Military history

Chapter 3
 
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THE FEAR OF SEXUAL ATTACK lay over the city like a pall, for Berlin, after nearly six years of war, was now primarily a city of women.

At the beginning, in 1939, there were 4,321,000 inhabitants of the capital. But huge war casualties, the call-up of both men and women and the voluntary evacuation of one million citizens to the safer countryside in 1943-44 had cut that figure by more than one third. By now the only males left in any appreciable number were children under eighteen and men over sixty. The 18-to-30 male age group totaled barely 100,000 and most of them were exempt from military service or wounded. In January, 1945, the city’spopulation had been estimated at 2,900,000 but now, in mid-March, that figure was certainly too high. After eighty-five raids in less than eleven weeks and with the threat of siege hanging over the city, thousands more had fled. Military authorities estimated that Berlin’s civil population was now about 2,700,000, of whom more than 2,000,000 were women—and even that was only an informed guess.

Complicating efforts to obtain a true population figure was the vast exodus of refugees from the Soviet-occupied eastern provinces. Some put the refugee figure as high as 500,000. Uprooted, carrying their belongings on their backs or in horse-drawn wagons or pushcarts, often driving farm animals before them, fleeing civilians had clogged the roads into Berlin for months. Most did not remain in the city, but continued west. But in their wake they left a repository of nightmarish stories; these accounts of their experiences had spread like an epidemic through Berlin, infecting many citizens with terror.

The refugees told of a vengeful, violent and rapacious conqueror. People who had trekked from as far away as Poland, or from the captured parts of East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia, gave bitter testimony of an enemy who offered no quarter. In fact, the refugees declared, Russian propaganda was urging the Red Army to spare no one. They told of a manifesto, said to have been written by the Soviet Union’s top propagandist, Ilya Ehrenburg, which was both broadcast and distributed in leaflet form to the Red troops. “Kill! Kill!” went the manifesto. “In the German race there is nothing but evil! … Follow the precepts of Comrade Stalin. Stamp out the fascist beast once and for all in its lair! Use force and break the racial pride of these Germanic women. Take them as your lawful booty. Kill! As you storm onward, kill! You gallant soldiers of the Red Army.” *

The refugees reported that advancing front-line troops were well disciplined and well behaved, but that the secondary units that followed were a disorganized rabble. In wild, drunken orgies these Red Army men had murdered, looted and raped. Many Russian commanders, the refugees claimed, appeared to condone the actions of their men. At least they made no effort to stop them. From peasants to gentry the accounts were the same, and everywhere in the flood of refugees there were women who told chilling stories of brutal assault—of being forced at gunpoint to strip and then submit to repeated rapings.

How much was fantasy, how much fact? Berliners were not sure. Those who knew of the atrocities and mass murders committed by German SS troops in Russia—and there were thousands who knew—feared that the stories were true. Those who were aware of what was happening to the Jews in concentration camps —a new and horrible aspect of National Socialism of which the free world was yet to learn—believed the refugees, too. These more knowledgeable Berliners could well believe that the oppressor was becoming the oppressed, that the wheel of retribution was swinging full circle. Many who knew the extent of the horrors perpetrated by the Third Reich were taking no chances. Highly placed bureaucrats and top-ranking Nazi officials had quietly moved their families out of Berlin or were in the process of doing so.

Fanatics still remained, and the average Berliners, less privy to information and ignorant of the true situation, were also staying. They could not or would not leave. “Oh Germany, Germany, my Fatherland,” wrote Erna Saenger, a 65-year-old housewife and mother of six children, in her diary, “Trust brings disappointment. To believe faithfully means to be stupid and blind … but … we’ll stay in Berlin. If everyone left like the neighbors the enemy would have what he wants. No—we don’t want that kind of defeat.”

Yet few Berliners could claim to be unaware of the nature of the danger. Almost everyone had heard the stories. One couple, Hugo and Edith Neumann, living in Kreuzberg, actually had been informed by telephone. Some relatives living in the Russian-occupied zone had risked their lives, shortly before all communications ceased, to warn the Neumanns that the conquerors were raping, killing and looting without restraint. Yet the Neumanns stayed. Hugo’s electrical business had been bombed, but to abandon it now was unthinkable.

Others chose to dismiss the stories because propaganda, whether spread by refugees or inspired by the government, had little or no meaning for them any longer. From the moment Hitler ordered the unprovoked invasion of Russia in 1941, all Germans had been subjected to a relentless barrage of hate propaganda. The Soviet people were painted as uncivilized and subhuman. When the tide turned and German troops were forced back on all fronts in Russia, Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the Reich’s club-footed propaganda chief, intensified his efforts—particularly in Berlin.

Goebbels’ assistant, Dr. Werner Naumann, privately admitted that “our propaganda as to what the Russians are like, as to what the population can expect from them in Berlin, has been so successful that we have reduced the Berliners to a state of sheer terror.” By the end of 1944 Naumann felt that “we have overdone it—our propaganda has ricocheted against us.”

Now the tone of the propaganda had changed. As Hitler’s empire was sheared off piece by piece, as Berlin was demolished, block by block, Goebbels had begun to switch from terror-mongering to reassurance; now the people were told that victory was just around the corner. About all Goebbels succeeded in doing was to generate among cosmopolitan Berliners a grotesque, macabre kind of humor. It took the form of a large, collective raspberry which the population derisively directed at themselves, their leaders and the world. Berliners quickly changed Goebbels’ motto, “The Führer Commands, We Follow,” to “The Führer Commands, We Bear What Follows.” As for the propaganda chief’s promises of ultimate victory, the irreverent solemnly urged all to “Enjoy the war, the peace will be terrible.”

In the atmosphere of near-panic created by the refugees’ reports, facts and reason became distorted as rumor took over. All sorts of atrocity stories spread throughout the city. Russians were described as slant-eyed Mongols who butchered women and children on sight. Clergymen were said to have been burned to death with flamethrowers; the stories told of nuns raped and then forced to walk naked through the streets; of how women were made camp followers and all males marched off to servitude in Siberia. There was even a radio report that the Russians had nailed victims’ tongues to tables. The less impressionable found the tales too fantastic to believe.

Others were grimly aware of what was to come. In her private clinic in Schöneberg, Dr. Anne-Marie Durand-Wever, a graduate of the University of Chicago and one of Europe’s most famous gynecologists, knew the truth. The 55-year-old doctor, well known for her anti-Nazi views (she was the author of many books championing women’s rights, equality of the sexes and birth control—all banned by the Nazis ), was urging her patients to leave Berlin. She had examined numerous refugee women and had reached the conclusion that, if anything, the accounts of assault understated the facts.

Dr. Durand-Wever intended to remain in Berlin herself but now she carried a small, fast-acting cyanide capsule everywhere she went. After all her years as a doctor, she was not sure that she would be able to commit suicide. But she kept the pill in her bag —for if the Russians took Berlin she thought that every female from eight to eighty could expect to be raped.

Dr. Margot Sauerbruch also expected the worst. She worked with her husband, Professor Ferdinand Sauerbruch, Germany’s most eminent surgeon, in Berlin’s oldest and largest hospital, the Charité, in the Mitte district. Because of its size and location close by the main railway station, the hospital had received the worst of the refugee cases. From her examination of the victims, Dr. Sauerbruch had no illusions about the ferocity of the Red Army when it ran amok. The rapes, she knew for certain, were not propaganda.

Margot Sauerbruch was appalled by the number of refugees who had attempted suicide—including scores of women who had not been molested or violated. Terrified by what they had witnessed or heard, many had slashed their wrists. Some had even tried to kill their children. How many had actually succeeded in ending their lives nobody knew—Dr. Sauerbruch saw only those who had failed—but it seemed clear that a wave of suicides would take place in Berlin if the Russians captured the city.

Most other doctors apparently concurred with this view. In Wilmersdorf, Surgeon Günther Lamprecht noted in his diary that “the major topic—even among doctors—is the technique of suicide. Conversations of this sort have become unbearable.”

It was much more than mere conversation. The death plans were already under way. In every district, doctors were besieged by patients and friends seeking information about speedy suicide and begging for poison prescriptions. When physicians refused to help, people turned to their druggists. Caught up in a wave of fear, distraught Berliners by the thousands had decided to die by any means rather than submit to the Red Army.

“The first pair of Russian boots I see, I’m going to commit suicide,” 20-year-old Christa Meunier confided to her friend, Juliane Bochnik. Christa had already secured poison. So had Juliane’s friend Rosie Hoffman and her parents. The Hoffmans were utterly despondent and expected no mercy from the Russians. Although Juliane did not know it at the time, the Hoffmans were related to Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, head of the Gestapo and the SS, the man responsible for the mass murder of millions in the concentration camps.

Poison—particularly cyanide—was the preferred method of self-destruction. One type of capsule, known as a “KCB” pill, was in especially great demand. This concentrated hydrocyanic compound was so powerful that death was almost instantaneous—even the fumes could kill. With Germanic forethought some government agency had laid down vast quantities of it in Berlin.

Nazi officials, senior officers, government department heads and even lesser functionaries were able to get supplies of poison for themselves, their families and friends with little difficulty. Doctors, druggists, dentists and laboratory workers also had access to pills or capsules. Some even improved on the tablets’ potency. Dr. Rudolf Hückel, professor of pathology at the University of Berlin and the best-known cancer pathologist in the city, had added acetic acid to cyanide capsules for himself and his wife. If they needed them, he assured her, the acetic acid would make the poison work even faster.

Some Berliners, unable to get the quick-acting cyanide, were hoarding barbiturates or cyanide derivatives. Comedian Heinz Rühmann, often called the “Danny Kaye of Germany,” was so fearful of the future for his beautiful actress wife Hertha Feiler and their young son that he had hidden a can of rat poison in a flowerpot, just in case. The former Nazi ambassador to Spain, retired Lieutenant General Wilhelm Faupel, planned to poison himself and his wife with an overdose of medicine. The General had a weak heart. When he suffered attacks he took a stimulant containing digitalis. Faupel knew that an overdose would cause cardiac arrest and end matters quickly. He had even saved enough for some of his friends.

For others a fast bullet seemed the best and bravest end. But an astonishing number of women, mostly middle-aged, had chosen the bloodiest way of all—the razor. In the Ketzler family in Charlottenburg, Gertrud, forty-two, normally a cheerful woman, now carried a razor blade in her purse—as did her sister and mother-in-law. Gertrud’s friend, Inge Rühling, had a razor blade too, and the two women anxiously discussed which was the most effective way to ensure death—a slash across the wrists or a lengthwise slit up the arteries.

There was always the chance that such drastic measures might not have to be taken. For most Berliners there still remained one last hope. In terror of the Red Army, the vast majority of the population, particularly the women, now desperately wanted the Anglo-American forces to capture Berlin.

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It was almost noon. Back of the Russian lines, in the city of Bromberg, Captain Sergei Ivanovich Golbov gazed bleary-eyed about the large living room of the luxurious third-floor apartment he and two other Red Army correspondents had just “liberated.” Golbov and his friends were happily drunk. Every day they drove from the headquarters in Bromberg to the front ninety miles away to get the news, but at the moment everything was quiet; there would not be much to report until the Berlin offensive began. In the meantime, after months of front-line reporting, the good-looking, 25-year-old Golbov was enjoying himself.

Bottle in hand, he stood looking at the rich furnishings. He had never seen anything quite like them. Heavy paintings in ornate gold frames adorned the walls. The windows had satin-lined drapings. The furniture was upholstered in rich brocaded materials. Thick Turkish carpets covered the floors, and massive chandeliers hung in the living room and the adjoining dining room. Golbov was quite sure that an important Nazi must have owned this apartment.

There was a small door ajar at one end of the living room. Golbov pushed it open and discovered a bathroom. At the end of a rope hanging from a hook on the wall was the body of a Nazi official in full uniform. Golbov stared briefly at the body. He had seen thousands of dead Germans but this hanging body looked silly. Golbov called out to his friends, but they were having too much fun in the dining room to respond. They were throwing German and Venetian crystal at the chandelier—and at each other.

Golbov walked back into the living room, intending to sit down on a long sofa lie had noticed there—but now he discovered that it was already occupied. Lying on it at full length, in a long Grecian-like gown with a tasseled cord at the waist, was a dead woman. She was quite young and she had prepared for death carefully. Her hair was braided and hung over each shoulder. Her hands were folded across her breasts. Nursing his bottle, Golbov sat down in an armchair and looked at her. Behind him, the laughter and the smashing of glassware in the dining room continued. The girl was probably in her early twenties, and from the bluish marks on her lips Golbov thought she had probably taken poison.

Back of the sofa on which the dead woman lay was a table with silver framed photographs—smiling children with a young couple, presumably their parents, and an elderly couple. Golbov thought of his family. During the siege of Leningrad his mother and father, half-starved, had tried to make a soup out of a kind of industrial oil. It had killed them both. One brother had been killed in the first days of the war. The other, 34-year-old Mikhail, a partisan leader, had been caught by the SS, tied to a stake and burned alive. This girl lying on the sofa had died quite peacefully, Golbov thought. He took a long swig at the bottle, stepped over to the sofa and picked up the dead girl. He walked over to the closed windows. Behind him, amid shouts of laughter, the chandelier in the dining room smashed to the ground with a loud crash. Golbov broke quite a lot of glass himself as he threw the dead girl’s body straight through the window.

*I have not seen the Ehrenburg leaflet. But many of those I interviewed did. Furthermore, it is mentioned repeatedly in official German papers, war diaries and in numerous histories, the most complete version appearing in Admiral Doenitz’ Memoirs, page 179. That the leaflet existed I have no doubt. But I question the above version, for German translations from Russian were notoriously inaccurate.Still Ehrenburg wrote other pamphlets which were as bad, as anyone can see from his writings, particularly those officially published in English during the war by the Soviets themselves, in Soviet War News, 1941-45, Vols. 1-8. His “Kill the Germans” theme was repeated over and over—and apparently with the full approval of Stalin. On April 14, 1945, in an unprecedented editorial in the Soviet military newspaper Red Star, he was officially reprimanded by the propaganda chief, Alexandrov, who wrote: “Comrade Ehrenburg is exaggerating … we are not fighting against the German people, only against the Hitlers of the world.” The reproof would have been disastrous for any other Soviet writer, but not for Ehrenburg. He continued his “Kill the Germans” propaganda as though nothing had happened—and Stalin closed his eyes to it. In the fifth volume of his memoirs,People, Years and Life, published in Moscow, 1963, Ehrenburg has conveniently forgotten what he wrote during the war. On page 126 he writes: “In scores of essays I emphasized that we must not, indeed we cannot, hunt down the people —that we are, after all, Soviet people and not Fascists.” But this much has to be said: no matter what Ehrenburg wrote, it was no worse than what was being issued by the Nazi propaganda chief, Goebbels—a fact that many Germans have conveniently forgotten, too.

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