Thursday, November 21, 2013

1945: The Betrayal of the Cossacks and Other Sad Stories

Ian Buruma has produced a fascinating description of the year 1945 in his recent book Year Zero: A History of 1945. The title is appropriate in the sense that after World War II nothing would ever be the same, so, for better or for worse, for most it marked a new beginning. 

Buruma grew up in the Netherlands after the war. His father was gathered up by the Nazis and taken to Germany and forced to work as a laborer there. He managed to survive that experience and return home safely. Not everyone who was displaced by the war was so lucky. One of Buruma’s most affecting chapters describes, by example, what was involved in dealing with the millions of displaced people.

"My father was one of more than 8 million ‘displaced people’ stuck in Germany in May 1945, waiting to be transported home. There were roughly 3 million more in other parts of Europe, some who longed for home, some who wanted to go anywhere but back, and others who no longer had a home to return to: Poles in the Ukraine, Serbs and Croats in Austria, White Russians in Yugoslavia, Jewish refugees in Kazakhstan, and so on. The figures in Asia are just as staggering: 6.5 million Japanese were stranded in Asia and the Pacific, half of them civilians. More than a million Korean workers were still in Japan. And thousands of Australian, European, and American POWs were marooned in China, Japan, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia, as well as Indonesians and other Asians forced to work on Japanese military projects around the region. Up to 180,000 Asians had worked on the Thailand-Burma Railway; about half of them survived."

Underlying the main drama of the Allies contending with Nazi Germany were a host of regional conflicts; sometimes expressed as civil wars between contending armies, and sometimes ethnic aggressions unleashed by the breakdown in civil structures. The result was a complex situation to be dealt with after Germany surrendered.

Buruma utilizes the situation that developed in the Drau Valley of Carinthia, a beautiful part of Austria, to illustrate how complicated a situation the allied armies faced as the only source of authority at the end of the war.

"The Drau Valley was filled with camps and shantytowns, the makeshift quarters of tens of thousands of people, former soldiers, as well as women and children, together with their horses, oxcarts, and even camels. There were proud Cossacks in tall sheepskin hats; Slovenian peasants; Serbian Chetniks, some royalist, some fascist, some a bit of both; Croatian fascists from the dreaded Ustasa; Ukrainians; Russians; ex-POWs from various European countries; and even a few Nazi mass murderers hiding in mountain shacks…."

Buruma includes this quote from a British officer, Nigel Nicholson.

"There seemed to be no limit to the number of nationalities which appealed to us for our protection. The Germans wanted to be safeguarded against Tito, the Cossacks against the Bulgarians, the Chetniks against the Croats, the White Russians against the Red Russians, the Austrians against the Slovenes, the Hungarians against everyone else, and vice versa throughout the list….Not only was [Carinthia] the last refuge of Nazi war criminals, but of comparatively inoffensive peoples fleeing from the Russians and Tito, unwanted and all but persecuted wherever they went."

These peoples thought they would be safe once they landed in an area under the control of the British army. They didn’t know, and couldn’t be allowed to know, that the allies had agreed at the Yalta Conference that all citizens of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia would be returned to those countries—forcibly if necessary. This would put the British in a tragically awkward situation.

The Germans took many Soviet army prisoners. Their plan was to dispose of them by starvation. This the Germans did until they became short of manpower and began to give prisoners the option of fighting on their side rather than dying. Many of them chose to live—at least temporarily. Many others on the eastern edges of the Soviet Union viewed the German invasion as an opportunity to revolt against Stalin and took up arms with the Germans. Many others were forcibly sent to labor in German-held territory. In Stalin’s view, Soviet citizens were patriots who fought to the death. Therefore anyone who survived being on the German side of the battle lines must be a traitor and should be treated accordingly.

The allies were aware of the consequences of delivering these people into Stalin’s hands: quick death by execution or slow death in the work camps. They were concerned about the morality of such actions, but the prevailing opinion was one attributed to Anthony Eden:

"We surely don’t want to be permanently saddled with a number of these men."

The incident known as the Betrayal of the Cossacks is used by Buruma to illustrate the difficulties the British had in carrying out this promise to Stalin.

The British had led the Cossacks on with hints that they might become part of the British military and serve the Empire somewhere. This was to keep them quiet until preparations for action were ready. One day they told the Cossack officers that they would be going to a meeting with British officials to discuss future plans. They were told they would be back by evening and that they would not need their guns because they would be given newer and better ones that day.

"In reality, they were never seen again. After being handed over to the Soviet army, those who were not executed immediately were sent to the gulag where very few survived."

Gathering up the remaining men along with the women and children was not going to be an easy task. Buruma describes one incident:

"….thousands of people were gathered together in a massive huddle by their priests in full orthodox regalia, praying and singing psalms. Inside the human mass, kneeling and locking arms, were the women and children; outside were the younger men….The idea was that soldiers would surely not assault people at prayer."

They were wrong. One by one the unfortunate soldiers chosen for this task had to try to peel off the outside ring of people and get them placed in a train car. If necessary, they would use their rifle butts to beat people senseless. Panic ensued with people trying to squeeze ever tighter to avoid the soldiers. Buruma provides this statement from a witness:

"Everything was mixed up: the singing, the prayers, the groans and screams, the cries of the wretched people the soldiers managed to grab, the weeping children and the foul language of the soldiers. Everyone was beaten, even the priests, who raised their crosses above their heads and continued to pray."

It was what one British officer described as "a damned bad show."

"In the end the job got done. Some drowned themselves with their children in the river. A few people hanged themselves from pine trees outside the camp. But most of the remaining Cossacks ended up in sealed cattle wagons with one small window and one bucket for all to use as a toilet."

Similar scenes played out in many locations—even in the United States—as people were rounded up and turned over to the Soviets in what would eventually be referred to as Project Keelhaul. This source provides information on an incident that took place at Fort Dix, New Jersey, in which three people committed suicide and seven were injured before being subdued using tear gas and forcibly taken to a Soviet ship. Thus were 154 people in the United States "repatriated."

Forced repatriation ended in 1947; by then the number who had been turned over was about 2 million.

Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to this return by force if necessary at Yalta, but the terms were concealed in a secret codicil. It would be fifty years before the details became public. Alexander Solzhenitsyn referred to it as "the last secret of World War II."

Those from Yugoslavia who were returned to Tito and his army fared little better, if at all. In the town of Bleiberg, on the Yugoslav border in southern Carinthia, the British were confronted with what was described as a fleeing mass of Croatians, including 200,000 soldiers and 500,000 civilians. The British convinced them that it would be impossible to harbor so many and convinced them that they should turn themselves over to Tito and they would be treated "properly as POWs." The starving Croatians had no other choice.

Little is known of what happened next because there were few survivors. Those who did live to speak of events told of mass executions, death marches, beatings, and other forms of torment.

However, there were occasions where the soldiers knew exactly what was happening.

"….there is no doubt that large numbers of people were murdered by Tito’s partisans, not just Croats on their death marches, but Serbs and Slovenes, too, who were machine gunned in the dense and beautiful forest of Kocevje, where the wild boar, lynx, and red deer still roam. They had arrived there, as prisoners of the communists, because the British had put them on trains to Yugoslavia, telling them they were bound for Italy."

Estimates of the number of people killed in World War II range from 60 million to 85 million, depending on how on one chooses to attribute a death to the war. Perhaps, after many years of carnage, leaders thought that a million or two more casualties in order to tie up loose ends was not too large a price to pay.

Buruma has produced a masterful recounting of the events that transpired in 1945. To describe it as a "history" might not do it justice. His interest is not in political machinations and grand strategies, but rather in describing how the various classes of people who were affected tried to cope with and survive the greatest cataclysm mankind has experienced. Check it out!

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