…In an important book only now available in English translation, Alfred M. de Zayas, a graduate of Harvard Law School, outlines the history of the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, which from September 1939 until May 1945 kept a running record of war crimes committed against the Germans, their allies, and civilians…
Soviet Union: “Naked women were nailed through their hands”
At the edge of the town, on the left side of the road, stands the large inn ‘Weisser Krug’ … In the farmyard further down the road stood a cart, to which four naked women were nailed through their hands in a cruciform position. Behind the Weisser Krug towards Gumbinnen is a square with a monument to the Unknown Soldier. Beyond is another larger inn, ‘Roter Krug’. Near it, parallel to the road, stood a barn and to each of its two doors a naked woman was nailed through the hands, in a crucified posture. In the dwellings we found a total of seventy-two women, including children, and one old man, 74, all dead… all murdered in a bestial manner, except only for a few who had bullet holes in their necks. Some babies had their heads bashed in. In one room we found a woman, 84 years old, sitting on a sofa… half of whose head had been sheared off with an axe or a spade…
We carried the corpses to the village cemetery where they lay to await a foreign medical commission… In the meantime, a nurse from Insterburg came, a native of Nemmersdorf, who looked for her parents. Among the corpses were her mother, 72, and her father, 74, the only man among the dead. She also established that all the dead were Nemmersdorfers. On the fourth day the bodies were buried in two graves. Only on the following day did the medical commission arrive, and the tombs had to be reopened. Barn doors were set on blocks on which to lay the bodies so that the commission could examine them. This foreign commission unanimously established that all the women, as well as the girls from eight to twelve years and even the woman of 84 years had been raped. After the examination by the commission, the bodies were again buried.
Alfred M. de Zayas, Nemesis at Potsdam: The Expulsion of the Germans from the East, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London. 1988. p. 63-64
Allied Atrocities: Entire families were liquidated
First report of three judges from the military court at Prague, Hans Boetticher, Georg Hurtig, and Horst Reger. The report dated 29 September 1939 describes their work in the province of Posen between 18 and 28 September:
“Witness depositions were not limited to ethnic Germans but also extended to Polish persons. Polish soldiers, especially the infantry, were much involved in the murders. In the majority of case the victims were first arrested under some pretext… most often following German air attacks. The following are the most common grounds for the arrests, when grounds were at all given: alleged possession of weapons, ammunition, and secret transmitters; giving light signals to German planes; espionage; and giving shelter to spies. But in many case it sufficed for the arrest if the victim affirmatively answered the question whether he was German and of the Lutheran faith. From the entire province of Posen the ethnic Germans, who had evidently been arrested according to a special list, were driven toward Kutno. During the march continuous abuses were committed by the military escort… primarily against those who because of weakness or advanced age or disease could not walk fast enough.
“In addition to the victims of these deportations there were killings of ethnic Germans in other parts of the province, especially in the eastern and southern districts, where some extraordinarily brutal murders were committed. Entire families were liquidated. The men were not always merely shot but frequently slaughtered with all sorts of tools before the eyes of their relatives, who had also been advised of their impending death. Many of the corpses were discovered with severe mutilations. At Tarlova near Kolo, Polish soldiers hunted down with machine guns a large number of Germans. Witnesses reported finding some 130 corpses strewn about on the field like hares after the hunt.
“In three cases it could be established that the Polish Army did not treat members of the Luftwaffe who had jumped out of their stricken planes as prisoners of war but shot them instead. Only some of the witnesses have been interrogated thus far, because many who had particularly gruesome experiences are still psychically so shaken that taking depositions did not appear advisable.”
Alfred M. de Zayas, The Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, 1939-1945, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London. 1989. p. 133-34
Manuel Ruiz was a Spanish soldier, a member of the so-called Blue Division, which was composed of Spanish volunteers. He told his story before Judge Schoene on December 27, 1941.
“After Christmas 1941 the first company of the Spanish Division was attacked by the Russians at its middle section, just north of Novgorod. Many wounded Spanish soldiers were captured. Some hours later another Spanish company was able to reoccupy the area, and I personally saw the bodies of Spanish comrades who had been murdered by the Russians. Three of them had been pierced with a pickaxe through the chest, another had had the ears cut off, another was missing an arm, and still another had the genital organ amputated. Toward the end of December 1941 – after the events described above – I saw a Red Cross ambulance standing on a road… five wounded German soldiers who had been in the ambulance were lying on the ground… All five had been killed with bayonets or knives, and two of them had had their genitals cut off.”
Alfred M. de Zayas, The Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, 1939-1945, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London. 1989. p. 192-93
Statement of Corporal Walter Segel before Judge Sauermann:
“Together with my troops I went on board a Greek caique on 17 May 1941 and we sailed from Piraeus in order to land on the western shore of Crete on 20 May to give support to the parachute troops. We sailed in a convoy of 21 ships that was attacked by British warships near Crete in the night of 20-21 May from 2210 in the night until 0330 in the early morning. The British scanned the seas with searchlights, attacked individual ships with artilliary fire, and after sinking them, switched on smaller searchlights to look for the shipwrecked, who were holding on to rubber boats or similar gear, and opened fire on them with machine guns and small-caliber cannons. I could observe the shooting clearly… individual men in such rubber boats suddenly sank. The British did not even attempt to rescue any of them. I saw at least twenty groups of survivors who were illuminated by the British and then sprayed with bullets. My own ship that had the number 107 or 103 was only lightly damaged.”
Alfred M. de Zayas, The Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, 1939-1945, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London. 1989. p. 254
Following are the events surrounding the sinking of the German ship, Erich Giese on 13 April 1940 by the British Navy. Captain Karl Smidt explained during his Paris deposition on 23 August 1940:
“While the crew of some 200 men was swimming in the water, the British destroyers opened fire against us with machine guns and cannons. Several times from the pressure in the water, I felt the explosion of a shell. However, I did not see anyone hit. The crew did suffer casualties through machine-gun fire, which was clearly identifiable by its whistling sound… Reports made to me by members of the crew after reaching land indicated that a number of soldiers had been hit. The civilian steward Masula was wounded by a shot that grazed his head, but the wound did not endanger his life. Several days after the battle the engine-man Ospelkaus was washed ashore, and we saw that he had been shot in the head, a wound which he could only have received in the water. Other reports submitted immediately after the battle clearly established that several soldiers were killed while swimming in the water. Those who had been swimming in their vicinity observed that their heads were suddenly all bloody and they ceased moving. According to undisputed testimony the British also directed heavy fire at the rafts, even one raft that had no oars and simply floated in the fjord. The British did take nine men prisoner from this raft.”
Alfred M. de Zayas, The Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, 1939-1945, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London. 1989. p. 248-49
The Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau
By Robert Clive
The Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, 1939-1945 by Alfred M. de Zayas. Nebraska University Press, 1989, Paperbound, 364 pages, bibliography, index, photographs, $15.95. ISBN: 0-8032-9908-7
When the topic of atrocities committed during the Second world War is discussed, such places as Babi Yar, Lidice, Malmedy and Oradour-sur-Glane almost immediately come to mind. But few will mention – or even have heard of – Bromberg, Bassabetovka, Goldap, Hohensalza, Nemmersdorf, or St. Pierre de Rumilly. The first group of names are associated with war crimes attributed to the Nazis. In the second list, the victims were Germans murdered by anti-Axis forces.
That atrocities were committed by the Allies against Germans and non-combatant civilians on both the Eastern and Western fronts is not often acknowledged. In large measure this reflects the fact that “victors write the history.” As a recent spate of popular books attests, the Second World War has been established in the public consciousness as “the last good war,” in which the forces of Evil were vanquished, despite the enormous costs involved, both material and moral.
In an important book only now available in English translation, Alfred M. de Zayas, a graduate of Harvard Law School, outlines the history of the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, which from September 1939 until May 1945 kept a running record of war crimes committed against the Germans, their allies, and civilians.
The study grew out of research de Zayas undertook among previously unexamined German war-time legal records while he was director of the “Working Group on the Laws of War” at the Institute of International Law at Göttingen University (from which institution he also holds a Ph.D. in history). First published in 1979 as Die Wehrmacht-Untersuchungsstelle by Universitas/Langen Müller, the book was very favorably received throughout German-speaking Europe and served as the basis for a highly acclaimed two-part television documentary broadcast in Germany in 1983.
All belligerents investigated reported breaches of the laws and customs of war. When hostilities ended in 1945, Axis political and military leaders were imprisoned and many were executed for their alleged involvement in war crimes – a process that continues to this day. Allied officials who were responsible for committing atrocities against Axis personnel have not been similarly dealt with.
The Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau was the direct successor to the Prussian Bureau of Investigation of Violations of the Laws of War, which conducted investigations until after the end of the First World War as an arm of the Reich War Ministry. There was a remarkable degree of continuity between the two organizations. Johannes Goldsche, a military judge who served as deputy chief of the Prussian Bureau, was appointed director of the Wehrmacht Bureau and served in this capacity throughout the Second World War. Both bureaus had the identical mission: to document allied offenses and submit reports. Some of their findings served as the basis for diplomatic protests lodged by the German Foreign Office against the Allied powers. But as we know, during and after the two wars, international public opinion tended to dismiss out of hand German allegations of Allied war crimes. Thus far, the one exception has been the case of Katyn, where thousands of Polish officers and intellectuals were murdered by the Soviets near Smolensk.
The author did not accept German allegations at face value. After sifting through several hundred volumes of official records, he interviewed more than 300 judges, witnesses, and victims. He cross-checked events mentioned in Bureau reports by consulting other German record groups and relevant American, British, French, and Swiss files (Soviet records remain largely unavailable to scrutiny by Western researchers). De Zayas’s research “confirmed the correctness of the protocols.” He goes on to forthrightly state:
All in all the coherency of the War Crimes Bureau files, the confirmation of persons involved, and the comparison with other historical sources justify the conclusion that the Bureau did function in a trustworthy manner, that its investigations were authentic and its documents reliable … the Bureau was not a propaganda arm of the Nazi regime …
De Zayas divides his study into two parts. The first twelve chapters outline the history of the Prussian bureau and then relate why and when the Wehrmacht agency was started. The Bureau’s personnel and methods of operation are delineated.
Part Two presents details on specific cases. A careful line is drawn between historical events and mere propaganda. To those who have been brought up on a steady diet of Nazi atrocity stories, it is this second section that contains real eye-openers.
The Wehrmacht Bureau established that Polish military personnel and civilians committed numerous atrocities against ethnic Germans living within Poland’s pre-war frontiers, and against German civilians and soldiers after the war commenced. On the Western Front, the Bureau determined that the British were guilty of plundering the French and Belgian populace. The famous Belgian cyclist Julian Vervaecke was among the civilians killed by British soldiers. The French likewise executed Belgian non-combatants, Jewish refugees, and prisoners of war.
In his discussion of atrocities committed by the Allies in the West, de Zayas affirms that
“there was no fabrication of atrocity stories [by the Bureau] but rather the methodical collection and evaluation of evidence. Nor was there any attempt to blame the Allies for destruction that may have been caused by the Germans themselves.”
Most of the existing records deal with atrocities committed on the Eastern Front by the Red Army and Soviet secret police (the NKVD). From the outset of the war in the East, the Bureau received reports of atrocities and wholesale violations of the internationally accepted rules of warfare. And as the Axis armies advanced, Soviet subjects came forward to reveal additional acts of barbarism perpetrated by the Soviet authorities.
POWs, whether Germans or Axis allies, were often shot out of hand, or shortly after they had been questioned. At Feodosiya, on the Black Sea, wounded soldiers were drenched with water and then left on the beaches to freeze to death. Captured soldiers were not merely executed, but frequently subjected to torture and mutilation first, then left where their remains could be easily discovered.
When the Red Army invaded German territory in late 1944, civilians who had been unable to flee before their advance were condemned to undergo a regime of ferocious brutality. At such towns as Goldap, Gumbinnen, and Nemmersdorf, even children were raped before being murdered by Russian soldiers (the book includes photographs of these deeds). Alexander Solzhenitsyn is cited by de Zayas for his testimony on this topic. The famous Russian author, who fought as a captain in the Red Army, confirmed that, “all of us knew very well that if the girls were German they could be raped and then shot. This was almost a combat distinction.”
The Bureau also documented Soviet crimes against non-Germans. Chapters deal with Lvov, where thousands of civilians were found murdered in the prisons of the NKVD; Katyn; and Vinnitsa, a Ukrainian town where mass graves dating from 1936 were discovered. De Zayas reiterates that “the War Crimes Bureau was not established to fabricate documents on Allied war crimes: its records are genuine; its investigations were carried out methodically, in a judicial manner”.
This study does not consider atrocities attributed to the Germans and their allies. De Zayas does point out, however, that the Soviets conducted the first war crimes trials against members of the German armed forces when three soldiers captured at Stalingrad were hanged in 1943, after being found “guilty” of liquidating Soviet citizens in specially constructed gas vans.
With respect to the alleged Nazi “Final Solution” to the Jewish Question, in a footnote de Zayas concedes:
Without exception, all the German military judges interviewed by the author claimed not to have known about exterminations at any of the concentration camps until after the end of the war. A few admitted hearing rumors of executions on the Eastern Front but claimed that they had been unable to obtain corroborative evidence.
Elsewhere, de Zayas remarks:
The investigations described in this book manifest again and again the subjective conviction of the German military judges in the field and of the staff members of the Bureau that the German armed forces were fighting honorably, in compliance with the Hague and Geneva Convention, while those on the other side were violating those Conventions.
De Zayas has opened a new chapter in the study of the conduct of the Second World War. Now that his book is available in English translation, and published by a distinguished university press, its appearance hopefully will generate discussion of the topics it has raised, and inspire others to further research.