Stalin’s victory over Hitler in the Second World War saved the Soviet Union from destruction and ensured its perpetuation for the next half a century. The latter feat was accomplished because the Soviets, on many levels, insidiously exploited their triumph over the Nazis. Aside from political, military, and economic aspects of its victory, the Kremlin expertly acted in the realm of propaganda.
First, Soviet propaganda used the victory to whitewash Communism of its crimes and reinforce its pseudo-moral dimension in the West. Second, the legacy of the defeat of Nazi Germany was applied to legitimize the perpetuation of the Soviet power at home and its imposition abroad, in particular in East Central Europe. All this necessitated the creation of a mythology for both domestic and foreign consumption.
The mythology centered on alleged Soviet resistance against world-wide “fascism”. In reality, it was competition between national and international forms of socialism. According to the myth, however, “the Soviet people” under the leadership of the Communist party resisted “fascism” from shortly after 1917 until its defeat in 1945. The resistance culminated in “The Great Patriotic Fatherland War” (1941-1945). This propaganda contraption required suppressing many crucial historical facts that threatened to undermine it. Thus, ubiquitous Nazi-Soviet collaboration, on both official and unofficial levels, was vehemently denied. The Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of August 23, 1939, which launched the Second World War, was reduced to a Communist tactical retreat. The Soviet mass murder of the Polish officers in the Katyn Forest was denied and debunked from the massacre of prominent Poles in the Palmiry Forest, even though both were synchronized crimes to exterminate Poland’s elite. The memories of the exuberant welcome of the Nazis by Soviet citizens in the summer of 1941 and the massive participation of “the Soviet people” in the Nazi war effort against “the Soviet Fatherland” were buried. The extermination of the Jews was depicted as “martyrdom of Soviet citizens” and shed of its uniqueness. And, unlike the struggle of the Nazis and their collaborators against the Polish independentist underground, the onslaught of the Soviets and their proxies against pro-Western Poles was obfuscated and depicted to fit the mould of “the struggle against fascism.”
One of the most important planks in the Kremlin’s propaganda offensive was the myth of “the Soviet Partisan Movement.” According to the party “hagiography” (p. 26), the Communists organized the masses which rose up, out of automatic “Soviet patriotism” ignited by orders from Moscow, to defend the “Soviet fatherland.” The “Soviet people” in the occupied territory either outright flocked to the ranks of Communist guerrillas or supported them wholeheartedly from the very beginning. Enjoying universal popular support and equipped with crucial war supplies by Moscow, Stalin’s partisans were able to inflict enormous casualties upon the German “fascists” and their collaborators. Thus, according to Communist propaganda, they contributed mightily to the victory over Hitler and legitimized the Soviet power everywhere they fought.
The myth persisted beyond the collapse of the USSR. It has begun to unravel only when independent scholars were granted access, albeit still limited, to the post-Soviet archives. The unmasking of the Soviet Lie has progressed on several fronts simultaneously. A few Polish scholars, Zygmunt Boradyn and Kazimierz Krajewski in particular, were the first ones to expose the falsehoods about “the Soviet partisan movement” in their case studies of Poland’s former northeastern borderlands (now Lithuania and Belorussia). However, the utility of their discoveries is greatly limited because the authors write in Polish. Now, however, German-Polish historian Bogdan Musial comes to the rescue.
Musial edited and introduced a selection of Soviet documents concerning Communist guerrillas in Poland’s pre-war province of Nowogródek, or, in Stalinist parlance, the region of Baranovichi (Baranowicze oblast). The scholar divided his work into five parts. He focused on: the origin and organization of the regional Soviet partisan structures; the partisan military operations and propaganda; their relations with the civilian population and internal affairs; their attitude toward the Jewish partisans; and their struggle against the Polish independentist underground. Musial’s research confirms some of the long held assumptions on the anti-Communist side and sheds new light on the inner working of the Soviet partisan effort. Far from distinguishing itself by “military professionalism,” it was distinctly marked by “dilettante activism” (p. 18).
According to the documents stored in Minsk, which constitute the bulk of the selection, the Soviet guerrilla operations were initiated by Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD/NKGB, immediately after the Nazi invasion of the USSR and its occupied Polish, Baltic, and Rumanian territories. On June 26, 1941, the Soviet leadership in Belorussia ordered 14 guerrilla units into the field. They consisted of 1162 fighters, including 539 NKGB, 623 NKVD, and the remainder the Red Army men (p. 17-18). These first sabotage detachments were quickly wiped out or dispersed. Meanwhile, the forests and swamps of Belorussia filled up with tens of thousands of Soviet troops, stragglers whose regular units had been destroyed by the Blitzkrieg. For the most part, they remained inactive and often found protection and employment with the local rural population: Poles and Belorussians alike. The Germans did not bother them until spring 1942, when they lamely undertook to apprehend them. The stragglers fled back into the forest, individually and in small groups, where they established encampments and bases. Soon these groups were joined by fugitive Soviet POWs and a few Jews. Most Jews, however, established separate camps. Meanwhile, the original NKVD commandos, who had survived the Nazi assault of the summer and fall of 1941, and new NKVD men, who were sent as reinforcements by Moscow, located the sylvan hideaways and gradually subordinated to themselves many of their denizens. Simultaneously, the NKVD men re-established the clandestine Communist party structures.
Eventually, by January 1944, out of 1156 partisan units of 187,571 Soviets, 723 units of 121,903 (65%) guerrillas operated in Belorussia (p. 21). In July 1944, the Soviet irregular forces in the Baranowicze region consisted of 11,193 fighters, 10% of them women. The majority of the partisans were Belorussians – 6,792 (60.7%). The rest were Russians – 2,598 (23.2%); Jews – 973 (8.7%); Ukrainians – 526 (4.7%); Poles – 143 (1.3%); and others – 161 (1.4%) (p. 36). Many of them, if not most, were forcibly drafted (pp. 36, 42, 74). Some of these deserted, the Poles in particular (p. 134, 136, 253-54).
Jews were a special case among Soviet partisans. They were forced into the forest by the Nazi extermination. Young and armed individual Jews were usually accepted by the Soviets. Women, children, and elderly were abandoned at best and victimized at worst. There were even the instances of the killing of Jews by the Soviet partisans (p. 155, 158). Eventually, however, separate Jewish groups, both guerrilla units and mixed family batches of refugees, were subordinated to the Communist partisan leadership and were considered as Soviet assets (p. 124).
Admittedly, Jewish partisans had it tough. Even within the Soviet partisan units they had to contend with “hatred of Jews” (p. 91). The Soviet leadership vowed to curb anti-Semitic words and deeds but at the same time it punished frank expressions of Jewish solidarity and grievances. For instance, in May 1943, “partisan Grigorii Rivin, Jewish by nationality, [was] shot because of his systematic spreading of Jewish chauvinism.” Rivin’s transgression was that he openly and frequently complained that “Jews were not accepted into the [partisan] unit…[and that] they were harassed” (p. 190). In June 1943 in Mironka, after a Jewish sentry mistakenly killed a Soviet partisan, the latter’s comrades unleashed themselves upon the Jewish patrol, killing seven of its members (p. 192). In the wake of such occurrences, the supreme command of the Soviet partisan Stalin Brigade announced that “spreading of Jewish chauvinism and, equally, of anti-Semitism is a fascist method to destroy the partisan vigilance” (p. 192). Thus, in congruence with Marxist prejudices, Zionism and anti-Semitism were considered to be equally malignant pathologies. The former was punished seriously; the latter appears chiefly to have been denounced verbally.
Perhaps for that reason alone only a few Jews considered themselves Soviet or Communist. Most were conscious acutely that theirs was a uniquely Jewish experience. Most focused on the survival of the remnants of their community, whatever it took. This included accommodating to the Soviet ways. A few Jewish leaders took advantage of the situation to solidify their power over their Jewish underlings. Those who challenged them were punished, occasionally even killed. For example, Tuvia (Anatol) Bielski and his staff sentenced to death Israel Kesler. According to his judges, Kesler was a pre-war thief and arsonist. He ran a brothel in Naliboki and served as an informer for the Polish intelligence. Following the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland, Kesler fled to Lithuania and later hid in Naliboki. After Hitler’s attack on Stalin in the summer of 1941, Kesler allegedly denounced Communists, including Jewish party activists, to the Nazis. Subsequently, he escaped from a ghetto and joined the Bielski partisans. He was caught plundering peasants and shot (p. 203-205). These charges palpably reek of standard Stalinist character assassination. Why would Bielski have accepted a criminal and a Polish and Nazi collaborator into the unit in the first place? Was really Kesler that great of a plunderer when all other Soviet partisans supplied themselves in a similar way?
In any event, a Soviet informer accused Bielski himself of embezzling gold but no serious consequences followed (p. 203). Charges of robbery were levied also at Jewish partisans at large by their Soviet comrades (p. 193). According to the report of May 28, 1943, “some groups, among them the Jewish ones, preoccupy themselves not with struggle but with capturing supplies. Some persons in them, who had fled from a camp, carry out banditry (plundering, drunkenness, and rape)” (p. 123).
Nonetheless, the complaints about alleged Jewish transgressions sound somewhat disingenuous coming from Soviet sources. After all, pathological criminal behavior was the norm in the units under the Soviet command. The guerrillas lacked discipline and loved their vodka. As internal documents show, the partisan activity often times crossed the line into banditry, rapine, pillage, and murder (pp. 52-53, 88, 111-112, 144, 158, 166). Occasionally, individual transgressors were even punished. On the whole, however, the leadership of the Soviet irregular forces considered robbery to be a legitimate modus operandi. To maintain themselves in the field, since they largely lacked popular support, the Soviet guerrillas raided for supplies the peasants and petty gentry. As a top Soviet commander put it, “Most partisan units feed, cloth, and arm themselves at the expense of the local population and not by capturing booty in the struggle against fascism. That arouses in the people the feeling of hostility, and they say: ‘the Germans take everything away and one must also give something to the partisans'” (p. 48). The “supply actions” (bombioshka) took precedence over any military activities. However, that unsavory aspect of the Soviet partisan movement was completely glossed over until now. Instead, the alleged military prowess of the guerrillas was eulogized.
According to the post-war mythology, the Soviet partisans killed 1.5 million “Germans and their collaborators.” In reality, the casualties inflicted on the enemy did not exceed 45,000, half of them Germans. As Musial puts it, “the higher the position of the official submitting the report, the higher the enemy losses reported” (p. 22). And the scholar proceeds to prove his point with a case study of the Baranowicze region.
In general, the Soviets seriously limited their attacks on the German military and police targets. They preferred to assault the poorly armed and trained Belorussian and other auxiliary self-defense forces. The guerrillas torched and leveled Polish landed estates much more frequently than they blew up military transports and assaulted other hard targets. In fact, “by the end of 1943, most large landed estates had been destroyed” (p. 106). Yet, the Soviet partisan commanders deluged Moscow with “euphoric reports about their military successes which did not reflect reality” (p. 107). For example, regarding the massive anti-partisan pacification action “Hermann” in the Naliboki Forest, undertaken between 13 July and 8 August 1943, the Communist partisan leader reported the annihilation of the staff and commanding officer of the infamous SS-Dirlewanger Sonderbrigade. Further, there were allegedly “3,000 killed and wounded enemies, 29 POWs taken, 60 destroyed enemy vehicles, 3 tanks, and 4 armored cars.” The Soviet losses were put at “129 killed, 50 wounded, and 24 missing” (p. 107).
In reality, Dirlewanger died after the war and his staff escaped unscathed. Detailed German casualty rolls show “52 killed…, 155 wounded…, and 4 missing.” The Nazis reported 4,280 killed and 654 captured “bandits” (s. 107-108). Among the combat casualties, in addition to Soviet guerrillas, there were also Polish independentist Home Army partisans. However, in truth, most of the losses during the operation “Hermann” concerned civilian Poles and Belorussians, including the denizens of Naliboki which was completely obliterated by the Nazis. Hundreds of inhabitants were shot; several hundred were deported to slave labor in the Reich; and only a few managed to flee.
The tragedy of Naliboki reflected not only the extreme character of the Nazi occupation policies toward the civilian population but also the utmost brutality of the erstwhile Soviet occupiers-turned-partisans. On May 8, 1943, two months before the Nazis obliterated the town, in a surprise night attack, the Soviet and Jewish partisans massacred 128 men of Naliboki. They were members of the local self-defense force. Many of them also participated in the Polish underground Home Army (Armia Krajowa — AK) (pp. 116, 119, 152, 191). In another case, in January 1944, the Soviet and Jewish guerrillas torched the village of Koniuchy, killing at least 34 civilians. Those are only two of many similar attacks on the Poles.
Although assaults on the Poles had become commonplace already in 1942, they multiplied in number, scale, and fierceness when, in the wake of the Katyn affair, Stalin broke off diplomatic relations with the Polish government-in-exile in London in April 1943. Henceforth, Soviet partisan propaganda dubbed the Polish prime minister General Władysław Sikorski’s policy “criminal and hostile to the people” (p. 122). Communist propaganda routinely referred to the pro-Western Polish guerrilla Home Army as “bands of White Poles” (p. 84-86, 250). According to another propaganda directive, one was to talk “about Polish Legionaries [the AK] as the protégées of the Gestapo” (p. 134).
The language of the propaganda pervaded the military correspondence as well. Soviet commanders wrote about “the archenemy of our Fatherland: the German occupiers and their Polish lackeys” (p. 144). The men massacred in Naliboki were referred to as “counterrevolutionary elements: policemen and spies” (p. 119). Polish guerrilla groups were described as “hostile toward the Soviet power” and including “notorious fascists” (p. 227). “Poles fighting against the [Soviet] partisans are German agents and enemies of the Polish people,” proclaimed a top secret order of May 1943 (p. 228). The Poles were routinely lumped with the Nazis as in the report of December 1, 1943, where the Commander of the Lenin Brigade bragged that “thanks to the intelligence provided by our informers we cleansed the territory of the forest of German and Polish spies” (p. 63). In other reports, one reads about “the Polish spy Maria Downar,” who was shot, and 19 Polish “anti-Soviet elements,” who were captured (p. 137-142).
The hostility of the Communists was palpable. On June 23, 1943, the Soviet partisan leadership authorized denouncing the Polish underground to the Nazis. Later, orders went out to “shoot the [Polish] leaders” and “discredit, disarm, and dissolve” their units (p. 223). It was alleged that the Home Army units were “not Polish partisan groups but groups formed by the Germans… These German groups which consist of Poles are to be destroyed,” according to the top secret order of June 29, 1943 (p. 237). On December 5, 1943, it was resolved that “the [NKVD] Chkalov Brigade should commence the cleansing of the area from the White Polish bands… The band, especially the policemen, landlords, and settlers, is to be shot. But no one is allowed to learn about this” (p. 250-251).
Such orders simply “legalized” a pre-existing situation. Since 1942 individual Polish patriots were assassinated. Numerous Polish forest teams and underground cells were assaulted. Feigning friendship, the Soviets lured at least two sizable Polish guerrilla detachments to their destruction. At first, the Poles sought conciliation. Later, they fought back.
According to Musial, by fall 1943 a full-fledged local Polish-Soviet war raged in the north-eastern borderlands. Between May 1943 and July 1944 at least 230 firefights and battles were fought between the adversaries (p. 225). The AK reeled under Soviet assaults and felt abandoned by the Allies (for political, pro-Stalinist reasons and for technical factors, as north-eastern borderlands were beyond the range of the supply planes). Therefore a few Home Army commanders accepted some weapons and ammunition from the Germans. Without ceasing their anti-Nazi struggle (p. 240), they counter-punched the Communists (p. 224).
Now, the Polish underground was established in the area already in fall 1939. It was both anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet. The latter attitude stemmed from the memories of the Soviet terror between 1939 and 1941 and was reinforced by the conduct of the Soviet partisans. Most members of the Polish underground were Catholic. Ethnic Poles probably constituted a plurality. But there were also Belorussians, some of them Orthodox, “locals,” individuals without any particular national consciousness, and a few Jews (p. 58). Most underground members were part-time fighters. They were mobilized only when the circumstances warranted for a specific action and later released back to their civilian life. Small, permanent partisan units were organized in the summer of 1942. A few were long range sabotage commando teams. Most were self-defense squads hitting the Nazi terror apparatus and, more frequently, fending off common criminals and Soviet partisans who robbed Polish villages. The latter case included, for example, the interception and execution of 10 members of a Soviet-Jewish group in Dubniki in November 1943 (p. 194-95, 197). Naturally, they died not as victims of “Polish anti-Semitism” but of Polish-Soviet struggle in the borderlands.
From a long-range perspective, it was a struggle between Western Civilization and Soviet totalitarianism. That this has not yet been universally recognized is monument to the enduring strength of the Soviet propaganda. Had the West won, untold millions would have been spared nearly 50 years of Communist terror. The unmasking the myth of “the Soviet Partisan Movement” is the first step to realizing this plain truth.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
January 23, 2005
Bogdan Musial, ed., Sowjetische Partisanen in Weißrußland: Innenansichten aus dem Gebiet Baranoviči, 1941-1944: Eine Dokumentation (Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 2004); translated from the Russian by Tatjana Wanjat.
Schriftenreihe der Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, Band 88
© 2004 Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag GmbH, München
Rosenheimer Straße 145, D-81671 München