Die Geschichte der Wlassow-Armee
General Wlassow: Russen und Deutsche zwischen Hitler und Stalin
Vlasov and the Russian Liberation Movement: Soviet Reality and Émigré Theories
As Gorbachev consolidates his power in the Soviet Union, there are signs that glasnost may be beginning to have a liberating effect upon Soviet historiography. Names and topics that have long been taboo are beginning to creep into print. Not so long ago, a senior historian writing in the pages of Pravda admitted that Leon Trotsky was not the enemy of the Revolution and socialism that he had been described as being for the past sixty years, and went on to give a not uncritical account of his ideas and to praise him for “not breaking, as many others did, before Stalin’s dictatorship.” In August, in the official newspaper of the Communist youth organization, Komsomolskaya Pravda, a five-column article by the military historian V.M. Kulish attacked the myths surrounding the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, pointing out that it was not a defensive ploy, as Party doctrine has held. Instead it was a naive attempt by Stalin to make a permanent alliance with Germany, which succeeded only in giving Hitler a free hand in the West and then making the Russian campaign a one-front war, with dreadful consequences. Commenting on this, and on Kulish’s further charges that Stalin’s obsessive hatred of the German Social Democrats and his orders to the Communists to attack them rather than the Nazis helped bring Hitler to power in 1933, Frederick Starr wrote in The Washington Post, “The Kulish article attests to a new readiness in Moscow to pull even the most horrifying skeletons from the national closet.”
One will be more inclined to agree with this when Soviet scholars dare to attack the most jealously guarded of the historical myths of World War II, that of the invincible solidarity of the Soviet people and their leadership in the face of Nazi aggression. This was given its classic formulation by the propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg, when he wrote in a 1941 article called “There is No Fear” (later reprinted in the British series “Russia at War” in 1943): “This war is no civil war. It is a national war for Russia (that is, for the Soviet Union). There is not a single Russian who is against us, or who would support the Germans.”
Read in Germany, that statement would have been greeted with derision. The fact of the matter was that in the course of the Russian campaign the almost incredible number of 5.24 million Russian officers and men surrendered to the Germans (of whom, by German calculations, more than three million died in camps), that in 1943 hundreds of thousands of Soviet subjects were serving the Germans as volunteer workers or in military units, and that during the war’s last years numbers variously estimated but probably exceeding a million men were being organized by former Red Army generals and staff officers into an army that hoped to overthrow the Stalin regime. This was the ROA or Russian Liberation Army, also called the Vlasov Army, after its leader, Lieutenant General Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov, a heroic figure in the defense of Moscow in 1941.
These facts the Soviet regime has, for the past forty years, attempted to smother, by silence, denial, and vilification. When Vlasov and his associates were executed for treason in 1946, this was announced in a twenty-seven-line article in Izvestia in which their military titles were not even mentioned, and, as if to discourage identification, Vlasov’s name promptly disappeared from the Soviet Military Encyclopedia. These tactics were unsuccessful. In his memoirs, General Petro G. Grigorenko alludes to the way in which discussion of the Vlasov affair continued in the Red Army in the Fifties. Former associates of Vlasov, like the German Captain Wilfried Strik-Strikfeldt and informed observers like the interpreter and middleman Sven Steenberg, began to publish books about his ideas and aims. Finally Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn brought the fate of Vlasov and his followers to world attention in the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago. The Soviet government then launched a campaign of unmitigated abuse against these writers and Vlasov himself. The chief of the military historical section of the Department of Defense and corresponding member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Lieutenant General Zilin, went so far as to accuse Vlasov of lack of military talent, cowardice, and treason against the state even before his capture by the Germans. He excoriated those who defended him, while at the same time reaffirming the myth of solidarity in the most extravagant terms.
In view of all this, it is clear that letting this particular skeleton out of the closet will be a painful business. But the very possibility invests the three most recent books about Vlasov with a particular interest. Joachim Hoffmann’s study, a product of the Freiburg Research Center for Military History’s long interest in volunteer formations in the German army in World War II, is the most comprehensive account to date of the Vlasov movement as a military organization. with circumstantial details concerning recruitment, training, organization, and deployment, and a description of its abortive operations in the last days of the war and its capture and final disposition. Sergej Fröhlich was a Baltic-German engineer from Riga, with Soviet citizenship and a commission in the Latvian army, who transferred to the German army in 1942 in order to serve as a liaison officer to Vlasov, with whom he established a close and friendly relationship. His memoirs tell us a good deal about the complicated relationship between Vlasov’s personal objectives and Germany’s wartime eastern policy, a story that is already reasonably well known thanks to Alexander Dallin’s masterly account in the second edition of his German Rule in Russia: 1941–1945. But their strength lies in the intimate picture they provide of Vlasov’s personality and the nature of his life in wartime Germany.
Catherine Andreyev’s account emphasizes the political aspects of the Vlasov movement and the extent to which its ideas and its declared objectives were and remain a threat to the Communist regime in the Soviet Union. In addition, both Hoffmann and the prominent German historian Andreas Hillgruber in his introduction to Fröhlich’s memoirs argue that it is not the Soviet Union alone that has reason to be embarrassed by full disclosure of the Vlasov story. Following Solzhenitsyn, they bitterly criticize the British and United States governments for having surrendered Vlasov and hundreds of thousands of his followers to Soviet imprisonment and death.
Andrey A. Vlasov was born in 1900, the youngest of thirteen children in a peasant family in Nizhni Novgorod, and, according to his parents wishes destined for a career in the church. The Revolution put an end to that possibility and, when Vlasov enrolled in an agricultural college, the onset of the civil war terminated that course too. In 1919, he was conscripted into the 27th Rifle Regiment, where he proved such a good soldier that he was soon sent to an officer-training school. As a platoon commander, he fought against the white armies of Denikin on the Don and Wrangel in the Crimea, and by the end of the civil war was commanding a special detachment in the Ukraine with the mission of suppressing anti-Bolshevik and bandit gangs operating in the area. By now, he had made up his mind to remain in the army, and for the next twenty years he had a series of staff, school, and training assignments in which he acquitted himself so well that he advanced quickly in rank and responsibility. In 1938, he was deputy commander of the 72nd Division, from which he moved to a position on Marshal Timoshenko’s staff and from there to a politically sensitive assignment as chief of staff to the Soviet military adviser in China and, for a time, chief military adviser to Chiang Kai-shek. Upon his return, he was given command of the 99th Division, which was notorious for its lack of homogeneity and, because of this, its insubordination and internecine brawls, and he retrained it so quickly and efficiently that Timoshenko was soon calling it the best division in the army.
When the German invasion of Russia began, Vlasov quickly demonstrated that his talents were not purely administrative or pedagogical, and as a fighting general, popular with his men although a strict disciplinarian, he was soon being compared with Suvorov. Against General von Rundstedt’s offensive in the Ukraine, he conducted a brilliant holding action, fighting his way out of repeated encirclements. In the fighting around Moscow, he commanded the 20th Army and was subsequently singled out by Soviet Informburo as one of the commanders who had made an outstanding contribution to the defense of the capital. In the Soviet counterattack in December, his troops and Rokossovsky’s 16th Army fought their way to the Istra River and to Volokolamsk, and in January 1942 his army spearheaded the drive to surround the Germans in the Mozhaisk-Gzhatsk-Vyazma region. In the same month, he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner and promoted to the rank of lieutenant general.
His luck now ran out. Appointed in March 1942 as deputy commander of operations on the Volkhov front that were planned by Stalin himself to relieve pressure on Leningrad, Vlasov found himself in a situation in which the chain of command was confused and the troops ill-trained and ill-supplied. In March his Second Shock Army came under heavy pressure from the Germans and, because general headquarters was unresponsive to appeals for speedy reinforcement, was encircled and gradually pounded to pieces. In June Vlasov ordered his men to escape as best they could. He himself was captured on July 12, 1942, and sent to a German holding camp in Vinnitsa.
It was here that he received a visit from the German Captain Strik-Strikfeldt, chief interpreter to the commander of Army Group Middle, General von Bock, with an additional assignment to the “Foreign Armies East” section of the Supreme Army Command. Strickfeldt had been agitating for some time for the creation of an anti-Communist Russian Liberation Army and had won the enthusiastic support of the Chief of the Army Command, Field Marshal von Brauchitsch. He now asked Vlasov to assume the responsibility for raising and commanding such a force.
Because he accepted this offer, Vlasov has been called a traitor by Soviet historians and an opportunist by others who have written about his career. In considering such charges, one should remember that for the failure of Stalin’s personally botched Volkhov campaign a scapegoat would have to be found, that it was inevitable that Vlasov would be chosen, and that, in any case, his surrender to the Germans had effectively terminated his professional career and his rights as a Soviet citizen. Return to his country in any circumstances would mean long imprisonment, if not immediate death.
In addition, his decision was probably influenced by his growing estrangement from the Soviet system. Vlasov had never interested himself in politics, but it was impossible to live in the Soviet Union without being touched by it. In the Thirties he had seen the careers of many of his army comrades ended by charges of political unreliability. The great purge of the officers involved in the alleged treason of Marshal Tukhachevsky was in its earliest stages when he went to China. That he was allowed to go shows that he was not among those who were to be charged with complicity; and later claims that he had participated in “The Trotskyite Conspiracy with Tukhachevsky” were clearly fabricated. By the time he returned, however, thousands of highranking officers had been arrested and shot, and it is not unlikely that Vlasov was shaken by the damage that this had done to the morale and efficiency of the Red Army, and that his faith in the regime suffered in consequence.