The fall of berlin 1945, p.15
The Fall of Berlin 1945,
Most deserters, however, especially Belorussians and Ukrainians, many of whom were coopted Poles, tried to sneak home in ones and twos. Some dressed up as women. Others bandaged themselves up, then went to railheads and stole the documents of wounded men. A new special pass for wounded men had to be brought in to stop this. Sometimes men simply disappeared, and nobody knew whether they had deserted or been killed in battle. On 27 January, two T-34 tanks from the 6th Guards Tank Corps in East Prussia left on an operation and neither the tanks nor the sixteen tankists and infantrymen with them were ever seen again, dead or alive.
In spite of the large numbers of NKVD troops in the rear areas, there was astonishingly little control over Red Army personnel. ‘The Soviet military leadership,’ stated a German intelligence report of 9 February, ‘is concerned about the growing lack of discipline as a result of their advance into what for Russians is a prosperous region.’ Property was being looted and destroyed and civilians needed for forced labour were killed for little reason. Chaos was also caused by the number of civilian ‘citizens of the USSR who come to East Prussia to collect captured property’.
The senseless death of a Hero of the Soviet Union, Colonel Gorelov, commander of a guards tank brigade, horrified many officers in the 1st Belorussian Front. At the beginning of February he was sorting out a traffic jam on the road a few kilometres from the German border and was shot by drunken soldiers. ‘Such cases of bloody drunken violence are not isolated,’ Grossman noted. A single NKVD regiment lost five dead and thirty-four men injured from being run down by drivers during the first ten weeks of the year.
The young women traffic controllers did not blow whistles when attempting to restore order in traffic jams, they fired their sub-machine guns in the air. On one occasion behind the 2nd Belorussian Front, a young woman traffic controller called Lydia ran up to the driver’s window of a vehicle which had blocked the road. She began to yell obscenities at him. This had little effect. Obscenities were yelled back at her. But then she received unexpected reinforcements in the tall and impressive form of Marshal Rokossovsky, who had leaped from his staff car, drawing his pistol in anger. When the driver saw the marshal he was literally paralysed with fear. His officer lost his head completely. He jumped out of the cab and ran into the bushes to hide.
The entry of Soviet forces into German territory meant that Stalin’s plans to force Germans to work for the Soviet Union could be put into action. On 6 February an order was issued to ‘mobilize all Germans fit for work from seventeen to fifty years of age and to form labour battalions of 1,000 to 1,200 men each and send them to Belorussia and the Ukraine to repair war damage’. The Germans mobilized were told to report to assembly points wearing warm clothes and good boots. They were also to bring bedding, reserves of underwear and two weeks’ food supply.
With Volkssturm members sent to prisoner-of-war camps, the NKVD managed to conscript only 68,680 German forced labourers by 9 March, the vast majority in the rear of Zhukov and Konev’s armies. A large proportion were women. At first, many of the so-called labour battalions were used locally for rubble clearance and assisting the Red Army. The attitude of Soviet soldiers towards the conscripted civilians was one of intense schadenfreude. Agranenko watched a Red Army corporal form up a working party of German men and women in four lines. He barked out the word of command in pidgin-German, ‘To Siberia, fuck you!’
By 10 April, the proportion sent back to the Soviet Union for forced labour increased rapidly, with 59,536 sent to western parts, mostly the Ukraine. Although still fewer than Stalin had planned, they suffered at least as much as their Soviet counterparts rounded up earlier by the Wehrmacht. It was naturally worst for the women. Many were forced to leave children behind with relatives or friends. In some cases they had even been forced to abandon them altogether. Their life ahead was not simply one of subjection to hard labour, but also to casual rape by guards, with venereal infections as a by-product. Another 20,000 men were put to ‘demontage work’, stripping the factories of Silesia.
Stalin may have described the NKVD rifle regiments to General Bull as ‘a gendarmerie’, but it is still striking how little they intervened to stop looting, rape and the random murder of civilians. There appears to be only one example of intervention in their reports. In April, a group from the NKVD 217th Frontier Guards Regiment arrested five soldiers who broke into a ‘hostel of repatriated Polish women’.
Quite how little the NKVD troops were doing to protect civilians from violence of every sort is indirectly revealed in their own chiefs’ reports to Beria. On 8 March, Serov, the NKVD representative with the 1st Belorussian Front, reported on the continuing wave of suicides. On 12 March, two months after Chernyakhovsky’s offensive began, the NKVD chief in northern East Prussia reported to Beria that ‘suicides of Germans, particularly women, are becoming more and more widespread’. For those who did not have a pistol or poison, most of the suicides consisted of people hanging themselves in attics with the rope tied to the rafters. A number of women, unable to bring themselves to hang a child, cut their children’s wrists first and then their own.
NKVD rifle regiments did not punish their own soldiers for rape, they punished them only if they caught venereal disease from victims, who had usually caught it from a previous rapist. Rape itself, in a typically Stalinist euphemism, was referred to as an ‘immoral event’. It is interesting that Russian historians today still produce evasive circumlocutions. ‘Negative phenomena in the army of liberation,’ writes one on the subject of mass rape, ‘caused significant damage to the prestige of the Soviet Union and the armed forces and could have a negative influence in the future relations with the countries through which our troops were passing.’
This sentence also indirectly acknowledges that there were many cases of rape in Poland. But far more shocking from a Russian point of view is the fact that Red Army officers and soldiers also raped Ukrainian, Russian and Belorussian women and girls released from slave labour in Germany. Many of the girls were as young as sixteen when taken to the Reich; some were just fourteen. The widespread raping of women taken forcibly from the Soviet Union completely undermines any attempts at justifying Red Army behaviour on the grounds of revenge for German brutality in the Soviet Union. The evidence for this is certainly not restricted just to the unpublished notebooks of Vasily Grossman. A very detailed report goes much further.
On 29 March, the Central Committee of the Komsomol (Communist Youth) informed Stalin’s associate Malenkov of a report from the 1st Ukrainian Front. ‘This memorandum is about young people taken to Germany and liberated by the troops of the Red Army. Tsygankov [the deputy chief of the political department of the 1st Ukrainian Front] relates numerous extraordinary facts which affect the great happiness of Soviet citizens released from German slavery. Young people express their gratitude to Comrade Stalin and the Red Army for their salvation.’
‘On the night of 24 February,’ Tsygankov reported in the first of many examples, ‘a group of thirty-five provisional lieutenants on a course and their battalion commander entered the women’s dormitory in the village of Grutenberg, ten kilometres east of Els, and raped them.’ Three days later, ‘an unknown senior lieutenant of tank troops went by horse to where girls were gathering grain. He left his horse and spoke to a girl from the Dnepropetrovsk region called Gritsenko, Anna. “Where are you from?” he asked. She answered this senior lieutenant. He ordered her to come closer. She refused. So he took his gun and shot her, but she did not die. Many similar incidents took place.’
‘In the town of Bunslau, there are over 100 women and girls in the headquarters. They live in a separate building not far from the kommandantur, but there is no security there and because of this, there are many offences and even rape of women who live in this dormitory by different soldiers who enter the dormitory at night and terrorize the women. On 5 March late at night, sixty officers and soldiers entered, mainly from the 3rd Guards Tank Army. Most of them were drunk, and they attacked and offend
‘There are many cases of offences against them,’ Tsygankov continued. ‘On the night of 14–15 February in one of the villages where the cattle are herded a shtraf company under the command of a senior lieutenant surrounded the village and shot the Red Army soldiers who were on guard there. They went to the women’s dormitory and started their organized mass rape of the women, who had just been liberated by the Red Army.’
‘There are also many offences by officers against women. Three officers on 26 February entered the dormitory in the bread depot, and when Major Soloviev (the commandant) tried to stop them, one of them, a major, said, “I’ve just come from the front and I need a woman.” After that he debauched himself in the dormitory.’
‘Lantsova, Vera, born 1926, was raped twice – first when the vanguard troops came through the territory, and second on 14 February by a soldier. From 15–22 February Lieutenant Isaev A. A. made her sleep with him by beating her and frightening her with threats that he would shoot her. A number of officers, sergeants and soldiers tell the liberated women, “There is an order not to allow you back to the Soviet Union, and if they do allow some of you back, you will live in the north” [i.e. in Gulag camps]. Because of such attitudes to the women and girls, many women think that in the Red Army and in their country, they are not treated as Soviet citizens and that anything can be done to them – killed, raped, beaten and that they will not be allowed home.’
The notion that Soviet women and girls taken for slave labour in Germany ‘had sold themselves to the Germans’ was very widespread in the Red Army, which provides part of the explanation of why they were so badly treated. Young women who had somehow managed to stay alive under Wehrmacht occupation were known as ‘German dolls’. There was even an airman’s song about it:
Young girls are smiling at Germans
Having forgotten about their guys…
When times became hard, you forgot your falcons,
And sold yourselves to Germans for a crust of bread.
It is hard to pin down the origin of this assumption about women collaborating with the enemy. It cannot be traced to remarks made by political officers in late 1944 or early 1945, yet it appears that a general idea had earlier been fomented by the regime that any Soviet citizen taken to Germany, either as a prisoner of war or as a slave labourer, had tacitly consented because they had failed to kill themselves or ‘join the partisans’. Any notion of ‘the honour and dignity of the Soviet girl’ was accorded only to young women serving in the Red Army or the war industries. But it is perhaps significant that, according to one woman officer, female soldiers in the Red Army started to be treated badly by their male counterparts from the time that Soviet troops moved on to foreign territory.
Official complaints of rape to a senior officer were worse than useless. ‘For example, Eva Shtul, born 1926, said, “My father and two brothers joined the Red Army at the beginning of the war. Soon the Germans came and I was taken to Germany by force. I worked in a factory here. I cried and waited for the day of liberation. Soon the Red Army came and its soldiers dishonoured me. I cried and told the senior officer about my brothers in the Red Army and he beat me and raped me. It would have been better if he had killed me.” ’
‘All this,’ concluded Tsygankov, ‘provides fertile ground for unhealthy, negative moods to grow among liberated Soviet citizens; it causes discontent and mistrust before their return to their mother country.’ His recommendations, however, did not focus on tightening Red Army discipline. He suggested instead that the main political department of the Red Army and the Komsomol should concentrate on ‘improving political and cultural work with repatriated Soviet citizens’ so that they should not return home with negative ideas about the Red Army.
By 15 February, the 1st Ukrainian Front alone had liberated 49,500 Soviet citizens and 8,868 foreigners from German forced labour, mainly in Silesia. But this represented only a small percentage of the total. Just over a week later, the Soviet authorities in Moscow estimated that they should prepare to receive and process a total of 4 million former Red Army soldiers and civilian deportees.
The first priority was not medical care for those who had suffered so appallingly in German camps, it was a screening process to weed out traitors. The second priority was political re-education for those who had been subject to foreign contamination. Both the 1st Belorussian Front and the 1st Ukrainian Front were ordered to set up three assembly and transit camps well to their rear in Poland. The re-education teams each had a mobile film unit, a radio with a loudspeaker, two accordions, a library of 20,000 Communist Party booklets, forty metres of red fabric for decorating premises and a set of portraits of Comrade Stalin.
Solzhenitsyn wrote of liberated prisoners of war, with their heads down as they were marched along. They feared retribution simply for having surrendered. But the need for reinforcements was so great that the vast majority were sent to reserve regiments for re-education and retraining, in order to have them ready for the final offensive on Berlin. This, however, was just a temporary reprieve. Another screening would come later when the fighting was over, and even those who fought heroically in the battle for Berlin were not immune from being sent to the camps later.
The Red Army’s urgent need of more ‘meat for the cannon’ meant that former slave labourers without any military training were also conscripted on the spot. And most of the ‘western Belorussians’ and ‘western Ukrainians’ from the regions seized by Stalin in 1939 still regarded themselves as Poles. But they were given little choice in the matter.
Once they reached the screening camp, the liberated Soviet prisoners had many questions. ‘What will be their status? Will they have full citizens’ rights on returning to Russia? Will they be deprived in some way? Will they be sent to the camps?’ Once again the Soviet authorities did not acknowledge that these were pertinent questions. They were immediately attributed to ‘fascist propaganda, because the Germans terrified our people in Germany and this false propaganda was intensified towards the end of the war’.
The political workers in the camps gave talks, mainly of Red Army successes and the achievements of the Soviet rear, and about the Party leaders, especially Comrade Stalin. ‘They also show them Soviet movies,’ reported the chief of the political department of the 1st Ukrainian Front. ‘The people like them very much, they cry “Hooray!” very often, especially when Stalin appears, and “Long live the Red Army”, and after the cinema show they go away crying in happiness. Among those who were liberated are only a few who betrayed the Motherland.’ In the screening camp in Kraków, only four were arrested as traitors out of a total of forty suspects. Yet these figures were to rise greatly later.
There are stories, and it is very hard to know how true they are, that even forced labourers from the Soviet Union were executed shortly after liberation without any investigation. For example, the Swedish military attaché heard that after the occupation of Oppeln in Silesia, around 250 of them were summoned to a political meeting. Immediately afterwards, they were cornered by Red Army or NKVD troops. Somebody yelled a question at them demanding why they had not become partisans, then the soldiers opened fire.
The term ‘Traitor of the Motherland’ did not just cover soldiers recruited from prison camps by the Germans. It was to cover Red Army soldiers who had been captured in 1941, s
Few Red Army soldiers, whether prisoners of war or those fortunate enough never to have been captured, would ever forgive those who had put on German uniform whatever the circumstances. Members of Vlasov’s ROA, known as Vlasovtsy, SS volunteers, Ukrainian and Caucasian camp guards, General von Pannwitz’s Cossack cavalry corps, police teams, anti-partisan ‘security detachments’ and even the unfortunate ‘Hiwis’ (short for Hilfsfreiwillige, or volunteer helpers) were all tarred with the same brush.
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