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.