Czech historian Eva Hahnova challenged attempts to rewrite the history of the Second World War, including the story of the mass exodus of Germans from Eastern Europe at the end of the war, which she calls the last massive crime committed by the Nazi régime. In an article published recently in Czech magazine Literarni Noviny, historian Eva Hahnova challenges Western historiography’s attempts to rewrite the story of the mass exodus of Germans from Eastern Europe at the close of the Second World War. Hahnova argued that whilst Western authors blame this event on marauding Soviet hordes, primary historical sources show that German officials actually carried out the exodus, and that the ineptitude and violence of its execution constitutes the last massive crime committed by the Nazi régime.
Pejorative stereotypes about Russian people in Western literature and journalism have a long and rich history, and are present in many interpretations of the past. Today, the most striking example of this phenomenon is the contemporary interpretation of the Second World War. For example, when celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Munich edition of the Südetendeutsche Zeitung had a front-page story about another anniversary.
The article, entitled “The Tragedy About Which We Must Never Forget: The Expulsion of 15 Million Germans Began 70 Years Ago”, noted that as a result of the Soviet January offensive on Berlin, “women, children, and the elderly, alone or in groups, went West”. It claimed that the Red Army’s advance, a harsh winter, and the sinking of refugee-filled ships with in the Baltic caused much suffering, and many didn’t survive. However, the article noted that equally terrible things awaited those who stayed behind and encountered Red Army soldiers, including the killing of civilians, mass rape of women and girls, as well as looting, arson, and deportation to forced labour camps in the USSR. The newspaper said that such a fate awaited Germans in present-day Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Romania, as well as in the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, alleging, “The further east they lived, the more severe was the approaching revenge and retribution”.
Assertions about Soviet or Russian barbarism towards millions of German refugees are part of the established treatise on the end of the Second World War, and are characteristic not only in Germany, but in the Western consciousness generally. Few people understand that we’re talking about an image originally spread by Nazi propaganda. Volkischer Beobachter wrote on 25 January 1945, “What our people are experiencing today can be compared with the invasion of the Huns and the Mongols in bygone centuries”. A day later, the conversation turned to a “red plague advancing from the east toward German land”. On 10 February, it told its readers of “murders, abuse, capture, and deportation of people to forced labour, the destruction of all the fruits of generations of labour and the desecration of everything that gets in the way of the Bolshevik hordes”. They alleged that all the “Soviet atrocities” were “proven and thoroughly checked by testimony of witnesses”, including the mass rape of women… “German women are being raped, and then killed together with women and the elderly, in the aims of exterminating our people”. They claimed that the famous writer Ilya Ehrenburg, referred to as the “Pet Jew of the Kremlin” in Nazi propaganda, cynically wrote about “the extermination of the Germans and other nations” as part of a Bolshevik plan to attack Europe.
The Red Army dealt with problems caused by lapses of discipline amongst its soldiers, something we can read about today in published primary sources. However, at present, historians neglect this chapter of European history. Neither the crimes committed by soldiers of the Red Army against German civilians, nor the latter’s detention, or their ultimate fate, have been subject to empirically grounded research. However, archival documents and eyewitness accounts show that behind the stereotype of Germans fleeing marauding Soviet forces there’s an attempt to hide the last mass crime committed by the Nazis… the forced evacuation of German civilians. In reality, women, children, and the elderly weren’t fleeing willingly.
From an entry on 1 March 1945 in the diary of Major General Paul Eugen Freiherr von Schoenaich, we learn, “All the refugees from the east with whom I’ve spoken told me that they were fleeing not voluntarily, but on order of the police. None of them believed that the Russians would do anything to them. Only those who came from areas with a Polish population expected that the Poles would attack them, but they felt sure that they could defend themselves. From this it follows that eastern Germans no longer believe in Goebbels’ lies about the horrors of the Bolsheviks”. Many [other] documents confirm Freiherr von Schoenaich’s assessment.
Society and in Nazi propaganda discussed the so-called exodus. the working jargon of the Nazi régime used the terms “evacuation” or “return” (Rückführung), when the reality was that fleeing individually and on one’s own will was practically impossible… in fact, the law forbade it subjected it to punishment. In fact, the government had planned the forced evacuation of the entire [German] population since the spring of 1944, and the Germans began to carry out the process that summer. Archival documents tell us about its details. Moreover, we still have detailed reports on the progress of the evacuation sent to Berlin by senior officials until the end of the war. Amongst these materials, as well as the testimony of witnesses, we find that the evacuation led to a humanitarian catastrophe of an unprecedented scale.
They forced inhabitants of affected regions and cities to leave their homes and to move in groups to unfamiliar regions without any infrastructure. They used a variety of methods against those who resisted… sometimes, they were blackmailed by propaganda; at other times, they took away their food rations; sometimes, they used naked violence. Notable are the reports of the no less chaotic flight of the demoralised Wehrmacht, who committed documented abuses of civilians they met along the way. According to the last official figures of the Nazi régime from 6 March 1945, the evacuation affected over 10 million civilians. However, only on 29 April 1945 was a ban issued on violent coercion of the population as a means of getting them to evacuate their homes.
The Red Army wasn’t the brutish lot of ignorant peasants painted by Western rightwing propaganda (especially, in the rhetoric of American Republicans and British Conservatives)… after all, they did defeat one of the finest military machines on the planet. Neither were they ravening and murderous brutes like the Ukrainian fascist louts of today. They were honourable men who put down one of the most vicious states that ever existed… we all owe them a debt of gratitude.
Mania of Destruction
The diary of Joseph Goebbels made it clear that the highest levels of German leadership were fully aware of the consequences of evacuation. The Gauleiters [regional Nazi Party leaders] reported the suffering of the people, whose messages, according to Goebbels, often “deeply touched” even the Führer. With no provision for transport, accommodation, and food, the refugee columns headed for disaster, and people blamed the Nazi Party for their misfortunes. Therefore, Goebbels strengthened propaganda about Russian horrors (Greuelpropaganda), of which the Führer was very fond. However, Goebbels left behind an entry about the fact that both sides were watching for any abuses on the part of the Red Army, and that the Red Army’s leadership took steps to deal with such behaviour. He personally reported on offences, which were much less serious than his thunderous propaganda, so, he was convinced that the Soviet leadership did everything it could to ensure discipline, to prevent demoralisation and disorder amongst its units.
The journals of a priest, Paul Paikert, from the period between January and March 1945 provide a detailed account of the evacuation of Wrocław, Poland [then called Breslau]. In late 1944, 4.4 million Germans lived in Silesia; by the end of the war, there were only 1.5 million left. In this way,Wrocław turned into a desolate heap of ruins even before the arrival of Soviet troops. Almost every day, Paikert wrote in his diary about what he saw around him, and what people told him in conversations. On Easter, he left the surrounded and burning city, returning there following the end of the war in order to transfer his diaries to the diocesan archive. Subsequently, his diaries saw publication in Poland and East Germany, but in West Germany, where Paikert spent the rest of his life, they’re still unknown.
Paikert’s journals inform us of propaganda and intimidation toward the population about the barbarous habits of the Red Army, and of people’s mood, noting that they’d very much like to see the Russians come and finally put an end to Nazi debauchery. The diaries speak about the brutality with which the Nazis forced children, women, and the elderly out into the freezing cold to evacuate into the unknown. He notes that sometimes they even threatened to use firearms, and torched homes, so that people couldn’t come back. “It’s awful to see how people are coming back to their homes, looking to find and save something dear to their hearts. However, our people have succumbed to a mania of destruction. Entire blocks of housing are set on fire; in a few days, only bare walls are left”. Hundreds of people died every day on the streets and ditches along the roads outside the city. Special teams collected their bodies and transported them to places unknown. Paikert wrote, “Yesterday, I learned that they collected over 400 corpses of children and adults during one such campaign in a fairly short period of time. How many people died in the cold due to this flight we’ll probably never know”.
At the close of the war, many more Germans arrived in Czechoslovakia than were leaving. This was due to the geographical position of Czech lands, which were the last territory of the Third Reich to crumble under the pressure of the Allied armies coming from the east and west. According to German data, about 1.6 million people came here from Silesia [contemporary Poland] alone, along with groups from other regions, and Germans from southeastern Europe. Within the former Czechoslovakia, the inhabitants of Slovakia were the most severely affected. From the 130,000 Germans who lived there in the [early] 1940s, nearly all of them left between October 1944 and March 1945. Some returned after the war, with 32,450 being deported and resettled in 1946. In Silesia and Moravia as well, the German population couldn’t escape its cruel fate. According to historian Emily Grabovets, most Germans from Brno [Czechia] fled or were evacuated prior to the arrival of the Red Army, noting, “Their numbers and subsequent fate, however, remain unknown”. The rural population, especially in South Moravia and Jihlava, also left their homes and marched in groups, most often to Austria.
In the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, preparations for evacuation began in February 1945, but the importance of industrial production hampered plans. Only on 19 April, did Sudeten German Minister of State Karl Hermann Frank, speaking of “the threat of the Red Army”, note the priority of “conserving German genetic code, in our wives and children”, and order them evacuated. However, there was little time, and people left independently as best they could. Nazi Mayor of Prague Josef Pfitzner complained in his diary about the German refugees, “which came to the country from the old Reich, settled in spacious villas, furnished by the Jews”, who now showed that they didn’t have any real connection to the territories in which they lived.
In his journals and orders in Prague during the last months and days of the war, Pfitzner showed this period to have been less peaceful than had been portrayed in Nazi propaganda, which affected subsequent accounts of what transpired. On 8 April, the German population fell into such a terrible panic that Frank even distributed leaflets to reassure the public, noting, “Foolish rumours are spreading, and some German circles lend themselves to psychosis and flee. I’m sorry to say that this has been accompanied by a gross violation of order, which in extreme cases will be met with severe punishment”. Pfitzner accepted Frank’s position in despising the refugees, although he would send his own family to Salzburg on 27 April.
The experiences of the Germans from Wroclaw and Prague were very different, which the common language of “flight and expulsion” blurs. The same applies to all 11 million Germans who lost their homes due to the war and arrived in the territory of contemporary Germany by various means; among them were nearly 5 million Germans who came to Germany from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary after the war. At the same time, this, the last mass crime of the Nazi régime, the forced evacuation of the German population, hides behind talk of the alleged barbarity of the Red Army towards the civilian population. This relic, an echo of Nazi propaganda, has nonetheless become a favourite subject in discussions of the past, even if it is a classic example of stereotypical overtones used as needed for a variety of political purposes.
They use the terms “Soviet Army”, “Russians”, or “Bolsheviks” interchangeably as synonyms, like the names “Stalin” and “Putin”. The terms “threat from the East” and “the Kremlin” continue to retain extreme popularity in politics and journalism, as demonstrated in today’s problems in international relations. Just as a lack of information obscures perceptions about the end of the Second World War, so, too, do stories about the current threat from the Kremlin often, already at first glance, suffer from an obvious penchant for hollow phrases, rather than objective information and reasonable judgements.
21 March 2015