World War II has been very slow to yield up its secrets. We learned easily about the heinous misdeeds perpetrated by the Axis powers upon innocent populations, but it has been harder to expose and explain the “secrets” of our conduct toward innocent civilians and ordinary soldiers who came under our control or influence. And while research reveals many instances of brutal behavior by Western soldiers, both officers and enlisted men, the behavior of Soviet Russian and Eastern European soldiers, goaded by their leaders and empowered through Allied agreements, established the nadir of murderous bestiality in modern times. These “Allied” crimes took place at the end of the war and were attendant upon the expulsion of ethnic Germans from historic Germany and other lands they had occupied for hundreds of years.
Shedding light on this shadowy subject is the object of this book and others by Dr. Alfred-Maurice de Zayas, an historian, international lawyer, and former U.N. official who resides in Geneva, Switzerland. A Terrible Revenge presents the human side of an Allied policy of bitter yet casual retribution toward ordinary Germans caught in the maelstrom at the end of the war.
As their weary armies gave way before the victors, the plight of the eastern Germans was made plain to all who would see. The Soviets and their cohorts unleashed a campaign of brutality second to none against the native populations they encountered, treating them—women, children, old, and infirm—as combatants to whom no quarter was offered. Hitler’s propaganda had branded Slavs as “subhuman,” and his Sonderkommando detachment and political henchmen treated them that way. In the end, the Slavs who expelled the Germans produced a mind-bending orgy of rape and violence so repulsive that it is physically unsettling to the reader.
De Zayas describes the early settlement of Germans in eastern regions and their long and peaceful coexistence with their neighbors, showing how the political constructs of modern “peace” treaties destabilized areas containing these settlements in an era of rising nationalism. But it is the violence and privations visited upon the people expelled that are brought into compellingly sharp focus by the literary scheme of individual testimonies of survivors and others concerned, presented against a spare background of international events of the period.
With the entry of the Soviet army into Germany proper in October 1944, the horror began. In Nemmersdorf, men, women, and little children were murdered in the most bestial fashion—the children with blows from gun butts, men by beatings and mutilation, and the women . . .
Not only German authorities but Swiss war correspondents reported the madness. Take, for example this account from Geneva’s Le Courier (November 7, 1944):
The war in East Prussia, currently unfolding in the triangle Gumbinnen-Goldap-Ebenrode, is at the centre of events, especially following the recapture of Goldap by the Germans . . . The German civilian population has virtually disappeared from the combat area . . . most . . . having fled. [As for the rest,] . . . everyone has been killed by the Red Army . . . I will spare you the description of the mutilations and the ghastly condition of the corpses on the field. These are impressions that go beyond even the wildest imagination.
Or this, from Hermann Sommer, captain in Fortress Koenigsberg, who reports that
a large number of bodies had the breasts cut off, the genitals stabbed through and were disemboweled . . . a corporal told me of a church where a girl . . . had been . . . crucified on the altar cross . . .
De Zayas states that, “For reasons best explained by a psychologist, one of the aberrations practiced by the [Soviet] soldiers was to take victims, mostly female, strip them naked and nail them to barn doors in cruciform fashion.”
And, according to Hans Graf von Lehn-dorff, a medical doctor in Koenigsberg when it was occupied by the Soviet army,
When it was dark our escort came . . . and routed us all up.
The women, whimpering or cursing, were dragged out with the help of the Poles. . . . “Davai suda!” “Woman come!” It has a more horrific sound than all the curses in the world. When that which should signify Life stands under the sign of Death, Satan’s triumph has reached its zenith. It didn’t matter to them in the least that they were handling semi-corpses. Eighty-year-old women were no safer from them than the unconscious ones. (At one time a patient of mine with head injuries, as I discovered later, had been raped over and over again without knowing anything about it.)
Perhaps triggering this behavior were acts of the aforementioned Sonderkommando detachment, Nazi politicians, and some formations of the SS, but it remains a fact that in the conquering Russian and satellite forces, large numbers of soldier-beasts existed who could commit these atrocities. Certainly, wartime decisions of the “Big Three” to expel Germans from eastern lands played a major role (as did spurs to action from their commander, Marshal Zhukov, and propagandists such as Ilya Ehrenburg).
The role of the Western authorities in empowering Russians, Poles, and others to perform this devil’s work is little known. That the Big Three disastrously meddled with the fate of millions can be gathered from discussions of the “future boundaries” of Poland at Yalta. The United States went to Yalta supporting a frontier settlement that “in the east would take the Curzon Line as a basis but would, if possible, include the province of Lwow in Poland . . . ” and prepared to
resist the exaggerated claims now being advanced by the Provisional Government of Lublin for “compensation” from Germany which would include . . . Stettin and Bres-lau in Poland and make necessary the transfer of . . . eight to ten million Germans.
Roosevelt took that position at Yalta (against Stalin, always gently): “The Poles would like East Prussia and part of Germany. . . I raised the question of giving them Lvov at Tehran . . . ”
Churchill pulled the rug out from under him: “I have made repeated declarations in Parliament in support of the Soviet claims to the Curzon line, . . . leaving Lvov with Soviet Russia . . . ” Churchill said that he “would always support the movement of Polish frontiers to the west since he felt they should receive compensation . . . ” (Churchill accepted our ally Russia’s seizure of eastern Poland, including Lvov, pursuant to her treaty with the Nazis, although Britain had ostensibly gone to war to protect Polish territorial integrity when Germany invaded from the west.) Churchill
felt that there was a considerable body of British public opinion that would be shocked if it were proposed to move large numbers of Germans . . . although he personally would not be shocked . . . [but] if . . . confined to East Prussia, six million Germans probably could be handled quite aside from moral grounds . . .
Thus, our imprimatur on the deed.
About three-times six million Germans were, in fact, “handled quite aside from moral grounds”; some two million died. De Zayas cites English author and publisher Victor Gollancz:
If the conscience of men ever again becomes sensitive, these expulsions will be remembered to the undying shame of all who committed or connived at them . . . The Germans were expelled, not just with an absence of over-nice consideration, but with the very maximum of brutality.
As Amb. George F. Kennan wrote, “[T]he Russians . . . swept the native population clean in a manner that had no parallel since the days of the Asiatic hordes.”
[A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the East European Germans, by Alfred-Maurice de Zayas (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) 224 pp., $19.95]
Leave a Reply