Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin; drawing by David Levine

No sooner had the British forces in June 1944 carried out their part in the Allied invasion of Germany than they were faced with the fact that among the prisoners of war captured there were Russians in German uniforms. By the time the war in Europe ended, between two and three million Soviet citizens had passed through Allied hands. This extraordinary situation, certainly never before known in the history of war, was the consequence of the policy of both the Soviet and the German regimes. On the Soviet side, the very existence of prisoners of war was not recognized: the Soviet government refused to adhere to the Geneva Convention, and washed its hands of the millions who fell into German power.

The Germans, in turn, treated their Soviet prisoners with such callous brutality that only a relatively small number of them survived. For a Soviet prisoner in German hands to enlist in the German armed forces was about the only way open to him of saving his life. There were also Soviet citizens whose hatred of the Communist regime was so strong that they were prepared to fight alongside the Germans in order to overthrow Stalin: nominally headed by General Andrey Vlasov, they saw little combat until the end of the war, largely because of Hitler’s suspicion of Vlasov’s claims to maintain his political independence of the National Socialist regime even as a prisoner of war. There were also some other combat units composed of Russians, some of them noted for their savagery. Then there were hordes of civilians in German hands—some compulsorily swept into the German labor mobilization drive, many more borne along on the wave of the German retreat from Russia and thereafter drafted for labor duties. These civilians included many women and children.

The problem facing the British government from the outset was what policy to adopt toward this mass of humanity that did not fall into any of the accepted categories thrown up by war. Quite apart from the logistic problems, there existed a well-established tradition in Britain which refused to repatriate against their will people who found themselves in British hands and the nature of whose reception by their own government was, to say the least, dubious. The first inclination of the Cabinet—to send all captured Russians back to the Soviet Union—was challenged by the minister of economic Warfare, Lord Selborne, who was moved by the fact that the Russians in British hands had only volunteered to serve in German uniforms as an alternative to certain death; and that it would therefore be inhuman to send them back to be shot or to suffer long periods of forced labor. Winston Churchill was also swayed by this argument.

It was the foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, who, in answering Lord Selborne’s argument, laid the foundation of what was to become unwavering British policy thereafter. Count Tolstoy’s account does not reveal the extent to which Eden’s policy was the product of the advice of his permanent officials in the Foreign Office. But, to judge by the zeal with which they strove to implement the policy thereafter, it seems probable that they at all events approved of it. Eden argued that many of the prisoners in fact wished to return to the Soviet Union—which, though true, was irrelevant, since the problem concerned those who refused to return. Moreover, he contended, “we cannot afford to be sentimental about this” in view of the “revolting” behavior in France of their formations—a charge substantiated by one sole incident where the Germans, in revenge against a local revolt, mustered some of the most savage and primitive Russians they could find and let them loose on the village concerned to loot, rape, and murder.

The last three points contained the substance of Eden’s policy: the logistic problem of what to do with the millions if they were not returned; the need to win Soviet good will so as to secure the speedy repatriation of British prisoners whom the advancing Soviet forces would before long liberate; and—what I suspect was the one real motive in Eden’s mind—not to antagonize the Soviet Union, who would not understand humanitarian motives, and whose good will both for prosecuting the war and for safeguarding the peace thereafter it was essential to ensure.

It may be observed that at the time when this policy was formulated the Soviet authorities had not yet made any demand for the return of their citizens, indeed denied that there were any significant numbers involved. Before long, however, they realized the enormous adverse effect that the presence of these hordes of deserters in the West would have on Soviet propaganda, and set up a clamor for their return, enveloped in a smokescreen of protests that the British were obstructing Soviet citizens who were pining to return to a loving motherland.


Eden’s arguments convinced the Cabinet: this book is the story of how that policy was implemented thereafter. As Lord Selborne foresaw, it proved impossible to put into effect a policy of returning all Soviet citizens in Allied hands without using force against those who refused to return of their own free will. The Yalta agreement on the repatriation of all Soviet prisoners of war contained no express provision about the use of force on the recalcitrant—typically enough of the mealy-mouthed hypocrisy which characterized Allied wartime relations with the Soviet Union (and which much entertained Stalin). The American delegates apparently remained in doubt even after the agreement was signed whether the US had consented that the unwilling must be forcibly repatriated. The doubt does them credit, but it did not in the end do much to help the Russians in American hands.

Count Nikolai Tolstoy, a scion of the great family which included the novelist, has written a magnificent book. It deserves this epithet on two grounds. In the first place, he has told a shattering and disturbing story of brutality, callousness, and inhumanity dispassionately, with only very rare glimpses of the white heat of indignation which must have impelled him to undertake this task. And secondly, it is so well researched with respect both to the documentary evidence (British official papers, with some exclusions, are now available for study) and to the scores of participants whom he has interviewed that Count Tolstoy’s work has emerged unscathed from the dozens of detailed reviews to which it has been subjected.

It is not a pretty story—the numerous suicides; the harrowing scenes of force used against unarmed and frightened people; the jackals of the Soviet NKVD in military guise (SMERSH) roaming England in pursuit of fugitives; the downright deception which army officers were required to practice in order to lull the suspicions of those due for repatriation—and more of the same kind. The repatriation of the Cossacks (who were for the most part displaced civilians) is described in particular detail. This was an episode marred both by the use of force and by an elaborate ploy of deception engaged in by the British military forces concerned. This depressing account is made even more harrowing by the fact that a number of people, who had left Russia at the time of the Civil War, or were even born outside Russia, and whom the British were in no conceivable sense bound by the Yalta agreement to return, were included for repatriation.

As the first convoys of repatriates reached Russia, accompanied by British officers, the long-suspected fear that Soviet talk to prisoners of welcome and forgiveness was mere deception was proved to be only too true: often the officers in the party repatriated were shot on the spot, almost without concealment, and the remainder herded off—the vast majority to serve long sentences in the death-dealing conditions of the Gulag Archipelago. It is doubtful whether many, if indeed any, believed the smooth lies of the Soviet officers in the British or German camps. Yet such is the fatalism, or resignation, of the Russians that many, possibly most, did indeed return quite voluntarily to face and endure what they knew was coming to them.

What of the different roles played in this tragedy by the protagonists concerned? The British Foreign Office never wavered in its determination to implement a policy which, one can assume, or hope, some of its officials disliked. But, as Tolstoy observes,

The Foreign Office was convinced of the dangers of not falling in wholly with Soviet wishes and then, as all too often occurs, tried to persuade itself and everyone else that such a policy was not only politically expedient, but also morally justified.

The army, on whom fell the duty of actually implementing the policy on the ground, hated it, and often said so. But soldiers under orders have little option but to obey their superiors’ commands. There were, it is true, some commanders who quite deliberately turned a blind eye to their orders and connived at escapes and the like. They do not seem to have suffered in consequence.

The United States authorities were, in general, much more reluctant than the British to implement the Yalta policy in all its severity—and the author shows convincingly that the pressure on the Americans to fall into line invariably came from the British. American scruples, at any rate up to the surrender of Germany, were largely based on an argument rejected by the British Foreign Office, that Russians captured in German uniforms were in law entitled to be treated as German prisoners of war, and therefore as protected by the Geneva Convention. But, after the defeat of Germany, and the consequent disappearance of fear of reprisals, little was heard of the principle, and, however reluctantly, American soldiers were used to compel unwilling Soviet prisoners to return to their country—though no force was ever used by the Americans on civilian women and children.


The other countries that were concerned with the problem of repatriation on a smaller scale all adopted very different policies. In France, the communists in the government did all they could to encourage Soviet kidnappers and murderers, while the French army did what it could in Austria and Germany to obstruct them. The Dutch and Belgians were more robust in their resistance to Soviet demands, the Swiss, rather surprisingly, were cooperative with the USSR, even to the extent of threatening the recalcitrant with force. Sweden behaved with particular ruthlessness in “repatriating” a party of Baltic soldiers from a Latvian Division who had fled in the last stages of the war onto Swedish islands. The extraordinary feature of Swedish policy was that it was supported by public opinion—to the extent of 71 percent, according to an opinion poll. Only “tiny Liechtenstein, a country with no army and a police force of eleven men, did what no other European country dared”—defied Soviet demands, refused to repatriate any of the Soviet citizens who had sought refuge in Liechtenstein and who did not wish to return, maintained them for two years, and enabled them to resettle in the Argentine.

It must be stated emphatically that, all accusations to the contrary (for example by Solzhenitsyn), the British public at the time knew nothing of what was going on in the process of repatriation of Soviet citizens. The facts were, of course, known in the army. But serving soldiers were precluded from disclosing the information in their possession, and in England the authorities operated their very effective censorship system to prevent the facts from becoming known. The Foreign Office did all it could to ensure that this blanket of silence was effective, since its officials were well aware of the kind of public outcry that would result if the truth were to emerge.

The first real impact of the facts was made by the publication of Count Tolstoy’s book. (Strange to say, Lord Bethell’s book on the subject of repatriation, which contained many, but not all, of the facts amassed by Count Tolstoy, made relatively little impact in England when it was published a few years ago). The public reaction to Tolstoy’s work was enormous—it is difficult to think of any other book in recent times that has had a comparable effect. Letters poured into the press, there were questions in Parliament, there was a long leading article in The Times, and of course scores of reviews. British policy certainly found its defenders. The most intemperate—and grossly distorted—defense that I know appeared in the Sunday Times, under the title “Myth of the Yalta ‘Victims.’ ” The author of this article argued that the “overwhelming majority” of the civilians returned voluntarily because they believed they had nothing to fear; and that among the military volunteers the ones who resisted repatriation were those who knew that they were going back to well-deserved punishment because of the atrocities which they had committed. As the Russians say: paper will stand anything.

The more rational defenders of Cabinet and Foreign Office policy stressed, I think rightly, the major burden on Allied resources that a policy of asylum would have entailed in wartime conditions in which they were already overstretched; and that the full extent of the horror that would face us is one which the British government when it formulated its policy could not foresee. I should be inclined to add, on the basis of my personal recollections of the mood of desperate resolve to defeat Germany before it was too late, especially in the last race against time to capture the V2 sites, that it had the effect of suspending our traditional humanitarian sentiments.

I say this not by way of justification, but explanation: it is very difficult for those who did not live through those years and were not involved in the prosecution of the war to recapture that mood of determination and singleness of purpose which drove all else from one’s mind. I well recall, for example, my own reaction to the news of the discovery of the murdered Polish officers in Katyn forest and to the information which at the time remained secret that the murder was the work of the Russians. It was not what it would be now—indignation and revulsion. As a serving officer the paramount anxiety I recall was that nothing should be allowed to interfere with the smooth cooperation with the Soviet Union which was essential for winning the war.

It could, I suppose, with justice be argued that the British government could not when the policy was decided upon anticipate the full extent of Soviet inhumanity toward its returning citizens. This may be so. But this could in no way justify the continuation of the policy once the facts were known. Yet such was the determination of the Foreign Office to appease the Soviet Union that the policy was ruthlessly pursued, even in the face of the evidence, and even after virtually all Soviet undertakings at Yalta had been violated. One of the most depressing facts in this book is a false assurance given by two Foreign Office officials to Ernest Bevin when he succeeded Anthony Eden as foreign secretary that no use of force had been necessary in the course of the repatriation of Soviet citizens. The evidence, carefully analyzed by Count Tolstoy, does not however substantiate Foreign Office fears that to delay repatriation of Soviet citizens would have endangered the return of British prisoners of war overrun by the advancing Soviet forces.

The main public reaction in Britain was, above all, shock at the realization that a government which, quite justly, has a reputation for humanitarian behavior could in some circumstances, for whatever reasons, fall so far below those standards and could, above all, through the statements of its officials, display such callousness in the face of human suffering. There were demands for a public inquiry. The Times, in one of the most indignant leading articles that I can remember for a long time, called for an investigation by a parliamentary committee and said some very harsh things about the officials who were concerned to implement the policy.

I think it is a good thing that there has been no public inquiry, with the witch-hunt that it would of necessity have entailed. I also sympathize with the officials concerned (all of whom are still alive) in their decision not to make any public statement: they have enough on their conscience to last for the rest of their lives. I believe that the more appropriate reaction was the setting up of a committee, on which members of Parliament of all political parties are represented, to launch an appeal for a fund to erect an appropriate memorial to those who perished as the result of our policy. The public has responded quite generously so far. The idea for such a memorial was, I believe, first advanced by Edward Crankshaw on February 26 in a most balanced and noble-minded review of this book in The Observer.

The real moral of the story must not be forgotten: that if a large number of wholly innocent or pardonably culpable people perished, or were made to endure great suffering, along with a minority of the guilty, the ultimate fault lay with the brutal and inhuman Soviet regime. But the failure of the British, and to a lesser degree of the Americans, lay in believing that some ultimate advantage for the future of the world could be derived from trying to appease this monster at any cost to principle and tradition. To quote The Times, the events which form the subject of this book.

provide a valuable reminder of the dangers of excluding elementary considerations of justice and humanity from the conduct of diplomacy in the misguided belief that this can serve the national interest.

That moral is still very relevant today.

This Issue

December 7, 1978