Germans Were Greeted as Liberators
|Ukrainian women, some in native garb, greet advancing Wehrmacht troops during Operation Barbarossa in 1941.|
Seems like we read online about all that happening in Ukraine yesterday or the day before, and heard about some new tragic incident going down there just last week - or was it last month? But the events listed above are what the Ukrainian people experienced not just in 2012, 2016 and the years in between - but also in 1941-1944.
Murky political turmoil in what has been called the "breadbasket of the earth" is nothing new, and the same problems keep repeating themselves. Ukrainian collaborator girls were a passing part of that phenomenon during World War II, and the subject merits more study than it has received.
|Victims of the 1932-1933 famine.|
|This makes more sense in context.|
Thus, what follows did not just come out of the blue.
Ukrainian Collaborator GirlsWhile most evidence of collaborator girls comes from the West for purely pragmatic reasons, there was a great deal of collaboration in the East, too. While the Germans never pressed it nearly forcefully enough for their own good, they did make some perfunctory steps toward encouraging friendship with the locals.
|A propaganda poster encouraging collaboration by Ukrainians. "Let there be a growing friendship between our two brother nations."|
|It is important to remember that peasant girls were completely unsophisticated and unworldly. They may not even have understood what was happening in terms of politics and what it meant to fraternize with the "other side." So, when pictures show them mingling with Axis troops, they may simply be acting politely to guests (Tamas Conoco Sr.).|
The collaboration was not just a few scattered maidens. In the spring of 1939, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists ("OUN"), a separatist political organization working for Ukraine's independence, created a military unit, the Ukrainian Legion. The 600-man Legion was set up outside the town of Hammerstein, western Germany, with training camps in the Reich and Slovakia. The Legion later participated in the invasion of Poland and Operation Barbarossa. They later joined the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and reportedly killed 100,000 Poles. The group remained active well into the 1950s.
|A parade in Stanislav honored a visit by Hans Frank, Gauleiter of Poland.|
|A posed picture. Whether it reflected something genuine or completely manufactured is impossible to tell now (Ang, Federal Archive).|
|Local girls greet the Germans, whose faces are still covered with road dirt (Gotze, Federal Archive).|
|Latvian women greet advancing German soldiers with supplies.|
|Cossack Wehrmacht Volunteer.|
I don't know the conclusive answer. However, the pictures match many accounts of the heady days of June and July 1941, when Stalin and his deadly NKVD men suddenly were no longer a threat in the back of everyone's minds.
It also is a fact that the Partisan movement was much stronger in Russia proper than it was anywhere further south. There simply was not much love for the Communists in the Southern lands, and with some exceptions, the further south you went, the more open the locals were about not caring whether the Soviets ultimately won. This is not something that Russians today want to even discuss or consider, much less admit.
There are so many of these photos that the sheer number alone argues against their all being manufactured. Hitler did not particularly seek a partnership with the Ukrainians anyway, so the odds of his directing Propaganda Minister Goebbels to spend a lot of effort making up things he found pointless anyway seems remote. Hitler truly did view the Soviet peoples as Untermensch, subhuman filth, and this attitude extended to his subordinates. Hitler's Generals repeatedly advocated a change in that attitude because they knew it was the only way to win the war, to no avail.
Part of the problem people have with these photos is that it goes completely against the grain of how things "should have been" to see Germans as in any way liberators. Without going off on an extraneous tangent, recent events in Ukraine - excuse me, Ukraine - seem to encapsulate the underlying and seemingly eternal dissatisfaction endemic to the region regarding remote rule from Moscow. The strange tale of General Vlasov, considered akin to Benedict Arnold in Russia, is particularly pungent in that regard.
|German soldiers give Soviet kids smokes during Barbarossa.|
And it led to other problems later, too.
Ukrainian Fighting GirlsWhen writing about one aspect of the war, inevitably other elements are dragged in. Everything is related; you must follow a stream of events to reach the end of the war, and nobody rings a bell to say when peoples' allegiance changes. The most difficult part of writing discrete articles about the war is compartmentalizing them so that you don't start wandering off and lose your readers' interest. This page is primarily about the early stage of Barbarossa when there was hope within some "conquered" peoples that the conquerors would be an improvement over their former masters.
However, I would be remiss in ending this page by leaving the impression that Ukrainian girls were nothing more than handmaidens of the Third Reich. They were not, despite some early enthusiasm noted above that had much less to do with the Germans and much more to do with what they saw as oppression emanating from Moscow.
|Ukrainian women of Sydir Kovpak's guerilla forces, date unknown; note Mosin-Nagant M1891 sniper rifles|
|General Vlasov meets with Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.|
|Polina Gelman, 1919-2005, born in Berdychiv, Ukraine. She was a Soviet Air Force officer and the only Jewish woman decorated as a Hero of the Soviet Union for her service in WW II. Gelman served as a navigator in the all-female night bomber regiment called "Night Witches".|
Soon, the Soviets were reconquering the Ukrainian lands. Many Ukrainians all along had remained in the Soviet military, of course, and more were impressed into service as territories were retaken. The partisan movement grew exponentially during 1943, and many of the girls who had been greeting the Germans as liberators were soon trying to kill them.
|This obvious (and somewhat odd) propaganda shot sort of sums up the Ukrainian experience: a Wehrmacht man assists an elderly Ukrainian woman while behind her what may well be her home or that of a relative burns to the ground.|
The Soviets knew all about the Ukrainian disaffection. The notorious "Smolensk Manifesto" of early 1943 was widely distributed and explicitly promised that the Germans under Adolf Hitler would rebuild the conquered lands after the defeat of the Soviet Union. The Soviets even now and then met Vlasov's "Russian Army of Liberation," which marched under St. George's Cross, in battle. As they reconquered Ukrainian territory, the Soviets cynically gave the native men rifles, rudimentary uniforms, and then quickly sent them in masses against the German lines. Casualties were horrendous, but the Ukrainian men softened up the defenses, causing the Wehrmacht to expend huge sums of ammunition and energy before the main attacks by highly trained and well-armed Soviet soldiers.
|A Ukrainian girl in Lviv, Ukraine being harassed by the Germans.|
Needless to say, the whole affair always has been controversial and elicits strong feelings to this day. Some peoples of the former Soviet Union vociferously deny that any collaboration at all took place, and that all the photos above of collaboration were staged. Under this analysis, Vlasov was a one-off and the mass of Ukrainians remained loyal to the Soviet state throughout. That position cannot be ruled out.
However, there is a great deal of evidence that, early in the conflict, the locals were roughly as happy at the lifting of the Soviet yoke as they later were about the German withdrawal.
I have a page for collaborator girls in Western Europe here.