The Sacking of Germany after World War II

Published: 2020-12-14

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The devastation of Germany by total warfare during World War II cast serious doubt on Germany’s postwar ability to survive. Never before in history had a nation’s life-sustaining resources been so thoroughly demolished. Returning from victory in Europe, Gen. Omar Bradley stated, “I can tell you that Germany has been destroyed utterly and completely.”[1]

Despite soothing words from Allied leaders at the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences, it soon became evident to the Germans that the Allies did not arrive as liberators. Instead, the Allies arrived as conquerors as vengeful, greedy and ruthless as any who had ever won a war. This article documents the plundering and destruction of Germany that continued after the end of World War II.

The Plunder of Germany

The Red Army began the plunder of Europe as soon as it entered Germany in 1944. Soviet looting in the Russian Zone became prodigious after the end of the war. Factories, refineries, processing mills, and other heavy industrial installations were taken apart and sent east to the Soviet Union to be reassembled. All secondary rail lines, electric and steam locomotives and their rolling stock were sent to the Soviet Union. The plants that were left in Germany were operated by Germans solely for the benefit of the Soviet Union.[2]

Red Army soldiers joined the Soviet government in pillaging Germany on a massive scale. A woman from Silesia wrote:

The Russians systematically cleared out everything that was for them of value, such as all sewing machines, pianos, grand-pianos, baths, water taps, electric plants, beds, mattresses, carpets, etc. They destroyed what they could not take away with them. Trucks often stood for days in the rain, with the most valuable carpets and articles of furniture in them, until everything was completely spoiled and ruined….

If fuel was required, then whole woods were generally felled, or window-frames and doors were torn out of the empty houses, broken up on the spot, and immediately used for making fire. The Russians and Poles even used the staircases and banisters as firewood. In the course of time, even the roofs of houses were removed and used for heating….Empty houses, open, without window-panes, overgrown with weeds and filth, rats and mice in uncanny numbers, unharvested fields, land which had been fertile, now completely overgrown with weeds and lying fallow. Not in a single village did one see a cow, a horse or a pig….The Russians had taken everything away to the east, or used it up.[3]

The Russians destroyed much of what was not looted. A German woman describes what she saw when she found her way home at the end of the war:

We have been warned by others who have witnessed signs of Russian occupancy to expect bedlam and to abandon our hopeless mission altogether. Thus, we expect the worst, but our idea of the worst has not prepared us sufficiently for reality. Shocked to the point of collapse, we survey a battlefield—heaps of refuse through which broken pieces of furniture rise like cliffs; stench gags us, almost driving us to retreat. Ragged remnants of clothes, crushed dishes, books, pictures torn from frames--rubble in every room. We can’t look into the dining room because it is locked. Above all, the nauseating stench that emanates from the largest and totally wrecked living room! Spoiled contents ooze from splintered canning jars, garbage of indefinable origin is mixed with unmistakable human excrement, and dried stain of urine discolors crumpled paper and rags. We wade into the dump with care and poke at some of all but unrecognizable belongings. Overcoming our revulsion, we penetrate to the lower layers and discover unharmed books, loose photographs, bundles of old letters, odd pieces of silverware, an occasional unbroken dish.[4]

Soviet soldiers were awed by the abundance of material goods in Germany. The great number of automobiles, tractors, motorcycles, bicycles, stoves, radios and other common goods were beyond the comprehension of many Soviet soldiers. One Russian soldier commented that there was more to be taken out of one house in Germany than in a typical village in the Soviet Union. Another Soviet soldier admitted: “All of us, officers and men, saw the riches and prosperity of a capitalist country and couldn’t believe our eyes. We had never believed there could be such an abundance of goods.” This German material abundance was either looted or destroyed by the Red Army.[5] 

Even in its ruined state, Berlin was the paragon of wealth to the Russians. The Russians stole all of the bicycles they could find. Gramophones, wristwatches, light bulbs, and cigarette lighters were not only new to most Russian soldiers, but prized possessions to be collected. They also confiscated any liquor they could lay their hands on. Anything the Red Army did not steal they destroyed, including valuable antiques, musical instruments and elegant clothes.[6]

American soldiers also stole from the German people and let German children go hungry. American aviation hero Charles Lindbergh wrote:

At home our papers carry articles about how we “liberate” oppressed countries and peoples. Here, our soldiers use the word “liberate” to describe the method of obtaining loot. Anything taken from an enemy home or person is “liberated” in the language of the G.I. Leica cameras are “liberated” (probably the most desired item); guns, food, art. Anything taken without being paid for is “liberated.” A soldier who rapes a German woman has “liberated” her….

German children look in through the window. We have more food than we need, but regulations prevent giving it to them. It is difficult to look at them. I feel ashamed, of myself, of my people, as I eat and watch those children. They are not to blame for the war. They are hungry children. What right have we to stuff ourselves while they look on—well-fed men eating, leaving unwanted food on plates, while hungry children look on?...There is an abundance of food in the American Army, and few men seem to care how hungry the German children are outside the door.[7]

Reporter William H. Stoneman of the Chicago Daily News was shocked by the vandalism and looting of American troops. Stoneman, who was stationed with the U.S. 3rd Army, wrote in May 1945:

I have been impressed by the careless manner in which the booty has been handled and the way in which great stocks of foodstuffs have been left to the reckless inroads of looters….

Millions of dollars worth of rare things varying from intricate Zeiss lenses to butter and cheese and costly automobiles are being destroyed because the Army has not organized a system for the recovery of valuable enemy material.

Frontline troops are rough and ready about enemy property. They naturally take what they find if it looks interesting, and, because they are in the frontlines, nobody says anything….

But what front-line troops take is nothing compared to the damage caused by wanton vandalism of some of the following troops. They seem to ruin everything, including the simplest personal belongings of the people in whose houses they are billeted.[8]

American Provost Marshal Lt. Col. Gerald F. Beane was assigned to deal with crimes committed by American soldiers. In an official report released in Berlin in late 1945, Beane stated that larceny and robbery were the crimes most-frequently committed by our soldiers. The Chicago Tribune commented on his report:

As to crimes committed against property, the explanation is fairly obvious. No effective steps were taken to discourage looting by the invading armies during the war. Officers and men alike committed this crime and for much the most part went unpunished. It was tolerated under some such euphemism as souvenir collecting. The habit of stealing, once formed, is difficult to break. The fault, of course, lies with the high command which permitted the abuse. Col. Beane’s pronouncement suggests that the army is tardily seeking to correct its error.[9]

Foreign workers and displaced persons also frequently plundered German property after the end of the war. Germans stood in fear as foreign workers “passed through the country looting, robbing and murdering.” Allied soldiers often looked on as foreign workers plundered German shops—something made easier when curfews were imposed on Germans but not on foreign workers. Displaced persons in Munich, who comprised 4% of the population, were held responsible for three-quarters of the crimes committed in the city. A priest in Görlitz wrote how after the war ended hordes of foreign workers had left the city littered with the debris from their looting.[10]

Theft in Germany after the war was not confined to petty larceny. Whole governments were involved in robbing Germany of anything of value. One Soviet priority was the seizure of important works of art found in Berlin and throughout Germany. This was a fully planned operation, with the artworks stolen by Soviet troops originally planned to be exhibited in a huge museum of war trophies. As world opinion changed against the Soviets after the war, they chose to conceal the artworks in special closed galleries throughout the Soviet Union. Many of the paintings remain hidden to this day.[11]

The British royal family also confiscated its share of German booty. For example, Hermann Göring’s yacht, the Karin II, ended up in the hands of the British royal family.[12] The British royal family commissioned Anthony Blunt, a Soviet spy, to travel to Hanover to take possession of the German crown jewels. Although the jewels later had to be returned to their rightful owners, some jewels were never recovered.[13]

While the United States did not take German plants and factories for itself, in partnership with Britain, it carried out a systematic campaign to root out all German contacts and assets located abroad. The plan was to eliminate German competition in world trade. Known as the “replacement program,” this campaign called for the forcible elimination of all accumulations of German capital abroad. The replacement program was designed to prevent Germany from ever again engaging in foreign commerce on an important scale.[14]

The United States also adopted the Safehaven Program, which denied to Germany the German capital investments located abroad when the war began. Pursuant to this program, the financial and corporate interests of German nationals located outside of Germany were either seized or subject to seizure. The external operation of the Safehaven Program forced Switzerland, Sweden, Spain and other countries to hand over to the United States their German-owned assets. The U.S. Justice Department also confiscated nearly a billion dollars’ worth of property in the United States believed to be owned by Germans, even though this property was held in the names of citizens of neutral countries such as Sweden and Switzerland.[15]  

The Plunder of German Brains and Labor

Germany also experienced “mental dismantling” in that hundreds of German scientists were compelled to immigrate by the victors. One U.S. government agency quietly admitted that Operation Paperclip was the first time in history where conquerors had attempted to commandeer the inventive power of a nation. Life magazine added that the real gain in reparations of this war “was not in the confiscated factories, gold, or artworks, but in the German brains and in the German research results.”[16]

German chemist Otto Hahn wrote bitterly about the export of German scientists to foreign countries:

Most of the older professors leave Germany very unwillingly, because they feel that their place is here. Necessity compels them, because their livelihoods and working opportunities in their own country are taken away from them or else they are left in a constant state of fear of such an occurrence. All this, after our having experienced well enough what it means to replace competence with “politically irreproachable” dilettantes. But more depresses these men: the awareness that it is evidently not a matter of an honorable appointment to an independent American research institution or university of some rank but (at least according to the American press) forms a part of the “reparations.” Centuries ago, princes sent their countrymen away as plantation workers or soldiers. Today, scientists are exported.[17]

Bitterness is a word that appears frequently in the writings of German scientists after the war. Otto Hahn wrote in 1949: “It is certainly understandable that the factory dismantlings still taking place four years after the capitulation are being greeted with bitterness, particularly among the academic youth.”[18]

The Soviets also attempted to abduct or tempt away scientists and technicians who might be useful to them. The Nobel Prize-winning German physicist Gustav Hertz was taken to the Soviet Union to help the Soviets develop nuclear weapons. On October 21, 1945, a large number of skilled German workers, technicians and scientists were sent to the Soviet Union by train. The Western Allies made a weak protest, which the Russians simply ignored.[19]

Millions of Germans were also sent to the Soviet Union to be used as slave labor. The following report was published on June 29, 1945:

German prisoners in Russian hands are estimated to number from 4 to 5 million. When Berlin and Breslau surrendered, the long grey-green columns of prisoners were marched east downcast and fearful…toward huge depots near Leningrad, Moscow, Minsk, Stalingrad, Kiev, Kharkov, and Sevastopol. All fit men had to march some 22 miles a day. Those physically handicapped went in handcarts or carts pulled by spare beasts…They will be made to rebuild the Russian towns and villages which they destroyed. They will not return home until the work is completed.[20]

Some crippled and ailing Germans who survived the Russian slave labor camps were returned to Berlin, where they were interviewed by American correspondents. German Red Cross women on September 10, 1946 met a 20-car trainload of returning forced laborers from the Soviet Union. A professional nurse told their story:

They had been in the train almost a week traveling about 60 miles from Frankfurt-on-Oder. There had been deaths from starvation, not from starvation just during the ride, but from the hardships of the trip after months of malnutrition in Russian labor camps. Almost all of the 800 or 900 in the train were sick or crippled. You might say they were all invalids. With 40 to 50 packed in each of those little boxcars, the sick had to sleep beside the dead on their homeward journey. I did not count them but I am sure we removed more than 25 corpses. Others had to be taken to hospitals. I asked several of the men whether the Russian guards or doctors had done anything on the trip to care for the sick. They said “No.”

I met only one alert, healthy man in the lot and I have seen him since. He was just a kid of 17. The boy told me that prisoners leaving Russian camps for Germany are searched to prevent any from smuggling mail for their comrades. Therefore, when one of them has been diagnosed as a hopeless invalid, in anticipation of discharge he will memorize the names and addresses of relatives to whom he can report for his fellow prisoners. He said only prisoners in special favor are able to mail postcards to their nearest of kin. This kid of 17 has memorized 80 names and addresses in Berlin of relatives of his prison friends. He found the buildings at most of the addresses in rubble, with the present whereabouts of the former occupants unknown, but he visited all 80 addresses in his first six days in Berlin.[21]

If prisoners released by the Russians as unfit for further forced labor managed to recuperate, they were generally sent back to the Soviet Union to resume their slavery. Able-bodied Germans released in the British or American Zones and returned to their homes in the Soviet Zone were also typically sent to the Soviet Union for slave labor. The slightest disobedience in Russian camps was penalized by such heavy work that a third of the disobeyers died within three weeks from exhaustion. German prisoners being turned over to the Russians often committed suicide or tried to incapacitate themselves in order to avoid being sent to the Soviet slave-labor camps.[22]

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), France had 680,000 former German soldiers slaving for her in August 1946. Of this number, 475,000 had been captured by the United States and turned over to the French for forced labor. After 320,000 German prisoners had been delivered, the French returned 2,474 of them to the United States because they were severely malnourished and unfit for work. Associated Press photographer Henry Griffin, who had taken pictures of the corpses piled in Buchenwald and Dachau, said of these returned Germans: “The only difference I can see between these men and those corpses is that here they are still breathing.”[23]

The ICRC reported that in August 1946, Great Britain was using 460,000 Germans as slave laborers; the United States 284,000; Yugoslavia 80,000; Belgium 48,000; Czechoslovakia 45,000; Luxembourg 4,000; and Holland 1,300. Keeping such large numbers of Germans away from their families (homes, livelihoods) was a direct attack against German homes and families, one by one. The ICRC condemned the Allied slave-labor system:

The United States, Britain, and France, nearly a year after peace, are violating International Red Cross agreements they solemnly signed in 1929.

Investigation at Geneva headquarters today disclosed that the transfer of German war prisoners captured by the American army to French and British authorities for forced labor is nowhere permitted in the statutes of the International Red Cross, which is the highest authority on the subject in the world.

Although thousands of the former German soldiers are being used in the hazardous work of clearing mine fields, sweeping sea mines, destroying surplus ammunition and razing shattered buildings, the Geneva Convention expressly forbids employing prisoners “in any dangerous labor or in the transport of any material used in warfare…”

“The American delivery of German prisoners to the French and British for forced labor already is being cited by the Russians as justification for them to retain German army captives for as long as they are able to work,” an International Red Cross official admitted. “The bartering of captured enemy soldiers by the victors throws the world back to the dark ages—when feudal barons raided adjoining duchies to replenish their human livestock.”[24]

Women, children and the aged also were forced by the Allies to perform labor. No job was too loathsome or degrading for the conquered Germans to be made to perform. Some work assignments were especially unpleasant, as one woman makes clear: “[A]s a result of the war damage…the toilets were stopped up and filthy. This filth we had to clear away with our hands, without any utensils to do so. The excrement was brought into the yard, shoveled into carts, which we had to bring to refuse pits. The awful part was that we got dirtied by the excrement which spurted up, but we could not clean ourselves.”[25]

Another German woman from the Soviet Zone added:

We had to build landing strips, and to break stones. In snow and rain, from six in the morning until nine at night, we were working along the roads. Any Russian who felt like it took us aside. In the morning and at night we received cold water and a piece of bread, and at noon soup of crushed, unpeeled potatoes, without salt. At night we slept on the floors of farmhouses or stables, dead tired, huddled together. But we woke up every so often, when a moaning and whimpering in the pitch-black room announced the presence of one of the guards.[26]

As this woman and others make clear, German women could be raped even when performing forced labor for the Allies. As one German woman who worked at planting potatoes said, “If they wanted a girl they just came in the field and got her.”[27] 

Conclusion 

U.S. President Harry Truman joined Gens. Eisenhower and Bradley on July 20, 1945 to watch the American flag officially being raised over the U.S. sector of Berlin. Speaking without notes, Truman told the American soldiers: “We are not fighting for conquest. There is not one piece of territory or one thing of a monetary nature that we want out of this war.”[28]

It is possible that President Truman believed these words when he spoke them. However, billions of dollars in gold, silver, currency, priceless paintings and art works were stolen from Germany and shipped to the United States. More-important, German patents and trademarks, complete drawings of German technological advances, and tons of secret documents were seized by the Allies. Hundreds of German scientists were compelled to immigrate to the United States. As one U.S. government agency admitted, “Operation Paper-Clip” was the first time in history wherein conquerors attempted to bleed dry the inventive power of an entire nation.[29]

Establishment historians claim that the American plunder of Germany was exonerated by the financial assistance the U.S. provided to Germany via the Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan assistance, however, was mostly a loan, and Germany paid back this loan in full with interest in the succeeding years. By one estimate, the United States confiscated 10 times more German national wealth than the entire amount of Marshall Plan assistance.[30] James Bacque estimated that Americans took from Germany (permanently) at least 20 times the amount that Germans received (temporarily) under the Marshall Plan.[31] Marshall Plan assistance does not absolve the United States of the enormous crimes it committed against Germans after World War II.     

Endnotes


[1] Keeling, Ralph Franklin, Gruesome Harvest: The Allies’ Postwar War against the German People, Torrance, Cal.: Institute for Historical Review, 1992, p. 1.

[2] Goodrich, Thomas, Hellstorm: The Death of Nazi Germany, 1944-1947, Sheridan, Colo.: Aberdeen Books, 2010, p. 280.

[3] Ibid., pp. 280-281.

[4] Shelton, Regina Maria, To Lose a War—Memories of a German Girl, Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982, p. 138.

[5] Goodrich, Thomas, Hellstorm: The Death of Nazi Germany, 1944-1947, Sheridan, Colo.: Aberdeen Books, 2010, pp. 152-154.

[6] MacDonogh, Giles, After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation, New York: Basic Books, 2007, pp. 96-98.

[7] Lindbergh, Charles, The Wartime Journals of Charles A. Lindbergh, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1970, pp. 953, 960-961, 989-990.

[8] Keeling, Ralph Franklin, Gruesome Harvest: The Allies’ Postwar War against the German People, Torrance, Cal.: Institute for Historical Review, 1992, pp. 42-43.

[9] Ibid., pp. 43-44. Quoted from Chicago Sunday Tribune, Nov. 18, 1945, p. 22.

[10] Bessel, Richard, Germany 1945: From War to Peace, London: Harper Perennial, 2010, pp. 165-166.

[11] MacDonogh, Giles, After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation, New York: Basic Books, 2007, p. 381.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Walsh, Michael, The Battle for Europe: Hidden Truths about the Second World War, East Sussex, United Kingdom: The Historical Review Press, 2012, p. 93.

[14] Keeling, Ralph Franklin, Gruesome Harvest: The Allies’ Postwar War against the German People, Torrance, Cal.: Institute for Historical Review, 1992, p. 53.

[15] Ibid., p. 54.

[16] Goodrich, Thomas, Hellstorm: The Death of Nazi Germany, 1944-1947, Sheridan, Colo.: Aberdeen Books, 2010, p. 282.

[17] Hentschel, Klaus, The Mental Aftermath: The Mentality of German Physicists, 1945-1949, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 81-82.

[18] Ibid., p. 81.

[19] MacDonogh, Giles, After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation, New York: Basic Books, 2007, p. 391.

[20] Keeling, Ralph Franklin, Gruesome Harvest: The Allies’ Postwar War against the German People, Torrance, Cal.: Institute for Historical Review, 1992, pp. 19-20.

[21] Ibid., pp. 20-21.

[22] Ibid., pp. 21-22.

[23] Ibid., pp. 22-24.

[24] Ibid., pp. 25-28.

[25] Goodrich, Thomas, Hellstorm: The Death of Nazi Germany, 1944-1947, Sheridan, Colo.: Aberdeen Books, 2010, pp. 297-298.

[26] Ibid., p. 298.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Beschloss, Michael R., The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1941-1945, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002, p. 257.

[29] Goodrich, Thomas, Hellstorm: The Death of Nazi Germany, 1944-1947, Sheridan, Colo.: Aberdeen Books, 2010, p. 282.

[30] Schmidt, Hans, Hitler Boys in America: Re-Education Exposed, Pensacola, Fla.: Hans Schmidt Publications, 2003, pp. 266-267.

[31] Bacque, James, Crimes and Mercies: The Fate of German Civilians under Allied Occupation, 1944-1950, 2nd edition, Vancouver, British Columbia: Talonbooks, 2007, p. 167.


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