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World War II -- 60 Years After: Everyday Germans Recount Horrors Of War's Last Days

As the world commemorates the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, German media revisited the war with a flood of personal testimonies of everyday civilians who survived the last days of the war. Some tell of Nazi execution squads who hanged or shot those who lay down their weapons as the Allied forces approached. Women have broken their silence to tell of the rapes that became commonplace as German cities fell.

Munich, 10 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Radio broadcasts like the following, reading out Soviet leader Josef Stalin's announcement than the war had ended, were cause for celebration for the victors.

"On 8 May 1945, in Berlin, representatives of the German High Command signed an act of unconditional capitulation of the German armed forces. The Great Patriotic War that the Soviet Union waged against the German fascist aggressors has ended with our victory. Germany has been defeated completely."

But many German citizens are now telling the stories of the suffering they endured at the hands of both German soldiers seeking to prevent defections as the war came to an end, and Allied forces intent on taking revenge.

On the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, German media featured numerous personal testimonies of those who lived to see the collapse of Nazi Germany in 1945.

Some of the most harrowing come from elderly men and women who saw their family members and friends executed as deserters. Many were killed only a few hours before American, British, or Soviet troops arrived.

Other reports have told the stories of German women who were raped by advancing Allied troops as the war came to an end --- including French troops in Freudenstadt and Soviet forces in Berlin.

German officials estimate that about 100,000 women were raped in Berlin.

German researcher Magdalena Krauss says it is important to hear the personal accounts of the civilians who witnessed the horror of the war.

"History always focuses on the big things that happen in a war -- the big battles and the big bombing attacks. All that goes into the history books," Krauss says. "The things that happened to ordinary people are soon forgotten. In a few years, that generation of Germans will die out. Then there will be no one to remember what it was like for ordinary people at the end of the war."

The village of Penzberg, near Munich, is one of hundreds across Germany that experienced the fury of Nazis who kept fighting as the war came to an end.
"The things that happened to ordinary people are soon forgotten. In a few years, that generation of Germans will die out. Then there will be no one to remember what it was like for ordinary people at the end of the war."

On 27 April 1945, the village heard that U.S. troops were only about 20 kilometers from Munich and would soon take the city -- which they did on 30 April. In Penzberg a group led by the town's prewar mayor decided to try to save the village. They prevented the destruction of local industry being carried out by German forces and forced the Nazi mayor out of office. White sheets and towels were hung from every balcony to show the advancing American troops that there would be no resistance.

But someone informed the Nazi authorities in Munich, less than an hour away. Peter Brunner, now 75, was 15 years old at the time. This week he described how a so-called "Werwolf" unit was rushed to Penzberg. The civilian mayor and six others were arrested and shot that evening. Another nine were hanged from the town hall balcony or from trees. Two women were among those killed.

Tells well up in Maria Wallertshauser's eyes as she recounts the death of one of the men, her father. "I counted 26 shots in my father's breast. All he wanted to do was to stop the destruction of our town when we knew the war would end in a few days."

Even in Dachau, the site of the infamous concentration camp, local townspeople attempted a last-minute uprising against the Nazis. The day before U.S. troops took the town, a small group of men led occupied the town hall and arrested the Nazi mayor. But someone alerted the SS unit stationed at the concentration camp just a few hundred meters down the road. The poorly armed local men were no match for the three companies of the SS that were sent to intervene.

In Munich, a military communications group seized local radio stations on 27 April and negotiated with Nazi officials for a peaceful surrender. But SS units defeated the group and shot or hanged many of those who were captured.

Many witnesses have described the execution squads that roamed the streets of Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg, and other towns and cities looking for soldiers who had deserted their regiments and were trying to escape capture by oncoming Soviet troops.

German researcher Krauss says most of the execution squads were made up of soldiers, but others were sent out by the Gestapo.

"These were fanatics ready kill anyone who wanted to surrender -- it did not matter if they were civilians or soldiers," Krauss says. "These people were Nazis who still believed in Adolf Hitler. They were not interested in excuses. As far as they were concerned, anyone wanting to surrender was a traitor and deserved no mercy."

According to postwar German estimates, more than 35,000 soldiers were convicted by military courts of leaving their units during the course of the war. Some 23,000 were sentenced to death, and at least 15,000 of these were actually executed.

But there are no figures, or even estimates, of how many German civilians were killed in the waning days of the war.