Handed Over to the Russians
At war’s end, Hartmann was based in Bohemia. Here began his personal tragedy. His commanding general ordered him and Hermann Graf, as famous holders of the Diamonds and much desired by the Russians, to leave their unit, fly west, and surrender to the British. Hartmann and Graf decided to ignore this order because there were thousands of German civilians fleeing the Russians attached to their unit; some of these civilians were relatives of the airmen. They felt responsible for these unfortunate refugees.
On May 8, 1945, Hartmann’s unit destroyed their remaining planes and moved west. They surrendered to American forces at Pisek, fifty miles south of Prague. The Americans plundered them thoroughly (Erich’s detailed logbooks were lost here and never recovered) and penned them up in a barbed-wire enclosure. Eventually 50,000 Germans, civilians included, were collected there. For eight days the Americans provided them with no food, other than a few handouts from individual GIs; they also lacked any sanitary facilities.
Take a moment to imagine that.
The Americans eventually told them they would take them into Germany to be processed. U.S. forces trucked a large group of Germans, including Hartmann and his men, away. To the east. They soon stopped in a meadow surrounded by Russian troops, and the Americans ordered the Germans to get down. The Americans had secretly agreed to turn over to the Soviets any personnel they had captured east of a certain line that had been allocated to Russian occupation.
The Russians were obviously drunk. They immediately separated the German women from the men, in full sight of the Americans. They held the German men at gunpoint, and began savagely beating the women, dragging them away, and stripping off their clothes. The Americans were horrified and protested strenuously; gunplay seemed likely between the “allies.” Some of the Americans drew their weapons; many more Russians drew theirs. There was a standoff until an American captain radioed HQ, received an order to leave the Germans to their fate, and that was that. The Russians had free rein for their barbarism. They dragged the women away and mercilessly gang-raped them, from the elderly down to girls of six or seven, then strangled, shot, or beat many of them to death. Thirty or forty Russians assaulted each victim. The German men were in a state of indescribable agony. Some of them tried to intervene—Hermann Graf even attacked and walloped a Russian—but they were beaten back or shot. They could not save their women; they could only watch in horror. Hartmann was sickened to see that the Russians even continued to rape the deceased. The Russians “passed around bottles of vodka and sang songs, as if they were having a party,” he said years later. He added, “I had never hated before, but I did then.” (Heaton and Lewis 75-6) He was mightily relieved that his wife was back home in Stuttgart. Next morning Hartmann woke to a fresh horror: many Germans had committed suicide rather than go on.
That was Hartmann’s introduction to Russian captivity. It was a scene that was duplicated everywhere in Germany where Russian boots trod.
Life in the Gulag
After a few weeks in that encampment, with rapes less frequent but still ongoing, the Russians moved the Germans by stages deep into Russia, all the while telling them they would soon be released. Hartmann was fated to cycle through various Soviet camps for over ten years.
Eventually their transport train halted in the middle of a vast marsh. It was a peat bog in western Siberia. There were no buildings in sight, but there were 1,000 German infantrymen already there, living in crude dugouts covered in branches and digging peat all day. After a couple weeks, his strength ebbing, Erich began to despair. Luckily, after a few weeks, the Russians moved the German officers out of that camp. This probably saved Erich’s life. He later learned that only 200 of the 1,500 Germans survived the first winter there.
The Russians collected German officers at a special camp. Here they began to pressure them, trying to “turn” them to work for the Soviet regime. Hartmann found to his dismay that the Germans had already split into factions, some of them pro-Communist. There were German informers and stool pigeons, and it took the very young Hartmann a few months to fully understand the situation. His friend Hermann Graf turned pro-Soviet, dealing Hartmann a crushing blow. Hartmann steeled himself for the struggle he knew was coming.
The German POWs soon looked to Hartmann for leadership. In the camps, rank no longer mattered so much. Erich was a natural leader, a magnet for men who desperately needed hope. Many German survivors from this period agreed that Hartmann was one of the toughest men in the entire camp system.
The Russians used every weapon to break the Germans. First they evinced concern and kindness; then, grueling interrogations and threats. They intercepted mail from home and used it against the prisoners. They told them that Germany was no more, that the Allies had written them off, that the NKVD had unlimited time to work on them. At all times the Germans suffered the debilitating weakness engendered by severe lack of food. This draining psychological warfare never slackened. Hartmann endured ten years of this brutal mental and physical struggle. Many men succumbed under the pressure, even soldiers hardened by years of warfare. Hartmann said later that only three types of men could resist the Soviet campaign to break them: those who had strong religious faith, those comforted by the knowledge that they had family and wives waiting for them, or Waffen-SS troops. Hartmann had religious faith, and he also knew his Ursula would remain faithful. News of a divorce from home destroyed many of these poor men. Another reason Hartmann succeeded in resisting was that, because he was a prestigious holder of the Diamonds, he had too much pride to submit (Heaton and Lewis 92).This is the lofty genus of pride, the type that can forge nations and cultures. The type that Faustian men have.
The Russians wanted him to inform on his fellow Germans; he refused. They demanded he sign papers written in Russian, assuring him they were “routine.” He refused. They threatened to kidnap and kill his wife and child; Hartmann figured they could probably do this, but he refused again. He was finally thrown into the “bunker,” a tiny grim hole that served as solitary confinement.
The Russians eventually realized he was the famous “Black Devil” of the Southern Front. He insisted he was not the leading German pilot, that the Germans counted one British plane as equal to three Russians, and therefore Hans-Joachim Marseilles was the leading German ace. The interrogator must have ruptured an artery. When the Russians found out that Hartmann had flown the jet fighter Me-262, they pressed him nonstop about the technical details of the plane. He calmly explained he was a pilot, not an engineer. When he repeated this for the umpteenth time, condescending to his interrogator, the latter exploded in a fury and struck Hartmann across the face with his cane. This was a breach of discipline; the Russians were forbidden to beat the prisoners. Hartmann boiled over in rage, sprang up and smashed a chair down on the Russian, knocking him out. Imagine his feelings at that point. He was certain he would be shot. He was not; the always-unpredictable Russians threw him into the bunker for two days, and then brought him out to hear the same interrogator apologize to him, and offer him food and drink. Hartmann marveled anew at their inscrutable mentality. Years later he saw his file; interrogators were cautioned to be careful with him, for he was “a hitter” (Toliver and Constable 211–15).
The Soviets allowed Hartmann to write home for the first time at Christmas, 1945. This was the first news Ursula had of him since the end of the war. Thereafter, the Russians allowed Erich to write home every month: twenty-five words! In 1947 they reduced that to five words a month. What mindless brutality! Hartmann did manage to smuggle out a few letters sewn into the clothing of released German prisoners. Ursula sent her husband at least 350 letters in his ten years in the gulag, but the Russians permitted less than forty to reach Erich. Ursula gave birth to a son in May, 1945; Erich didn’t learn of this for a full year. The boy, Peter, died before his third birthday, probably from the general postwar privation in Germany (Toliver and Constable 217-18).
Finally the Russians prepared to charge Hartmann and other Germans with war crimes. They thoughtfully composed statements of the crimes, and confessions. They demanded Hartmann sign, and reminded him that Germany had invaded Russia, not the other way around. Hartmann told the Russian he was correct, “but I was still not signing his damn paper.” Off to the bunker. This pressure lasted for nine months, but he remained steadfast. Finally, they simply took him out and put him back with the ordinary prisoners (Heaton and Lewis 88-90).
After months of further brutish pressure, which Hartmann countered with a hunger strike, the Russians simply announced that the remaining Germans (many had been repatriated by this time) were war criminals. In December 1949 they held “trials.” Hartmann was accused of killing 780 Russian civilians near Briansk. Hartmann protested he had never been near that city, and his plane didn’t even carry that much ammunition. The judge cleared the court and, roaring with laughter, said, “Don’t you know this whole thing is political, Hartmann?” (Toliver and Constable 233–37). As for the objection about the ammunition, the judge simply declared that every bullet must have hit three or four people. The judge declared him guilty, and sentenced him to twenty-five years’ hard labor. The German papers carried the story, and Erich’s family read the demoralizing news. His mother wrote a piteous letter to Stalin begging for mercy but got no reply.
The German “criminals” were transferred to Shakhty Concentration Camp, northeast of Rostov where they were slated to work in the mines. This was virtually a death-sentence; prisoners told the Germans that no one ever left the camp alive. Hartmann refused to work. Under Geneva rules, officer POWs cannot be forced to perform labor. The first morning they all lined up and marched out to the mines, but Hartmann stood stock-still and recited his rights. He was thrown into solitary, and began another hunger strike in protest. The Germans working in the mines returned each day in an angry mood. When they saw the guards forcibly feeding Hartmann, a humiliating spectacle, their rage erupted—he was to them a figure of great respect—and they overpowered the guards and seized control of the camp. Hartmann dissuaded the men from leaving the camp, telling them the Russians would hunt them down and kill them. He also forced the commandant to call his superiors and demand an international investigation of the camp. Nothing came of it, however, and the Russians swiftly retook control. Hartmann and other officers were transferred to yet another camp.
Return Home and Later Life
Hartmann had to endure this hell until 1955, when the Russians finally permitted the last group of German POWs to return home. Hartmann was very weak, weighing just a little over 100 pounds. Even normal walking tired him quickly. He had spent thirty-one percent of his life in the gulag, but he was still only thirty-three.
The experience in the camps psychologically or physically shattered many of the German survivors. Hartmann had returned to Germany with some Stalingrad veterans; he described them as “zombies, broken men” (Heaton and Lewis 109). Hartmann himself could draw upon boundless reserves of strength and was able to recover fully; he was one of the lucky ones.
Hartmann was victorious over the Communists twice: first he decimated Russian forces during the war, then he triumphed over their efforts to break him in their most hellish creation, the camp system, when his body and soul were under their total control. Nothing could break this man of adamantine willpower.
His began his life anew. He marveled at the modern Germany and read everything he could about this new world. He and his wife resumed their lives together, and conceived a child. A daughter, Ursula, was born in early 1957.
After three weeks at home, well before his recovery was complete, Walter Krupinski called him and began pestering him to join the new German Air Force; other aces of JG-52 joined in the effort to recruit him. Eventually Erich consented and went through training in the modern jets in Germany and America, Germany being part of NATO, of course. Erich forged many friendships with the airmen of the Allied countries, and shared his experience fighting the Russians and surviving the gulag. One of these airmen, Colonel Raymond Toliver, published a book about Hartmann in 1970, The Blond Knight of Germany, bringing Hartmann’s story to the Anglo-American world.
Hartmann retired in 1970, and spent his remaining days flying for fun, just like he had always wanted. He died in 1993 at the age of seventy-one, and assumed his well-earned place in the pantheon of Western heroes. His life will serve as an inspiration for as long as the West survives. His story deserves an Iliad and an Odyssey, a movie, a cult. Unfortunately, the forces controlling modern culture prefer the Communists to a hero like Erich. One day we will recover our culture, and Erich Hartmann will enjoy his due honor.
Hartmann, Ursula, and Manfred Jäger, German Fighter Ace Erich Hartmann: The Life Story of
the World’s Highest Scoring Ace. (West Chester, PA: Schiffer, 1992).
Heaton, Colin, and Anne-Marie Lewis, The German Aces Speak II: World War II Through the
Eyes of Four More of the Luftwaffe’s Most Important Commanders. (Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2014).
Toliver, Raymond, and Trevor Constable, The Blond Knight of Germany (Garden City, New
York: Doubleday & Co., 1970).