May 20, 2015

1949. Stalingrad Prisoners Forced Into the East German People's Police

The Rise of the Volkspolizei
Police in West Berlin clash with the East German Volkspolizei at the border in Berlin, 1955. (Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) (source)
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

January 4, 1949

In February 1943, I was among a group of correspondents escorted by the Soviet government to have a firsthand look at the first major offensive victory the Red Army won in fighting the invincible German Wehrmacht.

It was at Stalingrad that we saw the smoking ruins of the Volga city, only four days after one of the great battles of history.

German and Russian corpses were still frozen life-like in the bitter cold. We were taken to see General Von Paulus and his staff, the defeated leaders of the German Sixth Army which had come all too close to making western Russia a Hitler colony.

Never was there such a ragtag army so completely beaten as were the Germans who failed at Stalingrad. Their clothing was in tatters. Many were wearing looted women's fur coats in an attempt to defeat the severe cold.

Altogether some 330,000 Germans, Italians, Hungarians, and Romanians were lost at Stalingrad. How many Germans were taken prisoner there is uncertain, but the estimate is more than 200,000.

I talked with some of these men at the time. They were a weary, dispirited lot—disillusioned, bitter, and hopeless. Most of them believed that they were walking to their deaths when Red Army guards led them over the snowy steppes toward isolated prisoner of war camps in eastern Russia. For many it was true.

In the fall of 1943 in Moscow we were to hear more of Von Paulus and his defeated men, in a different role this time. They showed up as members of what the Russian government called the "Free German Committee." The committee was used as a propaganda weapon at the time, with various former German soldiers broadcasting over the Russian radio to their fighting comrades—making statements in the Soviet government press and attacking Hitler and the Nazis and all the rest of it.

But it was plain even five years ago that the Soviet Union had plans for the German war prisoners who fell into her hands.

Today here in Germany we are beginning to see those plans unfold. I went to the communist-led meeting that proclaimed the Opera House government of East Berlin into power early last November. Among these groups who trudged, under orders, to that spontaneous gathering in Unter den Linden was a group of men who walked differently from the rest. They marched with soldierly swing and with drill-ground precision. They were in the uniform reminiscent of the old German army, grey-green except for the insignia and hats. They were not armed, but some appeared to be a little lost marching without guns.

I was told that this was the new "People's Police."

For the past three months, the propaganda from the Soviet zone of Germany has been speaking of this "People's Police." Sometimes it was called a "workers army" or labeled "proletarian activists."

The press of the American, British, and French zones of occupied Germany—including western Berlin, proceeded to scare themselves to death over what they saw as a traitorous, armed threat from the east.

A lot of claims were made—and passed on. The People's Police has been variously described as containing 250,000 men armed with tanks and artillery, and on the verge of striking westward to take over the western part of the country.

So much that was contradictory was reported about this so-called People's Police that I set out with a colleague to find the facts, or as close to the facts as I could get.

The fact that the People's Police exists in the Russian zone of Germany, there can be no doubt. But, instead of being a quarter of a million men, the more accurate estimate of the size of this force is between thirty and fifty thousand.

The Soviet government is organizing the police—careful not to label it an army—in violation of the Potsdam agreement. The core of the body is composed of former German prisoners of war in Russia, mostly men captured at Stalingrad. However, there is recruiting going on among young men in the Russian zone. A campaign, according to intelligence reports, that is failing to get very many volunteers.

The former war prisoners who join up in Russia undergo special indoctrination in Marxist political schools set up in the Soviet prison camps. The system works something like this:

Private Hans Schmidt, since his capture on the banks of the Volga, has managed to survive five years of Russian prisoner camps. But he is getting tired of chopping trees, building canals, and constructing roads for his Russian conquerors. He longs for home. His information about what happened to the outside world since Stalingrad is meager. He's convinced that Germany lost the war. He is skeptical about the communist propaganda that is the only form of news he has.

One day he hears there is a way to get back to Germany, and he receives the proposition: "Take a short course in Marxism, learn the fundamentals of communism, its political and economic philosophy, then return home as a policeman to protect your defeated people from the depredations of monopoly capitalism, decadent and warmongering democracies."

Hans Schmidt wants to get home, so he signs up.

Undoubtedly this system makes some good communists, but my German sources here say that life in a Russian prison camp gives little time for philosophical thought. The men who join—and stick—to the People's Police are mostly either opportunists, cynical Nazis, or just Germans whose only jobs have been military ones and who see the People's Police as the only instrument in which to practice their profession. They sign up for three years of service.

Schmidt, after completing his indoctrination, is shipped to a dispersal center in Germany, such as the one at F├╝rstenwalde forty miles east of Berlin. Many Schmidts desert when they get the chance.

Apparently such desertions were foreseen. So to keep Hans Schmidts in line, the People's Police has added another innovation, one which was common to both the Soviet and Nazi armies.

Each unit has its political commissar charged with making reports on individual members and keeping the flame of communism alive in the organization.

In the Hitler armies, these specially trained Nazis were called National Socialist leading officers. One report has it that many of the Wehrmacht National Socialist leading officers who kept the name of Hitler flaming in the hearts of German soldiers are now doing the same job for Stalin in the People's Police.

After arriving in the Fatherland, the recruits are assigned to units. There are a half dozen of these around Berlin, indicating the importance attached to this crisis city. The People's Police units—all carefully set up in military barracks—ring the city, such as the camp northeast of here in the town of Biesenthal, the one to the southwest in the village of Eichen, another northwest of Berlin at Nieder-Sachsenhausen, and to the southeast at Obersch├Âneweide. There is reported to be garrisons of People's Police inside Berlin itself totaling a thousand men.

At these camps the units receive further training, mostly in street fighting.

The People's Police has a table of organization that is strictly military. The units are divided into squads of sixteen men, nine of which are armed with Mauser rifles, three others with submachine guns, and the officers and administrative personnel carry pistols.

Police companies are comprised of one hundred and ten men. Each company has attached to it one heavy machine gun, in addition to the squadron arms I mentioned before.

The next larger unit, which varies in size according to the job assigned, would amount to what we would call a battalion in the American army. An interesting fact about this is that the old Nazi SS nomenclature is used. The battalions are called Standarten, just as Hitler used to call them. A Standarten may have a mortar unit attached to it, according to one report. Also perhaps an armored car. Some units are motorized for quick movement, with their own transport and communication vehicles such as motorcycles.

The headquarters of the People's Police is in Leipzig. They operate under direct orders of the Soviet military command in Germany. The German head of the organization is General Walter von Seydlitz, former chief of staff of the German Sixth Army. General Von Paulus is often mentioned in connection with the organization, but his is more of a titular leadership. The last heard of Von Paulus was that he is supposed to be living in Moscow where he is an instructor in the Russian military academy there.

All of those military statistics make the so-called People's Police of the Soviet zone sound very ominous indeed. However, American military opinion here in Berlin does not seem particularly concerned. They point out that it is not in any sense a striking force. It is not armed or sufficiently large for any ambitious plan such as the taking of western Germany by force.

This speculation has developed from the events in Korea. There, as you know, the Russian troops announced their withdrawal, and immediately a communist-led section of the army attempted an uprising.

However, our political experts do not expect this pattern to be followed in Germany. The People's Police appears to be organized to protect an East German administration and preserve discipline in the population.

In this connection, the propaganda from the East in the past few months has been calling for the establishment of a unified German government, the signing of a peace treaty with this government, and then, one year later, the withdrawal of all occupation troops.

The situation is made more interesting by the fact that the Western Powers are already sponsoring a West German government. If and when this Western government materializes, it is considered likely that the Russians would counter with the establishment of an East German government of their own sponsorship. Thus they could make their own diplomatic arrangements with this organization. The People's Police would then be used to maintain this government in power.

In any event, our political experts say that the German communists cannot risk a failure such as the one that attempted communist uprising in Korea, and the People's Police at this moment is not large enough to make such an uprising successful. However, these experts usually hedge this opinion with the statement that there appear to be plans in the Soviet zone to increase the size of the People's Police to one hundred thousand men.

The question of the moment is, of course, what effect this military organization can or will have on blockaded Berlin—that is the Western section of the city in which the rump government of the Soviet sector demands be incorporated into a whole city under their type of government, of course.

I questioned the police chief of Western Berlin, Dr. Otto Stumm, about the possibilities. He didn't seem particularly worried. Stumm said that he was of the opinion that there were possibly ten thousand or more People's Police in barracks around Berlin, plus a thousand now stationed in the Soviet sector inside the city.

But he pointed out that he has ten thousand officers on duty in the American, British, and French sectors. These are ordinary cops who pound beats, direct traffic, look after the public safety, and such.

The total number of police employed by the Opera House government of East Berlin is about seven thousand, and Stumm said that about half of these East Sector officers are still loyal to him. In other words, Police Chief Stumm believes he has the security forces of the rump government outnumbered by three to one. Inside the city, that is.

But no one expects that Communist policy would be so foolish as to attempt a putsch on the blockaded sectors of this city. The risk of it developing into a full-size international incident is too great.

There is one other factor that must not be overlooked. In creating the People's Police and arming it, however lightly, the Russian occupation authorities also have created a problem for themselves. For, despite the political commissars in the units, they must always ask themselves the question: "How loyal; how trustworthy is this organization?"

The large number of desertions are evidence of the disaffection felt by numbers of individuals. Also, the German civilian population has conducted a number of individual assaults on what it regards as turncoats and servants to the Russians.

Western German political leaders in touch with East Germany say that, if the Soviet occupation troops ever withdraw, there will be a bloodbath unequaled in German history when the people turn on the "People's Police."

The Western Powers are watching very closely. A failure in occupation policy by America, Britain, or France might conceivably turn public sentiment away from the West. Certainly the current Russian demands for a peace treaty and withdrawal of occupation troops has a great appeal to all of the German population which most urgently wants to be "dis-occupied."

And if there were a reversal of feeling, the military organization to which dissident Germans could turn most certainly has already been set up.

However, as one American officer put it: "Let the Russians worry about the People's Police. We are not going to arm Germans, and the world will sleep better for it."