The following is an excerpt from chapter 10 of Hellstorm: The Death of Nazi Germany, 1944-1947 (Sheridan, Colorado: Aberdeen Books, 2010), which deals primarily with the fate of innocent Germans, primarily women, children, the old, and infirm in the last year and aftermath of World War II.
[W]e were wakened by the sound of tires screeching, engines stopping abruptly, orders yelled, general din, and a hammering on the window shutters. Then the intruders broke through the door, and we saw Americans with rifles who stood in front of our bed and shone lights at us. None of them spoke German, but their gestures said: “Get dressed, come with us immediately.” This was my fourth arrest.
Thus wrote Leni Riefenstahl, a talented young woman who was perhaps the world’s greatest film-maker. Because her epic documentaries—Triumph of the Will and Olympia—seemed paeans to not only Germany, but Nazism, and because of her close relationship with an admiring Adolf Hitler, Leni was of more than passing interest to the Allies. Though false, rumors also hinted that the attractive, sometimes-actress was also a “mistress of the devil”—that she and Hitler were lovers.
“Neither my husband nor my mother nor any of my three assistants had ever joined the Nazi Party, nor had any of us been politically active,” said the confused young woman. “No charges had ever been filed against us, yet we were at the mercy of the [Allies] and had no legal protection of any kind.”
Soon after Leni’s fourth arrest, came a fifth.
The jeep raced along the autobahns until, a few hours later . . . I was brought to the Salzburg Prison; there an elderly prison matron rudely pushed me into the cell, kicking me so hard that I fell to the ground; then the door was locked. There were two other women in the dark, barren room, and one of them, on her knees, slid about the floor, jabbering confusedly; then she began to scream, her limbs writhing hysterically. She seemed to have lost her mind. The other woman crouched on her bunk, weeping to herself.
As Leni and others quickly discovered, the “softening up” process began soon after arrival at an Allied prison. When Ernst von Salomon, his Jewish girlfriend, and fellow prisoners reached an American holding pen near Munich, the men were promptly led into a room and brutally beaten by military police. With his teeth knocked out and blood spurting from his mouth, von Salomon moaned to a gum-chewing officer, “You are no gentlemen.” The remark brought only a roar of laughter from the attackers. “No, no, no!” the GIs grinned. “We are Mississippi boys!” In another room, military policemen raped the women at will while leering soldiers watched from windows.
After such savage treatment, the feelings of despair only intensified once the captives were crammed into cells.
The people had been standing there for three days, waiting to be interrogated,” remembered a German physician ordered to treat prisoners in the Soviet Zone. “At the sight of us a pandemonium broke out which left me helpless. . . . As far as I could gather, the usual senseless questions were being reiterated: Why were they there, and for how long? They had no water and hardly anything to eat. They wanted to be let out more often than once a day. . . . A great many of them have dysentery so badly that they can no longer get up.
“Young Poles made fun of us,” said a woman from her cell in the same zone. “[They] threw bricks through the windows, paper bags with sand, and skins of hares filled with excrement. We did not dare to move or offer resistance, but huddled together in the farthest corner, in order not to be hit, which could not always be avoided. . . . [W]e were never free from torments.”
“For hours on end I rolled about on my bed, trying to forget my surroundings,” recalled Leni Riefenstahl, “but it was impossible.”
The mentally disturbed woman kept screaming—all through the night; but even worse were the yells and shrieks of men from the courtyard, men who were being beaten, screaming like animals. I subsequently found out that a company of SS men was being interrogated.
They came for me the next morning, and I was taken to a padded cell where I had to strip naked, and a woman examined every square inch of my body. Then I had to get dressed and go down to the courtyard, where many men were standing, apparently prisoners, and I was the only woman. We had to line up before an American guard who spoke German. The prisoners stood to attention, so I tried to do the same, and then an American came who spoke fluent German. He pushed a few people together, then halted at the first in our line. “Were you in the Party?”
The prisoner hesitated for a moment, then said: “Yes.”
He was slugged in the face and spat blood.
The American went on to the next in line.
“Were you in the Party?”
The man hesitated.
“Yes or no?”
“Yes.” And he too got punched so hard in the face that the blood ran out of his mouth. However, like the first man, he didn’t dare resist. They didn’t even instinctively raise their hands to protect themselves. They did nothing. They put up with the blows like dogs.
The next man was asked: “Were you in the Party?”
“No,” he yelled, so no punch. From then on nobody admitted that he had been in the Party and I was not even asked.
As the above case illustrated, there often was no rhyme or reason to the examinations; all seemed designed to force from the victim what the inquisitor wanted to hear, whether true or false. Additionally, many such “interrogations” were structured to inflict as much pain and suffering as possible. Explained one prisoner:
The purpose of these interrogations is not to worm out of the people what they knew—which would be uninteresting anyway—but to extort from them special statements. The methods resorted to are extremely primitive; people are beaten up until they confess to having been members of the Nazi Party. . . . The authorities simply assume that, basically, everybody has belonged to the Party. Many people die during and after these interrogations, while others, who admit at once their party membership, are treated more leniently.
“A young commissar, who was a great hater of the Germans, cross-examined me… ,” said Gertrude Schulz. “When he put the question: “Frauenwerk [Women’s Labor Service]?”, I answered in the negative. Thereupon he became so enraged, that he beat me with a stick, until I was black and blue. I received about 15 blows . . . on my left upper arm, on my back and on my thigh. I collapsed and, as in the case of the first cross-examination, I had to sign the questionnaire.”
“Both officers who took our testimony were former German Jews,” reminisced a member of the women’s SS, Anna Fest. While vicious dogs snarled nearby, one of the officers screamed questions and accusations at Anna. If the answers were not those desired, “he kicked me in the back and the other hit me.”
They kept saying we must have been armed, have had pistols or so. But we had no weapons, none of us. . . . I had no pistol. I couldn’t say, just so they’d leave me in peace, yes, we had pistols. The same thing would happen to the next person to testify. . . . [T]he terrible thing was, the German men had to watch. That was a horrible, horrible experience. . . . That must have been terrible for them. When I went outside, several of them stood there with tears running down their cheeks. What could they have done? They could do nothing.
Not surprisingly, with beatings, rape, torture, and death facing them, few victims failed to “confess” and most gladly inked their name to any scrap of paper shown them. Some, like Anna, tried to resist. Such recalcitrance was almost always of short duration, however. Generally, after enduring blackened eyes, broken bones, electric shock to breasts—or, in the case of men, smashed testicles—only those who died during torture failed to sign confessions.
Alone, surrounded by sadistic hate, utterly bereft of law, many victims understandably escaped by taking their own lives. Like tiny islands in a vast sea of misery, however, miracles did occur. As he limped painfully back to his prison cell, one Wehrmacht officer reflected on the insults, beatings, and tortures he had endured and contemplated suicide.
I could not see properly in the semi-darkness and missed my open cell door. A kick in the back and I was sprawling on the floor. As I raised myself I said to myself I could not, should not accept this humiliation. I sat on my bunk. I had hidden a razor blade that would serve to open my veins. Then I looked at the New Testament and found these words in the Gospel of St. John: “Without me ye can do nothing.”
Yes. You can mangle this poor body—I looked down at the running sores on my legs—but myself, my honor, God’s image that is in me, you cannot touch. This body is only a shell, not my real self. Without Him, without the Lord, my Lord, ye can do nothing. New strength seemed to rise in me.
I was pondering over what seemed to me a miracle when the heavy lock turned in the cell door. A very young American soldier came in, put his finger to his lips to warn me not to speak. “I saw it,” he said. “Here are baked potatoes.” He pulled the potatoes out of his pocket and gave them to me, and then went out, locking the door behind him.