, Hitler convinced himself that Canaris and his fellow-conspirators had been working against him from the outset. All his remaining enemies had to be killed, he decided. He began by ordering the head of the SS Security Service, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, to do away with the surviving plotters. On 9 April 1945 Canaris, Oster, Bonhoeffer and two other political inmates of Flossenbürg concentration camp were stripped naked and hanged by crude ropes from wooden hooks in the courtyard. The bodies were immediately cremated. To Hitler’s thirst for revenge was added Himmler’s determination that prominent opponents of Nazism should not survive into the postwar era. As Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller told Helmuth von Moltke, ‘We won’t make the same mistake as in 1918. We won’t leave out internal German enemies alive.’121 On the same day as Canaris and the others were executed, as the Red Army was closing in on the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, one of the inmates, Georg Elser, who had narrowly missed killing Hitler with a home-made time-bomb in November 1939, was moved out of his quarters in the camp to Dachau, where the commandant interviewed him briefly before having him taken out and shot in the back of the neck. Himmler had given orders for the execution, and instructed the camp authorities to attribute his death to a British air raid. A week later it was duly announced as such in the press.122 A further series of murders took place between 20 and 24 April in Berlin, where the SS shot more of the people who had been involved in the bomb plot of July 1944.123

This was the kind of reckoning Hitler had carried out once before, when he had taken the opportunity of the purge of Ernst Röhm’s storm-troopers at the end of June 1934 to settle old scores and eliminate possible members of an alternative government. But now it was being done on a much larger scale. Among the victims was the former Communist leader Ernst Thälmann. Incarcerated in a variety of prisons and camps since 1933, Thälmann had few illusions about his fate should the Red Army succeed in entering Germany. In August 1943 he was moved to the state prison at Bautzen, and a few months later his wife and daughter were arrested and taken to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. ‘Thälmann,’ Himmler jotted down in his notes for a meeting with Hitler on 14 August 1944, ‘is to be executed.’ Hitler signed the order, and three days later Thälmann was taken out of his cell and driven to the concentration camp at Buchenwald. Before he arrived, the prisoners, who included many former Communists, were locked into their barracks. One Polish inmate managed none the less to conceal himself near the entrance to the crematorium area, where the ovens were being stoked up in readiness for the disposal of Thälmann’s corpse. He saw a large automobile arrive, and a broad-shouldered man get out, flanked by two Gestapo officers. The man was not wearing a hat, and the Pole noticed that he was bald. Prodded forward by the Gestapo, the man passed through the crematorium entrance, which was flanked by SS men. Immediately, three shots could be heard, then shortly afterwards, a fourth. The door was closed, then, twenty-five minutes later or so, they were reopened and the SS men came out. The Pole overheard their conversation. ‘Do you know who that was?’ one SS man asked his fellow officer. ‘That was the Communist leader Thälmann,’ came the answer. The official announcement of his death blamed it on a British air raid.124

A similar fate was clearly intended for a number of other prominent prisoners of the regime, including the ex-Chief of the Army General Staff General Franz Halder, the former Economics Minister Hjalmar Schacht, the sacked head of Army Procurement General Georg Thomas (all three arrested after the bomb plot), the last Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg, the French politician and ex-Prime Minister Léon Blum, the Confessing Church leader Martin Niemöller, the former Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Kalláy, the bomb plotter Fabian von Schlabrendorff, and the families of a number of his co-conspirators, including the Stauffenbergs, Goerdelers and von Hassells, along with a nephew of the Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov, assorted British agents, and army commanders from countries formerly allied to Germany. Some 160 people in all were gathered together in an SS convoy and taken to a mountainous area of the South Tyrol on 28 April 1945. Here, it had been decided, they were all to be shot and their bodies disposed of. When a guard accidentally let slip their intended fate, one of the prisoners managed to contact the local German army commander, who sent a subordinate officer, Captain Wichard von Alvensleben, to investigate: gathering a posse of armed troops, the captain arrived at the scene, and before anything could happen, he used his aristocratic hauteur to browbeat the SS men into releasing their prisoners. They were all unharmed, but it had been a narrow escape.125


There were still some 700,000 prisoners in the concentration camps altogether at the beginning of 1945. As well as the main camps, there were at least 662 sub-camps dotted across the Reich and the incorporated territories at this time. By now, they held more prisoners in total than were housed in principal centres such as Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrück. As the Red Army advanced, Himmler ordered the camps in its path to be evacuated. Precisely when and how this was to be done was left largely to the commandants’ own initiative. The largest of the camp complexes, at Auschwitz, held no fewer than 155,000 prisoners. Most of them were Poles and Russians. Roughly half of them were transported to camps further west. Huge quantities of material, equipment and personal effects went with the evacuees from Auschwitz. While the evacuation was in progress, work continued on new buildings, including a large set of additional facilities at Birkenau, dubbed ‘Mexico’ by the prisoners. Only in October 1944 was building work halted. The same month saw some 40,000 people perish in the existing gas chambers at Birkenau. In November, however, Himmler ordered all the gas chambers in every camp to be closed down and dismantled. At Auschwitz, the trenches used to incinerate corpses were levelled out, mass burial areas were filled up with earth and turfed over, the ovens and crematoria were dismantled, and the gas chambers destroyed or converted into air-raid bunkers.126

Now working for the concentration camp inspectorate, the former commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, was sent by Oswald Pohl to the camp towards the end of 1944 ‘in the hope of reaching Auschwitz in time to make sure that the order for the destruction of everything important had been properly carried out’, as he later recalled. Höss drove some distance across Silesia but was unable to reach the camp in the face of the relentless advance of the Red Army. ‘On all the roads and tracks in Upper Silesia west of the Oder,’ he reported, ‘I now met columns of prisoners, struggling through the deep snow. They had no food. Most of the non-commissioned officers in charge of these stumbling columns of corpses had no idea where they were supposed to be going.’ They requisitioned food from the villages through which they passed, but ‘there was no question of spending the night in barns or schools, since these were all crammed with refugees’. Höss ‘saw open coal trucks, loaded with frozen corpses, whole trainloads of prisoners who had been shunted on to open sidings and left there without food or shelter’. There were German refugees, too, in headlong flight from the advancing Russians, women ‘pushing perambulators stacked high with their belongings’. The route taken by the ‘miserable columns’ of evacuated prisoners was easy to follow, he added, ‘since every few hundred yards lay the bodies of prisoners who had collapsed or been shot’. Stopping his car by a dead body, he got out to investigate shots he heard near by ‘and saw a soldier in the act of stopping his motor-cycle and shooting a prisoner leaning against a tree. I shouted at him, asking him what he thought he was doing, and what harm the prisoner had done him. He laughed impertinently in my face, and asked me what I proposed to do about it.’ Höss’s reaction to this challenge to his authority as a senior officer in the SS was unequivocal: ‘I drew my pistol and shot him forthwith.’127

On 19 January 1945, despite Höss’s failure to reach the camp, 58,000 prisoners began to make their way slowly out of Auschwitz westwards, most of them on foot, a few by train. SS guards shot stragglers and left their bodies by the roadside. As many as 15,000 of the prisoners died of starvation or cold or were killed by the SS. A few Poles defied the threats of the SS and gave some of them food or shelter; ethnic Germans stayed indoors. In the end, some 43,000 prisoners reached camps in the west. Only the very sick remained at Auschwitz, where the SS were desperately trying to blow up the remaining installations and burn incriminating documents before the Red Army arrived. The camp’s building, administration and political department files were taken westwards; many ended up at Gross-Rosen. Medical equipment used in experimentation was dismantled or destroyed. In the chaos, the Special Detachment prisoners, key witnesses to mass murder, managed to melt into the crowds marching out of the camp and evade the SS, who had planned to kill them. The camp doctor Josef Mengele also absconded, taking his research notes and papers with him. On 20-21 January 1945, the SS guards abandoned the watchtowers, blew up the remains of the principal crematoria and set fire to the vast store of personal effects known to the inmates as ‘Canada’. Executions continued right up to the last minute, until Crematorium V, where they took place, was blown up too, on 25-6 January 1945. The SS killed some 700 prisoners at the various camps and sub-camps belonging to the Auschwitz complex before they left, but they did not have the time to murder them all. On 27 January 1945 the Red Army marched in. 600 corpses were lying on the ground outside, but some 7,000 prisoners were still alive, many in a very weak condition. In the storerooms that had not been burned, the Russian soldiers painstakingly catalogued 837,000 women’s coats and dresses, 44,000 pairs of shoes and 7.7 tons of human hair.128

Jewish prisoners were a particular target on the forced marches out of Auschwitz and other camps. When the prisoners employed on the manufacture of armoured personnel carriers at the Adler Works in Frankfurt were evacuated in March 1945 as the Americans approached the city, the SS pulled out the Jewish prisoners from the marching column and shot them; some of the victims were pointed out by their Polish fellow prisoners.129 In East Prussia, some 5,000 mostly female Jewish prisoners were marched out of the various sub-camps belonging to Stutthof until they came to a halt at the fishing village of Palmnicken, where their way was blocked; the Regional Leader of East Prussia, together with the sub-camp commandants and local officers of the SS and the Todt Organization decided to kill them, and shot all apart from two or three hundred.130 At a sub-camp of Flossenbürg, Helmbrechts, near the Franconian town of Hof, which housed mostly Polish and Russian women working in an arms factory, just over 1,100 prisoners were marched out in three groups on 13 April 1945, accompanied by forty-seven armed guards, male and female. Working their way towards no fixed destination, they had marched 195 miles by 3 May. Leaving the non-Jews behind after the first week, the guards proceeded southwards, beating and shooting the stragglers and the sick and depriving the prisoners of food and drink. More beatings were administered when local townspeople on occasion took pity on the prisoners and tried to throw them scraps of food. On 4 May, reaching the Czech border town of Prachtice, the column was attacked by an American plane, killing one of the guards; the remaining guards opened fire on the prisoners indiscriminately. Some of the survivors were marched up a nearby wooded hill and shot one by one as they collapsed with exhaustion. Before they fled, the guards set the others to walk into the town, where Czech townspeople gave them food and shelter. For many it was too late; twenty-six died before or shortly after the arrival of US troops, on 6 May 1945. Altogether at least 178 Jewish prisoners had perished on the march; a US army doctor later claimed that half the survivors were only saved by the prompt attentions of his medical team. Not for nothing were such aimless and murderous treks known by prisoners as ‘death marches’. Many had no clear destination. Some of the marches, indeed, meandered across the country, even doubling back on themselves; a death march from Flossenbürg covered a good 250 miles, going north for a third of the way, then turning south, passing not far from the camp itself before continuing on to Regensburg.131

The evacuation of the concentration camp at Neuengamme, which housed, with its fifty-seven sub-camps, some 50,000 prisoners, was undertaken in co-operation with the Regional Leader of nearby Hamburg, Karl Kaufmann. Most of the sub-camp inmates were taken on murderous and exhausting ‘death marches’ to ‘collection camps’, including Bergen-Belsen, by mid-April. That still left 14,000 in the main camp. Kaufmann had already decided, after representations from business and military leaders, to surrender the city to the Allies. Kaufmann feared that if he had the prisoners released, they would descend upon the city in the search for food and shelter. By this time there were no other camps left on the German side of the front line to which they could be evacuated, so Kaufmann decided to put them on board ships. 4,000 Danish and Norwegian prisoners had already been taken to Sweden in March 1945 on the orders of Heinrich Himmler, with the agreement of Count Bernadotte, head of the Swedish Red Cross. Himmler hoped thereby to gain the confidence of the Swedish royal family, of which Bernadotte was a member, as intermediaries for the negotiations he felt (entirely without any justification) that he could carry out with the British. The remaining 10,000 prisoners from the main camp at Neuengamme were marched off to Lübeck between 21 and 26 April 1945 and put on to three ships Kaufmann had commandeered as ‘floating concentration camps’ - the freighters Athens and Thielbeck, and a luxury liner, the Cap Arcona. No provision had been made for the prisoners, who were crammed into the holds, with no toilets and no water. Cauldrons of soup were lowered down when the SS opened the hatches, but there were no bowls or spoons, and much of the food spilled over on to the floor of the hold, mixing with the excrement now rapidly piling up. The SS took away the lifebelts to prevent escapes. Every day a launch brought out fresh water and returned to the shore with the corpses of prisoners who had died in the night. On 3 May 1945 British fighter-bombers spotted the ships, identified them as troop transports and attacked them with their rockets. The Thielbeck and Cap Arcona were badly hit. The Thielbeck sank, drowning all but fifty of the 2,800 prisoners on board. The Cap Arcona caught fire. Most of its lifeboats were destroyed in the inferno. As prisoners leaped into the icy waters of the Baltic, their clothes ablaze, a huge explosion ripped through the ship. It listed on to its port side and came to rest on the shallow bottom of the bay, half of the hull still above the water-line. 4,250 of the prisoners on board were drowned, burned to death, or shot by the bullets that filled the air as the planes exchanged fire with a group of U-boats in the nearby harbour. 350 prisoners were rescued after clinging to the hull for several hours. 400 of the 500 SS officers on board survived.132


21. The Death Marches

Other evacuees from the camps were deliberately murdered en masse by the SS. A column of about a thousand prisoners evacuated from the Dora camp was penned into a barn at the town of Gardelegen for the night, and when the barn walls collapsed under the pressure of bodies, police and Hitler Youth poured petrol over the roof and burned those inside alive. Only a few were able to make their escape. The bodies were still burning when the Americans arrived the following day.133 On some occasions, the local population in the areas through which the prisoners were marched joined in the killing. On 8 April 1945, for instance, when a column of prisoners scattered during a bombing raid on the north German town of Celle, ex-policemen and others, including some adolescents, helped hunt them down. Yet for all the particular sadism and violence directed by the SS against Jewish prisoners, the death marches were not, as has sometimes been claimed, simply the last chapter of the ‘Final Solution’; many thousands of non-Jewish camp inmates, state prisoners, forced labourers and others had to endure them, and they can best be seen as the last act in the brutal and violent history of the Third Reich’s system of repression in general, rather than an exclusive exterminatory action directed against Jews.134

For those who survived to reach their destination, further horrors lay in store. The camps in the central area of the Reich became grossly overcrowded as a result of the arrival of the bedraggled columns of evacuees: the population of Buchenwald, for instance, went up from 37,000 in 1943 to 100,000 in January 1945. Under such conditions, death rates rose dramatically, and some 14,000 people died in the camp between January and April 1945, half of them Jews. At Mauthausen, the arrival of thousands of prisoners from sub-camps in the region led to a deterioration in conditions so drastic that 45,000 inmates died between October 1944 and May 1945. Conditions in the sub-camps that lasted to the end of the war were no better. Ohrdruf, a sub-camp of Buchenwald near Gotha, was the first to be discovered by the American army as it advanced through Thuringia. It had contained 10,000 prisoners engaged in excavating underground bunkers. The SS had marched out some of the inmates a few days before and shot many of them. The soldiers who discovered the camp on 5 April 1945 were so shocked by what they saw that their commander invited Generals Patton, Bradley and Eisenhower to visit it. ‘More than 3,200 naked, emaciated bodies,’ Bradley recalled later, ‘had been flung into shallow graves. Lice crawled over the yellowed skin of their sharp, bony frames.’ The generals came across a shed piled high with dead bodies. Bradley was so shaken that he was physically sick. Eisenhower reacted by ordering all his troops in the area to tour the camp. Similar scenes were repeated in many other places as the Americans advanced. Some of the former guards were still in the camp, disguised as prisoners; surviving inmates identified the former guards to the Allied troops, who sometimes shot the SS men in disgust; other guards had already been killed by angry prisoners wreaking their revenge.135

The terrible conditions prevailing in the camps in the final months of the war were most evident in the place that came to symbolize the inhumanity of the SS more than any other to the British, who liberated it at the end of the war: Belsen. The concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen had been converted from a prisoner-of-war camp early in 1943. Its special function was to serve as a place of temporary accommodation for a relatively small number of Jews from various European countries, and particularly from the Netherlands, whom Himmler and his allies in the Foreign Office thought might be used as bargaining chips or hostages in international negotiations. As the difficulty of carrying out exchanges of such prisoners became more apparent, the SS decided in March 1944 to use Bergen-Belsen as a ‘convalescence camp’, or, to put it more realistically, a dumping-ground, for sick and exhausted prisoners from other camps whose weakness made them incapable of work. Up to the end of 1944, some 4,000 such prisoners had been delivered to the camp, but since they were not provided with any adequate medical facilities, the death rate quickly rose to more than 50 per cent. In August 1944 the camp was further extended to include Jewish women, many of them from Auschwitz. By December 1944 there were more than 15,000 people in the camp, including 8,000 in the women’s quarters. One of them was the young Dutch girl Anne Frank, who had been sent there at the end of October as an evacuee from Auschwitz; she died of typhus the following March. The commandant, Josef Kramer, appointed on 2 December 1944, was a long-time SS officer. He had previously served in Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he had recently overseen the murder of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews in the gas chambers. A number of officials, including women guards, accompanied him. Kramer immediately removed the few privileges enjoyed by the 6,000 or so ‘exchange Jews’ who remained from the original camp contingent, and began a regime of rapidly increasing chaos and brutality.136

As Bergen-Belsen became the destination for prisoners evacuated from other camps in the face of the advancing Red Army, it became even more overcrowded. The number of inmates had increased to more than 44,000 by the middle of March 1945. Attempts to evacuate some of them to Theresienstadt ran into bomb attacks, and two trains were brought to a halt in open countryside on the way, when the guards absconded and Allied troops arrived to free the starving passengers, or those of them who were still alive. Meanwhile thousands more were still being delivered to Bergen-Belsen, including a large contingent from the Dora works, so that the total number of inmates reached 60,000 on 15 April 1945. Kramer had made no adequate or timely preparations for proper sanitary arrangements for them, so that these 60,000 had to make do with exactly the same number of washrooms, showers and toilets as had been provided a year earlier for a camp population of no more than 2,000. Soon excrement lay on the barrack floors up to a metre thick. Food supplies were completely inadequate; they ceased altogether as the war broke the last remaining communications. The water supply stopped when a bomb hit the pumping station, making the kitchens impossible to operate. Kramer did not bother to try to remedy the situation; yet after the British took over the camp on 15 April they were able to restore the water and food supplies and repair the cooking facilities within a few days. A doctor among the inmates later reported witnessing well over 200 cases of cannibalism among the prisoners. Kramer made things worse by constantly staging lengthy roll-calls in the open air, no matter how cold or wet the weather. Epidemics began to rage. Typhus killed thousands. But for the efforts of the doctors among the prisoners, the situation would have been even worse. Nevertheless, between the beginning of 1945 and the middle of April some 35,000 people died at Bergen-Belsen. The British, who took over the camp on 15 April 1945, were unable to rescue another 14,000, who were too weak, diseased or malnourished to recover.137 Altogether, across Germany as a whole it has been estimated that between 200,000 and 350,000 concentration camp prisoners died on the ‘death marches’ and in the camps to which they were taken in these final months: up to half of the prisoners who were held in the camp system in January 1945, in other words, were dead four months later.138


The final phases of the war saw some of the most devastating air raids of all. Bombing continued on an almost daily basis, sometimes with such intensity that firestorms were created similar to the one that had caused such destruction in Hamburg in the summer of 1943. In Magdeburg on 16 January 1945 a firestorm killed 4,000 people and totally flattened a third of the town; it was made worse by a raid by seventy-two Mosquitos the following night, dropping mines and explosives to disrupt the work of the fire brigades and clean-up squads. Increasingly, too, bombs with time-fuses were dropped, to make things even more dangerous. Small squadrons of fast, long-range Mosquito fighter-bombers flew at will over Germany’s towns and cities, causing massive disruption by provoking repeated alarms and defensive mobilizations in the apprehension that a major raid was on the way. On 21 February 1945 more than 2,000 bombers attacked Nuremberg, flattening large areas of the city and cutting off water and electricity supplies. Two days later, on the night of 23-4 February 1945, 360 British bombers carried out the war’s only raid on the south-west German town of Pforzheim, which they bombed so intensively over a period of 22 minutes that they created a firestorm that obliterated the city centre and killed up to 17,000 out of the town’s 79,000 inhabitants. Berlin also saw its largest and most destructive raid of the war at this time. Over a thousand American bombers attacked the capital in broad daylight on 3 March 1945, pulverizing a large part of the city centre, rendering more than 100,000 people homeless, depriving the inhabitants of water and electricity, and killing nearly 3,000 people. At the request of the Soviet air force, more than 650 American bombers devastated the harbour of Swinemünde on 12 March, where many German refugees from the advancing Red Army had taken refuge. Some 5,000 people were killed, though popular legend soon had it that the death toll was many times higher. This was followed by an attack on Dortmund, like many of these other late raids aimed at destroying transport and communications hubs. On 16-17 March it was the turn of Würzburg, where 225 British bombers destroyed more than 80 per cent of the built-up area of the town and killed around 5,000 of its inhabitants. The last substantial British night-raid of the war was launched against Potsdam on 14-15 April 1945, killing at least 3,500.139

The most devastating air raid of the final phase of the war was carried out on Dresden. Up to this point, the baroque city on the Elbe had been spared the horrors of aerial bombardment. However, it was not just a cultural monument but also an important communications hub and a centre of the arms industry. The Soviet advance, now nearing the Elbe, was to be aided by Allied bombing raids intended to disrupt German road and rail communications in and around the city. And the German will to resist was to be further shattered. On 13 February 1945 two waves of British bombers attacked the city centre indiscriminately, unopposed by flak batteries, which had been removed in order to man defences further east against the oncoming Red Army, or by German fighters, which remained grounded because they had no fuel. The weather was clear, and the pathfinder planes had an easy task. The British raids were followed by two daylight attacks by American bombers. The prolonged and concentrated succession of raids created a firestorm that destroyed the whole of the city centre and large parts of the suburbs. The city, wrote one inhabitant, ‘was a single sea of flames as a result of the narrow streets and closely packed buildings. The night sky glowed blood-red.’140 35,000 people were killed.141 Among the inhabitants of the city on those fatal days was Victor Klemperer. As one of the few remaining Jews in Germany, his life hitherto safeguarded by the loyalty of his non-Jewish wife, Eva, Klemperer had other things to worry about than the possibility of air raids. On the very morning of the first attack, an order arrived at the ‘Jews’ House’, where he was being forced to live, announcing that the remaining Jews in Dresden were to be evacuated on the 16th. The order claimed that they would be required for labour duties, but since children were also named in the accompanying list, no one had any doubts as to what it really meant. Klemperer himself had to deliver copies of the circular to those affected. He himself was not on the list, but he had no illusions about the fact that he would be on the next one. Even in the final months of the war, the Nazis were grinding the machinery of extermination ever finer.142

That evening, while Klemperer was still contemplating his likely and imminent fate, the first wave of bombers flew over the city and began releasing their deadly cargo. At first, Klemperer hid in the cellar of the Jews’ House. Then the house was hit by a bomb-blast. He went upstairs. The windows were blown in, and there was glass everywhere. ‘Outside it was bright as day.’ Strong winds were sweeping through the streets, caused by the immense firestorm in the city centre, and there were continual bomb-blasts. ‘Then an explosion at the window close to me. Something hard and glowing hot struck the right side of my face. I put my hand up, it was covered in blood. I felt for my eye. It was still there.’ In the confusion, Klemperer became separated from his wife. Taking her jewellery and his manuscripts in a rucksack, he scrambled out of the house, past the half-destroyed cellar and into a bomb crater and on to the street, joining a group of people who were making their way up through the public gardens to a terrace overlooking the city, where they thought it would be easier to breathe. The whole city was ablaze. ‘Whenever the showers of sparks became too much for me on one side, I dodged to the other.’ It began to rain. Klemperer wrapped himself in a blanket and watched towers and buildings in the city below glowing white and then collapsing in heaps of ashes. Walking to the edge of the terrace, he came by a lucky chance upon his wife. She was still alive. She had escaped death because someone had pulled her out of the Jews’ House and taken her to a nearby cellar reserved for Aryans. Wanting to light a cigarette to relieve the stress, but lacking matches, she had seen that ‘something was glowing on the ground, she wanted to use it - it was a burning corpse’.143 Like many others, she had made her way out of the inferno to the park.

At this point, Klemperer’s friend Eisenmann, another surviving Jew, came up to the couple, holding one of his children; the rest of his family had disappeared. Eisenmann dispensed some sound advice. ‘I would have to remove my star,’ Klemperer reported him as saying, ‘just as he had already taken off his. Eva thereupon ripped the star from my coat with a pocket knife.’ With this act, the Klemperers had effectively gone underground. In the chaos and destruction the Gestapo and other authorities would, for a time at least, have other things to do than to round up Dresden’s remaining Jews, and all their lists had probably been destroyed anyway. Klemperer and his wife walked slowly along the river-bank:

Above us, building after building was a burnt-out ruin. Down here by the river, where many people were moving along or resting on the ground, masses of the empty, rectangular cases of the stick incendiary bombs stuck out of the churned-up earth. Fires were still burning in many of the buildings on the road above. At times, small and no more than a bundle of clothes, the dead were scattered across our path. The skull of one had been torn away, the top of the head was a dark red bowl. Once an arm lay there with a pale, quite fine hand, like a model made of wax such as one sees in barber’s shop windows. Metal frames of destroyed vehicles, burnt-out sheds. Further from the centre some people had been able to save a few things, they pushed handcarts with bedding and the like or sat on boxes and bundles. Crowds streamed unceasingly between these islands, past the corpses and smashed vehicles, up and down the Elbe, a silent, agitated procession.144

Making their way through the still-burning city, they came to the Jews’ House, to find it almost completely destroyed. Klemperer had his eye treated by an ambulance crew, then the couple reached a medical centre, where they were able to sleep and get a bite to eat, though not much more. Eventually they were all taken to an air base outside the city, where they received more food. Here Klemperer received further medical attention. He registered himself under his real name, but leaving out the tell-tale ‘Israel’ that he had been forced by law to carry since the beginning of 1939. Making their way out of Dresden to the north by train - banned to Jews on pain of death - the Klemperers arrived at Piskowitz, where their former domestic servant Agnes lived; she assured them that she had not told anyone she had worked for a Jewish couple, and gave them shelter. Klemperer answered the inevitable question from the local mayor (‘You are not of Jewish descent or of mixed race?’) with a firm ‘no’.145 For them, as for a tiny number of other Jews, the chaos and destruction of the final months of the war offered a chance of survival. They took it gladly.

Only the most convinced Nazis saw the air raids as a spur to further defiance of the Allies. Shortly after the Allied bombing of Dresden, Luise Solmitz met an acquaintance who worked for the Propaganda Ministry:

When I said, 99 per cent of Hamburgers wanted these attacks to end, and what came afterwards would have to be borne, X shouted: ‘But that’s surely madness, that’s the point of view of the stupid plebs! We have to stand before History with honour. You can’t paint the consequences of a defeat in colours that are in any way adequate’ . . . For him, Dresden is ‘the biggest organized mass murder in history’.146

For the latter part of the war, she spent much of her time simply trying to keep her family alive. Although she was a non-smoker, she applied for a cigarette ration card because, as she noted, ‘cigarettes are currency, hard currency’. Thus she was able to exchange them for food rations for her infant grandson. The gas connection to her home had been broken in the air raids at the end of July 1943 and not been restored until January 1944; but by early 1945 both gas and electricity supplies were in any case being regularly shut off for so-called ‘gas-saving days’ and ‘current-saving days’. By this time, too, four-week ration cards were having to last for five weeks. At the end of 1944 official food rations began to be cut to levels which nobody could survive on. In the second week of January 1945 the monthly bread ration was cut from ten and a half kilos to 8,750 grams, and by mid-April it had fallen to 3,600 grams; the meat ration was reduced from 1,900 grams to 550 over the same period, the fat ration from 875 grams to 325.147 The country’s infrastructure was crumbling rapidly. ‘I’m at the end of my strength, my will; completely exhausted and finished,’ Luise Solmitz wrote despairingly on 9 April 1945.148

Under the impact of defeat and retreat, and worn out by the constant bombing raids on her home city of Hamburg, Luise Solmitz at last began to lose her faith in Hitler, though she was too cautious to say so too explicitly even in the privacy of her diary. Gathering together her thoughts about the Germans and their current situation on 8 September 1942, she had written:

For me, a great man is only one who knows how to moderate himself, because there is not just a present time in which revenge can be tasted, but also a future in which retribution will come. Bismarck could restrain himself, one of the few who resisted being swept away by the power of success, a man who opposed his own internal law to the kind of law of nature that carried the conqueror away. The inescapable fate of most conquerors is self-destruction.149

But it was not until her daughter Gisela left her newborn son Richard in her safekeeping that Luise Solmitz really turned against Hitler. It was bad enough to think that she and her husband Friedrich might die in the bombing, but the threat it posed to their baby grandchild, the innocent carrier of Germany’s future, appalled her. By this time, she had only ‘hate’ and ‘curses’ for Hitler. ‘I got into the habit of accompanying every bomb with a “Let Hitler die a miserable death” when we were amongst ourselves,’ she wrote.150 The family started to refer to the Nazis as ‘Herr Jaspers’, allowing them to discuss the decline and forthcoming end of the Nazi system without fear of being arrested if anyone overheard them. Every time Goebbels or another leading Nazi came on to the radio, they rushed across the room to switch it off.151 The constant bombing was destroying what little was left of the popular belief in Hitler and support for the Nazi regime.

As the situation became more desperate, theft and illegal black-marketeering became the only ways to survive. Looting grew more widespread, above all from the summer of 1944 onwards. In Essen, for example, more than ninety grocery stores were looted in just two weeks in the autumn of 1944. People took advantage of the owners’ absence during night-time air raids. Bomb damage provided them with further opportunities. Mostly they took small amounts of food and clothing. Police patrols were increased, and the Gestapo expanded its network of informers in the communities of foreign workers. In September 1944 Gestapo officers were authorized to carry out summary executions of looters, an order formalized by the Reich Security Head Office in early November 1944 initially only with regard to eastern workers, then to all. Local police and administrative authorities were thus, in effect, encouraged to take matters into their own hands. Members of the People’s Storm were used to stand guard over bomb-damaged buildings, and to arrest and indeed to shoot eastern workers caught with loot from bomb-sites. In October 1944 one Gestapo officer in the west German town of Dalheim, not far from Cologne, coming across some eastern workers, all of them women, carrying what seemed to be looted goods, got his men to arrest seven of them; they confessed under interrogation and he had them all shot the following day. Sometimes local people would join in. Early in April 1945, for instance, a telephone operator on his way home from work in Oberhausen noticed four eastern workers coming out of a house the inhabitants of which had evidently taken refuge in an air-raid shelter; he gathered some other men, and arrested one of the workers, whom the men then started beating. The worker confessed to stealing some potatoes, and was taken to an office of the armed forces, where the telephone operator was given a gun. Taking his prisoner to a sports field, he was joined by a crowd, who also started beating the man with clubs and planks. The telephone operator then shot the man, but he did not die immediately; as he lay moaning on the ground the crowd gathered round and beat him to death.152

In such circumstances, it is not surprising that increasing numbers of foreign workers began to abscond or go underground. French workers given leave of absence to visit their families back home often simply failed to return - in the I. G. Farben factory in Ludwigshafen, for example, fully 68 per cent of the western European workers given leave to visit home in May and June 1943 never came back. To have banned home leave, however, would have caused widespread unrest among these workers, and punitive measures were not possible because they were from ‘friendly’ countries. Half or more of the workers who deserted their jobs were from the east, and these men and women were undoubtedly acting illegally. The chances of their actually making it back home were remote, but many of them managed to find work elsewhere, particularly if it was less demanding than the job they had left. Most tried their best to relocate to areas that were not threatened by bombing raids. The Gestapo tracked down and arrested a large number of them, organizing widespread manhunts and intensifying their checks on railway stations, bars and public places. By 1944 the number of escapes had increased to the staggering figure of half a million a year, at least according to Albert Speer, who insisted that, because of their importance to the war economy, the most that should be done to the absconding workers when they were arrested was to return them to their original place of work. Other foreign labourers increasingly signed themselves off sick, or simply worked more slowly. The police found the following chain-letter in the pocket of a French worker in May 1944: ‘The Ten Commandments of a Perfect French Worker: 1. Walk slowly in the workshop. 2. Walk quickly after knocking off work. 3. Go to the toilet frequently. 4. Don’t work too hard. 5. Annoy the foreman. 6. Court the beautiful girls. 7. Visit the doctor often. 8. Don’t count on a vacation. 9. Cherish cleanliness. 10. Always have hope.’153 Some workers deliberately sabotaged the weapons they were being forced to make. Others just produced shoddy work because they were tired and malnourished.

Resistance or refractoriness of this kind was almost always on an individual basis. In some places, Communist foreign labourers set up clandestine resistance movements, but these seldom did much more than organize escapes or identify and deal with informers. Far more common were gangs of escaped foreign workers hiding in bombed-out buildings and living off their wits, often together with young Germans. Their main source of support was usually the black market. With food in increasingly short supply, tobacco, as Luise Solmitz had noticed, became a kind of currency, to be exchanged when needed for bread or clothes. Western workers, especially the French, were better paid than their eastern counterparts, and often received food parcels from their relatives back home, so they were able to use this advantageous situation to build up a thriving clandestine market in the food so desperately needed by Soviet and Italian workers. Lacking purchasing power, Russian prisoners of war and civilian forced labourers began to make little toys and other knick-knacks from industrial waste and sell them on the streets or in the factories, though this was soon banned on the grounds that the materials they used were important for the war economy.154 Large gangs began to emerge, building on their role in such often dangerous trades. By September 1944, encouraged by the approach of the Allied armies, these gangs were growing in number, especially in ruined west German towns like Cologne. They were often armed and were not afraid of shooting it out with the police. In Cologne, one gang of about thirty members, mainly eastern workers, was reported to be living off stolen and looted food, and when the Gestapo broke it up after a gunfight in which a police inspector was killed, the leading figure, Mishka Finn, found his way to another gang led by a former concentration camp inmate, a German. Most of the members were army deserters and escaped prisoners. This gang worked in turn with a more political group of younger working-class men known as the Edelweiss Pirates, who had been attacking members of the Hitler Youth and robbing grocery shops and other premises. When the group became more ambitious and started planning to blow up the Gestapo headquarters in the city, the police located and arrested its members. They hanged six of them, all eastern workers, in public, before a large crowd, on 25 October 1944, following this with the public execution of thirteen members of the German gang on 10 November 1944.155

However, this did not bring such activities in the city to an end; indeed, the head of the Cologne Gestapo was killed shortly afterwards in a shoot-out with yet another gang of eastern workers. One gang in Duisburg was a hundred strong and carried out break-ins on a more or less daily basis. The Gestapo responded to this mounting chaos with a policy of mass arrests and executions on an ever-larger scale. In Duisburg, twenty-four members of the eastern workers’ gang were shot in February 1945, followed in March by sixty-seven more people, a number of them Germans suspected of sheltering members of the gang. In Essen the Gestapo chief, together with his superior officer from Düsseldorf, had thirty-five prisoners, mostly held on suspicion of looting or burglary, taken out of the police jail and shot. Thirty more eastern workers were executed on 20 March 1945 near Wuppertal, twenty-three in Bochum, and eleven in Gelsenkirchen. In Dortmund, the Gestapo shot some 240 men and women in March and April 1945, carrying on their killings right up to the moment when the Allied troops entered the city. Their victims were people imprisoned under suspicion of looting, theft, Communist resistance activities, espionage and a variety of other offences. Anger at Germany’s impending defeat fuelled a spirit of vengeance, and a desire to restore a Nazi sense of order in a world rapidly descending into chaos, where people the Gestapo thought of as racially inferior were roaming almost unchecked through the major industrial cities of the German west. Gang activity in this region was driven more by a sense of survival than by any desire to offer overt resistance to the Nazi regime; but, as so often, the regime’s response was political in its very essence, ideological to the last.156


According to the Soviet Union’s own estimates, the Red Army’s losses in the war totalled more than 11 million troops, over 100,000 aircraft, more than 300,000 artillery pieces, and nearly 100,000 tanks and self-propelled guns. Other authorities have put the losses of military personnel far higher, as high indeed as 26 million. Red Army troops were untrained, uneducated, often unprepared. The losses continued unabated right to the end of the war; indeed, more tanks were lost every day in the final battle for Berlin than had been lost even in the Battle of Kursk. Stalin sought victory at any price, and the price his men paid was astronomically high. Red Army officers and troops were told to obey orders without question and to avoid undertaking anything on their own initiative. Instead of mounting tactically sophisticated attacks, they often stormed the enemy lines in frontal assaults, incurring losses so heavy that it took time even with the vast resources at the Red Army’s disposal to replace them. The result was that the war on the Eastern Front took far longer to win than it would have done with more intelligent and less profligate military leadership.157 On top of this, however, the sufferings the troops had to endure and the enormous losses they suffered infused the Soviet soldiers’ commitment to victory with a strong dose of bitterness and hatred for the enemy. This became apparent as soon as they reached the borders of Germany.

In July 1944 Soviet troops entered Majdanek, the first extermination camp to be discovered by any of the Allied armies. The barracks and yards were littered with corpses - Russians, Poles and many others, as well as Jews. Appalled reporters went round the gas chambers, which the Germans had not been able to dismantle in time. Thousands of Red Army soldiers were conducted round the camp at Majdanek to see for themselves. Pravda (‘Truth’), the main Soviet daily newspaper, printed vivid reports, to add to the already well-known stories of the millions of Soviet prisoners of war deliberately starved and left to die by the Germans. As they made their way westwards into Germany, the Soviet forces discovered other killing centres, not only Auschwitz but smaller places like Klooga, near Tallinn, where photographers took pictures of the bodies of murdered Jews piled up with logs ready for a mass cremation that the Germans had not had time to begin. The deep impression made by such sights added fuel to the anger against the Germans built up over years of suffering at their hands. The memories of burned-out and looted cities like Kiev or Smolensk intensified as the troops entered a country whose standard of living seemed unimaginably high compared to their own. If Germany was so rich, then why had the Germans started the war? The contrast only seemed to deepen the Russian soldiers’ fury. ‘We will take revenge,’ wrote one as he crossed into East Prussia in January 1945, ‘revenge for all our sufferings . . . It’s obvious from everything we see that Hitler robbed the whole of Europe to please his bloodstained Fritzes . . . Their shops are piled with goods from all the shops and factories of Europe.’158 ‘We hate Germany and the Germans deeply,’ wrote another. ‘You can often see civilians lying dead in the street . . . But the Germans deserve the atrocities that they unleashed. You only have to think about Majdanek.’159 Political commissars, themselves the subject of a special murder order issued to the German forces in 1941, urged the troops on to take their revenge. ‘The soldiers’ rage in battle must be terrible,’ went one widespread Soviet political slogan of the time. ‘You said that we should do the same things in Germany as the Germans did to us,’ wrote another soldier to his father. ‘The court has begun already: they are going to remember this march by our army over German territory for a long, long time.’160

The Soviet military and civilian authorities ordered the occupied parts of Germany to be stripped bare. They carted off vast quantities of railway track, locomotives and wagons, weapons and ammunition, and much more besides, to replenish as far as they could the Soviet plant and equipment destroyed in the war. The Americans found that 80 per cent of Berlin’s industrial machinery had been removed to the Soviet Union by the time they arrived in the city in 1945. Artworks were part of the officially sanctioned plunder too. In their hasty retreat, the Germans were forced to leave behind numerous collections, like others across Europe by this time placed for safe keeping in cellars, mines and other hiding places away from the heat of battle and the destructiveness of bombing raids. Special Soviet art recovery units roamed the countryside searching for these hoards, and those they succeeded in finding were carried off to a special repository in Moscow. In a deep quarry tunnel at the village of Groscotta near Dresden, they found numerous paintings stored by the Dresden museums, including Raphael’s Sistine Madonna and Rembrandt’s Abduction of Ganymede. The huge Pergamon Altar was dismantled and taken away. One and a half million cultural objects were eventually returned to East Germany, after 1949, but a good deal went astray. The mayor of Bremen, for example, had sent the city’s art collection for safekeeping to a castle not far from Berlin, where Red Army troops found it. Arriving to inspect the collection, Viktor Baldin, a Russian architect enlisted in the Red Army, found the valuable works scattered around the area, and did his best to recover them, in one case trading a Russian soldier a pair of boots for an etching by Albrecht Dürer. While Baldin kept the hundreds of drawings he had found in safe keeping, seeking an opportunity to return his collection to Bremen, other items from the same collection began to turn up on the art market later on; one dealer gave a Berlin woman 150 marks and a pound of coffee in return for a Cranach as late as 1956. The Russians kept much of their ‘trophy art’ even after 1990, asking pointedly why they should return looted art to Germany when so many of their own cultural treasures had disappeared or been destroyed as a result of the actions of the invading German armies.161

Ordinary Red Army soldiers looted at will. The fierceness of the fighting in the final months of the war only added to the Soviet soldiers’ fury. Perhaps, too, they were releasing the anger and frustration built up over many years of suffering, inflicted not only by Hitler but also by Stalin before him. Like the German soldiers entering Russia in 1941, they fought in close-knit groups united by a common ethos of masculine aggressiveness. The atrocities they committed were a symptom not of the breakdown of discipline and morale but of the group cohesion and collective mentality forged in the heat of battle. The Germans had plundered and destroyed, so why should they not do the same? Ordinary Soviet soldiers helped themselves to whatever they could find, irrespective of the military regulations. Food was the most important: soldiers plundered German military stores, broke into wine cellars and drank themselves into insensibility, and sent food parcels back to their families in enormous quantities. Officers took rare books, paintings, hunting rifles, typewriters, bicycles, bedding, clothes, shoes, musical instruments, and especially radios, a much-prized rarity back home. All of them stole wristwatches. At the railhead in Kursk, the monthly total of parcels arriving from soldiers in Germany jumped from 300 in January 1945 to 50,000 in April. By mid-May 1945, some 20,000 railway wagons of loot were waiting to be unloaded or sent on to their destinations. But there was violence and senseless destruction as well.162 The Red Army soldiers torched houses, farms and even whole towns and villages; they shot civilians by the thousand, men, women and children. ‘Happy is the heart,’ wrote one soldier to his parents in February 1945, ‘as you drive through a burning German town. We are taking revenge for everything, and our revenge is just. Fire for fire, blood for blood, death for death.’163

Driven by hatred, vengefulness and seemingly endless quantities of alcohol, the troops indulged in a systematic campaign of rape and sexual violence against German women. This had in the end very little to do with releasing months and years of sexual frustration and pent-up lust; other factors, notably hatred and aggression, were far more important. Most of the adult civilians the Red Army troops found in Germany were women: the men were dead, still fighting, or working in munitions factories. It was as women that the Germans became the object of the Soviet soldiers’ wrath. Interviewed later on, German women typically recalled that, when they tried to protest, they were met not with counter-stories of German soldiers raping Russian women but with ‘the image of a German soldier swinging a baby, torn from its mother’s arms, against a wall - the mother screams, the baby’s brains splatter against the wall, the soldier laughs.’164 It had after all been the Germans who had invaded Russia, unprovoked, and caused an almost unimaginable degree of death, suffering and destruction. They would be given a lesson that would last a thousand years. As one Red Army soldier wrote: ‘It’s absolutely clear that if we don’t really scare them now, there will be no way of avoiding another war in the future.’165

One young officer coming upon a unit that had overtaken a column of German refugees fleeing westward later recalled: ‘Women, mothers and their children lie to the right and left along the route, and in front of each of them stands a raucous armada of men with their trousers down. The women who are bleeding or losing consciousness get shoved to one side, and our men shoot the ones who try to save their children.’ A group of ‘grinning’ officers was standing near by, making sure ‘that every soldier without exception would take part’.166 Women and girls were subjected to serial rape wherever they were encountered. Rape was often accompanied by torture and mutilation and frequently ended in the victim being shot or bludgeoned to death. The raging violence was undiscriminating. Often, especially in Berlin, women were deliberately raped in the presence of their menfolk, to underline the humiliation. The men were usually killed if they tried to intervene. In East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia it is thought that around 1,400,000 women were raped, a good number of them several times. Gang-rapes were the norm rather than the exception. The two largest Berlin hospitals estimated that at least 100,000 women had been raped in the German capital. Many caught a sexually transmitted disease, and not a few fell pregnant; the vast majority of the latter obtained an abortion, or, if they did give birth, abandoned their baby in hospital. The sexual violence went on for many weeks, even after the war formally came to an end. German women learned to hide, especially after dark; or, if they were young, to take a Soviet soldier, preferably an officer, as a lover and protector. On 4 May 1945 an anonymous Berlin woman wrote in her diary: ‘Slowly but surely we’re starting to view all the raping with a sense of humour - gallows humour.’167 She noted with a certain satisfaction that the Russian soldiers tended to prefer plump and well-fed women as their victims after the initial fury was over, and that these, unsurprisingly, were usually the wives of Nazi Party functionaries.168

Rightly afraid of what might happen to them when the Red Army arrived, millions of Germans fled before the advance of the Soviet troops. Pathetic columns like those of the women, children and old people who had taken to the roads of Europe from Belgium to Belarus in fear for their lives as the German armies marched into their countries in 1940 and 1941 could now be seen making their way back towards Germany in 1944 and 1945: only this time they consisted of Germans. The lucky ones carried their possessions on a car or a horse and cart, the less fortunate trudged along on foot. Many children froze to death on the journey. Some refugees still managed to find an undamaged railway line and a place on a train. Nazi officials in some towns piled people on to open goods wagons, shivering, and without food or drink. By the time one such trainload arrived in Schleswig-Holstein, it was reported, the refugees were ‘in a dreadful state. They were riddled with lice and had many diseases such as scabies. After the long journey, there were many dead lying in the wagons.’169 Towards the end of January 1945, up to 50,000 refugees were arriving in Berlin by rail every day. The Nazi authorities estimated in mid-February 1945 that more than 8 million people were fleeing westwards into the heart of the Reich. Along the Baltic coast, some half a million refugees were trapped in Danzig, and food parcels taken in by air or sea were frequently looted by starving German soldiers. Another 200,000 were bottled up by the fighting in the small port of Pillau. Local and regional officials began to organize their evacuation by sea. The ‘Strength Through Joy’ cruise liner Wilhelm Gustloff took some 6,600 from Gdynia on to the Baltic: a Soviet submarine came across it, fired three torpedoes and sank it with the loss of 5,300 lives. It was not the only refugee ship to be sunk in this way. Faced with bitter accusations of having committed a major atrocity, the Soviet navy claimed that the ship had been full of U-boat crewmen. It knew that Grand Admiral Dönitz had ordered that the evacuation of members of the armed forces had priority over that of civilians. In this case, however, it had made a terrible mistake. Nevertheless, the captain of the submarine that sank the ship was rewarded by being spared the prison sentence he faced because of the discovery of his long-term affair with a foreign woman; in 1990 he was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.170


22. German Refugees and Expellees, 1944-50

Those Germans who remained in the occupied and conquered territories of the east faced a difficult future. During the war they had formed part of the often brutal and violent ruling ethnic elite. Now they were the vanquished. Over the following months, Czech, Polish and other re-established governments organized the forcible expulsion and expropriation of almost the entire ethnic German population of their states, driven out to join the millions who had already fled. Altogether perhaps 11 million German refugees and expellees arrived in the ‘Old Reich’ between 1944 and 1947. People fled in large numbers before the advancing Allied troops in the west as well. Back in her home town of Alzey in the Rhineland, Lore Walb saw people packing their bags as the Americans approached. ‘The columns of cars have been going past our little house all evening in an unbroken procession,’ she wrote on 26 March 1945. ‘They were all coming from the Front and driving eastwards.’ A quarter of the town’s population, she reckoned, joined the columns of refugees.171 Everywhere in Germany in the first months of 1945 people were on the move, living with the permanent threat of violence and death, waiting for the end with a mixture of fear and hope.

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