Whatever the claims of Manstein of an orderly German withdrawal on the Eastern Front, the Russian, and Ukrainian perspective was rather different. The Red Army was now reoccupying territory that had been under the Nazis for just over two years.
When the Germans had arrived there were some who had welcomed them in place of the communists. The welcome did not last long – they quickly learnt that the Nazi view of the ‘subhuman’ slavs was that they were little more than slaves who could be exploited at will.
The Red Army was rolling back over towns and cities that had been shattered by the war. They soon discovered that they were also liberating a people who had been equally shattered by the occupation. Journalist Vassily Grossman, travelling with the Soviet Army, put a human face on what they now discovered:
Old men, when they hear Russian words, run to meet the troops and weep silently, unable to utter a word. Old peasant women say with a quiet surprise: ‘We thought we would sing and laugh when we saw our army, but there’s so much grief in our hearts, that tears are falling.’
When our troops enter a village, and the cannonade shakes the air, geese take off and, flapping their wings, fly heavily over the roofs. People emerge from the forest, from tall weeds, from marshes overgrown with tall bullrushes.
Every soldier, every officer and every general of the Red Army who had seen the Ukraine in blood and fire, who had heard the true story of what had been happening in the Ukraine during the two years of German rule, understands to the bottom of their souls that there are only two sacred words left to us. One of them is ‘love’ the other one is ‘revenge’.
In these villages, the Germans used to relieve themselves in the halls and on the doorsteps, in the front gardens, in front of the windows of houses. They were not ashamed of girls and old women.
While eating, they disturbed the peace, laughing loudly. They put their hands into dishes they were sharing with their comrades, and tore boiled meat with their fingers. They walked naked around the houses, unashamed in front of the peasants, and they quarrelled and fought about petty things. Their gluttony, their ability to eat twenty eggs in one go, or a kilo of honey, a huge bowl of smetana, provoked contempt in the peasants …
Germans who had been withdrawn to the rear villages were searching for food from morning till night. They ate, drank alcohol and played cards. According to what prisoners said and [what was written in] letters found on dead German soldiers, the Germans considered themselves the representatives of a higher race forced to live in savage villages. They thought that in the wild eastern steppes one could throw culture aside.
‘Oh, that’s real culture,’ I heard dozens of people say. ‘And they used to say that Germans were cultivated people.’
On a windy and overcast morning, we met a boy on the edge of the village of Tarasevichi, by the Dnepr. He looked about thirteen to fourteen years old. The boy was extremely thin, his sallow skin was tight on his cheekbones, large bumps protruded on his skull. His lips were dirty, pale, like a dead man’s who had fallen face flat on the ground.
His eyes were looking in a tired way, there was neither joy nor sadness in them. They are so frightening, these old, tired, lifeless eyes of children. ‘Where is your father?’ ‘Killed,’ he answered. ‘And mother?’ ‘She died.’ ‘Have you got brothers or sisters?’ ‘A sister. They took her to Germany.’ ‘Have you got any relatives?’ ‘No, they were all burned in a partisan village.’
And he walked into a potato field, his feet bare and black from the mud, straightening the rags of his torn shirt.
But as the re-occupation of the Ukraine and the rest of Soviet Russia continued even worse stories would emerge.