The Massacre in the Arnsberg Forest: Nazi crimes perpetrated on Russian and Polish forced labourers in 1945
In spring 1945, shortly before the end of the Second World War, after taking the Ludendorff Bridge near Remagen and crossing the Rhine near Wesel, the Allied troops began to occupy the strategically important Ruhr area in a pincer-like manner. In view of the preceding massive Allied air raids and the precarious situation with regard to supplies, the already inadequate living conditions of foreign forced labourers in the Ruhr area had once more deteriorated dramatically. As a result thousands of them tried to make their way east from the war-torn areas on foot. Although orders had been given to regulate the evacuations and repatriations, the situation became increasingly chaotic. Particularly in the north of the Sauerland region, the treks piled up to such an extent that accommodation had to be made available. Alone in the Sauerlandhalle in Warstein 800 to 1,000 foreign forced labourers were arriving every day in March 1945. Inadequate security and poor supplies led to various sized groups of forced labourers splitting off from the marching columns in order to organise their own survival and advancement independently. Hence they fought their way through the surrounding forests in an “uncontrolled” fashion away from the planned return routes.
Although there had been no serious incidents of robbery or acts of violence in the Warstein area, the clearly chaotic circumstances caused SS-Obergruppenführer and General of the Waffen-SS Hans Kammler – he was the commander of the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS “Division zur Vergeltung” (Division for Retribution) – to issue an order to kill them. According to later testimonies, he believed that the large number of returning forced labourers posed a threat, not only to the military defence but also to the supply chain and the security of the German civilian population. Hence, on March 20th 1945, “under the utmost secrecy”, Kammler gave the order to “drastically decimate the number of foreign workers”, and to do so “regardless of their gender”. Within the next three days, until 23rd March 1945, a total of 208 Russian and Polish forced labourers – men, women and children – were to die as a result of this arbitrary procedure.
The SS and Wehrmacht officers in the Division Staff independently took over the responsibility for implementing the execution order. Under the pretext of requiring manpower, the firing squad, under the command of the SS-Oberfeldrichter Wolfgang Wetzling, took 71 people – 14 men, 56 women and a tiny child – in batches from the Warstein Schützenhalle to the Langenbach valley, where they were shot and buried on the spot. On the following morning 80 persons were picked up under the command of Wehrmacht Lieutenant Helmut Gaedt, and taken in groups of 15-20 to an execution site near Eversberg, where they were shot. A third outrage occurred at Suttrop, where 35 men and 21 women who had been accommodated in the local school, ( i.e. in the immediate vicinity of the division staff), were taken to a forest marking entitled “Im Stein” and shot in the neck . The Germans shrank back from to shooting an infant who was still alive in the excavated pit, whereupon SS-Rottenführer Anton Boos probably crushed the child's skull against a tree. The exact time of the shooting as well as the name of the commander of the third firing squad are still unclear. It is also still unclear whether, on the night of 22/23rd March, a detail from the division was also responsible for setting fire to the Sauerlandhalle, containing about 1,000 people, as a clear signal of annihilation. The Eastern European forced labourers who were trapped in the burning hall were fortunately freed by French prisoners of war.