The German World War II Captive Whose Death Was Preceded By A Cruel Ultimatum

The battle between the Soviets and the Nazis in World War II was arguably the most brutal showdown of the war. The way the Russians were treated during the German invasion of their country became a source of bitter hatred — Adolf Hitler wished to wipe the "Slavic races" off the face of the earth (via the National WWII Museum), and he ordered his troops to completely obliterate the city of Leningrad (St. Petersburg), not satisfied with a simple surrender, according to History.

When the tide of the war turned, unsurprisingly the Soviets did not play nice. Ignoring the gentlemanly rules of war, they often carried out brutal reprisals against their foes, including the rape of 100,000 women on their march through Berlin, per the Chicago Tribune.

In his research into the advance of the Soviet army toward Berlin, historian Antony Beevor uncovered a wealth of dark stories, from documents and interviews with eyewitnesses (via the Hoover Institution) — including one tale of a musical ultimatum forced on an SS soldier.

Psychological torture

In scenes that are reminiscent of a warped version of "The Pianist" — in which a Polish Jew is spared by a German soldier after playing some Chopin on the piano — a group of Soviet soldiers communicated through gestures to a young SS soldier that he should play the piano for them, according to "Berlin: The Downfall 1945" by Antony Beever. However, unlike in the famous Polanski movie, they also signaled that the moment he stopped playing — he would die.

Some of us in such a situation may well have chosen to take the bullet and get it over with — but either hope or terror motivated the soldier to start playing. The exhausted man wound up performing for the Soviets for an incredible 16 hours before he finally collapsed onto the piano, reduced to tears, according to Beever's book.

After receiving a congratulatory pat on the back, the soldier was shot, as promised. The entire scene was witnessed by a British RAF pilot who was accompanying the Soviet troops, and who passed the story into the historical record.

Nazi propaganda

War crimes like that committed against the German pianist were written off as a discipline problem by the Soviet Union at the time, per the Hoover Institution. Even today, old atrocities are a touchy subject in Russia — some media outlets still refer to the rape of Berlin as a myth (via the BBC), and a report from 2017 by the Moscow Times stated that recent changes to Russian history textbooks whitewash Stalin and refer to the Soviet invasion of Poland as a "liberation." Many Russians also no doubt feel that Nazi actions in Russia serve as some justification for cruelty — estimates put the USSR's death toll for WWII at something in the region of 24 million people (via the National WWII Museum).

The story of the young SS officer and countless other unfortunates is told in full in "Berlin: The Downfall 1945," by Antony Beevor. Beevor's other bestselling book, "Stalingrad" has been banned in Ukraine (via The Telegraph) as well as parts of Russia (via The Guardian) for spreading "Nazi" propaganda.