The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book Review

Defeat in the East: Russia Conquers — January to May 1945

  • Defeat in the East: Russia Conquers — January to May 1945, by Jürgen Thorwald, edited and translated by Fred Wieck, Bantam Books, Pb, 292pp with maps and drawings, $2.50, ISBN 0-553-13469-8.

reviewed by Charles Lutton

Most of the actual fighting during the Second World War took place on the Eastern Front between the Soviet Union and Germany and her allies. The last stages of the war in the East are vividly described by the German jounalist and historian, Juergen Thorwald. In Defeat in the East, Thorwald traces the military debacle of the Third Reich and shows what happened to the civilian population wherever the Red Army conquered.

The author participated in the rescue of refugees in eastern Germany and interviewed civilian and military survivors of the final collapse. On the basis of his own experience and interviews, as well as documentation available in the immediate post-war period, Thorwald was able to reconstruct a story that is still little known in the West. The book at hand is a translation based on a two-volume German work of more than seven hundred and fifty pages. It first appeared in an English language edition in 1951, under the title Flight in Winter, published by Pantheon Books, and has recently been reprinted as one of the titles in the popular Bantam War Books Series.

At the beginning of June 1944, Axis troops still controlled much Russian territory. Later that month, two hundred twenty-five Soviet infantry and armored divisions smashed through German Army Group Center, comprised of forty understrength divisions. On 23 August 1944, Romania left the Axis and the Red Army drove on into Hungary. People of German descent caught in the Russian steamroller were tortured, murdered, or deported. Refugees streamed into Austria.

By late fall, General Heinz Guderian, Chief of the German Army General Staff, managed to scrape together fourteen divisions of reserves for deployment against the Russians. They were instead frittered away in Hitler’s fruitless December offensive in the Ardennes. When the new Russian drive commenced during the second week of January 1945, the German front lines disintegrated.

In almost every German settlement, village, or town where the Red Army advanced, the Russian troops engaged in an orgy of rape, murder, looting, and deportation. Women over seventy and girls under twelve were gang-raped, drafted for forced labor, and the healthier ones frequently rounded up, packed into cattlecars and transported to Russia. For over three years, the Communist propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg had promised Red Army troops the German women as their booty. Soviet officers often read to their soldiers Ehrenburg’s enjoinder to: “Kill, Red Army men, Kill! No fascist is innocent, be he alive, be he as yet unborn. Kill!” As one eyewitness to the events reported, “It seemed as though the devil himself had come to Silesia. The 'Mongol barbarism of the Asiatic plains' had come not in a propaganda phrase but in the flesh. From January into April there raged a seemingly planless regime of looting, rape, and murder. Every German was fair game, all German property booty.”

But the wholesale acts of atrocity committed against the German civilian populations of Eastern Europe were not planless. Instead, they were part of a preconceived plan designed to drive out all Germans and annex areas to the Soviet Union and pro-Soviet Poland. When the British and Americans bombed the defenseless Saxon capital of Dresden on 13-14 February 1945, killing thousands of the civilians who had sought refuge there, it appeared to be a further implementation of an Allied plan. During the December Ardennes offensive, the Germans captured enemy documents concerning Operation “Eclipse,” codename of the notorious design inspired by U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, which called for the destruction of the German nation following the allied victory.

Although the Soviets and their Western Allies had complete control of the air and held vast superiority in ground forces, the Germans tenaciously fought on. Boys of twelve and over from the Hitler Youth were given hasty lessons in the use of rifles, machineguns, or Panzerfausts; (a bazooka-like anti-tank weapon), and sent to the shrinking front lines, often joining the elderly men of the Volksturm (People’s Militia). German military commanders continued to offer resistance in the East wherever such action served to cover the escape of the refugees. As they retreated, the Germans tried, with varying success, to surrender to British and American forces.

Thorwald discusses efforts by members of Hitler’s entourage to negotiate with the West in order to end the fighting against the Anglo-Americans and concentrate their remaining resources on resisting the Russians. Following Hitler’s suicide, his successor, Admiral Karl Dönitz, issued a proclamation which summarized his goal, “My first task is to save the German people from destruction by the Bolshevist enemy. Fighting continues only to serve this one purpose. Only so far as this purpose is being opposed by the Americans and the English, only so far will we have to defend ourselves against them also.”

Dönitz attempted to bring about a partial surrender on the Western Front, but the Allied Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower, demanded unconditional surrender to all the Allies simultaneously. Having no alternative, the Dönitz government capitulated in early May.

For many in Eastern Europe, VE Day did not end their suffering. The author recounts the fate of the Germans living in Czechoslovakia who were tortured and often murdered until the last of them fled the country. Germans were not the only ones victimized: Russian POWs, some of them members of General Vlassov’s Army and Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia, were arrested as henchmen of Hitler and turned over to the Soviets.

Juergen Thorwald has drawn attention to a topic that has been played down in the post-war years. Defeat in the East should be read in company with Alfred de Zayas' Nemesis at Potsdam and Nikolai Tolstov’s The Secret Betrayal, which describe in detail the post-war torments suffered by Germans and Russians at the hands of the victors. Anyone perusing these important volumes will no longer be convinced the Nazis had a monopoly on “war crimes.”

Reviewing this period of history, Harry Elmer Barnes observed that, “Even if one were to accept the most extreme and exaggerated indictment of Hitler and the national socialists for their activities after 1939 made by anybody fit to remain outside a mental hospital, it is almost alarmingly easy to demonstrate that the atrocities of the Allies in the same period were more numerous as to victims and were carried out for the most part by methods more brutal and painful than alleged extermination in gas ovens.”

Bibliographic information
Author: Charles Lutton
Title: Defeat in the east: Russia conquers — January to May 1945 (review)
Source: The Journal for Historical Review
Date: Spring 1982
Issue: Volume 3 number 1
Location: Page 91
ISSN: 0195-6752
Attribution: “Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, PO Box 2739, Newport Beach, CA 92659, USA.”
Please send a copy of all reprints to the Editor.