Stalin’s War: Victims and Accomplices
by Der Stürmer
Book Reviews by Charles Lutton
Stalin’s Secret War by Nikolai Tolstoy. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1981, 463pp, $18.50, ISBN 0-03-047266-0.
Pawns of Yalta: Soviet Refugees and America’s Role in Their Repatriation by Mark R. Elliott. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982, 287pp, $17.95, ISBN 0-252-00897-9.
Our „present“ has to a large degree been shaped by the events of 1939-45. The outcome of the contest between Stalin and Hitler, as „relevant“ to so many of our contemporaries as those earlier struggles between Persia and Greece or Carthage and Rome, does cast its shadow over our lives. Count Nikolai Tolstoy, in his latest book, sets out „to interpret Soviet policy, internal and external, during the crucial years 1938 to 1945. Above all, I have tried to lay bare how Stalin himself saw events and reacted to them.“ The author draws on much new material, as well as on evidence long before available but often „over-looked“ in previous publications of other writers, to support his conclusions in what is a significant contribution to our knowledge of the Second World War on the Eastern Front.
It is Tolstoy’s contention that Stalin was haunted by the fear that the Communist state was essentially a house of cards that could easily collapse. His overriding concern was to shore up the position of the regime, largely through a policy of terrorizing the various peoples who inhabited the USSR.
The first four chapters review Stalin’s pre-war management of the Soviet Union. The „New Society“ so admired by many Western intellectuals was an unrestricted police state, run by perhaps the foulest collection of congenital criminals ever assembled (thus far). Its economy rested upon the output of 15-20 million slaves, laboring in Siberia and mines in the Arctic Circle, where the annual death rate of 50-70% far surpassed that of any previous slave society. Stalin’s Russia was a land with three categories of citizens: prisoners, former prisoners, and future prisoners. There was scarcely a family that had not been touched by the secret state police (NKVD). For the overwhelming majority living in the USSR, conditions were far worse than they had ever been under the Romanovs. In Tolstoy’s view, „Stalin’s great achievement was to place the entire population of nearly two hundred million people wholly in the power of the police, whilst himself retaining in turn absolute power over the police.“
The author explains that Stalin was consumed by the fear that, given an opportunity, his hapless subjects would rise up against the Communist dictatorship. After spending a year in the Soviet Union, an American diplomat concluded that „Not very much leadership would be required to start a counter-Stalinist revolution… Many people have come to believe if Germany turned eastward she could find enough people in Russia who were fed up with present rulers to welcome any outside aid, even from the Germans.“
Part Two, the major portion of the book, deals with Stalin’s diplomatic maneuverings and wartime direction of internal security and military affairs. In August 1939, while Western diplomats were engaged in negotiations with the Soviets, Stalin signed non-aggression and trade agreements with Hitler. These benefited both parties: Germany, for the time being, was able to concentrate her slender military resources against a recalcitrant Poland and Britain and France, and also received food, oil, and other supplies from the USSR. In exchange, the USSR obtained technical aid and freedom to enlarge her sphere of influence at the expense of Poland, Rumania, the Baltic states, and Finland. In the newly absorbed areas most vestiges of Western culture were extinguished. The author describes what happened when the Russians invaded Poland in September 1939:
As the Red Army edged nervously up to the demarcation line, terrified lest the Wehrmacht change its mind and roll onwards, thousands of NKVD troops spread over the defenseless countryside behind. The Red Army confined itself to rape (old women were the principal victims, owing to a belief that the rapist would live to the age of his victim: as a result ninety-year-old women were frequently raped over and over again), and pillage. Even the pillage was occasionally restricted by the invaders’ blank terror when faced with astonishing devices like electric irons… It was the NKVD, however, which struck real fear in the Poles. Arriving a few days after the „regular“ troops, they set up headquarters in every town, working by preference at night-time.
The NKVD had categories of citizens subject to immediate arrest, from aristocrats and priests to Red Cross officials and even stamp collectors. Men were separated from their wives and children and those who were not executed upon arrest were shipped off to the slave-camps of GULAG. where they were litterally worked to death. The pattern was the same in the Baltic states. Tolstoy reveals that about one-tenth of the population of the newly occupied countries was deported. A Jewish Zionist who had looked with favor upon the USSR „as a great social experiment“ only to end up in the GULAG camps himself for four years, declared after his release:
Russia is indeed divided into two parts, the „free“ Russia [and] the other Russia – the second Russia, behind barbed wire – is the thousands, endless thousands of camps, places of compulsory labor, where millions of people are interned… Since they came into being, the Soviet camps have swallowed more people, have exacted more victims, than all other camps – Hitler’s and the others – together. and this lethal machine continues to operate full-blast… An entire generation of Zionists has died in Soviet prisons, camps, and exile.
Tolstoy remarks that „History is accordingly presented with the extraordinary fact that Jews resorted to bribery and other desperate measures in efforts to escape from Soviet territory to the tender mercies of the Nazis.“
Stalin still moved with caution in 1939-40. He feared that Germany, which served as a buffer from the Arctic Ocean to the Balkans, might be defeated by France and Britain, thus jeopardizing his own conquests. It seems that he breathed a sigh of relief once France capitulated in June 1940.
Hitler, who had made a career out of opposition to Bolshevism, decided to launch a pre-emptive attack on the USSR following Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov’s visit to Berlin in November 1940. Molotov presented a long list of Soviet territorial „interests,“ which included the Petsamo nickel deposits in Finland, the Baltic Sea up to the sound between Norway and Denmark, Rumania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey. Later that month, at a meeting with German Ambassador Count von der Schulenburg, Molotov added other regions to the list. Hitler, long uncomfortable with the Soviet pact, had come under increasing criticism from Mussolini for seeming to abandon the anti-Communist struggle.[*] Stalin’s new territorial demands decided the matter, as Hitler concluded that „they were thoroughly untrustworthy allies, who would seize the first opportunity of profiting by a German reverse to move forward into Europe. This is what he had always known and prophesied.“ On 18 December 1940, Hitler released War Directive No. 21, Operation Barbarossa, which ordered the invasion of Russia the following Spring. Tolstoy notes that Stalin, who had enjoyed a number of diplomatic successes up to that time, had over-reached himself: „The Soviet tactic (well-nigh universally employed) of demanding twice what they wanted and being content with half, had for once gone seriously astray. Hitler had no intention of conceding anything to an ally whom he rated many degrees lower than Mussolini, and was angered by what he saw as an emerging Soviet threat.“
As has long been known, Stalin received numerous warnings about an impending German attack, including those from his master spy in Japan Richard Sorge. (On this point see General Charles A. Willoughby, Shanghai Conspiracy: The Sorge Spy Ring, E.P. Dutton, 1952.) Even after Germany and her anti-Comintern allies Rumania, Hungary, Finland, and Slovakia launched their invasion of Russia in June 1941, Stalin’s primary fear was not of his foreign enemies but of the Russian people themselves. During the first weeks of the attack „the country seemed to be disintegrating precisely in the manner his worst nightmares had foretold.“
The „secret war“ Tolstoy goes on to vividly describe was the fierce campaign Stalin waged against the Russian population – a struggle which often took priority over pressing military problems. For example, Stalin tied up much of the rail network in western Russia with slave trains of captives from the Baltic states, instead of devoting all rolling stock to the reinforcement of the frontlines. At L’Vov, where the Soviet 4th Army was fighting desperately to prevent its surrender, Stalin’s major concern was that the NKVD finish liquidating potential Ukrainian opponents of the regime rather than order the local security forces to join in the battle against advancing Axis units. While Stalin pleaded with the British to rush more aid and take further action, the NKVD labor camp guards were doubled in number from 500,000 to one million heavily armed men.
Standard treatments of this period always claim that the Soviet Union lost over 20 million people during the Second World War. Tolstoy makes a convincing case that the actual total is probably closer to 30 million, maybe even more – with about a third of these deaths attributable to Axis actions. The blame for as many as 23 million deaths is placed with Stalin and his NKVD henchmen.
Casualty figures for the Eastern Front have been estimated as follows: two and a half million German soldiers died in the East. It is believed that three Red Army men died for every German soldier killed. Of those 7,500,000 military deaths, approximately three million Russians died as POWs.
Tolstoy’s analysis of these statistics does much to revise our understanding of the war on the Eastern Front, as he demonstrates that these high Russian military casualties were largely due to the Soviets’ crude methods of waging war. ‘Penal battalions“ composed of „enemies of the people“ (i.e., inmates of prisons and camps, and luckless peasants, including women and children) were hurled in waves against German defensive positions. Frequently unarmed and at times deprived of camouflaged uniforms to better draw enemy fire, they were often used to clear minefields. With NKVD machine-gunners poised behind them, they were forced across minefields until a path was cleared. The wounded were killed off by the NKVD. General Ratov, chief of the Soviet Military Mission to Britain, actually declined an offer of British mine-detectors, remarking that „in the Soviet Union we use people.“ SMERSH (from the initials „Death to Spies“), the NKVD’s special murder arm made famous by Ian Fleming in his James Bond thrillers, was created in 1942 as an additional guard on Soviet front-line troops. The NKVD placed large heavily armed formations at the rear of Soviet units to discourage withdrawals and to pick off „stragglers“ and „cowards.“ In a number of instances, NKVD units fought pitched battles with Red Army detachments trying to retreat in the face of superior enemy forces. Stalin continued to purge his armed forces even as the Axis advanced. It is likely that hundreds of thousands of Russians were killed in such actions.
As for the POWs who died in German captivity, Tolstoy reminds the reader that the Soviet government refused to sign the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War, refused to cooperate with the International Red Cross (the Nazis allowed the Red Cross to visit concentration camps), and rebuffed German feelers forwarded through neutralist concerning compliance with the Hague Convention. A 1941 directive ordered Red Army men to commit suicide instead of surrender and Soviet law regarded Russian POWs as traitors. Besides their own „penal battalions,“ the Russians occasionally used POWs to clear minefields.
German attitudes toward the Russians were further colored by evidence of NKVD massacres encountered at such places as L’Vov, Vinnitsa, and Katyn. They found not just piles of corpses, but apparently mass-produced torture instruments, including devices for squeezing the skull, another for the testicles, and tools used to skin prisoners alive. Ice picks, broken bottles, or whatever else was handy or preferred were also used. Tolstoy observes that „Soviet cruelty far outstripped that of National Socialism… Torture in the USSR was (and is) employed on a mass scale as an important punitive means of overawing a resentful population.“ He goes on to explain that these ghastly scenes of state-sanctioned depravity „confirmed the German view that Bolshevik Russia was irredeemably savage and backward.“ Considering how civilians and POWs were treated by the Communists, the Germans felt no obligation to show much consideration for Russian POWs. According to the author, there was a purpose behind all of this cruelty:
Stalin went out of his way to invite Nazi ill-treatment and later extermination of Russian prisoners-of-war… It is quite clear, therefore, that the deaths of over three million Russians in German custody was a piece of deliberate Soviet policy, the aim of which was to cause the liquidation of men regarded automatically as political traitors, whilst directing the anger of the Soviet people against the perpetrators of the crime… It should not be forgotten, either, that Soviet cruelty greatly prolonged the conflict, costing all belligerent nations millions of lives… This evidence of how the Soviets treated their own people, coupled with the harsh treatment they visited on prisoners-of-war, was the major cause of Germany’s obstinate determination to fight on to the end, long after it had become clear her cause was doomed.
Having accounted for the 7½ million military casualties, Tolstoy states that four million Russian civilians were killed by the Germans (although this includes those involved in anti-Partisan operations, military sieges of such cities as Leningrad, and 750,000 Jews). This leaves 18-20 million additional Russians killed in the course of Stalin’s „secret war“ against his own subjects. In his study Tolstoy sheds additional light on the British role in the immediate post-war forced repatriation of Russian POWs and refugees back to the USSR, a topic dealt with at length in his earlier book, The Secret Betrayal.[**] Nikolai Krasnov, one of the few „returnees“ who survived ten years in the GULAG and was then allowed to leave Russia in 1955, is quoted as having been told by Beria’s deputy Vsevolod Merkulov:
But the fact that you [and the other Cossacks] trusted the English – that was real stupidity! Now they are history’s shop keepers! They will cheerfully sell anything or anyone and never bat an eyelid. Their politics are those of the prostitute. Their Foreign Office is a brothel… They trade in foreigners’ lives and in their own conscience.
In Chapter 16, „Western Attitudes,“ Tolstoy attempts to reach an understanding of why so many in the West, especially „intellectuals,“ avidly supported the Soviet Union. He notes that there has long been a fascination with totalitarian solutions among the Left and that Soviet Marxism appealed to certain intellectuals’ desire to rule society. Simple greed and envy are other factors. Tolstoy refutes the oft-made claim that the excesses of Communism must be weighed against the need to fight Fascism: „As Communism formed the prior totalitarian threat, this argument is surely more exculpatory of Fascism and Nazism than the reverse“[***].
Stalin’s Secret War successfully counters such treatments of this period as Harrison Salisbury’s The Unknown War and Alexander Werth’s Russia At War, 1941-1945. It deserves to be considered a standard reference work about Stalin and his role in World War II.
The issue of American involvement in the forced repatriation of Russians at the end of World War II, touched upon by Tolstoy in Stalin’s Secret War, is the topic of Mark Elliott’s recent study Pawns of Yalta. It is an expansion of the author’s 1974 University of Kentucky Ph.D. dissertation, and takes into consideration additional material declassified in the 1970s and now available at the National Archives in Washington – such as the „Operation Keelhaul“ papers.
When the war in Europe ended, there were several million POWs and refugees in the Western occupational zones. Among them were „Soviet citizens“ whom the United States and Britain had pledged at the February 1945 Yalta conference to return to Soviet authorities. These included Red Army POWs, some of the estimated five to six million civilians who had been press-ganged by agents of Hitler’s Plenipotentiary-General for Labor Mobilization Fritz Sauckel to work as laborers in the Reich’s factories and farms, thousands of pre-war emigres who had fled Russia during the turbulent years 1917-1922, as well as a portion of the one million Soviet soldiers who served in the Wehrmacht during the war.
It is still a surprise to many in the West when they learn that by 1944-45, up to 40% of some „German“ formations, and 10 to 15% of all units, were composed of Osttruppen (ex-Red Army men). In addition to the Hilfswillige scattered throughout the German armed forces, three divisions composed of Soviet racial minorities fought on the Eastern Front with the Axis: the Cossack Cavalry Division, the Turkish Division (made up of Moslems from Soviet Central Asia), and the Ukrainian Waffen SS Division „Galicia.“ And by November 1944, the first division of the proposed Russian Liberation Army, commanded by former Red Army General Andrei Vlasov, became operational. It did engage in some fighting against the Red Army in 1945, and from 6-8 May helped the Czechs liberate Prague from the Germans, before surrendering to the U.S. Third Army on 10 May. Elliott points out that these one million ex-Red Army soldiers who performed duties in German uniform „amounted to the largest military defection in history.“
Both the U.S. and Britain were signatories to the 1929 Geneva Convention dealing with the treatment of Prisoners of War. This obligated parties to treat POWs „on the basis of the uniforms worn at the time of capture.“ While the war continued, the U.S. complied with this bilateral agreement, not wishing to give the Germans cause to mistreat American POWs of German, Italian, or Japanese descent. After VE-Day, when there was no longer danger of Nazi reprisal, the U.S. (and Britain) quickly set about repatriating German POWs on the basis of their nationality, in flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention. A secret protocol of the Yalta agreement also provided for the forced return of Russian ex-concentration camp inmates and others who had managed to escape from Stalin’s slaughter house, thus obliterating, in the words of the author, „all trace of the proud Western tradition of political asylum.“
The British went a step further by handing over to the NKVD a number of former White Russian officers, some of whom had fought the Bolsheviks during the Second World War. All of them had been living outside of Russia since the end of the Russian Civil War and carried foreign passports or League of Nations stateless persons I.D.s. Alexander Solzhenitsyn has characterized this as „an act of double dealing consistent with the spirit of traditional English diplomacy.“
American servicemen, led by wartime pro-Soviet propaganda to believe that Stalin was kindly „Uncle Joe“ overseeing a noble human experiment in the USSR, were shocked at how most Russians in their charge reacted to the news that they were going to be repatriated to their Soviet homeland. This is illustrated by what took place at Dachau on 17 June 1946, after American authorities informed 400 Soviet refugees that they were going to be sent back to Russia:
The scene inside was one of human carnage. The crazed men were attempting to take their own lives by any means. Guards cut down some trying to hang themselves from the rafters; two others disembowled themselves; another man forced his head through a window and ran his throat over the glass fragments; others begged to be shot. Robert Murphy reported that „tear gas forced them out of the building into the snow where those who had cut and stabbed themselves fell exhausted and bleeding in the snow.“ Thirty-one men tried to take their own lives. Eleven succeeded,’ nine by hanging and two from knife wounds. Camp authorities managed to entrain the rematntng 368. Despite the presence of American guards and a Soviet liaison officer, six of these escaped en route to the Soviet occupation zone. More and more the repatriation of unwilling persons was coming to disturb battle-hardened troops.
The following month similar events took place at the Plattling camp in Bavaria. These were described by an eye-witness, U.S. Army translator William Sloane Coffin, Jr.:
Despite the fact that there were three GIs to every returning Russian, I saw several men commit suicide, Two rammed their beads through windows sawing their necks on the broken glass until they cut their jugular veins. Another took his leather boot-straps, tied a loop to the top of his triple-decker bunk, put his head through the noose and did a back flip over the edge which broke his neck… The memory is so painful that it’s almost impossible for me to write about it. My part in the Plattling operation left me a burden of guilt I am sure to carry the rest of my life.
Through suicide, several thousand Russians managed to escape the horrors that awaited returnees in the East.
Like Tolstoy, Elliott reviews the Stalinist attitude toward Russians who had spent time outside Soviet control during the course of the war. Soviet Decree #270 of 1942 labeled as deserters Red Army troopers who surrendered to the enemy. Forced laborers were also considered to be traitors. Relatives of POWs and dragooned workers were likewise treated as if they had personally committed acts of treason. Stalin’s government, as noted above, rejected attempts by the Germans and the International Red Cross to obtain Soviet compliance with the Hague Convention.
After the 1939-40 Winter War with Finland, returned Soviet POWs were either shot or sent to slave labor camps in the Far North or Siberia. This is also how the victims of forced repatriation were dealt with. According to Elliott, of the approximately 2,500,000 Russians repatriated by the Western Allies, some 300,000 were executed by the NKVD soon after their delivery to Soviet authorities. With a few exceptions, the rest were condemned to the lingering doom of 10 to 25 year sentences in labor camps, from which ordeal few survived. Elliott also points out that the USSR never released 1.5 to 2 million German POWs, 200,000 to 300,000 Japanese POWs, and did not repatriate those few ex-Axis soldiers who did manage to survive the rigors of GULAG until 1956.
Elliott argues that the U.S. participated in this sordid business out of concern for the safety of 24,000 American servicemen who were in Soviet-controlled territory at the end of the war. However, he admits that U.S. cooperation with Soviet authorities was not reciprocated. And even after the last G.I. returned in July 1945, the U.S. continued the forced repatriation of luckless Russian POWs, refugees, and Vlasovites. (The last documented cases of forced repatriation took place in May and June 1947, Operations „Keelhaul“ and „Eastwind“; Allied Forces Headquarters obtained Soviet assurances that they would accept corpses if the repatriation operation led to fatalities.)
Not everyone in higher circles approved of the repatriation policy; the author reveals instances where individual military officers and civilian government officials disobeyed or opposed the Yalta provisions. In June 1945, General Patton simply let 5000 Russian POWs go, and other commanders permitted lightly-guarded Russians to slip away. Secretary of War Henry Stimson was a vigorous opponent of forced repatriation, as were Acting Secretary of State Joseph Grew and Attorney General Francis Biddle, who felt that „Even if these men should be technically traitors to their own government, I think the time-honored rule of asylum should be applied.“ In the opinion of R.W. Flournoy, the State Department’s legal advisor. „nothing in the [Geneva) Convention either requires or justifies this Government in sending the unfortunate Soviet nationals in question to Russia, where they will almost certainly be liquidated.“
This book serves as a companion volume to Count Tolstoy’s The Secret Betrayal which deals largely with the British role in forced repatriation. It is a grim chapter of our recent history – and one totally ignored in contemporary textbooks and most treatments of the Second World War and its aftermath.
[*] In a long letter to Hitler dated 3 January 1940, Mussolini warned Hitler of the danger of pursuing a war with the Western powers without taking into account the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Criticizing Hitler for the August 1939 pact with the USSR and accusing him of abandoning anti-Communism, the Italian Duce wrote:
You cannot permanently sacrifice the principles of your Revolution to the tactical exigencies of a certain political moment. I feel that you cannot abandon the anti-Semetic and anti-Bolshevik banner which you have been flying for twenty years and for which so many of your comrades have died; you cannot renounce your gospel… Permit me to believe that this will not happen. The solution of your Lebensraum problem is in Russia and nowhere else…. Germany’s task is this; to defend Europe from Asia. That is not only Spengler’s thesis. Until four months ago Russia was world enemy number one; she cannot have become, and is not, friend number one… The day when we shall have demolished Bolshevism we shall have kept faith with our two Revolutions. It will then be the turn of the big democracies, which cannot survive the cancer which is gnawing at them and which manifests itself in the demographic, political and moral fields.
Department of State, Documents on German Foreign Policy, 1918-1945, Series D, Volume VII, pp. 604-609. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
[**] Reviewed by this writer in Journal of Historical Review Vol. 1, No.4 (Winter 1980), pp. 371-76.
[***] In his book An End to Silence (Norton, 1982), Stephen Cohen points out that „judged only by the number of victims, and leaving aside important differences between the two regimes, Stalinism created a holocaust greater than Hitler’s.“ Writing in the New Republic of 26 May 1982 (an article headlined on the cover as „Why Stalin Was Even Worse Than Hitler“), Richard Grenier further reflects this most interesting phenomenon of recent years – the semi-revision even among traditionalist liberals of attitudes toward Hitler, vis-a-vis Stalin:
It is no doubt a by-product of our having fought a great war against Nazi Germany, and not against the Soviet Union. that general notions of the Nazi’s system of government. history, and unspeakable crimes have entered into American folklore and popular parlance, while those of the Soviet Union have not … At the war’s close thousands of journalists and photographers, both civilian and military. climbed all over Nazi death camps. saw the dead and dying. As a result, Hitler’s lieutenants – Himmler, Goering, Goebbels – are still household names in America. Almost everyone knows of Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, Treblinka. Fascism is still popularly taken to have no rival in political evil, which is not without irony since the Fascist states, in defense of private property and their own form of mixed economy, copied most of their techniques of government slavishly from the Bolshevik model.
But when it comes to the Soviet Union, how many Americans have heard of the assassination of Sergei Kirov? How many know the name of the dread Yezhov, onetime grand master of the NKVD, who sent many more people to their deaths than Himmler, and in less time? This with the additional idiosyncrasy that whereas Hinimler, quite hideously, was murdering mostly people he considered subhuman or members of a slave race, Yezhov, perversely as well as hideously was killing the very „workers and peasants“ in whose name Stalin ruled. Much honor is paid to Snlzhenitsyn, but how many remember the names of the Gulag’s great camps … where many more millions died than in the Nazis camps?