Nemmersdorf Massacre

Nemmersdorf, East Prussia (present-day Mayakovskoye, Kaliningrad Oblast) was one of the first pre-war ethnic German villages to fall to the advancing Red Army in World War II. On 21 October 1944, it was the scene of a massacre perpetrated by Soviet soldiers against German civilians and French and Belgian noncombatants.
Determining the facts has aroused controversy, with fatalities estimated at 64 to 71. Records of the Soviet Army have become newly available to scholars for research since the fall of the Soviet Union, resulting in new works being published on this topic. The massacre was used by German propagandists to stiffen resistance to the Soviet advance.


The 2nd Battalion, 25th Guards Tank Brigade, belonging to the 2nd Guards Tank Corps of the 11th Guards Army, crossed the Angerapp bridge and established a bridgehead on the western bank of the river on 21 October 1944.
German forces tried to retake the bridge, but several attacks were repelled by the Soviet tanks and the supporting infantry. During an air attack, a number of Soviet soldiers took shelter in an improvised bunker already occupied by 14 local men and women.
According to the testimony of a seriously injured woman, Gerda Meczulat, when a Soviet officer arrived and ordered everybody out, the Russians shot and killed the German civilians at close range.
During the night, the Soviet 25th Tank Brigade was ordered to retreat back across the river and take defensive positions along the Rominte. The Wehrmacht regained control of Nemmersdorf and discovered the massacre.



Nemmersdorf Massacre, 1944

Nazi German authorities organized an international commission to investigate, headed by Estonian Hjalmar Mäe and other representatives of neutral countries, such as Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. The commission heard the report from a medical commission. It reported that all the dead females had been raped (they ranged in age from 8 to 84).
The Nazi Propaganda Ministry (separately) used the Völkischer Beobachter and the cinema news series Wochenschau to accuse the Soviet Army of having killed dozens of civilians at Nemmersdorf and having summarily executed about 50 French and Belgian noncombatant POWs, who had been ordered to take care of thoroughbred horses but had been blocked by the bridge. The civilians were allegedly killed by blows with shovels or gun butts.

The former chief of staff of the German Fourth Army, Major General Erich Dethleffsen, testified on 5 July 1946 before an American tribunal in Neu-Ulm. He said:
When in October, 1944, Russian units temporarily entered Nemmersdorf, they tortured the civilians, specifically they nailed them to barn doors, and then shot them. A large number of women were raped and then shot.
During this massacre, the Russian soldiers also shot some fifty French prisoners of war. Within forty-eight hours the Germans re-occupied the area.

Karl Potrek of Königsberg, leader of a Volkssturm company present when the German Army took back the village, testified in a 1953 report:
In the farmyard stood a cart, to which more naked women were nailed through their hands in a cruciform position … Near a large inn, the ‘Roter Krug’, stood a barn and to each of its two doors a naked woman was nailed through the hands, in a crucified posture….In the dwellings we found a total of 72 women, including children, and one old man, 74, all dead. … Some babies had their heads bashed in.

At the time, the Nazi Propaganda Ministry disseminated a graphic description of the events in order to inspire the German soldiers.
On the home front, civilians reacted immediately, with an increase in the number of volunteers joining the Volkssturm. A larger number of civilians responded with panic, and started to leave the area en masse.

To many Germans, “Nemmersdorf” became a symbol of war crimes committed by the Red Army, and an example of the worst behavior in Eastern Germany. Marion Gräfin Dönhoff, the post-war co-publisher of the weekly Die Zeit, at the time of the reports lived in the village of Quittainen (Kwitany) in western East Prussia, near Preussisch Holland (Pasłęk). She wrote in 1962 that:
In those years one was so accustomed to everything that was officially published or reported being lies that at first I took the pictures from Nemmersdorf to be falsified. Later, however, it turned out that that was not the case.



After 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union, new sources of Russian military records were made available to scholars. There has been a tremendous amount of research into World War II era events.
Historian Bernhard Fisch, a native of East Prussia who had served as a Wehrmacht soldier during the war, had been in Nemmersdorf a few days after it was re-taken. He remembered a different scene than that portrayed by the Wochenschau series shown in cinemas.
He resolved to research the matter and separate fact from fiction. In his 2003 book, Nemmersdorf 1944 – nach wie vor ungeklärt (Nemmersdorf 1944 – What Actually Happened in East Prussia), Fisch incorporated material from newly available Russian records and statements from the many witnesses from both sides, including Soviet General Kuzma N. Galitsky, former commander of 11th Guards Army. Fisch documented 23 civilian murders at Nemmersdorf and another 38 in nearby villages, leaving ten unexplained deaths.

Another writer, Joachim Reisch, claimed to have personally been at the scene of the bridge when the event was supposed to have occurred. He has said that the Soviet Brigade was on the bridge for less than four hours.

Sir Ian Kershaw is among those historians who generally believe that the Soviet forces committed a massacre at Nemmersdorf, although details and numbers are disputed.
The German Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv) contain many contemporary reports and photographs by officials of Nazi Germany of the victims of the Nemmersdorf massacre. It also holds evidence of other Soviet massacres in East Prussia, notably Metgethen.

In the late 20th century, Alfred de Zayas interviewed numerous German soldiers and officers who had been in the Nemmersdorf area in October 1944, to learn what they saw. He also interviewed Belgian and French POWs who had been in the area and fled with German civilians before the Russian advance. De Zayas incorporated these sources into two books he has written, Nemesis at Potsdam and A Terrible Revenge.