Stalin’s Defectors by Mark Edele – from Red Army soldiers to Hitler’s collaborators | Books

The debt that all of Europe owes the Red Army for defeating Hitler is incontrovertible, however grudgingly it is acknowledged in many quarters. What is less well known but remarkable is that a huge number of Red Army soldiers deserted to the German side and even took up arms alongside their homeland’s fascist invaders. At a minimum, according to Mark Edele, one of the leading historians of Soviet society during the war, 117,000 Soviet citizens voluntarily crossed the front line, risking life and limb to escape to the Germans.

In addition, up to 6% of soldiers taken prisoner by the Germans decided to join the German forces. No other allied army in the second world war had such a large share of defectors. Put together with civilians, some 1.6 million Soviet citizens became military collaborators with the fascists.

There have been two broad responses to this phenomenon. Official Soviet historians tended to suppress it, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s new orthodoxy is on the same lines. The History of the Great Victory, published in 2005 as part of a set of volumes aimed at commemorating the 60th anniversary of Hitler’s defeat, does not even mention defection. Instead, it highlights resistance within PoW camps and, although it acknowledges that some PoWs collaborated, it stresses that their motives were not political.

It has to be said that the Soviet line was, however, never entirely consistent. While the number was blurred, there was a tendency in the immediate aftermath of the war to suspect that all Soviets captured by the Germans had been defectors. Under Stalin, returning PoWs, particularly officers, were routinely investigated for treason and thousands were put before war crimes trials and imprisoned. Things changed after Stalin’s death. The wartime military leader and hero Marshal Zhukov publicly criticised the equation of captivity with defection. Most Soviet troops were captured because of hopeless military circumstances, he said. An amnesty was given to convicted PoWs but, in a sign of official confusion, it was not called an exoneration or a rehabilitation. Instead, it was described as a pardon for people who had surrendered, thereby maintaining the suggestion that they had done something wrong. Only during Gorbachev’s perestroika and the subsequent Yeltsin era was the issue revived and more sensitive conclusions reached. In 1995 former PoWs were finally given full recognition as “war participants”.

An alternative view of wartime defection was offered in the early postwar era by émigré analysts of Soviet life, many of them Mensheviks. They were happy to put a political gloss on the phenomenon, seeing it as evidence of a repressed population voting with its feet when an opportunity presented itself. Peasants who were unhappy at collectivisation and Stalin’s policies of punitive famine quickly switched sides, thinking the Nazis would liberate them from Bolshevik tyranny. Ukrainians, Byelorussians and other non-Russians took a similar line to break from the Soviet empire.

Edele has several fascinating pages on the historiography of the issue, analysing the views of different researchers in the field over the last seven decades. He himself takes a middle position in the controversy over the degree to which Soviet citizens expressed alienation from the regime or stayed loyal to it during the war. In his view, basic human instincts of survival rather than a person’s political stance for or against Stalinism was the main motive for surrender. People wanted to escape the catastrophe of war and genocide. This was particularly the case in 1941 when the lightning advance of German armies into a badly unprepared country resulted in 3.4 million PoWs being taken by the Wehrmacht. Thousands of men were encircled by German forces and came “smiling out of the bushes”, according to German war reports. The Luftwaffe had total air superiority, and Soviet troops were short of ammunition and food. Resistance seemed futile.

The Soviet authorities tried desperately to prevent surrender. Within three weeks of the German invasion they were already issuing warnings to troops that the Germans would torture or kill prisoners. At the same time they made it a capital offence for Soviet troops to pick up or pass on the leaflets the Germans were dropping which invited troops to give up. They threatened to arrest the families of captured officers and men, and they shot people spotted trying to desert.

Soviet soldiers on a seized Nazi plane.

Soviet soldiers on a seized Nazi plane. Photograph: Serge Plantureux/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1941 much of the anti-Nazi propaganda about the treatment of prisoners was true. The Germans had no system of PoW camps in the early weeks of the war, and were overwhelmed by the numbers surrendering. Food was scarce and many PoWs starved or were put on forced marches further behind the front line. In order to eradicate Bolshevism the Germans did indeed shoot hundreds of officers and political commissars in the Red Army. Of the 3.4 million soldiers captured by February 1942, as many as 56% died or were murdered.

It was only in 1942 that the German invaders started to make conditions tolerable for PoWs. What then of the men who in these new conditions decided to take up weapons on the German side? Surprisingly, perhaps, Hitler didn’t want them. “It must never be allowed that anybody but the Germans carries weapons,” he declared in July 1941, a view he repeated nine months later. But by then discipline was weakening and German military leaders were already enlisting Soviet PoWs, not just into support units as cooks and drivers but also into armed units. Hundreds joined the SS and took part enthusiastically in the extermination of the Jews.

As evidence for his analysis Edele relies on soldiers’ diaries, postwar memoirs and the interrogation reports of 334 defectors, compiled by a German infantry division. He divides Soviet soldiers’ reasons for switching sides into four categories: survivalism, defeatism (meaning a lack of motivation to go on fighting), political disaffection from the Soviet regime and active anti-Stalinism. While 34% of the 334 defectors were motivated by political disaffection, only 1.2% showed an attitude of active anti-Stalinism. This is a very low proportion, given that PoWs were talking to a German interrogator and might therefore have wanted to curry favour by expressing sympathy with the German cause. Half had no political views. They were either defeatists or said they were escaping because of poor living conditions in the army.

Edele concludes that the high proportion of defectors was caused by the nature of Hitler’s blitzkrieg in 1941 and 1942. Ordinary Soviet citizens during the war did not behave fundamentally differently from their contemporaries in occupied territories in western Europe. A minority resisted; a minority collaborated. Most people were busy surviving and protecting their families as best they could.