The latter part of Prit Buttar's Battleground Prussia deals with the desperate attempts by German soldiers and civilians to escape from the ports and peninsulas of East and West Prussia in early 1945. Mostly these areas had been bypassed by the Red Army as it swept on through Poland and on towards Berlin.

Buttar's book bleakly narrates how overloaded transport ships were torpedoed, how embarkation points were targetted and bombed, and how right up until the very hour of the armistice Soviet motorboats were pursuing Denmark-bound escape craft and sinking them or hauling them back to soviet controlled ports. After the armistice Sweden, famously and controversially, was pressured into handing over to the Soviets those Germans who had escaped across the Baltic at the very end of the war. Those soldiers who attempted to "break out" westwards by land were almost never successful. As we are talking about the last week or two of the war there can be no question of the Soviet authorities fearing that evacuated soldiers would regroup and become once again militarily viable.

So, the Red Army wished to cast a wide net, and that seems reasonable enough. From a judicial point of view you can see that they would prefer to "process" German soldiers themselves rather than trust to the western allies. War criminals could be identified. Captured German soldiers (and even civilians) could be put to work both locally and back in the Soviet Union itself.

Yet, Buttar's account is somewhat contradictory. Surveying the failure (apart from submarines) of the Soviet Navy to interdict the Baltic evacuations he writes

Stalin was very aware that Germans were fleeing to the west, and that the conduct of the Red Army did much to bring this flight about. It is conceivable that Stalin wanted the flight to continue, so that the residual post-war German population in territories that were to cease being part of Germany was reduced as much as possible

And certainly you can see that politically Stalin and his Polish communists had much to gain from being rid of the Germans even before the end of the war, so that the huge westward shift in the German frontier which they wanted to impose on the western allies ... could be made a fait accompli.

So did the Red Army want to capture Germans or not?

  • 1
    If Stalin wanted the flight to continue, seems counterproductive to destroy the boats or force those on them back to Soviet-owned areas. Or cut off the troops. So which side are you asserting?
    – Oldcat
    May 27, 2014 at 23:32
  • 2
    @Oldcat i'm asking, not asserting May 27, 2014 at 23:33
  • You have some information. Which side does each support? Do any support a thesis that Stalin was letting people go?
    – Oldcat
    May 27, 2014 at 23:36
  • 1
    This is an opinion type question. The Red Army was an organization with millions of people in it, all with different objectives. Their primary objective was defeating Germany, not capturing civilians. May 28, 2014 at 2:05
  • 2
    @Oldcat There two issuse here that have become entangled: soldiers and civilians. It's conceivable that Stalin wanted to capture as many German soldiers as possible and to get rid of as many German civilians as possible. May 29, 2014 at 6:53

4 Answers 4


Stalin pursued two separate objectives:

  1. Establishing stable post-war borders which would reflect population ethnicity, which required extensive "population exchanges" - and those are cheaper to conduct when the populations to be exchanged flee on their own (cf. my answer to Why and how were east Brandenburg, Pomerania and Silesia taken away from Germany after WW2?)

  2. Conquering as much resources (land, industrial and military equipment, infrastructure - and, yes, population, which can be put to work as either slaves or freemen) as possible.

So, when dealing with German population on the territories which were to be given to Russia or Poland, Stalin was brutal to make them flee. However, he wanted them to flee to Soviet-controlled Germany, not to the West, so those who tried to flee "too far" were stopped.

Another issue was that the traditional Russo-Soviet paranoia dictated that the Western allies would turn on the Soviets as soon as the Germans surrender, so letting able-bodies Germans fall into the Allied hands - where they could be armed and used against the Soviets - was to be prevented at all costs.

PS. Re: paranoia above: I am, of course, aware of the Operation Unthinkable, which, after all, was, at first, a plan to enforce the Yalta agreement WRT Poland which was blatantly violated by USSR, then a plan to defend against Soviet Army attacking the West. The main reason I call Stalin's fears paranoia is that he did not realize that only a totalitarian state can change overnight from denouncing Hitler to embracing him. The US and British public would not and could not stomach attacking the yesterday's ally.

  • 2
    Regarding the last paragraph, not paranoid at all. Churchill did order planning of Operation Unthinkable, which indeed included the idea of re-arming (parts of) the Wehrmacht.
    – DevSolar
    May 9, 2017 at 9:36
  • Regarding "paranoia": You also forget Plan Totality. Stalin had good reasons to believe that the West would attack the USSR after the war is over.
    – user2247
    Jun 5, 2018 at 12:42
  • "The US and British public would not and could not stomach attacking the yesterday's ally." Hmm... As all the memoirs show, neither Churchill nor Truman cared much about what their public thought on the matter. The plans for the war on USSR were not carried out most likely due to the fact that USSR acquired nuclear weapons. Even after that, it took US quite a while to "slow down" and switch into the cold war mutually-assured-destruction mentality. Otherwise it is quite possible that entire Eastern Europe would have now been a radioactive desert uninhabitable for many years to come.
    – JimT
    Sep 19, 2018 at 19:48
  • 1
    @JimT: Please stop repeating Soviet propaganda. USSR acquired nukes only in 1949. Hiroshima is perfectly habitable. &c &c
    – sds
    Sep 20, 2018 at 1:08
  • 1
    Excellent answer adressing all aspects of the situation. Especially the fact about "cleaning" ethnically lands, during and after the war, in order to annex those territories Feb 2, 2022 at 20:16

Two separate periods

While WW2 was still ongoing, Soviets (naturally) wanted to destroy any German unit they could, by killing or capturing German soldiers. If evacuated these soldiers could continue fighting against USSR and Soviets wanted to prevent that. Note that Western Allies did the same, i.e. they continued attacking the Germans practically until the last day of the war. As for civilians, from Soviet perspective they were "resources" that could be used by Third Reich, both as source for military conscription (for example in Volkssturm) and as labor in industry and agriculture. Therefore, it was prudent to stop their evacuation too. Immediately after the war Soviets demanded handing over of all German POWs that fought on Eastern Front, as per Yalta agreement, and they would be used either as forced labor or put on trial for war crimes. It is possible that in their usual paranoia Soviets feared that Western Allies could switch sides and user remnants of Wehrmacht to fight USSR, such fears were not unfounded as latter Bundeswehr was created and manned by former Third Reich officers, and was primarily against USSR during Cold War.

Anyway, question what to do with German population remained after the war. Despite all the troubled history, Stalin preferred Poles to Germans. During Polish-Soviet war (1918-1921), Soviets lost lands in Western Ukraine and Belarus, east of Curzon Line. They reclaimed those lands in 1939 campaign, and naturally wanted to keep them. Since said territories still contained sizable Polish minority, Stalin decided to kill two birds with one stone. Eastern Prussia was emptied of Germans, annexed to Poland and populated with Poles from Ukraine and Belarus. This way, Stalin created population that was somewhat loyal to USSR and newly created socialist Poland - without them they would lose their newly gained homes. Similar mechanism happened in Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and other countries where expulsion of Germans happened - there were local winners of war spoils who naturally felt obliged to those who give them new property.

What about Germans ? Interestingly enough, while Stalin was alive (1953) there was no concentrated effort to keep Germans in Soviet occupation zone that would latter became East Germany . Reasons for that were various. Those more idealist hoped that socialist model of economy would prove itself superior, and that people would actually want to live there. More realistic noted that less population they had, less people they would need to feed in hungry post-war years. Stalin himself apparently proposed and hoped for united and neutral Germany, as a buffer state between East and West, therefore considering East Germany as only temporary solution. Only after his death, with East Germany firmly in socialist camp, efforts to keep population in as valuable resource were implemented. For example, Berlin Wall was built in 1961, and inner German border started to be fortified in 1952, but got final shape only from 1967.

  • 1. East Prussia was divided into two parts and only one half or so was annexed by Poland (Poland also got parts of Pomerania, a bit of Brandenburg and most of Silesia, though). 2. Citation needed for Poles driven out of their homes by Stalin and resettled in former German territories being more loyal to the USSR. 3. Border between East and West Germany was already closed and fortified before the Berlin Wall was built.
    – Jan
    Feb 1, 2022 at 18:59
  • @Jan 1. Prussia is a generic term, we don't need to be pedantic and name exactly each province that was annexed to Poland 2. I did not say they were more loyal, I said they were somewhat loyal. Proof is easy, there was never large demand there to return to pre-war borders and German rule 3. You could actually read what I wrote and links I posted .
    – rs.29
    Feb 1, 2022 at 19:19
  • 1. It would help if you would point out what exactly you mean by "Eastern Prussia". Especially if what you think is true for Eastern Prussia is definitely not true for East Prussia. 2. Might just be realism, what you mention seems not much different from post-1990 Germany. 3. That wp article still does not really explain the significance of 1967. Apparantly some further construction was started or planned or so? The German wp article about that border actually gives no significance at all to the year 1967.
    – Jan
    Feb 1, 2022 at 19:58
  • Even if it is not the main point of your post, the thing about the Berlin Wall and the Inner German border was really the other way round. First the Inner German border was closed and then the Berlin Wall was erected. Of course both borders were continuously reinforced, but 1967 does not seem to stand out in any way. According to this article, actually more people made it across the fortified border in 1973 than in 1966 (look for "Sperrbrecher")
    – Jan
    Feb 1, 2022 at 20:47
  • @Jan 1. Prussia is loosely defined term. Look for example map of Prussia in 1870 and you would notice that it includes Pomerania ;) 2. There are those in Germany who would gladly return lost territories in the East ;) 3. In 1967. border started to be shaped into its final form, with multiple walls and wire obstacles, guard towers, even mines. From late 1952 to 1967 it was usual international border of the era. Some wire obstacles, border guards etc ... Before late 1952. it was relatively relaxed demarcation line.
    – rs.29
    Feb 1, 2022 at 21:06

This is subjective question which asks about motives, a psychological phenomenon.

Nevertheless, what I can tell you is that no civilians were allowed to leave Soviet controlled areas either during the war or after it. I can also tell you that the Soviet Union was adamant that the US and Britain return all people, regardless of nationality, from Eastern Europe and they held American POWs hostage to this demand. I can also tell you that the Soviets systematically enslaved not just Germans, but all civilians in the occupied countries such as Poland, Hungary, Romania, etc. They would go through villages looking for any able-bodied men and arrest them and put them onto work crews. Many of these men and boys did not return home for years, or even just disappeared, and these were Poles, Hungarians, etc.

Does that answer your question?

  • 5
    sources to your claims? Aug 12, 2014 at 13:57
  • @EvilWashingMachine This is all well known stuff. Read a book. There are MILLIONS of people still living in the countries of the former Soviet Union and all around the world who constantly testify to these events. Try getting your butt out of your chair and finding a Pole or Hungarian over the age of 80 and asking them about it. Aug 12, 2014 at 14:30
  • 7
    When you make a claim, the burden of proof is on you. You are the lazy one, not bothering to back up anything you write. Maybe YOU should "get your butt out of your chair" and back up your claims like an adult. Aug 12, 2014 at 14:32
  • 2
    By "I'm here to answer questions" you mean make claims supported by your own ass? E.g. plenty of East Germans left for the west before the Berlin Wall was built. Aug 12, 2014 at 14:53
  • 1
    Travel between East Berlin and West Berlin was pretty open and common until 1961 (as in no checkpoints and everybody did it)
    – Jan
    Feb 1, 2022 at 14:06

No German prisoners captured by the Soviets outside the USSR were transported to the Soviet Union. In Poland, the Soviets discovered the extermination camp for humans in Auschwitz and in that place they organized war trials, of which a German officer (sorry I don't remember his name) was declared innocent of the charges against him. This officer remained a prisoner until the end of the war, but not as a war criminal.

However, those soldiers and officers who attacked the USSR, destroyed houses, palaces, cathedrals, massacred locals, set fire to villages, towns and cities, etc., and were captured on Soviet territory, all of them remained in the Soviet Union to restore what they destroyed.

  • 3
    Welcome to HSE. Please consider adding sources to what you wrote. Feb 2, 2022 at 10:06
  • 2
    Hans Modrow is one German POW captured outside the Soviet Union (near Stralsund, apparently), and brought to the Soviet Union in 1946. He describes being brought to the Soviet Union as being entirely typical. If you go up the ranks, you will find lots and lots of other examples, but Modrow was as low a rank as one could be.
    – Jan
    Feb 2, 2022 at 11:38
  • You might also be interested in the work of German scientists in the Soviet Union
    – Jan
    Feb 2, 2022 at 11:52
  • Another POW caught outside the Soviet Union (in Bohemia, it seems) was Franz Fühmann. Among the people listed in this article are at least two more examples, but usually the place of capture is not listed.
    – Jan
    Feb 2, 2022 at 11:58
  • This man was not taken prisoner during the war, but imprisoned after May 9, 1945 or after the war. Most prisoners of war were not released until the 1950s. Hans Modrow was not a prisoner of war.
    – Alfredo
    Feb 3, 2022 at 6:42

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