Letter from Berlin: Germany's forgotten victims

March 27 2002 / The Guardian

Every year, in ever-decreasing numbers, people from the former Soviet Union, most of them elderly, make the long journey to Treptower Park in the eastern suburbs of Berlin. There stands a monument to the Soviet dead of the second world war and, in particular, to the estimated 300,000 Soviet troops killed in the battle for Berlin in the spring of 1945, at least 5,000 of whom are buried in the park. The monument is a socialist-realist heroic fantasy: an “unknown soldier”, raised on a plinth 36ft above the ground, surveys the flat, monotonous landscape before him. He supports a frightened child in one hand and brandishes a sword in the other, while at his feet is a fractured swastika. The memorial crypt inside the plinth is made from marble removed from Hitler’s Reich Chancellery.

In Treptower Park on a cold, snowy morning, I recently met an old woman who told me her brother had been killed in the final weeks of the war defending what she called the “lost city” of Königsberg, the old capital of East Prussia, which today, as Kaliningrad, is in a troubled Russian enclave on the Baltic. She had her own name for the monument in the park: “the site of the unknown rapist”, she called it, in recognition of the atrocities visited on German women during the last months of what became, as Hitler prophesied it would, a “war of total annihilation”.

Later, I bought a copy of Günter Grass’s new novel, In Retrogression, which merges fiction, memoir and reportage to tell the story of what is being called “Germany’s Titanic” - the sinking by a Soviet submarine of the cruise liner Wilhelm Gustloff in January 1945. There were more than 7,000 people aboard the liner - most of them German refugees escaping from the chaos on the eastern front - when it was hit by three torpedoes in the freezing waters of the Baltic, west of the port of Danzig (now Gdansk). The ship was designed to take a maximum of 2,000 passengers, and it sank rapidly. Grass imagines the final moments of those on board: their panic, their despair, the clamour and the screaming.

That Grass, an icon of the left and lifelong critic of German revisionism, should have returned at this time to such an emotive subject has inspired animated conversation in Germany. After all, it was Grass, during the reunification celebrations of 1990, who said: “Whoever thinks about Germany at this moment should not forget Auschwitz.” In Retrogression is being read not only as an elegy for the estimated 6,000 people who died that night in the icy black waters of the Baltic, but as a signifier of what Die Welt is calling the “normalisation of Germany”.

This so-called normalisation is a complex and tortuous process but, in essence, what it means is that no understanding of the Nazi period and its long, dislocating aftermath can be complete without acceptance of Germany’s own suffering. Nor, without normalisation, is it possible to contextualise nazism, to draw comparisons with, say, Soviet communism and other regimes of historic tyranny. Hitherto, certainly since the leftist rebellions of the 1960s, the emphasis has been on the crimes and unique evil of the Third Reich, on the Holocaust, on German culpability and on rituals of mourning and memory. Which means that the Germans have never allowed themselves to comprehend the full effects of the war on their collective consciousness, their own sense of loss.

There are other signs of normalisation, too, that bespeak a renewed confidence to address the past. The Social Democrat politician Alwin Ziel has suggested, for instance, giving the name “Prussia” to the new state that would emerge from the proposed merger of Berlin and Brandenburg. He is supported by the essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, among others, but has also been widely condemned, though he seeks to resurrect Prussia in name only. Elsewhere, in Bavaria, Edmund Stoiber, the leading rightwing challenger to chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, has been vilified by younger Germans for demanding an apology from the Czech Republic for the postwar expulsion of ethnic Germans from the Sudetenland, a wound that still festers.

“Normalisation means opening up the whole of the history of that period, and that includes what happened in the old GDR, when Germans killed Germans, what happened in Dresden, East Prussia and so on,” says Walter Rothschild, a British-born rabbi who is now a leading member of the Jewish community in Berlin. “The Jews have long occupied the role of victim; but it’s time, I think, to acknowledge that the Germans were victims too, for Jews to say: ‘Yes, we hear your pain, we understand.’ It may need the last of the survivors of the camps to die before that can happen. There’s still so much of the past to work through, so many psychological traumas, before we can accept the broader perspective.”

One of the great unwritten narratives of the second world war concerns the ejection immediately after the war of between 13 and 14 million ethnic Germans from their ancient homelands in Pomerania, East Prussia and Silesia, as the borders of Poland and the Soviet Union were shifted westward. The “ethnic cleansing” of these displaced Germans, as well as those from the Sudetenland, resulted in more than two million deaths and what is still the largest single refugee movement in European history. Yet it remains scarcely known outside Germany. “In the immediate aftermath of the war and revelation of Nazi crimes, there was little sympathy for Germans,” writes the Oxford historian Mark Almond in the preface to Ursula Lange’s new book East Germany: What Happened to the Silesians in 1945 (Book Guild). “But the passage of time should open our eyes to the great sufferings inflicted on civilians whose only crime was their nationality.”

The wait for British eyes to open may not be long - in April, Anthony Beevor publishes Berlin: the Downfall, 1945 (Viking/Penguin), his follow-up to the surprise bestseller Stalingrad. He has produced a narrative of suffering and destruction, in which the gang rape of German women and the slaughter of children as the Soviets rampaged towards Berlin are vividly described. The truth of what happened during the Soviet onslaught against the Germans has long been repressed in Russia, marginalised as the inevitable consequences of war, though privately Soviet veterans joke about “two million of our children being born in Germany” and one former major is quoted by Beevor as saying that “our fellows were so sex-starved that they often raped old women of 60, 70 or even 80 - much to these grandmothers’ surprise, if not downright delight”. Beevor concentrates, too, on the expulsions from East Prussia: “It was the abrupt and total destruction of a whole region, with its own marked character and culture, emphasised perhaps because it had always been at the extremity of Germany on the Slav frontier.”

In the early 1950s, the plight of the German expellees - most of whom were absorbed into the largely agrarian states of Bavaria, Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg - was a source of rightwing revisionist agitation. A political party and a ministry for expellees were established to fight for their cause during a period of deep shock and silence in Germany. The late WG Sebald has written, in Air War and Literature (to be published next year by Hamish Hamilton), of his youthful wanderings through a purgatorial landscape of bomb-ruined cities, and of how so little was spoken and understood about the catastrophe that had unfolded in the German Reich. The Germans were, he said, wilfully blind: when they turned to take a backward view, particularly of the years 1930 to 1950, they were always both “looking and looking away”. They could not comprehend the scale of their humiliation and defeat. They wished only to forget.

There’s little doubt that a terrible retribution was exacted on Germany at the end of the war, and only now, through the long perspective of suffering, are Germans beginning to understand and accept what happened to them, both as perpetrators and victims. Should we fear German normalisation? In many ways, Britain, with a postwar identity constructed from images of heroic resistance - the Battle of Britain, Dunkirk, Churchillian rhetoric - has yet to embark on its own journey of normalisation, a process that would include a final reckoning with our own war crimes: the bombing of Dresden, say, or the closing of our borders to Jewish refugees, or our botched policies in Palestine.

Instead, we remain entombed in the past, enthralled and mesmerised by the figure of Adolf Hitler. Not a week passes, it seems, without a new portrait of the Führer or one of his henchmen being broadcast, or another psychobiography speculating about Hitler’s supposed homosexuality, coprophilia or monorchidism being published, as if the truth or otherwise of such things will help us to understand German fascism.

“When I think of Adolf Hitler,” wrote the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, in a celebrated phrase, “nothing occurs to me.” Today everything - anything - occurs to us when we think of Hitler, as if we see reflected in the mirror of his life and times an image of our own lost certainty and present confusion. We may no longer know who we are in this country, or where we’re heading, but we know that we’re not Nazis.

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” wrote Pope. No one could accuse modern Berliners of having too little knowledge about the past. Their city, with its shattered churches and sites of dereliction, its Chicago-style glass towers coexisting uneasily with Soviet-era tower blocks, its rebuilt Reichstag and its magnificent new Jewish Museum, is the embodiment of what Mikhail Bakhtin called a “chronotope”, a place allowing us to roam through time and space, to see the past in the present. Berlin is at once a mausoleum, a city of ghosts, and a vibrant modern metropolis. It’s abnormal, and yet one of the most normal places I’ve ever visited.

Above all, Berlin reminds us definitively that without the living presence of the past, a better future can never be created. If that, in the end, is what normalisation means, we should welcome it.