A group of Russians captured by the Nazis during Operation Barbarossa: Documents from secret archives have revealed how some Soviets believed the Germans were Christian crusaders come to throw of the yoke of communism.
By Allan Hall
An extraordinary secret archive has revealed for the first time how thousands of Soviet citizens collaborated with Nazi invaders during World War II.
The cache of documents, some retrieved from the files of the KGB, shows how many viewed the Germans as Christian liberators – and their own masters as godless Communists.
This view was reinforced when the soldiers of the Third Reich opened up 470 churches in north-western Russia alone and reinstated priests driven from their pulpits by Stalin.
In turn, the clergy co-operated closely with S.S. death squads in betraying Communist officials, Jews and partisan resistance groups.
Perhaps most astonishingly, the Germans even shipped numerous mayors, journalists, policeman and teachers back to the Reich to show them the ‘German way of life.’
Russia has always portrayed the war against the Germans as a historic struggle which cost 27million lives but ultimately defeated the Nazis forever.
Until now, there has been little examination of the extent of collaboration by Soviet citizens with the invaders.
And there is no doubt that there many Russians detested the Nazis who inflicted mass atrocities on the civilian population.
But the archive, assembled by Professor Boris Kovalyov of the University of Novgorod, undermines the one-dimensional nationalist view of Soviet history.
Unsurprisingly, the research has already triggered a huge debate in Russia about attitudes to the Nazis.
‘The files give an extraordinary glimpse into a country that was deeply divided and not at all as heroic as Stalin made out,’ Prof Kovalyov, who teaches historical jurisprudence, said.
‘They show how local journalists strove under S.S. supervision to present to their compatriots the Nazis as friends of the Russians.
‘There was even praise in newspapers edited by former Communists for Alfred Rosenberg, the chief racial theorist for the Nazis who had made speeches in the past talking of the “sub-humanity of the Russians.”
‘Of course these newspapers were all collected and burned, or locked away, when the tide of war turned. And those who wrote the articles were executed.’
The Nazis marched on Russia in summer 1941 after Hitler put plans for the invasion of Britain on hold.
He had met heavy resistance and had become increasingly paranoid about the Soviets grabbing valuable natural resources as they expanded their empire.
The campaign was code-named Operation Barbarossa and plunged the Third Reich into a catastrophic situation of war on all fronts.
Troops were given stark rules of engagement. They were to press ahead with a ‘war without rules’ that would see the merciless execution of millions.
But the freshly rediscovered archives reveal a far more complex situation.
In many instances, the Nazi commanders attempted a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign to win over civilians already oppressed by Communist dictates which included a ban on religious worship.
The propaganda war had considerable success, with newspapers and collaborators praising the Germans.
‘We pray to the all-powerful that he gives Adolf Hitler further strength and power for the final victory over the Bolsheviks!’ ran one article in the newspaper ‘For the Homeland!’ that was printed in Pskow in December 1942.
Clandestine tours of Germany were also hugely effective for provincials who had never travelled ten miles beyond their birthplace, never seen indoor plumbing or central heating, such trips worked wonders.
When they returned to the Soviet Union, said Professor Kovalyov, they were ‘deeply impressed”’ and worked hard to undermine the stiffening Soviet resistance to the Nazi armies.
Even in January 1943, as the fate of the German Sixth Army was being sealed at Stalingrad – and with it the war – many Russians still enthused about the charms of Nazism.
Ian Borodin, a village mayor from Piskowitschi, wrote that month: ‘Germany is a country of gardens, first class steelworks and autobahns. It has exemplary order. We should fight for it!’
In the end it was the Nazis themselves who squandered the opportunity to rally an entire people to its cause.
As news of German atrocities spread and the Soviet Red Army began pushing the invader back, the population that had been initially so enthusiastic for Hitler now began to turn against him.
The Nazis were eventually driven out of Russia and the Red Army pressed on to Berlin, routing Hitler’s forces on the way.
For those tens of thousands who had shown disloyalty to Stalin during the occupation there was only death awaiting them or long years in the gulag.
Professor Kovalyov intends to publish a book based on his research next year.
After Hitler came to power in 1933 the order was given to demolish a rundown part of Berlin that had been notoriously ‘Red’ and an area the Nazis never had any serious support in. The residents thought they were being punished, but instead their flats were rebuilt with central heating and other improvements – how to win hearts and minds….. By 1939 living standards had increased to the point where Russian civilians visiting Nazi Germany would have been greatly impressed. It’s said that when US troops entered Germany in 1945 towards the war’s end it was the first time many of them had come across bathrooms with showers and indoor flushing toilets since leaving the USA, and yes that included those who had been stationed in 1940’s England! Good article – and illustrates how the German’s lost the opportunity to bring the critical mass of Soviet citizenry ‘on side’. Had they done so I don’t doubt they would have defeated Stalin and forced the Western powers to accept a negotiated peace.
– A Richards, London