The Soviet offensive into eastern Germany was making good progress. The ordinary soldiers of the Red Army now discovered what Germany was like and they were amazed at how rich it was compared to most of the Soviet territories. A frequent question was – What had Germany sought to gain by invading an impoverished country like Russia, when the Germans were evidently so much richer? It was just one more factor that enraged an army that was already ready for vengeance.
There might hardly seem to be any reason to exaggerate the threat to Germany that the Soviets posed. But the Nazis sought to portray the Russians as a utterly uncivilised hordes who would destroy Germany and do terrible things to her people. It was all designed to motivate the German soldier to fight to the last in defence of the Fatherland.
Soviet officer Boris Gorbachevsky was with the first wave of troops to attack and then enter the city of Treuburg. Treuburg (“Loyal Castle”) had been named as such in 1928, because the district had voted to stay in East Prussia. It is now the city of Olecko in Poland:
Then the order was issued to attack. Intense fighting for Treuburg continued for four days; several times the city changed hands, until at last the German units became exhausted and retreated. We couldn’t understand why the adversary had defended Treuburg so stubbornly.
The city didn’t have any strategic significance, and yet the Germans paid such a high price for their recklessness — several hundred killed and wounded, many burned out tanks, and a devastated city. We thought perhaps it was because not far away, in the Romintensky Forest, lay Hermann Goring’s hunting lodge and castle.
The solution to this riddle quickly emerged. It turned out that the Germans had “prepared” for the city’s surrender. Almost immediately after the fighting ended, a few officers in the Political Department and I entered the city and walked along its streets.
At almost every intersection, large posts bore signs that read: “Pay close attention to what the Bolsheviks have done to the first city taken by them in East Prussia. This is how they will treat all the cities and villages of your beloved Homeland, and all of us Germans. Defend your Great Reich from the Red barbarians!”
In reality, as we later learned from the testimony of prisoners, on one of the first days of the fighting, when we were still struggling with the enemy on the approaches to the city, the Germans themselves, by order of Joseph Goebbels [Nazi Germany’s minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda], forcibly expelled the citizens and then blew up and burned the finest buildings in the city: the church, the water works, the movie theater and bank, the sports halls, and the main street, where stores and a high school were located.
Over the next several hours, they trucked in people from nearby districts, and brought in film crews and journalists to record on film and print the city ruins, and the fear and grief of the sham residents. Even the park and its beautiful swans were destroyed: almost all the trees were burned, the swans were shot, and it was announced that the “Asiatic hordes” had killed them and eaten them.
The city was empty as our regimental column marched along its main boulevard. Not a single soul was visible. Cows were bellowing in a heartrending fashion, and we could hear the barking of dogs.
Gorbachevsky continues the same passage to describe why the Germans had real reason to fear the Red Army:
Then unexpectedly a tall, hale old man hopped out of a partially destroyed building, holding some sort of booklet in his outstretched hand, and with joyful exclamations, he rushed to meet our column.
One of the Red Army soldiers, who didn’t understand German words, without pausing to try to figure out what the German was saying, stepped out of the column and with all his might, smashed the German’s head with his rifle butt. Bleeding heavily, the old man fell to the cobblestone pavement.
As the column marched past the prostrate man, more soldiers joined to taunt him as much as possible and to finish him off – they kicked him with their boots, stabbed him with their bayonets, and then spat upon the corpse. A politruk stopped by the dead man’s mutilated body. He lifted the blood-soaked booklet of a member of the Communist Party of Germany, wiped off the cover, and hid it in his map case. Saying not a word, he set off to catch up to his place in the column.
I witnessed this scene. It was the first death of a German civilian that I saw in Germany. Catching up to the man who had crushed the German’s skull with his rifle butt, I asked him: “Why did you kill him? He plainly was not a soldier, and there was no way he could have harmed us. An old man, a communist, it is possible he spent time in prison for his political allegiance to the German Communist Party. Just think, for many years he kept his Party card at the risk of his life.”
The soldier gruffly answered: “To me, Comrade Senior Lieutenant, they are all the same – just scum. I won’t find any peace until I kill a hundred of them. You’d better ask yourself how you wound up so alone in your opinion.”
It was not difficult to understand either his hatred or that of the soldiers who had spat on the German. But how many more Germans would they have to kill, humiliate, and tear to pieces in order to sooth their grief, dull their hatred, thaw their icy souls, and find inner peace?