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?

  • 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 '14 at 23:32
  • 1
    @Oldcat i'm asking, not asserting May 27 '14 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 '14 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 '14 at 2:05
  • @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 '14 at 6:53

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 '17 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 '18 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 '18 at 19:48
  • @JimT: Please stop repeating Soviet propaganda. USSR acquired nukes only in 1949. Hiroshima is perfectly habitable. &c &c
    – sds
    Sep 20 '18 at 1:08
  • @sds If you want to argue with some specific line in my comment, please do so instead of labeling it as "Soviet propaganda" (but it is oh so very temtping, isn't it?). Yes, 1949 (quite soon after the WWII ended, btw) - how does that contradict anything I said? As for Hiroshima's "condition", how is that relevant? US plans for nuclear strike on Soviet Union involved many dozens (and later hundreds) of nuclear devices; USSR would have likely answered in kind etc. Were that to happen, the level of destruction in those regions of Eastern Europe would dwarf Hiroshima on a major scale.
    – JimT
    Sep 20 '18 at 22:19

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?

  • 4
    sources to your claims? Aug 12 '14 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 '14 at 14:30
  • 4
    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 '14 at 14:32
  • Entire books could be written about my "claims" which are well known to anyone who knows anything about the matter. There is a difference between me proving something to another expert, and educating somebody who knows nothing like you. I am here to answer questions, not remedy your lack of education or spur your interest in learning the events of WW2. As the site help clearly states, readers are expected to do basic educational research themselves. Aug 12 '14 at 14:38
  • 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 '14 at 14:53

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.