AN IDYLL SHATTERED
THIS BOOK TRACES a descent into an inferno. Its early pages have described chiefly the lot of soldiers, some of whom endured traumatizing experiences. Hereafter, however, as the pace of the Third Reich’s collapse quickened, the civilian population of Germany began to suffer in a fashion dreadful even to those already familiar with aerial bombardment. Leave aside for a moment questions of guilt, military necessity, just retribution. It is here only relevant to observe that in 1945 more than a hundred million people, who found themselves within Hitler’s frontiers as a consequence of either birth or compulsion, entered a darkening tunnel in which they faced horrors far beyond the experience of Western societies in the Second World War.
The great flatlands of East Prussia extended southwards from the Baltic, between the ports of Danzig and Memel. They had been ruled variously over the centuries by Prussians, Poles, even Swedes, yet the population in 1945 was almost exclusively composed of ethnic Germans, 2.4 million of them, to which should be added some 200,000 Allied prisoners and forced labourers, and many thousands of German refugees from the Baltic states. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles severed East Prussia from the rest of the Reich, by granting Poland a corridor to the sea at Danzig, soon followed by the transfer of the province of Posen to Warsaw’s governance. In September 1939, East Prussians rejoiced when their land link to Germany was restored by Hitler’s Polish invasion.
The region’s character was strongly influenced by its great aristocratic families. “East Prussia was a province very untypical of Germany,” observed Helmut Schmidt, “owned chiefly by the gentry and nobility, in which the ordinary people were dependent peasants. It was a peculiar society, with this very thin upper crust of counts and barons and princes, and beneath them hundreds of thousands of people who possessed barely enough food to live.” Henner Pflug, who worked there as a teacher, said: “The Nazis seemed to take second place in East Prussia. The aristocracy was still on top.” The middle class, such as it was, lived chiefly around the provincial capital of Königsberg. The grandees occupied some wonderfully beautiful country houses, in a semi-feudal relationship with the peasantry who tilled their fields. For centuries before the Nazis came, the Germans of East Prussia perceived themselves almost as missionaries, fulfilling a civilizing mission, maintaining the values of Christendom amid the barbarians of eastern Europe. Heimat—homeland—is an important word in German. It possessed special significance for the people of East Prussia.
Graf Hans von Lehndorff, the doctor who composed one of the most moving narratives of his Heimat’s experience in 1945, wrote of its “mysterious splendour. Whoever lived through those last months with receptive senses must have felt that never before had the light been so intense, the sky so lofty, the distances so vast.” Since 1939, East Prussia had been a backwater, largely sheltered from the impact of world conflict. “It was incredibly quiet,” said Ursula Salzer, daughter of a Königsberg railway manager. “We had no sense of the war going on, and plenty to eat.”
Matters began to change in the late summer of 1944. Königsberg, which had been desultorily bombed by the Russians, was attacked by the RAF’s Bomber Command. Its aircraft came first on the night of 26 August, when most failed to find the city. Three nights later however, on 29 August, 189 Lancasters of 5 Group struck with devastating effect. Bomber Command estimated that 41 per cent of all housing and 20 per cent of local industry were destroyed. Unexpectedly heavy fighter activity over the target accounted for fifteen Lancasters shot down, 7.9 per cent of the attacking force. Yet the people of Königsberg cared only about the destruction which the RAF’s aircraft left behind. When a bailed-out Lancaster crewman was being led through the ruined streets by his escort, a young woman shouted bitterly at him in English: “I hope you’re satisfied!”
Her name was Elfride Kowitz. Her family’s dairy business and their corner house in Neuer-Graben had been utterly destroyed in the attack. When she emerged from a shelter after the raid was over, she stood gazing in horror at the ruins of her family home. She saw a man in a helmet. It was her father. They fell into each other’s arms, and sobbed in despair. “Both my parents were completely destroyed,” she said. “They had lost everything they had worked all their lives for.” Her father saved only the family’s radio set. Everything else was gone. Her bitterness never faded: “That raid was so futile—it did nothing to shorten the war.” Never again before May 1945 did Elfi fully undress at night. She began to shake as soon as she heard sirens.
A few special people beneath the Allied air attacks shared the common fear, but also found the bombers symbols of hope. Michael Wieck, a sixteen-year-old Königsberger, could not enter the city’s air-raid shelters, because he was a Jew. Instead, when attacks came, he resorted to a coal bunker. He listened to the distant buzz of aircraft as it grew to a roar, then heard the angry bark of the flak. He was still above ground when the RAF’s “Christmas tree” pyrotechnic markers drifted down through the night sky. “I was not so critical of bombing then as I became after the war,” said Wieck. “We knew that the only thing that could save our lives was the victory of the Allies, and this seemed a necessary part of it.” Yet even for Wieck and his parents the RAF’s second raid on Königsberg seemed a catastrophe. “Schoolbooks, curtains, debris of all kinds rained half-burned from the sky. The heat was so enormous that many people could not leave their cellars. Everything was burning. Some people took refuge from the flames by jumping into the river. When it was over, the scene was like the aftermath of an atomic explosion.” Local Hitler Youth leader Hans Siwik, a former member of the Führer’s bodyguard, was as appalled as Wieck, from a somewhat different perspective. Siwik was disgusted by the “immorality” of the British assault: “It seemed crazy that people should destroy such a place. People in Königsberg were unaccustomed to raids. We didn’t have a lot of flak. I was horrified by the idea of such vandalism.” Yet worse, much worse, was to come.
In the chilly autumn days of 1944, Hans von Lehndorff watched the storks begin their annual migration southwards. He fancied that many other local people shared his own impulsive thought: “Yes, you’re flying away! But what of us? What is to become of us, and of our country?” East Prussians recognized that they were doomed to suffer Germany’s first experience of ground assault, because they were nearest to the relentless advance of the Red Army.
The province’s gauleiter was one of the most detested bureaucrats in the Third Reich, Eric Koch. Earlier in the war, as Reich commissioner in Ukraine, Koch had delivered a speech notorious even by the standards of Nazi rhetoric: “We are a master race. We must remember that the lowliest German worker is racially and biologically a thousand times more valuable than the population here . . . I did not come to spread bliss . . . The population must work, work and work again . . . We did not come here to give out manna. We have come here to create the basis for victory.”
Throughout 1944, as the Red shadow lengthened beyond the borders of East Prussia, Koch delivered an increasingly strident barrage of bombast about the government’s commitment to preserving the province from the Soviets. He set his face against any evacuation by the civilian population. To countenance such a flight would be to acknowledge the possibility of German defeat. It was the duty of each citizen of the fatherland, Koch declared, to hold fast to every inch of its soil in the face of the monstrous hordes from the east. Nor was it only Nazis who saw a special significance in the defence of East Prussia. Every German now knew that, by agreement between the Soviet Union and the Western allies, if their nation was defeated the province would be ceded to Poland, in compensation for eastern Polish lands which were to become part of the Soviet Union.
It had been settled between the “Big Three” that some sixteen million ethnic Germans throughout eastern Europe—whether recent immigrants who had formed part of Hitler’s colonial plantations or historic residents—would be deported to the new post-war frontiers of Germany. This was to be a colossal, historic transfer of populations, which was accepted by the Western allies with remarkably little debate or hesitation on either side of the Atlantic. “The President said he thought we should make some arrangements to move the Prussians out of East Prussia the same way the Greeks were moved out of Turkey after the last war,” recorded Harry Hopkins in 1943; “while this is a harsh procedure, it is the only way to maintain peace and . . . in any circumstances, the Prussians cannot be trusted.” Churchill asserted the justice of this pioneer exercise in “ethnic cleansing” to the House of Commons on 5 December 1944: “A clean sweep will be made,” he said. “I am not alarmed by the prospect of the disentanglement of populations, nor even by these large transferences, which are more possible in modern conditions than they ever were before. The disentanglement of populations which took place between Greece and Turkey after the last war . . . was in many ways a success.”
The purpose of this vast compulsory migration was to ensure that never again would Germans be motivated to act aggressively by the interests of their ethnic brethren in eastern Europe. Germans would be ring-fenced in their own country. Prussia, historic heart of German militarism, was to be dismembered. There would be no more German minorities elsewhere. Such Allied action would also redress, and more than redress, Hitler’s treatment of the regions of Poland annexed to the Reich, from which he had expelled almost a million Poles since 1939.
German generals in Soviet hands, whose conversations were monitored by the NKVD, railed at the immense injustice which they saw looming over their nation. “They want to take East Prussia from us,” said von Paulus, the vanquished commander at Stalingrad. “We can’t just say to them: ‘Here it is. Take it.’ In this respect the Nazis are better than us. They are fighting to preserve our homeland. If German land is given to Poland, there will be another war.” General Strekker agreed: “If they take East Prussia from us, it will mean another war, and of course the German people will be blamed again—this time undeservedly.”
The first Russian incursions into East Prussia took place on 22 October 1944, when 11th Guards Army captured Nemmersdorf and several other border hamlets. Five days later, General Friedrich Hossbach’s Fourth Army retook the villages. Hardly one civilian inhabitant survived. Women had been nailed to barn doors and farm carts, or been crushed by tanks after being raped. Their children had been killed. Forty French PoWs working on local farms had been shot, likewise avowed German communists. The Red Army’s behaviour reflected not casual brutality, but systematic sadism rivalling that of the Nazis. “In the farmyard stood a cart, to which more naked women were nailed through their hands in a cruciform position,” reported a Volkssturm militiaman, Karl Potrek, who entered Nemmersdorf with the Wehrmacht. “Near a large inn, the ‘Roter Krug,’ stood a barn and to each of its two doors a naked woman was nailed through the hands, in a crucified posture. In the dwellings we found a total of 72 women, including children, and one man, 74, all dead . . . all murdered in a bestial fashion, except only for a few who had bullet holes in their heads. Some babies had their heads bashed in.” Even the Russians displayed subsequent embarrassment about what had taken place. Moscow’s official history of the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union, usually reticent about such matters, conceded: “Not all Soviet troops correctly understood how they had to behave in Germany . . . In the first days of fighting in East Prussia, there were some isolated violations of the correct norms of behaviour.” In reality, of course, what happened in October in East Prussia was a foretaste of the Red Army’s conduct across Poland and Germany in the awful months to come.
Koch and Goebbels turned the tragedy of Nemmersdorf into a propaganda banquet. Photographers and correspondents were dispatched to record every detail of the Russian atrocities. The story was broadcast far and wide as a sample of Soviet barbarism, and as a spur to East Prussia’s defenders. Posters showing the victims were distributed throughout the province, newsreels shown in every cinema. Many women who saw them took steps to acquire poison as a precaution against capture. More than a few subsequently used it.
Like most senior Nazis, Koch himself lived lavishly, if not stylishly. He occupied an estate outside Königsberg named Gross-Friedrich, dominated by a big modern house, for which he had somehow secured bricks when they were available to no one else. Small, squat, moustachioed and prone to outbursts of uninhibited rage, Koch shared the paucity of physical graces common to most of the Nazi leadership. But his acolytes basked in his patronage, the parties and private film shows, access to the gauleiter’s personal box at Königsberg’s theatre. Koch possessed his leader’s monumental capacity for self-delusion. When the RAF bombed Königsberg, he was furious that an errant stick of bombs landed at Gross-Friedrich. As he supervised the clearing up, he observed between clenched teeth: “That won’t be allowed to happen again.” When some of his female staff expressed fears after the Soviet incursion at Nemmersdorf, Koch said authoritatively: “That’s as far as they’ll be allowed to get. We can stop them here.” The women found the gauleiter so plausible that they almost believed this. Lise-Lotte Kussner, a twenty-three-year-old East Prussian girl who acted as one of Koch’s secretaries, drafted a joint note from Koch and Robert Ley, the labour minister, reporting on East Prussia’s contribution to the “wonder weapon” programme. Even as late as the winter of 1944, she found it intoxicating to draft correspondence to her Führer on the special typewriter with ultra-large letters to indulge his poor eyesight: “I was so young. I believed in the wonder weapons; that our army would protect us; that the Russians could be stopped. I had faith.”
Koch still forbade any civilian evacuation except in the frontier area, where some villages were fortified against the assault. Posters appeared in every community, decreeing that anyone who sought to abandon his home would be executed as a traitor. The gauleiter sent a Christmas message to East Prussian soldiers at the front: “We all know that this battle—which is a matter of ‘To be, or not to be’—must and will give us only one outcome, victory, if we are to preserve our nation, our freedom, our daily bread, our living space and a secure future for our children.” Koch paid ritual tribute to the performance of the Volkssturm, and highlighted the “bestial murders” in Nemmersdorf, Tutteln, Teichof. He concluded brightly: “The Heimat wishes you a healthy Christmas.”
“For us Prussians,” wrote General Heinz Guderian, “it was our immediate homeland that was at stake, that homeland which had been won at such cost, and which had remained attached to the ideas of Christian, Western culture through so many centuries of effort, land where lay the bones of our ancestors, land that we loved . . . After the examples of Goldap and Nemmersdorf, we feared the worst for the inhabitants.” Many Germans, and especially the Prus-sian and Silesian aristocracy, envisioned their nation’s eastern lands much as the plantation owners of the Confederacy perceived the old South in the American Civil War. Their vision was imbued with the sense of a romantic rural idyll that gripped their whole imagination and loyalty, most readily understood by readers of Gone with the Wind.
Cattle were among the first fugitives to be seen in East Prussia. Vast herds accompanied the winter flood of refugees from the Baltic states. The beasts roamed bewildered across the snowclad countryside, harbingers of the terror that was approaching. The province’s defenders were in no doubt about the magnitude of their task. A Wehrmacht report from Königsberg on 5 January observed that the city would have to be garrisoned by formations retreating from the main battlefield, on which they were bound to suffer severe losses, especially of armour. It was all very well for Gauleiter Koch to mobilize ninety local Volkssturm battalions, but 22,800 rifles and 2,000 machine-guns were required to arm them. Most of these did not exist, though the province had been given preferential treatment for the allocation of weapons.
The Russian thrust into East Prussia and northern Poland was, of course, subordinate to the assaults of Zhukov and Konev further south. Yet it was vital to generate pressure on the Germans here, to prevent them from either shifting forces to Zhukov’s front or launching counter-attacks against 1st Belorussian Front’s exposed flank. Even if the Soviets spurned the “broad front” strategy adopted by Eisenhower, they could not allow any one of their army groups drastically to outpace the others, lest they provide the Germans with an opening for one of their legendary envelopments. The Russian armies attacking East Prussia under Chernyakhovsky and Rokossovsky possessed overwhelming superiority. They outnumbered the Germans by ten to one in regular troops, seven to one in tanks, twenty to one in artillery. By early January, 3,800 Russian tanks and assault guns were massed on the border. The two Soviet commanders were to drive forward into German territory, seizing Königsberg and severing East Prussia from the rest of Germany, then securing the great ports of Danzig and Stettin. Rokossovsky’s armies were also charged with protecting Zhukov’s right flank. Amid the huge tracts of territory to be addressed, how was Rokossovsky to stay in touch with Zhukov, while supporting Chernyakhovsky? This important issue was still unresolved when the offensive began.
Stalin never doubted the strength of resistance his armies could expect on the soil of the Reich. “The Germans will fight for East Prussia to the very end,” he told Zhukov. “We could get bogged down there.” Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front began its bombardment of the northern sector in thick fog on the morning of 13 January, when Konev’s men had just opened their drive in southern Poland. In the still, icy air the thunder of Soviet artillery, delivering 120,000 rounds in a few hours, was audible sixty miles away in Königsberg. Hans von Lehndorff’s windowpanes rattled. “It sounded as if a lot of heavy lorries were standing round the building with their engines running uninterrupted.” In East Prussia, however, the Germans had been able to do what Hitler forbade in Poland—withdraw the bulk of their forces from the outpost line, beyond the reach of the Soviet barrage. When the first Russian troops swept forward, they met fierce resistance.
The Germans had located strongpoints in the cellars of houses commanding crossroads and key strategic points. Some bunkers boasted guns mounted in cupolas. German propaganda slogans had been painted in huge letters on many buildings: “WAR HAS ARRIVED ON OUR DOORSTEP, BUT TILSIT SURVIVES DESPITE THE TERROR”; “SOLDIERS! ALL OUR HOPES NOW REST UPON YOU”; “THE DESTINY OF THE FATHERLAND LIES WITH YOU”; “OUR CITIES CAN BE STILLED, BUT NOT OUR HEARTS.”
A matching message had gone forth to every Soviet soldier of 3rd Belorus-sian Front:
Comrades! You have now reached the borders of East Prussia, and you will now tread that ground which gave birth to the fascist monsters who devastated our cities and homes, slaughtered our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our wives and mothers. The most inveterate of those brigands and Nazis sprang from East Prussia. For many years they have held power in Germany, inspiring its foreign invasions and directing its genocides of alien peoples.
In the days before the Red Army crossed the border, political officers held meetings explicitly designed to promote hatred of the enemy, discussing such themes as “How shall I avenge myself on our German occupiers?” and “An eye for an eye.” Later, when orders came from Moscow to adopt a less savage attitude towards Germans, to encourage surrenders, it was far too late to change an ethos cultivated over years of struggle. “Hatred for the enemy had become the most important motivation for our men,” writes a Russian historian. “Almost every Soviet soldier possessed some personal reason to seek vengeance.”
Early signals to Moscow from advancing Soviet forces reported that the civilian populations of Tilsit, Hurnbigger, Tallin, Rognit and other towns had vanished. Water and electricity were cut off, but the occupiers were gratified to discover houses still well endowed with personal property. Prisoners told Soviet interrogators that the civilians had been evacuated from the forward area several weeks earlier. Russian soldiers, who had never set foot beyond their own homeland, looked in wonderment at the prosperous towns and villages of East Prussia. Many Russian soldiers asked each other: “Why did the Germans want to come to Russia when they had so much here?” Lieutenant Gennady Klimenko said: “German villages looked like heaven compared with ours. Everything was cultivated. There were so many beautiful buildings. They had so much more than we did.” Vladimir Gormin shared his enthusiasm: “Great country! So clean and tidy compared to ours!” Political Departments expressed alarm during the months that followed about the ideological impact upon the Red Army of perceiving the wealth of Germany. This contradicted years of propaganda about the triumph of socialist economics over that of fascism. The spectacle of a rich Germany implied the failure of an impoverished Soviet Union. In the view of some Russians, rage about the wealth of the enemy, in contrast to their own destitution after decades of sacrifice, helps to explain Soviet soldiers’ manic destruction of artefacts of beauty and symbols of riches during the battle for Germany.
Throughout the campaign in the east, an ugly contest persisted between the propaganda arms of the rival tyrannies, to expose each other’s atrocities. Even as the soldiers of Chernyakhovsky and Rokossovsky were killing and raping their way across East Prussia, the NKVD found time to send a report to Moscow about the discovery of a mass grave in a forest a mile north-east of Kummenen, containing the remains of a hundred Jewish women, who appeared to have been tortured and shot. The majority were aged between eighteen and thirty-five, said the report, and each woman wore a yellow star and five-digit number. “Mugs and wooden spoons were tied to their belts. Some had potatoes in their pockets. They had all been starved.”
A Soviet officer describing the emptiness of the countryside said that, when his unit crossed the border into East Prussia, the only civilians they saw were two very old men, “whom,” he added casually, “my soldiers promptly spitted on their bayonets.” It took Marshal Chernyakhovsky a week, together with heavy casualties, to break through the German defences. When he did so, many defenders from the Volkssturm and Volksgrenadier divisions streamed away in rout. Rokossovsky’s men, whose attack had begun on 14 January from the Narew bridgeheads, were already racing forward on Chernyakhovsky’s left. By 23 January, Soviet forces had crossed the rivers Deime, Pregel and Alle, the last natural defensive lines before Königsberg. Four days later, the Russians had almost completed the encirclement of the city. The Germans retained only a narrow corridor to the sea.
It is hard to overstate the naivety of most Russian soldiers. They had never seen indoor sanitation. Nikolai Dubrovsky was an intelligent and educated man, yet when his friend caught venereal disease he was perfectly ready to accept that this represented the work of a special German women’s unit which, Stalin’s people were told, sought sexual relations with their enemies in order to disable them. Major Yury Ryakhovsky never doubted the truth of a rumour at his front headquarters that for capitalistic reasons of their own the Americans were selling vehicles to the German army. The paranoia fundamental to Stalin’s Russia infected millions of Soviet soldiers. Vladimir Gormin’s corporal dragged a ten-year-old East Prussian boy in front of the regimental commander, asserting that he had just seen him poisoning a well. The colonel, with uncharacteristic restraint, told the corporal to give the child a cuff and let him go.
From the first day the Soviets drove into East Prussia, they began to loot on an epic scale. This was a practise institutionalized by the Red Army, which allowed every man to send home a monthly parcel of his spoils. On German soil, the invaders found booty beyond their dreams—food, drink, furniture, livestock, clothing, jewellery. Corporal Anatoly Osminov spotted in a billet one day a soldier playing a piano with his toes, while staring fascinated at his own image in a huge gilt mirror placed on the opposite wall. Soldiers in their white camouflage smocks fought, died and pillaged in a rhythm slowed only by the desperate cold, the chronic difficulties of movement in a world in which men ploughed through the snow with the clumsiness of spacemen.
When Captain Vasily Krylov gazed out on the flat, white plain of East Prussia, he thought that it looked like a beautifully pristine bedsheet. “YOU ARE NOW IN ACCURSED GERMANY,” said a Red Army sign at the border. “ON TO BERLIN!” Krylov was his regiment’s reconnaissance chief. Earlier in the war, he was badly wounded when a German shell landed by his truck, showering his face and eyes with glass from the windscreen. It took a surgeon six months to extract the splinters. He was then recommended for rear-area duty, but preferred to return to the front. As the advance moved deeper into the country, the long truck column of his Katyusha regiment was often slowed by fleeing refugees. As the Russian vehicles forced a passage through the throng, his own men succumbed as readily as those of every other unit to the opportunities for rape and looting. “We did our best to keep control, but it was very hard.” Belated efforts by commanders to restrain soldiers’ excesses were dismissed with contempt. David Samoilov, a poet who served in the Red Army, said: “Soldiers didn’t understand this sudden change of course. In the emotional state prevailing in the army at the time, men could not accept the notion of amnesty for the nation which had brought such misery upon Russia.”
Where civilians were foolish enough to remonstrate about looting, the troops simply torched their homes. Once some Russian women, forced labourers, appeared at Vasily Krylov’s headquarters and began to explain the difference between good and bad local Germans. An officer said roughly: “We don’t have time to start classifying fascists.” The scale of plunder in East Prussia overwhelmed the officers’ 32-pound monthly parcel allowance: “You could hardly send an accordion.” But Krylov’s orderly managed to dispatch a magnificent tea set to his family, and when he himself got home to his collective farm near Novgorod after the war he found his mother and sister wearing clothes he had sent them from East Prussia in January 1945.
The invaders swiftly overran the Wolf’s Lair at Rastenburg, the vast headquarters complex from which Hitler had directed the operations of his eastern armies. Russian soldiers wandered curiously among the buildings, awed by the sophistication of its defences and bunkers. The German staff and guards were long gone, but in the commandant’s office the occupiers found an order dated 8 January, instructing all personnel that they were bound by a lifelong oath of silence about everything they knew concerning the Führer’s affairs. A Russian flicked curiously through the headquarters telephone directory. Hitler’s extension number, he reported, was inevitably “1.”
Lieutenant Alexandr Sergeev’s infantrymen were fascinated by the ghostly emptiness of most East Prussian villages. They kicked open the doors of houses, and found ovens still warm, food on tables. The only people they met were foreign forced labourers on the farms, abandoned among the livestock. Special units following the advance were deputed to herd captured beasts into Russia, to replace the enormous numbers which had perished since 1941. They also herded “liberated” slave labourers into the Red Army, the factories, or—in the case of hundreds of thousands of “suspicious elements”—NKVD camps. Soldiers became warier about looting after early experiences with booby traps, which the retreating Germans had left behind in large quantities, wired to tempting prizes. “Our boys would open a door, we’d hear a loud explosion, and that would be that,” said Lieutenant Alexandr Markov. His artillery unit learned to attach a telephone cable to a door before opening it from a safe distance. But such precautions offered no defence against the Red Army’s terrifying vulnerability to alcohol. Markov’s brigade captured a railway station in which they found a tanker wagon full of neat spirit. Many men were reduced to helpless stupor before the Germans counter-attacked. The unit only narrowly avoided disaster.
The Red Army did not behave with universal brutality. Indeed, many Germans were bewildered by the whimsicality with which they were treated. In one village, local people were praying in church, awaiting their end, as the first occupiers arrived. The villagers were astounded when instead a Soviet officer brought them bread. One German woman marvelled: “The Russians have been here half a day, and we are still alive!” Forward units often behaved in a punctilious, even kindly fashion, but warned local inhabitants: “We can vouch for our people, but not for what is coming behind”—the great undisciplined, wantonly barbaric host which followed the spearheads. It was in East Prussia that the Red Army began to rape women on a scale which surpassed casual sexual desire and reflected atavistic commitment to the violation of an entire society.
At first, it seemed that Königsberg would fall immediately, that the entire defence of East Prussia would collapse. Yet, once again, the Wehrmacht took desperate action. The 372nd Infantry Division, supported by assault guns, was rushed into the line north of the city, and by a margin of minutes was able to stem the Soviet assault, destroying some thirty tanks. Königsberg, together with a narrow coastal perimeter, was now besieged. It would maintain its defence for two terrible months. Naval action was decisive in enabling the Germans to maintain supplies and gunfire support for ground formations fighting with their backs to the Baltic.
Boys and old men in their thousands were summoned to active duty with the Volkssturm. When seventeen-year-old Joseph Volmar reported for morning Appel at his Luftwaffe glider school outside Königsberg on 20 January, he and his class were hastily marched to the nearest station, almost two miles through driving snow. They fought their way on to a train for the city, through a mob of terrified civilians. On arrival, they were paraded before a harassed infantry captain. “Men or boys or whatever you are,” he said, “you have been assigned to my command for the heroic defence of Königsberg. I hope you will do justice to yourselves when the time for combat comes.” They were issued with French long rifles of 1914 vintage, and twenty-five rounds of ammunition. One boy was given a Czech machine-gun. To their sergeant’s fury, only Polish ammunition proved to be available for it. They were loaded on to a city bus, under command of a Hitler Youth leader, and drove slowly through the street. An NCO coaxed them into song. They joined hesitantly in a chorus of “Edelweiss.” As they gazed from the windows at the throng of refugees stumbling through the snow, the early morning’s sense of adventure gave way to mounting unease, then to fear: “Hundreds of frostbitten faces stared up at us as we sped in the opposite direction. One face was like another, each showing hunger, fatigue and fear as a pair of weary eyes peered out from under a scarf. Small children were bundled up in a sled or riding uncomfortably in baby carriages stuffed with clothing and household goods. Often, the carriages were abandoned at the roadside.”
They travelled some thirty miles into deepening darkness. They began to pass soldiers, plodding in the opposite direction. Then, without warning, they heard shellfire. The bus stopped in a village which had been abandoned by its inhabitants. They were told to bed down in two houses beside the church. “What about food, Scharführer?” someone asked their NCO. He shrugged: “You’re out of luck today.” They wandered among the buildings until they chanced on a supply dump that had been set on fire, and salvaged a few wheels of cheese and bottles of wine. Then, wrapped in their greatcoats, they drifted into anxious sleep.
They were roused four hours later by their sergeant: “Everybody up and outside! The Russkis are coming!” Some ninety-strong, they were marched to an embankment in front of a railway line at the edge of the village. They had just begun to dig holes in the snow when Russian mortaring began. One boy groaned and slid down the embankment, rolling in agony as he came. Lying at Volmar’s feet, he muttered, “Say farewell to my mother,” and died. They could hear screams from other wounded. When Volmar tried to load his rifle, he found the bolt was frozen. He attempted to put a tourniquet round the bloody leg of their machine-gunner. There were cries of “Sanitäter! Sanitäter!”—“Medic! Medic!” As Russian fire intensified, the boy crawled among dead comrades, searching for ammunition. For four hours, they lay and fired as best they could at the Russians, who advanced steadily closer. Finally their NCO shouted: “Let’s get out of here! We can’t hold on any more! Everybody get across the tracks and make for the river! Bring the wounded if you can.”
They could not. They simply ran, more boys falling to a Russian machine-gun. One, hit in the leg, cried as he lay: “Help me across the tracks! I don’t want to be taken prisoner.” Volmar began to drag him, but suddenly saw a Russian soldier fifty yards away, holding a machine-pistol. The young German abandoned his screaming comrade and started running again, throwing away helmet, gas mask and finally a beloved camera. Just as he crossed the railway tracks, he heard a burst of fire and felt a hammer blow in his arm. He stumbled on across a frozen river, until at last he saw a medical orderly who roughly bandaged his throbbing wound. He was given a swig of wine and fell into instant sleep. Somebody put him on a truck. At a Königsberg hospital, he was helped into a bed as its previous occupant was wheeled away to the morgue. A 7.65mm bullet was removed from his arm without anaesthetic. He later found that the futile stand of his company had cost the lives of twenty teenage student pilots.
One of the men who commanded Hitler Youth units such as Volmar’s was Gefolgschäftersführer Hans Siwik. He was a twenty-five-year-old Berliner, though his father came from Austria. Before the war, to his immense pride he had served in the Leibstandarte, Hitler’s personal bodyguard. He warmed to the memory of the Führer’s small personal attentions to him, such as discussing a presentation samurai sword one afternoon when Siwik was on duty in his private quarters: “Hitler could be a real softy.” His SS career foundered, however, after he failed the officer course at Bad Tolz. He was sent to East Prussia as a Youth leader.
In the first days of 1945, Eric Koch ordered Siwik to form “Hitler Youth battle groups”—“do it any way you like that will stop tanks.” Siwik banded his sixteen-year-olds in companies of 200. They were issued with First World War Mauser ’98 rifles. “The oldest boys were about 16, but there were others who could not have been more than 13,” wrote a German soldier who saw such a body march out.
They had been hastily dressed in worn uniforms cut for men and were carrying guns which were as big as they were. They looked both comic and horrifying, and their eyes were filled with unease, like the eyes of children at the reopening of school . . . Some of them were laughing and roughhousing, forgetting the military discipline which was inassimilable at their age . . . We noticed some heart-wringing details about these children, who were beginning the first act of their tragedy. Several of them were carrying school satchels their mothers had packed with extra food and clothing, instead of schoolbooks. A few of the boys were trading the saccharine candies which the ration allotted to children under 13 . . . What could be done with these troops? Where were they expected to perform? Was Germany heroic or insane? Who would ever be able to judge this absolute sacrifice?
Siwik’s group was at first employed digging anti-tank ditches. Then, on the morning of 20 January, he was ordered to take a company in trucks with a single anti-tank gun to occupy positions some thirty miles south-east of Königsberg. They drove through deep snow, the boys at first excited rather than fearful. They dug trenches beside a sunken road, and sited their gun. After a long, shivering wait, they saw Russian infantry advancing towards them, three T-34s following. “Open fire,” Siwik told his company. They began enthusiastically enough, but soon the aged Mausers began to jam. The soldier ran from foxhole to foxhole, helping to clear them. The nearest Russians came within eighty yards before, to the Germans’ surprise, pulling back in failing light. The children fell asleep in the snow where they lay.
Early next morning, the Soviet advance recommenced, this time supported by accurate mortar fire. Siwik, who had once told the Führer that he yearned for a posting where he might win a medal, found that his interest in decorations had now faded: “the issue wasn’t winning. It was delaying the Russians long enough for the refugees to escape.” He hardly knew the names of any of his boys, he simply addressed them as “you.” In the middle of the morning, a truckful of fausts arrived. No one knew how to use them. They fired some twenty without effect before a lucky shot hit a T-34, which brewed up. Russian mortaring was causing casualties. They could only use strips of torn shirt to bandage wounds.
After hours of indecisive firing, there was a muffled roar of armoured vehicles behind them. A panzer officer dismounted, and gazed in amazement at the children. “What the hell’s all this?” he cried in some disgust. He told Siwik and his company to make themselves scarce. Gratefully, they scrambled out of their holes and plodded towards the rear. They had lost six killed and fifteen wounded. “The boys were traumatized. Their patriotism had shrivelled away,” said Siwik. His own enthusiasm for combat had also waned. As they marched towards the coast among the throng of refugees, he told his company to throw away their weapons and try to find civilian clothes. “They were all from towns the Russians now held. I could not send them home.” Siwik kept his own uniform, and with a handful of boys eventually secured space on a naval supply ship leaving Pillau. It may be assumed that he was able to exercise his authority as a Party functionary. After two days at sea, he reached the temporary safety of Stettin.
THE WORST JOURNEY IN THE WORLD
FROM LATE JANUARY onwards, with most of East Prussia in Soviet hands, the German Army struggled, first, to hold its surviving enclaves—notably Königsberg and the nearby port of Pillau—and, second, to keep open a line of retreat along the coast south-westwards to Germany for hundreds of thousands of teeming refugees. The fortunes of the battlefield, and of the precarious escape routes, seesawed violently, tragically, through ten weeks that followed. On 30 January, a Russian assault towards Königsberg’s rail line to Pillau brought ghastly consequences for a trainload of fugitives. The engine was halted by a T-34 on the tracks. The passengers jumped out when Red soldiers started firing on the carriages. Russian infantry embarked on a familiar onslaught of looting and rape. Königsberg’s principal defenders were 5th Panzer Division and the East Prussian 1st Infantry Division. In mid-February, the garrison and the German forces on the Samland peninsula staged a ferocious counter-attack, to reopen the link to Pillau. This was achieved on the 20th, a notable feat of arms. Once again, refugees began to flee from the city towards the port, somewhat reducing the burden of hungry mouths among the besieged. Some 100,000 people fled during this lull. On 26 February, the Russians decided that for the present it was foolish to commit further resources to the seizure of Königsberg. The German forces in the city and on the Samland peninsula north-east of it represented no possible threat to the grand Soviet design. Chernyakhovsky’s Thirty-ninth and Forty-third Armies were ordered to hold their existing positions, masking the German garrison until time and forces could be spared to finish it off.
Meanwhile further south and west, 2nd Belorussian Front under Rokossovsky, whose advance had begun on 14 January, cleared most of East Prussia while Chernyakhovsky was still hammering at its capital. As the defences were rolled up, German commanders pleaded with Berlin to allow Fourth Army to make a major withdrawal, to avoid envelopment. Inevitably, Hitler refused. On the 19th, Fourth Army reported that a desperate shortage of munitions of all kinds was crippling its ability to hold ground: “Any further losses would precipitate a serious crisis.” Yet, early on the 21st, Guderian told the commander of Army Group North, Hans Reinhardt, that Fourth Army would have to maintain its existing positions. “But that’s quite impossible,” protested its commander. “It means everything is going to collapse.” “Yes, my dear Reinhardt,” said Guderian wearily. When at last a modest withdrawal was authorized, it was too late.
Stalin was irked by Chernyakhovsky’s failure quickly to secure Königsberg. As he watched from Moscow the sluggish progress of 3rd Belorussian Front, on 20 January he ordered Rokossovsky’s armies of 2nd Belorussian Front to wheel north, towards the Baltic coast, and sever East Prussia from the rest of the Reich. The weight of two Soviet fronts smashing into Prussia and thence Pomerania wrought havoc among millions of German soldiers and refugees. Yet this was achieved at the cost of opening a wide gap between Rokossovsky and Zhukov, who was appalled to find his right flank exposed—here was the blunder which destroyed any possibility that Zhukov could have reached Berlin “on the run” in February. It was the Stavka’s worst strategic decision of the last phase of the war—and the Stavka was, of course, Stalin. Rokossovsky’s forces became embroiled in a long succession of battles along the Baltic coast. In all of these the Soviets triumphed, yet they seemed strategically irrelevant. Once Berlin fell, surviving pockets of German resistance could be addressed at leisure. By sending Rokossovsky north, Stalin importantly weakened the drive for Hitler’s capital. The Stavka’s decision did not, of course, threaten final victory, but it may have delayed this by two months.
Rokossovsky’s tanks crashed into the long, exposed flank of Fourth Army around the Frisches Haff—the vast frozen coastal lagoon south-west of Königsberg—and into hundreds of thousands of trekking refugees. On 21 January, Soviet spearheads began shelling throngs of fugitives struggling to escape through Elbing towards the Reich. The Russians reached Allenstein on 22 January, overrunning German reinforcements detraining there from the east. On 23 January, Fifth Guards Tank Army entered Elbing, temporarily halting the refugee trek. Having suffered substantial casualties from local defenders and Panzerfausts, the Russians were obliged to withdraw. They did not enter the town again for a fortnight, but now held much of the near shore of the Frisches Haff. Only a thin, sandy tongue of land between the lagoon and the sea—the Frisches Nehrung—still offered a passage for a host of fugitives, if Rokossovsky’s armies could be pushed back a few miles.
With considerable courage, the German commanders on the Baltic decided to defy Berlin, to save their 400,000 troops and the great mass of civilians milling helplessly across thousands of square miles of snowbound countryside, searching for a path westwards. On the moonlit night of 26 January, Fourth Army launched a counter-offensive which drove back the Russian Forty-eighth Army and broke through to Elbing. Once again, a land passage for the refugees was open. Reinhardt of Army Group North was sacked for his disobedience, as was Fourth Army’s commander, Hossbach. Hitler was wholly uninterested in the plight of his suffering people. Hundreds of thousands of fugitives, however, had cause to be grateful to the dismissed generals.
Across the entire battlefield between the Baltic and Yugoslavia, the rival forces’ tanks, artillery, infantry, machine-guns were now conducting their deadly contest amid throngs of civilians fleeing westwards, and the merciless winter weather. The plight of East Prussia’s fugitives was worst of all. Women and infants huddled upon columns of carts laden with possessions, figures shuffling through the snows with children crying out in their wake, became doomed extras in the drama of the armies. The civilians’ sufferings, the march of so much despairing humanity towards extinction, became to the combatants a spectacle as familiar as the frozen rivers, snowbound forests and burning villages among which they met their fate.
Russian attitudes towards the refugees ranged from indifference to deliberate brutality. When advancing T-34s met trekkers, the tanks smashed through their midst, mere battlefield flotsam. Again and again, Russian artillery and machine-guns raked columns of trekkers or blocked their flight. Cold and hunger also killed huge numbers. To this day, surviving East Prussians place the heaviest burden of blame for their fate upon Gauleiter Koch, who denied them licence to flee before the Russians came. But Soviet gunfire was directly responsible for the slaughter of tens of thousands. The Russians’ policy owed little to military necessity and everything to the culture of vengeance fostered within the Red Army over almost four years by such manic Moscow propagandists as Ilya Ehrenburg.
Once the Soviet commitment to fire and the sword became evident, the German army in East Prussia performed extraordinary feats of courage and sacrifice, to hold open paths to safety for the civilians. The saga of East Prussia’s winter of blood and ice is one of the most awful of the Second World War. Russians said: “Remember what Germany did in our country.” It was indeed true that for each German killed by the Red Army could be counted the corpses of three, four, five Russians killed by the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe and the SS in their glory days. Yet few modern readers can escape revulsion in contemplating the fate of the East Prussian people in the first months of 1945. Since the expulsion of the German population from East Prussia had already been agreed between the Allies, it is scarcely surprising that the Russians were untroubled by the mass flight of refugees. It seems strange, however, that when the depopulation of the province was a matter of Moscow policy, the Red Army acted so savagely to impede the westward passage of people who were anyway doomed to expulsion.
WALTRAUT PTACK was only thirteen, but in her schoolroom early in the new year all the children’s chatter was about possible suicide when the Russians came. There was a rumour that the Ivans would use poison gas. Waltraut was the daughter of a cobbler in Lötzen who made boots for the Wehrmacht. The family had spent a sad Christmas, lacking even the decorated tree the children had wanted so much. Her eldest brother Günther had died in the battle for Aachen. On 23 January, they left home a few hours ahead of the Russians, towing a family sled. This carried only the barest essentials—food and blankets. The child pleaded to take her doll, but her father sternly insisted that it must stay behind. Every few hundred yards of the trek to the nearest station, some family treasure was abandoned to lighten the sled. When they reached the tracks amid the familiar mob of hysterical people, they waited hours. Passing trains carried only troops forward, wounded back. At last, a soldier took pity on the misery of the Ptack children. He allowed them to climb on a freight train, which crawled through the countryside for many hours, stopping repeatedly. Then they heard that the Russians were in Elbing. The trucks and their despairing human cargo were shunted eastward again. After a few miles, all the passengers were ordered off. They stumbled through darkness the few miles to the edge of the Frisches Haff. Through the days that followed, they scavenged for food and a path to safety, as Russian artillery fire grew steadily closer. They slept in barns, cowsheds, abandoned houses.
On 5 February, their father was successful in begging places for the children and his eighty-year-old mother on a truck crossing the lagoon. At the military police checkpoint, there was a bitter argument when the soldiers wanted to insist that sixteen-year-old Horst Ptack stayed to join the Volkssturm. “My father knew that it must mean death for him.” Herr Ptack won the battle for his son, but lost it for himself. At the age of fifty-seven, he was now required to fight for his fatherland. He left the family at the edge of the ice. It was raining hard, and the snow was turning to slush. They began to fear that the ice underfoot would melt. Waltraut stared curiously at the frozen corpse of an old man lying beside her. They crossed the lagoon safely and, on the far side, crowded into a earthen shelter among scores of others to rest: “Human warmth kept us alive.” Next morning, the skies cleared, the sun shone and the Soviet Air Force came. They watched the bombs leave the aircraft above, so small in the air, and then saw huge explosions all around them, blasting holes in the ice and killing many people who stood upon it. The aircraft maintained a shuttle all through the daylight hours: “Many, many people died that day.” Waltraut’s eleven-year-old brother Karl-Heinz caught a stampeding horse and stood trying to calm it through the attacks, while everyone else lay prostrate, hugging their fear.
At Pillau, they lingered for three days, praying that their father would be able to rejoin them: “People were roaming the streets demented with grief, searching for loved ones.” Their father did not come. The Russian guns were getting closer again. They fought their way on board a freighter and lay terrified on a bed of straw in its hold through the sea passage to Danzig, where they arrived on 20 February. The family spent the balance of the war as refugees in an abandoned seaside villa in Pomerania. They never heard of their father again.
Twenty-year-old Eleonore Burgsdorff had returned to her mother’s home in East Prussia in December 1944, after serving her statutory two years with the Reich Labour Service. The family lived in a beautiful baroque house named Wildenhoff, which belonged to her stepfather, Graf von Schwerin. A typical German aristocrat, he had declined to join the July plot against Hitler. “First, the Russians—then the Nazis,” he said. The family shared Christmas together with their staff of twenty and the miscellany of Russian, Polish and French PoWs who worked on the estate. They gave each other small gifts of wool, to knit clothes. “We all recognized that we were living on a volcano. Our Russians knew that, for them, the coming of the Red Army meant death.” For the last time in their lives, the prisoners sang carols in the courtyard. There was plenty to drink at Wildenhoff, because over the years of Germany’s triumphs visiting officers had brought Scotch whisky, Grand Marnier and champagne to fill the cellars.
As soon as the festivities were over, “Kaps” von Schwerin departed for the front. Almost certainly because the Nazis suspected his loyalty, he was given a thankless role, commanding a Volkssturm unit. He always wore a cherished gold pin. When he left home for the front, he did not take this with him. “I know I shan’t be coming back,” he said. On 16 January, Eleonore picked up the telephone at Wildenhoff and took a call from her stepfather’s unit. Her mother had gone into Königsberg the previous day. Eleonore took the train to the city, and went to her mother’s room at the Park Hotel. She walked in and said simply: “Kaps is dead.” Her mother slumped back, dragging the bedclothes over her head. The two women sobbed together for a time. Thereafter, the forty-one-year-old widow behaved as if she had been turned to stone. To her daughter’s despair, she would not focus at all upon practical issues—above all, flight. When they returned to Wildenhoff, the girl felt that she could not leave her mother, lest she kill herself. Day after day, though they knew they should flee, they postponed the decision. Many of the treasures of Königsberg Museum had been evacuated to Wildenhoff. Gauleiter Koch had told Gräfin von Schwerin that, if it ever proved necessary to evacuate the area, he would arrange special railroad space for the works of art. None of this came to pass.
As the Red Army drew near, the von Schwerins walled up family papers and valuables in the cellars, and tried to choose a few special favourites to take with them. Eleonore looked wonderingly upon the shelves of priceless volumes in the library, and finally selected those which looked oldest and most splendid, with seals hanging from their leather bindings. A Ukrainian woman art historian was billeted with them as curator of the art treasures, which included a priceless hoard of icons looted by the Wehrmacht from Kiev. She refused to abandon her cherished charges. “When the Russians come,” said the Ukrainian, “I shall set fire to the whole place and everything in it.”
The estate tenants and staff also declined to leave. “We had the Russians here in 1914,” they said, “and in the end they went away again. It’ll be the same this time.” Eleonore asked a French prisoner to look after Senta, the family’s beloved Great Dane. At last, they set off for the station in horse-drawn carts. After an emotional farewell, their coachman took the horses back to the house. The two women boarded a train for the hour-long journey to Braunsberg, where a cousin lived. The trip took eighteen hours. They arrived to find their cousin preparing his own trek. The women clambered on to a cart. The roads were crammed, and the pace was painfully slow amid the chaos of the living and dead. Worst of all were the corpses of babies lying in the frozen snow. Their party was fortunate enough to be among the first to cross the ice of the Frisches Haff, on 24 January. Soldiers helped them with the wagons. At one point they came close to disaster as a wheel tilted over open water, and their horses almost slipped into the abyss. Yet, travelling by night and resting by day, they escaped westwards into Germany. The horrors of their war were not yet ended, but they had left behind the nightmare of East Prussia. They never saw Wildenhoff again. The Ukrainian art historian fulfilled her dreadful promise. She immolated the house, its contents and herself in a great blaze as the Russians approached, a vision reminiscent of the burning of Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca.
On 21 January, Gauleiter Koch, the man personally responsible for refusing to allow any prior evacuation of East Prussia, burst into his secretary’s office on his estate at Gross-Friedrich. “You must go—quickly—tonight,” he told Lise-Lotte Kussner. “Take the rest of the village people.” She responded instinctively: “But I can’t—there are posters everywhere saying that it would be treason.” So indeed there were—drafted by Koch himself. Now, he said: “No, no—that means nothing. Just go.” The gauleiter was distraught. In two hours, a little convoy of tractors and trailers was assembled. There were three Belgian PoWs, five women, a grandfather, eight small children and a fourteen-year-old boy. Lise-Lotte went into the house to tell Koch they were ready. She met his wife, Lilo. “Where are you going?” Frau Koch demanded.
“We’re off,” said the girl.
“No, you’re not.”
“It’s the gauleiter’s order.”
“You’re staying here.”
Frau Koch was visibly confused, no less so when her husband appeared and confirmed his orders, adding that his wife must remain. A Russian prisoner and his Polish girlfriend begged to join the trek. Lise-Lotte said: “But you’re going to be liberated!” The couple said: “No, we want to get out.” Koch, however, refused to let them leave. They took some snow-chains off a Wehrmacht vehicle to equip one of their own. Their privileged little convoy had progressed just six miles when one of its tractors broke down. Lise-Lotte telephoned Koch to ask what to do. He responded furiously: “Just keep going. You must go faster. The Russians are at Elbing already!” Their road, unlike most of those throughout East Prussia, proved curiously deserted. They were flagged down by a Wehrmacht patrol, who told them that the way ahead was closed by the Red Army. They lingered fearfully for hours before the orders changed. German troops had regained some ground. They could drive on. They heard Russian guns every yard that they travelled, but they reached the Vistula ferry without serious incident. Here there was a long, long queue. Irma, one of the women in the convoy, said: “Get the little ones screaming.” They awakened the sleeping children, and set them to howl. The apparent plight of their small charges persuaded the soldiers to allow them to bypass the queue. The tractors drove forward to the ferry, past long lines of silent, resentful refugees.
Even as Lise-Lotte’s group was crossing the Vistula, her mother telephoned Koch from their home, some thirty miles from Königsberg. “Where is my daughter?” she asked. Koch said untruthfully that he had put her aboard a ship: “I got her a place—on the Wilhelm Gustloff.” Frau Kussner demanded to know how she herself was to flee, when her grandmother was immobilized with a broken rib. Koch sent a car manned by two uniformed Party officials to take the Kussner women to an airfield, where he arranged places for them on a plane to Breslau. Even the Kussners’ dulled consciences were pricked by the experience of speeding for miles across East Prussia through columns of refugees who could seek safety only on their feet in the snow.
At Stralsund, Lise-Lotte’s tractors ran out of diesel, but a cousin of hers was stationed in the port, a sailor. He found them fuel in exchange for food. Late in April, after many halts and delays, they crossed the Elbe. Most of those who fled from East Prussia in less privileged circumstances would have begrudged them every moment of their good fortune. Lise-Lotte Kussner said: “I know Koch was responsible for terrible things, but that was not how I knew him.” Just so. Later, however, she was careful to tell no one in whose service she had spent the war years.
In the heart of Germany, the news from East Prussia and Silesia seemed a harbinger of the doom that was approaching. “The first shattering reports of the terrible happenings were brought to Berlin by refugees . . .” wrote Paul von Stemann. “They told about people being trampled to death on the platforms in the fight to get seats on the last trains, and dead bodies being thrown out of the moving, unheated goods trains, and young mothers who were driven to insanity and would not believe that the babies they carried in their arms were long dead . . . Many women gave birth in the open, and soon followed their newborn in death.” Shocked refugees told stories of German soldiers killing their cattle and horses, even looting their houses. A grand Silesian landowner described in disgust how one of Germany’s supposed defenders had fired a Panzerfaust at a baroque chest in the hall of his mansion. On Berlin station platforms, soup kitchens were established to feed refugees, and clothes provided to replace those they had lost. It is interesting to speculate whether these grieving people would have recoiled had they known that many of the warm woollens which they were given had been collected by the SS from the wardrobes of Jews translated into ashes in the death camps.
“Berliners are receiving the first visible warning that the Red Army stands before the frontiers of the Reich,” wrote the German correspondent of Stockholms-Tidningen on 24 January. “Columns of trucks crowded with refugees and baggage and bags and sacks roll through the streets on their way between one railway station and another. Most of the refugees are typical German peasants from the East, and only women and children—no men. They peep wide-eyed from under their headscarves at the ruined streets of the capital they are now seeing for the first time in their lives.”
Yet Berliners did not receive the easterners with unmingled sympathy. For four years, the people of East Prussia, Saxony and Silesia had lived in tranquillity, while the cities of the west were bombed to destruction. More than a few Berliners were by no means displeased now to see their smug fellow countrymen from the east dragged down into the common misery. The Wehrmacht estimated that 3.5 million ethnic Germans were already in flight, and this number increased dramatically over the weeks ahead. In mid-January in Berlin, said Paul von Stemann, “we expected the Russians to arrive any day. The East was like a flood which had broken all dykes . . . Berlin sat back and prepared itself for the flood to roll over it, only hoping that it would be short and sharp.” Berliners even professed to laugh at the tales of mass rape brought by the eastern fugitives. There was a ghastly joke: “I would rather have a Russian on my belly than a bomb.”
IN THE LAST days of January, seventeen-year-old glider-pilot cadet Joseph Volmar lay in a Königsberg hospital recovering from an arm wound. He talked defiantly about rejoining his comrades and getting even with Ivan. His roommate, an old soldier, dismissed his pretensions: “Look, boy, why not give up on this hero stuff? You’re lucky to have made it this far—don’t push it.” As Russian shells began to fall around them, on 30 January the walking wounded were told to make for Pillau. “What a motley group we were! Soldiers with head wounds, arm wounds and even some leg wounds walking with sticks were making a bid for escape. Anything seemed better than letting the Russians get you.” At the beginning, whenever a shell fell close, he dashed for cover. Another man said: “You can’t do that—you’ll miss the boat. You’ve got to keep moving.” A merciful truck, one of the handful still moving, carried them the last few miles to Pillau town square. Volmar’s arm was still intensely painful, but a fat sergeant insisted that he must strip the bandage and show his wound before he was allowed to join the queue for a boat. There were many deceivers cringing among the casualties.
The waterfront was a shambles of abandoned carts and wagons. Refugees and wounded men clustered in thousands around a small ship with a great jagged bomb hole in its foredeck. The column of casualties was forced through the mob, clambering over discarded trunks, crates, suitcases and at last up the gangway. A stench of blood, urine and excrement drifted up the companionway. They lay shivering until darkness fell and they put to sea. Thus they retched and vomited their way to Swinemünde, and onward by train to Lübeck, where an X-ray revealed that a bone in Volmar’s arm was shattered. He cared only that he had escaped from East Prussia and gained a month’s reprieve from the war.
Twenty-year-old Elfride Kowitz was likewise struggling on the dockside at Pillau. She watched people fighting to gain space aboard ships, sometimes crashing into the water as they lost their hold on the quayside or were thrown overboard by rivals. Russian warships intermittently shelled the harbour. Elfi nearly secured a place in a ship loaded with coffins, only to be frustrated at the last moment. Finally, she abandoned the struggle and returned to the Luftwaffe unit outside Königsberg, in whose offices she had been working. She departed in its truck convoy westwards and crossed the ice of the Frisches Haff amid the familiar scenes of terror and horror. “Again and again I thought: ‘We’re doomed.’ All that mattered was to escape the Russians. There were so many people struggling ruthlessly to survive—including myself.” The temperature was 25 degrees centigrade. Women were abandoning babies in the snow. The lorry beside them was obliterated by a direct hit from a Russian shell. Their little contingent was one of the few military convoys driving west. One of the trucks broke down and had to be towed by another.
Among the refugees, the very young and the very old suffered most of all. Once, military police sought to have Elfi evicted from the Luftwaffe truck, to make room for old people. She felt no urge for self-sacrifice. She was only grateful when their lieutenant insisted: “She’s one of us.” Some trekkers, seeing the dead and dying around them in the snow, turned round and went home, saying: “Maybe the Russians aren’t as bad as people say,” a judgement they later regretted. Elfi Kowitz reached the Vistula ferry to find cows abandoned by their owners mooing hopelessly in their unmilked agony: “We knew what was happening. The poor animals did not.” At last, the Luftwaffe convoy was able to cross. The unit was posted to a new airfield in Mecklenburg. Elfi Kowitz never returned to East Prussia, “but the memory still hurts. Sometimes, it seems as we had dreamed it all.” For the rest of her life, she could not bear to hear the grinding of tank tracks, because of the frightening memories the sound evoked.
“The highway along the Frisches Haff is now the only route open between the German garrison in Königsberg and Brandenburg,” the Soviet 1st Baltic Front reported to Moscow early in February 1945.
It is under systematic fire from our artillery, machine-guns and mortars. But the enemy is still getting food and ammunition through on foggy days and at night. According to our intelligence reports, in addition to the garrison there are still a million civilians in the city [Königsberg], both residents and refugees. They include many senior fascist figures, landowners, businessmen, and government officials and their families. People are living in huts and cellars. Food is short . . . Typhoid is rife. There are many wounded and sick in the city. Some refugees have tried to get to Pillau across the ice, but they drowned. The ice is now very thin, after so much shelling by our guns. Every day, the Gestapo arrest and execute hundreds of people for looting and robbing food depots, and also for urging surrender. Prisoners say the city is prepared for a long siege.
The military defenders of Königsberg nursed few illusions about their prospects, shelled and bombed relentlessly, but the Nazis could offer the garrison only the aid of a barrage of fantasy. A National Socialist propaganda officer addressed the wounded at a hospital in the city late in February, announcing with shameless falsehood that several hundred new tanks had just been unloaded at Pillau, and that a German armoured thrust was pushing north from Breslau towards Warsaw. Those who fled East Prussia now, said the Nazi, “would be home in time for the spring sowing . . . This was the Führer’s long-cherished plan, to let the Russians in, the more surely to destroy them.” When a doctor expressed scepticism about this nonsense, he was rebuked by colleagues for defeatism—and for risking his life. Soldiers and civilians alike were urged to attend screenings of Goebbels’s new propaganda epic, Kolberg, which was being shown in the city’s theatre. “A capering café violinist in uniform, along with ten other unmilitary musicians, played the latest sentimental popular tunes to the wounded.” Looters scrambled for booty among the ruins—how odd that, when the end of everything was at hand, such men still craved property, possession of which had become meaningless. Military police combed cellars and wrecked buildings for deserters. Every man and boy who could bear arms was herded ruthlessly to join the garrison manning the snowbound defences.
Dr. Hans von Lehndorff, a devout Christian, found himself perversely light-headed as he contemplated his predicament in the beleaguered city: “I tramped through the powdery snow in a curiously exalted mood, as if the whole town and its fate belonged to me alone. As I went, I sang a hymn in praise of God, and my voice moved me to tears of joy. The greatest moments of a man’s life arise when the Last Judgement is near at hand; the world rolls round like a ball beneath his feet.”
Among the very few people in Königsberg who prayed for the coming of the Red Army were sixteen-year-old Michael Wieck and his family. They were musicians from a distinguished artistic background. His mother was a Jew, and he himself was reared in the faith. His elderly gentile father had always proudly rejected official demands that he should disown his wife. In childhood, Wieck experienced the familiar escalation of humiliations which Nazi Germany heaped upon all his kind. Back in the mid-1930s, his parents had instructed him not to greet his teachers with the Nazi salute each morning. The headmaster had insisted. When Hitler honoured the school with a personal visit, Wieck was pushed into the back row of the welcoming ranks. He felt bitterly the exclusion of being forbidden to join the Hitler Youth. Then he was expelled from school altogether, and the family were evicted from their home. His father was dismissed from the directorship of his musical seminary. Michael Wieck’s sister Maria had mercifully escaped to Scotland with a Kindertransport in 1939, but Michael was thought too young to accompany her. Once, he asked his mother despairingly: “Why am I treated as different from all the others?” She answered: “It is more honourable to belong to the persecuted than to be a persecutor.” His childhood ended, said Wieck, at the age of fourteen. Even at the height of the siege of Königsberg, if he was careless enough to walk on a pavement with his yellow star, some German—probably young—would order him into the gutter. He was sent to work ten hours a day in a small soap factory among Russians, Gypsies, homosexuals and other outcasts. Only four out of twenty survived the siege. His parents waited, waited, waited for deportation or death. They had heard nothing of gas chambers, but they knew that Jews were marked for extinction. Unbeknown to the Wiecks, late in 1944 an order was sent from Berlin to Königsberg to kill all Jews, but this was implemented only in respect of those already held in camps. The handful who still dwelt in local communities were carelessly omitted.
Michael’s father feared that the Germans would kill the last Jews just before the Russians arrived. A man of sixty-four, he cherished at home a little hatchet, his pathetic weapon. “If the Russians are coming and the block warden sends for us,” he would say, “that is the moment to resist.” They clung to life amid the deluge of Soviet bombs and shells, almost despairing of deliverance.
“IT WAS OUR HOLOCAUST, BUT NOBODY CARES”
BETWEEN 23 JANUARY and 8 May 1945, German merchant and naval shipping evacuated more than two million refugees from the Baltic coast, under the orders of Admiral Oskar Kummetz, naval high commander in the east. Freighters and launches, naval escorts and colliers were all pressed into service. Several large passenger vessels had been lying idle for years thanks to the Allied blockade. The Wilhelm Gustloff was a 27,000-ton pre-war “Strength through Joy” Nazi cruise ship, which since 1940 had served as a U-boat depot vessel. In the last days of January, its ageing captain was warned to take on fuel and prepare to transport refugees westwards from the port of Gdynia, near Danzig. As soon as it was known that the Gustloff was to go, a desperate struggle began to gain boarding passes. Most berths were quickly filled by those with money or influence. Stabsführerin Wilhelmina Reitsch, sister-in-law of Hitler’s favourite test pilot, Hanna, clamoured for space for some of the 8,000 naval auxiliaries in the port, whom she commanded. They were all girls between seventeen and twenty-five, acutely conscious of their likely fate at the hands of the Russians. Only 373 were embarked. So were 918 naval personnel and 4,224 refugees.
For three days, they waited in anguish in the crowded passenger decks for permission to sail. A special maternity unit was established on the sun deck, for some refugees were heavily pregnant. One hundred and sixty-two military casualties, many of them amputees, were brought aboard on stretchers and placed in an emergency hospital. On the night of 27 January, the entire complement was ordered ashore during an air raid. They spent hours of icy misery in the port’s shelters, before straggling aboard again at dawn. At the last minute, the Führer Suite on B Deck was taken over by thirteen members of the family of Gdynia’s burgomaster, along with the city’s kreisleiter, his wife and five children, their maid and parlour maid. Some of the Nazi functionaries complained sourly about overcrowding.
On 30 January, the morning of the ship’s departure, there were renewed dramas. Military police boarded, to search every living space for deserters. As the Gustloff finally cast off at 1100 hours, a flotilla of small boats scrambled alongside, filled with refugees shrieking to be taken aboard, women holding high their babies. Pitying crewmen let down scrambling nets. The ship’s peacetime complement was 1,900 passengers and crew. The manifest on 30 January showed more than 6,000 souls. Some 2,000 more are believed to have struggled aboard during the final rush. There was a further delay offshore, where the Gustloff anchored to await a second ship, the Hansa. Finally, the port authorities determined that it was too dangerous for the ship to wait. Escorted only by an aged torpedo boat, the liner set course westwards. The Hansa’s captain signalled: “Bon voyage.”
A surge of relief swept through the decks of the Gustloff. At last, the passengers saw the prospect of safety after the terrors of the shore. A doctor persuaded a small orchestra to play for the military wounded. The ship’s barber began to do a brisk trade among refugees seeking to improve their dishevelled appearances. Those with money and clout were able to eat a better dinner afloat than they had seen for many weeks, with wine and meat. Unfortunately, however, the Gustloff was a poor sea boat. It began to wallow heavily in the Baltic chop. Ice formed on deck. Many, perhaps most, passengers were soon prostrate with sea-sickness. Some of those who had eaten dinner wished that they had not.
Shortly before 1900, between broken snow showers, thirty-three-year-old Captain Third Class Alexandr Marinesko of the Soviet submarine S-13 sighted a large ship, which to his amazement—as a result of German negligence—was not zig-zagging and was showing lights. Even in a service notorious for heavy drinking and indiscipline, Marinesko had achieved a reputation for reckless behaviour ashore which had incurred the displeasure of the NKVD. He was suspected of counter-revolutionary tendencies. He had been at sea for three weeks on his current patrol, without sighting a worthwhile target. Now, he exerted himself. S-13 began to stalk the Gustloff on the surface, taking up a position down-moon, between ship and shore. It took him two hours to overhaul the liner and turn into a firing position. At 2104, at point-blank range of less than a thousand yards, he fired a salvo of torpedoes, daubed with the usual slogans “For the Motherland,” “Stalingrad,” “For the Soviet People.” There were three devastating explosions. The Wilhelm Gustloff listed heavily, and began to sink.
Most of the girl naval auxiliaries were fortunate enough to die instantly, when a torpedo detonated below their living space. The old, the sick and wounded could not move, but perished more slowly. There were screams from those trapped behind watertight doors, which rolled down immediately after the attack. Some naval personnel fired rifles to control panic-stricken mobs of passengers surging up from the lower promenade deck. A waiter running through a cabin flat heard a gun go off and opened a door, to see a naval officer standing with a pistol over a dead woman and child, while another terrified child clung to his leg. “Get out!” shouted the officer, and the waiter did so, leaving the father to finish his business. Suicide seemed perfectly rational when just twelve of the ship’s twenty-four lifeboats were on board, those in the davits were not swung out and the mortal cold of the Baltic awaited.
Most of the crew behaved contemptibly. A lifeboat with capacity for fifty pulled away carrying only the captain and twelve sailors. Another was lowered so recklessly that its load of passengers was upended into the sea. Several boats were never launched at all. The ship was soon lying broadside to the sea. It finally disappeared seventy minutes after the attack. Some people tore off their clothes before leaping into the water, an absurdly rational gesture at a moment of catastrophe. Many never escaped from the passenger spaces. There was no dignity aboard the foundering ship, only the nightmarish sights and sounds that accompanied several thousand helpless people fighting in panic to save themselves, or choosing a swift death by gunshot. The Gustloff’s distress signal was heard by the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, which was also sailing west that night with 1,377 refugees. As her course drove the cruiser past the grave of the liner, survivors struggling in the water waved frantically, clutching a moment of hope. The Hipper’s churning screws ended their suffering. The big warship could not risk heaving to, with a submarine close by. Alexandr Marinesko missed a far more useful target than the Gustloff that night. After his attack, he took S-13 as deep as the shallow Baltic would allow, to escape depth-charge attack. He never saw the Hipper.
The torpedo boat T-36 was the only vessel to render immediate assistance. It closed the scene in time to pick up 252 survivors. Many even among those who had found places in lifeboats froze to death before other rescuers arrived at daybreak. A naval petty officer who boarded one boat full of corpses next morning found an unidentified baby, blue with cold but still breathing. He adopted it. The child became one of just 949 known survivors of the greatest maritime disaster in history, its 7,000 dead far outstripping those of the Titanic, Lusitania, Laconia. Yet, amid global tragedy on the scale of 1945, the horrors of the Wilhelm Gustloff remain known only to some Germans and a few historians.
Alexandr Marinesko’s role in the Baltic tragedy was not yet complete. On 9 February, he spotted and fired upon a new target. The 17,500-ton liner General Steuben, carrying 2,000 wounded and 1,000 refugees, sank swiftly. A mere 300 survivors reached Kolberg. Marinesko returned to his home port in triumph. This sensation did not last long. The captain was already the object of NKVD scrutiny. Now, he was told that his claims to have sunk two liners were rejected. They had probably fallen victim to air attack. A bitter man, a few months later he was cashiered from the Soviet Navy. After further instances of drunken indiscretion, he was sentenced to three years in a labour camp. Only in 1960 were his claims to have sunk the Gustloff and the General Steubenfinally accepted, and his service pension reinstated.
The anguish of the Baltic fugitives continued until the very end of the war. On 16 April the 5,000-ton motorship Goya, carrying 7,000 refugees and service personnel, was torpedoed sixty miles off the coast of Pomerania by the ancient Soviet minelaying submarine L-3. One hundred and eighty-three survivors were rescued. On 3 May, rocket-firing Typhoons of the RAF sank the 27,561-ton liner Cap Arkona at Lübeck. When British troops reached the port a few days later, they found its waters still strewn with corpses. Contrary to the view of many Germans from 1945 to the present day, all the ships sunk were legitimate targets, since they were being employed at least partially for the transport of military personnel. But, by a dreadful irony, 5,000 of the dead from the Cap Arkona were concentration-camp inmates, shipped from Poland.
History has paid little heed to the doings of the wartime German Navy, beyond the U-boat campaign and its few big-ship actions. Yet in the last months of war, in the face of huge difficulties and heavy losses, the Kriegsmarine displayed energy and courage in the Baltic, supplying beleaguered German garrisons and evacuating refugees. Despite the horrors of the big-ship sinkings recounted above, many people owed their lives to Germany’s sailors, most of whom behaved much better than the crew of the Wilhelm Gustloff.
THE MISJUDGEMENT by Stalin’s Stavka, in ordering Rokossovsky’s armies to pivot northwards towards the Baltic coast, where their principal achievement was the slaughter of refugees, enabled most of the German Second Army further south to withdraw across the lower Vistula, where its units consolidated. If Rokossovsky had instead remained close upon Zhukov’s right flank, far fewer German troops would have escaped to fight again. On 13 March, the Soviets turned their attention to destroying the German Fourth Army in the “Heiligenbeil Cauldron,” the pocket on the Frisches Haff south-west of Königsberg. The 280mm guns of the Lützow and Admiral Scheer supported the efforts of fifteen ruined German divisions which sought to maintain the Baltic struggle. Marshal Alexandr Vasilevsky, who had taken over 3rd Belorussian Front when Chernyakhovsky was killed by shell fragments on 18 February, mustered seven armies against them. Hitler refused a request to allow troops and heavy equipment to be evacuated from the port of Rosenburg. A few thousand Germans escaped from Rosenburg in the last days, but most perished in the battle which ended on 28 March. The Russians claimed to have killed 93,000 German troops and captured 46,448.
The Red Army now resumed its assault on Königsberg. The city was encircled by a chain of fourteen ancient forts half a mile apart, each 900 yards wide, surrounded by a water-filled moat. They possessed stone walls, were roofed with concrete fifteen feet thick, and were manned by some 800 men apiece. Behind the moats and anti-tank ditches, trenches had been dug all the way into the city itself. The cellars of houses had been fortified with concrete blocks, protecting their apertures on to the street. On the rail tracks, an armoured train was mounted with mobile batteries of artillery and flak guns. These defences enabled the garrison to mount a formidable resistance, despite the knowledge that the final outcome was inescapable. By early February, PoWs and deserters were telling the Russians that the mood in Königsberg was grim. “Now that the evacuation of civilians has stopped, there is panic,” said an NKVD report. “The bread ration has fallen to 300 grams for soldiers, 180 for civilians. Some of the inhabitants want a surrender, but many have been frightened by Goebbels’s propaganda, and fear the coming of the Red Army. On 6 February, the corpses of some 80 German soldiers executed for desertion were displayed at the north railway station bearing signs: ‘They were cowards, but they still died’.”
General Otto Lasch, the able officer commanding the city’s 35,000-strong garrison, suffered acute political as well as military difficulties. Gauleiter Koch commuted into Königsberg by Storch light aircraft, to meddle in the direction of its defence. The Russians deployed 1,124 bombers, 470 close-support aircraft and 830 fighters in the air bombardment to soften up the defences. As fires raged out of control in the streets, refugees braved artillery fire to continue streaming towards the port of Pillau. Russian assault troops had to fight yard by yard through the outer defences of Königsberg, and many defenders fought with the courage of despair.
“The Königsberg battle was very hard indeed,” said Corporal Anatoly Osminov of Thirty-second Tank Army. “The fortress was a desperately tough nut to crack. Many of those Germans hung on in their trenches until we crushed them under our tracks. Our own losses were terrible.” Lieutenant Alexandr Sergeev of the 297th Infantry Regiment was startled to see civilians among the soldiers firing fiercely at them from the German lines. He was a handsome, reflective young man whose father, chairman of a collective farm, had ridden with Budyenny’s Cossacks in the Civil War. He completed training and joined 3rd Belorussian Front only in the summer of 1944, but already he found himself commanding a company at the age of nineteen, after two of his regiment’s company leaders were killed. More than half his own machine-gun platoon were casualties. The arrival of thirty-five bewildered replacements brought the company strength up to sixty. “I have never seen such violent resistance as we met at Königsberg,” he said. His own divisional commander was wounded in the head, leading one attack personally. On 28 March, it was Sergeev’s own turn, as Fifth Army launched a new assault. The spring thaw made the ground almost impassable for tanks and threw the full burden of battle upon the infantry. No rations got through on the morning of the attack. Like his men, Sergeev approached the start line having eaten only a couple of American biscuits. A Kazakh platoon commander waved to his men: “Okay, time to go!” The Russians advanced in extended line, dragging their machine-guns and mortars with them: “The men were moving forward, then they began to fall down.” When Sergeev saw the crew of a heavy machine-gun lying dead beside it, he took over the weapon himself. Seconds later, a German bullet hit the gun’s cooling-jacket, and water gushed out.
German Nebelwerfer fire was falling all around them, accounting for many of Sergeev’s men. He himself was hit in the side by a fragment which pierced his stomach. He collapsed over the machine-gun, and lay stunned and bleeding, gazing blankly up at aircraft criss-crossing the clear blue sky. “What a pity to die on a beautiful day like this,” he thought, exactly like Prince Andrei wounded on the field of Austerlitz in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Then pain attacked him, and he began to scream, cursing compulsively: “The whole front must have heard.” One side of his body was laid open and pouring blood. His men dragged him to the rear, where he was put on a horse-drawn cart and taken to a field hospital, still screaming. The rags of his tunic were cut off. He lay naked on a stretcher, staring in revulsion at a pile of severed limbs on the floor of the tent, while a nurse anaesthetized him with an ether pad, restraining the waiting surgeon: “No, no—he isn’t asleep yet.” One in a hundred stomach cases such as his own survived. He was the one. While recovering from his wound, he contracted pneumonia and spent the rest of the war in hospitals.
Russian after-action reports on the battle for Königsberg paint a picture of confusion, improvisation and often bloody mistakes among the attackers. In the west and north-west of the city, the Russians were compelled to use flamethrowers and Molotov cocktails to set ablaze buildings in which the defenders had emplaced themselves for a fight to the death. There were frightful “friendly fire” incidents, in which artillery observers lost contact with the infantry, and called down shelling on their own men. Rubble and ditches dug by the Germans made it necessary to manhandle Russian field guns forward under fire, by human exertion alone. A severe shortage of radios hampered communication. There was no room for tactical sophistication here, merely murderous hammering at the German positions line by line, until each in turn collapsed.
When the Russians reached the streets of Königsberg, the first white sheets appeared at shattered windows. Shelling and bombing intensified. In the operating theatre of a German hospital, Dr. Hans von Lehndorff found the lights crashing down on to him from the ceiling after a direct hit. German troops ran back among the buildings, emptying their rifles in futility at the strafing aircraft. Von Lehndorff, whose hospital now lay in no-man’s-land, watched his countrymen re-forming a defence line among ruins behind the once-beautiful lake that stood in front of Königsberg castle. “The further side of the pond looks like a cabbage patch destroyed by hail,” he wrote on 7 April.
One is involuntarily reminded of pictures of Douaumont and other shattered fortifications of the First World War, except that those had been erected specially for war, whereas the Königsberg pond seems to have taken a perpetual lease of civilian quietude. Now it is being completely ravaged. Nerves are beginning to give way among us . . . Lest the idea of suicide become infectious, I gave a little address in the operating theatre on the text “Fear not those which kill only the body, but cannot kill the soul. But fear that which can destroy both body and soul.”
General Lasch, commanding the garrison, at last concluded that no more could be done. He surrendered Königsberg on 10 April. Berlin demanded explanations from Fourth Army’s commander. General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller had achieved notoriety when he was unwillingly propelled into command six weeks earlier by telling Army Group HQ: “I am a good NCO and I know how to carry out orders, but strategy and tactics are quite beyond me. Just tell me what I ought to do!” Now, Müller signalled: “The reasons for the fall of Königsberg, beyond Russian superiority of men and tanks and aircraft, concerns the morale of our own troops. The impression of the city lit up by flames and strewn with unburied dead dampened the spirits of the defenders. Whether the commander also failed in his duty cannot with certainty be established.” Hitler was uninterested in either rationality or obfuscation. He declared Lasch a traitor, arrested his family and sentenced him in absentia to death by hanging. One hundred and twenty police and SS fought to the end in the old castle, even after the capitulation. In long, wretched columns, 60,526 prisoners and refugees marched out, according to NKVD figures, watched by Russian soldiers who plundered them as they passed. Beria reported that there were 32,573 Germans, 13,054 Soviet citizens—slave labourers—and 13,054 people of other foreign nationalities. Some Volkssturm in civilian clothes were shot out of hand as partisans, just as the Wehrmacht in Russia had executed their counterparts in thousands. The Russians claimed to have killed 42,000 Germans and captured 92,000 prisoners, including 1,800 officers, in the Königsberg operation, but this was probably an exaggeration. Beria announced to Stalin that eight NKVD groups, each of 120, were searching Königsberg for “spies, traitors and collaborators.” These had already detained 14,901 people, though their progress through the streets was rendered difficult by mountains of rubble. Eight NKVD regiments had formed a cordon around the city, to deny escape to fugitives.
Germans on the Samland peninsula, north-east of the city, held out for two weeks longer. The final position to fall, Major Karl Henke’s Battery Lemburg, was defended to the last man until 1530 on 27 April. Dr. Karl Ludwig Mahlo, a Luftwaffe medical officer, was among the final party to escape from Pillau. For months, he had been struggling to treat thousands of wounded people, soldiers and civilians alike, to whom he could offer pitifully little: “What we could do was a drop in the ocean.” He found that he had become frighteningly inured to suffering, consumed by fatalism: “Germany was destroyed. There was a feeling that, after us, there would be nothing.” Mahlo owed his escape to friends in the navy. His bitterness about what happened in East Prussia, his own birthplace, never abated.
WHEN CAPTAIN Abram Skuratovsky and his 168th Signals Unit of the Red Army reached the Baltic at Pillau, he dipped a bottle into the sea and filled it as a souvenir of their campaign. “We were in tearing spirits.” Skuratovsky had somewhere acquired a splendid horse, which he rode until some Lithuanians stole it one night. He marvelled at the empty landscape they had inherited, with its fruit trees just coming into blossom, abandoned houses and lowing cattle. “The cowsheds in East Prussia seemed grander than the houses we lived in at home,” he said. Skuratovsky came from Kiev, where his father sold fish. It was a revelation for his men to find themselves in billets with running water, to see livestock confined by miles of barbed-wire fencing, a commodity which in his own experience was employed only on battlefields.
Corporal Anatoly Osminov’s unit was exhausted by the long, brutal campaign. Outside Königsberg, they leaguered their tanks. Osminov’s driver, Boris, a veteran who had served eight years in the same unit and had experienced eight tanks burning under him, took his tommy-gun and went off into a nearby forest in search of something edible. Suddenly, he came upon a group of men digging trenches. Thinking they were Germans, he raised his tommy-gun and called “Hände hoch!” They were Russians. Their officer killed him, for which he could scarcely be blamed. They brought Boris’s body in to the tank leaguer just as the signal came through announcing the capitulation of Königsberg. The soldier was much beloved in the unit. The men clubbed together and sent thirty-six gold watches, spoils of the battle, to his widow.
Even by the standards of the Red Army, the cost of triumph on the Baltic was very high. Between 13 January and 25 April, 2nd Belorussian Front lost 159,490 men dead and wounded, and 3rd Belorussian Front 421,763. During three months in East Prussia, therefore, the Red Army suffered almost as many casualties as the Anglo-American armies in the entire north-west Europe campaign.
THERE WERE HUNDREDS, if not thousands of suicides when the Russians took Königsberg. The family who lived above Margaret Mehl’s apartment, a bank director and his wife and daughter, made a cool decision to kill themselves. Others died in less spectacular fashion. Margaret Mehl’s aunts Helena and Else decided to stay behind and await the return of their husbands from the war. They simply starved to death. Dr. Hans von Lehndorff saw terrible scenes of murder and pillage: “We stood close together, awaiting the end in some form or other. The fear of death . . . had been entirely dispelled now by something infinitely worse. On every side we heard the despairing screams of the women: ‘Shoot me! Shoot me!’ But the tormentors preferred a wrestling match to any actual use of firearms.” Some women were raped in hospital maternity wards, within days of giving birth.
Through the siege of Königsberg, the Jewish Wieck family had clung to life in their cellar. The Wiecks’ first glimpse of the forces of freedom was a solitary soldier on a bicycle. The men of the Red Army always seemed fascinated by the opportunity to ride bikes. Soon afterwards, a single T-34 drove by. Finally, a self-propelled gun halted in front of their apartment building. Soviet troops streamed through the streets. Dreadful disillusionment now befell the Jewish survivors. “It was hell,” said Michael simply. “We wanted to receive the Russians as liberators, but how could we? They killed every man they saw, and raped every woman between seven and seventy. We heard the screams and cries for help far into the night. They locked some people in the cellars and then set fire to the houses above. They herded civilians from the city to the battlefield outside to be shot or burned.” The boy, his mother and his father, whose beloved violin was snatched from him, were herded under guard with a crowd of others into a field, at first without food or water.
“My father had led a very sheltered life. He could not cope with these circumstances at all. My mother, who was ten years younger, managed a little better.” She escaped rape only, said Wieck, “because the Russians found enough younger ones.” Their Mongol captors had no idea of the significance of the yellow stars on their sleeves. The Wiecks experienced a spasm of hope when they met a Jewish Russian officer, who spoke both German and Yiddish. Their optimism was swiftly crushed. “If you were really Jewish,” said the soldier contemptuously, “you would be dead. Since you are alive, you must have thrown in your lot with the Germans.” And so the family tore off their yellow stars and shared the plight of their fellow prisoners.
There had been 120,000 civilians in Königsberg before the siege. The Wiecks were among 15,000 people who now remained. They were herded back into the city under guard to bury the dead. “I saw the murdered women,” said Michael Wieck, “the corpses that had lain in cellars for weeks. We found people who had hanged themselves in their houses. We put them all in bomb craters in the streets, horses and humans together, before a snow plough filled them in.” The burial parties lived on the verge of starvation, suffering in turn malaria, dysentery, lice and inflamed lungs. Wieck’s father caught typhoid.
By a supreme irony, in the midst of their misery the Wiecks “rediscovered a certain community with the Germans.” In April, Michael was taken to a notorious special camp run by the NKVD at Rothenstein, where Dr. Hans von Lehndorff was also incarcerated. Persons under investigation were held in a large cellar, jammed so thickly together that they could not lie down or even sit. They stood or kneeled, hour after hour and day after day. “We were glad when people started to die, because the living got more room.” Once a day, they were let out for exercise. At night, the Russians descended by torchlight to fetch suspects for interrogation. The victims returned bleeding, sometimes lacking teeth. One man with tuberculosis coughed incessantly. Food was given only to those who possessed a receptacle to put it in. Michael Wieck unscrewed the globe of a lamp above their heads to hold his portion of mouldy bread. He offered to let the TB case share it with him. “No, no,” said the man, “keep away from me—you will only catch my disease.” He died three days later. Wieck said: “Those sixteen days in the cellars at Rothenstein were no less terrible than Auschwitz. First Hitler and the Nazis had tried to destroy us, now it was the Russians. I had given up, I wanted to die. I began to refuse food and water. Then someone persuaded me to accept a spoonful of sugar. I felt the desire to live seeping back.”
Wieck, an impish, electric personality possessed of both brilliance and charm, was finally released by the Russians after an officer befriended him. Unlike one fellow prisoner who, despairing of the future, hurled himself off a bridge and drowned when freed from Rothenstein, Wieck proved a survivor. For three years after the fall of Königsberg, he eked out a living playing a violin to entertain the Russian occupiers, before escaping to West Germany in 1948 and forging a distinguished career as writer and musician. His parents also survived. Was he robbed of his childhood? He shrugged. “It does as much harm to have a normal childhood as to have a difficult one.” His story and his moral generosity represent a triumph of the human spirit.
THE NUMBERS OF those who died in the flight from East Prussia will never be precisely established. By the end of the war, some eight million people were thought to have abandoned or been driven from their homes in the eastern provinces of the Greater Reich, and a further eight million followed during the first years of Soviet hegemony. It is known that 610,000 ethnic Germans were killed in Rumania, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Well over a million disappeared, and are presumed to have died, escaping from East Prussia, Silesia and other areas of Hitler’s eastern empire. They perished from exposure, cold, hunger and Russian gunfire. To this day a profound rage persists in Germany, that a world still obsessed with the events of the Second World War knows so little, and appears to care less, about the horrors in the east in 1945. “The bulk of those who fled, and of those who died, were not the kind who can write books, or even tell their stories,” remarks Helmut Schmidt. “They were very ordinary people.” One East Prussian woman’s choice of words would find scant modern favour outside Germany, but reflects a common passion among her fellow countrymen: “It was our holocaust, but nobody cares.” Both before and after the coming of peace, the Western media was economical in its reporting of the horrors that took place in East Prussia and Silesia, despite a multitude of witnesses occupying the displaced-persons camps of Germany. Revelations were still fresh about the concentration camps, the mass slaughter of Jews, Russians, Gypsies and other victims of Hitler’s homicidal mania. The victors were in no mood to perceive Germans as victims. The Nazi gauleiters in East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia bore a heavy responsibility for their refusal to permit, far less to facilitate, the flight of the population before the Red Army came, but inevitably they pleaded orders from Berlin. To seek compassion from the Nazis even for their own people was, of course, an absolute contradiction.
For the victorious Americans and British, it was far more difficult to pass judgement upon the conduct of the Russians, and it remains so today. “You have, of course, read Dostoevsky?” demanded Stalin of Milovan Djilas, when the partisan leader complained of the rape of Yugoslav women by liberating Russian soldiers.
Do you see what a complicated thing is man’s soul, man’s psyche? Well then, imagine a man who has fought from Stalingrad to Belgrade—over thousands of kilometres of his own devastated land, across the dead bodies of his comrades and dearest ones? How can such a man react normally? And what is so awful in his having fun with a woman, after such horrors? You have imagined the Red Army to be ideal, and it is not ideal, nor can it be . . . The important thing is that it fights Germans . . . The rest doesn’t matter.
Russians have often displayed a spirit of indulgence towards barbarities within their own society which does not extend to those committed against their people by foreigners. Why should it do so? Hitler and his armies had aspired to enslave the Russian people, no more and no less. Millions of Russian captives in Germany had already died, and millions more had become serfs of German farmers, factory-owners, householders—some of them in East Prussia. Stalin’s people knew this. The Red Army had performed feats which would have been unthinkable for Western soldiers, and paid a price that no American or British army would have accepted. As Russians fought their way painfully west through 1943 and 1944, every man in the ranks saw the legacy of German occupation: blackened ruins, slaughtered civilians and ravaged countryside.
In 1945, in Soviet eyes it was time to pay. For most Russian soldiers, any instinct for pity or mercy had died somewhere on a hundred battlefields between Moscow and Warsaw. Half a century earlier, the great Gorky had observed the paradox that a group of Russians who might individually be humane, decent people were capable, when gathered in a mob, of extraordinary bestiality. An ethos of hatred and ruthlessness had been deliberately cultivated in the Red Army. It would be wrong simply to dismiss Soviet soldiers as savages. Though there were many primitive people in the Red Army’s ranks, there were also cultured and thoughtful ones, some of whom this narrative seeks to bring to life. It is indisputable, however, that in 1945 the Red Army considered itself to deserve licence to behave as savages on the soil of Germany, and its men exploited this in full measure. They dispensed retribution for the horrors that had been inflicted upon the Soviet Union of a kind familiar to Roman conquerors, who also thought of themselves as a civilized people.
Dwight Eisenhower painfully exposed himself to the charge of naivety by the description of the Russian soldier in his post-war memoirs: “In his generous instincts, in his devotion to a comrade, and in his healthy, direct outlook on the affairs of workaday life, the ordinary Russian seems to me to bear a marked similarity to what we call an ‘average American.’” If the detail of what took place in eastern Europe was still unfamiliar to SHAEF’s Supreme Commander, by 1948 (when his memoirs were published) he must have possessed a general understanding of the Red terror which disfigured the Allied victory over Germany. His remark must be considered an exceptionally unhappy example of political tact.
To this day many Russians—and indeed the Moscow government—deny the scale of the cruelties the Red Army is alleged to have inflicted in East Prussia and Silesia, and later beyond the Oder. Private Vitold Kubashevsky, for instance, who speaks frankly about every other aspect of his experiences with 3rd Belorussian Front, still refuses to discuss what he saw in East Prussia. Yet eyewitness testimony is overwhelming. “All of us knew very well that if the girls were German they could be raped and then shot,” wrote Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who served as a Soviet artillery officer in East Prussia. “This was almost a combat distinction.” It is striking that such a man as Michael Wieck, the young Königsberg Jew who welcomed the Russians as his saviours, bears witness to the horrors they committed. Even Professor John Erickson, whose monumental history of the Red Army is the most admiring by any Western author, acknowledges its conduct in East Prussia: “Speed, frenzy and savagery characterised the advance . . . Villages and small towns burned, while Soviet soldiers raped at will and wreaked an atavistic vengeance . . . families huddled in ditches or by the roadside, fathers intent on shooting their own children or waiting whimpering for what seemed the wrath of God to pass . . . men with pity for no one.”
The Russians themselves, of course, paid most heavily of all for their policy of fire and the sword. A belief that there could be no purpose in surviving Soviet victory overtook much of the German Army in the east. The huge casualties Stalin’s nation suffered during its drive into Germany reflected, in considerable part, the fact that the victors offered the vanquished only death or unimaginable suffering. Even after sixty years, it is difficult to extend to the German people the pity due to innocent victims of Nazi tyranny. However bitterly many Germans may have regretted this by 1945, Hitler and Nazism were the creations of their society. The horrors the Nazis inflicted upon Europe required the complicity of millions of ordinary Germans, merely to satisfy the logistical requirements of tyranny and mass murder. Yet now they saw the first fruits of retribution.
“We were forced to leave a land where generations of our families had been born, where they had lived and died, which they had loved and tilled the land and yes, defended it against many enemies,” wrote Graf Franz Rosenburg, one of East Prussia’s landowners, venting the bitterness of his entire people. “Everything we cherished was lost in a single night!” The Red Army was responsible for massive destruction of art treasures, almost certainly including Peter the Great’s Amber Room, though, like so much else, this was subsequently blamed on the Nazis. At his post on the shore at Pillau, Private Vitold Kubashevsky of the Red Army watched curiously as the tides came in. Each one bore with it a harvest of German corpses, a flotsam of failed fugitives, to swing to and fro upon the waves beside the Heimat they loved so much, and which was now as irredeemably forfeit as their own lives.
At Yalta on the evening of 6 February 1945, in a spasm of compassion Churchill said to his daughter Sarah: “I do not suppose that at any moment of history has the agony of the world been so great or widespread. Tonight the sun goes down on more suffering than ever before in the world.” Churchill knew little, when he spoke, about what was taking place in East Prussia. Yet its people’s fate formed a not insignificant part of his vision.