The Bucha massacre and other war crimes committed by the Russian military on the temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories bring to mind similar crimes committed by Red Army soldiers and officers in Germany and other European countries, as well as in East Asia in 1944-1945. Historian Boris Sokolov recalls documents testifying that the Red Army brutalized the civilian population not only in defeated Germany but also in non-enemy Serbia, Manchuria, Korea, and in the East, surpassing the cruelty of Japanese occupiers.
Eastern Prussia and Serbia were the first to experience all the «charms» of the entry of Soviet troops into their territory. Nemmersdorf (today’s Mayakovskoe) was occupied by the Soviets on October 21, 1944, but on October 23, the Germans recaptured it and were able to document the crimes of the Soviet soldiers. An international commission was established chaired by the Estonian collaborationist politician Hjalmar-Johannes Mäe. It described the murders and interviewed witnesses. Photographs of the victims appeared in German newspapers.
The German historian Joachim Hoffmann concluded from the materials of the commission that at least 72 men, women and children were killed in Nemmersdorf; women and even girls had been raped and several women were nailed to the barn gates. Not far from Nemmersdorf a large number of Germans and French prisoners of war had died at the hands of the Soviet soldiers. Bodies of brutally murdered local residents were found in nearby settlements. In particular, in Banfeld, the Teichhof estate, and Alt Woosterwitz, the remains of several people who had been burned alive were found in the barn. «The corpses of civilians lay en masse by the roadside and in the yards of the houses …,» Oberleutnant Dr. Amberger reported. «In particular, I saw many women who were… raped and then killed with shots to the back of their heads, and there were also murdered children lying around.»
Women and even girls had been raped, and several women were nailed to the barn gates
Interestingly, after 1991, a number of German researchers concluded that the scale of the Nemmersdorf Massacre was exaggerated and that it was used by Goebbels to provoke civilian resistance to the Soviet invasion, but they did not deny the massacre.
There is also Soviet evidence of the atrocities in East Prussia. Major Lev Kopelev, who later became a famous dissident and human rights activist, was engaged in special propaganda aimed at corrupting the enemy troops. The first thing he saw in East Prussia was the corpse of an old woman: «Her clothes were torn, there was a telephone set between her skinny thighs with the handset stuck in her vagina.» Kopelev was arrested and sent to the Gulag for his sympathy for the German population and his attempt to protect them from the atrocities of the Red Army.
«There was a telephone set between her thighs, with the handset stuck in her vagina»
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who fought in East Prussia in early 1945, recalled: « For three weeks the war had been going on inside Germany, and all of us knew very well that if the girls were German they could be raped and then shot. This was almost a combat distinction. Had they been Polish girls or our own displaced Russian girls, they could have been chased naked around the garden and slapped on the behind—an amusement, no more.»
The artist Leonid Rabichev, who during the war was commander of the communications platoon of the 31st Army, described what he saw in East Prussia as follows:
«On wagons and cars and on foot, old people, women, children, and large patriarchal families slowly made their way westward along all the country’s roads and highways.
Our tankers, infantrymen, artillerymen, and signalers overtook them to make way, threw their wagons with furniture, suitcases, and horses into the ditches on the side of the highway, pushed aside the elderly and children, and, forgetting their duty and honor and the German units retreating without combat, pounced on women and girls in their thousands.
Women, mothers and their children, lie to the right and left along the route, and in front of each of them stands a raucous armada of men with their trousers down.
The women who are bleeding or losing consciousness get shoved to one side, and our men shoot the ones who try to save their children. Cackling, snarling, laughing, screaming and moaning. And their commanders, their majors and colonels stoodnearby, one of whom was directing— no, he was regulating it This was to make sure that every soldier without exception took part. No, this infernal deadly group sex is not collective responsibility, and not at all revenge on the cursed invaders. The all-permissiveness, the impunity, the impersonality and the cruel logic of the maddened crowd…
The bleeding and unconscious are dragged away, and the children who rushed to their aid are shot
And the colonel, the one who was regulating, can’t stand it and joins the line himself, while the major shoots the witnesses, hysterical children and old people.
– Cut it out! Get into your trucks!
And the next unit is coming up…
Colonel-regulator? Was one command enough? But the commander of the Third Belorussian Front, Army General Chernyakhovsky, had also driven along this same highway in his Willys. Did he see it all, did he go into the houses where women with bottles were lying on their beds? Was one command enough? So, who was more to blame: a soldier in a line, the regulating major, the laughing colonels and generals, myself watching, all those who had said «the war will write everything off…?»
A crazy thought torments me – Stalin summons Chernyakhovsky and whispers to him: «Shouldn’t we root out all those East Prussian imperialists, so that according to international treaties this territory will be ours, a Soviet one?» And Chernyakhovsky says to Stalin: «It will be done, Comrade Secretary General!»
In Serbia the situation was no better. Here, in October 1944, 121 women were raped by Soviet soldiers and 111 of them were killed. In connection with this, a delegation went to Moscow on behalf of Tito, which included the future famous dissident and then partisan general Milovan Djilas. According to him, the delegation members’ assertions that the Red Army was looting, killing and raping while British military personnel, representatives of the bourgeois army in Yugoslavia, weren’t doing anything similar, were not accepted by Stalin. He accused Djilas and his comrades of insulting the Red Army and condescendingly observed that soldiers who had carried out a fighting advance from Stalingrad to the Balkans “deserved a little break”. And, generally, one should not attach too much importance to the crimes of the Red Army, as the Red Army was very good at beating the Germans. It should be noted that only a relatively small number of Red Army men were in Serbia (just one rifle corps) and only for a month. Stalin remarked that soldiers who had advanced from Stalingrad to the Balkans “deserved a little break”.
In Hungary, fierce fighting lasted six months, with the Soviets fighting on two fronts. The Red Army’s behavior there was such that even those Hungarians who had previously sympathized with the Soviet Union were disappointed. In February 1945, the communists of Kobánya (or, more correctly, Kőbánya, today Budapest’s 10th district) adopted an appeal to the Soviet command. It was promulgated by the Hungarian historian Christian Ungvary:
«For decades, workers all over the world have looked to Moscow as illiterate toilers looked to Christ. It was from there that they expected liberation from fascist barbarism. After a long and painful persecution, the glorious and long-awaited Red Army came, but what a surprise it turned out to be!
After a hard fighting, Kobánya was liberated on January 2 by the Red Army, which left behind devastation and desolation. And it was not because one could find Nazis among the wreckage of furniture in the homes of people who had been slaves for decades. Among the workers in Kobánya there are very few of those who sympathize with the Germans, and the majority of people hate the Nazis. But suddenly, an explosion of crazy, violent hatred. Drunken soldiers raped mothers in front of their children and husbands. Girls as young as 12 were taken from their fathers and mothers and raped by groups of 10-15 soldiers, among whom there were many with venereal diseases. After the first group came others who followed the example of their predecessors. Several of our comrades were killed when they tried to protect their wives and daughters…
Girls as young as 12 were taken from their fathers and mothers and raped by groups of 10-15 soldiers, among whom there were many with venereal diseases.
The situation in the factories is terrible. The Russian officers have created intolerable working conditions, ignoring the workers’ committees in which there are many communists. Workers earn 3 pengő an hour working on an empty stomach, with an opportunity only once a day at lunch to eat peas or beans… They are far more respectful of the former fascist directors than of the worker’s committees, insofar as the directors deliver women to the Russian officers… Marauding by the Russian soldiers is still going on… We know that the most intelligent representatives of the army are communists, but when we approach them for assistance they fly into a rage and threaten to shoot us, declaring: ‘And what did you do in the Soviet Union? Did you really not rape our wives in front of our eyes and then kill them together with the children, burn our villages and destroy our cities to their foundations?’ We know that Hungarian capitalism carried out its own sadistic acts of cruelty… But we don’t understand why soldiers from Siberia say these things… when the fascist attacks did not even reach the Urals, the dream of the German fascists, not to mention Siberia…
It’s not right to extol the Red Army on banners, in the party, the factories, and anywhere else, when at the same time people who lived through the Szalasi tyranny are now being driven like cattle by Russian soldiers, leaving dead bodies behind them…
The peasants rained questions down on those comrades who were sent to the village for carrying out the redistribution of the land: what’s the good of the land if we have nothing to plow it with? The Russians took our horses. We can’t plow with our own noses. If such things are halted, then it will neutralize all of the enemy’s propaganda and the Hungarian workers will regard the Russian soldiers as gods.»
But the Red Army soldiers were not going to turn into gods.
Lauban (now Lubáň) in Lower Silesia was occupied by the Red Army on February 17, and temporarily liberated by the Wehrmacht on March 6, 1945. There, the Germans, too, set up a commission to investigate mass murders, rapes, and looting. As Joachim Hoffmann notes, «In Bieralsdorf, a suburb of Lauban [now Lubáň, Poland], 39 women who were still left were defiled «in the basest manner» by Soviet soldiers from the 7th Guards Tank Corps, one woman was shot in the lower jaw, locked in a cellar, and a few days later, when she became seriously ill with fever, three Red Army soldiers one after another «raped her, at gunpoint, in the most brutal way.»
One woman was shot in the lower jaw, locked in a cellar, and a few days later three Red Army soldiers raped her
In August – September 1945, as a result of the fleeting war with Japan, the Red Army found itself in Manchuria and North Korea. And all the same excesses observed in Europe were repeated there. Testimonies of Westerners who visited the territories occupied by the Soviets bear witness to this. The Japanese civilians who lived in North-Eastern China were killed, raped and robbed in the first place. The Chinese, who had suffered under the Japanese occupation, were also massacred by the Japanese colonists. But the Red Army men were more brutal.
A Japanese survivor recalls, «If you ran into the Manchus (Chinese), they would take everything from you. But the most horrible were the Red Army men. They would kill the Japanese just to kill them. I saw many corpses stabbed with bayonets. Mountains and mountains of bodies…» On August 14 near Gegenmiao station in Manchuria the Red Army killed about a thousand Japanese refugees from a detained train. All in all, according to Japanese estimates, they killed about 11,000 Japanese civilians in Manchuria.
I saw many corpses stabbed with bayonets. Mountains and mountains of bodies…
Japanese refugees were not the only victims of the Red Army. The Chinese also suffered. The head of the American mission, which arrived in Shenyang (Mukden) to repatriate American prisoners, reported:
«The Russians have surpassed the Chinese in looting, marauding, and rape. Women are being raped at bus stops, train stations, and sometimes right in the streets. Rumor has it that the local authorities are instructed to supply a certain number of women to the Soviet command every night. As a result, the women completely shave their heads, smear their faces with ink, and wear bandages to look as unattractive as possible… The Red Army men do nothing but loot and kill. And they rob not only the Japanese. Some soldiers wear a dozen wristwatches at once… I have also met decent people among Soviet soldiers, but they are one out of ten.»
The American naval attaché to the Chiang Kai-shek government, having visited Manchuria, recalled:
«Russian soldiers would break into houses and take away everything but the furniture. Then a military truck would drive up and take away the furniture. Soviet officers usually paid no attention to the looting by their subordinates, and often took part in it themselves.»
In the Chinese city of Pingchuan, according to local accounts, «Soviet soldiers take people’s wristwatches and shoot those who refuse to submit to looting. The Red Army is demanding women from the peasants. The Red Army shot a peasant and two workers who could not find them women to satisfy their lust.» Even the Chinese Communists protested that «the Red Army engages in activities not befitting a proletarian army, including rape and expropriation of food supplies from peasants.»
In contrast to European countries, the Soviet command took virtually no measures to stop the Red Army atrocities in Manchuria and North Korea.
How was it possible?
If the Red Army’s atrocities on German territory could still be written off as a desire for revenge for what the German invaders did on Soviet territory, this explanation did not work with regard to the Serbs. The Serbs never fought on Soviet territory, and the Soviet soldiers had nothing to avenge. And certainly the Chinese, Koreans and Japanese who were victims of exactly the same crimes by the Red Army soldiers and commanders during the Manchuria operation in August 1945 and the subsequent Soviet occupation of Northeast China and North Korea had not attacked the USSR. Like in Hungary, this, and the mass removal of industrial equipment from Manchuria to the USSR, caused protests by local communists, to which the Red Army commanders paid no attention.
Apparently, the reason was primarily the moral state of the Red Army in the last year of the war. Soviet soldiers, feeling they were cannon fodder, whom the command did not care about saving, took out their hatred of both the command and the enemy, who had started the war, on the civilian population and prisoners of war, as well as on the «Eastern workers.» In addition, a large part of the Red Army in the last year of the war consisted of ex-criminals. Also, Soviet soldiers, seeing with their own eyes how well off the Germans or Hungarians were compared to themselves, were indignant that despite such prosperity, they had chosen to conquer the impoverished USSR. So sometimes the Red Army soldiers burned houses and broke household utensils simply out of a sense of revenge. Although looting was widespread and encouraged to some extent by the commanders.
After entering European countries, soldiers and officers were allowed to send parcels home to compensate for the destruction caused by the Germans at the expense of the spoils. Generals and marshals like Marshal Georgy Zhukov, SMERSH Chief Viktor Abakumov, or Lieutenant General Konstantin Telegin, a member of the Military Council of the 1st Belorussian Front, sent whole echelons of spoils back home.
A sense of impunity also played a role. It cannot be said that the Soviet command did not try to combat the war crimes their subordinates were committing. The Commander of the 2nd Ukrainian Marshal Rodion Malinovsky in Hungary and the Commander of the 1st Ukrainian Front Marshal Ivan Konev in Lower Silesia were especially active in this respect and did not stop at public shootings of murderers and rapists. But the vast majority of criminals remained unpunished. On April 20, 1945 the Supreme High Command issued a directive to the 1st and 2nd Belorussian and 1st Ukrainian fronts «On the need for humane treatment of the German population and prisoners of war». It stated, in particular:
«Demand that the troops change their treatment of the Germans, both prisoners of war and civilians, and treat the Germans better. The mistreatment of the Germans makes them fearful and causes them to resist stubbornly without surrendering. The civilians, fearing retaliation, organize themselves into gangs. This situation is not to our advantage. A more humane treatment of the Germans will make it easier for us to fight on their territory and will undoubtedly reduce the stubbornness of the Germans in defense.»
Characteristically, this directive applied only to the fronts that were fighting on the territory of Germany’s future Soviet occupation zone. It did not apply to the Soviet troops fighting in East Prussia, since a deportation of its entire German population was in the plans.
If we look at the current war crimes of the Russian army in Ukraine, both similarities and differences are striking. The set of crimes is similar: murder, rape, and looting. The difference, however, is in the motives. The crimes were committed as early as the first month of the war with Ukraine. By that time, the soldiers could not yet have grown tired of the war, they could not acquire a sense of revenge against the Ukrainians, and there were no criminals in their ranks. The main motive was probably still a sense of anything-goes. The Russian soldiers quickly realized they would not be punished for these kinds of crimes, and they were «having fun.» As one witness said, they shot a civilian «just for fun.»