Friday, May 29, 2009


When the Soviets advanced into eastern Germany, the Nazis tried to quickly evacuate the jet factory. But by then, it was too late for the jet to have much effect on the outcome of the war.

By Uli Suckert

At the very end of World War II, Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler still hoped that state-of-the-art technology could turn the tide in his favor. One of those projects, the Messerschmitt jet fighter, found a home in a remote corner of eastern Germany. But it was too late.

It took four and a half years, but finally, on March 20, 1944, World War II -- and more specifically, the armaments industry -- came to a remote corner of eastern Germany called the Lausitz. As the Allies flew an ever-increasing number of air raids over Germany's industrial and urban centers, large weapons factories in Nazi Germany began an exhaustive search for suitable places to relocate -- sites as inconspicuous and isolated as possible. Indeed, by 1943, Hermann Göring, commander of the Luftwaffe, had already forged plans to relocate the aviation industry to areas the Allies were unlikely to bomb.

It took a year, but then Junkers, an airplane and engine manufacturer from Dessau, moved into a factory belonging to the Moras Brothers textile company in Zittau, which today is located near Germany's border with Poland and the Czech Republic.

Disguised as a company called Zittwerke AG, it was far from run-of-the-mill as far as armaments factories go. Zittau was to be where the world's first production-ready jet engine would be completed, the same engine that was to power Hitler's secret weapon, the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter.

Jürgen Ulderup from Junkers' Dessau production site was tasked with taking over as plant manager in Zittau. He immediately set up a network of manufacturing plants throughout the region, all top secret. Key to getting the project off the ground was his demand that 18 long-established textile producers make space in their factories for armaments production. Some companies had to turn over their factories in their entirety. It proved a further blow for the region's textile industry, already largely crippled and converted to the war economy.

Core of the Enterprise

But winning the war took priority, and the remote corner of Nazi Germany now began producing components for the clandestine jet engine. Ulderup hired over 2,500 employees and put them to work in the Zittwerke plants, under the direction of aviation industry experts. They worked in the Moras factory, the Haebler Brothers textile company in Zittau, the Rudolf Breuer mechanical weaving mill in Reichenau, the Kreutziger & Henke company in Leutersdorf, the Ebersbach spinning and weaving mill, and at 13 other factories located in regional towns and villages.

But the core of the enterprise was to be found on the grounds of a former World War I prisoner of war camp in the present-day Polish town of Porajów -- a camp which had been converted for use by the German armed forces. The factory, guarded by the 17th SS "Totenkopf" battalion, simply moved into several half-finished barracks.

Deep in the heart of the compound, behind several rows of barbed wire, was the administration building where a detachment from the Gross-Rosen concentration camp was housed. Along with prisoners of war and the so-called "Eastern workers" -- forced labor from countries such as the Ukraine -- over 850 concentration camp prisoners did most of the work in the Zittwerke factories.

Not long after Junkers had settled in, the sound of industry filled the Neisse River Valley day and night. Rumors of a "miracle weapon" circulated among the local population, but no one knew exactly what the factory produced. It wasn't until final assembly that the object in question could be recognized for what it was: a special turbojet engine for a new type of jet fighter.

Shiny New Me 262s

Technicians had already tested the engines. A Messerschmitt plane, the Me 262-V 1, powered with a Junkers Jumo 004A-0 jet engine, took to the air as early as March 2, 1943. The test proved successful. And before long, the Zwittau factories mastered all aspects of the jet engine's production, from pre-assembly to shipment.

The factories were well connected to the Third Reich's rail network, with covered freight cars lugging the completed engines -- once they had passed inspection -- to the south. There, in the forests surrounding the Bavarian towns of Regensburg and Augsburg, workers installed the new engines into the jets. A converted Autobahn nearby served as a runway from which the shiny new Me 262s took off for their test flights. Only then would they be loaded onto freight trains for delivery to the Luftwaffe.

The Nazis had high hopes for the new jets. By the beginning of 1945, with the Russians closing from the east and the US and Britain marching in from the west, it was clear that Germany faced a catastrophic defeat, but the Nazi leadership refused to give up hope. On February 28, 1945, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels announced to the nation that Germany's "miracle weapon" would soon turn the tide of the war.

For Zittau, however, indications were mounting that it would be too late. The day before the Goebbels speech, the city of Görlitz just north of Zittau had been declared part of the front. Workers in the jet engine factories could already hear the thunder of enemy guns.

Hectic Evacuation

It wasn't long before the hectic evacuation got underway. A Wehrmacht counterattack near the present-day Polish town of Luba on March 7 and 8, 1945 managed to push back the Red Army. But after heavy losses on both sides, the Soviets halted the German advance, such as it was, and the factories ceased production.

Given the importance of the jet engine project, it didn't take long for evacuation of both workers and factory machinery to get underway. In early March, two special trains carrying the most vital elements of the production chain made their way from Zittau to the west, one on the 6th and another on the 10th. They ultimately ended up in the town of Nordhausen, located in the state of Thuringia, some 100 kilometers west of Leipzig.

Luftwaffe soldiers, who had guarded the Zittwerke's various factory locations producing jet engines for the Me 262, also boarded the train in Zittau. Two trains with over 500 people left directly from the factory premises for Halberstadt in Saxony-Anhalt. A final train, belonging to the Wehrmacht, left on April 30, just days before the end of the war, presumably carrying the last of the military units.

Mass Grave

But the Nazis didn't evacuate everything. Inside the remaining restricted military area, the forced laborers and concentration camp prisoners remained. Many of them died. A factory doctor issued 70 handwritten death certificates in April and the beginning of May. The causes of death listed were primarily "acute heart failure with asthenia," "pulmonary tuberculosis," "pneumonia," or "scurvy."

The role Zittwerke plant manager Jürgen Ulderup played in the deaths remains something of a mystery. According to his own reports, Ulderup fled by bicycle from Zittau to Osnabrück in western Germany in the last days of the war, with a backpack crammed full of copper bars. His driver, along with his company car, had long since disappeared, according to the former Nazi plant manager.

Today only a mass grave in Zittau's women's cemetery provides a reminder that the so-called "miracle weapon" was produced locally. A well-kept lawn covers the area behind the cemetery wall, where civilian victims of World War II are buried. They include the prisoners and forced laborers who sweated away in Nazi Germany's final attempt to turn the tide of onrushing World War II destruction.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Traitors to the fatherland?

Traitors to the fatherland? PHL
Posters in light-boxes in Lviv praised the SS Galicia, a Ukrainian unit that fought under Nazi Germany, as defenders of the nation against Soviet aggression. Nationalist politician Oleh Tyahnybok placed the ads.

The debate still rages over the SS Galicia, hailed by some as anti-Soviet nationalists.

They are either war criminals or national heroes, depending on who is telling their history.

In the annals of the still-heated debate over Ukraine’s tragic World War II experience, one is hard-pressed to find another 200 survivors who still stir more passions than the former members of the SS Galicia division. Their youngest known surviving member is 83 years old, but the controversy they inspire shows no sign of dying out soon.

The Nazi regiment was created in 1943. By then, the tide had already turned in favor of the Allies after Soviet troops ravaged the Nazi fighting machine in the epic Battle of Stalingrad. The racist Hitler had dropped his insistence on having only German soldiers of the “master race” go to war for him, a sign of his growing desperation.

The Ukrainians who joined the SS Galicia division – and who took battle orders from Nazi commanders – consisted of up to 20,000 men selected from 70,000 Ukrainian volunteers. Uniformed and trained by the Nazis in Germany, France and Denmark, the division won praise from Heinrich Himmler, the Gestapo chief who was one the most feared men in Europe at the time.

How could Ukrainians join such an outfit?

The most benevolent description of the motives of the men of the SS Galicia division is that they were gambling on the defeat of Nazi Germany. According to this logic, they wanted to rid Ukraine of Stalin’s Red Army and secure Western support to reclaim national independence after the war.

The harshest description is that they betrayed their nation, committed war crimes and slowed the Allied Victory.

“This is what I ask myself, what made those people volunteer?” said Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the nationalist Svoboda Party, which is currently gaining popularity in western Ukraine. “I can tell you what motivated those people. Before their eyes, the Communists destroyed their families, [and so] they didn’t care what flags they fought under against the Bolsheviks.”

Western Ukraine, and particularly the part called Halychyna or Galicia, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When the empire dissolved after World War I, Ukrainians there seized the moment to declare independence in 1918. The freedom was short-lived. The western region fell under Polish rule, making Ukrainians chafe for a liberator. In 1939, after Stalin and Hitler signed their non-aggression pact, the Soviet Army invaded – claiming they were freeing the Galicians.

Although the Soviet soldiers were initially welcomed with bread and salt by the population, Stalin-ordered repressions and murders quickly turned the lives of western Ukrainians into nightmares.

“My grandfather was buried alive in jail by NKVD [the security service] because he was a priest,” said Tyahnybok, whose party recently paid for an advertising campaign to promote the SS Galicia, or the 14th Grenadier Division Der SS Galicia (Number 1 Ukrainian), as it was officially called by the Nazis.

Tyahnybok’s party purchased 20 advertising light boards on Lviv’s streets in April, advertising the SS Galicia as “defenders of Ukraine” who fought against Communist oppression. The campaign, organized to mark the division’s 66th anniversary, triggered an explosive reaction among public and politicians. The advertisements were commissioned for a month, but taken down a day early because of public pressure.

Mykola Posivnych, a historian at the Institute of Ukraine Studies, said volunteers of the SS Galicia had complicated motives for joining the military unit, including strong financial incentives by the Nazis.

“Everybody had different motivations, but most people went there because they needed to feed their family,” Posivnych said. In exchange, newcomers to the division had to pledge an oath to Hitler to fight Bolshevism.

Ukraine was World War II’s primary battleground, with Nazis and Soviets alternating control of the territory, which was coveted for its rich fertile land and ability to feed millions. An estimated eight million Ukrainians, including four million civilians, were killed during the war. The Nazis and Soviets practiced scorched-earth policies of burning or destroying everything they could – including factories and villages – when their armies retreated.

Those in western Ukraine had few options for avoiding the ruthless armies of the dictators from the east and west. Apart from the SS Galicia, they could join the underground Ukrainian Insurgent Army – known by its UPA acronym. UPA members, the military wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, fought against all foreign enemies of Ukraine and were primarily active in the western half of the country. Their guerrilla battles against Soviet power in Ukraine continued until the 1950s, despite Soviet assassinations of their top leaders in exile abroad.

Some Ukrainians, however, thought the insurgent army’s quest was futile. SS Galicia members "thought it was impossible to fight against four enemies: Poland, Romania, Hungary and Soviet Union,” Posivnych explained. “They had to choose allies.”

The SS Galicia’s military record was mostly brief and tragic. Some believe they were used as Nazi cannon fodder. Most were killed in a major battle in the western Ukrainian town of Brody in 1944. Soviet troops so overpowered them in battle that only some 5,000 soldiers survived the encounter.

After the Battle of Brody, the remnants were scattered and many reorganized into a different military unit. After the German surrender, the SS Galicia survivors also surrendered to the Western allies and were sent to a prisoner of war camp in Rimini, Italy. Apart from Ukraine, its members later resettled in Germany, Britain, Australia, Brazil, United States and Canada.

As a part of the Nazi SS force, the division was also investigated for its potential role in mass killings of Jews and Poles and the suppression of uprisings in Slovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia and France.

Marcial Lavina, representative of Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human rights organization (, said “there are indications that [the unit] might have committed war crimes at the end of the war in Poland, but this is still being investigated.” The organization, which has doggedly pursued war criminals responsible for the Holocaust, recently gave Ukraine an “F” grade in hunting down Nazis, citing a lack of political will.

But a number of other international investigations, including one by the Canadian Commission of Inquiry on War Crimes, also known as the Deschenes Commission, and another one led by Polish historians, cleared the Ukrainian group of accusations of participation in war crimes. “Commissions justified [SS Galicia] as soldiers, meaning they did not commit crimes against humanity or terrorist acts against unarmed population. Their function was solely to fight at war,” Posivnych said.

But many Ukrainians are unconvinced. Oleksandr Feldman, a deputy from Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s bloc, said SS Galicia members were “military criminals, whom current moral freaks are trying to rehabilitate, whiten up and present as victims of historical injustice.”

Leonid Mukha, an 84-year-old resident of Mykolaiv and a former member of the division, said many myths surround the SS Galicia. He witnessed two historical tragedies that he said the SS Galicia is wrongly implicated in.

One of them was the suppression of an uprising in Warsaw, Poland, in the autumn of 1944. “The Galicia [division] did not take part in this suppression,” Mukha said. “For 63 days, the Soviet army was standing on the right side of the Warsaw, watching Germans suppress that uprising. They did nothing because it was the uprising of people they didn’t respect, the Polish nationalists.”

The other tragedy he witnessed was the May 1944 massacre of an estimated 500 to 1,200 people in the Polish village of Huta Pieniacka. “The German punishing unit, like the Russian NKVD, came into this village, the fight began and Germans destroyed the village,” Mukha said.

Ukrainian historian Posivnych said that, “regarding mass killings, there is no black and white in this case. There are more politics here than real events.” Asked whether the men of the SS Galicia were patriots or traitors, Posivnych replied: “The truth is somewhere in the middle.”