Left to right: Wehrmacht General Rudolf Toussaint, SS General Werner Lorenz and Soviet General Andrei Andreyevich Vlasov in Prague Castle’s Spanish Hall Nov. 14, 1944.
Communists buried legacy of Soviet General Andrei Andreyevich Vlasov and his battalion of POWs that helped free Prague from the Nazis.
For The Prague Post
November 11th, 2004
Some six decades ago, Prague Castle hosted one of the most extraordinary events in the city’s long history. A conference held Nov. 14, 1944, in the Castle’s Spanish Hall brought together Andrei Andreyevich Vlasov, a Soviet General (indeed the “Savior of Moscow,” who had stopped the Nazi armies from taking that city three years earlier) and much of the Nazi upper echelon. Vlasov would convince the Nazis to back a plan he had devised — a last-ditch effort to arm prisoners of war to battle Stalin’s forces.
Amidst a hall packed with high-ranking SS and Wehrmacht officers (including SS General Werner Lorenz and General Rudolf Toussaint), sat representatives from all of the Slavic countries overrun by the Nazis and other figures of the Nazi State. Vlasov looked more like a school master than a general. In his youth he thought of becoming a priest.
SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler had sent along his apologies and a message. Adolf Hitler, however, couldn’t quite bring himself to do either. Hitler was, in fact, not certain that Vlasov’s plan — to arm a million and a half Russian POWs, mainly Ukrainians, to bring down Stalin and communism — was such a good idea. He had rejected it outright in 1943, but now Germany had its back to the wall. The Nazis were in full retreat over Eastern Europe and any help the Fuhrer could get from any quarter might salvage part of his wild dreams or simply help to save mainland Germany — even if these helpers were Untermenschen, or sub-humans. The war was only six months from its end; the noose was gradually tightening.
When Vlasov took the podium he launched into an extraordinary manifesto of his own: of equality and democracy in the new Russia which would be liberated by his army. This must have made some of the SS and others in the hall that day feel rather uncomfortable; the manifesto included the abolition of forced labor and the release of all political prisoners. Most significantly, Vlasov had refused Himmler’s demand to include “an unequivocal stand on the Jewish question.” In fact not a single word in Vlasov’s speech had referred to Hitler or to National Socialism.
After the conference, Vlasov — who was still a Nazi prisoner — was taken to the Lucerna Film Club, just off Wenceslas Square, where he partied with Prague film stars, producers and directors. After more than two years in captivity and trying to push his cause, he deserved a little relaxation. At 2 o’clock on the morning of Nov. 15 his special train whisked him to Berlin.
When news that Vlasov had a green light to form this new army circulated via Russian POWs’ own newspaper, by the end of the month new recruits were signing up at a rate of up to 60,000 per day.
‘We will defeat Stalin’
Vlasov had been captured by the Germans in July 1942. After six months in captivity he confessed to his captors that he did in fact hate Stalin and the whole Bolshevik state. “Give me your prisoners,” Vlasov told them, “and together we will defeat Stalin.” How he figured he could then wriggle out of his new commitment to a dictatorship just as evil is not known. But the idea was sound: it would have got 1.5 million POWs in appalling conditions fighting fit again — and no doubt they would eventually have turned on their new masters. Had the Nazis embraced this idea then, in early 1943, then indeed there would have been a real prospect of success, despite their defeat at Stalingrad.
Vlasov didn’t get to meet Himmler until September 1944 — and despite winning him over, it was still impossible for Hitler to understand the necessity, not until November of that year, by which time the war was well and truly lost.
Between that November and April of 1945, two divisions of “Vlasov’s Army,” more than 50,000 men, were formed, equipped and trained. Nine officers were Jews, concealed by Vlasov personally. Germany could not afford to equip and provide munitions for more men. This army had its own hospitals, training schools for officers, supply systems and air force. And on April 14, 1945, it was sent not to liberate Russia but to try to halt the Soviet advance across the Oder, only a few hours’ drive from Berlin.
Seeing how hopeless, as well as pointless, the situation was for his force, Vlasov turned his men back and decided to march across Bohemia to get to Pilsen — where he would deliver them as prisoners to the Americans, who were halted there. Stalin had already made it known that if any of Vlasov’s men fell into his hands they would receive long and painful deaths.
The army stopped to regroup near Beroun, just a half-hour drive southwest of Prague. By now it was early May. Hitler had already committed suicide. On May 5, members of the Czech National Committee came out from Prague to see Vlasov. Their uprising against the Nazis had begun but the planned British weapons drop had not come. They did not know then that Stalin had stopped Churchill. Stalin’s plan, as at Warsaw, was to wait and watch the patriots and the Nazis kill each other and destroy the city.
Erased from history
Eventually Vlasov was persuaded and by May 6 the First Division, 25,000 men with armor, set off in three columns to save the uprising — and Prague. In 36 hours the Nazis had surrendered and the uprising had succeeded. What followed then was a betrayal by the Czech National Committee of the army that had rescued them, more betrayals by the Americans and the British and then the Soviet Army’s arrival in Prague being heralded as the liberators of the city. Stalin saw to it that Vlasov’s Army would never make the history books and few Czechs even today really know of its contribution. Even the little street plaques which list those patriots who fell at that spot during the Prague Uprising do not list Vlasov’s men. Sometimes the plaques simply say “… and others.” That’s them.
The dramatic story of Vlasov’s Army in the liberation of Prague and their subsequent march to Plzen and the tragic events that unfolded there will be told on their 60th anniversary, next year. For now, the Prague “Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia” conference is an interesting footnote of history. However, it was too little, too late. If only Himmler and his equally satanic master had woken up to the opportunity earlier, the whole postwar story of Czechoslovakia might have been very different indeed.
By Valeria Korchagina and Andrei Zolotov Jr. Staff Writer
MOSCOW – Mention the name Vlasov to an ordinary Russian and one word will pop into mind: traitor.
Ask whether history should smile down on Lieutenant General Andrei Vlasov, the Soviet commander who defected to the Germans in World War II, and the ground would be laid for hours of heated debate. Several generations of young Soviet students were taught to hate Vlasov as a traitor who turned his back on the fatherland at a time when defenders were most needed.
These days, the line is growing blurred as evidence mounts that Vlasov may have changed sides in a bid to give his countrymen a better life than the one they had under Stalin.
But the story is apparently not far enough in the past to forgive and forget the man whose life and deeds are still largely seen through a cloud of political agendas and historical cover-ups.
The country’s top military court refused Thursday to rehabilitate Vlasov, who was convicted of state treason and hanged in 1946 after being turned over by the Allies a year earlier.
The appeal of the original conviction was launched by the small monarchist group For Faith and Fatherland.
“Vlasov was a patriot who spent much time re-evaluating his service in the Red Army and the essence of Stalin’s regime before agreeing to collaborate with the Germans,” one of the group’s leaders, suspended Orthodox priest Nikon Belavenets, was quoted as saying in the Gazeta newspaper.
But judges at the Military Collegium were less supportive of Vlasov’s methods of combating oppression at home.
“The truth is that although some argue that he was fighting against the Soviet regime and, thus, should not be seen as a traitor, by doing so he also fought against the state and the people. And this is treason,” said Nikolai Petukhov, chairperson of the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court and deputy chairperson of the Supreme Court.
Vlasov was born in 1900 in the Vladimir Region. The son of a wealthy peasant, he was drafted into the Red Army in 1919 and became a career officer. He joined the Communist Party in 1930.
From 1941 until his defection to German Army in July 1942, Vlasov was a key commander in defending Kiev and Moscow. It is unclear whether he was captured, as Western history books say, or surrendered, as Soviet books say.
In any case, he agreed to cooperate with Nazi Germany.
Vlasov was one of millions of Russians who ended up in Germany voluntarily or as POWs during the war. They found themselves caught in a tragic situation – they were suddenly free of Stalin’s totalitarianism but were looked upon as Untermenschen by the Nazis.
Vlasov maintained that he underwent a profound change of heart that left him a dedicated anti-Communist during the days before he went with the Germans. Those days were spent on the Volkhov front after he and his troops were surrounded by Nazis.
Once in Berlin and surrounded by SS officers, Vlasov presented himself as a Russian patriot and refused to wear a German uniform. He wanted to lead an armed Russian force into the Soviet Union, apparently to start a revolt against the Stalin regime and create an independent Russia.
While the Nazi leadership eagerly used Vlasov as a key tool in a propaganda war, they didn’t risk forming an armed Russian force until the end of the war. In the summer of 1943, Vlasov was taken on a tour through occupied northwestern Russia and was welcomed so enthusiastically that the Nazis cut the trip short, sent him back to Berlin and put him under de facto house arrest.
In November 1944, the Germans finally allowed Vlasov to inaugurate his Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia, which proclaimed among its goals “the overthrow of Stalin’s tyranny,” civil rights, private property and “honorable peace with Germany.”
However, sufficient proof exists to indicate that military formations under Vlasov’s command were involved in training spies and saboteurs for territories controlled by the Red Army, Petukhov of the Military Collegium said in a telephone interview.
Finding himself at the crossroads of history, Vlasov thought he could become a third force in the battle of totalitarian giants.
Vlasov’s army is viewed by Nobel Prize-winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn and some historians as an episode of Russia’s Civil War removed in time by a quarter of a century.
“These people who have felt with their own skin 24 years of Communist happiness knew already in 1941 what no one else in the world yet knew: that on the whole planet and in all history there has never been a regime more evil, bloody and at the same time wily and shifty than Bolshevism,” Solzhenitsyn wrote in “The Gulag Archipelago.”
The memoirs of Vlasov followers, known as Vlasovites, suggest that the general was convinced that if he had a full army, Soviet generals would join him and the Communist regime would fall.
“I will end the war by telephone with [Marshal Georgy] Zhukov,” Vlasov was quoted as saying on several occasions. Zhukov was one of the top Soviet commanders.
But even in the last weeks of the war, when the Soviet Army was already at the German border, only two incomplete divisions led by Vlasov were armed. One of them helped liberate Prague when a popular uprising took place in the city in May 1945. But the Vlasovites left to give way to the Soviet Army.
“Looking into the events surrounding the liberation of Prague in May 1945, when Vlasov’s forces turned against the Germans, we found that the switch was not prompted by orders but came as the decision of ordinary soldiers,” Petukhov said.
The judges, however, did decide Thursday to strike one point from the original verdict – the charge under which Vlasov was found guilty of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. This charge was used frequently during Stalinist repressions. Under current laws, the charge is automatically removed from all convictions made during the 80 years of Soviet rule.
The hearing on Thursday also addressed the cases of 11 of Vlasov’s subordinates in his Russia Liberation Army. They were all denied rehabilitation.