09 July 2009

The Curious Case of the Russian Liberation Army

One of the more obscure oddities of the Second World War--at least by the standards of western historiography--is that of the Russian Liberation Army (Русская Освободительная Армия). Comprised largely of Russian anticommunists and Red Army prisoners of war, the ROA was equipped by and organized under the auspices of the Wehrmacht. At the head of the ROA was General Andrei Andreyevich Vlasov, who had denounced Communism and defected to the Germans after his capture in 1942 (Vlasov had previously served with some distinction in the Red Army, in particular during the Battle of Moscow). Despite having been ostensibly formed to fight the Red Army and free Russia from the Bolsheviks (to say nothing of Stalin himself), the ROA was in actuality either deployed to the western front or relegated to rear-echelon duties, and did not see action against the Soviet army until 1945, when any realistic chances of German victory were long gone.

Not surprisingly, Soviet historiography considers Vlasov and his followers to be traitors. This is quite an easy interpretation to justify--the ROA sided with the invading Germans and eventually fought against their own countrymen. One might expect that sentiment to have carried on to the present day, and for the most part it has. On the other hand, there are those who hail Vlasov and the ROA as Russian heroes. Such an interpretation is not without its basis--the ROA did turn against the Germans in May of 1945, fighting alongside Czech insurgents against units of the SS.

However, the heroization of the ROA tends to ignore the true nature of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Quite common among the messages of German propaganda during the war was the idea that the Nazis were crusading to free Europe from the specter of Bolshevik domination (to say nothing of the Jews). Indeed, it was for this very reason that many joined the ROA (it's probable that many of those who enlisted in the Waffen SS did so for the same reason). The struggle against Communism might have been an accessory motivating factor behind Operation Barbarossa, but the ultimate goal of the German invasion of Russia was not to liberate the peoples of Eastern Europe, but to liquidate them: as outlined in Hitler's Generalplan Ost, some 50 million people were to be killed in order to achieve the necessary lebensraum for the German people, a number that makes the millions who did die in the Holocaust seem almost paltry by comparison.

Where, then, does this leave the men of the ROA? Although its probable that many of their number were simply Nazi sympathizers, it seems perfectly absurd to think that they would advocate the genocide of their own people. Rather, the men of the ROA likely enlisted because--thanks in no small part to Nazi propaganda--they believed they were doing the right thing for Russia. The notion of a Russia free from Bolshevism must have been appealing, indeed; after all, untold millions died as a result of the Holodomor and Stalin's purges during the 1930s, and the curtailment of personal liberties under the Soviet government throughout its existence is well documented. Furthermore, if there is any sincerity behind the Prague Manifesto, the the cause of the ROA would seem quite just, indeed. Finally, its highly unlikely that either Vlasov or the men of the ROA were in any way privy to the details of Generalplan Ost--odds are that they would have been killed in the wake of German victory, along with the rest of the Russian people. Perhaps the devil you know is preferable to the devil you don't, after all.

What, then, is posterity to make of the Russian Liberation Army? Were they heroes, or were they traitors? Given the respective evils of Nazism and Bolshevism, it really is hard to say--choosing one over the other is like choosing whether to die of cancer or of lupus. Ultimately, they may be neither villains nor victims; perhaps, like the tens of millions of others, they were statistics--mere pawns in the calamitous waste of human life that was the Second World War.

1 comment:

  1. It is worthwhile reading the chapter entitled 'That Spring' of 'The Gulag Archipelago' by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The chapter is more generally about the fate of Russian POWs who returned from camps and were imprisoned in the Gulag, but there is a section about Vlasov and the ROA. Part of his thesis about the motivations of Russian POWs who joined Vlasov and other German spy programs is that many did so due to the conditions in the POW camps rather than for idealogical or political reasons. Because Russia was not a signator of the Geneva Conventions, Germany did not provide Russian POWs with even substance living.