Stalin was worried about collaboration with the German invaders. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia had those who viewed the Germans as liberators. So too did the Ukraine and Belarus.
There were also Soviet Union's Volga Germans — whose ancestors had come to the Volga River area back in 1760. After the Bolshevik Revolution the German Volga Republic had become one of ten Soviet Republics. In 1941, most Volga Germans considered themselves loyal to the Soviet Union, but their German roots made them targets of hostility and their loyalty suspect. In August 1941, a couple of months into Hitler's invasions, the Stalin regime dropped parachutists dressed as German soldiers among the Volga Germans and asked to be hidden until German troops arrived. Villagers who complied were executed. In late August the German Volga Republic was abolished. Around 600,000 were packed into cattle cars for resettlement to western Siberia and northern Kazakhstan. Another 348,000 were sent eastward in similar fashion, dumped in wastelands and left to fend for themselves without benefit of tools or government equipment. And thousands died of starvation.
By January 1943, German armies were pulling back. The Soviet Union's defense industries were humming. Tanks and aircraft had arrived from Britain. And from the far-off United States, material was arriving associated with its Lend-Lease program. Stalin was keeping quiet about the material aid, wanting as much credit for the Soviet system as possible. President Roosevelt's friend and former ambassador to the Soviet Union, William Bullitt, wanted Roosevelt to seek concessions in exchange for the assistance, but Roosevelt rejected his advice in favor of staying on the same page with Churchill and Stalin.
On April 13 came the announcement by radio from Germany of a discovery of thousands of bodies of Polish officers in the Katyn forest (near Smolensk). The Germans, interested in its propaganda value, asked for observers from the West. Stalin described it as "fascist slander." Roosevelt was shown an intelligence report that blamed the massacre on the Russians, but he refused to believe it. Churchill tried to smooth over the matter, announcing that it was no time for quarrels among the Allies. "We have got to beat Hitler," he said, and he assured the Soviet ambassador in London that he would oppose any investigation by the International Red Cross or any other body in any territory under German authority.
The Poles in exile in Britain were not as accommodating as Churchill, and, on April 25, Stalin broke diplomatic relations with them. Stalin said to Roosevelt's envoy, Joseph Davies, that the Polish government in London had betrayed the Soviet Union. He said the Soviet Union needed regimes on its western border that were friendly. He added that he "wanted all European peoples to have the kind of government that they themselves chose, free from coercion."
From November 28 to December 1, the Big Three met in Teheran, Iran. (Northern Iran was dominated at the time by the Soviet Union and southeastern Iran by the British.) Churchill tried to draw Stalin out on Poland. Stalin spoke of moving Poland's western frontier to Germany's Oder River, a move leave the Soviet Union with the territory it had gained with the Hitler-Stalin Pact and that would uproot millions of Germans. About any plans that he might have concerning the spread of communist revolution, Stalin smiled and said, "We won't worry about that. We have found it is not so easy to set up a Communist society."
At dinner during the conference, Stalin proposed executing 50 to 100 thousand of Germany's military officers. Roosevelt joked that perhaps 49,000 would do. Churchill was angered by the comments and denounced the idea of "the cold-blooded execution of soldiers who fought for their country" and said he would rather be shot himself rather than partake in any such action.
Stalin, meanwhile, had uncharitable thoughts about the Soviet people recently occupied by the Germans — the Kalmyks. The Kalmyks were originally from Mongolia. They had a history of conflict with Stalin's collectivization, oppression and destruction of their Mongolian lifestyle, and some had indeed joined the Germans after the German army arrived in the Kalmyk Soviet Republic (southeast of Stalingrad to the Caspian Sea) in early 1942. But Kalmyks were also serving in the Soviet army, with something like 8,000 Kalmyks having won various awards, including 21 recognized as Heroes of the Soviet Union. The Kalmyk population had been something like 130,000. The Germans were out of the Kalmyk Republic by late 1942, and a year later (December 1943), after the conference at Teheran, Stalin's NKVD police packed around 98,000 of them into cargo wagons and shipped them to various locations in Siberia, where many would perish. And the Kalmyk Soviet Socialist Republic was abolished, divided among neighboring republics.
In February (1944) the Chechen-Ingush Soviet Socialist Republic, in the Caucasus region, was abolished. The Chechens and Ingush were moved a little northward to what today is Chechnya. It is written that over a hundred thousand people died or were killed during the round-ups and transportation.
In March, the Soviet government forcibly deported almost the entire Balkar population to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Omsk Oblast in Siberia, the NKVD loading 37,713 Balkars onto 14 train echelons bound for Central Asia and Siberia. They had been accused of cooperating with the Germans, and what had been their Soviet Socialist homeland was ceded to the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR).
Next came the Tatars in the Crimea. In early April 1944, Soviet forces began their offensive against the Germans in the Crimea. In May, at least 191,044 Tatars were deported, ostensibly as collective punishment for some Crimean Tatars having collaborated with the Germans. Stalin's NKVD police used cattle trains to deport women, children, the elderly, Communists and members of the Red Army, to the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan, several thousand kilometers away. Nearly 8,000 Crimean Tatars died during the deportation, while tens of thousands perished as a result of the harsh exile conditions in subsequent years.
In his anti-Stalin speech in 1956, Nikita S. Khrushchev (a Ukrainian) described the deportations and said that Stalin would have deported the Ukrainians too, but there were too many of them.
It was August 1944 when Stalin's armies were stopped just short of Warsaw. Encouraged by Soviet broadcasts and eager to strike against the Germans, Poland's underground Home Army in Warsaw rose against Germans occupying their city. But these were not Stalin's people. Stalin's troops were parked outside of Warsaw for weeks as Germans crushed the uprising, which ended with Hitler ordering Warsaw to be systematically destroyed. The Polish Resistance is said to have lost 15,200 killed and missing.
It was in August 1944 that the Allies liberated Paris. Emotions there were intense and some of it inspired by hate. There were those who hated who saw the arrival of the Allies as an opportunity to express their righteousness or perhaps some other posturing. They shaved the heads of women believed to have associated with German soldiers. On the foreheads of these women they painted swastikas, and some were stripped naked and then paraded through the streets.
The leader of the Free French, Charles de Gaulle, wanted the Resistance Movement to remain disciplined, to hold to the rule of law, while some found opportunity in the atmosphere of righteousness and fighting fascism to assassinate personal enemies.
Retributions were also on display in the capital of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Moscow. There the international camaraderie among workers of the world had diminished. An American diplomat in Moscow, George Kennan, was disturbed by the sight of German prisoners of war, many of them boys, marched through the streets, pushed from the rear, stumbling, some falling from exhaustion. (They were part of the 2.38 million Germans taken prisoner between 1941 and 1945, many of them to be worked to death.)
Retribution was also on the minds of Soviet forces at the front. A Soviet officer, Major Lev Kopelev, protested his army's policy of letting troops express revenge against German civilians. Kopelev's commanding officer, Colonel Zabashtansky, denounced Kopelev's humanitarianism as weakness. He spoke of the need to hate and to take a terrible revenge on the Germans, including children, so that the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Germans would remember. He told Kopelev of the Soviet soldier needing an incentive to go on fighting, that Soviet troops should be free to take from the Germans what goods and women were available and not to worry about shooting any irate Germans in the process. He said that if German women and children are killed, well, that is war. Humanitarianism, he said, was for after the war, when one could theorize about how things should be. (After the war, Kopelev would be sentenced to a ten-year term in the Gulag for fostering "bourgeois humanism" and for "compassion towards the enemy".
Also during this stage in the war, Stalin expressed his annoyance with a comment that the Yugoslav Communist leader Milovan Djilas had made regarding Soviet troops entering Yugoslavia. The issue raised by Djilas was rape. "The Red Army is not ideal," said Stalin. "The important thing is that it fights Germans and it is fighting them well." Stalin asked Djilas what was "so awful" about a Soviet soldier "having fun with a woman, after such horrors." (Milovan Djilas, Conversations with Stalin, pages 110-111.)
In early February (1945), a week-long Big Three conference was held at a former palace of the tsars in the Crimean town of Yalta. The three leaders ratified previous agreements about dividing Germany into occupation zones, and they agreed to the US and Britain giving a portion of their zones to France. Stalin demanded that at the end of the war all Soviet citizens be repatriated to the Soviet Union whether they wanted to or not. Churchill and Roosevelt agreed, unknowingly condemning many dissidents and old Russian exiles to death.
The most contentious issue at Yalta was Poland. Stalin agreed to the creation of a "provisional government of national unity," and it was agreed that this government should "be pledged to the holding of free and unfettered elections as soon as possible on the basis of universal suffrage and secret ballot."
Two days after the Yalta Conference adjourned, 769 British bombers and 527 American B-17s (supported by 784 US P-51 fighter aircraft) dropped bombs on Dresden. Before Yalta the bombing had been planned in part at least as a show of Britain's contribution to the war effort, in front of approaching Soviet forces, but the bombing had to be postponed. The two days of bombing began on February 13th. Intentionally it created a firestorm. Between 22,700 and 25,000 died. One of the survivors was a prisoner-of-war, Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote the novel Slaughterhouse-Five. His account tells of more than 135,000 killed. Wikipedia writes:
The Germans put him and other POWs to work gathering bodies for mass burial. "But there were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Nazis sent in troops with flamethrowers. All these civilians' remains were burned to ashes".
Berlin was also being bombed — 83 times between early February and mid-April. Berliners were living without water or electricity and little food. The bombs were accomplishing little strategically, but making the rubble bounce and killing more civilians.
In March, Roosevelt was complaining about the Soviet Union's slowness in releasing American prisoners-of-war liberated by the Russians and of the Russians not allowing these men visitors. Also upsetting Roosevelt was the arrest of sixteen Polish Underground Army leaders in Poland, whom the Russians had promised safe conduct. And Roosevelt's ambassador to the Soviet Union, Averell Harriman, reported that advancing Soviet troops were robbing people and committing wholesale atrocities against civilians, especially women.
Stalin feared that the British and Americans might be working on a separate treaty with the Germans, but his two allies were pushing forward. With the approval of Washington, General Eisenhower was attacking toward the southeast and foregoing opportunity to reach Berlin before the Russians. Eisenhower was annoyed by British criticism of his broad-front strategy, the British having preferred a reinforced breakthrough straight to Berlin and capturing Berlin before the Russians. Eisenhower was leaving to the Russians what had been agreed would be their zone of occupation (to be East Germany) including Berlin (also to be divided into zones of occupation).
Soviet forces were just outside Berlin and about to launch their final offensive when, on April 12, Roosevelt died. The Germans surrendered on May 7, General Jodl representing the German High Command, signed the unconditional surrender.
As decided at Yalta, Germany's eastern boundary shifted west — another mass deportation. Silesia was given to Poland although it had been thoroughly German for centuries. Polish people were eager to settle where Germans had been. From East Prussia and from Danzig (renamed Gdansk), Germans arrived in their reduced Germany by in boxcars and on foot.
Elsewhere in Europe, postwar punishments were common. In Yugoslavia, between 20 and 30 thousand believed to have collaborated with the German occupation forces were shot dead in what has been described as a frenzy of retribution. In Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands, those who had collaborated with the Germans were hunted down. In Denmark, several hundred young women were jailed whose only crime was consorting with young German soldiers. In Norway there were complaints that civil liberties were being ignored. Passion there worked against the lesser offenders compared to those who cases took longer to prepare, the passing of time allowing passions to subside.
In France the aged Philippe Pétain, 89, was put on trial. An opinion poll indicated that only three percent favored death for Pétain, and his death sentence was reduced to life in prison. His former prime minister, Pierre Laval, had not been a Nazi sympathizer, and he defended himself in court with a skill said to have resulted in court cutting his trial short. Nevertheless he was sentenced to death. He said, "I die for having loved my country too much." And he would be shot in October, the same month that Vidkun Quisling, in Norway, would be hanged.
Meanwhile, the victors did not intend to leave the Germans free to adjust their political views as the Italians were doing in their emergence from Mussolini's fascism. At a conference in Potsdam Germany in July (Churchill, Stalin and Truman) it was agreed that,
All members of the Nazi Party who have been more than nominal participants in its activities and all other persons hostile to Allied purposes shall be removed from public and semi-public office, and from positions of responsibility in important private undertakings. Such persons shall be replaced by persons who, by their political and moral qualities, are deemed capable of assisting in developing genuine democratic institutions in Germany.
In the American zone virtually all adults were presented with a questionnaire, and the Germans considered it a sad joke. A parody spread that asked, "Did you play with toy soldiers as a child? If so, what regiment?" The Americans conducted court proceedings against 169,282 deemed politically unfit. The British tried only 22,296 and the Russians 18,000. By Christmas 1945, the Americans would force around 141,000 Germans from their jobs. They would dismiss 80 percent of their zone's school teachers, force 50 percent of its doctors from practicing medicine and dismiss all those on the staff of public health – people whose services were important to the health crisis Germany was having.
Germans were getting by on 1000 or 900 calories a day, and in the British zone during the first winter after the war it dropped to 400 per day – half the amount allocated at the Belson concentration camp. Rumors spread that the Allies had agreed to make the Germans suffer three years of concentration camp conditions. It was widely expected that the winter of 1945-46 was going to kill a lot of Germans. Before winter set in, pits were dug for burial. But the winter was surprisingly mild.
Generally, Germans viewed the Allies as ending the Hitler era with might-makes-right rather than justice. And that would be how many of them would view the big war crimes trials that the Allies planned to conduct at the city of Nuremberg beginning in November — a trial of those accused of crimes against humanity and of conspiring to wage aggressive war.
CONTINUE READING: Judgment at Nuremberg
Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.