Stalin's and the POW's

M A Jones mark at
Thu Aug 5 16:03:04 MDT 1999

Stalin's alleged mistreatment of Soviet POW's is supposed to be more
evidence of his paranoia, pathological malice etc.

More than 5 million Soviet soldiers became German prisoners in WW2.
The Germans shot, burned, gassed or otherwise murdered, starved,
beat and worked to death, or used for medical experiments, at
least 3.5 million of these - this is a holocaust of Russian manhood
which we never hear much about (over 90% of Russian men
who had their 18th birthday in 1941, were dead by 1945).

Of the more than one million of Soviet POW's who eventually returned safely
to the Homeland, many were placed in Soviet prison camps where they were
screened; most but not all were soon released. This has always been a
huge issue in the West. It is said Soviet soldiers who allowed
themselves to be taken prisoner  were stigmatised as cowards or
traitors. This is evidence of Stalin's 'malice' etc. Why else would
Stalin imprison his own soldiers, even after the victory over Germany
was won?

Why indeed.

In all combatant countries, deserters who abandoned their weapons
faced courts martial and the possible death
penalty. This was also true of the USSR; but there was no habit of
repudiating those who were captured, and no Japanese-style cult
of preferring to commit suicide than be taken (altho it is true that
Soviet soldiers of all ranks, disdainful of death at
the hands of such a despised enemy, often preferred to die
fighting than to surrender).

But Stalin and the Soviet government's attitude to POW's was decided not by
any romantic or moral considerations but by a desire to neutralise
collaborators or turncoats. Victory over the Nazis did not signal the end
of the threat to the USSR. It was clear after the Potsdam conference in
1945 that the Americans had already picked up the Nazi baton. Truman,
the simple, religious Man from Missouri, made it plain to Stalin that
the atom bombs just then detonated were meant above all as
warnings to Russia (the Japanese Empire had, of course, been
trying for weeks to surrender; the Americans turned a deaf
ear until after their first nuclear tests were completed on the
inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

There had been Soviet collaborators with the Nazis. While few
Soviet POW's had willingly helped them, some did, and these
'hilfwillige' were used as support detachments and even, as manpower
shortage more and more afflicted the Wehrmacht, as frontline
soldiers. Several thousand of these hapless 'recruits' to Hitler's
cause were captured by the Red Army at Stalingrad, as Antony Beevor
recounts in his extraordinary book about the battle for Stalingrad,
in which Beevor's sympathies lie wholly with the poor, gallant,
unfortunate Nazis.

And Soviet captives were indeed turned by the Nazis and
sent back behind Soviet lines in considerable numbers where they
performed valuable service spying for Hitler.
John Erickson graphically described German use of Soviet double agents, in
his 'Road to Stalingrad' (1985 Granada, p.471):

"... On 1 April 1942, at a time when estimating Russian strength in the
field and forecasting Russian intentions was of critical importance,
Oberstleutnant Reinhardt Gehlen took over the German General Staff
intelligence organization for the Eastern Front, Fremde Heere Ost ('Foreign
Armies: East'), from Kinzel. In the sleek, soft-spoken lieutenant-colonel,
the German command had found a master of the craft of intelligence,
deception and penetration. Not that Gehlen was a beginner. He played an
important part in the briefing for 'Barbarossa', exploiting his 'contacts'
inside the Soviet Union, the agents planted in the Baltic states, the
Ukraine and the Crimea, but it was after the opening of hostilities with the
Soviet Union that Gehien displayed his astonishing talents in handling
Russian prisoners of war, working upon those willing to co-operate with the
Germans with great deftness and finally infiltrating them behind the Soviet
lines, not infrequently into significant positions. (To turn over Gehlen's
files is to come upon a vast stock of information on the Soviet Union:
the reports of the 'V-männer', Gehlen's own agents, statistics of Soviet
industry, detailed compilations of Soviet order of battle, careful and
informative analysis of captured mail, the tortuous trails of the
Funkspiele, the 'radio games' played with fake radio stations and decoy
operators all to trap Soviet agents, and at each turn bulging dossiers of
Soviet strength, reinforcement, movement and preparation.)
Success of a spectacular kind came early for Gehlen. In the spring of 1942,
within the special 'collection camps' and interrog-ation centres set aside
for Soviet prisoners of war who showed some willingness to collaborate,
Gehlen found a certain Mishinskii, senior commissar and high Party official
(from the Moscow organization) taken prisoner in the ghastly days of October
1941. Beguiled and bribed by Gehlen, the disconsolate Mishinskii was
persuaded to work for Germany, briefed for an espionage mission and
carefully infiltrated behind the Soviet lines, impressively loaded with
'information' and primed with his story of daring escape from the Germans.
The 'escape' was a myth and the 'information' planted by Gehlen, but on the
strength of both Mishinskii bought his way back to favour at home and to a
job in headquarters in Moscow (an operation code-named Flamingo). It was
from this highly placed source that Gehlen soon received his 'high-level'
reports about secret Soviet conferences in the summer of 1942. Meanwhile
other prisoners passed through the Gehlen pipeline, finding their way to
army units, staffs, Party organizations and industrial posts, a spreading
net of informers and agents cast well behind the front-line.
Nor did Gehlen ignore the traditional methods of acquiring information about
enemy intentions and capabilities. In March and April 1942 patient work with
card-indexes and with the collation of every conceivable scrap of
information yielded invaluable results. From internal Soviet sources
(newspapers, reported conversations and intercepts of broadcasts) and
external sources (such as the German military attaché in Ankara or the
Japanese military attaché in Kuibyshev) a steady stream of items indicated
an impending Russian blow in the South. Stab Walli, a highly specialist
German intercept and evaluation agency, reported at the end of April a
conversation between Central Committee member Nossenko and the editor of
Pravda emphasizing Soviet intentions to wrench the initiative from the
Germans and to go over to the offensive on or about 1 May, the day on which
Stalin himself issued another optimistic 'May Day order' hinting that the
war could be ended in 1942; all this data emanating from agents and
intercepts was packed into a special Fremde Heere Ost file,
'Angriff-Charkow: Chi-Abwehrmeldung'. On 10 April, in the first of his major
presentations dealing with Soviet intentions, Gehlen argued that a
Gesamtangriff, a general turn to the offensive, was out of the question,
but that Teilangriffen, Stalin's 'partial offensives', might well be
expected where the German line was weak or in the vicinity of vital
objectives. The Soviet Schwerpunkt would be in the south, though at the
moment it was impossible to state with certainty whether positional defence
or spoiling attacks would materialize; Moscow would be very firmly
buttressed and Soviet attempts to break the Leningrad blockade were a
distinct possibility. Three weeks later, on 1 May, Gehlen enlarged on these
preliminary submissions in an eleven-page report, repeating once again that
the general Soviet posture was and would remain defensive, but that
Zermubungsangriffe, 'wearing down attacks', were very likely, against Army
Group Centre, against the northern wing of Army Group South and from the
Izyum bulge, where, to judge by the movements of the Soviet 28th Army and
the development of the Soviet 6th and 38th Armies, a 'Kharkov offensive' was
very likely. Now it looked as if the Soviet command was organizing 'several
Schwerpunkte', but from none of them was there any likelihood of a major
For the 'Kharkov offensive', which Gehlen practically spelled out, Marshal
Timoshenko (who had been assigned to command the South-Western Front as well
as the 'theatre' as a whole, with Lieutenant-General F. Ya. Kostenko as his
deputy) had a combined force (South-Western and Southern Fronts) of 640,000
men, 1,200 tanks, 13,000 guns and mortars with 926 planes. Gorodnyanskii's
6th Army would strike for Kharkov from the south, while Major-General
Bobkin's 'Army group' also operating from within the Izyum bulge would go
for Krasnograd and thus secure 6th Army from the south-west: the northern
prong of the pincer would come from the Volchansk area, with a shock group
headed by Lieutenant-General Ryabyshev's 28th Army, plus flank units of 21st
and 38th Army, to drive on Kharkov from the north-east and finally link up
with the southern prong emerging from the bulge..."

Oberstleutnant Gehlen was recruited by US Intelligence after the war; he
became the organiser of Nato's espionage assault on Soviet Russia,
continued his work almost without pause, and the same networks of agents
which he ran for the Nazis became the basis for CIA espionage in the Soviet
Union after 1945.

Arguably, Stalin's attempts to screen out spies from returning POW's were
not rigorous enough. Western crocodile tears shed on behalf of the
returnees (never, of course, shed for those millions the Germans
slaughtered in captivity) formed merely another instance of postwar
Cold War propaganda, as well as attempting to pressurise the
Soviets to downscale their own counter-espionage efforts.

Mark Jones

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