On the frontlines: Red Army veteran Moritz Mebel talks about his battles against fascism

On the 75th anniversary of Victory Day, which commemorates the surrender of Hitler’s Germany in World War II, we bring you the recollections of Red Army veteran Moritz Mebel who took part in grueling campaigns against the Nazis from the gates of Moscow to the Czech Republic

May 09, 2020 by Franziska Kleiner
Moritz Mebel (left) in Dresden in 1945.

May 9 is Victory Day, which commemorates the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945. On the 75th anniversary of Victory Day, we bring you the recollections of Moritz Mebel, a Red Army veteran. Mebel and millions of his comrades from the Soviet Union were part of the longest and bloodiest struggles of World War II which ultimately caused the defeat of Hitler and fascism.

Today, even as the far-right and neo-Nazi groups grow bolder, there is a concerted effort to deny and vilify the Red Army’s role in the defeat of Nazism and Fascism. This happens both at the official level and through the culture industry in the west, which especially glorifies the role of the US that came into the war much later.

Mebel, who is 97, continues the struggle to preserve the memory of the struggle against fascism. These recollection are from a lecture he delivered a few years ago and have been transcribed and translated by Franziska Kleiner.

To this day, I remember October 14, 1941. It was early in the morning. A communique from the Soviet information bureau news agency said the situation on the Western Front had deteriorated further.

The German-Fascist formations had succeeded in breaking through our defenses at Mozhaysk (about 120 km west of Moscow) and were advancing towards Moscow. The capital of the Soviet Union was in mortal danger. I immediately drove to my institute. On the door of the Komsomol Committee [Communist youth organization] was a note: “Please report to the district committee of the city section.” There, I learned that Communist battalions of volunteer workers were being formed in all the districts to defend Moscow. I signed one of the lists, a decision which my family approved. I was an 18-year-old student at that time and had migrated with my parents from Erfurt to Moscow in 1932.

The next morning, I reported to the assembly point and began stop-gap military training. After a week, we set out on a forced march towards the Volokolamsk highway.

We took up positions about 30 kilometers outside of Moscow. It was bitter cold and we had no winter clothes. We were armed with only muzzle loaders from the 19th century. The workers’ battalions were merged with the 3rd Moscow Communist Infantry Division, which was given the mission of securing the roads leading directly to the city. Ahead of us, the regular units of the Panfilov Division of the Red Army were involved in heavy fighting with the fascist Wehrmacht (Nazi German armed forces) and were sustaining high casualties. The Wehrmacht did not succeed in breaking through our line of defense.  

Atrocities of the Wehrmacht

On November 8, we counter-attacked and with other Red Army units, pushed the German-Fascist troops back by about 100 km. In the areas we liberated, we saw the atrocities of Hitler’s army with our own eyes. In Istra by the lake, where just a few years ago, I had been hiking and camping with my friends, houses had been burned down, and we found small children drowned in a well.

In February 1942, our infantry division was deployed on the Northwest Front. By that time, we already had real rifles, cotton jackets and pants, warm underwear and felt boots. The wind was strong and icy. It was almost impossible to draw a breath (it was minus 42 degrees). We received the order to retake the village of Pawlowo. Another unit had earlier stormed the village but was forced to abandon it with heavy losses. Despite there being no hill for cover, we stomped forward through the deep snow with a “Hurrah.” Some of us fell and remained in the snow – dead or wounded. Suddenly, it was quiet and no more shots were being fired. We had taken the village – the burnt debris of it. The enemy had fled. In a bunker-like earthen hut, we found the body of our regimental commander. He was leaning against the wall, both his forearms were charred. Before they withdrew, the Nazi soldiers had tried to burn him. Bodies of Red Army men lay on the frozen ground. We carried them out together. And we were drawn to the burning rubble, which provided some warmth.

Soon, German shells hit us again. Immediately, we took up defensive positions at the edge of the village. The next morning, we advanced to the village of Butirkino and took it without any casualties. Silently, each one of us hoped that we would continue like this. But this was not to be the case.

Mobile speakers to the front

By that time, I had already left my unit. When we had started out in Moscow, we were 180 men. Only three of us were still in action. The others had been killed or were badly wounded.

In 1942, the 53rd Army was formed. Due to my knowledge of German, I was transferred to a department whose role was to inform the Wehrmacht soldiers in front of us about the criminal war they were fighting. At the end of March 1943, the 53rd Army was in the relatively quiet hinterland east of the Kursk Arch. New units of the Red Army arrived. All units were being equipped with modern fighting technology. The victory at Stalingrad had demonstrated the Red Army’s military prowess to friend and foe alike. However, the fascist Wehrmacht was still deep in Soviet territory and we were still waiting for the second front in western Europe.

On July 5th, the battle at the Kursk Arch began. Both sides suffered heavy losses but we forced the fascists to retreat. The areas liberated by us were devastated by the retreating Germans. Women and girls had been deported to Germany for forced labor or had been taken to Wehrmacht brothels behind the front.

In front of us lay the Dnepr (Dnieper) river. Its western bank was much higher than its eastern one. On the western bank, the Wehrmacht had built a new line of defense – the Ostwall (East Wall). In order to stop the advance of the Red Army, an area right by the Dnepr, 100 km wide and deep, had been completely devastated. It was a Scorched Earth Zone. The surviving villagers – mostly old men and women, invalids and children – had been driven into barns and burned alive. The remaining houses had been torched.

After heavy fighting, our troops were able to establish a bridgehead on the western bank. I was ordered to find out whether a loudspeaker system could be used to address the Wehrmacht troops in front of us. In a rubber dinghy loaded with ammunition for the bridgehead, I crossed over. Nobody in our unit knew that I couldn‘t swim. The enemy kept firing constantly. Luck was on my side for I came back in one piece. Our troops crossed the Dnepr.

At that time, a member of the National Committee for a Free Germany [A German anti-Nazi organization comprised mainly of prisoners of war ] was in our division. He had been a lieutenant in the Wehrmacht and had been taken prisoner. His main motivation was to end the bloodshed. On one occasion, I was suddenly taken ill and he was standing in for me. During his broadcast, a German grenade exploded next to the loudspeaker car. Our captured lieutenant was seriously wounded. His words had helped us address the Wehrmacht soldiers.

“What are Germans doing in a foreign country?”

“It’s not true that the Red Army doesn’t capture German soldiers but shoots them on sight.”

************

On June 6, 1944, the Allies landed in Normandy. Finally, the long promised second front had become a reality. We immediately informed our enemies of the Allies’ success.

Later on, units of our army took part in the liquidation or capture of the German troops who were encircled at Korsun-Shevchenko. Here, I almost fell into the hands of the enemy. An escaped German unit briefly occupied a street which I had passed through in our loudspeaker van on my way to a new mission. If we had entered that street even 10 minutes earlier, we would have been captured. As a German Jew and a political officer in the Red Army, my death would have been certain. According to Hitler’s infamous Commissar Decree, which all members of the Wehrmacht obeyed from the very beginning, political officers and Jews were to be shot immediately. Personally, I was always clear that I would rather put a bullet in my head than fall into the hands of the Germans.

In Moldova, in the city of Balta, which we liberated, there was still a ghetto. In its streets and alleys lay the bodies of Jews who had been shot, among them children. The survivors told us that shortly before their escape, German field gendarmes and the SS had gone on a rampage in the ghetto. On August 20, units of our army entered Romanian territory. The Romanian army offered little resistance.

Pro-Nazi Romania, formerly a kingdom, was ruled by the dictator, general Ion Antonescu. The royal family had only limited freedom of movement and had no say. So Mihai [king Michael I of Romania] conspired with representatives of the then illegal Romanian Communist Party to overthrow Antonescu. On August 23, 1944 shortly after Antonescu returned from a meeting with Hitler, he was arrested by the communists. There was an uprising in Bucharest even as the Red Army was at the gates of the capital. Our troops took the city without bloodshed.

In Romania, I received orders to drive from Ploesti to Bucharest in a loudspeaker car. The road was still in good condition and we sped ahead. The only place we stopped at was a huge vineyard where soon, we stood in a cellar, ankle-deep in wine. From the still intact barrels, we filled the only two canisters we had which did not smell of petrol. We arrived in Bucharest on the evening of September 2.

After Romania joined the anti-Hitler coalition, we left Bucharest. On October 7, we crossed the Hungarian border. We encountered heavy fighting until we took quarters in Balassagyarmat. With good food, Hungarian wine and vodka, we celebrated a few quiet hours on New Year’s Eve. The year 1945 had begun.

Hitler’s Germany capitulates

In Debrecen in Hungary a transitional government of anti-fascists had been formed. We helped them build a new Hungarian government. After the capture of Pest, our units stood on the Danube. The river, in contrast to what Johann Strauss wrote, seemed neither blue nor beautiful to us. It was in fact a difficult obstacle. The enemy had blown up all the bridges. The Hungarian and German fascists fought doggedly. Finally, the Red Army units managed to cross the Danube near Budapest and forced the enemy to flee.

By the end of March, our 53rd Army was in Slovakia. By now, Wehrmacht units were regularly abandoning their positions in the middle of the night and fleeing westwards. On March 31, when the town of Nitra was taken, I was wounded by a hand grenade. At the field hospital, I was told that a piece of shrapnel had been lodged right next to my spine. It remains there to this day. Once again, I was lucky.

In Slovakia, our troops made rapid progress. The uprising of the Slovakian partisans against the Tiso regime was successful. On May 1, Radio London reported that Hitler had shot himself. The heavy fighting in and around Berlin gave us hope that the end of Hitler’s Germany was not far off. Each of us wanted to live long enough to experience the victory over Hitler’s barbarism. However, the war continued.

On May 8, at dawn, we were summoned by the chief of the Political Department of our army, Colonel Martynov. At that time, I was a Lieutenant of the Guard. Martynov informed us of the news that had arrived from the staff of the 2nd Ukrainian Front – Germany had unconditionally capitulated to the Allies. The fighting would have to cease on all fronts as of noon that day. Our unit was located not far from Vyskov, about 50 kilometers east of Brno [in today’s Czech Republic]. The German troops we were facing were fighting to distance themselves as quickly as possible from the Soviet troops to the east. The long-awaited news about the capitulation did not spark any celebration. We had to approach the retreating Wehrmacht units with our loudspeaker truck to inform them of the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany.

However, the Germans in our section kept fighting. Generalfeldmarschall Ferdinand Schörner, their commander, had given orders to not capitulate. At the same time, as we learned later, he had boarded his plane at an airfield in Nemecky Brod and fled.

The last Wehrmacht units ceased fighting in our region only on May 11, three days after the official capitulation. Now the time had come for us too to toast, with a proper amount of vodka, the victory and liberation of the peoples of Europe from fascism.

The war goes on

I had been on the frontlines since October 14, 1941, and was still alive. My units had not once lost ground to the enemy. Since leaving Moscow, we had only gone forward. Now, I had only one wish – to be demobilized as soon as possible and continue my medical studies in Moscow.

At the beginning of June 1945, our army was loaded into trains, and off we went to the east. On June 9, we stopped at the main station in Dresden. It was a shocking sight – debris as far as the eye could see. I felt compassion. But I also remembered the destruction of Coventry by the German Air Force and the words of Göring: “coventrate – erase”, the infernos in Rotterdam, Warsaw, Minsk and Leningrad. In the first year of the war alone, one million people either died of starvation or were killed in Leningrad by the encirclement and bombing raids.

We drove on. We were told that we were going to Mongolia. True to its obligations to its allies, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan on August 8, 1945. At the same time, I received orders to report to the cadre department of the Northwestern Military District in Novosibirsk. Here, the chief, Lt. Colonel Baranov, informed me that I would be assigned as an instructor in one of the camps for Japanese prisoners of war who were about to arrive

On September 2, Japan surrendered. In Novosibirsk, we waited for the prisoners of war although none were sent there. But my request to demobilize was still not granted. In November, I was ordered to report to the military administration of the Soviet occupation zone of Germany in the political department in the Halle-Merseburg administrative district. In my two years of activity until March 1947, our main task was to help ensure that the liberation from war and fascism, which had come from outside, was now internalized by the population. It was a difficult and long process!

It was and is a bitter fact, which we underestimated, that Nazi ideology did not disappear with the defeat of Nazi Germany. Remembrance days are meaningless if they do not have an impact on the present and the future. Do not forget the past. It is a lesson for the present and the future!


Dr. Moritz Mebel in 2018

[Moritz Mebel became a renowned doctor in the German Democratic Republic, specializing in kidney transplants. He also served as a professor and administrator. But he never stopped reminding us of the dangers of fascism, the horrors of war and the importance of international solidarity and peace. He is especially concerned about the distortion of history, especially the transformation of the role of the Soviet Union in mass media and in the statements by politicians.

It is now suggested that the liberation of the peoples of western Europe from fascism was achieved solely by the landing of the Western Allies in Normandy on June 6, 1944. We are also witness to increasing hostility toward Russia. Last year, Vladimir Putin was not invited to the 75th anniversary of the D-day landing. This year, the Ukrainian ambassador rejected an invitation by Berlin’s mayor Michael Müller to commemorate the day because of the current dispute between Ukraine and Russia. The European Parliament passed a resolution a few months ago which stated that more effort was necessary to point out the alleged crimes of the Soviet Union and encourage an interpretation of history which assigned responsibility for the Second World War to the Fascists and the communists more evenly. The Federation of Expellees (BdV) asks us to consider November 9, 1989 (the day the Berlin Wall fell) as the day of liberation of Europe and not May 8, 1945.

Mebel is concerned about the re-emergence of fascist ideology, both in the minds of the people and the governments of the world. He strongly urges all of us to keep up the fight against the new extreme right. “We owe this to the more than 45 million dead in the Second World War in Europe alone… We owe it to the 200 000 murdered resistance fighters against the Nazi regime in Hitler’s Germany,” he says.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Comrade Moritz Mebel spent the 8th of May at his home in Berlin. He sends internationalist greetings to comrades around the world who are fighting imperialism, fascism and chauvinism in the parliaments and on the streets. And he wishes the international working class health, work and peace for the coming year – Franziska Kleiner]

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