The Soviet Invasion of Nazi Germany Scott Abel The Soviet invasion of the lands that Germany possessed

before Hitler came to power marked the final stage of the Second World War in Europe. Soviet troops seethed with revenge promoted by the Soviet government during this offensive into the fascist lair. Soviet troops and sailors committed violent acts against German civilians that reflected these feelings. Although Moscow promoted a policy of revenge, it was displeased by the erosion of discipline that plagued its armies in Germany and made the Germans in the East even more stubborn resistors of the invasion. Furthermore, Moscow wanted to avoid damaging areas as much as possible that would be under Soviet control or domination after the war, but often failed to do so because of rampaging troops and prolonged sieges. In January of 1945, the Red Army in Poland was poised to invade Germany with 163 divisions under Marshals Konev and Zhukov. Overall by 1945, the Soviet Union deployed around six million soldiers on the Eastern Front. The divisions in Poland under Konev and Zhukov comprised around 2,203,000 troops, 4,529 tanks, and over 20,000 indirect-fire weapons such as artillery, mortars, and katyusha mobile rocket launchers. The ranks of the Red Army were supplemented with former prisoners-of-war and untrained former slave laborers. This may help explain the poor discipline the Red Army showed in the final months of the war. The German military comprised 1.8 to 3.7 million soldiers to fight on the Eastern Front. Although historians are unsure of the exact size of the German military, it is certain that Soviet forces possessed a huge advantage in the size of their invasion force.1
1

Christopher Duffy, Red Storm Over the Reich, (New York: Atheneum, 1991), 24-25, 51-52.

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Throughout the war, the Soviet propaganda machine used German atrocities to enrage Soviet citizens and encourage armed forces to fight harder, but once the Red Army entered Germany, it was very difficult to turn off such emotions. The Soviet propaganda machine and leadership called for Red Army soldiers to take revenge on Germany and the German people. In the minds of many Soviet soldiers, German atrocities justified Soviet rage. This rage energized the soldiers to finish the war and gain retribution. Yet there was a double-standard: no matter what the Soviets did, the Fascists did much worse and Soviet propaganda did its best to demonize the enemy. One Russian soldier said, “We hate Germany and the Germans deeply…Germans deserve the atrocities that they unleashed.” Ilya Ehrenburg, a famous propagandist, wrote, “Germany you can whirl in your deathly agony. The hour of revenge has struck!” Fathers encouraged sons to take revenge on the German people so that they would not forget. The Soviet leadership, including Marshal Zhukov, even encouraged soldiers to take revenge on Germany, but this changed toward the end of the war. Soviet troops, filled with rage, entered German territory bent on taking revenge on the German people. 2 Soviet policy began to change after the Red Army entered Germany because command did not want to destroy the German people. G. F. Aleksandrov, leader of the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee wrote in Pravda that excessive violence against Germans was inappropriate. He probably spoke for Stalin and the Communist Party in condemning Ehrenburg’s calls for destruction. Stalin wanted his troops to maintain discipline and to Soviet troops the call to use restraint became known as “Stalin’s order.” Stalin stated, “… the cruel treatment of the German population is not
2

Norman Naimark, The Russians in Germany: A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945-1949, (Cambridge: Harvard U. Press, 1995), 72, 301-302; Catherine Merridale, Ivan’s War, (New York: Metropolitan, 2006), 295-304.

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useful for us, because it increases the resistance of the German Army.” According to a soldier named Yuri Ivanovichkoryakin, in preparation for the invasion the squadron political instructor ordered the Red Army soldiers not to “contact civilians” and that any undisciplined behavior or any “excessive harm” to the German people would be “unacceptable.” In many cases, Red Army soldiers ignored these orders. With their minds set on revenge, Soviet troops marched into Germany ready to inflict harm on the German people.3 Signs of this thirst for revenge appeared in the Red Army’s entrance into German allies’ territory. Soviet forces spared Bulgaria from great atrocities perhaps because of their similar culture and the good leadership of Marshal Tobukhin, but other nations were less fortunate. The Red Army entered Romania with some breach of discipline, but it did not come near the disorder of the invasion of other nations. Hungary was the first nation that reported back to Russia of the widespread atrocities committed by the Red Army. This may have been because the Soviet troops had a very different language and culture from Hungarians but also because of Soviet jealously of their higher standard of living. An estimated 80,000 Soviet troops died in the Hungarian campaign, which frustrated the Soviet soldiers greatly and likely led to more atrocities. There was heavy resistance in Budapest, which caused greater frustration in the Red Army, which took its frustrations out with violence and rape on civilians. The violence even spread to the Swedish Embassy. Even Yugoslav forces allied to the Soviets reported 121 rape cases, including ten that were fatal, and 1,204 looting cases. These instances demonstrate that the highest

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Naimark, Russians in Germany, 76-77; Pobediteli, Soldiers of the Great War, “Multimedia Map of the War,” http://english.pobediteli.ru; Merridale, Ivan’s War, 329.

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levels of the Soviet government did not espouse rape because it would have no interests in doing so, but it did understand Red Army soldiers’ frustration toward the war.4 Soviet troops even raped fellow Russians in their frenzy of violence after they crossed the border into Germany. When Germany occupied large portions of the Soviet Union, it brought in laborers from the occupied territory to work within Germany for its war effort. Among such laborers were a group of two hundred and fifty Soviet girls from the Voroshilovgrad, Kiev, and Kharkov to work in a Focke-Wulf aircraft factory in Germany. One report suggested that these girls dressed well and lived with cleanliness until soldiers from the Red Army robbed them of their property, such as their watches. Soviet troops also raped these girls despite their nationality. In description of one rapist, one girl cried, “He was an old man, older than my father.” These actions by Red Army soldiers indicate that many soldiers acted without consideration of important factors such as the nationality of the woman they raped. Therefore, soldiers did not always act out of revenge because they had little reason to take revenge on their fellow citizens. It also shows that Soviet command did not directly promote such activity because it had little reason to promote the rape of Soviet citizens.5 The Red Army first entered East Prussia on October 10, 1944 and crossed into Germany on January 19, 1945. East Prussia bore the initial brunt of the Red Army’s rage, but there is little evidence that it was held as an example by Soviet commanders to intimidate the rest of the country. Rather, evidence suggests that the level of violence surprised Soviet officers. Russians viewed East Prussia as the sort of center of German militarism because many important German military families were from that region.
4 5

Naimark, Russians in Germany, 70-71; Merridale, Ivan’s War, 305. Vasily Grossman, A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army, 1941-1945, (New York: Vintage, 2005), 320-321; Duffy, Red Storm, 303-305.

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Soviet troops entered a German village or small town for Soviets and raped all women above the age of twelve or thirteen, which cost the lives of many young girls. Soviets murdered East Prussian officials, strafed fleeing refugees, and shelled civilians. These actions were used to the utmost extent by the German propaganda machine after the discovery of such atrocities. German soldiers seized Nemmersdorf, East Prussia back from the Soviets and reported that the Soviets slaughtered civilians on a large scale. Goebbels broadcasted these stories of rape and murder to force Germans to rally around Hitler to fend off the Red Army’s onslaught. The reports of rape and murder only stiffened the resistance of the German people.6 The Soviets initiated their assault on Konigsberg on January 27, 1945, but the battle turned into a long siege. Fearing Soviet atrocities, 100,000 of the population and the Nazi hierarchy fled the city, during which the Soviet military could have taken the city but failed to make a serious attempt. It is possible that Soviet forces were too distracted with raping and pillaging to press their advantage. The garrison commander, Commandant Otto Lasch, used forts constructed from 1874 to 1882 to defend the city. The first siege lasted from January 27 until February 26, and then the second lasted from April 2 to April 10, 1945. Also on February 26, the same day as the end of the first siege, intoxicated Soviet troops systematically raped almost all women in an East Prussian town. One person reported, “The screams of help from the tortured could be heard day and night.” Lasch surrendered, but a few diehard Nazis hid in the Konigsberg Castle. By the surrender on April 10, much of the city was in ruins, 100,000 people who may have

6

Naimark, The Russians in Germany, 72, 157; Duffy, Red Storm Over the Reich, 123, 275; Pobediteli, Soldiers of the Great War, “Multimedia Map of the War,” http://english.pobediteli.ru; Merridale, Ivan’s War, 311-312.

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been useful fled, and the usual Soviet retribution occurred. A traditionally German and culturally-important city fell to the Soviets, never to be returned.7 The remnants of the Kriegsmarine assisted in the evacuation of Konigsberg and the Soviet Navy expanded atrocities to the sea to the deadliest maritime disasters in human history. The heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer provided naval gunfire support, and Oskar von Hindenburg oversaw a cruiser evacuating the remains of Prussian colors, President von Hindenburg, and his late wife. Naval and maritime forces attempted to evacuate as many civilians as possible during the siege. 851,735 people entered Pomeranian ports from January 15 to May 10 to flee the Soviet onslaught. Soviet submarines targeted transport ships with fleeing civilians such as Wilhelm Gustloff, which carried refugees during a voyage until torpedoed on January 30, 1945. She sank with an estimated 9,000 people onboard, resulting in the worst maritime disaster in world history. With an inadequate number of boats, only 937 survived to land ashore. A Soviet submarine torpedoed the white-painted hospital ship General von Steuben, and 2,680 injured people drowned. The Soviets sank Goya with two torpedoes which resulted in the death of an estimated 7,000 refugees. Such senseless drowning could not be in Soviet interests, because until surpassed, the Soviet Navy will have the reputation for killing the most people in a maritime sinking in world history and for the loss of life in general.8 The Red Army invasion of Silesia demonstrated the brutality of the Russian forces and the stubbornness of the German military in the East. Konev’s forces secured two bridgeheads over the Oder with the Fifth Guards Army on January 22 and the Fourth Tank Army on the night of January 22 and 23. Zhukov’s 301st Rifle Division crossed the
7 8

Duffy, Red Storm, 151-216; Naimark, Russians in Germany, 74. Duffy, Red Storm, 290-291; Nick Robins, Review of The Cruise Ship: A Very British Institution, Lloyd’s List, August 8, 2008.

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Oder River to create a bridgehead for other troops from February 2 to 3. The German non-commissioned officer school at Jauer resisted fiercely until February 3. Breslau remained an obstacle to the Soviet advance into the rest of Silesia. The Red Army surrounded Breslau on February 15, but the front began to stabilize and the Soviet advance stalled. General Friedrich Schulz of the 17th Army, a Silesian native, attempted to relieve the approximately 35,000 regular Wehrmacht soldiers, 15,000 Volksstrum, and 80,000 civilians in Breslau, but only managed to make a brief contact with the city. The Volksstrum, a militia of ordinary citizens, was vital in the defense of these fortress cities such as Breslau. Many Germans took up arms not because they were fascists but because their families needed protection. Zhukov wrote that the Red Army had little experience taking such fortress cities until it reached cities with German populations. Such resistance by Germans slowed the Red Army advance to a crawl.9 The defenders of Breslau and the 17th Army resisted fiercely while Soviet discipline eroded resulting in a serious disadvantage for the Soviet Union. Stalled in their advance, Soviet forces repeatedly raped women Silesians which further disrupted the Soviet advance. Venereal diseases plagued Soviet troops, who received such diseases from raping so many women. Previously the Soviet military was well disciplined, but when it reached Silesia the urge for revenge distracted soldiers and limited their effectiveness. To refuse to partake in such things was considered “bourgeois humanitarianism,” cowardly, or a sign of impotence. Soviet troops drank beverages such as wine and schnapps heavily, reducing their effectiveness further. Such actions damaged the reputation of the Red Army. According to Vasily Grossman in Berlin after

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Duffy, Red Storm Over the Reich, 52, 95, 96, 101, 113, 127, 254; Georgii Zhukov, The Memoirs of Marshal Zhukov, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1971), 593; Naimark, Russians in Germany, 77.

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the city’s surrender, a recently liberated Frenchman stated, “Monsieur, I love your army and that’s why it is painful for me to see its attitude to girls and women. This is going to be very harmful for your propaganda.” Their reputation with the rest of the Allies and Germans decreased because of their drunken behavior and violence toward women.10 Silesia and East Prussia were to be handed over to the Soviet Union and Poland after the war. Marshal Rokossovski realized the senselessness of the destruction in these regions and that it was disadvantageous for the Soviet Union in the long run. Lev Kopelev witnessed the senselessness of the Russian invasion. He noticed how soldiers burned houses and even towns that could have been plundered for essential supplies such as food, medicine, and blankets. Soldiers who avoided practices began to be known as implementers of “bourgeois humanitarianism,” which was an attempt to portray soldiers who refused to participate in such actions as anti-communist. Stalin also realized the problem of the improper behavior of the soldiers, but it was too difficult for high command to enforce desired behavior. Stalin did not mind looting, as long as it did not interrupt the advance of the Red Army too much. One unit attached an accountant as the rank of colonel to keep track of confiscated German valuables. Soviet high command did not desire the loss of discipline that weakened the Red Army from the common soldier to at least the rank of colonel because of the participation in looting German property.11 The destruction of German industry and agriculture was contrary to the long-term interests of the Soviet Union. Prolonged sieges brought destruction to cities out of range from American and British bombers such as Breslau, which was reduced by 80 to 90 percent by the end of the siege. Upper Silesia was to go to Poland after the war as part of
10

Merridale, Ivan’s War, 307-310, 329; Duffy, Red Storm, 123; Naimark, Russians in Germany, 71, 74, Grossman, A Writer at War, 340. 11 Naimark, Russians in Germany, 73, 75; Vasily Grossman, A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army, 1941-1945, (New York: Vintage, 2005), 236, 238.

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the redrawing of European borders. Upper Silesia produced 95 million tons of coal, 2.4 million tons of steel, and 88mm artillery pieces annually. Therefore it was in the Soviet Union’s best interest to capture territory with minimal damage to industry. Much destruction proved to be completely against the long-term Soviet interests because those factories, mines, and other infrastructure could have been used by the Soviet Union and its allies.12 The Soviet Union did not attempt seriously to bring justice for German women who were raped by vengeful Soviet troops. The number of women raped by Russian soldiers is unknown. Some estimate that Soviets raped 10,000s or 100,000s of women and one estimate goes up to around two million women. Many German women were too ashamed to talk about being raped, so it is difficult to get an accurate number. The Red Army tried to cover up the violence toward German women through silence. Soviet command only reacted on a large scale once it became concerned about soldiers contracting venereal diseases, so it ordered soldiers to have monthly physicals in Poland and the Baltic. Soviet command did not make any serious attempt to stop the rapes or bring soldiers to justice. There were, however, forty executions of enlisted men and officers for rape, but this did not constitute a serious attempt by the Soviet hierarchy to bring offenders to justice because of the sheer amount of crime perpetrated by Red Army soldiers. Rather, Soviet authorities generally ignored rape and gave more lenient sentences than other offenses such as theft and desertion. Vasily Grossman noted that a commandant interrogated a soldier of the signals company for raping a teenager. Despite the girl’s young age and visible wounds, the commandant showed little enthusiasm throughout the interrogation. Soviet command did little to prevent the mass rape of
12

Duffy, Red Storm, 89, 252, 265; Naimark, Russians in Germany, 75.

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women by soldiers under its command. It did not see their suffering as sufficient to cause further damage to the Red Army by punishing untold numbers of soldiers for their actions.13 Not all Red Army soldiers inflicted great harm to the German populace. There were soldiers who took pity on the civilians. They acted out of empathy and the understanding that a new Germany would have to be constructed after the war. Some enlisted soldiers did what they could to limit the violence. The German mayor of Breslau noted how a Soviet soldier gave his last piece of bread to hungry children. A Russian truck driver offered a ride to a stranded German woman who otherwise would have risked being raped by soldiers. Once, two Soviet soldiers prevented a group of soldiers from raping a girl despite the danger to their lives. Some Soviet officers demonstrated their kindness toward German civilians. In one instance an officer met a family that planned on committing suicide because of what happened to their friends and neighbors. The officer offered the family protection from vengeful bands of Soviet troops, thus saving them from a fate of death or rape. One Soviet soldier offered to adopt an orphaned German child because the Germans killed both their families. He seemed disappointed to find that he could not adopt this child, but this demonstrates that not all Soviets saw Germans as being inhuman and cruel. These instances demonstrate that not all soldiers were cruel to the Germans, because some helped ordinary civilians. This shows that there was no policy of mass rape and pillage, but individuals made their own decisions in regard to their treatment of German civilians.14

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“Raped by the Red Army: Two million German women speak out,” The Independent, April 15, 2009; Merridale, Ivan’s War, 318-320; Grossman, Writer at War, 326-327. 14 Naimark, Russians in Germany, 75; Georgii Zhukov, The Memoirs of Marshal Zhukov, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1971), 634-635.

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The initial stages of the Soviet occupation of Berlin demonstrated the willingness of the Soviets to assist German civilians when necessary and show that there was no overall policy to let the German people starve or seek further systematic revenge against the defeated German population. Marshal Zhukov appointed Colonel General Berzarin to administer Berlin because his forces were the first to enter the city just as Russians did in the Tsarist days. Berzarin, as Commandant of Berlin, quickly restored essential services even though the surviving Germans still fought the Red Army in the city. He ordered that food be served to the citizens of Berlin to prevent them from starving. His efforts earned the respect of the German people and acted more inline with Soviet interests than the soldiers who raped and pillaged. Unfortunately, he died in a motorcycle accident. Berzarin favored an approach to the German people that demonstrated a change in ideas in Soviet command from killing Germans to becoming an occupying force of Germany.15 The Soviet invasion of Germany was a chance to get retribution for all the harm caused to the Soviet Union and its allies. But the revenge inflicted often was counter to Soviet interests and slowed the Russian advance. The Soviet brutality left the German population bitter and frustrated with their occupiers. The Soviet image was severely tainted by these actions. It is not difficult to see why the German populace preferred to live under United States or British authority over the Soviet Union.16 The responsibility of such atrocities lies on every level of command. To run an army on hate and vengeance is not beneficial in the long run, especially as an occupying power. The breakdown in Soviet discipline in Germany resulted in the stalling of the Red Army.

15 16

Grossman, Writer at War, 335. Merridale, Ivan’s War, 329, 349.

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Bibliography: Duffy, Christopher. Red Storm Over the Reich. New York: Atheneum, 1991. Grossman, Vasily. A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army, 1941-1945. New York: Vintage, 2005. Merridale, Catherine. Ivan’s War. New York: Metropolitan, 2006. Naimark, Norman. The Russians in Germany: A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945-1949. Cambridge: Harvard U. Press, 1995. Pobediteli, Soldiers of the Great War. “Multimedia Map of the War.” http://english.pobediteli.ru. “Raped by the Red Army: Two million German women speak out,” The Independent, April 15, 2009. Robins, Nick. Review of The Cruise Ship: A Very British Institution, Lloyd’s List August 8, 2008. Zhukov, Georgii. The Memoirs of Marshal Zhukov. London: Jonathan Cape, 1971.

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