In the final, desperate days of the Second World War, the Soviet Red Army stopped to draw breath on the banks of the River Oder. Other than the river itself, only one thing stood between the commander of the 1st Belorussian Front, Marshal Zhukov, and the massed ranks of Russian troops, and their ultimate prize: Berlin. Here, dug into the Seelow Heights rising behind the Oder, the last effective German fighting force, the 9th Army, waited for the onslaught.
The road to Berlin and final victory was up and over the Seelow Heights, and a battle-hardened Russian army, fresh from victories that stretched all the way from Stalingrad to 90km from the Reichstag, was in no mood to hang around. It took three devastating days of fighting, but the end result was never in doubt. Only a few days later, the war would be over. Many terrible things happened between 16 – 19 April 1945, the fate of Frankfurt an der Oder was one of them.
When the fighting to capture the Seelow Heights ended on 20 April, Germany’s other Frankfurt had almost ceased to exist. A million artillery shells had rained down on the German defensive positions, and the formerly beautiful town that was once a major Medieval trading post and member of the Hanseatic League wasn’t spared. The lofty spires of its ancient churches vanished from the landscape, its centuries-old houses were little more than rubble.
Depending upon your perspective, worse was to come. Like Prague or Budapest, the River Oder divided Frankfurt in two. After 1945 everything east of the river ceased to be German as it had been for several centuries. The new town of Sublice, along with a huge area that was formerly Germany, including most of East Prussia, was absorbed into Poland. The other half of Frankfurt kept its name but became part of communist East Germany.
This history weighs heavily on the modern town, whether in Germany or Poland – only a short walk over the Oder on the modern road bridge. The town was badly neglected after the war, the communist authorities could spare little money for reconstruction and while some efforts have been made since German reunification, this is not a typical tourist destination. Which begs the question of why I spent an hour on the train to visit the town?
Someone I work with had told me that the historic centre was still worth visiting, and an article I read about Frankfurt painted an overly optimistic picture of the town’s appeal. To be fair, it does have a couple of good museums and galleries that would be worth making the journey for, but they were closed due to coronavirus. A strange decision, since the town’s restaurants and cafes were open and doing a brisk trade.
I’m a student of history and have an enduring fascination with the Battle for Germany that brought the Second World War to an end (anyone who has read Antony Beevor’s horrific history, Berlin: The Downfall, 1945, will know what I mean). So, I was keen to stand on the banks of the Oder, at the scene of one of the final major battles of the war. If you knew nothing of these events, amidst the peace and quiet of Frankfurt today, you’d struggle to guess at the horrors this area saw.
I walked downhill from the train station, which sits on the escarpment overlooking the river below and into Poland, a mere 20km from the village of Seelow. This was the high ground the Russian’s took at such high cost in life in April 1945. I arrived in a quiet park where a Soviet memorial paid silent homage to the Red Amy’s dead and headed to the river.