Re-examined pasts: labelled as the instigators of World War II, Germans have long been denied the right to publicly mourn the loss of land and loved ones.
When the Iron Curtain descended across Europe, history in the Soviet sphere was suspended. Recent history was then re-written to suit the political goals of the new masters and false history was created to buttress the new national alignments and alliances. The collapse of communism 40 years later in Eastern Europe re-animated the historical record, shook up the patched-over alliances, revived old animosities and long-suppressed passions.
It hasn't been an easy or pleasant process and it is far from over. We have seen the extent of Stasi infiltration in East German culture, the collapse of Yugoslavia into the warring factions held together by Tito since the end of the war, the division of Czechoslovakia, and the discovery, almost literally of skeletons in the communist closets.
Slightly less well-known are three stories which illustrate the confusion that Eastern Europeans and Germans feel about their pasts: the recovery of war dead in the former East Germany, the post-war use of concentration camps, and the issue of the Sudeten Germans. Before the collapse of communism these were either taboo subjects or, like post-war borders, considered settled and beyond discussion. But underneath the apparently stable, monolithic communist states, the old tensions and hidden histories remained.
Defeat in two wars meant that German war dead outside Germany tended to be ignored. They certainly did not receive the sort of treatment given by either the Imperial (Commonwealth) War Graves Commission or the Americans to their war dead. Economic depression after the First War, chaos after the Second, and the disinterest of former enemies meant that German dead from both wars were reburied in large concentrated cemeteries and mass graves. In France, as a result, German cemeteries are much larger than their Allied counterparts. Andilly has over 30,000 graves; Maissemy has almost 16,000, almost half of whom are in mass graves; and Vermandouvilliers, the largest on the Somme, contains over 22,000 with 13,000 in mass graves.
To the east, including East Germany, the situation was even bleaker. There, the Germans still epitomized evil and the official East German view was that the dead soldiers were all agents of fascism and were ignored. Even though most families in the DDR statistically must have had one or more members in the Wehrmacht and with many deaths among them, they were left in their unmarked graves wherever they had fallen. Around Stalingrad, thousands of bodies were simply stacked in the fields to become piles of skeletons as the years passed.
Since 1989 there has been a gradual change. The Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgraberforsorge (the German War Graves Commission equivalent) has reburied 584,000 war dead in Russia in dozens of new cemeteries. Around Stalingrad, the exhumation of soldiers has become a small industry. In West Germany the VDK had completed its work, but is now discovering and reburying war dead in the former East Germany. It was in eastern Germany that the bloodiest battles were fought in the spring of 1945, and now it is in the areas to the south and east of Berlin where thousands of bodies are being recovered. The Battle of Halbe, in which the German 9th Army attempted to break through Russian lines to reach Berlin in April 1945, claimed 60,000 German, 50,000 Soviet and 10,000 civilian dead. The war cemetery at Halbe is now the largest in Germany with 30,000 burials and it continues to grow. To the east of Berlin, where the Battle of the Seelow Heights was fought, one volunteer recovers on average ten bodies a day; since 1989 he has found 20,000.
The remains are often located during road or building construction. Anything that might identify the body is sent to the German Information Office (formerly the Wehrmacht Information Office for War Losses and POWs), which maintains files on the 18 million who served in the Wehrmacht. The remains are put into small coffin-shaped, grey plastic containers and sent to Halbe.
Germany was covered with a network of concentration camps. Liberated by the Allies, some were burned to the ground, but some were put back into operation almost immediately. In the west, although the conditions and the guards changed, many camp inmates and other displaced persons found themselves still confined in the concentration camps until Eisenhower was given a direct order by President Truman to dramatically improve their conditions. Dachau was used to house Germans suspected of war crimes before becoming temporary accommodations for Germans displaced from Poland and Czechoslovakia.
In the east the Russians handled things differently. Wasting neither time nor resources, the Soviet Military Occupation in Germany put two of the largest camps, Sachsenhausen and Bucheuwald, back into operation, this time to house Nazis, suspected Nazis and opponents of the German Communist Party. Sachsenhausen held 6,000 Wehrmacht officers turned over by the western Allies as well as Soviet citizens accused of collaborating with the Germans, and Russian POWs considered "tainted" by the experience of capture and potentially a threat.
A good example of the confused ideologies and suspicions current in the spring of 1945 is the case of Max Emmendorfer, who had the misfortune of being held by both the Nazis and then the Russians in Buchenwald. Emmendorfer was a German communist, arrested and held in Buchenwald in 1936-37. He was released but drafted into the Wehrmacht and fought on the Eastern Front. In 1942 he deserted to the Russians, hoping to fight with the Red Army. Instead he joined the Nationalkomitee Freies Deutschland, becoming vice-president of this small group of anti-Nazis and communist exiles. At the end of the war he returned to Berlin assuming he would take part in the construction of a socialist German state. Instead, he was accused of being a Gestapo spy and sent to Buchenwald again. He remained there until 1947 when he was sent back to the USSR before being finally released to the German Democratic Republic in 1956.
Conditions in these and other Speziallager were similar if not worse than those imposed by the SS. These were Silence Camps Schweigelager) in which the inmates were to be completely isolated. There was no communication with the outside, family were not informed that the inmate had been arrested, no news came into the camp, no letters left, and writing materials were prohibited. Lavrentiy Beria, head of the Russian People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), ordered that the camp's inmates were not to charged or even documented. Initially no bedding was provided, prisoners arriving without shoes were left to their fate, no clothing or eating utensils were issued, simply a bowl. Unlike the Nazi system, there was no forced labour involved. In fact there was nothing to do at all, so that being assigned to a work detail within the camp was prized.
The Russians interned between 120,000 to 150,000 suspects. The exact numbers are unknown, but about 43,000 died. They were killed by exactly the same conditions and diseases that lulled concentration camp prisoners held by the Nazis: exposure, malnutrition, typhus, dysentery, and scarlet fever, plus over 700 executions.
When the German Democratic Republic was formed, most of the internees were handed over to the new government for trial, while a number of prominent prisoners were transport to Soviet gulags. They were finally released in 1955 with the surviving German prisoners of war.
In the east, the special camps were not publicly discussed and the post-war use of concentration camps was not included in the history or memorials created by the DDR. Buchenwald was celebrated as an example of anti-fascist resistance to the Nazis and little mention was made of prisoners who did not fit this category. The final liberation of Buchenwald was portrayed as a heroic, communist-led uprising, neglecting the fact that the take-over of the camp happened on the day of the arrival of American troops and after most of the SS guards had disappeared.
It was only with the collapse of the East German state that the history of these places began to be examined and history re-written. A few survivors began to tell their stories, and then the mass graves near the camps began to be discovered and excavated: 12,000 discovered in 1990 near Sachsenhausen and over 7,000 at Buchenwald.
As suspected Nazis were being rounded up in Germany, millions of ethnic Germans were being expelled from East Prussia, Poland and Czechoslovakia, in the largest human migration in history. Before the war Hitler had wanted all the German speaking peoples incorporated into a greater German Reich. Now, after his suicide his wish was being fulfilled and they were being gathered into a shrunken Germany from all over the east. The numbers involved are hard to imagine. There is no absolute reckoning of the numbers expelled or of the many thousands who died in the various treks, but about 11 million made it to Germany. That is effectively the same number as the entire population of Canada in 1940.
The impulse to expel the Germans finally from Eastern Europe was understandable after the murder and devastation German armies had accomplished in the previous six years. The "transfer" of German communities had been approved by all the Allies at the Potsdam Conference, so while the war was winding up and the Iron Curtain was descending, German refugees either fled or were violently evicted.
There was little sympathy for the plight of any Germans after the war. The refugees were absorbed into the occupation zones and then the new West German state. Their story became an internal German matter, an unpleasant, tragic part of their recent history. The chances of recompense or even the thought of returning to their former homes was little more than a dream when faced with the apparently impregnable eastern bloc.
As with the war dead and special camps issues, the collapse of communism re-opened the story of the expulsion of the ethnic Germans. Soon, groups of exiles and their children began travelling back to what was now Poland, looking for lost homes and the graves of their ancestors. It became a significant part of Poland's tourist economy.
Inevitably the issues of compensation for property losses and potential court cases against Poles and Czechs who murdered thousands of ethnic Germans as they escaped westward have aroused fear and old hatreds. In Poland there are impossibly complex property questions. Who should compensate who for property taken from Polish Jews, given to ethnic Germans subsequently expelled, then taken over as state property in an area once Polish but now incorporated into Russia?
In the Czech Republic, the decrees that expelled the Sudeten Germans are still in force and protect those accused of atrocities and murder. There is little Czech sympathy for the thought of compensation or re-examining a very dark period of their history. But the issue is preventing Czech entry into the European Union, because with membership would come the obligations of the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights, and the Czechs fear this will open the gates to hundreds of lawsuits from individuals and Sudeten groups in Germany.
Just as German war dead are being re-buried, some of the old European passions, conflicts and unresolved questions resurface.
RELATED ARTICLE: Not all Wehrmacht soldiers shared Hitler's beliefs
My grandfather was drafted into the Wehrmacht, became a Russian POW and subsequently died in Siberia in 1943. In total, seven of my parents' uncles were drafted, of which, six never made it back. Letters from the front, which we still have, indicate a complete absence of enthusiasm but plenty of concern and frustration.
These are just seven out of 18.2 million German soldiers who served during WWII, of which the vast majority were conscripts, and the ratio of conscripts and MIA/KIA probably represents the average German family at that time. It is grotesque to assert that war crimes were only committed by 'the others' as per Murray Sager's article "The real Wehrmacht" (Volume 17 Issue 4), especially when experts like acclaimed author Antony Beevor begin to shine light on Allied war crimes, including Canadian, committed against German soldiers.
I concur: 60 years later Germans, and many Europeans for that matter, still haven't found an emotional equilibrium pertinent to WWII. A balanced, less biased journalistic approach might be a good start.
Editor's note: I think this month's article on "Re-examined pasts" begins to redress the imbalance.
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|Publication:||Esprit de Corps|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2010|
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