Malbork, Poland--Polish workers digging in a WWII bomb crater at the base of the Teutonic Knights fortress last October have found what appears to be a mass grave containing the bodies of 1,800 ethnic Germans of the town that was once called "Marienberg" under German rule, now Malbork under the Polish. The discovery is both shocking, and raises more questions so far than it answers.
The original inhabitants of Marienberg from that era have been missing since those murky last days of WWII when Red Army troops shelled the town in their push to Berlin. After the war, the town was repopulated with Poles driven-out of areas of Poland claimed as Russian territory by the Soviet regime. Until recently, nobody has had any idea what happened to them. Millions of civilians went missing in the chaos of WWII and have never been found. The discovery was made on the site of a proposed luxury hotel where there had been some exploratory digging before construction.
It's unknown whether the construction of the proposed hotel will proceed or not, but more official excavations by Polish authorities are planned to continue until there's more certainty that these are the missing inhabitants of Marienberg from over sixty-years-ago. By all accounts, they are. Since the end of WWII, 1,840 German citizens of the town have gone missing, so the numbers are very closely matched at this writing.
There is every reason to believe that the victims were slaughtered by Red Army troops. More than a few of the bodies had been shot in the back of the head in an execution-style that echoes the victims of the 1940 Katyn forest massacre of the Polish officer corps, begging the question of whether Soviet counterintelligence (SMERSH) or the NKVD also had a hand in the killings. After April 6, 1918, the Red Army was accompanied by "political commissars," generally appointed by the Communist Party's hierarchy, separate from the military's. After 1942, political commissars were referred to as a "politruk"(политру́к).
Until 1991, every military leader in the Red Army's hierarchy had a political counterpart. Both officers would have to agree on an order or action for it to be "legally"expedited by troops on the ground. In other words, the Communist Party had to be part of the decision to execute the surviving citizens of Marienberg after the initial shelling of the town. According to Der Spiegel, one-in-ten of the bodies recovered so far had been shot in the head; all the dead were then buried naked without any belongings, not even shoes or identification papers.
There is the possibility that Stalin was indirectly or directly part of this decision--and many others of its kind--as he was intimately familiar with the political commissar structure. Stalin had been a political commissar during the Russian Civil War. The phantom of Katyn and other massacres of that era haunt the Marienberg event, the vagaries of war aside.
In the final days of the Soviet Union, President Mikhail Gorbachev revealed in 1989 that the NKVD had in fact expedited the slaughter at Katyn under Stalin's orders and that there were three killing-and-disposal sites located in the forest outside of Smolensk. Numbers of the murdered in this one instance hover at around 25,000. While the numbers slaughtered by totalitarian regimes during the 20th century were unprecedented, there is a long history of this kind of activity in the Baltic region, and there are clues in the historical record that point to the possibility that the killings in the then-Marienberg were symbolic and meant to send a message to ethnic Germans.
The location of the mass grave was certainly convenient, but it's placement before a Teutonic Knights fortress could be very telling.
700 years before the slaughter in Marienberg, the Teutonic Knights had invaded Russia at Novgorod, then were defeated by Russian Prince Alexander Nevsky and his troops at the "Battle of the Ice" ( Ледовое побоище) on April 5, 1242 at Lake Peipus. The Teutonic Knights were part of a coalition of Swedish, German Livonian and Teutonic orders, and Danish forces sent under the auspicies of the Vatican (Pope Gregory the IX) to subdue pagans and Eastern Orthodox ruling structures throughout the Baltic region in the "Northern Crusades." Outside of the expected killing incurred during warfare, liquidations occurred in the name of spreading the Catholic faith and monarchial influence, while extinguishing the pagan and Eastern Orthodox ones. The Iron Cross comes from the Teutonic Knights.
Was the Red Army contingent sending a historically-tinged message to Germans? Perhaps. German resistance in Marienberg had been especially vicious, so any vengeance message pointing-out a historical-parallel might have been accidental on the part of the Red Army contingent: Marienberg had been founded by the Teutonic Knights in 1274 when it was part of conquered pagan Prussia, just a little over thirty years after the Battle of the Ice. After its founding the town was the seat of the Teutonic Order, and it controlled access to the Baltic, levying tolls on the merchant shipping of various nationalities. Similar ambitions arose during the 20th century.
It was well known during WWII that Himmler's SS had consciously patterned themselves after the Teutonic Knights, with their own racialist and anti-communist rhetoric of "godless" Slavic enemies being barely distinguishable from their Medieval Catholic counterparts. The parallels between the SS system and the Teutonic Knights' expansionist feudalism, enslavement, their network of castles, and their own purges of civilian populations, are eerily similar.
Stalin and his NKVD (later, the KGB, now the FSB) had similar aims and utilized the same terror tactics, and on a comparable scale. Soviet troops had plenty of reasons to want payback that had nothing to do with crimes committed 700 years earlier, but it might have been a factor in their actions. Soviet archives could answer most of these questions. The Teutonic Knights still exist, with their seat in Vienna since 1809. History has a way of repeating itself, negating the necessity for reincarnation.
"Malbork Massacre: World War II Mass Grave Unearthed in Poland," Der Spiegel, 01.08.2008: http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,600216,00.html