Andrei Vlassov and the Russian Liberation Army in World War II

It is well known that Hitler considered the Slavs an inferior race and intended to reduce them to a slave population after the conquest of the Soviet Union. Many in the German Army found it foolish and wasteful to spurn the high level of good will that the Germans encountered in their initial advances into Soviet territory, however, and tried to harness such opportunities that lingering hostility to Stalin’s regime might afford. Eventually, they managed to form the rudiments of a Russian Liberation Army (ROA) around captured Soviet General Andrei A Vlassov despite Hitler’s resistance to the idea, but the effort came to nothing.

The first six months of Operation Barbarossa did much to shatter illusions on both sides. Many Soviet civilians had thought that the German invasion might mean their rescue from the horrors of Stalin, only to discover that they had no meaningful place in German plans for the future of their land. As for German officers, dreams of a rapid victory conforming to Hitler’s expectations faded with the onset of the Russian winter. Many believed that the abuse of Soviet civilians had been a grievous mistake; success in the war could only come with the rational use of all assets that were available, and the fear or hatred of Stalin was one asset that had heretofore been much neglected.

Many of these officers, operating in the intelligence structure known as Fremde Heere Ost, formulated plans for a resistance movement that could be governed by the Germans but could still be portrayed plausibly as an indigenous effort to overthrow Stalin. Because the entire enterprise ran counter to existing German policy, these officers needed the right vehicle to present their case before revealing it to their own central authorities. The capture of Lt. General Vlassov on July 12, 1942, gave them the opportunity that they needed.

Vlassov had enjoyed good prospects in the Red Army from the beginning of his career in 1919. Joining the Communist Party in 1930, he enjoyed some influential positions in the years before World War II, including a key role in the Soviet military delegation sent to advise Chiang Kai-shek. The significance of being sent to serve in a foreign country should not be overlooked; it was a clear demonstration of high regard.

Such regard seems to have been warranted. In 1939, he was placed in command of the 99th Infantry Division, which he turned from a chronic focus of disciplinary problems to a model division in the last year before the German invasion. His service in war seems to have matched his service in peacetime; his 37th Army distinguished itself in the failed defense of Kiev by escaping from a trap when large numbers of Soviet soldiers surrendered, while his service at Moscow, this time with the 20th Army, gained substantial ground at the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942. He was promoted, decorated, and sent to the Volkhov Front to help break the siege of Leningrad.

After serving for a few weeks at headquarters, he was placed in command of the Second Shock Army. Shock armies were a unique feature of the Red Army, large formations approaching twice the size of a conventional army, with heavy emphasis on artillery support and mobile units like tanks and cavalry. With a single chain of command and common logistical support, one shock army could be more effective than two conventional armies, and shock armies were deployed near the centers of enemy resistance.

The deployment of the Second Shock Army failed to live up to its expectations. The Soviet spring offensive had started out with excellent prospects, but a German counterattack threatened to undo everything it had achieved. More specifically, the Second Shock Army had lost 70% of its effective strength and was almost totally surrounded when Vlassov was sent to assume command on April 20. He requested aid, but was refused. At the same time, he was also forbidden to retreat, and on May 30 the Germans had blocked any avenue of escape. On June 5, Vlassov attempted to force his way out of the pocket, much as he had accomplished at Kiev, but this time he failed. The Germans then dismantled the shock army systematically, and Vlassov himself was captured on July 12.

It has been suggested that Vlassov might have escaped from the pocket, just as he was inserted into it by air after the army had been encircled, if he had been so minded. He chose instead to remain and to surrender to the Germans, anticipating that he would be blamed for the loss of his army. In this he was not wrong; in fact, Stalin blamed Vlassov for the failure of the offensive itself, once he learned of the turn for the worse. Had he returned to headquarters, he would have expected at least disgrace, and possibly even execution. Once he surrendered to the Germans, there was no hope for return. Surrender was officially a capital offense since August, 1941. Thus it matters little whether he had latent anti-Stalinist opinions, as some claim, or he was simply behaving pragmatically. Once he had been captured, he had no future in the Soviet Union.

In German captivity, Vlassov was kept with other officers who demonstrated dissatisfaction with the Soviet system, and the German officers monitored them. A captain named Wilfred Strik-Strikfeldt befriended Vlassov and induced him to draft a proposal to the German High Command (OKW). It was considered far more effective for a disgruntled Soviet officer to argue for the utility of playing on widespread dissatisfaction within the Communist state than it would have been for German intelligence officers to persuade them that it could be done in theory. The effort succeeded in principle, but began inauspiciously when the OKW had Vlassov sent to Berlin for propaganda work. The officers in Fremde Heere Ost had meant to create an anti-communist Russian army, which would have been far more effective in propaganda than a single Soviet officer writing broadsheets to urge the soldiers of the Red Army to give up.

It was not until December that these officers were able to move the process into the right direction. In German-occupied Smolensk, it was proposed that a Russian Liberation Army (or ROA in the Russian language) could be formed. It was as much a signal to civilians in occupied territories that there was a place for them in the Reich after all as it was an appeal to build another army. Hitler, however, was not pleased and rejected the concept.

The concept was revived again in 1944. Two things had changed: the Germans were now clearly losing, and they were willing to entertain desperate gambles; and Hitler was recovering from the assassination attempt. Himmler authorized the project on his own, and it was launched as the Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia (again in the Russian language, KONR).

The window of opportunity had closed, however. The fighting force was only available in January, 1945, and by that point, there was no longer an occupied population that could respond to calls against Stalin. Moreover, only two divisions were raised, and these were never used in practical terms by the Germans.

At this point, the Germans were looking mainly for reserve divisions in a desperate attempt to stem the Soviet advance. Vlassov had wanted an opportunity for his Russians to fight against Stalin in a cohesive manner, with operations of his own. In the end, only one of these divisions ever fought, and it was against the Germans. In May, when Czechs struck against German occupation forces in Prague, the 1st Division of the KONR joined with them, presumably hoping to win a better future after the war. This effort failed; Vlassov had hoped to see the Americans take advantage of fighting in Prague and capture Bohemia and Moravia before the Soviets did. When this did not happen, the KONR advanced to the American line and tried to surrender there, only to be rebuffed.

In the end, some members of the KONR were captured by the Soviets directly; others found their way into Western Allied hands, only to be returned to the Soviets. Common soldiers were generally sent to the Gulags, but high-ranking officers could expect execution. Vlassov was among seven generals condemned in a high-profile trial in Moscow, and on August 1, 1946, he was hanged.



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