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The massacre at Magdeburg's "Neue Welt" stadium on April 13, 1945


78 years ago, on January 27, 1945, the Red Army liberated Auschwitz. The Second World War was entering its final months, the collapse of the German Reich was foreseeable. And yet the National Socialist murder machinery continued relentlessly - also in Magdeburg until the occupation of the city by the U.S. Army on April 19, 1945. Even more, in the final phase of the Second World War, behavior on the German side radicalized, and for many of those persecuted, liberation came too late.

As the Allied armies of the anti-Hitler coalition advanced, the Nazis began clearing the concentration camps beginning in the summer of 1944. Huge columns of prisoners were sent on foot in public to the remaining camps in the Reich. On the marches, thousands died from disease, exhaustion, and under the gunfire of the German guards.

At the beginning of April 1945, the American and British troops, and soon the Soviet troops as well, were in the Magdeburg-Anhalt area. As a result, the prisoners of the numerous subcamps in which they had been forced to work for the armaments industry were sent on death marches, especially in the direction of the Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen concentration camps. The subcamp at Brabag in Magdeburg-Rothensee, which produced synthetic fuel, had already been evacuated in February 1945. The 465 prisoners still living there had been transported to Buchenwald and forced to work in other subcamps. At about the same time as the Buchenwald main camp, the women's and men's concentration camp subcamp at the Polte-Werke in Magdeburg was also about to be evacuated.

Polte had been one of the largest armaments companies in the Reich and produced mainly bullets for the Wehrmacht until the end. The prisoners were deported men and women from Eastern and Central Europe, among them many of Jewish faith. In the camp, the camp regime began to fall apart. On April 11, the Americans had reached the border of the city area, which had been declared a fortress. The men of Magdeburg's Volkssturm, Hitler Youth and a few remaining units of the Wehrmacht were to line up for the "final battle" for the city on the Elbe. The Polte factory on what is now Liebknechtstraße was suddenly empty, as was the commandant's office of the subcamp. The commandants had taken flight. Over the next two days, they were gradually followed by the SS guards and supervisors. Earlier, already without a functioning command structure, they had tried to round up the maltreated prisoners for an evacuation march. Out of fear and perhaps also out of hope that the U.S. Army would soon liberate them, the prisoners defied the orders. The SS shot around, there were many injured, but the camp guards finally had to give up the attempt to evacuate.

Against this background, the Volkssturm company Magdeburg-Neustadt now received orders on April 11, 1945, to round up the concentration camp prisoners and transport them away. On the evening of April 12, two Volkssturm platoons reached the small-scale concentration camp and prepared its evacuation. In the early morning hours of April 13, between four and six o'clock, the imprisoned men and women were awakened by furious barking of dogs and forcibly driven out of the barracks. More than 3,700 prisoners - the majority of them women - accompanied by heavily armed Volksturm units and members of the Hitler Youth started marching through the city area towards the east. Under constant mistreatment, the completely exhausted people took hours to make their way to the Strombrücke bridge over the Elbe. On the grounds of the "Neue Welt" stadium, the guards were forced to take a break.

All this happened while the hostilities for the capture of the city were going on. On the stadium grounds, the prisoners suddenly came under artillery fire from American troops standing in the southeastern part of the city. Contemporary witnesses report at least two exploding shells or a whole volley. There were several dead and wounded. The prisoners, panic-stricken, tried to take cover in the adjacent bushes or to flee. Thereupon the Volkssturm units opened fire. From a Volkssturm barracks camp in the immediate vicinity of the stadium, the prisoners were also fired upon. The fire from the guards continued for about half an hour.

Meir Levenstein from Latvia, Jewish survivor of the massacre, describes the terrible minutes: "Torn off parts of human bodies flew through the air. Hands, heads mingled with the ashes and bricks." Polish Irena Lukawska, then a concentration camp inmate in the political category, reports, "Numerous prisoners perished. I can still remember that during the escape we were always walking on human bodies." Alicja Danielak recounts the shelling of the defenseless: "I threw myself face down on the ground, and when I got up after a while, I caught sight of a Russian woman with a crushed skull right next to me."

How many prisoners did not survive the massacre cannot be determined today. Investigations by the public prosecutor's office in the 1950s confirmed a figure of 42 dead, of which about one third had died as a result of artillery fire from the Americans. This figure, however, refers only to those murdered whose buried bodies were found in the immediate vicinity of the stadium after the end of the war. The descriptions of former prisoners do not contain any figures for the most part, but they allow the conclusion that probably considerably more people were killed. This is also supported by the witness statements in the minutes of the courts that dealt with the events a few years later. Here, a 17-year-old member of the Hitler Youth is mentioned who boasted of having shot 17 prisoners with his pistol alone.

After the massacre, the survivors were again rounded up and sent on march to the east. Irena Lukawska tells about the women's death march: "We walked, starved and froze until April 19. During the march we received boiled pork potatoes twice [on a total of seven days]. The SS men shot at people who stayed behind or runaways the whole time." When the female prisoners finally reached Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, only about 600 of the nearly 3,000 women who had been herded out of the Polte-Magdeburg outpost on the death march were still alive. From there, the Swedish Red Cross evacuated some to Sweden for recuperation. Others stayed behind and were liberated by the Red Army on April 29/30, 1945. The male concentration camp prisoners from Magdeburg marched on towards Sachsenhausen. From there they went in several columns in the direction of Rostock.

In connection with the massacre at the "Neue Welt" stadium, a trial took place in Magdeburg in 1951 against three members of the Volkssturm who were there at the time. They were charged with the murder of concentration camp inmates and sentenced to several years in prison. However, in August 1952, the Magdeburg Regional Court acquitted the defendants on appeal for lack of clear evidence of their involvement in the crime. To this day, none of those involved in the violent excess has been brought to justice. Apparently, when punishing the allegedly minor perpetrators, the GDR also had the integration of the majority of the former "Volksgenossen" in mind, who were now urgently needed for reconstruction.

Crimes like those at the "Neue Welt" stadium occurred thousands of times during the final phase of the war. The massacre in Magdeburg was not committed by SS men who had supposedly long since been dehumanized, but by ordinary Magdeburg citizens. The motivation for the murder is probably to be sought in a bundle of factors: The anti-Semitic and racist hatred that had been spread for years by Nazi propaganda, according to which Jews were counted among the "alien" enemies of the "national community" and Eastern Europeans had been declassified as "subhumans"; in the everyday threat of terror that had increased even more at the end of the war; and last but not least in the psychological and physical tension in the face of a hopeless military situation in a destroyed city.

Since the early 1980s, a memorial stone at the "Neue Welt" stadium commemorates the death march of concentration camp prisoners with the text: "April 13, 1945: Hundreds of concentration camp prisoners were murdered here by the fascist criminals. People be vigilant!" Apparently, however, the murderers were neither entirely anonymous nor did they fit into common grids suitable for quickly exonerating the ancestors of one's own society. Further questions about guilt and responsibility are therefore appropriate.

Pascal Begrich/Maik Hattenhorst for the "Magdeburg 2023 Memorial Year