Ulrike Goeken-Haidl. Der Weg zurück: Die Repatriierung sowjetischer Zwangsarbeiter während und nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg. Essen: Klartext Verlag, 2006. 574 pp. EUR 39.90 (paper), ISBN 978-3-89861-615-7.
Reviewed by Leonid Rein (International Institute for Holocaust Research Yad Vashem)
Published on H-German (July, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
The Origins of the Cold War
The front cover of Ulrike Goeken-Haidl’s book is somewhat misleading. It shows happy Soviet citizens returning home after the years of experiencing forced labor, POW, and concentration camps at the hands of the National Socialists. But the story told in this book is anything but happy. It begins with the story of Lieutenant Jakob Dzhugashvili, the son of Josef Stalin from his first marriage, who was captured by Germans in July 1941 and committed suicide in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, knowing that at home in the Soviet Union, he and his comrades in misfortune, Soviet soldiers and officers taken prisoner by the Germans, were classified as “traitors of the Motherland.” This striking example opens a very interesting, quite readable study that makes an important contribution to research on the processes that followed World War II, the origins of Cold War, and especially the problem of repatriation, which is still insufficiently studied.
Using Soviet and American records, Goeken-Haidl shows in eight chapters of her voluminous study the origins of the problem of displaced persons and the entire process of the repatriation of the 2.3 million Soviet citizens who, for various reasons, found themselves outside the borders of the Soviet Union at war’s end. This problem dwarfed that of the 360,000 citizens of western Allied countries in similar situations, including some 50,000 British and American soldiers and officers captured by Wehrmacht and Japan strike forces. This huge displacement and its resolution stretched from the years when hostilities in Europe and the Far East were still in progress, through several decades beyond the end of World War II. The author places the repatriation problem in the broader context of the beginning of the Cold War. Paradoxically, the hardline position of the Soviet Union and its insistence upon repatriation of all its citizens outside its borders for any reason actually hindered the growth of the minority problem in Europe, which had been one of the main causes of the outbreak of the war.
In her study, Goeken-Haidl analyzes the reasons behind the decisions of all sides in the repatriation question. The United States adopted a mixed stance in response to the harsh Soviet position, which insisted on the return of all of its citizens, no matter the reason for their capture–including people with explicit or implicit reasons to avoid repatriation, such as Wehrmacht soldiers who had deserted the Red Army to fight against the Soviet regime or former residents of areas such as the Baltic states, which had been annexed in 1939-40 as a consequence of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. (The Soviet Union also insisted that Soviet repatriation personnel be accredited to work in U.S. or British DP camps.) Although the U.S. military had pursued what the author calls an “appeasement” strategy during the war, making every effort to meet Soviet demands and respond to complaints, no matter how absurd, in order not alienate their Soviet allies, the State Department had advocated a more rigid response to Soviet demands and pretensions right from the start. As Goeken-Haidl shows, the United States and Britain were quite vulnerable, as the Soviets held a number of British and American soldiers who had been held prisoner in German POW camps that were situated in the Soviet theater of war or its later zone of occupation. The USSR did not shrink from using these soldiers as hostages to forward its demands. Thus, although forced repatriation of Soviet or former Soviet citizens and side effects of this process–such as attempted or completed suicides by the affected parties–aroused public protest in both Britain and United States, the practice continued unabated until all of the British and U.S. soldiers in Soviet hands were released. Only afterwards was it revised.
Goeken-Haidl also analyzes the motives that defined the Soviet position on repatriation. According to her, from the very beginning, the Soviets viewed the policies adopted by the western Allies with great suspicion. The decision not to repatriate people from West Byelorussia, Western Ukraine, and the Baltic states, as neither the United States nor Great Britain had ever acknowledged annexation of these territories by the USSR, only enhanced these suspicions. The fact that many Soviet citizens did not rush back to the USSR after the war not only compromised the reputation of the Soviet state, it was also incomprehensible to Soviet authorities. From their point of view, if people did not wish to return to the victorious, “mighty” Soviet Union, their reluctance was attributed to the “intrigues” of the American and British imperialists. Moreover, the Soviet Union wished to conceal as thoroughly as possible the fact that quite a number of its citizens had defected to the enemy, instead of defending their “superior” system. Above all, the tradition of paranoid fear of the West and of its alleged destructive intentions toward the Soviet Union came to expression in the Soviet position.
Obsessive fear of the West was also expressed in the treatment of repatriates transferred to the Soviets. Throughout eastern Germany, the Soviet authorities established a complete system of gathering and filtration camps, at which returnees were to be checked for political reliability. Everyone who came in contact with the “capitalist world” in any way was seen with suspicion. Goeken-Haidl tells stories of humiliation, verbal and physical violence, and economic exploitation, all of which were prevalent in these camps. People who had been released from forced labor or liberated from POW or concentration camps only a short time before were now denigrated as “German lackeys” and “Nazi whores” by the personnel of the repatriation camps, most of whom had been recruited from the NKVD. In the absence of effective control from above, inmates of these camps were at the mercy of camp guards. The camps also possessed wide networks of spies, who came from the ranks of potential repatriates and had been promised advantages such as an acceleration of the repatriation process. Spies were supposed to uncover active Nazi collaborators and anyone critical of Soviet rule. Inhumane treatment of inmates led to a wave of escape attempts (many of them successful) and of suicides. On average, two repatriates escaped from each camp per week. Even for those who survived this process and returned home, reintegration into Soviet society was not easy. Many former forced laborers were dispatched immediately to various construction projects. Those who returned to their home villages and cities suffered from suspicious attitudes on the part of both local authorities and neighbors. Such attitudes lasted many years; in some cases, even to the present.
Goeken-Haidl has written a fascinating book, though the account sometimes sacrifices precision and thoroughness. For instance, she mentions only briefly the loophole created by the U.S. decision not to transfer persons from eastern Poland and the Baltic states, and mentions only one or two of the most spectacular cases of war criminals from among Nazi collaborators who exploited this decision to pose as anti-Soviet fighters and escape justice. I mentioned an example of this pattern in a recent article on the 30th Waffen-Grenadier Division of the SS, or “1st Byelorussian,” many of whose members had been auxiliary policemen before entry into the SS, and had participated actively in the genocide of Byelorussian Jewry and in the so-called anti-partisan warfare, in course of which thousands of innocents were killed. After the bulk of this division’s soldiers found themselves in DP camps in the American zone, they posed as Poles, escaped transfer to the Soviet authorities, and were able to live in the countries against which they had fought during the closing stages of the World War II.. At the same time, while depicting at length the hardline position of Soviets in questions of repatriation, Goeken-Haidl either omits or ignores the fact that during the Cold War, U.S. military intelligence did not hesitate to exploit the anti-Soviet sentiments of DPs and later, of non-repatriated immigrants, for strategic purposes, especially in view of the possibility of the transition from a “cold” war to a hot one. In such efforts, the authorities often ignored the problematic past of such people. At the same time, while criticizing the study of Nikolaj Tolstoj, whose main focus falls upon the forced repatriation of Soviet citizens, Goeken-Haidl can be seen as moving too far in the opposite direction by focusing on unwilling returnees. A stronger treatment of voluntary repatriation might have created a more balanced picture.
Finally, Goeken-Haidl’s study is not free of some technical problems, inaccuracies, and omissions. Thus, for example, the Byelorussian city of Slonim is termed a village (p. 381), though during the Nazi occupation, it was large enough to be a center of German civil area administration (Gebietskommissariat). On the same page, she also mentions the activities of the infamous Latvian Arajs Kommando as a guard unit of Salaspils concentration camp near Riga, but omits mention of the role played by the same group in the extermination of the Latvian Jews. Konrāds Kalējs, a member of this commando, was accused not only of maltreatment of Salaspils’s inmates, but explicitly of participation in the execution of the “Final Solution.” It would have been appropriate, moreover, to include at least an index of names or locations in order to facilitate navigation through such a long book, and lengthy footnotes occasionally disturb the smooth reading of the book.
. Leonid Rein, “Untermenschen in SS Uniforms: 30th Waffen-Grenadier Division of Waffen SS,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies (April 2007): 329-345.
 Thus, for example, Stanislav Stankevich, who occupied the post of mayor of Borisov during the Nazi occupation of Byelorussia and was directly involved in the murder of 7,000 Borisov Jews in October 1941, served for many years after the war in the Byelorussian service of Radio Free Europe and was never prosecuted for his wartime activities. The postwar fates of Stankevich and many other Byelorussian collaborators are tracked in John Loftus’s controversial study, The Belarus Secret (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982).
Rolf-Dieter Müller. An der Seite der Wehrmacht: Hitlers ausländische Helfer beim “Kreuzzug gegen den Bolschewismus” 1941-1945. Berlin: Christoph Links Verlag, 2007. 280 pp. ISBN 978-3-86153-448-8; EUR 24.90 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-86153-448-8.
Reviewed by Jeff Rutherford (Department of History, Wheeling Jesuit University)
Published on H-German (April, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
A Reappraisal of Germany and Europe’s “Crusade against Bolshevism”
The most savage and devastating conflict in modern European history was the 1941-45 German-Soviet War. The struggle, however, did not merely pit German soldiers against their Soviet counterparts. Over twenty European countries and national groups sent contingents of troops to assist the German Wehrmacht in its attempt to destroy the communist state. This “crusade against Bolshevism” drew in a minimum of 3,962,000 men from across Europe, organized in both large national armies from states allied to Germany as well as in volunteer contingents integrated directly into the Wehrmacht–both army and Waffen-SS–itself. In a new, badly needed synthesis that focuses primarily on operational events, Rolf-Dieter Müller examines the contribution of these other European states to the German war effort in the East.
Müller, the director of the Military History Research Office in Potsdam and frequent contributor to that institution’s ten-volume “official” German history of the Second World War–Deutschland und der Zweite Weltkrieg, which was completed this year–claims that such a comprehensive examination of Hitler’s allies and auxiliaries is needed due to the persistence of two myths. On the one hand, Hitler’s continual harangues against the alleged poor performance of non-German units on the eastern front have filtered down into the popular consciousness to such an extent that the efforts of allied armies have been nearly completely discounted. On the other hand, the radical Right in Europe continues to loudly proclaim that the entire campaign was one in which the continent rallied around the idea of destroying the Bolshevik threat, and that the experiences of eastern Europe in the subsequent four decades lend credence to the righteousness of Hitler’s cause. Müller effectively destroys the two legends and, in the course of the study, both restores the importance of the Third Reich’s allies to its war effort and highlights the various reasons for the involvement of “Hitler’s foreign helpers” in the war against the Soviet Union.
The contributions of countries throughout Europe ranged from the 800,000-man conscript army of Hungary to 4,000 volunteers from Denmark to some 800,000 Russians who served in various capacities within the German armed forces or occupation machinery. In order to make some sense of these various contingents, Müller breaks the book into three sections: the first examines the formal allies of the German Reich; the second looks at the volunteers from neutral and occupied countries in western Europe; and the third and most interesting part considers the actions of the various peoples incorporated into the Soviet Union, including eastern Poland. Such structuring of the book allows it to be effectively used as a reference; anyone interested in the contribution of, say, Croatia would be able to locate the section on the Croats easily. Unfortunately, such a structure also lends the book an encyclopedic feel; each chapter is so self-contained that the general narrative suffers as a result.
Müller forcefully rejects the premise that Germany’s allies contributed next to nothing to the fighting in the East. Initially the Germans felt no need to request assistance from their allies, outside of the Finns and the Rumanians. Their hubris led them to believe that the campaign would be won quickly and that the spoils should be kept for Germany itself. A strong belief in the inadequacy of their allies complemented this operational arrogance. With the failure of Operation Barbarossa in the winter of 1941/42 and the consequent heavy casualties suffered by the Wehrmacht, it became clear that those countries so disparaged by the Führer and others in the German military leadership needed to be relied upon increasingly to stabilize German lines within the Soviet Union. Müller’s examination of Hungary and Italy detail the evolution of the allies’ contribution to Germany’s war in the East. Initially, Hitler left Hungary in the dark until the last minute regarding his plans for operations in the Soviet Union. Hungary committed forces to the invasion only after one of its border cities was bombed by a still-undetermined attacker on June 26, 1941. This initial commitment of 45,000 men was increased to 200,000 by the end of January 1942; such an enlargement pointed to the Wehrmacht’s inability to launch a second major offensive in 1942 without its allies bearing a much heavier brunt of the fighting. At one point following the Soviet breakthrough during the Battle of Stalingrad, the Hungarian Second Army was responsible alone for a 200-kilometer stretch of the front.
This Hungarian army was supported on its right flank by the Italian Eighth Army. The German High Command had initially decided that the Italian war effort would be more usefully directed towards the Mediterranean and North African theaters of war. Benito Mussolini, however, who was determined to participate in the war against international communism, forced several divisions on the reluctant Germans. By 1942, this reluctance had disappeared and the 230,000-man strong Italian Eighth Army occupied an important position in the German order of battle. Müller concludes that the contributions of the allied armies, specifically Hungary, Italy, and Romania, made possible both the approach to the gates of Moscow in 1941 and the launching of Operation Blue in 1942. While never as well equipped as their German allies or their Soviet adversaries, the allied armies provided the necessary manpower that enabled the Germans to launch successful offensive operations during the early years of the conflict.
Müller also convincingly argues that as early as the “catastrophe of Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht could only delay a breakthrough of the Eastern Front with the help of foreign allies [ausländische Helfer]” (p. 244). Guard battalions from the Baltic States, militias from the Ukraine, Russian civilians and POWs integrated into army units as Hilfswilligen and Russian army units organized under the command of General Andrei Vlassov all provided the Reich with important military, security, and propaganda benefits.
Müller details Hitler’s resistance to employing armed natives from the East, which stemmed from his long-term plans for ruthless colonization. The defeat on the Volga, however, led even the ideologues within the Reich’s administration to realize the necessity of using any and all means to combat the numerically superior Red Army. It was only after the destruction of the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad that Hitler permitted the establishment, for example, of a Latvian SS-Legion. The participation of these countries could reach extremely high proportions: 60,000 Estonians (out of a population of only 1.2 million) waged war with Hitler against the Soviet Union.
The greatest spur to Estonia’s unprecedented mobilization was a fear of being re-Sovietized by the approaching Red Army. The desire to be forever free of Moscow played an extremely important role in leading the peoples of eastern Europe to align themselves with the German army. In this respect, the notion of a “crusade against communism” has some basis and such an idea, in fact, probably provided the stimulus for many western European volunteers as well. Even in the Low Countries, Scandinavia, and France, however, political calculations played the most important role in the decision to support Nazi Germany in its eastern campaign. Here, political movements that styled themselves after National Socialism attempted to impress their German overlords by sending volunteers to the East. In Belgium, for example, right-wing extremists in both the Walloon and Flemish national movements tried to use the occupation to create their own new state; sending troops to the Soviet Union formed part of this ongoing negotiation with the Third Reich. In countries allied to Germany, such as Hungary, Romania, and Italy, it was feared that failure to provide sufficient backing would result in being left out of the final peace settlement. This consideration was extremely important for those southeast European countries looking to expand or at least protect their borders.
According to Müller, these political motivations played an important role in the failure of the Axis powers and other affiliated states to defeat the Soviet Union. German strategy frequently did not correspond to that of its allies, and this divergence caused far-reaching problems. The most noteworthy example concerned the Finns’ desire to recapture territory lost to the Soviets during the Winter War, but not to participate in the encirclement of Leningrad or to sever the Murmansk railroad. Inter-allied tension forced German planners to ensure that Romanian and Hungarian forces were never deployed side by side, as it was feared that they would open fire on one another instead of on the Red Army. Another decisive factor in the Axis defeat was the qualitative inferiority of Germany’s allies vis-à-vis the Red Army. Recent research has emphasized the growing technological superiority the Soviets enjoyed over the Wehrmacht; when one considers that many of the Reich’s allies were outfitted with captured western booty or obsolete German equipment, it should come as no surprise that the allied countries were frequently outclassed and outgunned by their adversaries. One German officer noted that the “medical services of the Slovaks came right out the era of Maria Theresa” and while this case was certainly extreme, it did point to the basic problem of the backwardness that hampered many allied units (p. 101).
One major weakness of the book is found in its treatment of the mentalities of foreign soldiers who fought for the German cause. While Müller provides explanations as to why other European states sent men to fight and die in the Soviet hinterland, he fails to examine sufficiently the motives of the men themselves. This task is undoubtedly difficult, especially for someone who relies nearly exclusively on German-language sources (though a smattering of English, Italian, and Romanian works, among others, are found in the bibliography). It is, however, an important issue, especially due to the war of annihilation prosecuted by the Wehrmacht. Müller notes that diverse nationalities–including Estonians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Romanians, and Danes–were all utilized in anti-partisan warfare, and when discussing the latter, he states that they did shoot civilians in the course of such operations. Here the question of motivation is paramount: how important were ideological beliefs relative to situational factors in leading allied units to commit war crimes in the East? Were German actions and attitudes decisive in causing such behavior or, as Romanian activities in Odessa suggest, did other nationalities have their own motivations for carrying out such atrocities? These are questions that require much more research before they can be adequately answered, but at least some preliminary discussion of this issue by Müller would have been welcome.
In short, Müller has written a concise yet comprehensive treatment of the military operations of Hitler’s foreign helpers in the war against the Soviet Union, restoring the importance of these countries and their armies to the conduct of war in the East. In writing a work that is encyclopedic in structure and scope, Müller has produced a very handy reference on this topic. Well stocked with useful maps and photos, the work provides a very readable account that effectively dismantles myths and legends that have grown up around an important and neglected subject.
Friends and Brothers! Bolshevism is the enemy of the Russian people. It has brought countless disasters to our country. Enough blood has been spilled! There has been enough starvation, forced labour and suffering in the Bolshevik torture chambers! Arise and join in the struggle for freedom! Long may peace with honour with Germany prevail!
General Vlasov’s appeal to the Russian nation,
27 December 1942
In August 1941 the commander of Einsatzgruppe B, Artur Nebe, called up experts from the Criminal Technical Institute to help him solve a problem. A short while before, Heinrich Himmler had visited the Belorussian capital of Minsk to witness the execution of a hundred ‘saboteurs’. It was the first time he had seen men killed, shot a dozen at a time face down in an open pit. He asked Nebe to test other methods that were less brutalizing to those who carried out the executions. The experts drove to Russia in trucks filled with explosives and gassing equipment. The morning after their arrival they drove out to a wood outside Minsk, where they packed two wooden bunkers with 250 kilograms of explosive and twenty mental patients seized from a Soviet asylum. The first attempt to blow them up failed, and the wounded and frightened victims were packed back into the bunkers with a further 100 kilograms of explosive. This time they were blown to smithereens, and Jewish prisoners were forced to scour the area picking up the human remains. The group then tried a different method at an asylum in Mogilev. Here they herded mental patients into a bricked-up laboratory, into which they inserted a pipe connected to a car exhaust. Fumes from the car took too long to kill the victims, and the car was swapped for a truck, which could generate a larger volume of fumes. The victims died in eight minutes. Gas killing became the preferred option. Altogether an estimated 10,000 died in asylums across German-occupied territory: men, women and children.1
These murderous experiments were part of a programme of ethnic cleansing and ‘counter-insurgency’ in the East that led to the deaths of millions of Jews, Soviet prisoners of war, captured Communists, partisans and ordinary people caught in the crossfire of ideological and racial war – a harvest of dead unparalleled in the history of modern war. Few of those who witnessed German tanks rolling past their villages in the early days of the invasion knew what to expect of the invader. In the Baltic states, Belorussia and the Ukraine there was strong hostility to Stalin and Stalinism, but alienation from Soviet rule did not necessarily mean that German rule would be any more welcome. Even collaboration with the invader, with the usual implication of betrayal and opportunism, should not always be taken at face value.
There is no doubt that some of those who found themselves under German control in the East did work with the invader. Some did so voluntarily, spurred on by a genuine loathing of Soviet Communism. Some did so in the mistaken belief that the Germans had enlightened views on the restoration of private land ownership and capitalist enterprise. (In Kiev a number of Jewish merchants even petitioned the German authorities for permission to restart their businesses.)2 Some did so because they saw an opportunity to set up independent national states long denied them by Soviet repression. National committees were formed in the Baltic states, in the Ukraine and in the Caucasus area. The largest number of collaborators were to be found helping the German armed forces. The recruitment of Soviet military labour began not long after the invasion. Soviet prisoners or local labourers were used as auxiliary volunteers. They performed mainly menial jobs – building defences, hauling supplies or building airfields and camps. They were employed in secret at first, for Hitler had expressly forbidden the use of Soviet labour. Rather than use their labour power for the war effort, the Germans left millions of prisoners of war in huge open camps to die of malnutrition and disease.3 But German commanders in Russia soon found they had no choice but to recruit local labour. The vast area of the front and the speed of the advance made it impossible to supply enough German hands to run the whole military apparatus that backed up the front line. By the end of the summer of 1943 Soviet recruits were to be found in the ranks of the fighting force itself, mobilized for the crusade against Bolshevism.
At first the recruits were drawn mainly from the non-Russian nationalities, who were more hostile to the Soviet system. In 1941 the prisoner-of-war camps were combed for prisoners from the Caucasus or Turkestan, who were removed, fitted out with German uniforms, given mainly German officers (only seventy-four of the released prisoners were given officer status) and inferior Soviet weapons. The Islamic units were supplied with an imam each, and Sunni and Shi’ite priests were trained at theological schools in Dresden and Gottingen to meet the high demand for Islamic instruction among the troops. Many of the recruited men were added to existing German divisions, in small numbers as a safeguard against defection.4 But as the war went on they were formed into larger units. There were two Ukrainian divisions, a division from Turkestan, an SS division raised from Galicia, and more than 150,000 Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians. Above all there were the Cossacks. These military tribesmen were legendary fighters, with a long and bloody history of service to the Tsars. Many fought against the Bolsheviks in the civil war, and they were never reconciled to a system that denied them a national existence and savagely suppressed the traditions of Cossack life. They made no secret of their desire to build a national homeland — Kazakia — but they were welcomed by German commanders as comrades in arms.5
Cossack regiments in the Red Army crossed over to the enemy and volunteered for service. They formed fast-moving cavalry squadrons and were used to hunt down partisans. When in 1942 the Cossack homelands in the south were liberated by German armies, they were greeted by the entire populations of villages and farmsteads singing local anthems and bearing gifts of food and flowers. The men dug up the swords, daggers and rifles that they had buried away years before and rode out in full costume, with the familiar crisscross bullet belts and sabres, to offer their services. One ancient leader, the hetman Kulakov, long believed to be dead, emerged from hiding and headed a magnificent tribal procession into the Cossack capital of Poltava. The horsemen were recruited into the German army that was approaching Stalingrad. They were sent off to hunt down groups of Red Army stragglers, which they did with a ferocious and merciless efficiency. In 1943 even Hitler overcame his prejudice against Asian peoples and agreed to the first full Cossack division. The numbers multiplied. There were by 1944 over 250,000 Cossacks serving on the German side.6
In total an estimated one million Soviet soldiers ended up fighting against their country. Many did so out of desperation, as the only alternative to dying in the prisoner-of-war camps or being sent to the Reich as forced labourers, where an estimated 750,000 died of mistreatment and neglect.7 This was hardly voluntary collaboration in any meaningful sense of the term, though it earned most of them a death warrant or a prison sentence when at the end of the war they found themselves on the losing side. Some of those who defected did so with greater enthusiasm. For the anti-guerrilla campaign the Germans hired gangs of Soviet mercenaries and freebooters to root out the resisters. They asked few questions about what methods were used. A Soviet engineer, Voskoboinikov, virtually ran the area around Orel and Kursk for the Germans. With 20,000 men and twenty-four tanks he terrorized the population, collecting taxes and food by force, murdering anyone who resisted. Soviet paratroopers dropped into the area assassinated him in January 1942.8
There were plenty of replacements. Voskoboinikov was succeeded by the most notorious defector of all, Bronislav Kaminsky, another Soviet engineer who established a reign of terror and crime across the region. Backed by 10,000 men and thousands of camp followers, Kaminsky was left to pacify the region as he saw fit. His forces became part of the pretentiously titled Russian National Army of Liberation, though they liberated little save other people’s possessions. The reputation of the Kaminsky Brigade vied with that of the SS. Heinrich Himmler, who controlled the brigade, withdrew it from Russia in 1944 to deal with a Polish revolt in Warsaw. The behaviour of the brigade in slaughtering thousands of Polish civilians in scenes of appalling cruelty proved too much even for the hardened stomachs of the SS. Kaminsky was shot on the orders of his German mentor, and the remnants of his unit were sent off to form the nucleus of another renegade Russian army being formed to fight in the last ditch against Communism. They arrived at the Russian camp in Wurttemberg under the astonished gaze of their new commander, General Buniachenko, a procession of horse-drawn carts carrying both armed and unarmed men, wearing every kind of uniform, accompanied by their women, who were draped in dresses and jewels they had looted. The officers wore a row of watches on each wrist. Buniachenko was dumbfounded: ‘This is what you are giving me -bandits, robbers, thieves?’9
The man the Kaminsky outlaws were going to serve was General Andrei Vlasov, who only three years before had distinguished himself in the defence of Moscow and was recognized as one of Stalin’s favourites. He was now the head of the Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia and the nominal leader of those Soviet citizens, more than five million in number, now living under German rule. Vlasov looked the very model of a Prussian general: tall and heavily built, with his hair combed back tightly from a receding hairline and small horn-rimmed spectacles, his appearance was austere and militaristic. He wore no medals or insignia, save a small white, blue and red cockade of the Russian Liberation Army, whose commander he had also now become. He saw himself as the spokesman of a different Russia from Stalin’s, but his appeal was always overshadowed by his decision to pursue that Russia at the side of Hitler.
Vlasov was born in 1900, the thirteenth and last son of a peasant. After a seminary education, he was called up into the fledgling Red Army in 1919 and fought in some of the bitterest conflicts of the civil war in the Caucasus, the Crimea and the Ukraine. He became a successful career soldier and, like Zhukov, was lucky enough to survive the purges. He became a Communist Party member in 1930 and won the Order of Lenin (and a gold watch) in 1940. His unit was the last to fight its way out of the Kiev pocket in September 1941; in November Vlasov’s 20th Army was defending the northern approaches to the Soviet capital; in January he led the counter-offensive to encircle the whole German force in front of Moscow. In March 1942 Vlasov led the 2nd Shock Army on the Volkhov Front south of Leningrad in its effort to break the German line, but it was encircled and the army annihilated in June. Vlasov was captured on July 12 while hiding in a village hut. He was taken to a special camp for prominent prisoners at Vinnitsa in the Ukraine, where Hitler had his forward headquarters. Here he wrote to the German authorities suggesting the idea of an anti-Stalin Russian Liberation Army, making the most of anti-Bolshevik sentiment among prisoners of war and the populations of the occupied areas.10
There are various reasons suggested for Vlasov’s sudden conversion. His brother was shot in the civil war for alleged anti-Bolshevik conspiracy; he had given his elderly parents a cow as a present, and they were punished for it as ‘rich peasants’; he is reported to have been shocked by the sight of Ukrainians greeting the Germans with flowers, bread and salt, which awoke in him a realization of how unpopular Stalin was.11 The most likely explanation is the one Vlasov himself gave: he was alienated from a system that traded in lies and deceit, butchered its own people and threw thousands of soldiers into battles for which they were poorly prepared.12 He soon made his political credentials public. Despite the disapproval of Hitler, leading diplomats and officers conspired to have Vlasov released, in order to establish a Russian liberation movement, whose founding meeting was held in Smolensk in December 1942. The ‘Smolensk Declaration’ was a direct political challenge not just to Stalin but to the whole Soviet system. Vlasov pledged his movement to abolish collective farms and the state-run economy, and to establish civil rights for all, but within a ‘New Europe’ modelled on German lines. There was no mention of democracy.13
Hitler remained immovably opposed to the Vlasov project. He feared that a Russian liberation movement would undermine Germany’s own plans for the East, and he deeply distrusted the motives of any Russian. When in September 1943 the German line broke at a point manned by Eastern volunteer units, Hitler flew into a rage and insisted on drawing the collaborators out of the line and sending them to western and southern Europe. This effectively undermined the whole basis of collaboration. Vlasov and a great many other former Soviet soldiers did not want to fight America and Britain on Germany’s behalf. They were interested only in freeing Russia from the Stalinist grip. Nevertheless, thousands of Soviet soldiers were left guarding the West Wall. On D-Day they surrendered to their bemused enemy with shouts of ‘Ruskii, Ruskii’. The Liberation Committee was accepted by Hitler only in September 1944, when everyone who could fight was needed to save Germany from Soviet vengeance. Vlasov was given two weak divisions, with not the remotest prospect of liberating anyone in the East. There was one final twist to the story. When Vlasov’s Russian divisions finally saw action in March and April 1945 they ended up fighting the Germans again – protecting the people of Prague from an SS force on the rampage against a Czech revolt.14 Vlasov and his men tried then to reach American lines, hoping that the United States would start a second anti-Soviet war and let them fight alongside. They were caught by the Red Army. Some, including wounded men in hospital in Prague, were shot on the spot.15 The rest were brought back to the Soviet Union, where a grisly fate awaited them. Refusing to recant, Vlasov and his senior colleagues were tortured with exceptional ferocity. Tried in July 1946 in camera on treason charges, he was sentenced to death on August 1. The following day he was hanged; rumour had it that he was strung up with piano wire, with a hook dug into the back of his skull. Vlasov told one of his interrogators, ‘In time, the people will remember us with warmth.’16
The reaction to Vlasov after 1945 was mixed. In the Soviet Union the official line was to condemn him as a coward and a traitor who deserved rough Communist justice. Vlasov’s supporters saw him as a Russian patriot who tried to steer an impossible course between the two dictators, and his reputation has accordingly been resuscitated since the fall of Soviet Communism. What distinguished Vlasov and the Liberation Army from other Soviet dissidents, however, was their willingness to harness the liberation campaign to the German war effort. Soviet soldiers on the German side shot at ordinary Russians, burned down Russian villages and looted Russian homes. This was more than simple anti-Bolshevism, and it was harder to forgive. Even if Vlasov and his German allies had succeeded in defeating the Red Army and destroying Stalinism, there is little evidence to suggest that Hitler would have allowed an independent, liberal Russian state in place of the vision of harsh empire that drove his conquest on.
In reality the Russian liberation movement, like the national movements in the Baltic states, the Ukraine and Belorussia, was seen by Hitler as a threat. The conquest of the eastern territories was a gigantic colonial war, not a war to emancipate the peoples of Eurasia. Hitler saw the German future in the east in terms of colonial exploitation. A German governing class would rule the region, supported by a network of garrison cities – rather like the fortified towns of the Roman empire — around which would cluster settlements of German farmers and traders. Plans were drawn up for a web of high-speed motorways to link the regional centres with Berlin and a wide-gauge double-decked railway, along which would sweep the new imperial élite through land tilled by modern helots, millions of Slavs labouring for the master race. Any of the new colonial peoples surplus to the requirements of the empire were to be transported to Slavlands beyond the Urals or left to die.17
It was a vision of empire straight out of science fiction. For the conquered peoples it became fact. The native nationalist movements were violently suppressed. In the Ukraine the mood of temporary exhilaration felt at the retreat of the Soviet order evaporated when from the end of August 1941 the Einsatzgruppen, whose job it was to root out anti-German elements, began systematically to round up Ukrainian nationalists and intellectuals, most of whom were executed.18 In the Baltic states, hope of winning back their independence was broken by the creation of a Nazi Commissariat Ostland, placed under the Nazi commissar Hinrich Lohse, and by Hitler’s decision that the Baltic states should eventually be incorporated into the greater German Reich. Lohse was a Nazi ‘old fighter’ from the early days of the movement who used his new power to indulge in a corrupt caricature of imperial rule – requisitioning palaces and a fleet of cars, and living the life of a pampered sybarite until he fled his post in 1944.19 In the Ukraine a second Commissariat was set up in September, a vast sprawling province that at the height of the war embraced fifty million people. Its ruler was another old Nazi comrade, the Gauleiter of East Prussia, Erich Koch.
The appointment of Koch was meant as a signal to anyone on either the German or the Soviet side who was in any doubt about the nature of the new Nazi empire. At his inauguration speech in Rovno, a city chosen deliberately because it was not a centre of Ukrainian culture or historic identity, Koch expressed words which soon became notorious: ‘I am known as a brutal dog… Our job is to suck from the Ukraine all the goods we can get hold of… I am expecting from you the utmost severity towards the native population.’20 Ukrainians were regarded as racial inferiors, the lowest kind of humanity. Koch was by no means alone in regarding the Ukraine as dispensable. Goering reflected that the solution in the Ukraine was to kill every man over fifteen years of age. Himmler wanted the intelligentsia ‘decimated’. When one of Koch’s deputies angrily confronted a German official who was planning to reestablish rudimentary education in the region, he blurted out the true state of affairs: ‘Do you wish to create a Ukrainian educated class at the time when we want to annihilate the Ukrainians!’ To protests that forty million people could not be annihilated, the deputy replied: ‘It is our business.’21
The exact number of Ukrainians who died at the hands of the German occupiers will probably never be known. Death was meted out arbitrarily. Peasants who, when questioned by German officials, admitted to being able to read and write were liable to be shot as ‘intellectuals’. Farmers who withheld food stocks or refused to work the fields for the Germans were hanged as an example to the rest. In the district of Rivne the German farm administrators introduced flogging for everything from slack work to the failure of peasants to remove their caps in the presence of Germans; they imposed curfews; the carrying of a knife was punishable by death.22 Thousands of peasants were hanged or shot for suspected partisan activity. Throughout the Ukraine 250 villages and their populations were deliberately obliterated to encourage good behaviour in the rest.
Thousands more died of starvation. The seizure of food supplies to feed the vast German army and its hundreds of thousands of horses left the cities of the conquered region desperately short of food. In the Ukraine it was decided to eliminate ‘superfluous eaters’, primarily Jews and the populations of the cities. In Kiev the meagre food ration was cut sharply (200 grammes of bread per week), roadblocks were set up to prevent food from entering the city and the collective-farm markets supplying the cities were suspended. As the supply of food reached famine levels, the peoples of the east were denied effective medical care. In Kharkov around 80,000 died of starvation, in Kiev almost certainly more. During 1942 food seizures were relaxed so that in the spring farmers would be able to sow their fields, but with the following harvest German demands rose higher still. In 1943 people in Kiev were fed only one third of the minimum they needed for subsistence. The collective farms were not dismantled, as many peasants had hoped, but were run by German officials in place of the local Communists, who had either fled or been killed. In some places grain quotas were fixed at double the level demanded by the Soviet system. Peasants struggled to survive on the food growing on their plots.23
The labour programme was as harsh. In the first weeks of the war Ukrainians volunteered for labour in Germany, but their treatment was so poor that labour quotas had to be imposed and labourers recruited by force. The first volunteers were bundled into boxcars without food and sanitation facilities. When they arrived in Germany they were kept behind barbed wire in rough barracks. Their food was less than the necessary level of nutrition; they were segregated from the rest of the population and forced to wear armbands with the word Ost (East) sewn onto them. When the flow of volunteers dried up, workers were simply seized at gunpoint. Villages that failed to hand over their quota could be torched and their leaders murdered. Churches and cinemas were raided and the people inside shipped off to Germany. Thousands of young Ukrainians fled to the forests and marshes to join the partisans rather than work in captivity. In 1942 Hitler issued a personal order requiring the deporting of half a million Ukrainian women between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, to be assigned to German households and Germanized. By the end of the war the Ukraine had supplied over four-fifths of all the forced labour from the East.24 The effect of exploitation on this scale was to alienate much of the population in the East as thoroughly from the Germans as from Stalin.
From Russia’s War
By Richard Overy
Epigraph: C. Andreyev, Vlasov and the Russian Liberation Movement: Soviet Reality and Émigré Theories (Cambridge, 1987), p. 209.
1 M. Burleigh, Death and Deliverance: ‘Euthanasia’ in Germany 1900‐194; (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 230‐31.
2 B. Krawchenko, ‘Soviet Ukraine under Nazi Occupation’, in Y. Boshyk, Ukraine During World War II (Edmonton, 1986), p. 17.
3 A. Dallin, German Rule in Russia (2nd ed., London, 1981); S. Kudryashov, ‘The Hidden Dimension: Wartime Collaboration in the Soviet Union’, in J. Erickson and D. Dilks, eds., Barbarossa: The Axis and the Allies (Edinburgh, T‐994), PP‐ 240‐41.
4 O. Caroe, Soviet Empire: The Turks of Central Asia and Stalinism (London, 1967), pp. 2.47‐8.
5 N. Heller and A. Nekrich, Utopia in Power: The History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Present (London, 1985), pp. 428‐9; figures from M. R. Elliott, ‘Soviet Military Collaborators during World War II’, in Boshyk, Ukraine, pp. 92‐6.
6 Elliot, ‘Military Collaborators’, p. 94; S. J. Newland, Cossacks in the German Army, 1941‐1945 (London, 1991), pp. 105‐6, 116‐17; W. Anders, Hitler’s Defeat in Russia (Chicago, 1953), pp. 177‐9. The figure of 250,000 includes some 50,000 who were incorporated into the Cossack Division (15th SS Cossack Cavalry Corps) and other Cossacks recruited into anti‐partisan units, a further twelve reserve regiments and those who served in small numbers in German units, or as non‐combatant auxiliaries. The usual figure given for Cossack combatants is from 20,000 to 25,000 in 1943; the larger figure includes all those who fought for or worked for the Germans at some time between 1941 and 1945.
7 Elliot, ‘Military Collaborators’, p. 93.
8 Kudryashov, ‘Hidden Dimension’, pp. 243‐5; Elliot, ‘Military Collaborators’, pp. 95‐6.
9 Anders, Hitler’s Defeat, p. 191.
10 Details from Andreyev, Vlasov, pp. 19‐29; J. Erickson, The Road to Stalingrad (London, 1976), pp. 352‐3.
11 Andreyev, Vlasov, pp. 38‐40.
12 Ibid., pp. 210‐15, Appendix B, Vlasov’s Open Letter, ‘Why I Decided to Fight Bolshevism.’
13 Ibid., pp. 206‐8, Appendix A, The Smolensk Declaration, 27 December 1942.
14 J. Hoffmann, Die Geschichte der Wlassow‐Armee (Freiburg, 1984), pp. 205‐36.
15 Heller and Nekrich, Utopia, pp. 437‐8; Hoffmann, ‘Wlassow‐Armee, p. 244.
16 Andreyev, Vlasov, pp. 78‐9.
17 On German plans for the East see R‐D. Müller, Hitlers Ostkrieg und die deutsche Siedlungspolitik (Frankfurt am Main, 1991); M. Burleigh, ‘Nazi Europe’, in N. Ferguson, ed., Virtual History (London, 1997), pp. 317‐39;
N. Rich, Hitler’s War Aims: The Establishment of the New Order (London, 1977), PP‐ 32‐2. Ff.
18 Krawchenko, Soviet Ukraine, pp. 22‐3.
19 Rich, War Aims, pp. 359‐60.
20 I. Kamenetsky, Hitler’s Occupation of Ukraine, 1941‐1944: A Study in Totalitarian Imperialism (Milwaukee, 1956), p. 35.
21 Ibid., pp. 43‐6.
22 On peasant ‘intellectuals’ see R. Bosworth, Explaining Auschwitz and Hiroshima: History Writing on the Second World War (London, 1993), pp. 149‐51; Krawchenko, ‘Soviet Ukraine’, p. 27; O. Zambinsky, ‘Collaboration of the Population in Occupied Ukrainian Territory: Some Aspects of the Overall Picture’, Journal of Slavic Military Studies 10 (1997), p. 149.
23 Krawchenko, pp. 26‐7; Zambinsky, ‘Collaboration’, p. 148 on Kiev rations; T. P. Mulligan, The Politics of Illusion and Empire: German Occupation Policy in the Soviet Union 1942 ‐1943 (Westport, Conn. 1988), pp. 93 ‐103 for figures on German food supplies from the USSR. Over 10 million tons of grain and almost 2.5 million tons of hay were taken.
24 Out of 2.8 million Ostarbeiter carried off to Germany, 2.3 million came from the Ukraine. See Krawchenko, ‘Soviet Ukraine’, pp. 27‐8; Kamenetsky, Occupation of Ukraine, pp. 46‐8.
The Russian Army of Liberation (ROA): Corrective Revision by Russian Historians
By Wolfgang Strauss
On a spring day in East Prussia in 1945 an officer of the Red Army observed a mounted sergeant flaying a young Russian captive with a long leather knout. The captive was exhausted, half naked and completely covered in blood. Every time the whip cut into his flesh, the young man raised his bound hands and hoarsely addressed the officer in cultivated Russian: “Captain, Sir.” Crack! “Captain, Sir.” Crack! Crack! The captain, who was also a cultivated man, appeared impassive. He made no attempt to save the doomed youth, however. He knew that he would be arrested on the spot if he intervened and he knew that his gold epaulettes would not protect him. The flayed youngster was not Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s first encounter with captured Vlassov soldiers, but it seems to have been the most gripping. On another occasion he was watching as three captured Vlassovtsis were being escorted to the rear. When a Soviet tank came thundering past, one of the three suddenly threw himself under its treads.
When the Red Army began its offensive against Königsberg, Stalin’s orders were unmistakably simple yet inconceivably brutal: “Everything is allowed!” The soldiers of the Red Army were officially encouraged to pillage, rape, and massacre. Simple soldiers were allowed ten pounds weight of plunder, generals several boxcars full. By terrorizing the civilian population the Russians caused them to panic and clog the roads behind the German lines, further hampering movement of the German army.
Solzhenitsyn instructed his men to maintain discipline, spare civilians, and observe the ten pound limit as he read Marshall Rokossovsky’s orders of the day to his battery of artillery:
“Tomorrow morning at five o’clock begins our final offensive. All Germany lies before us! One final blow and our enemy will collapse. Our army will be crowned with immortal victory!”
He did not repeat Stalin’s order to rape and slaughter, but every member of the Red Army was aware of it. The terrible exhortation “Everything is allowed!” had no need of confirmation by an insignificant officer such as himself.
All East Prussia was soon in flames. In Nights in East Prussia , written in a slave labor camp later in 1945 and published in Germany in 1974, Solzhenitsyn describes the brutality of this volcanic eruption of rape and slaughter. Nights is a depiction of stark terror in verse form, filled with vivid and horrifying images of cows bellowing in their blazing stables while the bodies of their owners char in the flames of their houses. Donald M. Thomas, Solzhenitsyn’s English biographer, has attempted a prose reconstruction which releases the horror from its lyric form. What remains is the protocol of an orgy of blood. Its title is simply Solzhenitsyn.
He describes the fate of an old peasant woman in an isolated farmhouse. A merry group of Red Army soldiers tell her, “Cook us some eggs, Mother!” which she hurriedly does. They thank her, eat the eggs and shoot her down, then murder her bedridden husband. The grandson of the elderly couple is able to escape by jumping out of a window. “Halt! Click your heels together!” they laugh while shooting at the fleeing child.
According to Solzhenitsyn, the women who were shot were fortunate. He recalls one woman lying on a blood-soaked mattress next to the body of her young daughter. The woman is battered and mutilated but still alive. How many soldiers have raped her? A platoon? An entire company? The woman begs the Russians to shoot her. The author does not tell us whether she gets her wish, although he cannot bring himself to release her from her torment. His entire book is filled with such ghastly and haunting depictions. In another passage he describes the Red Army as “human hordes gone berserk.” Donald Thomas asks: Were they really human? (Solzhenitsyn, page 156.)
Solzhenitsyn recalled that on January 26 his unit suddenly found itself isolated and cut off by the enemy. On this occasion, however, they were surrounded by their own countrymen: Vlassov’s soldiers were attacking with desperate bravery. On page 252, volume 1 of The Gulag Archipelago (Paris edition) Solzhenitsyn writes:
“I was watching when, in the early dawn, they suddenly sprang up from the snow where they had gathered in their camouflage coats. With a great ‘Hurra!’ they suddenly attacked the positions of the 152mm section with hand grenades, putting the heavy guns out of commission before they could fire a shot. Pursued by their flares, our last little group of survivors fled for three kilometers across the snow covered fields, all the way to a footbridge across the narrow river.”
Even as early as 1945, Solzhenitsyn felt admiration for his countrymen in Wehrmacht uniform with the St. George cross on their arm, who fought so heroically. He created a human and literary monument to them in his epic story of the Gulag, written twenty years after the War. After another twenty years had passed, he completed the Vlassov epic with a radical revision of the history of the “Great Patriotic War,” for which he won the Nobel Prize in literature. He did more than demolish the Stalinist interpretation of World War II as a “good war,” however. He was also the first Soviet combat officer to make the transition from military tribute to political rehabilitation of the Vlassovtsis. In his essay “The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century,” which appeared in the renowned Russian literary magazine Noviy mir In July 1994, Solzhenitsyn wrote:
“As for the attempt on the German side to form Russian volunteer units, and the belated formation of the Vlassov army, I have already covered that in the Gulag Archipelago. […]
It is indicative of their valor and devotion that at the end of the winter of 1944-45, when it was obvious to everyone that Hitler had lost the war, in those last few months, tens of thousands of Russians volunteered for that Russian army of liberation. This was the real voice of the Russian people. The story of the Russian Liberation Army has been slandered by ideologues as well as the nations of the West, which could not imagine that the Russians desired liberation for themselves. Nevertheless it represents a heroic and manly page in Russian history. We still believe in its continuation and future today.” (Page 120 of Piper’s German translation, Munich, 1994)
Solzhenitsyn defends General Vlassov against accusations of high treason with the historically based argument that in the history of the Russian Empire there have been times when domestic repression was a greater danger than the external usurper. “The enemy within was too dangerous, too deeply rooted,” he writes. In order to overthrow the internal enemy, it was necessary to form an alliance with an external force. In order to overthrow Stalin, Vlassov was forced to form an alliance with Germany.
When these revelations appeared in the leading Russian forum of the intelligentsia in July of 1994, the publisher received sharp criticism as well as enthusiastic agreement. The criticism came primarily from the old, hard-line Stalinist historiography, which dictated that a renaissance of Vlassov style idealism should not and would not be tolerated. Now, five years later, the situation has changed dramatically. The counterrevolutionaries are in retreat and Stalin’s Great Patriotic War is no longer dogma for the young generation of historians. Vlassov and his Liberation Army have become the icons of a nationalistic young intelligentsia which has an anti- Bolshevik as well as anti-liberal view of the world.
The most recent evidence for this comes from the military historians S. Drobyasko and A. Karashtshuk, the authors of the lavishly illustrated Wtoraja Mirowaja woina 1939–1945: Russkaya Osvoboditelnaya Armija (The Russian Liberation Army in World War II), published late in 1998 by the renowned Moscow military publishing house AST. There are several reasons for the rapid advance of revisionism in Russia. In the first place, “Stalinist-Antifascist Political Correctness” has been effectively neutralized. In the second place, the formerly secret Soviet archives have been opened to international historians. In the third place, the influence of revisionist literature from the West has had a profound influence. In the fourth place, the process of deideologizing historiography is continuing apace in Russia, as everywhere. In addition, there is no entrenched tradition of anti-nationalism in Russia comparable to that which now wields such powerful influence in Germany. As a result, Russia is relatively free of the historical and political censorship oppressing Germany. And finally, the Russian media provide no forum for Russians infected with the self-incrimination malaise, as do the German media. The printing of the pro- Vlassov book in 1998 is perhaps the most striking symbol of the irreversible advance of historical revisionism in Russia. It is obvious that in view of this extensive documentary work on the Russian Liberation Army (ROA), Germany’s wartime Eastern policy must also be considered in a different light. After all, the development and deployment of the ROA were possible only with the support of the Wehrmacht. In the introduction, one reads:
“For fifty years, Soviet publications about World War II ignored the fundamental fact that more than a million of our countrymen fought on the German side.”
It says that these official publications slandered the Vlassov soldiers as “traitors” and hid the fact that
“[…] they too were patriots who passionately undertook the noble attempt to liberate our country from its inner enemy, which in their opinion was much more vicious and dangerous than the external opponent.”
The introduction states that from the beginning, German front line troops made every effort to win both prisoners and civilians over to the war against Bolshevism. According to Drobjasko the Wehrmacht was interested primarily in volunteers with clear political convictions—both men and women who saw themselves as victims of Bolshevik terror, collectivization, and the “Great Cleansing.” In addition to personal reasons, national reasons were also important. From these developed an explosive complex of motivations to seek vengeance. After June 22, 1941 there were a great many reasons for Soviet citizens who had been robbed and humiliated to change over to the side of the Germans. The Wehrmacht realized this and began early to mobilize an armed opposition. They began organizing an ideological mass movement designed to overthrow the Stalinist regime. Its goal was to incite revolutionary upheaval within the Soviet Union.
Drobjasko writes that the Germans soon realized that such a mass movement required a political center in the form of a counter-government in exile. This counter-government in turn required a charismatic leader at the head of the future national government of Russia. The man chosen for this role was Lt. General Andreij Vlassov, Commander of the 2nd Assault Army, who had been captured on July 12, 1942 after the defeat of his encircled troops. As early as September of that year, Vlassov agreed to a proposal of the German Army Staff to create an army composed of Russian prisoners of war, which would fight against the Stalinist dictatorship. Vlassov signed the Declaration of the Russian Committee of Smolensk “…to all the soldiers and commanders of the Red Army, the Russian people and all peoples of the Soviet Union.”
(The depiction of these events is based on a nearly literal translation of the Drobiasko text in The Russian Liberation Army in World War II.)
Drobjasko explains that it was a very long march from the initial propaganda campaign with its buzzwords of a Russian Liberation Army to the realization of the political and military missions named in the Smolensk appeal. The reasons for the delay, he tells us, were the crassly differing and often diametrically opposed views of Third Reich leaders regarding their Eastern policy. Until the turning point in the fall of 1944, the ROA consisted almost solely of individual Russian units in the Wehrmacht. It was not until the catastrophic military situation on the Eastern Front had become clear to all, that the decision was finally made to create a politically autonomous Russian central command and organize powerful Russian combat units under Russian commanders. Drobjasko writes:
“The founding congress of the Committee for the Liberation of the Russian Peoples (KONR) took place in Prague on November 14, 1944. In this Committee all the Russian anti-Soviet forces on German territory joined together. This included immigrants, national committees and East European military units, all united in the goal of fighting for a free new Russia which would be free of Bolshevik exploiters. […] At the Prague Congress it was decided to organize all the combat forces of the KONR under the command of General Vlassov. Regarding the activities of these combat forces, the ROA was given the status of army of an allied nation, subordinate to the Wehrmacht only in operational decisions.”
The principal aims of the Russian liberation movement as proclaimed in Prague were the same as had been announced in Vlassov’s appeals of September 1942: the overthrow of Stalin and his clique, the extermination of Bolshevism, the conclusion of an honorable peace with Germany, the creation of a new Russia without Bolsheviks or capitalists, and friendship with Germany and the other nations of Europe. Again, the Red Army and all other Russians were urged to defect to the Russian Liberation Army which was allied with Germany.
Drobjasko’s terminology and argumentation clearly and consistently show his revisionist position. Throughout his book, the terms “Russian Liberation Movement” and “Russian Liberation Army” appear without limiting, relativizing, or otherwise discriminating quotation marks. In his introduction he emphasizes his objective attempts to depict the history of the Vlassov army without prejudice and without polemic. He is interested only in discovering why millions of Russians voluntarily chose to take part in a nationalist and socialist war of liberation on the side of the Wehrmacht. Drobyasko is solely interested in finding the answer to this question. From his analysis it is clear that his sympathies lie with the ROA.
As a historical investigator, Drobyasko observes no taboos. He describes Hitler’s decisions following the Prague congress objectively and in great detail. Hitler approved the appointment of Vlassov as commander in chief of all volunteer Russian units on January 28, 1945. This authorized Vlassov to create and appoint the officers corps of the ROA according to his own judgment. And that was not the limit of his authority. General of Cavalry Ernst Köstring, in his capacity as Inspector General of German forces, transferred control of two complete divisions to the Russian commander on February 10. After passing in review, all the officers, noncommissioned officers, and soldiers swore an oath to fight against Bolshevism “to the last drop of blood, for the sake of the Russian people.” Hitler’s name was not mentioned in their oath.
Two assault brigades of the ROA, “Rossiya” and “Weichsel,” received their baptism of fire near Küstrin and Frankfurt/ Oder in early May during the battle of the Oder. Under the command of Colonel Galkin they were successful in smashing the Soviet bridgeheads on the west bank of the Oder. Himmler congratulated Vlassov personally on his success. After the 15th Cossack Cavalry had been attached to the combat forces of the KONR, Vlassov commanded more than 100,000 men. Drobyasko describes the ROA’s heavy weapons in detail: heavy artillery, anti-aircraft artillery, as well as the training schools for officers and noncoms, the training camps, even press relations (there was no German censorship). Colonel Meandrov served as commander of the officers’ school. When he was captured in August of 1941, interrogating officer Herre of the German General Staff asked his opinion about whether Soviet resistance would soon collapse. Meandrow, Chief of Staff of an entire Soviet corps, replied:
“I have the highest regard for the Wehrmacht. Nevertheless the German army will not be able to defeat the Soviet Union unless they are able to mobilize the Russian people against Stalin.”
Mobilize the Russians against Stalin! At the end of 1944 it was already too late. There was no longer any question of which side had superior manpower and materiel. On December 19, 1944 Göring agreed to the formation of an air force for the ROA. This was the Voyenno-vosdushnikh sil, or VVS. On February 4 it was placed under the command of Vlassov, who named Maj. Gen. Malitsev to head it. The 1st Airplane Regiment consisted of six squadrons (Me 109, Ju 88, He 111, Do 17) and one parachute battalion: 5,000 men altogether.
Most of the ROA commanders had served in the Red Army as staff officers or high-ranking troop commanders, some among the very highest. Included were the highly decorated front commanders Turkyl, Baidak, Bunyachenko, Shilenkov, all former members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In the early stages of the war they had defected to the side of the conqueror for political and ideological reasons. This was because the external enemy, Germany, offered the only possibility of vanquishing the internal enemy, the greater enemy. An alliance between the Wehrmacht and a Russian army of national liberation offered hope of national salvation. Such was the dream during the stormy summer of 1941, as Guderian’s and Hoth’s tanks were rolling toward Moscow. The reality was that it was March 1945 before the Vlassovtsis received their first tanks and attack guns under the white blue and red flag of Peter’s Russia, three tragic years after the Battle of Moscow.
At the beginning of 1945 Major General Trukhin, a former teacher at the Academy of the Soviet General Staff, served as chief of the general staff and deputy commander of the Russian National Armed Forces. According to Drobyasko, he was a first-class war strategist. What course would the war have taken if an East European liberation army had been created, not in November 1944, but two years earlier, in the fall of 1942, when Vlassov called for his people to join in a war of national liberation on the side of the Wehrmacht? The Russian revisionist Drobyasko does not present this portentous question in so many words, but his study supports the conclusion that Stalin would have been the loser.
This view is shared by author and former editor of the Deutsche Welle Botho Kirsch, a renowned German Slavicist and expert on Russia. “History must be rewritten,” he declared at a presentation of the Society for Defense and Security Policy (Gesellschaft für Wehr- und Sicherheitspolitik, GWS) in Gießen in February, 1999.
“Historical truth is clearing its path. […] Young Russian historians have proven with Soviet documents that Stalin was planning to attack Germany as early as 1938.”
This is the gist of Botho Kirsch’s speech as reported in the Gießener Allgemeine Zeitung, February 4, 1999. Russian revisionists report that Stalin was extremely anxious about the possibility that the Wehrmacht might smash the gathering Soviet assault before he could finish preparations for the coming war, which is precisely what happened on June 22, 1941. We now know that purges in the commanding staffs of the Red Army, combined with the unwillingness of the terrorized soldiers and officers to sacrifice themselves for the hated Communist Party, had brought Stalin’s regime to the verge of total collapse in the first months of the war. In a short time three and a half million members of the Red Army surrendered or defected “just to get something to eat,” reports the historian Kirsch. Today Russian authors confirm that the Russians who lived under German occupation were better off than those under Soviet rule. In the end, as Kirsch points out, the political and psychological blindness of the German leadership, combined with massive aid from America and England, were decisive for the defeat of Germany.
Today even the German media realize that the fate of the Soviet Empire was balanced on the razor’s edge in the summer and fall of 1941. A large part of the repressed population welcomed the Germans as liberators, and the advance of the foreign troops as salvation. This was particularly true in White Russia, the Ukraine, and the Baltic nations, as well as western parts of central Russia. The most recent illustration of this phenomenon is provided by the motion picture Unternehmen Barbarossa Juni 1941 (Operation Barbarossa) which was broadcast February 28, 1999 by the ZDF (Second German Public Television.)
This film, directed by Stefan Brauburger, is anything but objective, which is of course in keeping with the intention of the producer. The film ends with numerous interviews with German veterans of the campaign. Their recollections all support the views of German and Russian revisionists. Millions of Slavs, Balts, Turkmens, Caucasians, Christians, and Muslims were hoping after June 22 for “Salvation” by the Germans—a campaign to liberate them. “Better Hitler than Stalin!” was the watchword for millions of Soviet citizens in the summer of 1941, according to the eyewitnesses.
None of those hoping for salvation by the Germans could have foreseen the consequences of Hitler’s Eastern policy. In 1942, Hitler was simply not interested in Vlassov’s proposal— not until the military catastrophe in the summer of 1944, i.e., the destruction of his entire Central Army Group. He did not consider playing the Russian card until January 28, 1945 when he sanctioned an alliance with the ROA. All German hopes for a political and military turning point sank in the mud between the Vistula and Oder in the decisive battles of the spring of 1945. And yet, as Solzhenitsyn records, the struggle for freedom and desire for independence had not yet died among those repressed by Stalin’s rule. Staring death in the face, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, White Russians, Ukrainians, and Russians continued fighting for the survival of their countries.
Today, Russian historical revisionism embraces every aspect of German-Russian relations since 1917, both in war and peace. The German Influence on the History of the Soviet Air Force is the title of the most recent publication of the revisionist publishing house RITS AVIANTIK in Moscow. Compiled by Dimitriy Sobolyev in cooperation with the German researcher Gerhard Wissmann and British specialist Steven Ransom, it contains 128 pages with numerous documentary photographs. The book describes German-Soviet collaboration in aeronautical research between 1921 and 1930 (the first trimotor, all metal bomber was developed and built by Junkers in the Soviet Union) as well as the continuing development of the most advanced German rocket and jet airplanes (Me 262, Me 163, He 162, Ju 287). Photographs of German aircraft production teams in Odessa taken in 1946 as well as of the research facilities at Podberesie and Savelova, which were unknown in the West, appear here for the first time, supplement this chapter of history. Sobolyev makes it clear that the modernization of the Soviet air force during the period 1945-1953 was due primarily to hijacked German developmental teams.
We eagerly await the next disclosures by the Russian revisionists. Not all the formerly secret archives have been “cracked” yet!
For Further Reading
– Fritz Arlt, Polen-, Ukrainer-, Juden-Politik, Askania (Wissenschaftlicher Buchdienst Herbert Taege), Lindhorst 1995
– S. Drobyasko, The Russian Liberation Army (Russian), Moscow 1998
– Erwin Erich Dwinger, Die 12 Gespräche 1939–1945, Verlbert und Kettwig, 1966
– Gregory Klimow, Berliner Kreml, Cologne/Berlin 1953
– Heinrich Jordis von Lohausen, Reiten für Rußland: Gespräche im Sattel, Graz 1998
– Ernst Nolte, Der europäische Bürgerkrieg 1919–1945, Munich 1997
– Dimitriy Sobolyev, The German Influence on the History of the Soviet Air Force (Russian), Moscow 1996
– Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Die russische Frage am Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts, Munich 1994
– Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Ostpreußische Nächte, Darmstadt 1976
– Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Der Archipel GULag, Paris 1975
– Donald M. Thomas, Solzhenitsyn, Berlin 1998
– Jürgen Thorwald, Wen sie verderben wollen: Bericht des großen Verrats, Stuttgart 1952
First published in Vierteljahreshefte für freie Geschichtsforschung 3(3) (1999), pp. 250-256. Translated by James M. Damon
But how could generals of the Red Army have envisaged collaborating with Hitler? If they were not good Communists, surely these military men were at least nationalists?
This question will first be answered with another question. Why should this hypothesis be any different for the Soviet Union than France? Was not Marshal Pétain, the Victor at Verdun, a symbol of French chauvinist patriotism? Were not General Weygand and Admiral Darlan strong defenders of French colonialism? Despite all this, these three became key players in the collaboration with the Nazis. Would not the overthrow of capitalism in the Soviet Union and the bitter class struggle against the bourgeoisie be, for all the forces nostalgic for free enterprise, be additional motives for collaborating with German ‘dynamic capitalism’?
And did not the World War itself show that the tendency represented by Pétain in France also existed among certain Soviet officers?
General Vlasov played an important role during the defence of Moscow at the end of 1941. Arrested in 1942 by the Germans, he changed sides. But it was only on September 16, 1944, after an interview with Himmler, that he received the official authorization to create his own Russian Liberation Army, whose first division was created as early as 1943. Other imprisoned officers offered their services to the Nazis; a few names follow:
Major-General Trukhin, head of the operational section of the Baltic Region Chief of Staff, professor at the General Chiefs of Staff Academy. Major-General Malyshkin, head of the Chief of Staff of the 19th Army. Major-General Zakutny, professor at the General Chief of Staff Academy. Major-Generals Blagoveshchensky, brigade commander; Shapovalov, artillery corps commander; and Meandrov, Brigade commander Zhilenkov, member of the Military Council of the 32nd Army. Colonels Maltsev, Zverev, Nerianin and Buniachenko, commander of the 389th Armed Division.
What was the political profile of these men? The former British secret service officer and historian Cookridge writes:
‘Vlassov’s entourage was a strange motley. The most intelligent of his officers was Colonel Mileti Zykov (a Jew). He had a been a supporter of the “rightist deviationists’” of Bukharin and in 1936 had been banished by Stalin to Siberia, where he spent four years. Another survivor of Stalin’s purges was General Vasili Feodorovich Malyshkin, former chief of staff of the Far East Army; he had been imprisoned during the Tukhachevsky affair. A third officer, Major-General Georgi Nicolaievich Zhilenkov, had been a political army commissar. They and many of the officers whom Gehlen recruited had been ‘‘rehabilitated’’ at the beginning of the war in 1941.’
E. H. Cookridge, Gehlen: Spy of the Century (New York: Random House, 1972), pp. 57–58.
So here we learn that several superior officers, convicted and sent to Siberia in 1937, then rehabilitated during the war, joined Hitler’s side! Clearly the measures taken during the Great Purge were perfectly justified.
To justify joining the Nazis, Vlahos wrote an open letter: ‘Why I embarked on the road of struggle against Bolshevism’.
What is inside that letter is very instructive.
First, his criticism of the Soviet régime is identical to the ones made by Trotsky and the Western right-wing.
‘I have seen that the Russian worker has a hard life, that the peasant was driven by force into kolkhozes, that millions of Russian people disappeared after being arrested without inquest or trial …. The system of commissars eroded the Red Army. Irresponsibility, shadowing and spying made the commander a toy in the hands of Party functionaries in civil suits or military uniforms … Many thousands of the best commanders, including marshals, were arrested and shot or sent to labour camps, never to return.’
Note that Vlasov called for a professional army, with full military autonomy, without any Party control, just like the previously cited U.S. Army.
Then Vlasov explained how his defeatism encouraged him to join the Nazis. We will see in the next chapter that Trotsky and Trotskyists systematically used defeatist propaganda.
‘I saw that the war was being lost for two reasons: the reluctance of the Russian people to defend Bolshevist government and the systems of violence it had created and irresponsible command of the army ….’
Finally, using Nazi ‘anti-capitalist’ language, Vlasov explained that the New Russia had to integrate itself into the European capitalist and imperialist system.
‘(We must) build a New Russia without Bolsheviks or capitalists ….
‘The interests of the Russian people have always been similar to the interests of the German people and all other European nations …. Bolshevism has separated the Russian people from Europe by an impenetrable wall.’
From the Book: Vlasov and Vlasovites. New Times 44 (1990), pp. 36–40.
After just a few weeks since German invasion thousands of Soviet citizens desired to serve in the German army. The number of such volunteers was constantly increasing. There are no precise data, but approximately 1.500.000 Soviet citizens had served in Wehrmacht. From the very first day of the World War II a lot of Soviet captives and deserters suggested their help to Germans in subsidiary services. Germans called those volunteers Hiwi (from Hilfswillige-voluntary aide). Those volunteers served as drivers, cooks, hospital attendants, stable-men in the rear services. Thus they gave Germans the possibility to serve in the forward position. And in the battle sub-units Soviet volunteers served as ammunition carriers, sappers and messengers. Hiwi had personal arms for the case of danger. Originally Hiwi continued to wear Soviet uniform and badges of rank, but gradually they were given the German uniform. Sometimes only the armband with the words “Im Dienst der Deutschen Wehrmacht” was the proof of the fact that Hiwi belonged to Wehrmacht.
Another category of volunteers — Osttruppen — was joined in battalions (Ostbataillonen) that were the sub-units of German army. The first battalions were formed according to German commanders’ initiative. Soviet citizens of the non-Russian nationalities were the bases of those battalions: Ukrainians, Balts, Caucasians and Cossacks. The task of the ‘Ostbataillonen’ was to guard the rear. In November 1941 the first six battalions were formed as a part of the “Centre” army group, and soon the high command of Wehrmacht gave its official permission to form such sub-units but with some restrictions. The restrictions did not permit to form the battalions with more than 200 servicemen in them, and they could be used only for guarding the rear.
By the end of 1941 the formation of several Asian and Caucasian legions (Ostlegionen) had began. Their structure was identical to the one of the western legions. In summer of 1942 Germans tried to put their mixed uniform in order. But they could not achieve the unification. There were three types of the badges of rank. The first one was to be used in Russian and Ukrainian sub-units, the second — in Asian sub-units, the third — in Cossack sub-units. There were two types of shoulder-straps: for Russians, Ukrainians, Cossacks and for Asians. But the practical use of all these badges of rank became a real mess. The cockades and chevrons were also designed for each nationality. The German eagle (Hoheitsabzeichen) was replaced by the insignia — swastika in rhombus with stylized wings. The stripe was made with grey threads on the steel-blue field. But the stripe was not very popular.
The 5th degree award for courage and merits was established instead of German awards. But in reality the majority of the volunteers was decorated by customary German awards. In 1944 Germans permitted officially to decorate Ostbataillonen soldiers with Third Reich awards.
In June of 1942 the antipartisan detachments and so called Jagd-units were formed by division headquarters. They were small and good equipped with automatic guns and consisted of trustworthy and trained fighters. By the end of 1942 almost every division on the Eastern front had one or two Eastern companies, and corps had Ostbataillon. The major part of those sub-units had standard numbers: 601-621, 626-630, 632-650, 653, 654, 656, 661-669, 674, 675 and 681. Other battalions had line regiments numbers (510, 516, 517, 561, 581, 582), corpses numbers (308, 406, 412, 427, 432, 439, 441, 446-448, 456) and divisions numbers (207, 229, 263, 268, 281, 285). It depended on the place they had been formed at.
After the defeat under Stalingrad the German command began to form SS volunteers divisions in Western Ukraine and the Baltic states. It was done under the motto of ‘crusade against bolshevism’. In the early 1944 the Ukrainian, Estonian and two Latvian SS-divisions had been formed. The Byelorussian krai defences were formed in Byelorussia, the Lithuanian territorial corps — in Lithuania. Since May 1944 Hitlerjugend began to recruit teenagers (15-20 years old) in Ukraine, Byelorussia and the Baltic states. The majority of young volunteers served in subsidiary units of military aircraft forces and anti-aircraft defences. There were more than 16.000 servicemen in those units.
The majority of Ostbataillonen were dislocated in the West and were taken immediately into action when allies got off in Normandy. Their poor armament was the cause of heavy losses, but they proved to be trustworthy. From 1941 till 1945 2 million Soviet citizens fought on the German side.
It is truly ironic that the most numerous units of foreign nationals raised by the Germans during World War II came from among the “sub-human” Slavs of the Soviet Union. Faced with waging war in a country of vast distances and infested with enemy partisans, the Germans had no choice but to recruit Russians to ease the strain on their own manpower. Even the “Aryan élite”, the Waffen-SS, raised Russian formations.
It is impossible in one article to present a detailed analysis of all the Russian nationals who served with the German armed forces in World War II. Instead, a general summary of the main units raised by the Germans from the different ethnic groups in the Soviet Union will be presented.
The war on the Eastern Front
Before analyzing the Russian nationals who served the Third Reich, it is important to stress the unique nature of the Nazi war in Russia. It was, above all, an ideological conflict, and was waged in varying degrees as such by the German Army, Waffen-SS and the Nazi administrators in the occupied territories. If Western Europe was viewed by Berlin as being populated mainly by Aryans, the peoples of Russia were seen largely as “sub-human” Slavs. Himmler and his cronies may have singled out some ethnic groups, such as the Latvians, as being “racially acceptable”, but even in Latvia the Germans treated the local population atrociously.
On the eve of the campaign in Russia, Hitler informed his commanders: “We must depart from the attitude of soldierly comradeship … we are talking about a war of annihilation … commissars and members of the GPU [secret police] are criminals and must be dealt with as such.” Just before the attack in June 1941, he signed the Commissar Order instructing his generals to have captured commissars shot forthwith. To carry out these instructions, four SS Einsatzgruppen (Special Action Squads), composed of SS, criminal police and security police, operated behind the German lines. Although Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Einsatzgruppen, specified to the higher SS and police officers in charge of captured Russian territory that only “Jews in the service of party and State” were to be shot, it seems very likely that the action squads were encouraged to execute all the Jews they could lay their hands on – which is exactly what happened.
Nazi ideology in the East
Nazi racial publications stressed the ideological nature of the war in the East: “The most dangerous opponent of our worldview at present is Marxism, and its offspring Bolshevism. It is a product of the destructive Jewish spirit, and it is primarily Jews who have transformed this destructive idea into reality. Marxism teaches that there are only two classes: the owners and the propertyless. Each must be destroyed and all differences between people must be abolished; a single human soup must result. That which formerly was holy is held in contempt. Every connection to family, clan and people was dissolved. Marxism appeals to humanity’s basest drives; it is an appeal to sub-humans.
“We have seen first-hand where Marxism leads people, in Germany from 1919 to 1932, in Spain and above all in Russia. The people corrupted by liberalism are not able to defend themselves against this Jewish-Marxist poison. If Adolf Hitler had not won the battle for the soul of his people and destroyed Marxism, Europe would have sunk into Bolshevist chaos. The war in the East will lead to the final elimination of Bolshevism; the victory of the National Socialist worldview is the victory of Aryan culture over the spirit of destruction, the victory of life over death.” (Official Nazi pamphlet outlining racial theories, Berlin 1943.)
Hitler and his General Staff anticipated that the Blitzkrieg against Russia would last a maximum of 10 weeks, during which time the Red Army would be smashed. Afterwards, the defeated Soviet Union would be organized into a series of provinces. As part of the Lebensraum policy, the conquered population would be resettled, Germanized or exterminated.
Against this background, it was inconceivable to Hitler and the Nazi hierarchy that the Wehrmacht should raise foreign volunteer units from among “sub-human” Slavs. As the German Army groups rolled east following the invasion of 22 June 1941, it appeared that the war would indeed be over quickly. But then the offensive ran out of steam at the end of November, and the Wehrmacht was faced with at least another year of fighting in Russia. In the face of military necessity, therefore, the Germans were forced to enlist the assistance of indigenous Slavs in their fight against the Soviet Union.
The first Russian units
The first volunteer units raised in Russia were created in the autumn of 1941 by individual German Army commanders. On their own initiative, they organized auxiliary units made up of Soviet deserters, prisoners (the Germans had taken two million prisoners by mid-October 1941) and volunteers from the local population. The German Army greatly underestimated the number of prisoners it would take. As a result, many prisoners of war (POWs) ended up dying of disease or starvation in overcrowded POW camps. This was a huge waste of potential manpower, especially given the dissatisfaction towards Moscow among many non-Russian ethnic minorities. The so-called Hilfswilligen (volunteer helpers), or Hiwis, were employed as sentries, drivers, store keepers, depot workers and so on. Hundreds of Hiwis also carried out combat roles. In July 1941, for example, the 134th Infantry Division began openly enlisting Russians. By the spring of 1942, there were 200,000 Hiwis in the rear of the German armies, and by the end of the same year their number was allegedly one million.
The Hiwi experiment
The reasons for this rapid expansion are not hard to find: German Army commanders realized that because of the wide expanses under their control and the general shortage of German manpower, they would have to resort to local recruits. Hiwis served either as individuals or as members of a group (up to company size) attached to German units, mainly in the rear. The Hiwi experiment, undertaken without the authorization of either Hitler or the High Command, was a success, and so the Germans gradually expanded the range of jobs Hiwis carried out, their conditions of service were formalized, they were given German uniforms, and their food rations and pay almost achieved parity with those of German soldiers.
The next step taken by the Germans was the organization of voluntary military troops, called Osttruppen. These troops, dressed in German uniforms, guarded roads and railway lines, fought Soviet partisans in the German rear (Nazi brutality towards the local population had created high partisan activity behind the German frontline, which army commanders did not have the manpower to deal with) and occasionally held sectors of the front. Osttruppen were usually organized in battalions, and by the middle of 1942 there were six such battalions in the rear of Army Group Centre alone. Each battalion was drawn from a single ethnic group, with liaison and certain command positions being occupied by German officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs). Each battalion numbered around 750 men, with recruits being drawn from POW camps, recently captured prisoners, conscription by the Germans and men already serving as Hiwis.
Reasons for fighting Stalin
What was the motivation of Hiwis and Osttruppen? Decades of inhumane social, ethnic and religious policies had alienated huge groups of the Soviet population. If in central Russia the state through terror had annihilated or kept under tight check any opposition, in the recently “liberated” Baltic republics, the Ukraine, Belorussia and Bessarabia the harshness of the Soviet regime was still fresh in the memory. Brief acquaintance with the gulag system, NKVD and collectivization in agriculture had shown the true nature of Stalin’s regime. As a result, ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union were more than happy to be liberated and even join the fight against Bolshevism. However, it is doubtful that there was a substantial number of pro-Hitler supporters among these peoples. Some were pure opportunists, criminals and adventurers who did not care which side they fought on. Many secretly hated Stalin for collectivization, labour camps and the reign of terror, while others were disillusioned with the Soviet system after the initial collapse of the Red Army. The majority, however, simply did not want to rot in German POW camps. Others, of course, wanted to win independence for their own homelands, i.e. to be free of both German and Russian rule.
As well as German-organized units, there were other more ad hoc formations that were briefly independent before the Germans took them over. The most infamous of these was the Kaminski Brigade.
The Kaminski Brigade
This was a locally raised militia group whose members gathered on the verges of the Bryansk Forest in the small Belorussian town of Lokot in late 1941 to protect themselves from Russian partisans. It was commanded by Bronislav Vladislavovich Kaminski, who spoke fluent German and had spent five years in the gulag for being an “intellectual”. By mid-1943, with the encouragement of the Germans, his brigade numbered 10,000 men in 14 rifle battalions, an anti-aircraft battery and support companies. Each battalion consisted of four rifle companies, plus mortar and artillery platoons. It also had an armoured element which had eight tanks (a KV-1, two T-34s, three BT-7s, two BT-5s), three armoured troop carriers (a BA-10, two BA-20s), two tankettes and cars and motorcycles. Kaminski called himself the “Warlord of the Bryansk Forest” and was given a free hand to clear partisans from the area. He called his force the Russkaya Ovsoboditelnaya Narodnaya Armija (RONA – Russian Army of National Liberation). The RONA enforced security during harvesting, escorted special food trains, guarded railways and mounted “punitive” operations in partisan zones.
By the end of August 1943, the situation in the Lokot district was deteriorating so Kaminski evacuated the RONA and its civilians to the town of Lepel in the Vitebsk region. The mission of the brigade in Belorussia was to guard the rear of the Third Panzer Army. In addition, because of high partisan activity at the beginning of 1944, the RONA was moved to the town of Djatlovo in western Belorussia.
In spring 1944, the Germans conducted some anti-partisan operations in the region between Minsk and Lepel. The RONA took part in these missions as part of a group headed by SS-Obergruppenführer Gottberg, and had the status of assault brigade. By this time, it had been officially accepted into the Waffen-SS as SS-Sturmbrigade RONA, and Kaminski was made a Waffen-Brigadeführer. The brigade acted with great ruthlessness, and Kaminski was decorated with the Iron Cross, 1st class, for his efforts. In July 1944, the brigade became the 29th SS Waffen Grenadier Division (Russische Nr 1).
At this juncture, it would be useful to say something about anti-partisan operations as many Russian units in German pay undertook these unpleasant missions. On the Eastern Front, the area from the frontline towards the rear up to a depth of 160km (100 miles) was under German Army control. Then came the Reich Commissariats, which were under the control of the SS. Units were under SS or army control depending on the areas in which they were operating. At first, partisan activity in German-occupied areas was light, but due to Nazi excesses, by mid-1942 it had grown enormously. There were no military or political guidelines for the German occupying forces on the treatment of civilians in partisan-infested country. This meant many innocent civilians were arrested and shot merely on suspicion of being partisans.
Regions that contained partisans would first be cordoned off, and then the area would be de-populated and all livestock removed. Men and women who were not shot as partisans were deported to Germany as POWs, and the women taken to work in German factories. Unfortunately for the Germans, partisan areas were often located in swamp or forest terrain, which was difficult to penetrate and clear. In addition, mines and booby traps took a toll on attackers, which resulted in harsh and indiscriminate treatment being meted out to anyone unfortunate enough to fall into German hands.
The Germans used locals and Russian national units to assist them in anti-partisan work. Foresters and game-keepers were especially useful, as were dogs, though many German commanders believed that Russian hounds had been bred with anti-German instincts! Local units, especially Cossacks and Hiwis, were unreliable and often deserted to the partisans. Bearing all the above in mind, it is no wonder that most anti-partisan missions ended in failure.
This caused frustration among the Germans, who often committed atrocities in response. During Operation Kottbus, for example, conducted between mid-May and 21 June 1943, an attempt was made to seal off the partisan-infested area between Borissow and Lepe. It involved 16,000 German soldiers and Russian allies. The result was a total failure, with only 950 enemy small arms taken but 12,000 civilians killed.
In August 1944, two battalions of RONA volunteers, headed by SS-Obersturmbannführer Fromov, were despatched to Warsaw to help crush the Polish uprising. They were sent to the district of Wola and committed so many atrocities, including the rape of German girls, that there were widespread demands (even from some SS commanders) for their withdrawal. It was reported that in one day alone – 5 August 1944 – they murdered 10,000 Polish civilians. Kaminski was later shot by the SS, being tricked by the Germans to leave his men and his death made to look like a motoring accident. The division was disbanded, with the personnel being sent to Vlassov’s army and others to the 30th SS Division. The less desirable elements of the division were either sent to concentration camps or shot. The 29th Division was dropped from the rolls of the Waffen-SS, and the title given to the new Italian division that was being formed.
Alongside the RONA was the Russkaya Natsionalnaya Narodnaya Armiya (RNNA – Russian Nationalist National Army) led by a “White” Russian émigré called S. N. Ivanov. The unit was formed at Ossintorf near the Orsha-Smolensk rail line. It was organized along Russian lines, being equipped entirely with captured Soviet arms. Its personnel wore Red Army uniforms with tsarist-type white, blue and red cockades. The unit’s Russian members, along with many other Russian units in German service, wrongly assumed that they were the nucleus of a future great Russian “liberation” army. They therefore decided (without prior German approval) to name their embryonic formation the RNNA. By the end of 1942, the formation numbered 7000 men organized into four infantry battalions, an artillery battalion and an engineer battalion. Recruits came mainly from POW camps, the volunteers joining to escape starvation. Some émigrés also decided to join the RNNA, including Lieutenant V. Ressler, Lieutenant Count G. Lamsdorff and Lieutenant Count S. von der Pahlen.
German policy towards the RNNA
The formation’s first major engagement took place in May 1942, in the Yelnia area east of Smolensk. Some 300 RNNA men were assigned the task of probing the positions of the encircled Soviet Thirty-Third Army, an operation that took several weeks. By December 1942, the RNNA was approximately the size of a German brigade and was a well-trained formation.
Feldmarschall Hans von Kluge, commander of Army Group Centre, having personally inspected the unit, was impressed by what he saw but issued an order that stipulated that the formation be divided into individual battalions and assigned to separate German units. These actions were in line with Hitler’s order to keep all the units of Russian nationals no larger than battalion size.
The RNNA almost mutinied in protest, since the order destroyed any idea that they were an embryonic Russian army of liberation. The matter was resolved when several RNNA officers were promoted and the formation was not broken up (though neither was it sent to the front). However, the damage had been done and the RNNA soldiers no longer trusted the Germans. Those who remained were later incorporated into the ROA formation (see below).
In parallel to the RNNA were the so-called Eastern Legions (Ostlegionen). In late 1941, Hitler was visited by General Erkilet of the Turkish General Staff, who urged the Führer to intervene on behalf of Red Army POWs of Turkic nationality. Hitler, eager to recruit Turkey as an ally, granted permission in November for the creation of a Turkistani legion. The experiment was such a success that by the end of the year three more Eastern Legions had been formed, the Caucasian Moslem Legion (later split into the North Caucasian Legion and the Azerbaijani Legion), Georgian Legion and Armenian Legion. In addition, by mid-1942, the Crimean Tartar and Volga Tartar Legions had been raised. Hitler, wary of this rapid growth, stipulated that the legions be organized into units no larger than a battalion and then widely dispersed among German Army formations to prevent them being a security hazard. An exception, as a gesture to court the Turks, was the formation of the Turkistani 162nd (Turkish) Infantry Division in May 1943 to serve as the parent unit for the various legion battalions.
Turkic and Caucasian Forces
The most interesting legion was the Sonderverband Bermann, formed by Abwehr chief Admiral Canaris and composed of Georgians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis and other Caucasian POWs. The plan was to parachute the unit behind Soviet lines to act as a “fifth column”. Nothing came of the idea, though, and its two battalions ended up fighting at the front.
In August 1942, General Ernst Köstring was made Inspector General of Turkic and Caucasian Forces; by September 1944, he had thousands of legion members under his command. In the legions and replacement battalions were 11,600 Armenians, 13,000 Azerbaijanis, 14,000 Georgians and 10,000 North Caucasians. These nationalities formed a further 21,595 men in pioneer and transport units, 25,000 in German Army battalions and 7000 in Luftwaffe and Waffen-SS formations. This gave a total of 102,195 men.
The legion movement was a success in that large numbers of recruits were raised, which freed up regular German units to undertake combat duties. However, when it came to frontline combat duties they were less useful. Often poorly armed, trained and motivated (especially when they were located away from their region of origin), they were unreliable and next to useless. For example, the 797th Georgian Battalion simply refused to fight when ordered to do so.
No study of Russian units in German service would be complete without mention of the Cossacks. Contrary to popular legend, and despite anti-communist sentiments nourished by many Cossacks and the cracking-down on many aspects of Cossack traditions by the communist regime, the overwhelming majority of Cossacks remained loyal to the Soviet Government. That said, substantial numbers of Cossacks did fight for the Germans in World War II.
On 22 August 1941, while covering the retreat of Red Army units in eastern Belarus, a Don Cossack major in the Red Army named Kononov (a graduate of Frunze Military Academy, veteran of the Winter War against Finland, a Communist Party member since 1927 and holder of the Order of the Red Banner) deserted and went over to the Germans with his entire regiment (the 436th Infantry Regiment of the 155th Soviet Infantry Division), after convincing his regiment of the necessity of overthrowing Stalinism (among the few incidences of a whole Soviet regiment going over to the Axis during World War II). He was permitted by local German commanders to establish a squadron of Cossack troopers composed of deserters and volunteers from among POWs, to be used for frontline raiding and reconnaissance missions. With encouragement from his new superior, General Schenkendorff, eight days after his defection Kononov visited a POW camp in Mogilev in eastern Belarus. The visit yielded more than 4000 volunteers in response to the promise of liberation from Stalin’s oppression with the aid of their German “allies”. However, only 500 of them (80 percent of whom were Cossacks) were actually drafted into the renegade formation. Afterwards, Kononov paid similar visits to POW camps in Bobruisk, Orsha, Smolensk, Propoisk and Gomel with similar results. The Germans appointed a Wehrmacht lieutenant named Count Rittberg to be the unit’s liaison officer, in which capacity he served for the remainder of the war.
The 600th Don Cossack Battalion
By 19 September 1941, the Cossack regiment contained 77 officers and 1799 men (of whom 60 percent were Cossacks, mostly Don Cossacks). It received the designation 120th Don Cossack Regiment; and, on 27 January 1943, it was renamed the 600th Don Cossack Battalion, despite the fact that its numerical strength stood at about 2000 and it was scheduled to receive a further 1000 new members the following month. The new volunteers were employed in the establishment of a new special Cossack armoured unit that became known as the 17th Cossack Armoured Battalion, which after its formation was integrated into the German Third Army and was frequently employed in frontline operations.
Kononov’s Cossack unit displayed a very anti-communist character. During raids behind Soviet lines, for example, it concentrated on the extermination of Stalinist commissars and the collection of their tongues as “war trophies”. On one occasion, in the vicinity of Velikyie Luki in northwestern Russia, 120 of Kononov’s infiltrators dressed in Red Army uniforms managed to penetrate Soviet lines. They subsequently captured an entire military tribunal of five judges accompanied by 21 guards, and freed 41 soldiers who were about to be executed. They also seized valuable documents in the process.
Kononov’s unit also carried out a propaganda campaign by spreading pamphlets on and behind the frontline and using loudspeakers to get their message to Red Army soldiers, officers and civilians. Unfortunately for Kononov, the behaviour of the Germans in the occupied territories worked against his campaign. But Kononov’s Cossacks continued to serve their German “liberators” loyally, and were particularly active with Army Group South during the second half of 1942.
Cossack units in the German Army
Aside from Kononov’s unit, in April 1942, Hitler gave his official consent for the establishment of Cossack units within the Wehrmacht, and subsequently a number of such units were soon in existence. In October 1942, General Wagner permitted the creation, under strict German control, of a small autonomous Cossack district in the Kuban, where the old Cossack customs were to be reintroduced and collective farms disbanded (a rather cynical propaganda ploy to win over the hearts and souls of the region’s Cossack population). All Cossack military formations serving in the Wehrmacht were under tight control; the majority of officers in such units were not Cossacks but Germans who had no sympathy towards Cossack aspirations for self-government and freedom.
The high tide of German conquest
The 1942 German offensive in southern Russia yielded more Cossack recruits. In late 1942, Cossacks of a single stanitsa (Cossack settlement) in southern Russia revolted against the Soviet administration and joined the advancing Axis forces. As the latter moved forward, Cossack fugitives and rebellious mountain tribesmen of the Caucasus openly welcomed the intruders as liberators. On the lower Don River, a renegade Don Cossack leader named Sergei Pavlov proclaimed himself an ataman (Cossack chief) and took up residence in the former home of the tsarist ataman in the town of Novoczerkassk on the lower Don. He then set about establishing a local collaborationist police force composed of either Don Cossacks or men of Cossack descent. By late 1942, he headed a regional krug (Cossack assembly) which had around 200 representatives, whom he recruited from the more prominent local collaborators. He also requested permission from the Germans to create a Cossack army to be employed in the struggle against the Bolsheviks, a request that was refused.
The Cossack movement
The leading figures in the Cossack movement tried to bring about the creation of a Cossack nation, but were always thwarted by Nazi policy in the East. For example, a former tsarist émigré general named Krasnov, based in Berlin, with Hitler’s blessing backed the foundation (in German-occupied Prague) of a Cossack Nationalist Party. It was made up of Cossack exiles who had fled abroad after the White defeat in the Russian Civil War. Party members swore unwavering allegiance to the Führer as “Supreme Dictator of the Cossack Nation”. Simultaneously, a Central Cossack Office was established in Berlin to manage and direct the German-sponsored party. The ultimate aim was to create a “Greater Cossackia”: a Cossack-ruled German protectorate extending from eastern Ukraine in the west to the River Samara in the east.
The homeless Cossack horde
Though the idea of a Cossack state had no part in Nazi plans, the Germans did agree to enlarge the hitherto existing autonomous Cossack district in the Kuban and to enroll additional Cossacks into the ranks of the Wehrmacht in order to placate the progressively more dissatisfied Cossacks. By the beginning of 1943, though, the Axis was retreating following the disaster at Stalingrad and thus these plans came to nought. Due to the sudden military reverses suffered by the Germans in southern Russia, many Cossack collaborators were forced to join the retreat west in order to escape reprisals from the Soviets. In February 1943, the Germans withdrew from Novoczerkassk, taking with them Ataman Pavlov and 15,000 of his Cossack followers. He temporarily re-established his headquarters at Krivoi Rog in the spring of 1943, and shortly afterwards the Wehrmacht allowed him to create his own Cossack military formation. Numerous Don, Kuban and Terek Cossacks were called to the colours, but many turned out to be so unsuitable for combat duties that they were sent to work on local farms instead.
Soon the horde of Cossack refugees was on the move again, eventually ending up at Novogrudek in western Belarus, from where five poorly equipped Cossack regiments were dispatched into the countryside to operate against Soviet and Polish partisans. By this time, much of Belarus was controlled by partisans, and the Cossacks took heavy losses with Pavlov being killed. Domanov was appointed as his immediate successor. As a result of the successful Soviet offensive in Belarus and the Baltics undertaken in the summer of 1944, codenamed Operation Bagration, the Cossack column was once again forced to retreat, this time westwards to the vicinity of Warsaw. By this period, any semblance of discipline had disappeared and the Cossacks left a trail of rape, murder and looting. From northeastern Poland they were transported across Germany to the foothills of the Italian Alps where they ended the war.
The 1st Cossack Division
It was only when the military situation in the East had turned against them that the Germans enticed the Cossacks with promises of greater independence. For example, in mid-1943, the High Command deemed it appropriate to create a Cossack division under the leadership of Oberst Helmuth von Pannwitz. The division was formed at a recently established Cossack military camp at Mlawa in northeastern Poland from Kononov’s unit and a regiment of Cossack refugees. Following its formation, the 1st Cossack Division comprised seven regiments (two regiments of Don Cossacks, two regiments of Kuban Cossacks, one regiment of Terek Cossacks, one regiment of Siberian Cossacks and one mixed reserve regiment). As was customary, the Cossack officers were replaced by German ones, with the sole exception of the most notable Cossack commanders who retained their posts (Kononov being one of them). Nazi racial prejudices resulted in the German officers and NCOs mistreating the Cossacks, who retaliated by assaulting and even killing some of their more arrogant superiors. In September 1943, the division was transported to France to assist in the guarding of the Atlantic Wall. However, the Cossacks requested to be assigned frontline responsibilities outside France. The German High Command thus transferred the division to Yugoslavia to take part in anti-partisan operations.
By the end of 1943, the Germans had retreated from the Cossack homelands in Russia. As a result, the Cossacks in German service became disillusioned, and so, in November, Alfred Rosenberg, Nazi Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, and Chief of Staff of the OKW, Feldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, assured the Cossacks that the German Army would retake their homelands. However, as the military situation made such promises unrealistic, arrangements were made to set up a so-called “Cossackia” outside the Cossack homelands. Eventually, the foothills of the Carnic Alps in northeastern Italy were selected for the purpose of providing the wandering Cossacks with a new home.
The “Directorate of Cossack Forces”
In March 1944, an organizational/administrative committee was appointed for the purpose of synchronizing the activities of all Cossack formations under the Third Reich’s jurisdiction. This “Directorate of Cossack Forces” included Naumenko, Pavlov (soon replaced by Domanov) and Colonel Kulakov of von Pannwitz’s Cossack Division. Krasnov was nominated as the Chief Director, who would assume the responsibilities of representing Cossack interests to the German High Command.
XV Cossack Corps
In June 1944, Pannwitz’s 1st Cossack Division was elevated to the status of a corps and became XV Cossack Corps, with a strength of 21,000 men. In July, the corps was formally incorporated into the Waffen-SS, which allowed it to receive better supplies of weapons and other equipment, as well as to bypass notoriously uncooperative local police and civil authorities. Interestingly, the Cossacks retained their uniforms and German Army officers.
The granting of SS status to the Cossack corps was part of Himmler’s scheme to limit the Wehrmacht’s influence over foreign formations. The Reichsführer-SS was quite happy to accept Cossacks into the SS, as Alfred Rosenberg’s ministry came up with the theory that the Cossack was not a Slav but a Germanic descended from the Ostrogoths. A replacement/training division of 15,000 men was also formed at Mochowo, southwest of Mlawa. The corps fought in Yugoslavia; and at the end of the war, 50,000 strong, retreated to Austria to surrender to the British.
In all, around 250,000 Cossacks fought for the Germans in World War II. The Germans used them to fight Soviet partisans, to undertake general rear-area duties for their armies, and occasionally for frontline combat. But they were held in scant regard by most German Army commanders.
General Andrei Andreyevich Vlassov
A far more important pro-German Russian force was the liberation army under the command of the former head of the Thirty-Seventh and Twentieth Soviet Armies, and later deputy commander of the front on the River Volkhov: General Andrei Andreyevich Vlassov. The son of a Russian peasant born in Nizhni Novgorod, in the spring of 1919 he was recruited into the Red Army and fought against the Whites as an officer. He did not join the Communist Party until 1930 but thereafter his rise was rapid: a major-general by 1938 and a divisional commander by December 1939. During Operation Barbarossa, he commanded a tank corps then an army, taking part in the Battle of Kiev and the defence of Moscow. In March 1942, he became deputy commander of the Volkhov Front but was taken prisoner at the end of June.
Thousands desert to the Germans
He immediately aroused the interest of the 4th Propaganda Section of the Wehrmacht (WPrIV) and was transferred to a special, comfortable camp for important Russian prisoners. There he was subjected to a subtle propaganda campaign which played on his aversion to the Soviet system (of which the Germans must have been aware before his capture). His personal charm, effective manner of speaking, gift of inspiring confidence and high rank earmarked him to head the Russian liberation movement. The persuasion worked, as in September 1942, still in the POW camp, Vlassov wrote a leaflet calling on the officers of the Red Army and the Russian intelligentsia to overthrow the Stalinist regime.
The leaflet was dropped by the thousand from Luftwaffe aircraft, and the response was good. Day after day, the German High Command received reports from all the army groups that thousands of Red Army deserters were coming over to the Germans and asking for General Vlassov.
These reports infuriated Hitler, though, who prohibited any talk of General Vlassov and Russian formations (there was to be no collaboration with the “sub-human” Slavs). However, by January 1943, the leaflet campaign had yielded such good results that the higher echelons of Army Groups Centre and North invited General Vlassov, on their own initiative, to go on a tour of their areas and deliver speeches to POWs and the local population. In March, Vlassov visited Smolensk, Mohylev, Bobruisk, Borisov, Orsha and other places, and later toured the areas of Army Group North. His reasons for taking up the fight against Bolshevism were listed in a letter to a German newspaper in March 1943:
“I realized clearly that Bolshevism had dragged the Russian people into the war in the alien interests of Anglo-American capital. England has always been an enemy of the Russian people. It has always striven to weaken and harm our motherland. But Stalin saw a chance to realize his plans for world domination by following Anglo-American interests. In order to realize these plans he tied the fate of the Russian people to the fate of England, and plunged the Russian people into war, condemning it to countless disasters. These calamities of war crown all the other miseries which the peoples of our country have suffered under 25 years of Bolshevik rule.
“Would it not therefore be criminal to continue shedding blood? Is not Bolshevism, and Stalin in particular, the main enemy of the Russian people? Is it not the primary and sacred duty of every honest Russian to fight against Stalin and his clique?”
Hitler and Feldmarschall Keitel remained deeply hostile to the whole idea, and suggested in June 1943 that Vlassov’s recruits should be sent to Germany to work in coal mines as replacements for Germans.
The KONR Army
The result was that by the middle of 1944, Vlassov’s formation, the Russkaia Osvoboditelnaia Armiia (ROA – the Russian Army of Liberation) was not an army in the sense of a military organization. Units that bore its name were mostly commanded by German officers, and were dispersed all over Europe. General Vlassov and his Russian National Committee had no influence whatsoever, and were not recognized by the German Government. In July 1944, however, Himmler, seeing the dire situation the Reich was in, decided to meet with Vlassov (the Reichsführer-SS at this time had great power, being Chief of the SS, Chief of the Police, including the Gestapo, Minister of the Interior and, since the attempt on Hitler’s life on 20 July 1944, also Commander of the Reserve Army). Because of the attempt on Hitler’s life, the meeting did not take place until 16 September 1944. Himmler agreed to the creation of a new committee called the Komitet Osvobozhdeniia Narodov Rossi (KONR – Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia), and to the creation of the KONR Army under General Vlassov’s command. The committee and army were to embrace all Soviet citizens living under German rule, in order to unite their political and military activities in the fight against Bolshevism. To begin with, five divisions were to be organized from among POWs and workers brought to Germany from the occupied territories in the East (by this time, the Red Army had entered Poland, reached East Prussia and was at the Yugoslav border).
The Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia
The representatives of the non-Russian nationals, who wanted to sever all ties with Russia and create their own independent states, were against the idea of the KONR Army. Despite Himmler’s threats, the Ukrainians, White Ruthenians (a former province in eastern Czechoslovakia), Georgians and Cossacks refused to join the KONR.
On 14 November 1944, the Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia held its inaugural meeting in Prague. The Prague Manifesto was proclaimed detailing KONR’s aims: the overthrow of Stalin’s tyranny, the liberation of the peoples of Russia from the Bolshevik system, and the restitution of those rights to the peoples of Russia which they had fought for and won in the people’s revolution of 1917; discontinuation of the war and an honourable peace with Germany; and the creation of a new free people’s political system without Bolsheviks and exploiters.
A large recruit pool
All decisions and instructions had to be “coordinated” with the appropriate German commissar. Nevertheless, the publication of the Prague Manifesto made a deep impression on many Russians. First of all, it brought forth a great number of voluntary applications for service in the KONR Army, a number that surpassed all expectations. On 20 November, for example, 60,000 applications were received. Large numbers of volunteers from among POWs and Soviet refugees who had left their native lands voluntarily with the retreating German armies, preferring a wandering life in strange and perhaps unfriendly lands to a return under the NKVD yoke, were received. Bizarrely, desertion from the Red Army to the Germans increased after the publication of the manifesto, despite the looming defeat of Nazi Germany.
The KONR Army had begun to form in November 1944, accompanied by shortages of arms and equipment. As a result of the deteriorating military situation in the East, the five divisions were reduced to two. Despite his difficulties, Vlassov formed an army headquarters, two motorized divisions, one reserve brigade, an engineer battalion and support units – a total strength of 50,000 men. On 28 January 1945, he officially took command of the army.
The 1st KONR Division
The 1st KONR Division, under the command of General Sergei Kuzmich Bunyachenko, was given the name 600th Panzergrenadier Division. Its organization began in November 1944 at Muensingen, and operational readiness was reached in mid-February 1945. The nucleus of the division consisted of the remnants of the 30th SS Waffen Grenadier Division (Russian No 2), which had been greatly reduced during the fighting in France, and the remnants of the infamous Kaminski SS division. When the rabble of the latter formation arrived at the camp where the division was being formed, gangs of armed and unarmed men in all kinds of uniforms, accompanied by women in gaudy dresses, spilled out of the railway carriages. At the sight of them, Bunyachenko exclaimed in anger: “So this is what you’re giving me – bandits, robbers, thieves. You’ll let me have what you can no longer use!” Amazingly, despite acute shortages of arms, equipment and supplies, at the beginning of April the division reached the front on the River Oder.
The 2nd KONR Division
The 2nd KONR Division, under the command of General G. A. Zveryev, was named the 650th Panzergrenadier Division. Its formation began in January 1945 in Baden, some 69km (43 miles) from the camp of the 1st Division. Owing to the shortages in arms and equipment, it never really reached operational readiness. The nucleus of the division consisted of a few battalions withdrawn from Norway, and some recently captured Russian prisoners. In addition, the KONR Army’s headquarters, the reserve brigade, the engineer battalion, the officers’ school and other units, in all some 25,000 men, were being formed in the same area as the 2nd Division. The organization of the 3rd Division was begun in Austria, but its strength apparently never exceeded 2700 men.
In mid-April 1945, the 1st Division was given the task of capturing the Soviet bridgehead in the area of Frankfurt-on-Oder. This bridgehead had been previously attacked by the Germans, but without success. The attack of the 1st Division also failed, with heavy losses owing to lack of adequate artillery and air support. After the failure of this attack, Bunyachenko withdrew the division on his own authority, and a few days later began the march towards the frontier of Czechoslovakia, together with other Russian volunteers – more than 20,000 men in all. On the way, the Germans tried in vain to induce him to obey their orders. At the end of April, the division reached the frontier of Czechoslovakia where Vlassov himself joined it.
The saga of the KONR army
On 2 May, they stopped short of Prague where they were informed that the army’s headquarters, 2nd Division and the remaining formations of the KONR were on their way through Austria to Czechoslovakia.
At this time, Prague seemed to be the objective of both the American and Soviet armies which were approaching from two directions. This induced the Czechoslovak National Council to call for an uprising against the Germans, which began on 5 May. On the same day, the Czechs implored the Allies by radio to come to their aid because Prague was threatened by the Germans. Receiving no reply to its appeal, the council turned for help to General Bunyachenko. On the morning of 6 May, the 1st Division joined the fight, and by the evening had cleared Prague of SS troops. The Czechs greeted Vlassov’s men joyfully, but the next day Bunyachenko was informed that Prague would be occupied by the Red Army, not by the Americans as he had expected, and that the Czechoslovak National Council was being replaced by a pro-Soviet government headed by Eduard Benes. The latter demanded that the forces of General Vlassov were either to await the Red Army’s entrance in order to surrender, or leave Prague as soon as possible. On the morning of 8 May, General Bunyachenko’s troops began to march towards the same area from where they had come only four days before.
A few days after leaving Prague, the 1st KONR Division laid down its arms in the Czech village of Schluesselburg in the American zone. On 12 May, Bunyachenko was informed that Schluesselburg would be included in the Soviet zone, and that the local American commander did not consent to letting the division march beyond the new demarcation line. The only possible solution, suggested the Americans, was that the soldiers of the KONR might try to cross over to the American zone individually. General Bunyachenko immediately disbanded the division, advising his subordinates to try their luck on their own. During the flight, however, many were shot by Soviet troops and the majority were captured by the Red Army. Some 17,000 of them are said to have been deported to Russia, where they suffered death or life imprisonment. General Vlassov himself fell into Soviet hands on 12 May.
The 2nd KONR Division split into two parts; the greater part, together with the Pannwitz’s Cossack corps, surrendered to the British on 12 May in Austria, to be interned in the area of Klagenfurt. One regiment of the 2nd Division and the army’s headquarters reached the American zone after a long and weary journey, and were interned at Landau in western Bavaria. Thus ended the saga of the ROA.
One group that deserves special mention with regard to foreign units in German service are the Ukrainians. Ukraine contributed thousands of recruits to the German war effort during the four-year war on the Eastern Front.
In mid-September 1939, in accordance with the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression treaty, western Ukraine (western Wolhynia and eastern Galicia) was handed over to the Soviet Union and incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). In June 1940, Bessarabia and northern Bukovyna were annexed from Romania and added to the Ukrainian SSR. Western Galicia was under German control.
The aim of Ukrainian nationalists was independence from both German and Russian rule. The Organizacji UkraiÄskich Nacjonalist—w (OUN – Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) was formed in 1929 and headed by Stepan Bandera. Its military wing, the Nationalist Military Detachments, was organized in 1939 under the leadership of Colonel Roman Sushko. It had the support of the Germans immediately before their war against Poland, but existed for a very short time, being disbanded when the Nazi-Soviet pact came into effect. In February 1940, the OUN split into two hostile factions: OUN-M, led by Andriy Melnyk; and OUN-B, led by Stepan Bandera. They and their followers were popularly known as Melnykivtsi and Banderivtsi.
The Brotherhood of Ukrainian Nationalists
During Barbarossa, the Germans had captured most of the Ukraine by the end of November 1941. Galicia was attached to the General Government of Poland, while Bukovyna and the area up to the southern River Bug, including Odessa, was handed over to Romania. The remainder was organized as the Reichs Commissariat Ukraine, administered by Erich Koch. With the German armies came Ukrainian nationalists. The Brotherhood of Ukrainian Nationalists was organized with the support of the Germans and fought under the auspices of the Bandera faction of the OUN (OUN-B). It was divided into two battalions: Nachtigall and Roland. Nachtigall had about 1000 men in Lvov when a Ukrainian state was proclaimed by OUN-B in June 1941 (to the great surprise of the Germans, who arrested both Melnyk and Bandera and the OUN-B leadership). Both battalions were returned to Frankfurt-on-Oder and there organized into Guard Battalion 201, which was sent to Belorussia to combat partisans. Because of various complaints about the Ukrainians’ insubordination, almost all its officers were arrested and the unit disbanded. One officer, Captain Roman Shukhevych, escaped and later became commander-in-chief of the Ukrainska Povstanska Armiya (UPA – Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a nationalist as opposed to communist organization). He headed the Ukrainian underground until his death in a battle with Soviet MVD troops in March 1950, near Lvov.
The Galician Division
Galicia’s governor-general, Otto Wachter, approached Himmler with a proposal to create a frontline combat division from Galician recruits. After speaking with Hitler, Himmler gave Wachter the go-ahead and ordered the creation of the 14th Waffen-SS Grenadier Division Galicia. Despite Himmler’s position as the head of the SS, he encountered opposition to the idea. Erich Koch, Karl Wolfe (Waffen-SS liaison officer on Hitler’s staff) and SS General Kurt Daleuge (Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia) believed that the weapons supplied to such a unit would be turned on the Germans. Himmler stood firm, though, and the Galicia division was established. He had two reasons for doing so: the loss of manpower after the defeat at Stalingrad meant the Reich desperately needed new formations; and he had a fear that disaffected Ukrainian youths would join the underground movement, i.e. the UPA.
The 14th Waffen-SS Grenadier Division was formed in mid-1943 from 80,000 applicants. The best 13,000 were selected and the rest were used to form police regiments. From its inception, UPA members infiltrated the unit. Despite this, it was trained and equipped and passed out with a strength of 18,000 men. Like other Slav units, the division’s commander, SS-Brigadeführer Fritz Freitag, and his officers were all German. In June 1944, the division was part of Army Group North when it was committed to its first and only major battle – in the Brody-Tarnow Pocket – which almost destroyed it. Following this engagement, the division numbered only 3000 men. After a period of rest and refitting, the division participated in several half-hearted anti-partisan operations in Slovakia and Slovenia before surrendering in Austria in May 1945.
The Ukrainian Liberation Army
Other Ukrainian units were formed by the Germans from Red Army POWs. This was the case with the Sumy (Ukrainian) Division, created in late 1941 and early 1942, which was nearly destroyed during the fighting at Stalingrad in 1942-43. In 1944, its remnants were attached to Vlassov’s ROA.
As a result of Ukrainian complaints, all Ukrainian units were separated from the ROA and reorganized as the Ukrainian Liberation Army in the spring of 1943. Its original strength was around 50,000, but by the end of the war this had increased to 80,000. However, it was short of arms and other supplies, and took heavy casualties fighting the Red Army. The remnants ended up in Czechoslovakia in May 1945.
In a typical German response to the dire situation in the East, in early 1945 all Ukrainian units or their remnants were brought together under one command, when the Ukrainian National Committee, headed by General Pavlo Shandruk, was established in Berlin. In addition, the Germans finally agreed to the creation of the Ukrainian National Army (UNA). The core of the army was to be the reorganized Galician Division, which was to become part of the UNA’s 1st Division. Although this plan was never fully realized because of Germany’s defeat, the Germans’ consent to Ukrainian control of these units gave the Ukrainians a free hand too.
Many inhabitants of the eastern portions of the Soviet Union, such as the Baltic States and Ukraine, openly welcomed the German army as their liberator and collaborated fully with it, until they discovered that German occupation policies were even more repressive than Soviet rule had been. In 1943 alone, as Soviet troops moved westward, the Soviet secret police, or NKVD, arrested more than 931,000 people for questioning. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet minorities—most notably the Crimean Tartars but also Turks and Chechens, among others—were simply deported en masse to the eastern USSR as a consequence of their wartime collaboration with the Germans. General Andrei Vlasov, a Hero of the Soviet Union, agreed to head the German-sponsored Russian Liberation Army, although Hitler refused to allow it any real function. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners worked in the German army in nonmilitary roles, as cooks, drivers, and the like. Much of their motivation came from the simple desire to stay alive, as millions of Soviet soldiers perished from starvation in German POW camps.
One tragic episode following the war resulted from the decision by the Western powers to hand over to the USSR millions of Soviet citizens, many of whom had lived in the West for decades and had played no wartime collaborative role. Nonetheless, they were shipped off to work at hard labor in the gulags.
According to George Nafziger somewhere in the region of a quarter of the entire German Army in 1945 were former citizens of the Soviet Union. He also states that around the time of D-Day something like 800,000 were in the army and a further 100,000 divided between the Kreigsmarine and Navy. These figures unfortunately aren’t broken down into nationalities but it’s hard to imagine that there wouldn’t be a significant number of Russians in those ranks.
Its also worth noting that when Hitler went into one of his rages about desertion rates in Vlasov’s army he insisted on it being dissolved it on masse. His generals pleaded with him not to do so since the loss of all the Russian troops and Hiwis would bring the Russian front to collapse. He eventually relented to only disbanding units whose loyalty was questionable and transferring many of the others to the west. This lead to the Western Allies running into all kinds of unusual “Ost” troops in the Normandy campaign.