"I did not know then that the 8th of May 1945 was a special day. Whatever happened in the world ‘outside’, did not apply to us. Here, everything revolved around food, the acquisition of food and sheer survival… We did not have a reason to celebrate."
— Inge Keller-Dommasch, Wir aber mussten es erleben, 2004
These are the words of Inge Keller-Dommasch, a 15-year refugee in 1945 from the German province of East Prussia, recalling her memories of 8th May 1945. This description is in fact one of very few to be found in the interviews given and autobiographies written by Germans from East Prussia that I have collected over the years. For these individuals 8th May was not experienced as a day of liberation, as it had been for the victims of Nazism and citizens of combatant nations. Instead it passed like most days that followed the Red Army’s invasion of East Prussia in January 1945—in a blur. In the context of fleeing or having been overtaken by the Red Army, 8th May did not herald peace but rather signalled a period of hardship hitherto not experienced by Germans who had not been victims of the Nazis. However, by focussing primarily on their own experiences of violence and suffering at the end of the war, many East Prussian autobiographical accounts fail, to varying extents, to fully interrogate the relationship between their own experiences and the crimes of the Third Reich.
East Prussia lay far in the East of Germany in the regions east of the Vistula River which are now Poland and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. German speakers had lived in these areas since the middle ages when the Teutonic Knights sought to Christianise the region. However, as a consequence of the Nazi-led Second World War, Germany’s borders were shifted westwards. This resulted in East Prussia becoming part of the Polish and Soviet states. For a range of political, economic and nationalistic reasons, the Germans who lived there were forced to migrate to what was left of Germany.
In the memories of many East Prussian civilians, the Second World War was something fought far away in France, North Africa and the Soviet Union. Even the Allied bombing campaign, which had deeply affected the lives of those in western regions of Germany, did not reach East Prussia until autumn 1944. Individuals lost family members, an experience which of course was traumatic, however, on the whole, the war and violence remained relatively far away in the memories of individuals in East Prussia. That was until January 1945.
On 12th January 1945 the Red Army began its invasion of Germany proper. Within two weeks East Prussia was encircled when the Red Army reached the shores of the Vistula Lagoon, cutting the province off by land from the rest of Germany. For German refugees as well as victims of Nazism, concentration camp inmates, forced foreign workers and POWs, a period of grave uncertainty began.
For many East Prussians this was the seminal moment in their experience of the war. It was the time in which they left their homes behind and became refugees, never to return to their homes. In many areas the Nazi authorities had not allowed Germans to flee until the last minute, which resulted in refugees being caught up in the fighting. Refugee columns were strafed by Soviet aircraft and the crossing of the frozen Vistula Lagoon has become the stuff of legend in the recollection of these events. Refugee ships were sunk, with up to 9,000 estimated to have died during sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff and 7,000 on the Goya. Rape was also common and women suffered greatly. On top of this, these journeys were undertaken during the harsh East Prussian winter resulting in the death of many, especially young children.
In the memories of refugees, it is often the difficult, dangerous and traumatic experiences of the flight that primarily colour their narratives. However, we must not forget that the invasion also put the lives of victims of Nazism further in jeopardy. For 5,000 inmates of the Stutthof concentration camp in West Prussia the Soviet invasion resulted in an ‘evacuation’ of the camp and a death march northwards. The conditions endured by those forced to leave are notorious. Malnourished inmates were forced to march through snow in inadequate clothing, often wearing no shoes or just wooden clogs. They were beaten and mistreated along the way and those who could no longer walk were shot by the side of the road. Those who survived the terrible conditions of the march were massacred by the SS on a beach at Palmnicken, East Prussia. Not all were killed and some were able hide, with their liberation coming with the arrival of the Red Army. However, in the memories of East Prussian civilians it is often their own suffering at the hands of the Red Army that is primarily focussed on, and the death marches and the Palmnicken massacre are rarely mentioned but in a few cases.
The meaning of the 8th of May, therefore, varies according to location and personal circumstances. As pointed out by Keith Lowe in his book Savage Continent, the end of the war did not mean the end of violence for many living in Europe but rather further chaos, displacement and disruption. This was certainly the experience of many East Prussians who fled and were overtaken by the Red Army, some of whom did not return to Germany until 1948. In their recollections of the war and its end, the 8th of May carries little meaning and it is rather 13th January and the following weeks that marked a turning point in their life experiences.