Nemmersdorf in East Prussia (today's Mayakovskoye, Kaliningrad Oblast) was one of the first pre-war German villages to fall to the advancing Red Army on October 22, 1944 at 07:00 hours and the scene of an alleged massacre said to have been perpetrated by the Soviet soldiers against German civilians. The facts remain controversial. The incident was embellished and exploited by Nazi propaganda.
The 2nd Battalion, 25th Guards Tank Brigade, belonging to the 2nd Guards Tank Corps of the 11th Guards Army, crossed the Angrapa bridge and established a bridgehead on the western bank of the river. German forces tried to retake the bridge, but several attacks were repelled by the Soviet tanks and the supporting infantry.
During an air attack a number of Soviet soldiers took shelter in an improvised bunker, already occupied by 14 local men and women. Later an officer arrived and ordered everybody out. According to the testimony of Gerda Meczulat, who survived gravely injured, the German civilians were then shot at close range. During the night the 25th Tank Brigade was ordered to retreat back across the river and take defensive positions along the Rominte.
Joachim Reisch, who had been at the bridge in the early morning, arrived back at Nemmersdorf at 11:00 hours and saw no Russians there.
However, the Wehrmacht only claimed control of Nemmersdorf two days later. German authorities (using the Völkischer Beobachter and the cinema Wochenschau) immediately accused the Soviet Army of killing tens of civilians at Nemmersdorf. Nazi propaganda claimed that many noncombatants, including about 50 French PoWs, had been summarily shot, and others were alleged to have been killed by blows with shovels or gun butts. A report filed by the leader of a Volkssturm company, Karl Potrek of Königsberg, in 1953 states, in part:
"In the farmyard stood a cart, to which more naked women were nailed through their hands in a cruciform position...Near a large inn, the 'Roter Krug', stood a barn and to each of its two doors a naked woman was nailed through the hands, in a crucified posture....In the dwellings we found a total of 72 women, including children, and one old man, 74, all dead....Some babies had their heads bashed in."
Many of the facts were immediately controversial, because it was soon found out that a convoy of refugees, including French and Belgian POWs (who, according to one source (Joachim Reisch), had been ordered to take care of thoroughbred horses), had just passed through the village, and was blocked before the Angrapa bridge, perhaps leading to many casualties killed and wounded in the crossfire. Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels organized an international commission, headed by Estonian Hjalmar Mäe and other representatives of neutral countries like Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. The commission heard the report from a medical commission under Himmlers personal surgeon, Karl Gebhardt, which subsequently reported that all the dead females, who ranged in age from eight to 84, had been raped. Nonetheless an attempt by the Nazi regime to make an international incident of the Nemmersdorf massacre failed, because of the opprobrium that the Nazis had brought upon themselves by committing atrocities in the many nations which they had invaded, including Poland and the Soviet Union.
The Nazi propaganda ministry disseminated its description of the event, in gruesome and graphic detail, to boost the motivation of German soldiers. The reaction of the home front, particularly that of civilians, was immediate. The number of volunteers to join the Volkssturm was indeed boosted, but the larger number of civilians responded with panic, and started to leave the area en masse.
If Goebbels and Gauleiter Erich Koch had hoped to stiffen East Prussian civilian morale and resistance, their actions backfired, as the reporting on Nemmersdorf was at least partly to blame for the panic which was to accompany the evacuation of civilians from East Prussia three months later. However, like some of Goebbels' other propaganda, the effects have far outlived the author. The name "Nemmersdorf" is, to many Germans, a symbol of war crimes of the Red Army, as an example of the worst behavior in Eastern Germany. This has been reinforced by people like the post-war co-publisher of the weekly Die Zeit, Marion Gräfin Dönhoff, who at the time of the reports, lived in the village of Quittainen (Kwitany) in western East Prussia, near Preussisch Holland (Pasłęk). She wrote in 1962 that:
"In those years one was so accustomed to everything that was officially published or reported being lies that at first I took the pictures from Nemmersdorf to be falsified. Later, however, it turned out that that was not the case."
After 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union, new sources became available and the dominant view among scholars became that the massacre was embellished, and actually exploited, by Goebbels in an attempt to stir up civilian resistance to the advancing Soviet Army. Bernhard Fisch, in his book Nemmersdorf, October 1944: What actually happened in East Prussia (the first book to also include the Russian view of the event) was the first to present this picture of the events. Fisch, an East Prussian and a soldier at the time, had been in Nemmersdorf a few days after it was re-taken, and remembered a totally different scene from the one depicted by the Wochenschau. He interviewed many witnesses still alive on both sides (e.g., Soviet General Kuzma N. Galitsky, former commander of 11th Guards Army) and crossing out faulty memories against each other, he found out some disturbing details: the German army itself was responsible for destroying the strong German defensive position in front of Nemmersdorf (so the whole affair may even have been a trap, planned from the very start), and after the event no attempt had been made to identify the photographed victims by name. He was able to conclude that liberties were taken with at least some of the photographs, that some victims on the photographs were from other East Prussian villages, and that the notorious crucifixion barn doors were not even in Nemmersdorf. There also was the tight time schedule of witness Joachim Reisch, reducing the Soviet presence at Nemmersdorf to less than four hours of heavy fighting in front of the bridge.
The former chief of staff of the German Fourth Army, Major General Erich Dethleffsen, testified on July 5, 1946 before an American tribunal in Neu-Ulm. He said:
"When in October, 1944, Russian units temporarily entered Nemmersdorf, they tortured the civilians, specifically they nailed them to barn doors, and then shot them. A large number of women were raped and then shot. During this massacre, the Russian soldiers also shot some fifty French prisoners of war. Within forty-eight hours the Germans re-occupied the area."