Last October, construction workers unearthed human remains at the site of a planned luxury hotel in Malbork, northern Poland. Ultimately, it turned out to be a mass grave of nearly 2,000 men, women and children who had been bundled into a bomb crater. Malbork was the German city of Marienburg until the end of World War II, famed for the 13th century Teutonic Knights’ magnificent fortress, the world’s largest brick castle. The bodies are most likely those of German citizens (still unaccounted for in German archives) killed during fierce battles between German troops and the advancing Soviets. The fact that no remains of clothes or personal possessions were found, not even dental fillings, clearly indicates that the victims were pillaged by the Red Army.
All things considered, this gruesome discovery is not a surprise, knowing the reality of the Eastern Front in 1944/45. In revenge for the horrible atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht and SS Einsatzgruppen in Soviet Russia since 1941, the Red Army showed no mercy to their former allies turned invaders – soldiers and civilians alike. Soviet infantry were encouraged by their commanders to loot, pillage and destroy every village and town, often murdering the so-called “Nazi reptiles.”
Soviet troops marching west raped virtually every German female, from little girls to elderly women. Many were bestially murdered. It is estimated that some two million women were raped in the Soviet occupation zone between 1945 and 1947, a number which surprised even the Russian High Command. Some rapists were punished to a degree, but generally speaking the authorities turned a blind eye. Nazi propaganda disseminated graphic details of incidents such as the Nemmersdorf massacre, causing even more panic instead of boosting civilians’ morale. Terror-stricken Germans committed suicide as soon as they heard the distant echoes of Russian artillery.
The exodus of Germans from their eastern territories continued from the spring of 1944. During the early months of 1945 the German Kriegsmarine launched “Operation Hannibal,” an emergency evacuation of civilians and troops from isolated East Prussia. A vast fleet of ships transported an incredible two million people across the Baltic Sea to Germany. Although the operation was a general success, a series of disasters occurred. The Wilhelm Gustloff, the Steuben and the Goya, each carrying several thousand refugees, were torpedoed by Soviet submarines. The sinking of the former luxury cruise ship the Wilhelm Gustloff – with possibly as many as 9,000 fatalities – is the worst maritime disaster in history. On May 3rd 1945, just five days before the end of war in Europe, the Cap Arcona and the Thielbek, laden with concentration camps inmates, were dispatched by British fighter planes. The loss of life resulting from the sinking of these five vessels, dubbed “the Baltic Titanics,” added up to between 25,000 and 30,000.
In the aftermath of the war, the Western Allies agreed to Stalin’s demands and Poland’s borders were radically changed at the Potsdam Conference. Poland lost 40 percent of its pre-war territory to the Soviet Union, lands which Stalin had already annexed in 1939 following the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and the subsequent Soviet invasion. To compensate for the loss of the eastern lands, Poland’s western border was moved far westward to the Oder-Neisse Line. This was former east German territory, where Polish citizens, themselves expelled from the east, were forced to settle. This resulted in further massive expulsions of ethnic Germans from these lands. It is estimated that around 12-14 million Germans fled during the war or were forcibly migrated afterwards from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia and other parts of Central and Eastern Europe.
The interests of the displaced Germans and their descendants are represented today by the controversial Bund der Vertriebenen, or Federation of Expellees, known for its revisionist approach, such as failing to recognise post-war frontiers, and attempting to claim private property left in the former German territories. German law recognises as expellees not only German nationals who lived in Eastern Europe long before the war, but also German colonists, who settled on occupied lands during the war and were later expelled. Belonging to the second group is the current president of BdV, Erika Steinbach, whose reputation in Poland is close to a bogeyman (or, should we say, bogeywoman?); she is often depicted on magazine covers wearing an SS uniform.
Although the German government has officially dismissed expellees’ property claims, there has been a notable trend in various German circles to diminish the Nazi crimes against humanity whilst putting emphasis on the suffering of the German nation. Recent German films like Untergang (The Downfall), Anonyma (A Woman in Berlin) or Die Gustloff (Ship of No Return), although depicting the true horrors of the close of the war, are devoid of any hint as to what exactly brought these biblical calamities upon them.
Well, let’s quote Art Buchwald, the American humourist, who wrote this in the 1960s: “…I agree. The German nation suffered enough from Warner Brothers and MGM. I propose a new movie, Stalag Hilton, with Henry Fonda as the camp commander and Doris Day as his wife rolling bandages for the Jewish prisoners in the hospital. SS sergeant Glenn Ford rushes in screaming: ‘Herr Kommandant! The prisoners are escaping!’ Fonda replies: ‘Shut up. I’m in on the July ’44 plot to kill Hitler!’ Ford says: ‘Aren’t we all?'”
From the Poles’ point of view, Poland lost between 5 and 6 million people as a result of the German and Soviet reigns of terror. They perished in massacres, death camps and Gulags, as forced labourers and prisoners of war. The German cultural genocide wiped away 40 percent of the pre-war intellectual community, including professionals and clergy, not to mention the destruction of entire cities and the subsequent 45 years of post-war communist rule. Today, anti-German bias remains strong, sometimes resulting in much more harsh actions than, say, renaming the poor German Shepherd dog “Alsatian,” or changing the German family name of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor, which occurred in England in the wake of World War I.
There is also some controversy concerning the Malbork discovery. The local prosecutor closed the case rather quickly, stating that these people most likely died as a result of combat operations, famine, diseases etc., not as victims of war crimes, although some of the skulls had bullet holes in them, clearly indicating an execution. The mayor hastily ordered a quiet burial at the local cemetery. After a few weeks, rains washed away more and more bones, and the investigation was reluctantly resumed. Polish and German officials and archaeologists began to work again on what turned out to be a mass grave. In the beginning, however, the remains were unearthed by a mechanical digger, hardly a subtle archaeological tool. Was it anti-German resentment that caused such solutions? Or perhaps the reasons were more mundane, since such incidents cause unwanted delays in construction and bad publicity. The project has already being granted the ghastly epithet of “The Skull and Crossbones Hotel.” Whatever the reason, such discoveries prove that today, 70 years later, the demons of war are far from forgotten.