As the seventy-fifth anniversary approaches of Allied victory in WW2 there remains an unanswered question over the events of the period, an unresolved mystery, an unsaid event that is left untouched and neglected.
In 1945, a million German prisoners of war simply disappeared.
Ghosts of the Rhine is unique, among the many books that will commemorate the anniversary. It is not about the events of which many readers all too familiar with. Instead, it is a history of murky shadows, of unseen powerful individuals determining the future of the post-war world. The events described in Ghosts of the Rhine do not conform to the accepted sanitised versions of Allied victory in Europe. It is a less than glossy post-script to what happened in the shadow of victory.
In September 1945, the US claimed that hundreds of thousands of German prisoners (transferred to the French as would be slave labourers by the US Army) had died in French prison camps as a result of a systematic abuse. The French were outraged.
Within a few months, the allegation suddenly changed without explanation, and the US claimed instead that the missing had been marched into the oblivion of the Siberian Gulags.
What could not be told was that between March and July 1945, hundreds of thousands of German prisoners died in nineteen enormous internment camps along the banks of the Rhine. Some of these so vast they stretched for over three kilometres, but these PWTE’s (Prisoner of War Temporary Enclosures) were nothing more than bare fields enclosed in barbed wire. The prisoners were stripped of tents, field equipment, food, clothing and medicines. In those months a late winter of snow and continuous heavy rain, resulted in the open ditches that served as latrines, overflowing and turning the camps into a ‘sea of urine,’ and excrement.
Many German and US testimonies describe bodies being stripped of their clothing and identification tags, loaded onto trucks a hundred at a time, day after day, for months, and in each of the nineteen camps.
According to a US officer they were ‘stacked like cordwood,’ and transported to an unknown destination with bags of quicklime. US Army Medical officers recall witnessing hundreds of thousands of haggard, starving, dying prisoners, with no medical facilities.
The very nation that had made the allegations was the one that had administered these camps. When confronted with their hypocrisy the US absolved themselves arguing that the deaths of German prisoners had been unfortunate but unavoidable. The US Army Surgeon-General in 1946, however described the inhumane conditions in the camps as avoidable and inexcusable. He also noted that there was a disturbing lack of documentation to explain what had occurred.
In contrast those who were prisoners in Soviet camps were screened, registered, and then re-registered, interrogated and re-interrogated with the efficiency of a totalitarian state on a mission to identify every last member of the Nazi regime. The US archives, in contrast, state that what records existed of the camps were removed in the early 1950’s, on the authority of persons unknown.
The Commander of the Allied forces, Dwight Eisenhower issued instructions twice; that those in the prison camps were not to be provided with any shelter. He also stated that the Geneva Convention no longer applied to these men.
To guard the camps Eisenhower made an extraordinary and bizarre choice. The 106th Division had been broken and decimated during the Battle of the Bulge, its commanders dismissed for incompetence, and its remaining soldiers were suffering battle fatigue and post-traumatic-stress-disorder. Their massive losses had been made up of green recruits; the discarded and unwanted men of other US divisions; and those released from military prisons. The consequences were predictable and the abuses widespread.
Former President Herbert Hoover, on a fact-finding mission for President Truman, was appalled at how Eisenhower’s occupation forces were indifferent to the human catastrophe in their zone of occupation, describing the moral administration as, ‘not worthy of the flag of the United States.’
In 1956, the West German Government agreed to an investigation into the fate of the missing. The head of this investigation was Erich Maschke who had a distinguished record as an historian, but his career had been as a noted Nazi who’d authored the key philosophy that the Slavic population of Eastern Europe were subhuman, and the Germans had a historical responsibility to enslave and exterminate them. Most of Maschke’s team also had a significant Nazi past.
The conclusions of the investigation were given to the Bundestag in 1969. Willy Brandt (the then Foreign Minister and soon to be West German Chancellor) candidly declared the findings as pre-determined because the truth was ‘diplomatically embarrassing.’ The report was then made inaccessible to the public.
The intricacies, twists and the mystery of the missing dead and their fate are traced in Ghosts of the Rhine, with meticulously researched evidence opening up for the first time what one historian has described as a 'murky,' part of the war kept hidden, and Frederick Taylor describes as a 'black mark,' on the record of the US Army. Ghosts of the Rhine is an exception to the familiar history of WW2. It is a bold book confronting a history so shocking that for seventy-five years it has been hidden.
Professor Holger Nehring, Chair in Contemporary European History at the University of Stirling, has spoken at length with the author, and reviewed Ghosts of the Rhine. In his opinion, ' it offers a very rich narrative of the experiences of German POWs in the Western zone of occupation,' and 'a corrective to the heroic accounts of the immediate post-war period in Western Europe.' He has also stated that Ghosts of the Rhine is 'almost certainly the first book in English that makes consistent use of oral history evidence for POWs on the Western front.'
Duncan Wade was born in Halifax, West Yorkshire in 1964, but spent his early life in Northern Scotland. He worked in a Whisky Distillery, then as a Milkman, Computer Programmer and Store Detective. After graduating from the University of Stirling in 1986 he was for many years a Teacher in the East End of London.
His first book Ghosts of the Rhine was the result of hearing the horrific stories of his German Wife’s grandfather Otto Scheufele who'd returned home from captivity as a prisoner of the U.S Army. Three years later he died as a result of the abuse he'd received. In 2...
More about Duncan Wade,
Tim is a multi-award winning documentary film-maker, investigative journalist and best-selling author. Over a 30-year career he produced and directed almost 90 films for all British terrestrial channels as well as Discovery, A&E & Court Television networks in the United States. His films have been honoured by Amnesty International, the Royal Television Society, UNESCO, the International Documentary Association, the Association for International Broadcasting, the [US] National Academy of Cable Broadcasting and the New York Festivals.
Tim’s 1992 documentary ...
More about Tim Tate