Here's What You Need to Know: An estimated four million Red Army soldiers were captured by the Germans during the six months after the launching of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, on June 22, 1941. Indeed, the chief of the German General Staff, Colonel General Franz Halder, wrote, “The Russians have lost this war in the first eight days! Their casualties—in both men and equipment—are unimaginable.”
He was both right and wrong as it turned out, and thus Adolf Hitler was not the only German who had underestimated the Soviets. The German field marshals and generals share in the blame for the debacle that was to come in the East. The German Armed Forces High Command, the OKW, had originally counted on a 12-week war against the staggering Soviet Union, but under Joseph Stalin, the Soviets rallied and came back stronger than ever.
The Blitzkrieg into Russia, featuring panzer armor divisions, was initially successful but ultimately failed. The Eastern Front war dragged on for four years and was characterized by unprecedented ferocity and loss of life, not only due to the war itself, but also to starvation, disease, slave-like working conditions, and the vast ethnic cleansing occurring under both Stalin and Hitler for different reasons.
The height of the Stalinist repression, the Great Terror, occurred in the late 1930s just prior to the German invasion. Minority nationalities inside the Soviet Union, including the Cossacks, were among those cruelly victimized during this period, especially those who posed resistance. Stalin ruthlessly expanded the collectivization program into an offensive against the peasantry. Millions were displaced, and millions were killed. A significant number of Soviet citizens, including many of the Cossacks, therefore greeted the invading Germans as liberators. Thousands of ordinary Soviets became partisans in the German military.
The Cossacks: a Privileged Military Class
Traditionally, the Cossacks derived mostly from the area of southern Ukraine. They had lived in clans that were designated by the name of the nearest major river, i.e., Don Cossacks, Kuban Cossacks, Ural Cossacks. Their superior horsemanship, proficiency with the saber, and colorful uniforms defined them. The great majority of them were loyal to the Romanov family, going all the way back to Catherine the Great. By the time of the last tsars, the Cossacks were widely viewed as a privileged military class.
During the Bolshevik revolution, sectors of the Cossacks put up some of the toughest resistance experienced anywhere by the Red Army. Therefore, after the Revolution, the Bolsheviks retaliated by destroying all federated Cossack Republics in a terribly cruel manner, considering them all as part of “White Russia” (sympathetic to the tsar), though it wasn’t necessarily true.
Just after Russia’s poor military showing in the 1939 Russo-Finnish War, Stalin reintroduced the Cossacks into the Soviet military. Yet just 60 days after the beginning of World War II, the first major defection of Red Army soldiers to the German side occurred: It was a Cossack unit, the 436th Infantry, commanded by Major Ivan Nikitich Kononov. On August 3, 1941, fully 70,000 Cossacks went over to fight for the Germans. Another 50,000 joined them by October 1942. By that time, the German Army had established a semi-autonomous Cossack District from which they could recruit.
It should be emphasized that their defection to the German side was not done in favor of Nazism, but for the love of their homeland and for the cause of a second Russian Civil War. There was tremendous risk in going against the Red Army, however. Hitler declared that Russian soldiers would not be granted POW status, which meant captives would be treated as subhuman. Of the nearly six million Russians taken prisoner after 1941, only 1.1 million lived to see the end of the war. Given the brutality of the Germans, it seems incomprehensible that so many of these people were still willing to don German uniforms. Such was their hatred of Stalin.
By February of 1945, when it was evident the Germans had all but lost the war, the Cossacks, under the leadership of German Maj. Gen. Helmuth von Pannwitz, wanted to surrender to the British Army in liberated Austria, to escape being returned to Stalinist tyranny. Negotiations were opened on this basis in good faith.
Fates Decided at Yalta
The fate of these Cossacks had already been decided, however, at Yalta in February, when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, American President Franklin Roosevelt, and Russian Marshal Josef Stalin met to decide the final issues remaining from the war in Europe. One issue on the table was called “reciprocal repatriation.” This discussion related to Allied prisoners in Germany liberated by Soviet forces and also to the prisoners of Soviet origin serving in the German Army, among whom the dissident Cossacks formed a major component. A trilateral commission was established to form an agreement acceptable to all three nations on issues including the displaced civilian populations.
Two basically identical agreements were signed on February 11, 1945, by the British and Americans. The British agreement stipulated that all Soviet citizens “liberated by the Allied armies—as soon as possible after their liberation—were to be separated from German prisoners of war and lodged in separate camps…” and “situated in camps or other localities to which the Soviet authorities responsible for their repatriation would have immediate access….
“…The British authorities responsible would cooperate with their Soviet colleagues in the United Kingdom with a view to identifying all Soviet citizens who had been liberated and transferred to the UK.” The British would also “be responsible for the transport of Soviet citizens up unto the moment that said citizens would be handed over to Soviet authorities.”
As pointed out by noted authority Francois de Lannoy, “If there was nothing in the agreement that stated specifically the necessity of repatriating all Soviet citizens regardless of their wishes and—if necessary, by the use of force— it was well understood that from a legal point of view, that was what was intended.”
This, then, was the very crux of the thorny matter that would shatter the Cossack nation, bedevil the British civilian and military authorities in occupied Austria, and poison relations between the still anti-Red East and the West for decades afterward.
Concluded de Lannoy, “According to Stalin’s wishes, the contents of the agreements were kept secret, and did not figure in the final communiqué issued at the end of the Yalta Conference. It is evident, though, that had the details been published openly, those Soviet citizens serving the Wehrmacht who would’ve been well aware of their fate if returned to the Soviet Union (death, concentration camp, or deportation) would’ve taken all necessary steps to avoid falling into the hands of the Allies.”
“On Oct. 1, 1945, Gen. (later Marshal) Filip Ivanovich Golikov, responsible for repatriation of Soviet citizens after the war, announced that of 5,236,130 Soviets repatriated, 1,645,633 had found employment and 750,000 were waiting for a job. Of the remaining 2,840,367 of whom no further details were given, it is probable that they died in transit, were executed, or sent to concentration camps.
“At the time of the Yalta Conference, 100,000 Soviet soldiers serving the Wehrmacht had been captured by the Allied forces.…The Soviets … had liberated 50,000 British POWs who had sought refuge in the Soviet Union, as well as far greater numbers of French soldiers…,” most of whom had been captured by the Germans in 1940.
Cossacks in the Nazi Ranks
From the summer of 1941 through 1943, none of the top German political leaders involved with the Eastern Front wanted anything to do with Soviet POWs or Cossack turncoats fighting in German uniforms for the Third Reich. Then came the trio of crushing German defeats at Moscow, Stalingrad, and Kursk.
The first top Nazi to start changing his views of all Soviets as “sub-humans” was the Baltic-born German Alfred Rosenberg, Reich minister for the occupied Eastern Territories. He and his “Eastern politicians” were the first, besides the military, to realize that Nazi Germany could actually lose the war in the East. He also knew that millions of enslaved peoples saw themselves as fighting alongside the Germans, not for them, but were not willing to exchange the Red yoke for one of the swastika. It would have to be a genuine alliance.
As late as the summer of 1944, both Hitler and SS commanding general Heinrich Himmler denied this possibility, however, as did the powerful secretary to the Führer Martin Bormann and Prussian Regional Leader Erich Koch. Led by Rosenberg’s ministry on the crucial theme of needed manpower, however, even they slowly changed their minds since it was evident that Nazi Germany would be drowned by Red Army hordes if they did not.
Meanwhile, even against Hitler’s, the German Army in the East had begun training and equipping both dissident Cossacks and the so-called Russian Liberation Army (RONA) to fight the Soviets. The man who really stepped to the fore of his own volition in September 1942 was the East German career cavalry officer, Helmuth von Pannwitz, who well knew that during the Russian Civil War Cossack “wolves” had taken no Bolshevik prisoners and were eager to kill them again.