Monday, March 14, 2016

Ukrainian Collaborator Girls

Germans Were Greeted as Liberators

Ukrainian collaborator girls worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Ukrainian women, some in native garb, greet advancing Wehrmacht troops during Operation Barbarossa in 1941.
Ukrainian armed forces, eager for freedom and fighting oppressive former rulers; different factions in East and West Ukraine battling for control; acts of terrorism in Ukraine that destroy the enemy's planes and vehicles; an encroaching enemy, bent on re-conquest and, ultimately, vengeance and punishment; occupation of large parts of Ukraine by a reviled enemy.
World War 2 Quiz - Examsegg
World War 2 Quiz - Examsegg
Ukrainian collaborator girls worldwartwo.filminspector.com
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, 2022, and the years in between - but also in 1941-1944. The invasion of Ukraine then just happened from a different direction.
Ukrainian collaborator girls worldwartwo.filminspector.com
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 an important part of that phenomenon during World War II, and the subject merits more study than it has received.

World War II tore Ukraine apart. The Ukrainians had good reason to be, shall we say, disenchanted with Soviet rule by the outbreak of the war. The Ukrainian famine/genocide ("Holodomor") of 1932-33 was a bitter recent memory. How many innocent Ukrainians perished under Stalin's benevolent (if you believe Soviet histories) or despotic (if you read Western post-war histories) rule is highly debatable and, truthfully, will never be known. There is a solid agreement, though, that it was a lot of dead people - certainly in the millions. Many millions of innocent men, women, and children were carried out of their huts, put in piles, and burned, never to be counted because there was nobody there who wanted to count them. That is exactly what the Soviet authorities intended and was their desired outcome - anonymous, largely forgotten death.
Ukrainian collaborator girls worldwartwo.filminspector.com
This makes more sense in context.
Other atrocities besides the famine - or contributing to its lethal effects - were committed by the Soviets as well. "Dekulakization" - the intentional elimination of "Kulaks," the local merchant class - was an official Soviet policy directed against better-off peasants and their families in 1929–1932. The systematic elimination of entire classes of people, the overwhelming majority of whom were just regular folks aside from whatever political evils the state impugned them with, is something that the survivors tend not to forget. It burns in their memories, the piles of dead, the absolute lack of caring by authorities, the starving children, the decimation of villages. 

Thus, what follows during the German advance into Ukraine did not just come out of the blue.

Ukrainian Collaborator Girls

While most evidence of collaborator girls comes from the West for purely pragmatic reasons - photos of French women who consorted with grandly attired Wehrmacht men are plentiful - 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. No matter how you slice it, having locals who are friends rather than enemies is a huge advantage when you can manage it.
collaborator girls Ukraine worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A propaganda poster encouraging collaboration by Ukrainians: "Let there be a growing friendship between our two brother nations."
It was no secret to anyone that many Ukrainians were not enthralled with the Soviet regime. Stalin was a Georgian from far to the South who spoke with a thick accent - think Alabama accent as compared to New England - and for reasons rooted deep in history, many of his purges appeared targeted specifically at Ukraine. There also was a long-standing religious tradition in Ukraine which Stalin and his regime attempted to suppress. Though he had to modify that position with the Wehrmacht standing at the gates of Moscow, Stalin philosophically hated religion because it suggested allegiance to a power higher even than himself.
collaborator girls Ukraine worldwartwo.filminspector.com
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 Ukrainian disaffection with Soviet rule manifested itself openly at the time, most particularly during the opening stages of Barbarossa in 1941. Then, young Ukrainian women greeted the advancing German troops with delight. Of course, there were undoubtedly other reasons beyond politics that may account for their friendly greetings. The girls may never have seen a college-educated man before, or ones who controlled fancy vehicles, or ones who had ever been outside their home district. These men wearing the strange uniforms had never had mistreated them personally, and everyone knew they would soon would be on their way, so why not "make nice" to avoid problems? In addition, peasant girls are trained to be polite to strangers in general. These were just guests to be offered food and drink like any passing stranger on the road.

However, personal accounts indicate that there also was an underlying hope of change, of transition to a new, freer life during this time. After the war and Stalin's passing, a succession of Ukrainian leaders loyal to Moscow papered over the feelings manifested in these pictures, the sheer exhilaration of change. However, it has always been there, before Stalin and after him.
collaborator girls Ukraine worldwartwo.filminspector.com
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, in western (not "Western," not yet anyway) 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.
Stanislav Ukraine collaborator girls worldwartwo.filinspector.com
A parade in Stanislav honored a visit by Hans Frank, Gauleiter of Poland.
So, with all this in mind, it is perhaps a stretch to call some of these girls "collaborators." Some were simply overjoyed to be relieved of the Soviet yoke, or acting from guileless and innocent motives of kindness.
collaborator girls Ukraine worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A posed picture. Whether it reflected something genuine or completely manufactured is impossible to tell now (Ang, Federal Archive).
But, at least for a while, the Ukrainian maidens were happy to help out. And, yes, some undoubtedly were collaborators in the truest sense of the word. As mentioned above, there were collaborator girls in the West, in France, so why not in the East? People are people.
collaborator girls Ukraine worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Local girls greet the Germans, whose faces are still covered with road dirt (Gotze, Federal Archive).
In addition, it wasn't just Ukrainian women. Many in the Baltic states also had had enough of the repressive regime. This shows there was dissatisfaction with Moscow rule that was not just confined to Ukraine. Local peoples all across the region were glad to see the Soviets go - at least at first.
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Latvian women greet advancing German soldiers with supplies.
There are some who question the validity of these photos, and their point of view should not be discounted. According to them, these were manufactured for propaganda purposes, and either "photoshopped" as we would say now, or there were men with guns pointed at the women standing just off-camera, forcing them to smile and act nice. Notice how the German soldiers in these shots are almost all handsome as if they were male models (I'm sure they would be flattered by that!). The girls are usually pretty. Everyone is neat and presentable. Many of the local women wear elaborate local native dress - did they wear that normally for everyday chores? I do not know, but these issues raise questions about authenticity.
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Cossack Wehrmacht Volunteer. Make no mistake, there were male collaborators, too.
In addition, these shots, even if authentic and genuine, may not show love for the German conquerors so much as a desire by new subjects to ingratiate themselves with their new overlords, whoever they might be. In that sense, these are amazingly similar to photos taken a few years later, when American boys chased the Germans out of France and the local ladies could not have been nicer to their "liberators" - which gives one pause for thought. In these "liberations," everyone is usually just so happy... or pretending to be to avoid "consequences." In addition, bear in mind that the husbands, fathers, brothers, and boyfriends of some of these women were the ones the Germans had just chased out of town or shot and killed. Would you be naturally smiling and offering goodies to the people who did that to your friends and family? So, the questions of how genuine these photos are is definitely something to ponder.
collaborator girls Ukraine worldwartwo.filminspector.com
I don't know the conclusive answer as to how "real" these photos are, and I doubt there will ever be a definitive answer to that. 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. But look carefully at the photo below - not at the women and jovial soldier in the forefront, but at the man with the rifle in the background in between the women. Notice his expression. Note the steely eyes. The look of absolute indifference. That may better reflect the reality of the situation.
Ukraine girls worldwartwo.filminspector.com
It also is a fact that the Partisan movement was much stronger in Russia proper than it was anywhere else. There simply was not much love for the Communists in the Southern lands, and with some exceptions, the further south and farther from Moscow 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. In Soviet histories, it was a mass uprising by Muscovites and Ukrainians and everyone else.
collaborator girls Ukraine worldwartwo.filminspector.com
There are so many of these photos, though, that the sheer number alone argues against their all being manufactured. And that shows the folly of the German attitude among leadership. Hitler did not particularly seek a partnership with the Ukrainians. He explicitly said he had no intention of coddling defeated peoples in the Soviet Union. So, the odds of his directing Propaganda Minister Goebbels to spend a lot of effort making up fake photographs of joyous Ukrainian women greeting Germans that he would have found pointless anyway seems remote. That lack of motivation to manufacture the photos supports their being genuine.

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. Hitler and Himmler and the rest would have none of it - the captured territories and their inhabitants were there to serve the Reich and they were to be treated only well enough to fulfill that goal and no better.
collaborator girls Ukraine worldwartwo.filminspector.com
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. The Wehrmacht was certainly not seen as liberators in France. But Ukrainians had a much different experience with their local government than did the French, which is difficult perhaps for Westerners to understand.

Without going off on an extraneous tangent, recent events in the Ukraine - excuse me, Ukraine - seem to encapsulate the underlying and seemingly eternal dissatisfaction endemic to the region regarding remote rule from Moscow. Westerners may have a hard time understanding Ukrainian revulsion at the thought of Russian rule, or at least the revulsion by certain parts of Ukraine (and certain parts full of Russian-speakers have a completely different attitude). But it all goes back to history and what happened decades ago. People in Ukraine have long memories.

The strange tale of General Vlasov, considered akin to Benedict Arnold in Russia, is particularly pungent in that regard.
Collaboration worldwartwo.filminspector.com
German soldiers give Soviet kids smokes during Barbarossa.
But the official story is that Ukrainians hated the Germans and supported the Soviet state. What about that?

There is some truth to that, but this subject is very complex because it changed with time. The eventual shift in feelings against the Germans probably had more relationship with the changing war situation than other factors - nobody wants to be seen siding with the losers, because the eventual victors are going to be taking names. By August 1943, it was clear to all which way the winds were blowing. It also is natural to prefer tyranny by local forces who at least speak the local language than alien ones, if one absolutely has to choose. 

In any event, the happy feelings of the roadside ladies of the summer of 1941 soon disappeared under a mountain of punitive German edicts and brutal exploitation. The glamorous and all-conquering German frontline troops were replaced by sluggish bureaucratic hacks from Berlin who were neither charismatic nor friendly. They were only interested in stealing as much as possible from the indigenous peoples of the conquered lands and leaving only enough to keep them working for the Master Race. Put simply, things changes, and thus so did the feelings of the locals. 
Ukraine worldwartwo.filminspector.com
German attempts to enlist the Ukrainians ultimately failed, and General Vlasov later turned on the Germans he had deserted to from the Soviets. This is a Ukrainian Christmas Card in WWII (1944 I imagine), depicting their army's struggle against both Germans and Soviets, relying on the star of Christ. This is such a sad card, as there really was no hope for these brave people who just wanted all the foreigners to leave.
Many, including myself, consider the refusal of Hitler to countenance any but the most brutal treatment of the conquered peoples to have been one of his biggest strategic blunders. Mistreating the locals was much more significant to the outcome of the war than poor tactics in individual battles such as Stalingrad. They could have been so helpful, but instead turned into at best grudging participants with no motivation to help anyone but themselves.

And the disaffection of the locals led to other, bigger problems later, too.

Ukrainian Fighting Girls

When 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 the early enthusiasm by some peasant girls noted above that had much less to do with the Germans and much more to do with what they saw as relief from oppression emanating from Moscow.
Ukrainian collaborator girls worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Ukrainian women of Sydir Kovpak's guerilla forces, date unknown; note Mosin-Nagant M1891 sniper rifles. From similar photos, I am guessing these photos were from early 1943 or later. 
When the Ukrainian enthusiasm for their "liberation" wore off is impossible to say. Certainly, the savagery of the bureaucrats who replaced the front-line soldiers - who, with the huge exceptions of the SS and Einsatzgruppen, on the whole, acted correctly - played its part over time. More important to the transition in allegiance, though, were the German reverses in the war. The inability to take Moscow in 1941 was a huge blow to Ukrainian collaboration. However, Soviet Lt. General Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov, a Ukrainian patriot, went over to the Germans long after the successful defense of the Soviet capital. Vlasov defected in July 1942, after German forces south of Leningrad destroyed his command, the 2nd Shock Army ("Shock" being an honorific title). So, there was still some Ukrainian disaffection from Moscow throughout 1942. It did not end all at once.
Ukrainian collaborator girls worldwartwo.filminspector.com
General Vlasov meets with Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.
Vlasov, though - who is considered somewhat more loathsome in Russian history than Benedict Arnold is in American lore - picked a very poor time to change sides. The tide turned within months. The German defeat at Stalingrad in early 1943 showed just about everyone which way the winds were blowing, and the defeat at Kursk in July 1943 closed the door on Ukrainian collaboration.
Ukrainian collaborator girls worldwartwo.filminspector.com
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, usually with the aid of locals who knew the land. 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.
Ukrainian collaborator girls worldwartwo.filminspector.com
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 relatives burns to the ground.
The Soviets knew all about the Ukrainian disaffection. The notorious German "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. Hitler's generals wanted it to go much further and promise the locals independence after the war, but Hitler would not hear of it, not even as a propaganda lie. He often said he was not going to give up lands won by German blood.

So, the Ukrainians flipped again, though not all at once. The Soviets even now and then met Vlasov's "Russian Army of Liberation," which marched under St. George's Cross in support of the Wehrmacht, in battle. But the Soviets hadn't changed. 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 of Ukrainians 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.

Ukrainian collaborator girls worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A Ukrainian girl in Lviv, Ukraine being harassed. Who as doing the harassing now is debated, whether it was the Germans or their fellow citizens. But does it really matter? Whoever was in charge inevitably turned into monsters toward some unfortunate people.
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, at least early in the conflict and perhaps well into 1943, the locals were roughly as happy at the lifting of the Soviet yoke as they later were about the German withdrawal. In other words, they just wanted to be free of oppression - and who can blame them. But it was not to be.

I first wrote this page around 2015, long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine of 24 February 2022. But perhaps you will see parallels here.

I have a page for collaborator girls in Western Europe here.

2022