By Andrei Kotz and Andrei Stanavov
“When the war is over, you will receive the pension of a Russian lieutenant-general, but from now on and into the near future – you will continue to enjoy schnapps, cigarettes and women.” Quotation attributed to Reichsführer of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, in a conversation with former Red Army commander-turned-Nazi collaborator Andrei Vlasov.
In its scale and consequences, the betrayal of Lieutenant-General Andrei Vlasov was unique in the Second World War. He not only gave up his own men, but gathered together, armed and trained a whole army of traitors. “The Vlasovites are worse than the Germans” was a reputation that could not be washed off even with blood.
On Monday, the Federal Archival Agency of Russia and the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History will present an English-language version of a unique collection of historical documents entitled ‘The Vlasov Case: History of a Betrayal’, shedding light on the highest-profile act of treason of the 20th century. The three-volume work contains declassified interrogation protocols, orders and reports from the archives of Russia, Belarus, Germany and the United States.
Surrounded and Captured
Vlasov surrendered to the Germans on 11 July 1942 near Luga, about 100km south of Leningrad without firing a single shot, after the encirclement and routing of the 2nd Shock Army entrusted to his command. His revolver was taken away from him, and the commander was locked up in a village bathhouse.
“Through an open door,” translator Sonderführer Pelhau would report to the command of the 18th German Army the next day, “a thin, tall Russian soldier appeared, dressed in a standard long tunic without insignia and without any medals. On his hooked nose were horn-rimmed glasses. ‘Don’t shoot, I’m General Vlasov,’ he said in broken German. After this he handed over to Oberleutnant von Schwerdtner a red leather-bound ID with the facsimile signature of Marshal [Semyon] Timoshenko.”
After a short interrogation, the general was transported to the Vinnytsia prisoner of war camp in occupied Ukraine, under the jurisdiction of the German army’s intelligence department. The department was responsible for breaking down Red Army personnel ideologically, and for trying to convince Soviet soldiers to join the Nazi side.
Mobilising the ‘Eastern Legions’
As the documents in the collection show, even before the start of Operation Barbarossa, the Germans, for whom the puppet governments of the nations of occupied Europe were already hard at work, understood clearly that everything would be at stake in the ideological war against the Soviet Union. Nazi propaganda required influential Soviet military and political figures ready to take up their banners.
The Germans were in need of individuals who would not only agree to turn their weapons around on their own people, but also draw in thousands of others to do the same. There were enough captured Soviet military leaders held in Nazi concentration camps, but not just anyone was deemed suitable for the role of a controllable leader of an army of traitors. Some were less than agreeable, others not well-known enough to quickly become an ideological icon of Russian collaboration.
By the time of Vlasov’s capture, the Germans had already managed to prepare the groundwork for mobilising the population of the occupied territories and Soviet prisoners of war for their purposes. These mobilised masses, processed by Nazi propaganda, were called the Freiwillige (‘volunteers’). Those who swore allegiance to Adolf Hitler formed the so-called ‘Ostlegionen’ (‘Eastern Legions’) military units, companies and battalions. All that was needed was to create a unified control center for the motley crew of collaborator forces and to put a puppet at its head. Vlasov proved perfect for the role.
The Creation of the ‘Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia’
Vlasov would later recall during interrogation that after expressing his concerns, “[Gustav Arthur] Hilger, German foreign ministry adviser and ex-adviser at the German Embassy in Moscow, who spoke fluent Russian, arrived at the camp. He called me and asked if I would agree to participate in the Russian government created by the Germans and what suggestions I had in this regard.”
“Having expressed to Hilger the idea that we must wait for the war to end first, I nevertheless began to discuss with him which territories of the Soviet Union should be transferred to Germany,” Vlasov continued. “Hilger said that Ukraine and the Soviet Baltic region would have to become part of Germany. Later, Captain Shtrickfeldt [Vlasov’s German assistant] summoned me and said that the Germans had managed to form several military units from among Red Army prisoners of war, and recommended that I agree to take command of these troops. Since this was consistent with my anti-Soviet beliefs, I declared that I would agree to accept this proposal.”
Under the tutelage of the German security services, Vlasov drew up a draft appeal of the so-called ‘Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia’, which would be circulated throughout the Eastern Front and into the Soviet rear areas. From the appeal it followed that the committee had assumed the functions of a government of Russia, had set its task as the overthrow of Joseph Stalin, the destruction of Bolshevism and the conclusion of ‘an honourable peace with Germany’.
Working for Nazi Propaganda
Soon after the announcement of the creation of the ‘Russian Committee’, Vlasov was sent to the small town of Dabendorf outside Berlin to attend courses for propagandists working among prisoners of war. About 4,000 specialists were eventually trained at these courses, and were subsequently sent to concentration camps and Russian military units formed by the Germans, where they engaged in their anti-Soviet activities.
The Germans treated Vlasov in an emphatically courteous way, providing him with decent living conditions, and chauffeuring him around to towns and cities in the occupied territories, where he made propaganda speeches. Officially, he was listed as being at the disposal of the propaganda department of the High Command of the German Ground Forces. A big game had begun, and no one had any plans to reveal their cards to the former commander.
During his agitation work, Vlasov visited occupied Mogilev, Pskov, Dno, Strugi Krasnye, Luga and other locations. At first, he obediently repeated the clichés of Nazi propaganda, but gradually became carried away and began making statements suggesting that “the Russians do not want to be slaves and will never become slaves,” and that Hitler’s “National Socialism cannot be fully implemented on the Russian people.”
Vlasov’s German handlers did not particularly like such displays of ‘independence’, and Vlasov’s “career” as a traitor nearly ended shortly after it began. Some of his statements sharply contradicted the real interests of the Third Reich, whose goals were the exploitation of the conquered nation and outright colonialism, not the revival of ‘Russian statehood’. The very concept of Hitler’s war against the USSR implied the enslavement and physical extermination of millions of people, and the idea of a “new Russia as a partner” was not on the cards.
In 1943, Vlasov went further. During a visit to Pskov, he declared at a meeting with officers that without the support of the Russian people, the Germans would not be able to destroy the Bolsheviks. The contents of this discussion were reported to Heinrich Himmler.
Himmler’s Reaction and Hitler’s Mistrust of Vlasov
During interrogation, Vlasov recalled that “Himmler, at one of the meetings of the top commanders of the Germany army, said that the ground forces’ propaganda department was fumbling about with some Soviet POW general and allowing him to make statements to officers which undermined German confidence that they could defeat the Soviet Union on their own. Himmler proposed to halt such propaganda and to use only those prisoners of war who declare their consent to serve in the German army.”
In June 1943, Hitler, who kept ‘Project Vlasov’ under his personal control, declared that he did not need a strong “liberation” army of collaborators under the command of a Russian general, even if he was a captive.
“We cannot transfer these formations to a third party who, having received them, can say ‘today you are with us, but tomorrow you are not’,” Hitler said. “One day we will come upon a kind of ‘password to strike’. It will spread around the entire front, and they will organize and begin their extortion.”
As an example, Hitler cited the story of the so-called ‘Polish legions’ in the First World War, in which Poles who had mobilised in large numbers into the German army turned their weapons against the Germans and began to fight for the restoration of an independent Poland.
After this discussion, Vlasov was stopped from giving public speeches and isolated in a mansion on the outskirts of Berlin, where the former Red Army commander was made to deal exclusively with paper-based propaganda work. The Nazis returned Vlasov to his post under the command of the Eastern Legions only in late 1944, when the situation had become critical for the German army.
Russian Liberation Army
The first unit, commanded by Colonel Sergei Bunyachenko, numbered about 17,000 soldiers and officers, was formed in February 1945 and was sent to the Eastern Front in late March to the area around Frankfurt an der Oder. The second division, consisting of about 15,000 men, was led by former Red Army Colonel Grigory Zverev. It was created in mid-April 1945, and did not actually participate in fighting.
Overall, the ROA consisted of about 38,000 people. This included the two divisions, as well as auxiliary units. However, the war was coming to its end, and the Vlasovites did not have time to distinguish themselves in battle.
“In April 1945, the situation in Berlin became so difficult that many leaders of German government bodies fled the city,” Vlasov recalled during interrogation. “Our committee was also evacuated to Karlsbad. On the way, many committee members fled. Myself, Trukhin, Malyshkin, Zakutny and Zhilenkov decided that if we were to be captured by the Red Army, we would all be executed for our crimes against the Soviet government, and so the only option for us was to make our way to the British and Americans.”
To this end, Vlasov sent a group of committee members headed by commanders Vasily Malyshkin and Dmitry Zakutny to the town of Fussen, southern Germany, giving them the task of establishing contact with the command of the Anglo-American forces to agree with him the conditions for the surrender of the ROA and its leadership.
“I took advantage of the fact that Himmler had resigned his command of the northeastern group of forces to transfer the 1st Infantry division, then situated in the Berlin area, where on Himmler’s orders parts of it engaged in battles against the Red Army, to transfer it to Czechoslovakia, bearing in mind that the Anglo-American forces were advancing in this direction. I intended to transfer all other forces of the ROA there,” Vlasov recalled.
Admission of Guilt
Andrei Vlasov was captured by a Soviet patrol in Czechoslovakia on 12 May 1945, several days after war in Europe had ended. After his arrest, the General was taken to the headquarters of Marshal Ivan Konev, commander of the 1st Ukrainian Front, and from there transported to Moscow. From that moment on and until 2 August 1946, when an item about his trial was published in the Izvestia newspaper, nothing was reported about Vlasov. Behind the scenes, investigators worked diligently with the traitor General to find out all the details of his anti-Soviet activities. It is noteworthy that Vlasov admitted guilt at only one of his last interrogations in April 1946.
“I plead guilty to the fact that in July 1942, because of my anti-Soviet sentiments while situated in the area of the city of Lyuban, having betrayed my Motherland, I went over to the side of the enemy,” he declared. “During my time with the enemy, I betrayed military and state secrets, telling the Germans secret information about the plans of the Soviet Command. I also slanderously characterised the Soviet government and the state of the Soviet home front. Furthermore, I gave German command my consent to lead the units of the so-called Russian Liberation Army, which had been formed by the Germans. I then expressed a desire to become part of a future ‘Russian government’ and discussed with responsible representatives of the Germany ministry of foreign affairs questions about the dismemberment of the Soviet Union.”
Vlasov did not agree with all the charges against him. Although he admitted that the ROA’s counterintelligence service and military court, which carried out repression against anti-fascists, were under his command, he categorically denied that he personally signed the death warrant of those who had been arrested and accused of working against the ROA or the Nazis. Later, this charge was confirmed by his accomplices.
Reasons for Betrayal
The second and third volumes of ‘The Vlasov Case: History of a Betrayal’ contain dozens of protocols of interrogations of Andrei Vlasov and his associates. The General was interrogated by top NKVD SMERSH counterintelligence specialists from May 1945 until July 1946. For much of this time it was not entirely clear what prompted him to betray his country. Judging by the first interrogations, Vlasov’s anti-Soviet attitudes and thoughts of betrayal go back to the Thirties, long before his 2nd Shock Army was encircled by Nazi forces.
“While commanding the troops of the 2nd Shock Army and finding myself in the area of the city of Lyuban surrounded by German troops, I betrayed my Motherland,” the former commander candidly admitted. “This was a consequence of the fact that, starting in 1937, I became hostile to the policy of the Soviet government, believing that the conquests of the Russian people during the Civil War had been brought to naught by the Bolsheviks. I perceived the failures of the Red Army during the war with Germany to be a result of the inept leadership of the country, and was convinced that the Soviet Union would be defeated. I was convinced that the interests of the Russian people were betrayed to please the Anglo-American capitalists by Stalin and the Soviet government.”
Vlasov insisted that, surrounded by anti-Soviet sentiments which had been exacerbated by the war and not seeking to fight for what he felt were the interests of others, he had taken advantage of the arrival of the Germans and voluntarily surrendered to them.
Vlasov was tried for treason and executed by hanging on 2 August 1946.