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