Monday, January 12, 2009

The WWII-era mass grave in Malbork could have been a specific historical statement

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.

"Katyn Forst Massacre-Polish Deaths at Soviet Hands":

"Malbork Massacre: World War II Mass Grave Unearthed in Poland," Der Spiegel, 01.08.2008:,1518,600216,00.html


Anonymous said...

Very convenient to blame the Russians but isn't it just as likely to be the work of Polish people exacting their revenge on ethnic Germans.

Matt Janovic said...

There's no indication that anyone in the area had the weaponry or the physical numbers to do what you suggest among Poles, that's ludicrous.

If you actually had some exculpatory evidence that the Red Army didn't do this, fine, but you have nothing, and the jury's still out anyway.

The likeliest scenario is that the majority of the 1,800 were killed by the attack on the town (Soviet forces met stiff resistance), the remaining executed for resisting the drive to Berlin.

Frankly, after the wholesale slaughter on the Eastern Front, it was practically inevitable that these things would occur, but that's war. It was still a war crime to execute the survivors.

As for the idea of some roving band of Poles killing them--it's absurd, and there's no proof of it as of yet.

Malbork had 30,00 ethnic German inhabitants during WWII. The majority of them fled when this crime occurred. Who else would have killed them...the British? Perhaps the Nazis, but this is really doubtful.

marektad said...

There were practically no Poles in those areas at the time of death of those found. I know Malbork. My Grandparents were forced to settle there after they were expelled from Polish Western Ukraine (Kresy/Wolyn).
When my family arrived in Malbork in 1945 my Grandmother stayed in a cattle cart they were brough in there and did not wish to settle in any of the empty houses there. She said she does not wished to live in a place that rightly belonged to the Germans. But they had nowhere to go and finally they settled in one of the small emptied houses there at Wiosenna Street.
Now, when I think of it I feel the deepest sadness realising that very likely my family lived in the house vacated by some victims found recently in this mass grave.
Anonymous - you can not imagine how painful and sad this realisation is.
The Poles there were victims of forced shifting of borders (please read abuot Yalta meeting), they did not come there with hatered and revenge, they did not want to conquer these lands.
They were poor, homeless, and totally lost - simply, they were victims of
barbaric times, just as the people found in the mass grave.
Almost all Polish inhibitants in Malbork after the WWII were forcefully displaced emigrants from Ukraine (Polish aprt before WWII) after the area was "cleared" by Russians.