By 1944 defeat stared Germany in the face. Goebbels’s propaganda machine did its best to counter the deterioration of morale, especially emphasizing the bleak prospects with which the “unconditional surrender” slogan confronted the German people. On July 20 a few army officers and government officials attempted to kill Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime, but the plot miscarried and merely resulted in the liquidation of the chief non-Nazis anywhere near the summit of power.
Opportunely for Goebbels came Allied publication of lists of “war criminals,” the mass proscription of the German General Staff, and the approval of the “Morgenthau Plan,” which envisaged the destruction of German industry and the conversion of all Germany into “a country primarily agricultural and pastoral in character,” at the second Quebec conference in September 1944. Goebbels declared, “It hardly matters whether the Bolshevists want to destroy the Reich in one fashion and the Anglo-Saxons propose to do it in another.” Doubtless the Morgenthau Plan did much to confuse those Germans who might be thinking of surrendering to the West while holding out against Stalin,, and thus Stalin could only profit by its dissemination by the U.S. and Britain.
At virtually the same moment that the Allies were endorsing the Morgenthau Plan at Quebec, the Nazi regime turned in desperation to a weapon which, if used earlier, might indeed have had great effect on the outcome of the war, but what the Nazis did with it in 1944 was too little and much too late. General Vlasov, who had been captured two years earlier, was to be transformed from a pawn of Nazi propaganda into the leader of a real Soviet anti-Stalinite army and government.
Vlasov, who was born in 1900, the son of a peasant family of Nizhnii Novgorod, had risen in Red Army ranks. A Party member since 1930, he had been Soviet military adviser to Chiang Kai-shek in 1938-1939, decorated in 1940, and in the autumn of 1941 one of the chief army commanders in the defense of Moscow. Apparently he possessed great personal magnetism, integrity, and ability. Not at all the opportunist and Nazi hireling he was accused of being, Vlasov “stressed his nationalism and strove to preserve the independence of the Movement,” writes the most recent Investigator. Of the most influential men who joined his cause, probably the ablest was the brilliant but mysterious Milenty Zykov, who said he had been on the staff of Izvestiia under Bukharin and for a time had been exiled by Stalin. When captured he claimed to be serving as a battalion commissar, but it was suspected that he was much more.
By the end of 1942 Captain Wilfried Strik-Strikfeldt of the German army propaganda section was planning to establish a Russian National Committee led by Vlasov at Smolensk. The plan was vetoed from above, but in December the formation of the committee was proclaimed on German soil Instead. Vlasov published a statement of his aims, and he was allowed to tour occupied Soviet areas, meeting a considerable popular response. In April 1943 an anti-Bolshevik conference of Soviet prisoners opposed to Stalin’s regime was held in Brest-Litovsk. After Vlasov declared that if successful he would grant Ukraine and the Caucasus self-determination, Rosenberg was persuaded to support the committee. However, in June 1943 Hitler ordered that Vlasov was to be kept out of the occupation zone, and that the movement was to be confined to propaganda—that is, promises which Hitler could ignore later—across the lines to Soviet-held territory.
During 1943 Vlasov’s circle, under the protection of Strik-Strikfeldt’s section at Dabendorf just outside Berlin, was allowed to carry on remarkably free discussions about a future non-Communist government for Russia and to publish two newspapers in Russian, one for Soviet war prisoners and another for the Osttruppen. The political center of gravity at Dabendorf fluctuated between the more socialist-inclined entourage of Zykov and the more authoritarian-minded group close to the emigre anti-Soviet organization, N.T.S. (Natsionalno-Trudovoi Soiuz or National Tollers’ Union). Of course political arguments among Soviet emigres were nothing new; what was new was the hope of imminent action, utilizing the five million Soviet nationals in Germany, to overthrow Stalin—either with Hitler’s support or, if he should fall, perhaps in conjunction with the Western Allies. Despite arguments, a fair degree of harmony was maintained among the Russians at Dabendorf. Especially noteworthy was the extent to which Vlasov and his followers succeeded in preventing themselves from being compromised by Nazi Ideology and in maintaining the integrity of their own effort to win Russian freedom.
Until 1944, however, the Vlasov circle was confined to discussion and publication. Although the phrase, “Russian Liberation Army,” and Its Russian abbreviation, ROA (for Russkaia Osvoboditel’naia Armiia), were much used in propaganda— with Hitler’s approval—there was in fact no such army. “ROA” was only a shoulder patch which the Osttruppen, scattered in small units throughout the Nazi army, were permitted to wear. In the summer of 1944 the ablest Intellectual of the Vlasov group, Zykov, was abducted and almost certainly murdered forthwith by the SS.
Nevertheless it was Himmler, chief of the SS, who not long afterward achieved the reversal of Nazi policy toward Vlasov. In a meeting with Vlasov in mid-September 1944, Himmler agreed to the formation of a Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia (Komitet Osvobozhdeniia Narodov Rossii or K.O.N.R.), which would have the potentiality of a government, and an actual army. It appears that Hitler consented to Himmler’s new policy chiefly because his suspicion of other Nazi officials who opposed it was by 1944 greater than his fear of arming enemy nationals—a fear which, it must be said, was justified from the Nazi standpoint. The concrete results of Himmler’s decision were meager, largely because the Russians could not, amid the disintegration which overtook the Nazi system during the last months of the war, obtain the material aid they needed to implement their plans.
However, in November 1944 in Prague the K.O.N.R. was officially established at a meeting which issued the so-called “Prague Manifesto.” This document, declaring that the irruption of the Red armies into Eastern Europe revealed more clearly than ever the Soviet “aim to strengthen still more the mastery of Stalin’s tyranny over the peoples of the USSR, and to establish it all over the world,” stated the goals of the K.O.N.R. to be the overthrow of the Communist regime and the “creation of a new free People’s political system without Bolsheviks and exploiters.” It proclaimed recognition of the “equality of all peoples of Russia” and their right of self-determination as well as the intention of ending forced labor and the collective farms and of achieving real civil liberties and social justice. If such a document had been widely disseminated two or three years earlier and given some substance in Nazi occupation policy, the results might have been important or even decisive; coming in 1944, it had no observable effect on the Soviet peoples.
The Prague meeting did stimulate certain Nazi officials to make efforts to put the minorities into the picture with political committees and armies. A year earlier the Nazis had finally organized a Ukrainian SS division which bore the name “Galicia,” but although it fought hard and well at the battle of Brody, on the Rovno-Lvov road, in July 1944, when it was finally overrun there, it dispersed to join Ukrainian partisan forces behind Red lines. In October an SS official, Dr. Fritz Arlt, attempted to secure the consent of the Ukrainian nationalist leaders to the formation of a Ukrainian national committee. To avoid being overshadowed by Vlasov, Bandera and Melnyk agreed to the setting up of such a committee, nominally headed by General Paul Shandruk. Melnyk protested the Prague Manifesto, but many Ukrainians nevertheless joined the Vlasov movement, along with representatives of other minorities.
In January 1945 the formation of the Armed Forces of the K.O.N.R. was announced; however, only two divisions were actually activated and mobilized. The First Division, under the command of a Ukrainian, General S. K. Buniachenko, was committed in April on the front near Frankfurt on the Oder, but the unit refused to fight under existing circumstances, and amid the Nazi military collapse moved south toward Czechoslovakia. At the call of the Czech resistance leaders in Prague, the division moved into the city and on May 7, with Czech aid, captured it from the Nazis.
However, in the Europe of the spring of 1945 there was no place for an anti-Soviet Russian army. The generals, including Vlasov, were turned over to the Soviet command by American and British forces, with or without authorization to do so. In February 1946 the remainder of the army was handed over by U.S. authorities without warning to Soviet repatriation officers at Plattling, Bavaria. In August Pravda announced the execution of Vlasov and his fellow officers, describing them as “agents of German intelligence” and failing to inform the Russian people that they had organized a movement to overthrow Stalin.