Moscow, Soviet Union January 12, 1945

On New Year’s Day 1945 Germans of every stripe faced the stark reality of impending defeat. That reality mate­ri­alized in the cacophony of the opening salvos of the Soviet Union’s offen­sive on Ger­many’s east­ern frontier, the Vistula-Oder operation, that began on this date in 1945. The strongest Soviet attacks came from bridge­heads west of Poland’s Vistula River that had been held for some months by troops of Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s First Belo­russian Front and Marshal Ivan Konev’s First Ukrain­ian Front to the south, totaling 1,350,000 fighters between them. Within a week these battle-hardened men and women entered War­saw, Poland’s mostly ruined capi­tal (Janu­ary 17, 1945) (see map below). The fortress city of Poz­nań (Festung Posen), the admin­is­trative capi­tal of West­ern Poland that had been incorporated into Germany in 1939, fell on Janu­ary 25.

Three days later a panicked Adolf Hitler appointed Reichs­fuehrer-SS Hein­rich Him­mler, the second-most power­ful man in Nazi Germany but one lacking mili­tary experi­ence much less an apti­tude for general­ship, to head Army Group Vistula, a new com­mand. Him­mler’s army was meant to stiffen German spine in the face of looming dis­aster and Soviet ven­geance over the loss of an esti­mated 30 per­cent of its national wealth, the destruc­tion of 32,000 fac­to­ries, the deaths of 14.6 mil­lion Soviet civil­ians, and the 25 mil­lion made home­less, to men­tion just four of hun­dreds of appalling sta­tis­tics inherited by the Soviets in the wake of the Nazis’ Rassen­kampf (racial struggle) against Slavs and Jews and the Wehr­macht’s (German armed forces’) retreat west­ward. One Soviet writer of the period shared his country­men’s near-univer­sal mine­set about settling scores with the enemy: “Until we reached Germany’s borders we were liberators. Now we shall be judges.” The first point is arguable, the second, not.

In early Febru­ary Zhukov’s armor reached the Oder River (today part of the border between Germany and Poland), just 40 miles east of the Reich capital, Berlin, and paused. By then Germany’s pro­vince of East Prussia, which lay on the south­east Baltic coast, had been cut off and largely over­run by the enemy, occa­sioning the panicked flight of nearly a half-mil­lion refugees west­ward to safer parts of the Reich. In early April 1945, East Prussia’s strong­hold capi­tal of Koenigs­berg (today’s Kalinin­grad in the Russian enclave between Poland and Lithu­ania) capitu­lated after a four-day onslaught, largely demolished in two British air raids the previous August and the Soviet offensive.

By February 1945 Soviet spearheads seemed poised to take Festung Berlin itself, where a pale and drained Hitler, sur­rounded by die­hard cronies, directed his sui­cidal Goetter­daem­merung from a subter­ranean bunker. One expla­nation for the Soviet pause may be Soviet dic­ta­tor Joseph Stalin’s hesi­tat­ion to end hos­til­ities before his armies and poli­tical proxies (the Soviet-spons­ored “Provi­sional Govern­ment of Poland” and the Nazi-exiled Ger­man Com­mu­nist Party in Moscow) domi­nated as much Polish and Ger­man terri­tory as pos­sible following late discus­sions he, British Prime Minis­ter Win­ston Chur­chill, and U.S. Presi­dent Frank­lin D. Roose­velt had held in the Russian resort of Yalta (Febru­ary  4–7, 1945). How­ever, at this stage, with the West­ern Allies still pain­fully slogging their way to the Rhine River and the Ruhr Valley on Germany’s West­ern Front, it was highly improb­able that the West could have imperiled the Soviets’ cap­ture of Berlin or for that matter tempered the Soviets’ desire for revenge against the Germans in 1945, now widely reported by Western diplomats and journalists.

Nazi Germany: Approaching Imminent Defeat in the East

Nazi Germany’s Eastern Front, January–May 1945

Above: German territorial losses on the Eastern Front during the Soviets’ Vistula-Oder Offen­sive (Janu­ary 12 to February 2, 1945) and their East Prussian Offensive (January 13 to April 25, 1945). The grinding down of German forces during the Ardennes Offensive on the Western Front by Anglo-American and Cana­dian forces (Decem­ber 16, 1944, to Janu­ary 25, 1945) mortally weakened the Wehr­macht’s capa­city to defend the nation in the East. But as a German general in British captivity observed correctly, “The fear of Russia will keep Germany fighting to the bitter end.”

German 4th Army defenders, East Prussia 1945Volkssturm unit outside Koenigsberg, East Prussia, January 24, 1945

Left: Soldiers of the German 4th Army man posi­tions on the East Prus­sian fron­tier on the eve of the Soviets’ East Prus­sian Offen­sive. That offen­sive began on Janu­ary 13, 1945, and pushed the 4th Army steadily back­wards toward the Baltic coast over a two week period. The army held its posi­tions along the coast of the Vistula lagoon until overwhelmed by Soviet attacks in late March.

Right: Members of a Volkssturm (home guard) unit, each with a single-shot, shoulder-launched anti­tank Panzer­faust, man a posi­tion out­side Koenigs­berg, Janu­ary 20, 1945. Roughly 200,000 civil­ians were trapped inside the city on Janu­ary 24, 1945. During the Soviet assault the Vistula Spit, a penin­sular stretch of land that sepa­rates the Vistula Lagoon from Gdańsk Bay in the Baltic Sea, became the last means of escape to the west. Civil­ians who tried to escape along the spit were often inter­cepted and killed by Soviet tanks and patrols. Two thou­sand civil­ians fled Koenigs­berg each day and tried to reach the already crowded coastal town of Pillau (modern Baltiysk in Russia’s Kalinin­grad Oblast). The final Soviet assault on Koenigs­berg started on April 2 with a heavy bombard­ment of the city. The land route to Pillau was once again cut and civil­ians still in the city died by the thou­sands. On April 9 the Ger­man garri­son surrendered, though some units did not surrender for another month.

Refugees at Pillau port seek escape, East Prussia 1945German refugees flee west by wagon and foot, East Prussia, 1945

Above: Refugees from East Prussia fleeing west before the advancing Red Army in 1945. They fled, a good 450,000 between January and April 1945 by ship or small boats as seen in the left frame from the sea­port of Pillau, which is now the Russian port of Baltiysk. The Soviets sank 200 unarmed ships trans­porting civil­ians across the Baltic Sea, killing thou­sands of refugees. Still others fled on foot or by wagon (right frame), some tra­versing an ice sheet, in appalling winter weather, with little or no food and no shelter except what they could find along the way. Thou­sands died from expo­sure or were killed during the evacu­a­tion, some by artil­lery fired to break up ice over which civil­ians fled, some by drowning after falling into frigid water. When Festung Koenig­sberg’s garri­son sur­rendered, mili­tary and civil­ian dead in the city were esti­mated at 42,000, with the Red Army claiming over 90,000 pri­soners. About 120,000 sur­vi­vors remained in the ruins of the devas­tated city. Com­prising mostly women, chil­dren, and the elderly, plus a few others who had returned imme­di­ately after the fighting ceased, these survi­vors were held as slave laborers until 1949. The vast majority of German civil­ians remaining in Koenigs­berg after 1945 died from dis­ease or star­va­tion, or in revenge-driven eth­nic cleansing. The remaining 20,000 German residents were expelled by Soviet authorities in 1949–1950.

Soviet Assault on East Prussia, 1944–1945