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  • The Intelligentsia Meets the EnemyEducated Soviet Officers in Defeated Germany, 1945
  • Oleg Budnitskii (bio)
    Translated by Susan Rupp

“There She Is, Accursed Germany!”

Major Lev Kopelev entered East Prussia on a Ford truck. There were no markers, so he had to distinguish the border himself: “It had already been agreed upon earlier: as soon as we crossed the border, we would mark it in an appropriate fashion. Having stopped precisely on the line according to the map, I commanded, ‘Here is Germany, get out and relieve yourselves!’ It seemed witty to us, standing right next to the cuvette, to mark the initial entry into enemy territory in precisely this way.”1

Germany welcomed Vladimir Gel´fand, the commander of a mortar platoon, in an ungracious manner, “with a snow storm, ferocious wind, and empty, almost extinct villages.”2

The war correspondent Vasilii Grossman entered German territory toward evening. It was foggy and rainy, and the “scent of forest rot” was in the air. “Dark pine trees, fields, farms, service buildings, houses with sharp edged roofs” stretched out along the highway. “There was great charm in this scenery,” Grossman wrote, “the small but very thick woods were nice, with bluish-gray asphalt and brick roads running through them.” His notes might seem like those of a tourist if not for the reference to the huge sign on the shoulder of the road: “Soldier, here it is—the lair of the fascist beast.”3 [End Page 629]

The commander of a cannon platoon, Lieutenant Boris Itenberg, crossed the border of East Prussia in the region of Gumbinnen on an armored train. He saw Germany, “this accursed country,” for the first time on 25 March 1945.4

Three weeks later, Lance-Corporal David Kaufman crossed the German border: “From Birnbaum to Landsberg runs a narrow highway with trees planted accurately alongside it. Approaching Schwerin, a wide placard across the road read: ‘Here was the border of Germany.’ Here was Germany. I involuntarily felt anxious crossing this unseen border. Tiled roofs of settlements reddened welcomingly amid the clear winter crops on the brilliant and green backdrop of a spring morning. The serenity of the morning smoothed over the emptiness of the villages and the ugliness of the ruins. It introduced a certain simplicity to the regular and tidy landscape, the small pine groves, rolling hills, the even, cultivated fields.”5

Lieutenant Elena Kogan entered Germany along the same highway: “Outside Birnbaum there was a control-admission point (KPP). A large arch read, ‘Here was the border of Germany.’” Everyone who in those days traveled on the Berlin highway read yet another inscription, made with tar by some soldier on a half-destroyed house closest to the arch, in huge curved letters: “Here she is, accursed Germany!”6

Major Boris Slutskii ended the war not in Germany but in Austria. For the men in his unit, however, there was no difference between Germans and Austrians: “The army could sense a German. We didn’t know German well enough to distinguish between Prussian and Styrian dialects. We knew too little about world history to assess the autonomy of Austria within the Great German system . . . . The soldiers listened attentively to admonitions about the difference between Germany and Austria and didn’t believe a word of it.”7

This article was written on the basis of letters, diaries, and memoirs of Soviet servicemen who ended the war in the territory of the Third Reich. The youngest of them, Evgenii Plimak, a sergeant-major and translator for army intelligence, turned 20 in 1945; the oldest, the already well-known writer Vasilii Grossman, was 40. The majority were between the ages of 22 and 34, with ranks from junior lieutenant to major.8 They were not “typical” representatives of the Soviet officer corps. First, the majority came from Moscow; second, they had either completed [End Page 630] or interrupted their studies in institutions of higher education, and third, many of them could communicate in German—some haltingly, some excellently. For several of them, work with the enemy became a military profession: they were either translators or propagandists. They could perceive the Germans as individuals rather than en masse. Whether...


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