The fall of berlin 1945, p.6
The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.6Antony Beevor
The lot of a campaign wife was not an easy one when male lust was both intense and indiscriminate. ‘There you are, Vera,’ a young woman soldier called Musya Annenkova in the 19th Army wrote to her friend. ‘See what their “love” is like! They seem to be tender to you but it’s difficult to know what’s inside their souls. They’ve got no sincere feelings, only short-lived passion or love with animal feelings. How difficult it is here to find a really faithful man.’
Marshal Rokossovsky issued order No. 006 in an attempt to direct ‘the feelings of hatred at fighting the enemy on the battlefield’ and to underline the punishment for ‘looting, violence, robbing, unnecessary arson and destruction’. It seems to have had little effect. There were also a few arbitrary attempts to exert authority. The commander of one rifle division is said to have ‘personally shot a lieutenant who was lining up a group of his men before a German woman spread-eagled on the ground’. But either officers were involved themselves, or the lack of discipline made it too dangerous to restore order over drunken soldiers armed with sub-machine guns.
Even General Okorokov, the chief of the political department of the 2nd Belorussian Front, opposed at a meeting on 6 February what he saw as a ‘refusal to take revenge on the enemy’. In Moscow, the authorities were less worried about rape and murder than about the senseless destruction. On 9 February, Krasnaya Zvezda declared in an editorial that ‘every breach of military discipline only weakens the victorious Red Army… Our revenge is not blind. Our anger is not irrational. In a moment of blind rage one is apt to destroy a factory in conquered enemy territory – a factory that would be of value to us.’
Political officers hoped to adapt this approach to the question of rape as well. ‘When we breed a true feeling of hatred in a soldier,’ the political department of the 19th Army declared, ‘the soldier will not try to have sex with a German woman, because he will be repulsed.’ But this inept sophistry only serves to underline the failure of the authorities to understand the problem. Even young women soldiers and medics in the Red Army did not disapprove. ‘Our soldiers’ behaviour towards Germans, particularly German women, is absolutely correct!’ said a twenty-one-year-old from Agranenko’s reconnaissance detachment. Some seemed to find it amusing. Kopelev was angry when one of his women assistants in the political department made jokes about it.
German crimes in the Soviet Union and the regime’s relentless propaganda certainly contributed to the terrible violence against German women in East Prussia. But vengeance can be only part of the explanation, even if it later became the justification for what happened. Once soldiers had alcohol inside them, the nationality of their prey made little difference. Lev Kopelev described hearing a ‘frenzied scream’ in Allenstein. He saw a girl, ‘her long, braided blonde hair dishevelled, her dress torn, shouting piercingly: “I’m Polish! Jesus Mary, I’m Polish!” ’ She was pursued by two inebriated ‘tankists’ in full view of everyone.
The subject has been so repressed in Russia that even today veterans refuse to acknowledge what really happened during the onslaught on German territory. They will admit to hearing of a few excesses, and then dismiss the subject as an inevitable result of war. Only a few are prepared to acknowledge that they witnessed such scenes. The tiny handful prepared to speak openly, however, are totally unrepentant. ‘They all lifted their skirts for us and lay on the bed,’ said the Komsomol leader in a tank company. He even went on to boast that ‘2 million of our children were born’ in Germany.
The capacity of Soviet officers and soldiers to convince themselves that most of the victims were either happy with their fate, or at least accepted that it was their turn to suffer after what the Wehrmacht had done in Russia, is remarkable. ‘Our fellows were so sex-starved,’ a Soviet major told a British journalist at the time, ‘that they often raped old women of sixty, seventy or even eighty – much to these grandmothers’ surprise, if not downright delight.’
Drink of every variety, including dangerous chemicals seized from laboratories and workshops, was a major factor. In fact, compulsive drinking gravely damaged the fighting capacity of the Red Army. The situation became so bad that the NKVD reported back to Moscow that ‘mass poisoning from captured alcohol is taking place in occupied German territory’. It seems as if Soviet soldiers needed alcoholic courage to attack a woman. But then, all too often, they drank too much and, unable to complete the act of rape, used the bottle instead with appalling effect. A number of victims were mutilated obscenely.
One can only scratch at the surface of the bewildering psychological contradictions. When gang-raped women in Königsberg begged their attackers afterwards to put them out of their misery, the Red Army men appear to have felt insulted. ‘Russian soldiers do not shoot women,’ they replied. ‘Only German soldiers do that.’ The Red Army had managed to convince itself that because it had assumed the moral mission to liberate Europe from fascism, it could behave entirely as it liked, both personally and politically.
Domination and humiliation permeated most soldiers’ treatment of women in East Prussia. The victims bore the brunt of revenge for the Wehrmacht’s crimes during the invasion of the Soviet Union. After the initial fury dissipated, this characteristic of sadistic humiliation became noticeably less marked. By the time the Red Army reached Berlin three months later, its soldiers tended to regard German women more as a casual right of conquest than a target of hate. The sense of domination certainly continued, but this was perhaps partly an indirect product of the humiliations which they themselves had suffered at the hands of their commanders and the Soviet authorities as a whole. ‘The extreme violence of totalitarian systems,’ wrote Vasily Grossman in his great novel Life and Fate, ‘proved able to paralyse the human spirit throughout whole continents.’
There were, of course, a number of other forces or influences at work. Sexual freedom was a subject for lively debate within Communist Party circles during the 1920s, but during the following decade, Stalin ensured that Soviet society depicted itself as virtually asexual. This had nothing to do with genuine puritanism: it was because love and sex did not fit in with dogma designed to ‘deindividualize’ the individual. Human urges and emotions had to be suppressed. Freud’s work was banned, divorce and adultery were matters for strong Party disapproval. Criminal sanctions against homosexuality were reintroduced. The new doctrine extended even to the complete suppression of sex education. In graphic art, the clothed outline of a woman’s breasts was regarded as dangerously erotic. They had to be disguised under boiler suits. The regime clearly wanted any form of desire to be converted into love for the Party and, above all, the Great Leader.
Most ill-educated Red Army soldiers suffered from sexual ignorance and utterly unenlightened attitudes towards women. So the Soviet state’s attempts to suppress the libido of its people created what one Russian writer described as a sort of ‘barracks eroticism’ which was far more primitive and violent than ‘the most sordid foreign pornography’. And all this was combined with the dehumanizing influence of modern propaganda and the atavistic, warring impulses of men marked by fear and suffering.
Just as non-German nationality failed to save women from rape, so left-wing credentials provided little protection to men. German Communists who emerged from twelve years of clandestine belief to welcome their fraternal liberators usually found themselves handed over to SMERSH for investigation. The smiles of joy at the arrival of the Red Army soon froze on their faces in disbelief. The twisted logic of SMERSH could always turn a story, however genuine, into a conspiracy of calculated treachery. And there was always the killer question, formulated in advance in Moscow, to be posed to every prisoner or noncom-batant who professed allegiance to Stalin: ‘Why are you not with the partisans?’ The fact that there were no partisan groups in Germany was not regarded as a valid excuse. This pitilessly Manichaean line drummed in during the years of war naturally tended to compound the generic hatred of many Soviet soldiers. They asked their political officers why t
The hate propaganda had fallen on receptive ears and the degree of loathing for anything German had become truly visceral. ‘Even the trees were enemy,’ said a soldier of the 3rd Belorussian Front. The Red Army was shocked and disbelieving when General Chernyakhovsky was killed by a stray shell outside Königsberg. His soldiers buried him in a makeshift grave. Branches were cut from trees. They were the only available substitute for the flowers thrown in on top of the coffin according to tradition. But suddenly a young soldier jumped down into the grave, straddled the coffin and frantically threw all the branches back out again. They came from enemy trees. They were defiling their hero’s resting place.
After Chernyakhovsky’s death, Marshal Vasilevsky, the former chief of the general staff, took over command of the 3rd Belorussian Front on Stalin’s order. Vasilevsky’s approach to the problem of discipline appears to have been little different from that of other senior commanders. According to one account, his chief of staff reported to him on looting and damage. ‘Comrade Marshal,’ he said, ‘the soldiers are not behaving themselves. They break furniture, mirrors and dishes. What are your instructions in this connection?’ Vasilevsky, perhaps the most intelligent and cultivated of all Soviet commanders, was apparently silent for a few moments. ‘I don’t give a fuck,’ he said eventually. ‘It is now time for our soldiers to issue their own justice.’
The destructive urge of Soviet soldiers in East Prussia was truly alarming. It went far beyond the chopping up of furniture to make a fire. Without thinking, they torched houses which could have given them warmth and shelter for the night when all was frozen hard outside. They were also furious to find a standard of living among peasant farmers far higher than anything that they had ever imagined. This provoked outrage at the idea that Germans, who had already been living so well, should have invaded the Soviet Union to loot and destroy.
Agranenko recorded in his diary what an old sapper felt about Germans. ‘How should one treat them, Comrade Captain? Just think of it. They were well off, well fed, had livestock, vegetable gardens and apple trees. And they invaded us. They went as far as my oblast of Voronezh. For this, Comrade Captain, we should strangle them.’ He paused. ‘I’m sorry for the children, Comrade Captain. Even though they are Fritz kids.’
The Soviet authorities, no doubt to save Stalin from blame for the disaster of 1941, had managed to inculcate a sense of collective guilt in the Soviet people that they had allowed the Motherland to be invaded. There can be little doubt that the expiation of suppressed guilt increases the violence of revenge. But many motives for violence were much more straightforward. Dmitry Shcheglov, a political officer with the 3rd Army, admitted that on seeing German larders they were ‘disgusted by the plenty’ which they found everywhere. They also hated the orderly arrangement of German domestic life. ‘I’d just love to smash my fist into all those neat rows of tins and bottles,’ he wrote. Red Army soldiers were astonished to see wirelesses in so many houses. The evidence of their eyes strongly implied that the Soviet Union was perhaps not quite the workers’ and peasants’ paradise they had been told. East Prussian farms produced a mixture of bewilderment, jealousy, admiration and anger which alarmed political officers.
The fears of army political departments were confirmed by reports from NKVD postal censors, who underlined negative comments in blue and positive comments in red. The NKVD drastically increased the censorship of letters home, hoping to control the way soldiers described the style of living of ordinary Germans and the ‘politically incorrect conclusions’ formed as a result. The NKVD was also horrified to find that soldiers were sending German postcards home. Some even had ‘anti-Soviet quotations from Hitler’s speeches’. This at least forced political departments to provide clean writing paper.
Clocks, china, mirrors and pianos were smashed in middle-class houses which Red Army soldiers assumed were those of German barons. A woman military doctor wrote home from near Königsberg, ‘You cannot imagine how many valuable things have been destroyed by the Ivans, how many beautiful and comfortable houses have been burned down. At the same time, the soldiers are right. They can’t take everything with them in this world or the other. And when a soldier breaks a wall-sized mirror, he somehow feels better. It’s a kind of distraction loosening the general tension of the body and the mind.’ In village streets there were snow storms from eviscerated pillows and feather mattresses. Much was also bewilderingly new to soldiers brought up in the provinces of the Soviet Union, especially Uzbeks and Turkmenians from Central Asia. They were apparently bemused on discovering hollow toothpicks for the first time: ‘We thought they were straws for drinking wine,’ one soldier said to Agranenko. Others, including officers, tried to smoke looted cigars, inhaling as if they were one of their newspaper roll-ups filled with black makhorka tobacco.
Objects taken as plunder were often discarded and trampled a few moments later. Nobody wanted to leave anything for a ‘shtabnaya krysa’ – a ‘staff rat’ – or especially for a ‘tylovaya krysa’ – a ‘rear rat’ from the second echelon. Solzhenitsyn described scenes resembling a ‘tumultuous market’, with soldiers trying on Prussian women’s outsize drawers. Some fitted on so many layers of clothing under their overalls that they could hardly move, and tank crews stuffed so much plunder into their vehicles that it is amazing the turret could still traverse. The supply of artillery shells was also reduced because so many vehicles were loaded with indiscriminate loot. Officers shook their heads in despair at their men’s choice of booty, such as dinner jackets, to send home in the monthly parcel. The idealistic Kopelev disapproved strongly. He regarded the specially permitted five-kilo parcel as a ‘direct and unmistakable incitement to plunder’. Officers were allowed twice as much. For generals and SMERSH officers there was scarcely a limit, but generals did not really need to stoop to looting. Their officers brought select offerings. Even Kopelev chose an elaborate hunting rifle and a set of Dürer engravings for General Okorokov, his boss in the 2nd Belo-russian Front political department.
A small group of pro-Soviet German officers was taken to visit East Prussia. They were appalled by what they saw. One of them, Count von Einsiedel, vice-president of the NKVD-controlled National Committee for a Free Germany, told fellow members on his return, ‘Russians are absolutely crazy about vodka and all alcoholic drinks. They rape women, drink themselves into unconsciousness and set houses on fire.’ This was rapidly reported to Beria. Ilya Ehrenburg, the fieriest of all propagandists, was also deeply shaken on a visit, but it did not make him moderate his ferocity in print.
Red Army soldiers had never been well fed during the war. Most of the time they had been permanently hungry. If it had not been for the huge shipments of American Spam and wheat, many of them would have been close to starvation. They had inevitably resorted to living off the land, although it was never an official policy in the Red Army as it had been with the Wehrmacht. In Poland, they had stolen the seed corn of farmers and slaughtered for meat the few remaining animals missed by the Germans. In Lithuania the desperate urge for sugar had led to soldiers raiding beehives: in their ranks the previous autumn, many were conspicuous with faces and hands dramatically swollen by bee stings. But the well-ordered and well-stocked farms of East Prussia offered a bounty beyond their dreams. Cows mooing in agony from swollen udders because those who milked them had fled were frequently shot down with rifles and machine guns to be turned into improvised steaks. ‘They ran away and left everything behind,’ wrote one soldier, ‘and now we have lots of pork, food and sugar. We have so much food now that we won’t eat just anything.’
Although the Soviet authorities were well aware of the terrible retribution being exacted in East Prussia, they seemed angered, in fact almost offended, to find that German civilians
In East Prussia, a number went to hide in the forests, especially Volkssturm men and vulnerable women, praying for the fury to pass. The vast majority, on the other hand, had started to flee just ahead of the invasion. Some left messages for their menfolk. ‘Dear Papa!’ Dmitri Shcheglov found hurriedly chalked in a childish hand on one door. ‘We must escape to Alt-P. by cart. From there on to the Reich by ship.’ Hardly any were to see their homes again. It was the abrupt and total destruction of a whole region, with its own marked character and culture, emphasized perhaps because it had always been at the extremity of Germany on the Slav frontier. Stalin had already planned to take the northern half with Königsberg as part of the Soviet Union. The rest would be given to a satellite Poland as partial compensation for the annexation of all of its eastern territories as ‘western Belorussia’ and ‘western Ukraine’. East Prussia itself was to be wiped from the map.
Once Rokossovsky’s 5th Guards Tank Army had cut through to the Frisches Haff, the only routes out were by sea from Pillau at the south-west tip of the Samland Peninsula, or over the ice to the Frische Nehrung, the long sandbar enclosing the lagoon from the Danzig end. Perhaps the most unfortunate fugitives were the ones who fled into Königsberg, which was soon cut off on the landward side. Escape from the city proved far from easy, mainly because the Nazi authorities had made no preparations for the evacuation of civilians, and it took some time before the first ships appeared at Pillau. Meanwhile, the siege of the East Prussian capital became one of the most terrible of the war.
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