Flight and evacuation of German civilians during the end of World War II
|Flight and expulsion of Germans during
and after World War II
|Wartime flight and evacuation|
|Post-war flight and expulsion|
Plans to evacuate the German population from the occupied territories in Central and Eastern Europe and from Eastern Germany were prepared by German authorities at the end of World War II. However, the evacuation in most of the areas was delayed until the last moment, when it was too late to conduct it in an orderly fashion. Most of the evacuation efforts commenced in January 1945, when Soviet forces were already rapidly advancing westward. In total about six million Germans were evacuated from the areas east of the Oder-Neisse line before the Red Army and the Soviet-controlled Polish People's Army took control of the region.
German evacuation policies
The plans to evacuate some German populations westwards from Eastern Europe and from some cities in the Eastern Gaue of Greater Germany were prepared by various Nazi authorities towards the end of the war. Some of the guards and inmates of the Majdanek camp were evacuated starting on April 1, 1944 (see also Death marches (Holocaust)). In most cases, however, the implementation of the plans was either delayed until Allied forces had already advanced into the areas to be evacuated, or it was prohibited entirely by the Nazi apparatus. Despite the rapid advances of the Red Army, the German authorities in many areas forbade leaving one's place of residence without a permit and an officially valid reason. Millions of Germans were left in these areas until combat conditions overwhelmed them, as a direct result of both the draconian measures taken by the Nazis towards the end of the war against anyone even suspected of 'defeatist' attitudes (such as suggesting evacuation) and the fanaticism of many Nazi functionaries in their mindless support of useless 'no retreat' orders. When the German authorities finally gave people the order to leave their homes, the available means of transport (such as trains and ships) were inadequate, and this forced many to leave most of their belongings behind. The first mass movement of German civilians in the eastern territories included both spontaneous flight and organized evacuation starting in the summer of 1944 and continuing through to the spring of 1945. However most of the evacuation efforts commenced in January 1945, when Soviet forces were already at the eastern border of Greater Germany.
Red army atrocities and Nazi propaganda
While advancing toward the West, soldiers of the Red Army committed a variety of atrocities, most notably rape, mutilation, murder and looting. The Soviet propaganda machine (e.g. Ilya Ehrenburg) encouraged a harsh and vengeful attitude toward the German military and this encouragement may have led to atrocities on German civilians in Germany.
Nazi propaganda widely published the details of the Soviet atrocities, such as the Nemmersdorf massacre, in order to strengthen German morale to defend themselves. However, the reverse result was achieved, as hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans panicked and fled in 1945, particularly from East Prussia to the west, attempting to seek safety within parts of Germany not yet occupied.
70,000 - 120,000 Germans were evacuated at the end of 1944 and the beginning of 1945.
The evacuation plans for East Prussia were ready in the second half of 1944. They consisted of both general plans and specific instructions for each individual town. The plans encompassed not only people but also industry and livestock.
The evacuation was planned to be conducted in three waves: the first two of them in July and October 1944, when about 25% of the 2.6 million population, mostly elderly, women and children, were supposed to be evacuated to Pomerania and Saxony.
In fact the populace of Memel east of the Neman River was evacuated to the western parts of East Prussia in late summer 1944. On October 7, 1944 that area was the only part of East Prussia completely evacuated. On October 16, 1944 the Red Army reached German territory for the first time in World War II in the southern part of East Prussia near Gumbinnen, encountering German civilians and committing the Nemmersdorf massacre. After the Wehrmacht managed to reconquer large parts of the territory, the East Prussian Gauleiter Erich Koch partially conceded the requests of the Wehrmacht and gave permission to evacuate a small strip of 30 km directly behind the front line. Civilians from that area were sent to the northern parts of East Prussia.
The third wave of evacuation happened in January 1945, when the Soviet East Prussian Offensive was already in progress. While Nazi authorities propagated the faith in the Final victory, any self-contained flight preparation was labelled as defeatism. Most civilians left their homes just hours before the Soviets overran them, and were often directly involved in combat. At the same time Nazi representatives, like Gauleiter Koch who had prepared two steamboats in the harbour of Pillau for his personal use, were the first to escape to the west. After the Red Army reached the coast of the Vistula Lagoon near Elbing on January 23, 1945, cutting off the overland route between East Prussia and the western territories, the only way to leave was to cross the frozen Vistula Lagoon and to try to reach the harbours of Danzig or Gdynia, to be evacuated by ships taking part in Operation Hannibal. This phase of the evacuation followed two major routes: westwards, towards Gdansk and Pomerania, and northwards, towards Königsberg and Pillau port.
About 450,000 Germans fled East Prussia over the frozen Vistula Lagoon and were then evacuated by ship from Baltic port cities.
Out of a pre-war population of 2,490,000, about 500,000 died during the war (including military), including 311,000 civilians dying during the wartime flight and post-war expulsion of Germans. 1,200,000 managed to escape to western Germany, while about 800,000 pre-war inhabitants remained in East Prussia in the summer of 1945.
The evacuation of Pomerania was also delayed. It was further complicated by the influx of the Germans evacuated from East Prussia. At the end of February 1945, the Nazis ordered the evacuation to be suspended. This delay resulted in the land evacuation routes soon being blocked by the advancing Soviet and Polish forces. Kolberg, the main seaport within the German-held pocket, was declared a "fortress" and became the center for sea-based evacuation of both civilians and military from Farther Pomerania. Germans who were evacuated on ships were landed either in German seaport cities west of the Oder River, or in Denmark, where internment camps were set up by the Danes after the war. In total almost 2.2 million people were evacuated this way, and about 14,000 drowned when their ship was sunk by the Allies.
About 85% of the Lower Silesian population was evacuated in 1945, first across Oder River and then to Saxony or to Bohemia. However, many of the Silesians ignored the evacuation orders, believing that their knowledge of Polish and their Polish provenance would spare them the horrors feared by Germans.
February 1945 the Soviet Red Army approached the city of Breslau (now Wrocław). Gauleiter Karl Hanke declared the city a Festung (fortress) to be held at all costs.[clarification needed] Hanke finally lifted a ban on the evacuation of women and children when it was almost too late. During his poorly organised evacuation in early March 1945, 18,000 people froze to death in icy snowstorms and -20°C weather.
- Expulsion of Germans after World War II
- Flight and expulsion of Germans (1944–1950)
- Nemmersdorf massacre
- Nazi-Soviet population transfers
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