How to demolish villages and treat people as mere vermin

 

Three waves of brutality and land confiscation changed the East German landscape forever, writes DEREK SCALLY

THE VILLAGE of Billmuthausen is still listed as having the postcode 98663, though there has been no one here to receive a letter for over 30 years.

The last family left in 1978, bowing to pressure from the East German government, which had forcibly resettled their neighbours in the previous decade.

With little fanfare, the bulldozers moved in on December 4th to flatten the Thuringian village first mentioned in records in 1340, wiping out all traces of human inhabitation.

Visitors to the weed-filled field where the main street used to be, encounter a sign that reads: “Wanderer, stop a while and think about the recent German past.”

Billmuthausen was by no means a one-off: at least 27 towns and villages up and down the inner-German border suffered a similar fate.

In the three decades after the second World War, three waves of land confiscation and forcible resettlement changed forever the landscape here – and altered the fate of thousands of families.

The first wave in Billmuthausen came in August 1945 when the occupying Soviet forces stripped large landowners of their property.

The Ludloff family, villagers since 1834, were evicted from their 100-hectare horse farm without compensation.

Mr Hermann was deported to Buchenwald concentration camp and shot, and his family shipped off to a camp on the island of Rügen on Germany’s northern coast.

The East German authorities were behind the second resettlement wave on May 26th, 1952, part of measures to secure the first border to the west.

For villages that fell within the 5km exclusion border zone, life became a tiresome, bureaucratic business of forms and explanations.

But Billmuthausen lay directly behind the border, within the 500m security zone, making life impossible for the 70 villagers.

Seven families, a total of 34 people, fled or were forcibly removed in 1952 as part of a countrywide resettlement programme authorities dubbed “Operation Vermin”.

Landowners were given a pittance in compensation: 16 pfennigs or less per square metre confiscated, based arbitrarily on 1914 land prices minus a 30 per cent discount.

A third wave came with “Operation Cornflower” in 1961.

In total, over 50,000 East Germans deemed “politically unreliable” were forced to leave their homes.

In every case, it was the same early-morning procedure: a lorry, a knock on the door and two hours to pack.

Most families were forced to sign documents saying they left of their own free will – the few citizens who dared complain received sneering replies from the authorities.

The measures were “necessary to provide protection from West German aggression”, one Billmuthausen villager was told in 1952. Another was informed the measure was being carried out after “demands from security-minded fellow citizens who understand the situation”.

“It’s an unprecedented story of control, denunciation, betrayal and helplessness,” says Karin Toben, author of Longing for Home, a book on the subject. “And even at the end of the violent resettlement, the violence wasn’t over.” After the trauma of losing everything, a fresh horror began for families in their new “homes”, often little more than a shack or a pig sty.

Wherever the resettled families went, they found the secret police had preceded them to warn locals that the new arrivals were anti-social, prostitutes or even criminals.

Billmuthausen’s buildings were flattened one by one, starting in 1945 with the biggest farm house in the village.

Some 20 years later, the late Gothic village church was levelled in the dead of night, while the final house and farmyard vanished in 1978. The rest of what made up the village was razed before the year was out.

On one point, the villagers stood firm: they refused to give permission for family graves to be exhumed. The graveyard stayed put but, in retaliation, the East German authorities denied relatives permission to visit its graves.

After seeing his family farm confiscated and his father shipped to Buchenwald, a teenaged Dieter Ludloff escaped during his family’s 1945 deportation to Rügen in the north.

He settled in Bavaria and only returned to Billmuthausen again in 1990.

“It was the saddest moment of my life because, while I knew there would be nothing there, it was something else to stand there and see . . . nothing,” says the 84-year-old Ludloff, who lives in nearby Bad Colberg.

Scattered across the country, only a few villagers have returned to the fields they once called home to erect small, poignant memorials. An example: “Family Pfeifer – house and home were taken from us. Built: 1780. Destroyed: 1978.”

Surviving families received financial compensation after 1989 for lost land, but there is no way to calculate moral compensation for being driven from homes, not by natural disaster or hunger, but by a government who dubbed its own citizens “vermin”.