The Ukrainian famine-genocide myth

Presentation by John Puntis

In 1922 the Soviet Union experienced severe famine conditions in some areas following on from the wars of intervention when imperialist powers had sought to crush the new Soviet state. Famine conditions recurred again in 1933, particularly, but not exclusively, in the Ukraine. There are two versions to this second famine that are radically different. An objective analysis indicates the famine to have resulted from a combination of poor climatic conditions and sabotage on the part of the rich peasants or kulaks in the face of the collectivisation of agriculture. Ukrainian nationalists however argue that the famine was deliberately contrived by Stalin in order to break the spirit of the Ukrainian people, and resulted in millions of needless deaths, in fact death and destruction on such a scale that it dwarfs the Nazi holocaust. Documentary evidence produced to support this claim is often endorsed by academics such as Robert Conquest, or James Mace of Harvard University. Such evidence is shaky in the extreme and often relies on discredited accounts from the 1930’s pro-fascist press in America, or even Nazi documents. Despite this it continues to resurface, most notably in the 1980s as part of an attempt by Ukrainian nationalists to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the famine, and at the same time to fuel the cold war rhetoric of the Reagan era.

The same old grainy photographic images appear time and time again, purporting to show victims of the Ukraine famine, but these are almost always undocumented, or if traced back actually come from famine relief documents from the 1922 famine or even earlier. Cobbled together in the film ‘Harvest of Despair’ such pictures were shown on UK television despite having been rejected by some public service networks in the US because of a blatant lack of objectivity. Ukrainian nationalist organisations in Canada and elsewhere continue to propagate the notion of deliberate famine genocide, while carefully glossing over their own anti-semitic, pro-Nazi and collaborationist origins. A search on the web for ‘Ukrainian Famine Genocide’ resulted in 845 references to this ‘man made’ famine, as usual graphically illustrated with pictures for an earlier era. In this talk I will explore some of the background to these various claims and counter claims, with reference to the excellent book on the subject by Douglas Tottle (Fraud, famine and fascism. The Ukrainian genocide myth from Hitler to Harvard. Progress Books, Toronto, 1987. ISBN 0-919396-51-8)

Journalistic fraud in the 1930s

In the autumn of 1934, an American using the name of Thomas Walker entered the Soviet Union. After less than a week in Moscow, the remainder of his 13 day stay was spent in transit to the Manchurian border, at which point he left the USSR never to return. Four months later a series of articles began in the Hearst press in America, by Thomas Walker, “noted journalist, traveller and student of Russian affairs who has spent several years touring the Union of Soviet Russia”. The articles described a famine in the Ukraine that had claimed six million lives, and was illustrated with photographs of corpses and starving children. Walker was said to have smuggled in a camera under “the most difficult and dangerous circumstances”.

Louis Fischer, an American writer living in Moscow at the time was suspicious. Why had the Hearst press sat on these sensational stories for ten months before publication? He established that Walker’s short visit to the Soviet Union could not possibly have allowed him to even visit the areas he described and photographed. He also pointed out that Walker’s photographic evidence was distinctly odd: not only were the pictures suggestive of an earlier decade (Fischer thought probably of the 1921 Volga famine) but contained a mixture of scenes taken in both summer and winter. Fischer also noted that the 1933 harvest in the Ukraine had been good.

Some of the pictures were subsequently identified as showing scenes from the Austro-Hungarian empire and World War 1, and it was known that Hearst newspapers were digging up old pictures and retouching them for use as propaganda. Pictures some times appeared labelled as having been taken in Russia, and at other times the same picture is relocated to the Ukraine for obviously political reasons. Not only were the photographs a fraud, and the trip to the Ukraine a fraud, but Thomas Walker himself was a fraud, turning out to be an escaped convict by the name of Robert Green who had served time for forgery. At his subsequent trial following recapture he admitted that his series of pictures used in the Hearst newspaper articles were fakes and were not taken in the Ukraine as stated. Despite these facts, the same photos are still those used in commemoration posters, on web sites and in the film ‘Harvest of Despair’.

The Hearst Press

The Hearst Press needless to say continued with its famine genocide campaign despite the Walker fiasco. This is not surprising when we consider that Hearst himself was known to millions of Americans as “America’s number one fascist”. (One of Mussolini’s chief sources of personal income during the early 1930s was from being a paid correspondent for the Hearst Press).

In 1934 Hearst visited Nazi Germany and met Hitler. Following this visit, the Hearst Press began to promote famine genocide articles on the Ukraine. French premier, Edward Herriot who had recently returned from travelling in the Ukraine publicised the fact that he had seen no evidence of any famine. Following the Walker articles, Hearst went on to try and convince Americans that the Soviet Union was a land of utter starvation, genocide and cannibalism. At the time this was often recognised as politically motivated sensationalism, but over the passage of years these fabrications have become transformed into “primary evidence”.

By noting those features of the 1930s campaign and the selective memories of those who helped the Hearst Press in propagating the famine-genocide thesis, light can be cast on the character of today’s famine-genocide campaign.

Simultaneously with the launch of Hearst’s 1935 outpourings, the Nazi press in Germany and sympathetic papers elsewhere in Europe began publishing similar stories. At this time a book by Dr Ewald Ammende was published entitled “Human life in Russia”. This has had a lasting influence on those who propagate the famine-genocide myth, and was republished in 1984. The book makes little pretence of objectivity crediting Hearst correspondents, accounts from Nazi German and Fascist Italy, and reproducing allegations by unnamed ‘travellers’ and ‘experts’.

Most photographic evidence of the famine-genocide theorists can be traced back either to Ammende’s book or to Thomas Walker. The origins of the photographs are not documented, although it should be noted that Ammende was involved with famine relief work in 1921-2. The pictures are said to have been taken in the streets and squares of Kharkov in the summer of 1933, although only 10 of 26 appear to show urban scenes. There are no signs or landmarks to help set them in context. “Human Life in Russia” contains additional pictures that did not appear in the German edition. These are claimed to have been taken by Dr Ditloff, director of the German Government Agricultural concession in the north Caucuses. One might wonder how a Nazi functionary came to be wandering freely around the Ukraine taking photographs, but in any case in later publications the same photographs are either unattributed or attributed to a completely different source. In fact, some pictures have been identified as coming from the 1922 famine, and some show winter scenes despite apparently having been taken in summer. Other publications use the same pictures either with no accreditation or accredited to Thomas Walker, despite the fact that they were used to portray events in 1932/3 and Walker claimed to have taken them in the spring of 1934.

It is clear that the photographic evidence is fraudulent, and was used primarily as part of a campaign to undermine and discredit the Soviet Union. Despite this, they continue to be used to this day.

Cold War

The famine genocide campaign of the 1930s leaned heavily on dubious right wing sources and was not accepted by mainstream historians at the time, leading some Ukrainian nationalists to speak of a pro-Soviet, left wing or even Jewish conspiracy to suppress the truth. In the 1950s the Nationalists published books such as “The Black Deeds of the Kremlin” to propagate their interpretation of history. A section is devoted to Nationalist allegations of Soviet mass executions during the 1930s in Vynnitsa. Unearthed during Nazi occupation in 1943, the graves were examined by a Nazi commission and used in propaganda films. Post war testimony by German soldiers revealed however, that this was a Nazi propaganda deception, the bodies being those of Jews executed by the SS and Ukrainian militia.

The gruesome allegations of cannibalism in volume 2 of “Black Deeds” has lead to it being referred to as the “Ukrainian Nationalist cookbook”!

The numbers game

The famine genocide theorists are keen to establish that millions of people died in the Ukraine. Their methodology, as usual, is highly suspect. A “landmark study” by Dana Dalrymple published in “Soviet Studies”, 1964 comes up with a figure of 5.5 million based on averaging the guesses of 20 Western journalists. One of them is our fictional friend Thomas Walker. Dalrymple states that Walker made his survey by breaking away from a guided tour, and had previously spent several years touring Russia. A similar figure by the Archbishop of Canterbury is also quoted; this enthusiastic supporter of Hitler had attempted to raise the famine issue in the House of Lords in 1934 when in fact the Foreign Office stated that there was no evidence to support the allegations against the Soviet government. Needless to say, the testimony of Sir John Maynard, a renowned famine expert who visited the Ukraine in the summer of 1933 and rejected tales of famine-genocide is dismissed by the Nationalists.

The Cold War campaign resurfaced in the 1980s with considerable publicity and scholarly backing from the Ukrainian Research Institute of Harvard University, long a centre of anticommunist research. In 1983, the book “The Ninth Circle”, first published by Ukrainian Nationalists in 1953 was republished, edited and introduced by Harvard’s Dr James Mace. A critical review of this book described it as being “a polemic, devoid of any documentation, and lacking in any scholarship”. The author, it was pointed out, fails to give any details about his activity during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, and makes not a single derogatory comment about the Nazis. Once again the Thomas Walker fakes are used as illustrations, despite the author claiming to have been an eyewitness to the famine. The “academic” Mace writing of Walker’s material states, “American newspaperman like Thomas Walker wrote plainspoken and graphic accounts of the Famine based on what they had witnessed in the Ukraine in 1933”. Note the convenient backdating of Walkers trip to 1933 and not 1934.

Another contribution to the famine genocide literature is Walter Dushnyk’s “50 years ago: the Famine Holocaust in Ukraine”. The foreword to this book is by none other than Dalrymple. Dushnyk’s roots can be traced to Europe’s pre-war fascist movement when he was active in the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists. Again a critical reviewer comments that this book, “rather than being a scholarly analysis, the material consists of a highly emotionally charged vitriolic polemic. Indeed it has little to do with scholarship and unquestionably is lacking in objectivity”. Once again the same faked or undocumented photographs are used as illustrations. Dushnyk calculates the number of famine deaths by projecting an anticipated population growth, based on the 1926 census, onto the listed population census for the Ukraine in 1939. The difference is 7.5 million and this therefore becomes the number of famine victims. The nonsense of this methodology can be demonstrated by transposing to Canada in the 1930s and showing that 25% of Saskatchewan’s population disappeared during the great depression. In fact, the population of the Ukraine increased in real terms from 1926 – 1939 by almost 3.4 million. Whilst it is not possible to give an accurate figure for the numbers of famine victims, the claims of people like Dalrymple, Mace and Dushnyk have been shown up as extreme exaggerations fabricated to strengthen their political allegations of genocide.

Harvest of deception

The famine-genocide campaign reached a climax in 1986 with the publication of Robert Conquest’s book “Harvest of Sorrow”, and the film produced by the famine research committee of the St Vladimir Institute, “Harvest of Despair”. The film is full of the old undocumented pictures, and relies heavily on interviews with former Nazis and Ukrainian collaborators, as well as defectors from the Soviet Union; even Malcolm Muggeridge pops up for a short appearance. The film’s producers apparently viewed more than a million feet of stock footage of film, before selecting a mere 720 feet for use. Instead of any documented evidence of the famine being presented, a montage of undocumented stills are shown including the Walker/Ditlofff pictures, 1921/2 famine pictures, and others from Nazi propaganda publications. With breathtaking disregard for the truth, some scenes borrow from film of the civil war, and Soviet films of the 1920s. In essence, it seems that the film makers scrounged through the archives looking for bits and pieces of old ‘war-and-starvation’ shots that were then spliced into the film to great subliminal effect, bound together by a narrative and interspersed with partisan interviews. So much has even been admitted by some of those involved, yet the film has been widely shown and praised, including on British television. The makers even received grants and logistical support for the National Film Board of Canada and another publicly funded body, Multiculturalism Canada. “Harvest of Despair” was clearly no objective documentary as is claimed, but rather a crude cold war propaganda exercise.

Conquest’s book “Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror famine” has emerged as the best attempt of the famine-genocidists at legitimacy. Conquest’s right wing affiliations and his holocaust denials are now well known. At one time he was employed by the British Secret Service’s disinformation project, the Information Research Department, key targets being ‘the third world’ and the ‘Russians’. Conquest’s earlier work “The Great Terror” had alleged that only 5-6 million perished in the 1932/3 period and only half of them in the Ukraine. By 1983 Conquest, however, had upped his estimates to 14 million and extended famine conditions to 1937! Such revisions coincided handily with the 50th anniversary commemorations of the famine.

Conquest presents the various nationalist cliques who held parts of the Ukraine during the Russian civil war and foreign intervention as bona fide governments. The mass slaughter of Ukrainian Jews carried out under nationalist ‘independence’ in 1918-19 is dismissed in 3 words. The Nazi occupation of the Ukraine is presented implicitly as a breakdown between periods of Soviet ‘terror’ and the liberation from the Nazis as Soviet ‘reoccupation’. There are many examples in the book of Conquest’s lack of scholarship. One example is him quoting from accounts by a foreign correspondent who turns out to be none other than Thomas Walker, the man who never was. In his reference note for the quote he even moves the date of the Hearst article from 1935 to February 1933. It is worth repeating the observations of American historian J Arch Getty on the quality of this kind of historical research:

“Grand analytical generalisations have come from second hand bits of overheard corridor gossip. Prison camp stories (“my friend met Bukharin’s wife in a camp and she said…”) have become primary sources on Soviet central political decision making …. the need to generalise from isolated and unverified particulars has transformed rumours into sources and has equated repetition of stories with confirmation”.

Whereas serious historians do not accept hearsay and rumour as historical fact, contrast this with Conquest’s stated position that “Truth can only percolate in the form of hearsay” and “on political matters basically the best, though not infallible source is rumour”.

The famine

Coming now to the famine itself and its causes, the factors of drought and sabotage during the process of collectivisation are generally given little attention by right wing historians. Interestingly, in “A History of the Ukraine” by Mikhail Hrushevsky – described by the Nationalists themselves as “Ukraine’s leading historian” – we read that “Again a year of drought coincided with chaotic agricultural conditions; and during the winter of 1932-3 a great famine, like that of 1921-2 swept across Soviet Ukraine”. Nowhere does this history suggest that the famine was deliberate and aimed against Ukrainians, and in fact more space is devoted to the famine of 1921-22. There are many references to drought conditions in the Ukraine in 1931 and 1932. Even Ewald Ammende in his “Human Life in Russia” refers to climatic and natural causes of the famine.

While drought was a contributing factor, the main cause of the famine was the struggle around collectivisation of the countryside in this period. In 1928 there were millions of small scale peasant farms, three quarters of the land was sown by hand, one third of the crop areas was harvested by sickle and scythe, 40% of the crop was threshed by flail. Over one quarter of peasant households possessed no draught animals or farming implements, and 47% had only ploughs. The drive to collectivisation was a key feature of the first five year plan launched in 1929. The small minority of rich peasants, the kulaks, opposed socialisation of agriculture and fought against collectivisation with an organised campaign of large-scale destruction. The struggle in some areas including the Ukraine approached civil war scale. Visiting foreign observers at the time noted that kulak opposition took the form of slaughtering their cattle and horses rather than having them collectivised. From 1928-33 the number of horses in the Soviet Union fell from 30 to 15 million, cattle from 70 to 38 million, sheep and goats from 147 to 50 million. Some kulaks burned down the property of collectives and even burned their own crops and seed grain. Many famine-genocide theorists discount kulak sabotage, but others offer enthusiastic descriptions celebrating the opposition to Soviet planning. In addition the famine was compounded by typhus epidemics which undoubtedly claimed many lives. By 1933 there was a successful harvest, enormous efforts were put into improving collective farms and providing mechanised equipment.

Subsequent huge increases in agricultural and industrial output in the Ukraine leading up to the second world war give the lie to allegations or 7 – 15 million starvation deaths only seven years earlier. In addition, the record of Ukrainian resistance to the Nazis and their Ukrainian nationalist auxiliaries was exemplary. In the largest eastern portion of the Ukraine loyalty was overwhelming and active. There were over half a million organised Soviet guerrillas, and four and a half million ethnic Ukrainians fought in the Soviet army. The Ukrainian nationalist histories acknowledge this, and one can only wonder at the ability of a nation to mobilise such numbers of military aged males in the light of Nationalist claims about famine victims. The reality was that for the bulk of the Ukrainian peasants, workers and the professionals newly emerged from those classes, the Soviet system had demonstrated overwhelming economic and cultural advantages.

The only place where the Nationalists found any kind of base during the Nazi occupation was in what had been up to 1939 Polish Galicia; this is where the Nazis did their bulk of recruiting for the fascist police and SS units. An examination of what happened during the Nazi occupation is revealing not only in terms of the popular support for the Soviets demonstrated by the people of the Ukraine, but also for the role played by the Ukrainian Nationalists.

Collaboration and collusion

In June 1941 the Nazi army entered Lviv, capital of the Western Ukraine. In its vanguard came the German-uniformed Nachtigall Battalion of Ukrainian Nationalists. During the first three days of July the Nachtigall Battalion slaughtered seven thousand Jews in the vicinity of Lwow. Non-Jewish writers, intellectuals and professionals known to be hostile to Nazism were also killed. In the first 8 months of Nazi occupation 15% of Galician Jews – 100,000 people – were slaughtered by the joint actions of the Germans and Ukrainian nationalists. Many thousands of Nationalists who fled to Germany and elsewhere in the wake of the retreating Nazi armies had to cover up their personal and collective guilt in the holocaust and betrayal of their country. Anti-semitic and fascist themes run deep through the history of the Ukrainian nationalist movement. Leaders of the Ukrainian Nationalists were on the payroll of the Nazi party before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Ukrainian Nationalist battalions were trained in Germany before the war and some were used in the invasion of Poland. The Nachtigall and Roland Ukrainian volunteer detachments fought with the German army and in late 1941 were reorganised into a Police Battalion and employed in Byelorussia. Despite this being well known, the famine genociders portray the nationalists as having fought against both Hitler and Stalin and somehow on a par with the French resistance. Similarly distorted is the role of the 14th Waffen SS Galizien Division (also known as the Halychyna Division). Formed in 1943 its main function was brutal anti-partisan work. Even after German withdrawal from the Ukraine, nationalists stayed behind and continued to harass Soviet supply lines. Nationalist troops served Hitler in Ukraine, Poland, Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia. Ukrainian collaborators assisted in the murder of hundreds of thousands in death camps like Treblinka, Sobibor, Yanowska and Trawniki. Such were the “anti-Nazi” credentials of those who nationalists today would present as “national liberation fighters”, “heroes of the Ukrainian people” and “patriots who struggled for a free Ukraine”.

After the war

After the allied victory over Nazi Germany many collaborators sought to escape justice and retribution, looking for new lives in North America and elsewhere. Western intelligence agencies helped sanitise Nazi collaborators for emigration to new homelands in return for a new collaboration against Russia. The International Refugee Organisation as well as the US Displaced Persons Commission initially regarded the Ukrainian Nazis as ineligible for visas. This did not stop American intelligence agencies from presenting the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists as having been engaged in anti-Nazi combat. This was a complete fabrication, but persuaded the immigration authorities to change their stance. Laundered East European collaborators were put to work at Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, the Voice of America and schools training US intelligence officers in East European languages. Some were trained for sabotage operations within the Soviet Union and others employed as living witnesses of “communist terror” in the psychological conditioning of the American people for war against the USSR. The Ukrainian “famine-genocide” was but one of many themes. Ultimately it became more important to the immigration authorities in the US and Canada whether one might be considered a communist rather than to have been a Nazi collaborator.


Over 65 years ago the fakery and political motivation of the pro-fascist publisher William Hearst were exposed by the American journalist Louis Fischer. In examining the record of those propagating the famine genocide campaign today, one is drawn to Fischer’s conclusion:

“The attempt is too transparent, and the hands are too unclean to succeed.”


Presentation made to the Stalin Society in June 2002

The Katyn Massacre

Presentation made to the Stalin Society by Ella Rule

At the end of the First World War, the boundary between Russia and Poland was settled as being along a line which became known as the Curzon line – Lord Curzon being the British statesman who had proposed it.

This demarcation line was not to the liking of the Poles, who soon went to war against the Soviet Union in order to push their borders further eastward. The Soviet Union counter-attacked and were prepared not only to defend themselves but, against Stalin’s advice, to liberate the whole of Poland. Stalin considered such an aim to be doomed to failure because, he said, Polish nationalism had not yet run its course. The Poles were determined NOT to be liberated so there was no point in trying. Hence the Poles put up fierce resistance to Soviet advances. Ultimately the Soviet Union was forced to retreat and even cede territory to the east of the Curzon line to Poland. The areas in question were Western Byelorussia and the western Ukraine – areas populated overwhelmingly by Byelorussians and Ukrainians respectively rather than by Poles. The whole incident could not but exacerbate the mutual dislike of the Poles and the Russians.

On 1 September 1939, Nazi German invaded Poland. On 17 September, the Soviet Union moved to reoccupy those parts of Poland that lay east of the Curzon line. Having taken over those areas, the Soviet Union set about distributing land to the peasants and bringing about the kind of democratic reforms so popular with the people and so unpopular with the exploiters. During the battle to retake the areas east of the Curzon line, the Soviet Union captured some 10,000 Polish officers, who became prisoners of war. These prisoners were then held in camps in the disputed area and put to work road building, etc.

Two years later, on 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union by surprise. The Red Army was forced hurriedly to retreat and the Ukraine was taken over by the Germans. During this hurried retreat it was not possible to evacuate to the Soviet interior the Polish prisoners of war. The chief of camp no. 1, Major Vetoshnikov gave evidence that he had applied to the chief of traffic of the Smolensk section of the Western Railway to be provided with railway cars for the evacuation of the Polish prisoners but was told it was unlikely to be possible. Engineer Ivanov, who had been the Chief of Traffic in the region at the time, confirmed there had been no railway cars to spare. “Besides, ” he said, “we could not send cars to the Gussino line, where the majority of the Polish prisoners were, since that line was already under fire“. The result was that, following the Soviet retreat from the area, the Polish prisoners became prisoners of the Germans.

In April 1943, the Hitlerites announced that the Germans had found several mass graves in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, containing the bodies of thousands of Polish officers allegedly murdered by the Russians.

This announcement was designed to further undermine the co-operation efforts of Poles and Soviets to defeat the Germans. The Russo-Polish alliance was always difficult because the Polish government in exile, based in London, was obviously a government of the exploiting classes. They had to oppose the Germans because of the latter’s cynical takeover of their country for lebensraum. The Soviet Union’s position was that so long as the Soviet Union could retain the land east of the Curzon line, they had no problem with the re-establishment of a bourgeois government in Poland. But the alliance was already in difficulties because the Polish government in exile, headed by General Sikorski, based in London, would not agree to the return of that land. This is in spite of the fact that in 1941 after Hitler invaded Poland, the Soviet Union and the Polish government in exile had not only established diplomatic relations but had also agreed that the Soviet Union would finance “under the orders of a chief appointed by the Polish government-in-exile but approved by the Soviet government ” the formation of a Polish army – this chief being, in the event, the thoroughly anti-Soviet General Anders (a prisoner of the Soviets from 1939). By 25 October 1941 this Army had 41,000 men including 2,630 officers. General Anders, however, eventually refused to fight on the Soviet-German front because of the border dispute between the Soviet Union and Poland, and the Polish army had to be sent elsewhere to fight – i.e., Iran.

Nevertheless, despite the hostility of the Polish government in exile, there was a significant section of Poles resident in the Soviet Union who were not anti-Soviet and did accept the Soviet claim to the territories east of the Curzon line. Many of them were Jewish. These people formed the Union of Polish Patriots which put together the backbone of an alternative Polish government in exile.

The Nazi propaganda relating to the Katyn massacres was designed to make it impossible for the Soviets to have any dealings with the Poles at all. General Sikorski took up the Nazi propaganda with a vengeance, claiming to Churchill that he had a “wealth of evidence“. How he had obtained this “evidence” simultaneously with the German announcement of this supposed Soviet atrocity is not clear, although it speaks loudly of secret collaboration between Sikorski and the Nazis. The Germans had made public their allegations on 13 April. On 16 April the Soviet government issued an official communiqué denying “the slanderous fabrications about the alleged mass shootings by Soviet organs in the Smolensk area in the spring of 1940“. It added:

The German statement leaves no doubt about the tragic fate of the former Polish prisoners of war who, in 1941, were engaged in building jobs in areas west of Smolensk and who, together with many Soviet people, fell into the hands of the German hangmen after the withdrawal of Soviet troops“.

The Germans had in fabricating their story decided to embellish it with an anti-Semitic twist by claiming to be able to name Soviet officials in charge of the massacre, all of whom had Jewish names. On 19 April Pravda responded:

Feeling the indignation of the whole of progressive humanity over their massacre of peaceful citizens and particularly of Jews, the Germans are now trying to arouse the anger of gullible people against the Jews. For this reason they have invented a whole collection of ‘Jewish commissars’ who, they say, took part in the murder of the 10,000 Polish officers. For such experienced fakers it was not difficult to invent a few names of people who never existed – Lev Rybak, Avraam Brodninsky, Chaim Fineberg. No such persons ever existed either in the ‘Smolensk section of the OGPU’ or in any other department of the NLVD…

The insistence of Sikorski in endorsing the German propaganda led to the complete breakdown in relations between the London Polish government in exile and the Soviet government – as to which Goebbels commented in his diary:

This break represents a one-hundred-per-cent victory for German propaganda and especially for me personally … we have been able to convert the Katyn incident into a highly political question.

At the time the British press condemned Sikorski for his intransigence:

The Times of 28 April 1943 wrote: “Surprise as well as regret will be felt by those who have had so much cause to understand the perfidy and ingenuity of the Goebbels propaganda machine should themselves have fallen into the trap laid by it. Poles will hardly have forgotten a volume widely circulated in the first winter of the war which described with every detail of circumstantial evidence, including that of photography, alleged Polish atrocities against the peaceful German inhabitants of Poland.

What lay at the basis of Sikorski’s insistence that the massacre had been carried out by the Soviets rather than the Germans was the dispute over the territory east of the Curzon line. Sikorski was trying to use the German propaganda to mobilise western imperialism behind Poland’s claim to that territory, to try to force them out of the position, as he saw it, of taking the Soviet Union’s side on the issue of this border dispute.

If one reads bourgeois sources today, they all assert that the Soviet Union was responsible for the Katyn massacre, and they do so with such assurance and consistency that in trying to argue the contrary one feels like a Nazi revisionist trying to deny Hitler’s slaughter of Jews. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Gorbachov was even enrolled on this disinformation campaign and produced material allegedly from the Soviet archives which ‘proved’ that the Soviets committed the atrocity and, of course, that they did so on Stalin’s orders. Well, we know the interest that the Gorbachovs of this world have in demonising Stalin. Their target is not so much Stalin as socialism. Their purpose in denigrating socialism is to restore capitalism and bring lives of luxurious parasitism to themselves and their hangers-on at the cost of mass suffering among the Soviet peoples. Their cynicism matches that of the German Nazis and it is hardly surprising to find them singing from the same hymn sheet.

Bourgeois sources blithely claim that Soviet evidence in support of blaming the Germans for the atrocity was either totally absent or based purely on hearsay evidence of terrorised inhabitants of the region. They don’t mention one piece of evidence which even Goebbels had to admit was a bit of a bummer from his point of view. He wrote in his diary on 8 May 1943, “Unfortunately, German ammunition has been found in the graves at Katyn … It is essential that this incident remains a top secret. If it were to come to the knowledge of the enemy the whole Katyn affair would have to be dropped.

In 1971 there was correspondence in The Times suggesting the Katyn massacres could not have been done by the Germans since they went in for machine gunning and gas chambers rather than despatching prisoners in the way the Katyn victims had been killed, i.e., by a shot in the back of the head. A former German solider then living in Godalming, Surrey, intervened in this correspondence:

As a German soldier, at that time convinced of the righteousness of our cause, I have taken part in many battles and actions during the Russian campaign. I have not been to Katyn nor to the forest nearby. But I well remember the hullabaloo when the news broke in 1943 about the discovery of the ghastly mass grave near Katyn, which area was then threatened by the Red Army.

“Josef Goebbels, as the historic records show, has fooled many people. After all, that was his job and few would dispute his almost complete mastery of it. What is surprising indeed, however, is that it still shows evidence in the pages of The Times thirty odd years later. Writing from experience I do not think that at that late time of the war Goebbels managed to fool many German soldiers in Russia on the Katyn issue … German soldiers knew about the shot in the back of the head all right … we German soldiers knew that the Polish officers were despatched by none other than our own.

Moreover, very many witnesses came forward to attest to the presence of Polish prisoners in the region after the Germans had taken it over.

Maria Alexandrovna Sashneva, a local primary school teacher, gave evidence to a Special commission set up by the Soviet Union in September 1943, immediately after the area was liberated from the Germans, to the effect that in August 1941, two months after Soviet withdrawal, she had hidden a Polish war prisoner in her house. His name had been Juzeph Lock, and he had spoken to her of ill-treatment suffered by Polish prisoners under the Germans:

When the Germans arrived they seized the Polish camp and instituted a strict regime in it. The Germans did not regard the Poles as human beings. They oppressed and outraged them in every way. On some occasions Poles were shot without any reason at all. He decided to escape…

Several other witnesses gave evidence that they had seen the Poles during August and September 1941 working on the roads.

Moreover, witnesses also testified to round-ups by the Germans of escaped Polish prisoners in the autumn of 1941. Danilenko, a local peasant, was among several witnesses who testified to this.

Special round ups were held in our place to catch Polish war prisoners who had escaped. Some searches took place in my house 2 or 3 times. After one such search I asked the headman .. whom they were looking for in our village. [He] said that an order had been received from the German Kommandatur according to which searches were to be made in all houses without exception, since Polish war prisoners who had escaped from the camp were hiding in our village.

Obviously the Germans did not shoot the Poles in full sight of local witnesses, but there is nonetheless significant evidence from local people as to what was happening. One witness was Alexeyeva who had been detailed by the headman of her village to serve the German personnel at a country house in the section of the Katyn Forest known as Kozy Gory, which had been the rest home of the Smolensk administration of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs. This house was situated some 700 metres from where the mass graves were found. Alexeyeva said:

At the close of August and during most of September 1941 several trucks used to come practically every day to the Kozy Gory country house. At first I paid no attention to that, but later I noticed that each time these trucks arrived at the grounds of the country house they stopped for half an hour, and sometimes for a whole hour, somewhere on the country road connecting the country house with the highway. I drew this conclusion because some time after these trucks reached the grounds of the country house the noise they made would cease.

“Simultaneously with the noise stopping single shots would be heard. The shots followed each other at short but approximately even intervals. Then the shooting would die down and the trucks would drive right up to the country house. German soldiers and NCOs came out of the trucks. Talking noisily they went to wash in the bathhouse, after which they engaged in drunken orgies.

“On days when the trucks arrived more soldiers from some German military units used to arrive at the country house. Special beds were put up for them… Shortly before the trucks reached the country house armed soldiers went to the forest evidently to the spot where the trucks stopped because in half an hour they returned in these trucks, together with the soldiers who lived permanently in the country house.

“…On several occasions I noticed stains of fresh blood on the clothes of two Lance Corporals. From all this I inferred that the Germans brought people in the truck to the country house and shot them.

Alexeyeva also discovered that the people being shot were Polish prisoners.

Once I stayed at the country house somewhat later than usual… Before I finished the work which had kept me there, a soldier suddenly entered and told me I could go … He … accompanied me to the highway.

“Standing on the highway 150 or 200 metres from where the road branches off to the country house I saw a group of about 30 Polish war prisoners marching along the highway under heavy German escort… I halted near the roadside to see where they were being led, and I saw that they turned towards our country house at Kozy Gory.

“Since by that time I had begun to watch closely everything going on at the country house, I became interested. I went back some distance along the highway, hid in bushes near the roadside, and waited. In some 20 or 30 minutes I heard the familiar single shots.

The other two requisitioned maids at the country house, Mikhailova and Konakhovskaya, gave supporting evidence. Other residents of the area gave similar evidence.

Basilevsky, director of the Smolensk observatory, was appointed deputy burgomeister to Menshagin, a Nazi collaborator. Basilevsky was trying to secure the release from German custody of a teacher, Zhiglinsky, and persuaded Menshagin to speak to the German commander of the region, Von Schwetz, about this matter. Menshagin did so but reported back it was impossible to secure this release because “instructions had been received from Berlin prescribing the strictest regime be maintained.

Basilevsky then recounted his conversation with Menshagin:

I involuntarily retorted ‘Can anything else be stricter than the regime existing at the camp?’ Menshagin looked at me in a strange way and bending to my ear, answered in a low voice: yes, there can be! The Russians can at least be left to die off, but as to the Polish war prisoners, the orders say they are to be simply exterminated.

After liberation Menshagin’s notebook was found written in his own handwriting, as confirmed by expert graphologists. Page 10, dated 15 August 1941, notes:

All fugitive war prisoners are to be detained and delivered to the commandant’s office.

This in itself proves the Polish prisoners were still alive at that time. On page 15, which is undated, the entry appears: “Are there any rumours among the population concerning the shooting of Polish war prisoners in Kozy Gory (for Umnov) ” (Umnov was the Chief of the Russian police).

A number of witnesses gave evidence that they had been pressured in 1942-43 by the Germans to give false testimony as to the shooting of the Poles by the Russians.

Parfem Gavrilovich Kisselev, a resident of the village closest to Kozy Gory, testified that he had been summonsed in autumn of 1942 to the Gestapo where he was interviewed by a German officer:

The officer stated that, according to information at the disposal of the Gestapo, in 1940, in the area of Kozy Gory in the Katyn Forest, staff members of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs shot Polish officers, and he asked me what testimony I could give on this score. I answered that I had never heard of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs shooting people at Kozy Gory, and that anyhow it was impossible, I explained to the officer, since Kozy Gory is an absolutely open and much frequented place, and if shootings had gone on there the entire population of the neighbouring villages would have known …

“…The interpreter, however, would not listen to me, but took a handwritten document from the desk and read it to me. It said that I, Kisselev, resident of a hamlet in the Kozy Gory area, personally witnessed the shooting of Polish officers by staff members of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs in 1940.

“Having read the document, the interpreter told me to sign it. I refused to do so… Finally he shouted ‘Either you sign it at once or we shall destroy you. Make your choice.’

“Frightened by these threats, I signed the document and thought that would be the end of the matter.

But it wasn’t the end of the matter, because the Germans expected Kisselev to give parol evidence of what he had ‘witnessed’ to groups of ‘delegates’ invited by the Germans to come to the area to witness the evidence of supposed Soviet atrocities.

Soon after the German authorities had announced the existence of the mass graves to the world in April 1943, “the Gestapo interpreter came to my house and took me to the forest in the Kozy Gory area.

“When we had left the house and were alone together, the interpreter warned me that I must tell the people present in the forest everything exactly as I had written it down in the document I had signed at the Gestapo.

“When I came to the forest I saw the open graves and a group of strangers. The interpreter told me that these were Polish delegates who had arrived to inspect the graves. When we approached the graves the delegates started asking me various questions in Russian in connection with the shooting of the Poles, but as more than a month had passed since I had been summoned to the Gestapo I forgot everything that was in the document I had signed, got mixed up, and finally said I didn’t know anything about the shooting of Polish officers.

“The German officer got very angry. The interpreter roughly dragged me away from the ‘delegation’ and chased me off. Next morning a car with a Gestapo officer drove up to my house. He found me in the yard, told me that I was under arrest, put me into the car and took me to Smolensk Prison …

“After my arrest I was interrogated many times, but they beat me more than they questioned me. The first time they summoned me they beat me up heavily and abused me, complaining that I had let them down, and then sent me back to the cell. During the next summons they told me I must state publicly that I had witnessed the shooting of Polish officers by the Bolsheviks, and that until the Gestapo was satisfied I would do this in good faith, I would not be released from prison. I told the officer that I would rather sit in prison than tell people lies to their faces. After that I was badly beaten up.

“There were several such interrogations accompanied by beatings, and as a result I lost all my strength, my hearing became poor and I could not move my right arm. About one month after my arrest a German officer summoned me and said: ‘You see the consequences of your obstinacy, Kisselev. We have decided to execute you. In the morning we shall take you to Katyn Forest and hang you.’ I asked the officer not to do this, and started pleading with them that I was not fit for the part of ‘eye-witness’ of the shooting as I did not know how to tell lies and therefore I would mix everything up again.

“The officer continued to insist. Several minutes later soldiers came into the room and started beating me with rubber clubs. Being unable to stand the beatings and torture, I agreed to appear publicly with a fallacious tale about shooting of Poles by Bolsheviks. After that I was released from prison, on conditions that on the first demand of the Germans I would speak before ‘delegations’ in Katyn Forest…

“On every occasion, before leading me to the graves in the forest, the interpreter used to come to my house, call me out into the yard, take me aside to make sure that no one would hear, and for half an hour make me memorise by heart everything I would have to say about the alleged shooting of Polish officers by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs in 1940.

“I recall that the interpreter told me something like this: ‘I live in a cottage in ‘Kozy Gory’ area not far from the country house of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. In spring 1940 I saw Poles taken on various nights to the forest and shot there’. And then it was imperative that I must state literally that ‘this was the doing of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs.’ After I had memorised what the interpreter told me he would take me to the open graves in the forest and compel me to repeat all this in the presence of ‘delegations’ which came there.

“My statements were strictly supervised and directed by the Gestapo interpreter. Once when I spoke before some ‘delegation’, I was asked the question: ‘Did you see these Poles personally before they were shot by the Bolsheviks?’ I was not prepared for such a question and answered the way it was in fact, i.e., that I saw Polish war prisoners before the war, as they walked on the roads. Then the interpreter roughly dragged me aside and drove me home.

“Please believe me when I say that all the time I felt pangs of conscience, as I knew that in reality the Polish officers had been shot by the Germans in 1941. I had no other choice, as I was constantly threatened with the repetition of my arrest and torture.

Numerous people corroborated Kisselev’s testimony, and a medical examination corroborated his story of having been tortured by the Germans.

Pressure was also brought on Ivanov, employed at the local railway station (Gnezdovo) to bear false witness:

The officer inquired whether I knew that in spring 1940 large parties of captured Polish officers had arrived at Gnezdovo station in several trains. I said that I knew about this. The officer then asked me whether I knew that in the same spring 1940, soon after the arrival of the Polish officers, the Bolsheviks had shot them all in the Katyn Forest. I answered that I did not know anything about that, and that it could not be so, as in the course of 1940-41 up to the occupation of Smolensk by the Germans, I had met captured Polish officers who had arrived in spring 1940 at Gnezdovo station, and who were engaged in road construction work.

“The officer told me that if a German officer said the Poles had been shot by the Bolsheviks it meant that this was a fact. ‘Therefore’, the officer continued, ‘you need not fear anything, and you can sign with a clear conscience a protocol saying that the captured Polish officers were shot by the Bolsheviks and that you witnessed it’.

“I replied that I was already an old man, that I was 61 years old, and did not want to commit a sin in my old age. I could only testify that the captured Poles really arrived at Gnezdovo station in spring 1940. The German officer began to persuade me to give the required testimony promising that if I agreed he would promote me from the position of watchman on a railway crossing to that of stationmaster of Gnezdovo station, which I had held under the Soviet Government, and also to provide for my material needs.

“The interpreter emphasised that my testimony as a former railway official at Gnezdovo station, the nearest station to Katyn Forest, was extremely important for the German Command, and that I would not regret it if I gave such testimony. I understood that I had landed in an extremely difficult situation, and that a sad fate awaited me. However, I again refused to give false testimony to the German officer. He started shouting at me, threatened me with a beating and shooting, and said I did not understand what was good for me. However, I stood my ground. The interpreter then drew up a short protocol in German on one page, and gave me a free translation of its contents. This protocol recorded, as the interpreter told me, only the fact of the arrival of the Polish war prisoners at Gnezdovo station. When I asked that my testimony be recorded not only in German but also in Russian, the officer finally went beside himself with fury, beat me up with a rubber club and drove me off the premises…“.

Savvateyev was another person pressurised by the Germans to give false testimony. He told the Soviet Commission of Inquiry:

In the Gestapo I testified that in spring 1940 Polish war prisoners arrived at the station of Gnezdovo in several trains and proceeded further in trucks, and I did not know where they went. I also added that I repeatedly met those Poles later on the Moscow-Minsk highway, where they were working on repairs in small groups. The officer told me I was mixing things up, that I could not have met the Poles on the highway, as they had been shot by the Bolsheviks, and demanded that I testify to this.

“I refused. After threatening and cajoling me for a long time, the officer consulted with the interpreter about something in German, and then the interpreter wrote a short protocol and gave it to me to sign. He explained that it was a record of my testimony. I asked the interpreter to let me read the protocol myself, but he interrupted me with abuse, ordering me to sign it immediately and get out. I hesitated a minute. The interpreter seized a rubber club hanging on the wall and made to strike me. After that I signed the protocol shoved at me. The interpreter told me to get out and go home, and not to talk to anyone or I would be shot…

Others gave similar testimony.

Evidence was also given as to how the Germans ‘doctored’ the graves of the victims to try to eliminate evidence that the massacre took place not in the autumn of 1941 but in the spring of 1940 shortly after the Poles first arrived in the area. Alexandra Mikhailovna had worked during the German occupation in the kitchen of a German military unit. In March 1943 she found a Russian war prisoner hiding in her shed:

From conversation with him I learned that his name was Nikolai Yegorov, a native of Leningrad. Since the end of 1941 he had been in the German camp No. 126 for war prisoners in the town of Smolensk. At the beginning of March 1943, he was sent with a column of several hundred war prisoners from the camp to Katyn Forest. There they, including Yegorov, were compelled to dig up graves containing bodies in the uniforms of Polish officers, drag these bodies out of the graves and take out of their pockets documents, letters, photographs and all other articles.

“The Germans gave the strictest orders that nothing be left in the pockets on the bodies. Two war prisoners were shot because after they had searched some of the bodies, a German officer discovered some papers on these bodies. Articles, documents and letters extracted from the clothing on the bodies were examined by the German officers, who then compelled the prisoners to put part of the papers back into the pockets on the bodies, while the rest was flung on a heap of articles and documents they had extracted, and later burned.

“Besides this, the Germans made the prisoners put in the pockets of the Polish officers some papers which they took from the cases or suitcases (I don’t remember exactly) which they had brought along. All the war prisoners lived in Katyn Forest in dreadful conditions under the open sky, and were extremely strongly guarded… At the beginning of April 1943, all the work planned by the Germans was apparently completed, as for three days not one of the war prisoners had to do any work…

“Suddenly at night all of them without exception were awakened and led somewhere. The guard was strengthened. Yegorov sensed something was wrong and began to watch very closely everything that was happening. They marched for three or four hours in an unknown direction. They stopped in the forest at a pit in a clearing. He saw how a group of war prisoners were separated from the rest and driven towards the pit and then shot. The war prisoners grew agitated, restless and noisy. Not far from Yegorov several war prisoners attacked the guards. Other guards ran towards the place. Yegorov took advantage of the confusion and ran away into the dark forest, hearing shouts and firing.

“After hearing this terrible story, which is engraved on my memory for the rest of my life, I became very sorry for Yegorov, and told him to come to my room, get warm and hide at my place until he had regained his strength. But Yegorov refused… He said no matter what happened he was going away that very night, and intended to try to get through the front line to the Red Army. In the morning, when I went to make sure whether Yegorov had gone, he was still in the shed. It appeared that in the night he had attempted to set out, but had only taken about 50 steps when he felt so weak that he was forced to return. This exhaustion was caused by the long imprisonment at the camp and the starvation of the last days. We decided he should remain at my place several days longer to regain his strength. After feeding Yegorov I went to work. When I returned home in the evening my neighbours Branova, Mariya Ivanovna, Kabanovskaya, Yekaterina Viktorovna told me that in the afternoon, during a search by the German police, the Red Army war prisoner had been found, and taken away.

Further corroboration was given by an engineer mechanic called Sukhachev who had worked under the Germans as a mechanic in the Smolensk city mill:

I was working at the mill in the second half of March, 1943. There I spoke to a German chauffeur who spoke a little Russian, and since he was carrying flour to Savenki village for the troops, and was returning on the next day to Smolensk, I asked him to take me along so that I could buy some fats in the village. My idea was that making the trip in a German truck would get over the risk of being held up at the control stations. The German agreed to take me, at a price.

“On the same day at 10 p.m. we drove on to the Somolensk-Vitebsk highway, just myself and the German driver in the machine. The night was light, and only a low mist over the road reduced the visibility. Approximately 22 or 23 kilometres from Smolensk at a demolished bridge on the highway there is a rather deep descent at the by-pass. We began to go down from the highway, when suddenly a truck appeared out of the fog coming towards us. Either because our brakes were out of order, or because the driver was inexperienced, we were unable to bring our truck to a halt, and since the passage was quite narrow we collided with the truck coming towards us. The impact was not very violent, as the driver of the other truck swerved to the side, as a result of which the trucks bumped and slid alongside each other.

“The right wheel of the other truck, however, landed in the ditch, and the truck fell over on the slope. Our truck remained upright. The driver and I immediately jumped out of the cabin and ran up to the truck which had fallen down. We were met by a heavy stench of putrefying flesh coming evidently from the truck.

“On coming nearer, I saw that the truck was carrying a load covered with a tarpaulin and tied up with ropes. The ropes had snapped with the impact, and part of the load had fallen out on the slope. This was a horrible load – human bodies dressed in military uniforms. As far as I can remember there were some six or seven men near the truck: one German driver, two Germans armed with tommy-guns – the rest were Russian war prisoners, as they spoke Russian and were dressed accordingly.

“The Germans began to abuse my driver and then made some attempts to right the truck. In about two minutes time two more trucks drove up to the place of the accident and pulled up. A group of Germans and Russian war prisoners, about ten men in all, came up to us from these trucks. … By joint efforts we began to raise the truck. Taking advantage of an opportune moment I asked one of the Russian war prisoners in a low voice: ‘What is it?’ He answered very quietly: ‘For many nights already we have been carrying bodies to Katyn Forest’.

“Before the overturned truck had been raised a German NCO came up to me and my driver and ordered us to proceed immediately. As no serious damage had been done to our truck the driver steered it a little to one side and got on to the highway, and we went on. When we were passing the two covered trucks which had come up later I again smelled the horrible stench of dead bodies“.

Various other people also gave testimony of having seen the trucks loaded with dead bodies.

One Zhukhov, a pathologist who actually visited graves in April 1943 at the invitation of the Germans, also gave evidence:

The clothing of the bodies, particularly the greatcoats, boots and belts, were in a good state of preservation. The metal parts of the clothing – belt buckles, button hooks and spikes on shoe soles, etc. – were not heavily rusted, and in some cases the metal still retained its polish. Sections of the skin of the bodies which could be seen – faces, necks, arms – were chiefly a dirty green colour, and in some cases dirty brown, but there was no complete disintegration of the tissues, no putrefaction. In some cases bared tendons of whitish colour and parts of muscles could be seen.

“While I was at the excavations people were at work sorting and extracting bodies at the bottom of a big pit. For this purpose they used spades and other tools, and also took hold of bodies with their hands and dragged them from place to place by the arms, the legs or the clothing. I did not see a single case of bodies falling apart or any member being torn off.

“Considering all the above, I arrived at the conclusion that the bodies had remained in the earth not three years, as the Germans affirmed, but much less. Knowing that in mass graves, and especially without coffins, putrefaction of bodies progresses more quickly than in single graves, I concluded that the mass shooting of the Poles had taken place about a year and a half ago, and could have occurred in autumn 1941 or in spring 1942. As a result of my visit to the excavation site I became firmly convinced that a monstrous crime had been committed by the Germans.

Several other people who visited the graves at the time gave like testimony.

Moreover, pathologists who examined the bodies in 1943 concluded that they could not have been dead longer than two years. Furthermore, documents were found on some of the bodies which had obviously been missed by the Germans when they doctored the evidence. These included a letter dated September 1940, a postcard dated 12 November 1940, a pawn ticket receipted 14 March 1941 and another receipted 25 March 1941. Receipts dated 6 April 1941, 5 May 1941, 15 May 1941 and an unmailed postcard in Polish dated 20 June 1941. Although all these dates pre-date Soviet withdrawal, they all postdate the time of the alleged murder of the prisoners by the Soviet authorities in the spring of 1940, the time given as the date of the supposed massacre by all those whom the Germans were able to bully into giving false testimony. If, as is claimed by bourgeois propagandists, these documents are forgeries, it would have been the easiest thing to forge documents which postdated the Soviet departure, but his was not done – and it was not done because the documents found were undoubtedly genuine.


Presentation made to the Stalin Society on July 2002

A personal account of experiences in the German Panzers at the Battle of Stalingrad

60 years after the Soviet victory at Stalingrad
– the turning point in the war against Nazi fascism

Speech by Henry Metelmann

The Stalin Society was honoured by Henry Metelmann speaking at its Annual General Meeting on 23 February 2003, chaired by Ella Rule, with Iris Cremer, Secretary. He gave a memorable account of his life as a youngster in Germany in the Hitler Youth, prior to his being involved in the German army at Stalingrad. He drew strong parallels between Nazi German expansionism and present-day Anglo-American imperialism’s aggression against Iraq. The following version of his speech was compiled from extensive notes taken at the meeting.


I was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain until it broke up in 1991.

I would like to say that I do not consider myself a historian. I come from a poor working-class family in Germany. I only had a state education, and I am not today speaking my mother tongue.

When Harpal Brar rang me after I spoke at the Imperial War Museum, I didn’t realise there was a Stalin Society. I did not know it existed. I am glad to have learnt something. I am glad to be here. It is a great honour.

The main line of my talk will be to guide you through the process of how I, a boy from Schleswig Holstein, ended up in the Napoleonic retreat at Stalingrad. I sometimes wonder why we have not learnt from history. Napoleon in 1812 invaded Russia. He started off with 650,000 from East Prussia and advanced towards Smolensk and Moscow, but had to retreat. The Russian army harassed the retreat and when the army returned to Paris, Napoleon arrived with only 1,400 soldiers. Of course, the original 650,000 had not all been soldiers, and only half of them were French anyway – others were Germans and Poles. For many illiterate peasants it seemed a good idea to join Napoleon’s army. We thought when we invaded the Soviet Union in the campaign codenamed Barbarossa that we were the strongest and the most intelligent – and we now know what became of that!

I was born in 1922 in Schleswig Holstein. My father was an unskilled labourer. Up to 1866 Schleswig Holstein had belonged to Denmark. The Bismarck and the Prussian Army started a war with Denmark, after which Schleswig Holstein became German. When I was a soldier in Russia the temperature on the coldest day was -54 degrees. I wished the Danes had won that war since I would not then have been a German in Russia suffering from the terrible cold of 1942. In the end, whatever our nationality, we all belong to one big family, which I realise now, but obviously did not at that time.

The 1930s in Germany

Up to the age of 10 (from 1922 to 1932) I lived in the Weimar Republic, which came into existence after the Kaiser was thrown out in 1919. I experienced all that as a small boy. Obviously I didn’t understand anything of what was happening. My parents were very loving and did everything possible for me, but I remember a tumultuous situation – strikes, shootings, recession, 7 million unemployed, blood in the streets. I lived in a working-class quarter outside Hamburg where the people were suffering great hardship. There were demonstrations where red flags were carried, women carrying children and pushing pushchairs, shouting ‘Give us bread, give us work’, workers shouting ‘Revolution’ and ‘Lenin’.

My father was very left-thinking and explained many things. The ruling class of Germany was very frightened by this situation and decided to do something about it. I witnessed street fighting that I had to run away from, and thought this was all part of life.

On Christmas Day 1932 I was 10 years old. Shortly afterwards, on 30 January 1933, a bomb exploded at the Reichstag. That was when Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. My mother kept asking how Hindenberg could allow this to happen, because we all knew the Nazis were thugs. We knew they were just a racist party who talked about revenge and beating people up.

I thought it all interesting and exciting, even though my mother told me they were gangsters. I would see brown-shirted storm troopers marching through town and I thought they were very glamorous. As young boys we tried to sing their songs and proudly marched behind them. In the last three columns, at the end of the marches, came the sweepers and if people on the pavement didn’t salute the flag, the sweepers would force them to do it. Later I was in the Hitler Youth and was ashamed for my mother to see me.

Hitler appointed to quell working-class rebellion

Hitler was Reichschancellor. Yet 10 years earlier nobody knew him. The Nazi name (standing for Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party) attracted quite a few people disillusioned with the traditional parties. Some were sincere socialists prepared to give Hitler a chance on the basis he couldn’t be worse than the parties that had preceded him. When Hitler and his representatives spoke it was always about making Germany great again, attacking Jews and the lower orders as people we must do something about. It was the God given duty of the German people to sort the world out in the German way, even if they didn’t like it.

There were no elections. Hitler was appointed overnight. Elections were abolished in order to put Hitler in power. Why? The Nazis had no tradition. So who put them in power? Hindenberg was a spokesperson for the German ruling classes, the military, the arms producers, the Ruhr barons, the bankers, the Church and the aristocratic landowners. My father said that when Hitler came to power he was a servant of the rich. Now I know my father was right. They had put Hitler there in order to quell the rebellion of working-class people against bad living standards. Hitler was not even a German national. He had been a corporal in the army, a vagabond in Vienna. He had had no education, he was just shouting for revenge. How can it be possible in a highly developed country like Germany, which is very cultured, for someone like him to become Head of the German state and supreme military commander? It would not have been possible for him on his own. His party was nothing. It was his paymasters who made it, wanting to prevent a repetition of the Russian revolution.

Hitler had executive power but was not a dictator. He was just a front man. He was not clever enough to run a machine like the German state.

The Nazis set up concentration camps. My father had always said we workers must struggle for our rights because the bastards only employ us if they can make a profit and that they were only afraid of rebellion that could lead to revolution. One day some brownshirts came in 2 cars at 3 a.m. and collected one of our neighbours who was a union secretary. He was taken to a concentration camp. My mother told me about this, and from then on my father instructed me to keep quiet about what he said about the Nazis as otherwise he could be sent to a concentration camp too. Taking one person from our area was a clever way of frightening and threatening all the families. I was 11 or 12 at the time and I thought he was an idiot and that I knew it all. My father thought nothing could be done and he had no choice but to keep quiet. The communists were the first ones to be taken away to concentration camps and then even progressive church people and anyone who spoke against the regime. You went if you dared open your mouth. Fear and terror was the basis of Nazi power.

In the Hitler Youth

I was in the Hitler Youth. A law had been passed saying that there could only be one youth movement and my church youth group was taken over by the Hitler Youth. I liked it. All my friends were in it. My father said I had better stay in it because under the prevailing conditions it would be bad for him, and for me, were I to leave.

When I left school at 15, my father, a railwayman, got me a locksmith’s apprenticeship on the railway. The first question on the application form for that apprenticeship was: “When did you join the Hitler Youth?” You probably didn’t get the job if you had never been a member – there was indirect pressure (not a law) to persuade youngsters to join the Hitler Youth. But I admit I loved it. We were poor and I had few clothes, sewn by my mother. But in the Hitler Youth I was given a brown shirt. My father would not buy it for me because he could not afford it, but at the next meeting I was given a parcel to take home. It contained two brown shirts. My father hated it and had to watch me wearing it. He understood what it meant. We Hitler Youth marched with drums and swastikas and I was so proud, accompanied by fanfares. It was a very disciplined environment.

I loved the camps which took place in lovely surroundings, such as a castle in Türingen. All of us young children had the chance to play plenty of sport. When we wanted to play football in our poor streets, nobody could afford a ball, but in the Hitler Youth all was provided. Where did the money come from? It probably came from the contributions of arms manufacturers. Hitler was put into power in order to prepare for a war which could save Germany from economic collapse.

I remember when there were 7 million unemployed. Within 18 months of Hitler coming to power there were very few unemployed left. The docks started building warships – the Bismarck, the Eugene, the Uboats. Germany was actually becoming short of workers. People thought that was wonderful, but my father said that if you can only get work by preparing for war something was very wrong.

In the Hitler Youth we learnt to shoot and throw hand grenades, occupy and attack trenches. We played great war games. We were being taught round big bonfires where we sang Nazi songs:”If Jewish blood drips off our knife”, and suchlike. My parents were horrified that we were going back to barbarism. But I didn’t question it. We were being prepared for fighting a war.

A few years after that Germans had occupied vast areas 4 or 5 times the size of the UK. These areas could be held down because German youth had been prepared for it in the Hitler Youth. I believed that we Germans would sort out the mess the world was in.

In the Panzer Division

At 18 I was called up and commandeered to a Panzer division. I was so proud that at such a young age I was chosen to be a member of the Panzers. The training was very hard. I came home wearing my uniform and thought the whole thing was great. Our trainers told us they would drive out our individualism and rebuild us in the Nazi socialist spirit. They succeeded. When I came to Stalingrad I still believed it.

Our officer class in the Wehrmacht was almost all of an aristocratic landowning background, the ‘Vons’. War propaganda intensified the whole time. We heard ‘we’ would have to do something about Poland or they would attack us, to defend the freedom of the world. History is now repeating itself with Bush and Blair. We attacked Poland on 1 September 1939. When bomb blew up in Berlin, we were told this was terrorism being conducted against us peace loving people. It is the same today as we are being prepared for war. It is the same atmosphere here now – lies and misinformation.

I was called up in 1941 when Operation Barbarossa was put into action on 22 June. I was being trained at that time. When the war on the Soviet Union started the Panzers were in France. In the beginning the German army and its discipline were very superior, from a military position, to those of other nations. Our troops entered the Soviet Union relatively easily. My 22nd Panzers weren’t sent there until the winter of 1941, by train. In France the weather had been OK and the first part of the journey was quite pleasant even though it was winter. It was colder in Germany, and in Poland it was snowing. In the Soviet Union everything was white.

We believed then it would be an honour to die fighting for the fatherland. We came through a town in the Soviet Union called Tanenburg. A battle had taken place there earlier, involving tanks. We looked at the scene for which we 18-year olds were unprepared. We did not know what to expect, just knew we had to obey orders. I began to wonder, for although most burnt out tanks were Russian, one of them was a German tank just like mine, and I couldn’t help wondering how the driver got out, for it must have been quite difficult. And then I realised he could not have got out, but must have died there.

For the first time I realised that I did not want to die. It is great to talk about big battles, but what is the reality? My national socialist spirit can’t control the flight of bullets. That is how I came to have my first doubts.

We went to Crimea as part of Mannestein’s 11th Army. In late winter / early spring our attack started. I fought my first battle. We won. But when I was driving my tank one day a sobering incident occurred. I had been told never to stop the tank. Stop and you’re dead. I approached a narrow bridge which I had to cross. While I approached, three Russian soldiers carrying a wounded companion were being escorted by German guards. When they saw me they dropped the wounded man. I stopped in order to avoid running over him. My commander ordered me to go on. I had to run over the injured man and kill him. I became a murderer. I thought it was OK to kill in battle, but not a defenceless person. This too gave me misgivings. But it drives you mad if you keep thinking about it. After the battle we were all given medals. That was wonderful. We cleaned up Crimea. It was exciting to take villages, to conquer an army. Then we were taken back by train to the mainland where we joined General Paulus. That was in the spring of 1942. I took part in the drive to the River Volga. We beat Timoshenko. I took part in lots of battles. Then we approached Stalingrad.

On the way we had political commissars calling us together from time to time for a situation report. Our commissar was a major in our unit. We sat on the grass around him. He told us there was no need to stand in his presence. He said “Why do you think you are in Russia?” I wondered what the catch was. Someone said: “To defend the honour of the fatherland”. The major said this was Goebbels rubbish, and that you didn’t fight a war over slogans but over real things. When we have destroyed the proletarian rubbish army, he told us, the fighting in the south would be over. Where would we go then? The answer was to the Caucasian and Caspian oil fields, 800 km from Stalingrad. What then? We had no idea. Well, if we went 700 km south, we would get to Iraq. At the same time Rommel, then fighting in the Nile Delta, would go east, and would also arrive in Iraq. Without getting our hands on these major oil resources, he told us, Germany could not become a major power. And now I look at the situation today – it is also all about oil.

“Disturbing experiences” talking to a communist prisoner

At one point I was slightly wounded. I was taken to hospital where I was declared unfit for the front line.

I will now quote from my book, Through Hell for Hitler (Spellmount, Staplehurst, 1990, p.77-81), of which a new edition is about to be published:

“A short train transport on straw in covered wagons took us back to a Lazarett in a town called Stalino. Though an infection set in, I had a great time there. A few weeks rest from the front was worth a pot of gold.

“Most of the hospital staff, including senior surgeons, were Russian. The treatment was efficient under tough war conditions, and when I was ready to leave, a Russian doctor said to me with a sly grin: ‘Go east again, young man, after all, that is what you have come here for!’ I was not sure whether I liked his remark, or indeed, whether I had any great wish to go east. After all I was not yet twenty years old, I wanted to live, not die.

“Though I was fit enough to leave the Lazarett, I was not yet in a condition to rejoin my Division, which was then battling its way towards Rostov. I was sent to join a unit which was guarding a prison camp somewhere between the Donetz and the Dniepr. In flat country the large camp had been set up in the open. Kitchen, stores etc. were under canvas, while the uncounted thousands of prisoners were left with nothing to cover themselves with but what they could lay their hands on. Their rations were very meagre, and so, though not quite as bad, were ours. However, the summer weather was fine and the Russians, used to living rough were able to withstand the conditions. The whole camp was bounded by a large circular trench, which the prisoners were not allowed to approach. Within the camp, at one side, was a Kolchose consisting of a number of buildings. The entire Kolchose was ringed by rolls of barbed wire and had only one entrance which was guarded. Together with about a dozen other semi-fit invalids. I was assigned to guard this inner compound.

“Guard duty generally was considered by most active soldiers as a mind-killing exercise and a punishment. Above all it was boring, and the goings on in the Kolchose compound were a decidedly strange affair. The clue, I suppose, was to be found in Hitler’s infamous “Kommissar Befehl’, according to which all political prisoners, Politruks (Political Army officers) and other members of the Communist Party were to be shot. For the Communists, the ‘Kommissar Befehl’ was what the ‘Final Solution’ was to the Jews. I suppose that at that time most of us accepted that Communism was a crime, that Communists were criminals, and that there was no legal necessity to prove any further individual guilt. It dawned on me that I was now guarding a camp which had been set up to erase the evil of Communism.

“Of all the prisoners who walked into the Kolchose compound, none walked out again. Whether they knew this would be their fate, I am not sure. Quite a number of them had been given away by their fellow prisoners in the large outer camp, and even in doubtful cases, when they claimed that they had never belonged to the Party or were Communists at all – or even that they were anti-Communists – they still did not walk out again. We being only the guards, the compound was run by a small detachment of the Sicherheits Dienst, the SD which was under the command of the SS equivalent of a Major. In each case there was a vague investigation, after which the execution was carried out, always at the same place against a wall of a burnt-out cottage, which could not be seen from anywhere outside. The burial place, consisting of a few large trenches, was further to the rear.

“Having soaked up a full Nazi ‘education’ at school and in the Hitler Youth, this first experience of direct contact with Communists in the flesh was very baffling. The prisoners who were daily brought into our compound, either alone or in small groups, were very different types of person from what I had expected. Indeed, they were different from the masses of the prisoners outside who on the whole looked and behaved like typical East European peasants. What struck me most about these Politruks and Party members was their intelligence and pride. I never, or hardly ever, noticed any of them whining or complaining, and they never asked for anything for themselves. When their time for execution came, and I saw many go, they did so with their heads held high. Almost all of them impressed me as persons whom one could trust, and I was sure, had we been living under peaceful conditions, that I would have liked some of them to be my friends.

“Our daily routine was monotonous. One either stood at the gate with some­one else for a couple of hours, or walked about the compound alone, the heavy loaded rifle always hanging ready over one’s shoulder. Usually there were about a dozen to twenty ‘patients’ under our care. Their ‘home’ was a cleaned-out pigsty, which was itself surrounded, within the compound, by barbed wire. It was a prison within a prison within a prison. Our system of guarding them gave them virtually no chance to escape and on the whole we had little trouble with them. Since we were amongst them during all hours of the day and the night, we came to know them all by sight and often by name, and of course, we were the ones who handed them over for ‘investigation’ and delivered them for their last walk to the firing squad.

“One of the prisoners had a fair knowledge of German, which he had learnt at school. I have forgotten his family name but his first name was Boris. As I spoke Russian fairly well in a pidgin fashion we had no difficulty conversing on most subjects. Boris was a Lieutenant, a Politruk, and about two years older than me. We discovered that we had both learnt the trade of locksmith, he in Gorlovka-Artemovsk Region in a large engineering complex, and I at the Railway workshops in Hamburg. On our advance I had passed through his town. He was blond, about six feet tall and had laughing blue eyes which even in this desperate situation had not lost their friendly twinkle. Often, especially at nights, I felt drawn to chat with him. As I called him Boris anyway, he had asked me if he could call me by my first name and I think that it surprised us both to find how easily we could get on with each other. We mostly talked about our families, our homes, our school and apprentice days. I knew the names of his brothers and sisters, how old they were, what his parents did for a living, and even some of their personal habits. He naturally was very worried about how they were faring under German occupation, and I was in no position to console him. He even gave me their address and asked me, that if ever I was going their way, to look them up and tell them. ‘But tell them what?’, I thought, and we both knew that I would never go, and that therefore his family would never find out what had happened to their Boris. In turn he learned all about my family and all the things which were close to my heart. I told him how in a harmless way I had had a girlfriend for whom I had felt much love. He smiled understandingly and told me that he too had had a girl-friend who had been a student. We felt very close at moments like this – until we suddenly then both realized what a gulf there was between us, that I was standing there with a rifle on my shoulder and that he was my prisoner. I knew, of course, that he would never hold a girl in his arms again, but was not quite sure whether he was aware of that. I knew that his only crime had been that he was a soldier and a Politruk, and my instinct told me all right that there was something very wrong somewhere.

“Surprisingly, we talked very little about life in the army, and as regards politics we found we had no bridge of common understanding, not even a common denominator from where together we could analyse. So close in so many human ways, we both realized that in that we were a world apart.

“Then came Boris’s last night. I had found out from the SD that it was his turn to be shot in the morning. He had been to ‘investigation’ in the afternoon, and I could see that he had been beaten and hit in the face. He had also been injured in his side, but he said nothing – and neither did I – for what was the point? I am not sure whether he was aware that he was to be shot at sun-rise, and I certainly did not tell him. But being an intelligent man, he must have come to some conclusion on why his fellow prisoners were led away after investigation and never returned.

“I was on night duty from two to four, and the night was beautifully warm and quiet. The air was full of the music of nature, with the frogs in the nearby pond croaking as if in concert. Boris was sitting on the straw outside in the pigsty, with his back leaning against the wall playing, very quietly on his small mouth-organ, which fitted unseen in his hands. It was his only possession left, every thing else had been taken from him. The tune he played when I arrived was beautiful, a typical Russian melancholic one, something about the wide steppe and love. But then there were shouts from some of his fellow prisoners inside, telling him to shut up, and he looked at me, should he ignore it and go on playing? When I shrugged my shoulder, he knocked the mouth-organ in the palm of his hand and said: ‘Nitchevo, let’s talk instead!’ I rested my elbow on the wall and looked down on him. There was a deep tension in me, and I did not quite know what to talk about. I was sad, wanted to be friendly and perhaps help – and did not know how. Why it happened, I do not really know, but somehow he looked in a challenging way at me and for the first time our conversation turned to politics. Perhaps deep down I wanted an explanation from him at this late hour, wanted to know what it was he so fervently believed in – or at least admit to me that he had been wrong in his belief all along.

“‘And what about your World Revolution?’ I said ‘it is all over now, is it not, and it has been a criminal nonsense – a conspiracy against freedom and peace from the very beginning…?’ At that time, let us remember, it looked very much as if Germany would triumph over Russia. He kept quiet for a while, just sitting there on his heap of straw, still fiddling with his mouth-organ. I would have been satisfied, had he shown me some anger. And when he raised himself very slowly and came to the wall to look me straight into my eyes, I could see that he was very agitated indeed. His voice was calm, though with a shade of sadness and disappointment, but not for himself – but for me. ‘Genry!’, he said: ‘You told me all about your life, you come as I do from the poor, the working people. You are friendly enough and not stupid – but on the other hand you are very stupid because you have learnt nothing from your life. I can clearly see that your brainwashers have done a very successful job on you for you have swallowed so totally the propaganda fed into your mind. What is so very tragic is that you are supporting ideas which by their very nature are directed against your own fundamental interests and which have made you a willing, sad tool in their evil hands. The World Revolution is ongoing history. Even if you win the war, which I don’t think you will, the World Revolution will not and cannot be stopped by military means. Your very powerful army can do much harm to us, can kill many of our people – but it cannot kill ideas! Its movement might seem dormant to you at the moment, but it is there and will come to the fore again out of the awakening of the poor, the downtrodden ordinary people the world over in Africa, the Americas, in Asia and Europe too. People in their masses will one day understand that it is the power of capital over them which not only oppresses and robs them, but stifles their human potential, which either uses or discards them as mere pawns to make monetary profits out of them. Once the people grasp that idea, it will mature into an almost material force in popular uprisings like spreading wildfires and will do what has to be done in the name of humanity. It will not be Russia who will do it for them, although the Russian working people were the first who have broken the chains. The people of the world will do it for themselves in their own countries, against their own oppressors, in their own ways and in their own time!’

“His outburst gave me no chance to interrupt and it allowed no argument. Even though he had spoken quietly, it shook me to the core. Nobody had ever touched a chord of understanding in me that way and I felt naked and defenceless. And to give me the final knock, he pointed to my rifle, saying that ‘that thing’ could do nothing against his ideas. ‘And if you think that you have the intellectual capacity to respond to me meaningfully’, he concluded, ‘please don’t use any of your silly slogans about country, freedom and God!’

“Anger, almost suffocatingly, welled up in me. My natural reaction was to put him in his place. But then I thought better of it, I remembered that within a few hours he would be dead, and that perhaps this had been his way to take a last swipe at me. My guard duty was now up. And not wanting to make a final show of saying ‘Do Swydanya’ or ‘Auf Wiedersehn to him, I gave him one last look, perhaps with a mixture of anger and sadness in which he might have detected a glimmer of almost lost humanism, turned on my heel and slowly walked over to the stables which were our quarters. Boris did not move at all, not one sound came from him and I did not turn once in my stride. But I knew for sure, I felt it, that he was watching me intently as I trotted away from him with my ridiculous rifle.

“And in the horizon there rose the first light of the coming morning.

“We guards also bedded down on straw, and I always loved my first sleep after coming in from duty. But this morning I could not sleep. I did not even undress, just lay there and watched dawn creeping up. I twisted and turned, felt sorry for Boris – and also for myself. There was so much I simply could not understand. And then, with the sun already up, I heard the shots, a short salvo, that was all.

“I got up at once and walked over to the place where I knew the graves were ready. Morning had arrived in all its pristine beauty and the birds were singing as if nothing had happened. I met the firing squad coming back with their rifles, looking bored. They just nodded at me, obviously wondering why I was going in that direction. There were two or three prisoners already shovelling earth over the bodies. Beside Boris there were three others, already partially covered. I could still recognize him, his tunic looked crumpled and his boots had been taken off but he still wore his leather belt, and I could see blood on it. The diggers looked at me, obviously wondering what I was doing there. Their expression was sullen, but I could also see fear and hatred in their eyes. I wanted to ask them what had happened to Boris’s mouth-organ, had they taken it or was it still in his pocket? But then I changed my mind, thinking that they might suspect me of wanting to steal from the dead, and I walked away from it all, back to my stable, and I tried to get some sleep.

“I was much relieved when shortly afterwards I was certified ‘fit for frontline service’ again, and set off to rejoin my Division, which was hammering at so many gates. There, at least, things were straight-forward. Hard and tough as life was, there were no disturbing experiences to deceive one’s mind and conscience.

“The lads were glad to see me back. With the Volga now so close, the Russians were fighting fiercely and showing what their army was made of. Several in my company, all close friends, had fallen. Our CO, Oberleutnant Steffan, had been shot in the head. As much as it hurt me, I could understand all that. But the execution of Boris – why? It seemed like putting Jesus on the cross all over again.”

Approaching Stalingrad

We thought 1942 would be a great summer for us. We tried to catch the Red Army in pincers but they always withdrew. We thought they were cowards, but it was not so.

In the Don Bas region we came to a town where there were lots of factories. The Soviets had stripped it bare and moved all the machinery east of the Urals. That is where they mass-produced the T34 tank – the most successful tank in the history of the world. The production of the T34 turned our hope of victory into defeat.

Along with our army we had some economics officers, they wore green uniforms. They went into these factories and I saw their faces drop as they saw they had been stripped. They had counted on seizing that machinery.

I had not been to Stalingrad before. We could not capture Russian soldiers for they had melted away to form partisan groups. We had foreign troops on our side, such as the Romanians. We used these foreigners to protect our flanks behind Stalingrad, but our allies were not as well disciplined or as well armed as we were, so they got attacked. Our division pulled back behind the Romanian army, and we fought when the Russians broke through the Romanian ranks. It was November 1942. We felt something strange going on while we were on guard duty. The Russian T34 was the best tank of the second world war, and I knew the sound of its diesel engine, and thought I heard a lot of them in the distance. We told our officers that tanks were moving. The officers, however, told us that the Russians were finished and that we were frightened for nothing.

As we got into position for battle, we knew it was an overture to the opera. The real thing was to come. The artillery stopped for a moment and we heard the tanks revving up. They came early in the morning with their headlights on, shooting. They came for us. I thought of the officer who said I had only heard one tank being driven back and forth, not the hundreds now advancing. In front of us was a ravine. The Russian tanks dived into it and when they came up I knew it was over. I jumped into an earth bunker like a coward, shivering with fear, and I got into a corner where it would be less easy for the tanks to crush me. They just drove through us. There was a great deal of shouting – Russian voices, some Romanian. I did not dare move. It was 6 a.m. At 8-8.30 a.m. quiet descended. One of my comrades, Fritz, had been killed. There were the agonised shouts of the wounded. The Russian dead and injured were taken away, but the Germans and Romanians were still lying there. I was 20 years old, and I didn’t know what to do.

The wounded wanted my help. I had no medical knowledge or supplies and could see they had no hope. I just walked away from them. There were about 15-20 of them there. One German called out that I was a swine. I realised, however, that I could do nothing for them, and that I had to get away and concentrate totally on that. I went to my bunker where there was a stove. It was warm and there was straw and blankets. I went out to get some chopped wood. I heard an engine revving in the ravine. It was a broken down Russian jeep and there was I with an armful of wood. Two officers came to me and I stepped back. They must have thought I was a Russian soldier in a German coat. I saluted. He gestured that he had a sore arse. I made my fire and I slept the day away. I was frightened to wake up. What now?

I intended to walk in the dark. We had learnt orientation in the Hitler Youth and could find the way by the North Star. I started walking west. I did not know what had happened, or that Stalingrad had been taken by the Russians, or that the German 6th Army had surrendered. I was walking in the exact place where the breakthrough had happened.

I was not quite 20. I had to throw my blankets away – very reluctantly. Snow was covering the wounded. I took things from my dead mates – the best rifle, the best pistol, as much food as I could carry without overloading myself. I didn’t know how far I would have to walk to reach the German lines. I ate as much as I could and started walking. For 3 days I slept in barns and ate snow.

One day I saw someone and he saw me. I went down on my knees, with my gun, and just waited. I was wearing a Romanian fur cap. He shouted. He asked whether I was Romanian, and I said I was German. He said he was German too. We walked together another two days. We almost got killed when we crossed the German lines as they thought I must be a deserter since I did not know what had happened to my unit.

I belonged to battle group Lindemann. There were no more divisions or regiments. We had lost everything. We put Hitler’s scorched earth policy into effect. When we came across a hamlet one day of some 6-8 cottages, Lindemann told us to take possession of the cottages and burn them down. They were very poor, without a floor or anything. I opened the door of one of them. It was full of women and children and the elderly. It smelt of poverty. It smelt of cabbage. The people were sitting on the ground leaning against the wall. I ordered them out, and they started saying that they would all die without shelter. A woman with a baby asked me whether I, German soldier, had a mother. There was an old man there with a child by his side. I grabbed the child and pointed my pistol at him, and said I would shoot the child if the people did not leave the cottage. The old man asked me to shoot him instead. Lindemann ordered me to burn the house anyway, even if they didn’t get out. I did as I was told. Then the people opened the door and came out screaming. I am sure we killed them.

We ordinary German soldiers, conscripts, suffered too. The Russians had attacked us. There were others, even younger than me, walking through the snow hoping to rejoin our units. Russian Stormovik planes came out of the sunlight as we walked through the snow, saw our footprints and came after us. We could see their pilots. They circled and came back to shell us. One of us was hit and torn open – Willi. He was a good friend. His situation was hopeless. We could not carry him or leave him. As the oldest I had to decide. I went on my knees, stroked his head, covered him with snow. Again, I was a murderer, but what could we do?

I was wounded again (three times altogether). I was captured once and escaped. They took me to a German hospital in Westphalia in 1944. Early in 1945 I had to join a unit on the western front to fight the Americans. It was better than fighting the Russians. Because of the crimes we had committed in Russia, the Russians really hated us, and we therefore had to fight like mad to avoid being captured.

I was sent to defend the Rhine after D-Day. Patton’s army was moving in on Paris. After surrender, on 17 March 1945 I was taken to Cherbourg by train. They put us in open coal wagons – hundreds of German soldiers. They would not let us out even to go to the toilet, but we had plenty of food. When we needed to relieve ourselves we filled tins. When the French at a level crossing started abusing us, we threw our tins at them. We arrived at Cherbourg.

I saw the horror of devastation from east to west. What had we done! I saw catastrophic devastation. 50 million people had died! We wanted land, besides which Russia had some 50% of the world’s raw materials, including oil. That’s what it was about.

Now looking back, I salute the Red Army and what they did in saving the world from Hitler. They lost more casualties than we did. Nine-tenths of the German soldiers who died in the Second World War died in Russia. They asked me to come to a Memorial near the Imperial War Museum a couple of weeks ago. I gave a short speech in which I paid tribute to the Red Army. It was because of this I had to go on the March against war on Iraq last Saturday. That was an uplifting experience.

We Germans thought we were the strongest military force on earth, but look what happened to us – the Americans should remember that. There will be revolution all over the world, even if it does not come in the same way as Boris said it would. There will be a new awakening.

Presentation made to the Stalin Society AGM, February 2003