On this date in 1946, Soviet Gen. Andrei Vlasov and 11 fellow members of the Russian Liberation Army were condemned to death in Moscow for German collaboration, and immediately hanged.*
Vlasov was encircled and captured.
And then, as a German prisoner, he switched sides.
The conversion of a top Soviet general, who now professed anti-bolshevism, was a stupefying propaganda coup for Germany, and the recent hero of Moscow was quickly employed authoring anti-Soviet leaflets and persuading POWs of the virtues of working for Berlin.
Somewhat more guarded were the Germans when it came to forming up the military unit our defector was supposed to be head of, the Russian Liberation Army, a phantom force of patriotic anti-communist Russians fighting for their country’s self-determination free of Uncle Joe.
By hanging other Russians from trees.
Though Russian nationalism might be an expedient club to beat the Red Army with, it was just as liable to boomerang on a Reich itself bent on eastward expansion. A German interrogator of Vlasov in 1942 writing of the captive officer’s notions of national renewal concluded his report editorially (Russian link), “Russia for hundreds of years has constantly threatened Germany, regardless of whether it was the tsarist or the Bolshevik regime. Germany is not interested in reviving the Russian state.”
Besides, given the Nazis’ racial ideology, could these Slavs be trusted in a pinch? Enough to hand them their own command structure? The thousands of eastern front POWs who volunteered to serve Berlin could be suspected of having made the devil’s choice due less to principled anti-Stalinism than the fearful privations of a German camp. (Vlasov himself is often accused of changing teams for some venal reason of cowardice or greed.)
Only late in 1944, when the prospective long-term problems of Russian nationalism had been rendered academic to Berlin by the progress of the war, did the scattered collaborator units get organized into an actual army under Vlasov’s command.
The ineffectual ROA only got into one real scrap with the Red Army, and confirmed German suspicions about Slavic reliability in the last days of the war by turning its German guns against the SS in support of the Czechs’ Prague Uprising.
But surely nobody counted on returning to Stalin’s good graces with this last-second conversion.
From that successful engagement, Vlasov’s men fled out of Prague towards the American occupation zone, desperate not to be taken by the Red Army.
They made it. But after just a few days in American hands, Vlasov was turned over at a Russian checkpoint.
Though structured by the Allied powers’ Yalta accords, which stipulated repatriation into Stalin’s hands of any Soviet citizens held in the West, Vlasov’s handover might at the moment have been part of what must have been innumerable quid pro quo arrangements to sort out command and control in the disaster area late dignified as the Third Reich.
Historian Patricia Wadley has hypothesized that Vlasov’s detention by the Soviets conditioned the landing just an hour later of an airlift to evacuate the airman’s POW camp Stalag Luft I from behind Soviet lines.
However they got their hands on him, the Soviets made no mistake once they had him. Most of Vlasov’s junior officers were executed, and his rank and file dispatched to Siberia. The brass got a three-day trial — in camera, not a show trial; they were still defiant — from July 30 to August 1, with the inescapable result.
Vlasov’s legacy after the fact remains debatable. In the official Soviet story, of course, he’s a Nazi collaborator and that’s that. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn attempted to vindicate Vlasov in The Gulag Archipelago, and one can find pro-Vlasov posts and tributes — but post-Communist Russia has shown no interest in overturning the verdicts against the ROA.
One might allow him sincerity in his convictions, but only at the cost of allowing that his movement had no independent force in the war save what Germany breathed into it for Germany’s own reasons. Something like that holds true for nearly every human being caught up in the eastern front in those terrible years.
Some have characterized Vlasov a vile collaborator; others have seen him as a Russian national hero. Neither description quite fits. Andrei Andreevich Vlasov, given to drink and fits of fatalism and inertia in captivity, lacked the sterling character deemed essential for a martyr. On the other hand, the ROA chief was anything but a Nazi — he caused his German supporters discomfort with his strong Russian nationalism and his personal refusal to lend his voice to the prevailing, official anti-semitism. He possessed neither a Quisling‘s moral blindness to questions of patriotism nor a Joan of Arc‘s penchant for self-immolation. He came closer to the mean of most humans, aptly personifying the nightmarish predicament which confronted millions of the Eastern Front’s victims. Vlasov, like multitudes of other helpless Soviet citizens, was cruelly pulverized between the enormous and unfeeling millstones of Nazism and Communism. Shuffled about Europe’s wargame board, first by Stalin, then by Hitler, Vlasov was a pawn in the epic struggle just like the lowliest POW or forced laborer. He fantasized a Russia minus Marx, and though his failure was complete, he still came closer than any other Russian since the Civil War to fulfilling that dream.
-Mark Elliott, “Andrei Vlasov: Red Army General in Hitler’s Service,” Military Affairs, Apr. 1982
* Vlasov’s execution was announced in Pravda on Aug. 2, but with no reference to the precise time. (The sentence was certainly issued in the very early morning of Aug. 1.) Though some sources continue to list Aug. 2 as Vlasov’s execution date, Aug. 1 seems much better attested.