When Hitler’s forces invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, millions of Russians welcomed and embraced the Nazi military forces. In many instances, Russian soldiers willingly surrendered to the Germans. The German invasion of the Soviet Union was the beginning of what would ultimately become one of the darkest episodes of World War II — the forcible repatriation and mass murder of millions of anticommunist, anti-Stalinist Russians.
At the center of one of the most fascinating and horrific stories of World War II was a Russian general named Andrey Vlasov. Vlasov was born in 1900 in the small village of Lomakino in the province of Nizhni Novgorod. He was one of eight children. His parents were peasants who did everything they could to see that their children received an education. Vlasov attended religious schools but finally decided to study agriculture.
During the Russian Revolution — in 1919 — Vlasov was called up to serve in the Red Army. He was commissioned an officer and led men into battle against the White Army. Sven Steenberg, in his book Vlasov , quotes the November 21, 1940, issue of the Red Star : “He understood how ‘to win respect, lead men, bind them to himself, and at the same time increase their self-confidence.’”
At the end of the Revolution, Vlasov decided to remain in the army, rising to the rank of colonel by the late 1930s. Then, Stalin commenced his infamous purge against the Russian officer corps. Estimates of the casualties differ, but Steenberg says:
According to conservative estimates, about thirty thousand officers were arrested. Three of the Red Army’s 5 marshals were liquidated, 13 out of 19 army commanders, more than half of the 186 division commanders. Even their families were not spared.
Vlasov survived the purge. But as Steenberg points out, he was undoubtedly deeply affected by Stalin’s murder of so many of his fellow officers and compatriots.
On June 4, 1940, Vlasov — at the age of 39 — was promoted to major general. His wife, a doctor who he had married in 1933, bore him a son. Many years before, she had had to disavow her parents because they were “kulaks” — rich peasants — traitors to communism. But Vlasov continued to secretly support them. And Vlasov also maintained another family secret — his older brother Ivan had been murdered by the communists in 1919.
In the fall of 1941, German forces were twenty-five miles from Moscow. The city was in a panic. Stalin ordered Vlasov to Moscow and appointed him commander of the Twentieth Army, whose mission was to assist in the halting of the German assault on Moscow. Vlasov took command and counterattacked the Germans, halting their advance and helping to save the city.
In January 1942, Vlasov’s army took part in an offensive near the city of Leningrad. The battle went badly for the Russians, and Vlasov requested permission to retreat. Stalin refused and ordered continued attacks against the Germans. Vlasov flew to Moscow to explain the urgency of the need to retreat. Stalin again refused the request. Vlasov returned to his forces, who were now in danger of being surrounded.
At this point, Vlasov received a note from his wife that said, “Guests were here.” In the midst of this crucial battle, Stalin had sent the secret police to search Vlasov’s home and question his family.
The Germans surrounded Vlasov and his army. For two weeks, the general avoided capture by secreting himself in the swamps that covered the battlegrounds. And those two weeks alone in the Russian swamps caused Andrey Vlasov to do a lot of questioning and much soul-searching about the plight of Russia and her future.
One day, a Russian mayor disclosed Vlasov’s hiding place to German forces. Vlasov surrendered to the German army.
From the first grade in their public schools, Americans are taught the evils of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. “If we had not entered World War II, Hitler would have conquered the world,” Americans are taught. “There is no way that the world could have tolerated the continuation of the Nazi regime. It was necessary for tens of thousands of Americans to die to stop Hitler.”
Yet, there is one uncomfortable fallacy with this reasoning. The United States and the Western world survived something even worse — the regime of Joseph Stalin and the rise and domination of the communist empire. Obviously, the world would have been better off without the evils and horrors of both Hitler and Stalin. But if we had to end up with one of them, who is to say that Stalin was better than Hitler? If we survived in a world of Stalin and communism, then why couldn’t we have survived in a world of Hitler and Nazism?
Let us recall why Great Britain and France declared war on Germany in the first place (it was not Germany that declared war on them first). Hitler had invaded Czechoslovakia and Austria, obviously with the intention of ultimately moving east against the Russians. In fact, contrary to popular opinion, the evidence that Hitler ever intended to invade the West is scant. For one, Hitler considered himself a Westerner. Moreover, he had already expressed his desire for Lebensraum — “living space” — in Russia.
When Germany threatened to invade Poland, the British and French emphasized that they would come to Poland’s aid. But this was a hollow guarantee. There was no way that England and France had sufficient military forces to enforce the guarantee. Nevertheless, once the attack on Poland took place, England and France declared war on Germany. The specific goal of British and French intervention was to liberate the people of Poland and Eastern Europe from the clutches of totalitarian dictatorship.
And so what happened at the end of World War II? What were the consequences of the most massive death and destruction that mankind has ever seen? Were the people of Poland and Eastern Europe freed from totalitarian dictatorship?
The parades and speeches in 1995, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the winning of World War II, have one primary focus with respect to the European part of the war: the defeat of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. And there is a reason for that: If people begin reflecting on the real consequences of World War II, serious doubts will begin to form, not only about that war but about foreign wars in general — and the continued existence of the U.S. military-industrial complex.
In his campaign for reelection in 1940, Franklin Roosevelt assured Americans that he did not intend to involve the U.S. in the European conflict. Roosevelt was playing to public-opinion polls, since the overwhelming number of Americans did not want to intervene in the European war. Americans remembered the promises of Woodrow Wilson some twenty years before. If you will permit us to sacrifice your sons on the European battlegrounds, Wilson had told the American people, I promise you that this will be the final war — the war to end all wars — the war to make the world safe for democracy once and for all.
And so thousands of Americans died so that Wilson could have his noble dream. But Wilson was wrong. Within twenty years, the warring factions were at it again. The thousands of Americans who died in the First World War died in vain. They were sacrificed for nothing.
Thus, Americans overwhelmingly supported Roosevelt when he openly declared in a campaign speech on October 30,1940: “I have said this before, but I will say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent to any foreign wars.”
Most historians now recognize that Roosevelt knowingly and deliberately lied to the American people. At the very time he was assuring them of his intentions to stay out of the European conflict, he was making secret commitments to England to help maintain the British Empire in the Far East. He was doing his best to goad Germans submarines into attacking American vessels. And he ultimately found the “back door” to war by goading the Japanese in the Pacific. (See “December 7, 1941: The Infamy of FDR” by Jacob G. Hornberger and “Pearl Harbor: The Controversy Continues” by Sheldon Richman, Freedom Daily , December 1991.) Franklin D. Roosevelt lied his way to reelection. And the result was another American intervention into a European war.
What were the results at the end of the war? Fifty million deaths. Tens of millions uprooted. Four trillion dollars in direct costs. The most massive destruction of property that mankind has ever seen. Acts of extreme brutality. Firebombings and other terroristic attacks against noncombatants. It was the most horrific event in the history of mankind. (See “The Consequences of World War II” by Sheldon Richman, Freedom Daily , November 1991.)
But what about the Poles and the Eastern Europeans? After all, they were the specific reason that Great Britain and France had declared war on Germany. Surely, they were free at the end of the war.
Not exactly. And this is what makes American public officials — as well as the American people — so uncomfortable. Yes, it is true that the German invaders were ousted and defeated by the Allied forces. Yes, it is true that the Poles, the Czechs, and the Eastern Europeans were saved from the clutches of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.
But they were delivered into the hands of Joseph Stalin and the communists .
We have been taught to believe that this was a great victory. That this brought freedom to the Eastern Europeans. That one of the great and glorious consequences of World War II was the liberation of the Eastern Europeans by Russian forces. Americans should be proud, we are told, that their sons and daughters died on the battlefield — or returned blinded or maimed — so that the Eastern Europeans could live under Stalin rather than Hitler.
But many Eastern Europeans did not live under Stalin. Instead, they died under him. For Stalin — this wonderful ally of Franklin D. Roosevelt — was one of the most brutal mass murderers in all of history.
While it is difficult to compare evil, Stalin has to be considered much worse than Hitler. Certainly, he was responsible for the deaths of many more people than Hitler. The estimates of Russian deaths under Joseph Stalin are estimated to be 40 million(yes, forty million individuals!), including the approximately 10 million killed as a result of Stalin’s collectivization of the Russian farms in the early 1930s. Even Hitler (who killed twenty million individuals!) did not come close to matching these numbers.
Ask the Poles about the mass murder at the Katyn Forest. For decades, Russian and American government officials had scoffed at the notion that, in 1940, Russian military forces had rounded up 13,000 defenseless Polish military officers, taken them to the Katyn Forest, and shot them in cold blood. Instead, the claim was that the murder was committed by Nazi forces. Now, some forty years later, the Russians themselves have admitted that it was the communists — the great liberators of Poland and Eastern Europe — the great humanitarians — the great allies of England and the U.S. — who committed the murders.
Yes, the Poles were freed from the clutches of Adolf Hitler . . . so that they could live, suffer, and die at the hands of their freedom-loving liberators, Joseph Stalin and his communist comrades.
Why don’t Americans have the same prejudice against Joseph Stalin that they have against Adolf Hitler? Why are brutal foreign dictators always referred to by American public officials as another Adolf Hitler rather than another Joseph Stalin?
One answer is that it is too painful to confront the reality of what happened to the Poles, the Czechs, and the Eastern Europeans at the end of the war — and for some forty years after that. Life under Nazism was not pleasant. But neither was life under communism. To confront the reality of who specifically won control of Poland and Eastern Europe is to confront the reason why so many Americans died in Europe: so that communism, not Nazism, would reign supreme in Eastern Europe.
Moreover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is portrayed in American history books as one of this country’s greatest presidents, considered Joseph Stalin his friend. He even referred to this mass murderer as “Uncle Joe.” Furthermore, since victory in World War II is always portrayed as an Allied one, Americans have a tendency to think of the three Western leaders — Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin — as “all the same.”
In a sense, Americans are right. For all three Allied leaders had the same ideological orientation. That is, all three believed that one of the proper roles of government was to own or control the means or results of production. The labels varied according to the country — socialism, communism, the welfare state, the planned economy, the New Deal. But the principles underlying the labels were the same. When it came to economic principles, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin were cut out of the same ideological cloth.
But this was not the only similarity among the three leaders of the Allied Powers. All three, as well as FDR’s successor Harry S. Truman, shared another similarity with their counterpart Adolf Hitler: all five of them participated in the mass murder of millions of innocent people. And this brings us back to the issue at hand — the dark episode in history that American officials kept secret for so long — Andrey Vlasov, forcible repatriation, and the mass murder of millions of anticommunist and anti-Stalinist Russian people.