Refugees and Liberators

In the summer of 1967, at the age of twenty, I spent a few weeks with a German family in Hesse. They were very hospitable to their young English guest, although I believe the parents may have taken advantage of his naivety. The father of the household had survived the Russian Front, which was no mean achievement, and he was understandably rather dour and uncommunicative about the whole experience. His wife, however, tried to propagandise me, claiming that they (i.e. German citizens in general) knew nothing about the concentration camps, and that they believed that they were some kind of ‘holiday camp’ where the Jews were being sent. (I cannot recall her exact words in German, but that was the distinct impression she left with me.) She also made some cryptic remarks about ‘Mittel-Deutschland’ and ‘Ost-Deutschland’, which I vaguely thought at the time must refer respectively to what was then the German Democratic Republic, and the land within the 1937 borders of the German Reich that had been given to Poland after the Potsdam Conference. I was too shy (or too polite) to challenge her on what appeared to be a nostalgic wish that the old boundaries might be restored at some stage. (The Federal Republic of Germany had not at that time even recognized the German Democratic Republic.)

I thought of this Frau when I read a recent New York Times piece titled The Displaced, in its Magazine of November 8, by one Jake Silverstein, which was designed to highlight the fact that nearly 60 million people had been displaced since World War II, and that half of them were children. It was supposed to be an innovative article, using some kind of 3-D technology, an app, and some cardboard Google glasses (none of which I experimented with), but the introductory comments caught my eye. The article reproduced a famous photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, visible at http://www.magnumphotos.com/image/PAR35432.html , but several aspects of the way this photograph was introduced seemed questionable to me. Silverstein describes the picture as follows:  “ . . . a girl of about ten  . .  is standing behind an enormous pile of belongings, which have been rightly packed for a long journey. . . . Both [the girl and her younger brother] look directly at the photographer, who took this picture at Dessau, as scores of Germans displaced during World War II began returning home.” Under the photograph runs the description: “A camp in Dessau, Germany, in April 1945, for displaced people liberated by Soviet troops”.

What is going on here? These phrases provoked so many questions in my mind that I hardly knew where to begin. A camp set up in April, 1945, when the war was not over until May 8? Germans displaced in World War II – by whom, I wonder? Did Germans not cause massive displacements themselves? Returning home? From where? What was their ‘home’, and why were they not ‘at home’ beforehand? And those Soviet troops ‘liberating’ German territories? If they were true ‘liberators’, were the Soviets really encouraging ‘displaced’ people to return to their natural habitat? So perhaps these people weren’t German, after all, as the caption suggested? And might they in fact have been running away in fear from the Soviets, whose reputation for murder, rape and pillage made them, for some, an even more obnoxious threat than the Nazis? For these were, indeed very confused – and confusing – times.

I posed such questions to the Public Editor at the New York Times, as it seemed to me that the paper’s editors must have considered these questions. If they had not, this was surely an example of careless journalism – laziness and superficiality. And I thought the matter important as the episode was being used as a banner for a brand new publishing exercise. Yet, after one perfunctory acknowledgment, the Times has gone silent, and ignored my messages. It presumably either thinks its statements are defensible, or that the whole issue is completely unimportant. I thus decided to document it all myself. I thought the best way of approaching the topic was to attempt to answer those journalistic standbys: What? When? Where? Why? How? Who?

What:

That the photograph shows refugees of some sort, there is little doubt. Yet they do not possess any air of desperation: they look healthy and calm, and do not appear to have been abused.  They are surely not Prisoners of War, or slave laborers. Members of the group in the middle distance are smiling, and the size and volume of the possessions strewn on the street suggests that they have made their way to the camp with some form of transport, perhaps a horse-driven cart, or a man-pulled barrow. They have surely not travelled far, but how can Silverstein know that they are preparing for a ‘long journey’? Is the location really a camp? It is difficult to say. The atmosphere is very different from that of most of the other photographs in this group that refer to the Dessau camp, but the texts of the latter appear very unreliable, indicating, for example, families of healthy-looking Soviet ‘refugees’ who are about to return to their homeland. How Soviet families, for example, were allowed to find refuge from the Soviet Union in the German Reich, and yet apparently flourish, is a question that is deeply inexplicable, one which Magnum superficially brushes aside. And clearly, not all images in the set are taken inside the camp, even though they are captioned as such.

That the Central European problem of Displaced Persons (DPs) was massive is unquestioned. The historian Michael Jones has reported that the number of DPs that the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) had to deal with increased from 350,000 at the end of March 1945 to over 2 million by early May.

When:

The date of April 1945 must be wrong. It appears that Silverstein just plucked it from the website where the photograph appears, without thinking. The caption for it supplied by Magnum runs as follows: ‘Dessau. A transit camp was located between the American and Soviet zones organized for refugees, POWs, STO’s (Forced Labourers), displaced persons, returning from the Eastern Front of Germany that had been liberated by the Soviet Army.’ Since the surrender document created for the Germans was not signed until May 8, it would have been very unlikely for refugee camps to have been set up in April so close to the combat zone, what with fierce fighting still continuing in the neighborhood. Dessau is about fifty miles downstream from Torgau, also on the Elbe, renowned for the certainly staged encounter between US and Soviet troops on the Elbe, which did not take place until April 25. It occurred after a US officer had met a Soviet counterpart on the west side of the Elbe, at Leckwitz, which is about halfway between Torgau and Dresden. Hitler committed suicide on April 29, but the fighting was still intense: between April 16 and May 8, Soviet casualties were over 350,000, of which 100,000 were killed. At that time, there were about 250,000 German soldiers in the zone between the approaching GB-US and Soviet lines. A desperate attempt by German troops and civilians, fleeing from the Soviet forces, to cross the Elbe at Tangermünde, about sixty miles north of Dessau, started on May 6, thus showing that the area was in turmoil right up until the surrender was signed (in Rheims on May 7, and ratified in Berlin the following day).

In fact, an explanation below another photograph expands the time-period: it says that ‘Cartier-Bresson . .  took the photo between 21 April and 2 July 1945, between the American occupation of the city and the arrival of their Russian replacements’. This latter date is certainly a more reliable, yet still dubious, pointer to the time: the US forces vacated Dessau some time in July. Magnum does the cause of scholarly research no favors, however, by assigning the same erroneous caption to all forty-one photographs it displays in this album.

Where:

Whereas the boundaries of the occupied zones (Soviet, US, GB, and France) had been set at the Yalta Conference in February, both British and US forces actually advanced up to 200 miles (to the ‘Line of Contact’) inside what was legally the Soviet zone, and did not withdraw until early July 1945. Thus Dessau, which is situated just south of the River Elbe, and west of the River Mulde, was well inside the Soviet Zone of Occupation.  Yet the Magnum captions again distort the facts:  by stating that the transit camp ‘was located between the American and Soviet zones’, they suggest that Dessau was the permanent boundary, and misrepresent the coordinates of the American zone. Moreover, Magnum encourages this view by captioning photographs of refugees crossing the Elbe as follows: ‘The river deviding [sic] the Soviet and American sectors. Refugees making way to refugee camps’, and ‘A pontoon bridge between the border zone crossing of refugees. The river was the line dividing Soviet and American sectors’. Unfortunately, this was the impression many refugees had at the time – that by crossing the Elbe they would reach the safety of the American zone, when in fact Dessau was just about to be ceded to the Soviets.

That there was a camp at Dessau is plausibly confirmed by other sources: it may have been set up on the grounds of an existing Nazi concentration camp. ‘Working for the Enemy’ claims that ‘The Dessau camp is listed by the Red Cross International Tracing Service as having existed from November 1944 until 11 April 1945, with an inmate population of about 340’, suggesting it was dismantled just before the Americans arrived. It cites witnesses who state that a ‘death march’ out of Dessau started around April 11, as Allied troops approached it from all sides. The SS wanted to deliver the inmates to the International Red Cross in Prague. No doubt the same camp facilities were eventually used by the Americans – and then the Soviets.

Why?:

The emphasis in the New York Times article is on ‘displacement’, more specifically on ‘scores [sic!] of Germans displaced during World War II’ who ‘began returning home’, with the suggestion that such people had been ‘liberated by Soviet troops’. This vague assertion is not helped by the Magnum rubric, which describes the refugees as ‘political prisoners, POW’s, STO’s (Forced Labourers), displaced persons, returning from the Eastern front of Germany’. Since the photographs include images of ‘Soviet and Ukrainian refugees awaiting repatriation to their homeland’, one might well ask why such persons had ‘returned’ from the Eastern Front. It is palpable nonsense. Yet, examining the single photograph used by Silverstein, one might pose other penetrating questions. If the refugees are indeed German, why had they been displaced, and by whom? Hitler’s policy of Germanization of the lands bordering the Reich involved resettlement of German citizens from the homeland into vanquished territories, but also involved the recall of remote German communities (such as in the Ukraine and the Baltic States). At the same time, Hitler imported thousands of foreign captives to work as slave laborers within the Reich: they had certainly been ‘displaced’ and wanted to return home, whether it was to France, Poland, Ukraine or even the Soviet Union. It was a very messy time. As Christopher Snyder has written in Bloodlands: “German men went abroad and killed millions of ‘subhumans’, only to import millions of other ‘subhumans’ to do the work in Germany that the German men would have been doing themselves – had they not been abroad killing ‘subhumans’.”

But to speak of the Germans in terms suggesting that they were the primary victims of displacement is an insult to all the other groups of non-Germans who suffered far greater privations, not least, of course, the six million Jews who lost their lives, and thus had no chance of returning ‘home’, wherever that was. Certainly, many Germans suffered when the terms of the Yalta agreements were executed, with Soviet and Polish troops taking their revenge on Nazi massacres and destruction by murdering and abusing Germans in such areas as Silesia or Pomerania, which needed to be cleaned out to make room for Poles whose eastern boundaries had been ceded to the Soviet Union. After Hitler’s death, however, his successor, Admiral Dönitz, used radio broadcasts to warn the German nation that the primary menace was the Bolsheviks, with the result that Nazi armies in the East continued hopelessly to fight the Soviet forces, in an effort to give an opportunity for thousands of civilians (and soldiers) to flee towards the West.

Dönitz specifically intended to drive a wedge between the Western Powers and the Soviet Union, believing that the democracies would come to the realization that Bolshevism was the enduring foe that they would sooner or later need to turn against. At the same time he encouraged a massive exodus of German citizens from their homes in the east, whether their domiciles had been destroyed or not. In fact, the Germans recognizably stalled for time over the process of signing the surrender document, in the hope of allowing more refugees and troops to escape the Russians. Thus to talk of such as ‘displaced persons’ (DPs) returning ‘home’ would be a gross distortion.

A few weeks later, when the Potsdam conference was over in August 1945, the Oder-Neisse line that delineated the new western border of Poland was solidified. The Soviet troops prepared for these new boundaries as they advanced. As Antony Beevor writes, in The Second World War: “As Stalin had intended, ethnic cleansing was pursued with a vengeance. Troops from the 1st and 2nd Polish Armies forced Germans from their houses to push them across the Oder. The first to go were those on pre-1944 Polish territory. Some had lived there for generations, others were the Volksdeutsch beneficiaries of the Nazis’ own ethnic cleansing in 1940. Packed into cattle wagons, they were taken westwards and robbed of their few belongings on the way. A similar fate awaited those who had stayed behind or returned to Pomerania and Silesia, which now fell within the new Polish borders. In East Prussia, only 193,000 Germans were left out of a population of 2.2 million.” It is thus very difficult to judge why and how any group of such German refugees could be said to have been ‘displaced’ in the sense of casualties of war. And it would not appear that the refugees in Silverstein’s photograph had undergone such stern privations.

How?:

Were such people indeed being ‘liberated’, as the captions claim? The term ‘Liberators’ originated in the Yalta agreement, where Declaration II stated that the leaders of the Allies ‘jointly declare their mutual agreement to concert during the temporary period of instability in liberated Europe the policies of their three Governments in assisting the peoples liberated from the domination of Nazi Germany and the peoples of the former Axis satellite states of Europe to solve by democratic means their pressing political and economic problems.’ For reasons of political unity, it was incumbent to consider all victorious powers as ‘Liberators’, rather than ‘Occupiers’, but two major problems ensued. First, it suggested that Germans themselves needed ‘liberating’ from Nazi oppression (rather than being complicit agents in the brutality), and second, it assumed that Communist totalitarianism was indeed a force for freedom. As the Oxford Companion to World War II states: “The German advance into the Baltic States in 1941 was welcome to the extent that it put an end to the murderous occupation of the previous year. Yet it brought terrible impositions and murderous policies of its own. Similarly, the western advance of the Soviet armies in 1944-5 was welcome to the extent that it put an end to the murderous German occupation of the previous years; yet it brought reprisals and totalitarian policies that were no less vicious than those it removed. Liberations that did not liberate are not worthy of the name.”

Juozas Lukša, a CIA-trained Lithuanian resistance fighter, makes a similar point from the benefit of direct experience, cited by Edward Lucas in his book Deception: “In 1940, the Russians had come marching into our land to ‘liberate’ us from ‘capitalist and Fascist exploiters.’ In 1941, the Germans had marched in after them and thereby ‘liberated’ us from ‘Bolshevik bondage’. And now, the Russians were back again – this time to ‘liberate’ us from ‘the tyranny of Nazi hangmen’. But since we still recalled how they had gone about ‘liberating’ us the last time, we didn’t think we had any cause to rejoice.”

What is unarguable is that millions of ethnic Germans outside the new borders were persecuted, with as many as 100,000 killed arbitrarily, and with thousands committing suicide rather than falling prey to the vengeful and pillaging Soviets. Germans living in the Czech Sudetenland (which had been appropriated by Germany in October 1938, as part of the Munich agreement) before the war) were given only a few minutes to pack and flee. Hundreds died en route from Poland and Czechoslovakia. And many more who found themselves in the Soviet zone tried desperately to reach the zones of the Western democracies – which is probably what the Magnum photographs show.

Who?:

So can the group illustrated by the New York Times be identified with any confidence? Interestingly, the Magnum Archive includes another photograph of the threesome, presumably taken very soon after the first, visible at http://www.magnumphotos.com/image/PAR227694.html. Here the railway is in view, and one can also detect that a third child is lying on the bundle of possessions. While the young girl strikes a defiant posture, the expressions on the faces of the background group (is one of them wearing an army uniform?) suggest that they are in good spirits, and are expecting a train to take them away soon, probably westwards. Given the pictures of returning Ukrainians and Russians, however, one cannot be absolutely sure that they are not going eastwards. Again, their condition, and the size of their bundle of possessions, indicate they have not suffered much, and have probably not travelled far, and were not expelled in haste, to reach Dessau. But many of the other Magnum photographs are enigmatic. The image at http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2K1HRG547X4I claims to show Belgian and French forced labourers, who, again, look remarkably fit. Moreover, they are carrying a poster of Stalin. Another image, at http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2TYRYDYQFCXU, purportedly shows ‘a Soviet child, who was deported with his parents, returning to his homeland’. The child incongruously is carrying an umbrella. What in fact happened was that all Soviet citizens returning from captivity in Germany were either murdered, sent to the GULAG, or ostracized. An umbrella would not have helped them. Cartier-Bresson was a Communist sympathizer, and many of the photographs have a propaganda feel.

One inescapable conclusion from the photographs and the historical accounts of the time (including the horrifying escapes at Tangermünde, which can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YDN9lcS6tI ) is that most of the ‘displaced’ persons who thought that they would reach a safe haven after reaching the western side of the Elbe were probably unaware of the boundaries agreed at Yalta, and were soon to be horribly disillusioned, as the Western powers had to cede the territory to the Soviets. How many of them, as native Germans, succeeded in escaping from the Soviets to the real American, British or French zones 100 miles away or more would be a story well worth investigating.

Conclusions:

Apart from the obvious fact that one should be very careful in reproducing, or citing, information on the Internet, the publication of this piece by the New York Times indicates to me that its journalism can occasionally be amateurish, and its editorial supervision inadequate. The paper claims that ‘we observe the Newsroom Integrity Statement, promulgated in 1999, which deals with such rudimentary professional practices as the importance of checking facts, the exactness of quotations, the integrity of photographs and our distaste for anonymous sourcing.’ So what happened here, with the casual reliance on a third-party source, and no apparent fact-checking? Moreover, the reaction of the office of the Public Editor has, frankly, been deplorable. It should either acknowledge there was a problem, and admit it publically, or inform me that it thinks the information was correct, and that my complaint is thus rejected. Certainly, if a message that children are always innocent victims in times of hardship and privation was intended to be communicated, the piece transmitted it. But I doubt whether that proposition would ever be contested by anybody.

For an established newspaper reporter, however, lazily to select a photograph which he thought might dramatise his case, and unthinkingly use the descriptive text provided by a website that has clearly been influenced by propaganda, without performing any of the slightest checks of fact verification, or investigating the political and military environment in which the photograph was taken, is simply unacceptable. The issue of refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers, and the righteousness of their respective causes, and what they are escaping from, and how they might be liberated, is obviously very topical. (The week that this item was posted, the New York Times reported that the city of Ramadi had been ‘liberated’ by Iraqi government troops, but suggested at the same time that some citizens might prefer life under Daesh.) If the newspaper wanted to make a pertinent case about the plight of such displaced persons, however, a far more careful exploration of the context was necessary to give guidance on reasons, identities, victims, oppressors, homelands, statuses, etc., instead of making a shallow and factitious emotional appeal to its readership. The irony of ‘Refugees’ trying to escape from their ‘Liberators’ has been lost on the New York Times. Yet the newspaper seems to think nothing is awry.

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(Since I wrote this piece, I have learned that Jake Silverstein is in fact the Editor-in-Chief of the New York Times Magazine. The current issue of the Magazine indicates he has at least twenty persons with the word ‘editor’ in their job title. But who edits the editor-in-chief?)

Sources:

Working for the Enemy edited by Billstein, Fings, Kugler and Levis

The Oxford Companion to World War II

The Times Atlas of the Second World War

Bloodlands by Christopher Snyder

The Second World War by Antony Beevor

The End by Ian Kershaw

No Simple Victory by Norman Davies

Armageddon by Max Hastings

The Second World War by Martin Gilbert

After Hitler: The Last Ten Days of World War II in Europe, by Michael Jones

Deception: The Untold Story of East-West Espionage Today by Edward Lucas

(December 31, 2015)

2 Comments

Filed under General History, Media, Personal, Travel

2 Responses to Refugees and Liberators

  1. Mrs P E Wraight

    I was interested in your piece as I have in my possesion my father’s journal from his time as a POW in Stalag XIA. He mentions various dates during his time there one of which says “Left working camp Dassau 12.4.45. He also mentioned 7 March 1945 “Dessau had its big fire bomb raid”. He also mentions leaving Camp in Halle on 29 April 1945 on the start of his journey home to England.

    • coldspur

      Thank you so much, Mrs Wraight. I have made a note of the dates you mention. It is very moving to read of journals like your father’s.

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