1842: Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly, Great Game diplomats 1784: Jean Saint Malo, New Orleans Maroon

1953: 32 merciful Soviet soldiers

June 18th, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

In June 1953, some discontented young citizens of Magdeburg, East Germany revolted and began demonstrating against the repressive Communist regime. On June 17, in the spirit of totalitarian governments everywhere, the authorities ordered a platoon of soldiers to open fire on a crowd of protesters.

Incredibly, the soldiers refused.

Every one of them vanished shortly thereafter, never to be seen again.

It was long assumed that the entire platoon had been executed for insubordination. This wasn’t confirmed until 1998, however. Four years previously, Magdeburg construction workers digging the foundation for a new building accidentally unearthed a mass grave containing 32 bullet-riddled skeletons. From the condition of the remains, authorities determined the victims — all of them young men — had died sometime between 1945 and 1960.

They could have been the missing Soviet platoon, but they could also have been prisoners executed by the Gestapo mopping up in May 1945, just before the Germans fled the city in advance of the Red Army.

As Jessica Snyder Sachs noted in her 2001 book Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death, the victims all had extensive tooth decay and no sign of dental work, which was consistent with Russia but not central Europe. This was hardly conclusive, however.

To solve the mystery, investigators turned to Reinhard Szibor, a biologist at the nearby Otto von Guericke University.

Szibor had helped in criminal cases before and was famous for using pollen to link suspects to crime scenes. Pollen clings to people’s hair, skin and clothes and is, of course, also inhaled. The stuff is nearly indestructible and will remain long after human remains have disintegrated. Authorities hoped Szibor could use pollen samples from the mass grave to determine what time of year the victims died.

Discover Magazine explains how he did it: Szibor rinsed out the skulls’ nasal cavities, had a look, and found pollen from lime trees, plantains and rye, all of which release their pollen during June and July. In other words, the Magdeburg victims had died during the summer months, the time when the Soviet platoon was reportedly executed, and not in the springtime when the Nazis retreated from the city.

Though we still don’t know the precise date of their deaths, and likely never will, the soldiers who paid for their humanity with their lives had finally been identified.

Die Lösung (The Solution)

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

-Bertold Brecht

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,USSR

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7 thoughts on “1953: 32 merciful Soviet soldiers”

  1. Headsman says:

    Thanks, Roger. I had to update the site’s configuration file … unfortunately not a retroactive fix, but Cyrillic and other non-Latin character sets should work in the future.

    Update: Orrrr maybe not. On the plus side my tinkering does appear to have hosed special character sets on dozens of posts throughout the site. Fun!

  2. Roger McCarthy says:

    OK I used the Cyrillic for Veshnaya Pamyat – Eternal Memory – but comments here doesn’t seem to like that…

  3. Roger McCarthy says:

    ?????? ??????

  4. Fiz says:

    I really don’t understand other people’s attitudes sometimes, Meagan!

  5. Meaghan says:

    Indeed it is, Fiz. I feel an obligation to remember such people, and let others know about them. It’s the least we can do. People ask me why I read and study such depressing things. This is why: I’m looking for heroes.

  6. Fiz says:

    That is tragic, Meagan.

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