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Town wants Russian help with WWII killings

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Photo: DPA
11:05 CET+01:00
For over 50 years, the inhabitants of Treuenbrietzen, a small eastern German town, kept quiet about a World War II massacre that happened in the final days of the war. And many today still have no wish to revisit the past.

The long-forgotten slaughter of some 1,000 German civilians occurred after Russian Red Army soldiers occupied the town, some 25 miles south-west of Berlin, in April 1945. Under East German communist rule, it would have been unwise to mention the matter, but in the wake of German reunification, a local historian has sought to unravel the truth behind the killings, and the prosecutor's office has now been pressed to investigate the case.

Christoph Lange, a spokesman for the Potsdam prosecutor said an official request for information about the massacre was forwarded to Russian authorities in November. "It's our last chance to find those responsible. We've already gone through all the relevant German documents," said Lange.

"Maybe something can be found in Russian military archives, possibly something relating to orders, or reports, or photographs," he said. But he acknowledged it was unlikely the truth would ever be known.

The town's mayor Michael Knape is less than happy about charges now brought against "persons unknown" in a bid to force Russian authorities to speak out about the massacre. "All we wanted was reconciliation. It was never our purpose to go after the Russians," he said.

Charges were brought by a small association, the Forum zur Aufklärung und Erneuerung (Forum for Resolution and Renewal), which seeks to bring to light some of the darker secrets of east Germany's communist past.

"Now that charges have been brought, the whole question of guilt has been resurrected," says Knape, who acknowledges that "the townspeople are very reluctant" to discuss what remains a taboo subject. Even his grandmother, who lived through the events, "refused to discuss it," the mayor said.

Most of the dead are buried in six large rectangular pits in the town and a nearby memorial now preserves their names. "The bodies were buried in layers, 12 atop one another. Those who helped bury them kept a secret tally, but gave up counting after 721," according to local historian Wolfgang Ucksche.

On the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, Ucksche, a former petrol station attendant who now runs the town museum, asked citizens to write down what they remembered of the times. Russian troops occupied Treuenbrietzen on Saturday, April 21, 1945.

According to witnesses, the massacre took place two days later, possibly because a Soviet officer had been shot dead in the town. Men were gathered together, taken to nearby woods, and shot. A number of women were also raped and killed. Ucksche believes nearly every family in the town lost relatives. "The Russians had ordered the town evacuated. Many of those who stayed paid with their lives," he said.

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When he was growing up in East Germany, there was never any mention of the killings. The official word was that the Germans had been killed in US air raids or had died of disease.

At the time "we were told 88 were killed. But in fact there were more than 1,000," Ucksche added. There were many massacres at the time. On the very same day of the killings in Treuenbrietzen, another bloodbath took place just three miles up the road, near the village of Nichel.

In this instance it was retreating German soldiers who shot 127 Italian forced labourers who had just escaped from a munitions factory in Treuenbrietzen.

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