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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A German Who Fought for Stalin

For MTStefan Doernberg attending a recent World War II conference in Moscow.
Editor's note: This is the first in a series of profiles of World War II veterans ahead of the 60th anniversary of Victory Day on May 9.

Stefan Doernberg hesitates to call himself a witness to what he considers the watershed moment of the 20th century.

On May 8, 1945, Doernberg, a 20-year-old propaganda officer in the Red Army unit of General Vasily Chuikov, was ordered to retrieve sound recording equipment from the Radio House in Berlin and deliver it to a villa in the Karlshorst district on the city outskirts. "We didn't know what they needed it for," Doernberg said. "But after we picked it up, we drove through Berlin, and near Karlsplatz we saw a large arch with the American, British, Soviet and French flags on top. ... When we arrived at Karlshorst, they told us that the unconditional surrender of the Wehrmacht would be signed."

The recording equipment, as it turned out, was to be used to take down minutes of the capitulation at the Karlshorst villa, which is now a museum. "I saw how the Americans arrived, how the Germans arrived, but of course they didn't let us in there," said Doernberg, now 80. "Whether they used our equipment or not, I don't even know. ... So I was a witness, but from the periphery."

However peripheral Doernberg's involvement, the German surrender was something deeply personal for him. Doernberg, born in Berlin to Jewish parents, was one of the few German immigrants to serve in the Red Army and, with his family, miraculously survive both the war and Stalin's repressions.

Doernberg's father, an engineer with the German company AEG, was arrested in spring 1933 when the Nazis came to power and was beaten so badly that he spent several weeks in the hospital. A communist sympathizer, the elder Doernberg -- also named Stefan -- fled Berlin with his family to Paris later that year. With the assistance of the communist aid organization Red Help, the family received asylum in the Soviet Union in 1935.

Doernberg was 11 when his family arrived in Moscow and was enrolled in a German school, where he learned to speak fluent Russian in two years. He graduated from school in 1941, and when the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union that year, Doernberg tried to enlist in the Red Army. "It was a spontaneous decision," Doernberg said in a recent interview in the lobby of the Belgrad Hotel, where he was staying as part of a German delegation participating in a conference on the repercussions of the war on Russian-German relations.

"My friends were signing up, and I wanted to defend the country that gave me asylum," he said, speaking in flawless, accent-free Russian.

Doernberg, however, had not yet turned 17, and he was told he was too young to join, so he signed up with a Komsomol brigade that went to the Smolensk region to help set up anti-tank fortifications and artillery positions.

Doernberg finally enlisted in 1943 in the 62nd Army led by Chuikov, which defended Stalingrad and later became the 8th Guards Army on the Belarussian front. "That was in 1944, and when we took the Belarussian front it was clear to us that, probably thanks to the Battle of Stalingrad, this Army was set to go all the way to Berlin," Doernberg said.

He served in the special propaganda unit of Chuikov's army, translating and editing German-language documents and drafting flyers, as well as making announcements over a loudspeaker that could be heard up to 3 kilometers away and was aimed at convincing Wehrmacht soldiers to surrender. "In the British and American forces, this work was called, probably more accurately, psychological warfare," he said.

Reactions to the announcements varied. "Sometimes they would listen quite attentively, and sometimes just the opposite," Doernberg said. "Often there were thunderous reactions. Of course, they would try to shoot at our car with the loudspeaker. ... One time our driver and mechanic were killed, and we had to deliver the car ourselves."

Doernberg was a rarity in the Red Army, one of a few hundred German immigrants and ethnic Germans allowed to serve on the front because of Soviet fears of treason. On Sept. 8, 1941, Stalin ordered more than 33,000 ethnic Germans to be pulled out of military institutions and relocated to labor units far from the front.

Doernberg's father did not escape suspicion as a German immigrant before Germany broke the nonaggression pact during Stalin's purges. He was sent to work in the Urals in 1938 and was arrested by local NKVD officers and jailed in Sverdlovsk. "They figured that if he was German, he must be a spy," Doernberg said. "But in 1939 they let him go during a short period under [NKVD chief Lavrenty] Beria in which they stressed that only the guilty would be convicted and freed 100,000 people."

Doernberg said his father's return to Moscow and subsequent rehabilitation helped convince him that he was living under a just government. "To be completely honest, it probably made me believe that, yes, innocent people were arrested, but after that they figured things out and the innocent were released," he said.

Doernberg said he faced few if any problems in his unit due to his history. "They actually made a lot of efforts to keep me alive," he said. "I could sense that. They would try not to send me anywhere especially dangerous.

"They liked talking about German culture and life with me. I obviously wasn't very up to date on what was happening there, but I was the closest connection they had."

Doernberg said his unit arrived in Berlin by foot on April 24, 1945, and began making loudspeaker announcements. "We gave them the latest information on the war and told them that when it ended they would have to build a democratic society."

Germany surrendered two weeks later in a decision that Doernberg said "rescued human civilization." With the help of higher-ups, Doernberg was allowed to remain in Germany after the war. His parents joined him in December 1945.

A committed communist, Doernberg eventually settled in East Germany, becoming the director of the state's Institute of Contemporary History and serving as the country's ambassador to Finland from 1983 to 1987.

One of the few surviving witnesses of the final battle in Berlin, Doernberg said celebrations in Berlin were significantly different from those in Moscow on May 9, 1945. "Everyone was happy, of course, but everyone knew the price that was paid," he said. "Many had lost friends in the final days. It was joy with tears in your eyes."