Files on world war MIAs opened by East-West thaw

December 13, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN HHC OBB — BERLIN -- The fate of 1.2 million missing German soldiers from World War II is finally being cleared up, thanks to improved East-West relations.

More than 40 years after the war ended, Soviet reformers have broken the information block they had previously enforced, said Urs Veit, head of the German Armed Services Information Office.

"We now have excellent cooperation with the Soviet army and are hopeful of being able to discover the fate of most of the missing," he said.

Documents turned over by Soviet army officials show that the majority of the missing Germans probably died in Soviet forced-labor camps -- victims of revenge for German aggression and atrocities.

According to the documents, most soldiers were sent to remote labor camps, which lacked adequate shelter or food, he said, with many dying years after the war ended. Between 750,000 and 1 million probably died in the camps, he said, nearly a quarter of the 4.3 million German dead and missing soldiers from the war.

Mr. Veit said that progress in tracking down the missing soldiers only began in 1988, when Soviet reforms began to make headway in the armed forces. Younger Soviet officers began to take charge of the negotiations, he said, and were more willing to cooperate than their older superiors, who were heavily influenced by the war, which resulted in 27 million Soviet military and civilian deaths.

"The role of [German] war guilt made the topic of missing soldiers totally taboo. No one could accuse the Soviets of withholding information or mistreating prisoners in light of German actions in the war," Mr. Veit said.

Another reason for lack of information was that the Soviet Union never signed the 1929 Geneva Convention on prisoners of war, said Klaus Mittermeier, head of the Red Cross Missing Persons Office in Munich, Germany. The Soviets did not feel bound to the treaty's requirement of releasing information about prisoners, he said.

In comparison, Western countries and western Germany worked closely together when the war ended and were able to identify the fate of all but 100,000 soldiers -- 70,000 German, 30,000 Allied -- on the western and Mediterranean fronts, he said.

The Soviets' changed attitude is also expected to reduce the number of Soviet MIAs.

Although German prisoner-of-war camps were liberated at the end of the war and the Soviet prisoners sent home, willingly or not, up to 3.5 million Soviet troops are still listed as missing, Mr. Veit said.

Almost all are believed to have been killed in action during the war. But German authorities cannot help the Soviets in locating these troops' remains because most died in the Soviet Union or Poland. At the time, Soviet leadership had no interest in documenting the losses because it did not want to admit that its victories had been so costly.

"Up until now, there had never been interest [in the Soviet Union] in providing a proper grave for these soldiers. Now, however, they are excavating the major battlefields and trying to identify the dead," Mr. Veit said.

As the battlefields are dug up, many German dead also are being identified, Mr. Veit said, and the information office is then able to notify the next of kin.

The new successes in tracking down MIA cases is one reason for a tripling of the number of people writing to the information office. About 60,000 letters a month now arrive at the Berlin offices, mostly from former soldiers or family members seeking information for pension purposes. As a result, the staff has been nearly doubled.

German unification also has contributed to the office's new activity because researchers now have access to 12 million files from the former East German government, spurring thousands of requests from East Germans.

Although most of the MIA cases end up with the soldier's family receiving a death certificate, some cases result in surprise endings.

Last year, for example, the office received a request from former Pvt. Richard Zanders for proof that he served in the war. A clerk checked Mr. Zanders' file and noticed that Mr. Zanders was listed as missing in action in 1945.

Mr. Zanders had, in fact, escaped but never bothered to register or to return home after he had heard from a close friend that his entire family had died when their village was bombed.

His family actually had survived the bombing, but when his brother wrote the office in 1969, he was told that Mr. Zanders had been declared dead.

The clerk gave Mr. Zanders his brother's name, and the next day Mr. Zanders was reunited with his family.

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