From the viewpoint of most Americans, active collaboration with Nazi Germany during World War II carries an indelible stain of moral repugnance. Those who aided the enemy in wartime tend to win little sympathy in peacetime, whatever their motivation.
But in the Soviet Union, which bore the brunt of the war with Germany, collaborators appeared on a scale unequaled in modern times, as huge numbers of non-Russian ethnic minorities, joined by smaller numbers of Russians, seized what they perceived as a chance for liberation and independence.
According to a 1982 study by the Rand Corp., between 600,000 and 1.4 million able-bodied men in the Soviet Union's occupied western territories and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania voluntarily joined German military forces. Together, they made up 20% or more of total German forces on the Eastern Front and made a major contribution to the German war effort. Another 250,000 men of various Central Asian and Caucasus nationalities formed separate "east legions" of the Wehrmacht, and may actually have outnumbered their kinsmen in the Red Army.
"Despite Nazi brutality and the generally dismal record of German occupation policies in the non-Russian territories, Soviet non-Russians collaborated and fought with the Germans in unprecedented numbers, suggesting that for many of them the Germans remained the lesser of two evils," said the study, prepared for the U.S. Defense Department by Rand analyst Alex Alexiev.
Some indisputably took part in the persecution and murder of Jews and other minorities, as German racial propaganda resonated with traditional ethnic prejudices. But the vast majority followed the simple formula that the enemy of one's enemy is an ally, and joined the Germans in what they took to be an act of patriotism.
The roots of this wartime insurrection lay in a series of calamities inflicted by the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, which in scale, if not in methodical deliberation, approached the Nazi Holocaust that is far more familiar to Westerners.
Returned to Serfdom
Beginning in 1930, Stalin's program of forced collectivization created vast state-run farming complexes from small private landholdings and returned 20 million peasants, in practical terms, to the serfdom of a century earlier.
By conservative estimates, the resulting famine of 1932-33, exacerbated by drought and the wholesale slaughter of the kulaks — the more successful peasants — claimed 3 million lives in the Ukrainian breadbasket alone. Another 10 million or more perished in Soviet labor camps during the sustained terror of the 1930s.
To these casualties were added the mass executions and deportations that followed the Soviet Union's annexation of a quarter-million square miles of territory inhabited by 23 million people from the Baltic to the Black Sea in 1939-40 under the terms of Moscow's short-lived alliance with Nazi Germany.
Before the German invasion of June, 1941, temporarily evicted the Soviets from these new territories, tens of thousands of Baltic civilians were deported to the Arctic north, Siberia and Central Asia. From eastern Poland alone, the Soviets shipped 2 million men, women and children to the east in cattle cars under appalling conditions. One million survived the ordeal to return home after the war.
This legacy, the Rand report observed, "helped prepare a political climate in which a majority of the population came to identify its hopes and political aspirations with the invading foreign power." As German forces penetrated farther east in 1941 and 1942, they found a generally friendly reception from local nationalities. In Cossack and Kalmyk lands, where the Germans allowed churches and mosques to reopen, the "welcome was truly enthusiastic," the report noted.
Captured German documents record a local feast in the north Caucasus city of Nalchik in 1942 in which a grateful Muslim populace presented 1,000 head of cattle to the German commander and a gold-embroidered saddle for Hitler.
As the full scope of Nazi brutality became apparent, and the Red Army's combat morale stiffened, popular support for the Germans waned.
A former Soviet official, interrogated by the Germans, summed up the invader's declining prospects this way:
"We have badly mistreated our people — in fact, so bad that it was almost impossible to treat them worse. You Germans have managed to do that. In the long term, the people will choose between two tyrants the one who speaks their language. Therefore, we will win the war."
With the collapse of the German Army in 1943 and 1944, large numbers of Soviet volunteers joined ordinary civilians streaming west, where they settled initially in refugee camps under the bureaucratic rubric of "displaced persons."
Visas to U.S.
About 400,000 eventually obtained visas to emigrate to the United States, but the rules of admission were explicit. While the Western powers had followed the rule that an enemy's enemy is a friend in allying themselves with the Soviet Union after June, 1941, Soviet citizens who had followed the same formula in joining German forces were barred by law from entering the United States.
In addition to prohibiting those who "assisted the enemy in persecuting civil populations," the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 also barred anyone who "voluntarily assisted the enemy forces ... in their operations against the United Nations." Many — perhaps several thousand — who fell into one of these categories nevertheless managed to emigrate to the United States by concealing their wartime activities.