The Agony of Breslau

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Breslau WW II Wrocław (Breslau) 1945. City of ruins.

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NS-Gauleiter Karl Hanke (1903-1945). During the waning months of World War II, as the Soviet Red Army advanced into Silesia and encircled Breslau (Festung Breslau), Hanke was named by Hitler to be the city’s “Battle Commander” (Kampfkommandant). Hanke oversaw, with fanaticism, the futile and militarily useless defense of the city during the Battle of Breslau. Goebbels, dictating for his diary, repeatedly expressed his admiration of Hanke during the spring of 1945. During the 82-day siege, Soviet forces inflicted approximately 30,000 civilian and military casualties and took more than 40,000 prisoners, while suffering 60,000 total casualties. On 6 May, the day before Germany’s surrender, General Hermann Niehoff surrendered the besieged Breslau (the Soviet army already having reached Berlin). Hanke had flown out the previous day in a small Fieseler Storch plane kept in reserve for him. Breslau was the last major city in Germany to surrender. Due to the Soviet forces aerial and artillery bombardment of the city, along with the self-destruction by the SS and Nazi Party, “80 to 90 percent” of Breslau had been destroyed.

On 20 January 1945, the Gauleiter of Lower Silesia, Karl Hanke, finally gave the order to evacuate his capital, Breslau, completing its transformation into a ‘fortress’. Ten-year-old Jürgen Illmer and his mother were lucky enough to find places on a train out of Breslau and reach the relative safety of Saxony. At Leipzig, they were helped through the chaotic crush on the platforms by groups of Hitler Youths and Red Cross nurses. Glancing across the tracks as he got off his train to take shelter from an air raid, Jürgen saw an open goods train filled with motionless, snow-covered figures in striped clothing. He wondered if they had frozen to death. As the air raid siren sounded and the Germans went down to the shelter under the great station hall, the conversation turned to the prisoners they had all seen. When someone suggested that they might be Jews, a woman replied coldly, ‘They weren’t Jews. They have all been shot in Poland already.’ She was wrong. One of the prisoners on the train may have been Thomas Gève. He too was left with memories of Leipzig; how the prisoners called out, begging for water from the German Red Cross nurses whose hospital train stood at the next platform. The nurses ignored them.

On 21 January Breslau’s aged prelate, Cardinal Bertram, departed for Jauernig in Moravian Silesia, while the most valuable items in the city’s churches were shipped out to Kamenz in Saxony. The wounded recovering in the city’s military hospitals were moved too, alongside the tax office, municipal administration, the radio station and the post, telegraph and rail authorities. Over 150,000 civilians remained. The next day Gauleiter Hanke called ‘on the men of Breslau to join the defence front of our Fortress Breslau’, vowing that ‘the Fortress will be defended to the end’. Its defenders consisted of 45,000 troops, ranging from raw recruits to battle-hardened paratroopers and Waffen SS veterans. To the west of the city, the Wehrmacht fought bitterly to drive the Soviets back across the Oder at Steinau for another two weeks. On 9–11 February, Kanth, Liegnitz and Haynau fell and on 15 February the Red Army captured the Sudeten mountain passes, cutting Breslau off from the west. The next day, the city came under siege, with the attacking Soviets swiftly occupying the outer suburbs before grinding to a halt as the defenders made them fight for every building and street crossing. From 15 February, the Luftwaffe began an airlift which lasted 76 days and some 2,000 flights, bringing in 1,670 tonnes of supplies – mainly ammunition – and evacuating 6,600 wounded.

Alfred Bauditz was one of the civilians who stayed in Breslau, equipped with a horse and cart and tasked with clearing buildings that interfered with the line of fire. In late January he used the cart to bring his wife, 14-year-old daughter Leonie and 9-year-old son Winfried out of the city to Malkwitz, where two of his brothers owned farms. On 9 February, Malkwitz was occupied and all the inhabitants were questioned one by one by a Soviet officer who spoke fluent German and took down their personal details. Despite the Germans’ fears of rape and murder, the Red Army men behaved correctly. Leonie’s ordeal began when the next armoured unit arrived. Most of the thirty Soviet soldiers were friendly, but two terrorised the women. Despite hiding in a barn at night and having her hair cut short and going about dressed as a boy by day, Leonie was discovered and raped multiple times. For a while a well-spoken Soviet lieutenant protected her and her mother, but when his unit left, the women and girls were drafted into a work brigade and sent out to thresh grain and shell peas on different farms – a seemingly inescapable routine of fieldwork, laundry, cooking duties and forced sex.

On 5 March General Hermann Niehoff was sent to the capital of Lower Silesia, Breslau, to renew the fighting spirit of the defenders. Niehoff deployed thousands of forced workers to turn the principal Kaiserstrasse into an alternative airstrip so that the Luftwaffe could continue to supply the inner city once the suburbs fell. They razed the churches and grand university buildings under continual strafing attacks by the Red Air Force, and the Luftwaffe continued its perilous daily flights into Breslau. The German armoured divisions in the city used Goliaths, the miniature remote-controlled tanks they had deployed to reconquer Warsaw, but this time to destroy buildings occupied by the advancing Soviets. While the less reliable and experienced German troops were held in reserve to plug gaps in the line, the elite units of paratroopers and Waffen SS continued to mount counter-attacks, halting the Red Army’s advance in the southern suburbs: a single apartment block on the corner of the Höfchenplatz and Opitzstrasse was fought over for eight days.

In Breslau itself, a delegation of Protestant and Catholic clergy called on General Niehoff on 4 May, asking him: ‘Is continuing the defence of Breslau something which you could justify to God?’ Niehoff took heed and quietly set about negotiating a ceasefire, despite the pressure from Dönitz to hold out – transmitted by both the new Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht, Field Marshal Schörner, and Gauleiter Hanke, the new head of the SS. In his proclamation to his troops on 5 May, Niehoff pointed out that ‘Hitler is dead, Berlin has fallen. The Allies of East and West have shaken hands in the heart of Germany. Thus the conditions for a continuation of the struggle for Breslau no longer exist. Every further sacrifice is a crime.’ With a gesture to Simonides’ epitaph to the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, he concluded, ‘We have done our duty, as the law demanded.’ The next day, the Germans handed over their positions.

After taking the city of Breslau, Soviet soldiers deliberately set the buildings in the ancient town centre alight, burning to the ground the priceless book collection of the university library as well as the city museum and several churches. Both the robbery and the destruction would continue for many months, growing more sophisticated with time, eventually taking the official form of “reparations.”

Some were touched personally. Robert Bialek, one of the few active, underground communists in the then-German city of Breslau, arrived home after his first, celebratory encounter with the Soviet commandants who had occupied the city — as a communist, he wanted to offer them his help — to discover that his wife had been raped. This, for him, was the beginning of the end: “The brutish instincts of two common Russian soldiers had brought the world crashing down about my head, as no Nazi tortures nor the subtlest persuasion had ever done.” He wished, he wrote, “that I had been buried, like so many of my friends, under the ruins of the town.”

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