I recently read a moving account of a young British soldier’s experiences in the “Battle of the Bulge” (the Ardennes Offensive towards the end of the Second World War). This reminded me of a late East German relative, who served on the other side of the line.
Siegfried was conscripted after his 18th birthday in February 1944, and was not at all keen to see action. When the mustering officer asked if any of the recruits could play a musical instrument, he answered yes (though not admitting it was a mouth organ), hoping it meant he would be in the military band rather than on the front. However, it turned out that a musical ear was a prerequisite for serving in signals, so after a period of training in the peace and beauty of the Tyrolean mountains he found himself exactly where he had not wanted to be, sitting freezing in a dugout in the snowy Ardennes, surrounded by the advancing enemy.
Just around Christmastime 1944 he was “rescued” from his cold, damp hole by a GI bristling with weapons, and taken to a nice warm POW camp, given a shower, his first decent meal for weeks and a POW uniform made of such good quality woollen material that he was still enthusing about it 40 years later. In later years, he was always very grateful to the Americans for the humane treatment he received, the good food and the decent living conditions of their POWs.
This all changed once peace was declared. Instead of being sent home to Germany, he was transferred from the American POW camp to a French one near Versailles, as part of the reparations demanded by France from Germany. There, the prisoners had poor quality clothing, were on a starvation diet and treated vindictively by their French guards. He celebrated his 20th birthday by adding a handful of raisins to the watery porridge that formed his main meal.
These prisoners were employed to help “clear up the mess” which in Siegfried’s case meant sweeping the main streets of Paris in a uniform that identified him as a German and brought a great deal of verbal abuse as well as some physical ill-treatment in the form of spitting and kicking by passers-by. Having grown up surrounded by Nazi propaganda, Siegfried never realised how the French had suffered under the German occupation, and thus never really understood why he became a scapegoat when France was liberated.
The war was over, and the guards in these camps seem to have been vicious but lax. Siegfried heard from another prisoner that conditions were slightly better in a nearby camp where the guards were Dutch, so he crept under the wire and nobody seems to have noticed that there was one extra POW there. These prisoners were employed in the Renault factory, so at least there was no more kicking and spitting to be endured
Eventually, at the end of 1946, he managed to escape altogether by hiding in a truck full of automobile components and found his way back to Germany. There, knowing that his entire family had been wiped out in the raids on Berlin, he had the choice of accompanying one friend to the ruins of Munich and trying to find a job in a non-existent industry, or going with the other pal to Thuringia, where there would be work on a farm.
For Siegfried, a farm meant guaranteed food, so that governed his choice. How was he to know that the “Russian-Occupied Zone” was to become the so-called German Democratic Republic only two years later, and that he would spend the rest of his life under another totalitarian regime? The GDR denied its past and kept its citizens in ignorance of the events of WWII, which explains why, as an elderly gentleman, Siegfried was still perplexed by the treatment he received from the French in 1945 and 46.
Another elderly West German acquaintance, who was a POW in Britain for several years, had only pleasant tales to tell of his time working on an English farm, and remained on very friendly terms for many years after the war with the farmer and his family. It is usually generally assumed that the Western Allies released all their prisoners of war after hostilities ceased, and that only those captured by the Russians were retained as slave labour. This is not the case.
I have known Siegfried’s story for many years, and he always recounted his adventures in a light-hearted tone, but until recently I was not aware of the extent to which German POWs were used as forced labour after the war. For anyone interested, there is more on the general situation at