The Forcible Repatriation of Soviet Prisoners
The Second World War generated enormous movements in populations; by some estimates up to thirty million people were displaced, including civilian refugees, workers coerced into enemy fields and factories, and of course huge numbers of prisoners.98 Many Soviet prisoners fortunate enough to survive the brutal conditions in German captivity during the war would eventually see their luck run out, due in no small part to conscious decisions taken by the democratic powers.
Many of these captives, along with millions of uprooted Russian civilians, did not want to return to live under Joseph Stalin's rule. Between 250,000 and one million prisoners either volunteered or were coerced into joining the German armed forces, and they feared they would subsequently be punished as fascist collaborators.99 Only four months after the June 1944 Normandy invasion began, the Western Allies already held twenty-eight thousand Russian soldiers caught
fighting in German uniform, a number that would only continue to grow.100
Even regular prisoners worried for their safety. Under Soviet military law, it was considered a serious offense for soldiers to surrender without having first been wounded or receiving explicit permission from a superior.101 Stalin further issued Order No. 270 in August 1941 requiring military units to fight to the last man, that any soldier attempting to surrender or desert be shot, and that families of these “malicious deserters" be arrested and punished.102 Reinforcing this point when speaking to a foreign reporter, Stalin stated, “In Hitler's camps there are no Russian prisoners of war, only Russian traitors, and we shall do away with them when the war is over."103 The fate awaiting many Russian prisoners was thus well known should they eventually go back to their homeland.
With prisoners of all nationalities scattered across Germany and former Nazi- occupied territories, the Western powers faced the formidable challenge of how to handle millions of Russian soldiers and civilians falling into their hands. According to normative expectations, those prisoners refusing to return home would likely not be forced to do so by a democratic captor. Sending individuals back to a country where they were at grave risk of execution or extreme forms of violence and deprivation contradicted long-standing principles of asylum.104 The 1929 Geneva Convention regulating POWs contained no explicit provision outlawing forced repatriation since this, as with the earlier discussion of the ambiguous status of Italian prisoners, was not a scenario originally foreseen by negotiators. However, compelling prisoners to return against their wishes could be interpreted as contradicting the core precept of the convention, as outlined in Article 2, that prisoners “shall at all times be humanely treated and protected, particularly against acts of violence," and “measures of reprisal against them are forbidden." In terms of precedent, bilateral treaties negotiated in the aftermath of the First World War, several signed even by the Bolshevik Russian government, stated that prisoners could only be returned to their home country on a voluntary basis.105
The steps taken by the democratic powers would turn out to be completely at odds with normative expectations. The United States and Britain showed little reluctance in forcibly transferring Russian prisoners back to the Soviet Union. The policy was codified in a specific private agreement negotiated at the Yalta Conference in February 1945.— The accord was not made public until March 1946, after the bulk of repatriations had already been carried out. The dissident Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described these orders, and later Western attempts to downplay their complicity, as the “last secret" of the war.107 Article 1 of the Yalta Repatriation Agreement stated:
All Soviet citizens liberated by the forces operating under United States command ... will, without delay
after their liberation, be separated from enemy prisoners of war and will be maintained separately from
them in camps or points of concentration until they have been handed over.
The agreement did not contain any explicit provision authorizing forced repatriation, but there was also no reference to the 1929 Geneva Convention and little doubt that prisoners would be returned irrespective of their wishes, and by any means necessary.109 The terms were in many ways a continuation of existing policy at the time, since both Western powers had already committed to forced repatriation well before the conference. Britain quietly began returning captured Russian prisoners as early as the summer of 1944.110 Future British prime minister Harold Macmillan, at the time resident minister at SHAEF, gave an official order in November 1944 stating in blunt terms, “All Soviet citizens, irrespective of the situation in which they are found or of their past history, should be turned over as soon as possible to the Soviet authorities for the latter to dispose of as they wish" (emphasis added).111 The United States took similar steps not long after their British allies.112
The policy of forced repatriation targeted Russian prisoners, while purposefully excluding other nationalities. In the SHAEF Handbook of July 7, 1945, Amended through 20 September 1945, the section dealing with prisoners and displaced persons read as follows:
No United Nations national, stateless person, national of a neutral state or persons persecuted because of
race, religion, or activity in favor of the United Nations will be compelled to return to his domicile except
for a criminal offence. Liberated Soviet citizens uncovered after 11 February 1945 [the date of the Yalta
Agreement] are excluded from this policy [emphasis added].
Unlike the slow return of German prisoners employed on reconstruction projects across Europe, the United States alone transferred over two million Russian soldiers and civilians to the Soviet Union in a few short months from May through September 1945.— At the height of repatriation operations more than fifty thousand Russians were shipped daily from Western-controlled zones to impatient Soviet authorities.115
The Western powers even needed to resort to brute force on several occasions to compel Russian prisoners to return home.116 A rash of suicides ensued across several Allied camps as many Russian prisoners panicked over the prospects of going back to the Soviet Union.117 Learning from these experiences, Western authorities turned to duplicity to convince prisoners to be transferred. In one instance at a camp in Lienz, Austria, British officials announced to over two thousand Cossack officers and several hundred other interned elites that they were invited to attend a conference. This raised some suspicion among the largely anti-Bolshevik captives, but a lieutenant gave his “word of honor as a British officer" that they would be safe. The prisoners were then herded onto trucks and transported to awaiting Soviet forces. As one Cossack officer later remarked, “The NKVD or the Gestapo would have slain us with truncheons, the British did it with their word of honor."118
The fate awaiting many repatriated soldiers was in little doubt. Less than two years later, in January 1947, the Soviet government found the Cossack leaders from the Lienz camp guilty of treason, among other crimes, and sentenced them to death.119 For regular troops execution was also feared, especially if they had been caught in German uniform. However, it was not uncommon for many Russian soldiers, whose sole crime was to have fallen into German captivity, to be condemned to serve between fifteen and twenty-five years in a Soviet labor camp, which effectively became a death sentence.120
The prospects for repatriated Soviet soldiers were thus daunting at best. Recognizing the threat often facing persons who escaped or otherwise found themselves outside of their homeland, U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall testified in congressional hearings several years after the war, “It is the fixed policy of the United States Government to oppose any forced repatriation of displaced persons."121 However, during the war Marshall was the U.S. Army's chief of staff and instrumental in coordinating the forced return of Russian soldiers. Why then did the democratic powers act completely at odds with their own humanitarian principles, and through their actions directly contribute to the deaths of so many Russian prisoners?
One answer offered by some scholars is that democratic leaders were naive, and blind trust in their wartime communist ally led them to be deceived.122 This view does not stand up to scrutiny when looking both at internal documents of the Western powers and the statements by Soviet authorities regarding their motives. Rather, the decision was purposeful, with the Western powers having a good idea of the fate awaiting repatriated Russian prisoners.
Part of the motivation for the democracies appears to have been prioritizing unity and an unwillingness to upset their Soviet ally, which could have complicated negotiations over other more pressing issues, such as the future of Germany and other European countries.123 For the Soviet Union, the return of all prisoners served several ends beyond simply enforcing domestic military law and punishing defectors. Years of war with Germany, much of it fought on Soviet soil, exacted an enormous toll. There was consequently a pressing need for labor, and returning Soviet prisoners offered a ready pool of workers.124 Perhaps even more important was the potential loss in both international and domestic prestige if hundreds of thousands of citizens were seen to actively reject the Soviet system to instead live in the West. For these reasons, as early as August 23, 1944, the Soviet government issued a formal request to its Western allies for all Russian prisoners to be returned “at the earliest opportunity."125
As with other aspects involving the wartime conduct of the Western allies, reciprocity also proved paramount. A more immediate impetus for the democratic powers had less to do with Soviet demands and more with anxiety over the fate of their own soldiers who had fallen under communist control. Because many prisoner camps were located in eastern parts of Germany and other occupied areas, British authorities estimated in September 1944 that upwards of two-thirds of British and Commonwealth captives would likely be liberated by the Red Army.126 As the war neared its end, around sixty thousand U.S. troops who had originally been captured by the Axis powers fell under Soviet control.127 Both Churchill and Roosevelt worried that Stalin would delay the return of Western prisoners as a bargaining chip in postwar negotiations.128 Roosevelt expressed his concern over the pressures emanating from “the intense interest of the American public in the welfare of our ex-prisoners of war."129 Similar demands from the British public even led Churchill to write directly to Stalin pleading with the Soviet leader to personally intervene to ensure all British prisoners were returned promptly. The prime minister added, “There is no subject on which the British nation is more sensitive than on the fate of our prisoners in German hands and their speedy deliverance from captivity and restoration to their own country."130
In light of the intense desire for the return of their own soldiers under Soviet custody, the fate of Red Army prisoners was given little consideration by the democratic powers.131 Some officials, such as Joseph Grew, U.S. undersecretary of state, expressed concern over the moral implications of forcibly repatriating millions of Russian prisoners and civilians. Grew's position nonetheless remained the minority view within the higher echelons of both democratic governments. Secretary of State Edward Stettinius refused to entertain Grew's unease, fearing that raising any humanitarian issues would cause “serious delays in the release of our prisoners of war unless we reach prompt agreement on this question [i.e., the repatriation of Russian prisoners]."132 National publics in the democracies offered few constraints that might change the minds of authorities—in addition to wanting the return of their own soldiers, there was little sympathy for the Russian prisoners, especially those who had fought in German uniform.133
The United States and Great Britain were thus quick to transfer Russian prisoners back to the Soviet Union once the war ended. Despite having only recently regained its full sovereignty, France even allowed Soviet agents to carry out manhunts for Russian citizens on its territory.134 The timing of the Western powers' decision also reflects the change from Germany to the Soviet Union as the main threat from the standpoint of reciprocity. Many Russian prisoners were captured well before the end of the war, but except for a few they largely remained in Western-controlled camps for months before they were eventually repatriated. Although a few U.S. and British prisoners began falling into Soviet custody as the Red Army advanced, the bulk of Western captives remained under German control until almost the very end of the war. Both democratic powers feared that widespread repatriations of anti-Bolshevik Russian prisoners or those who had fought in the Wehrmacht would result in swift retaliation by the Third Reich against Western prisoners. As General John R. Deane, the U.S. military attache in Moscow and the main U.S. official to sign the Yalta Repatriation Agreement, commented:
To avoid reprisals by Germany against our own men held as prisoners of war by the Germans we took the
position that we would have to hold those Russians found in German uniform until the end of the war,
when the danger of reprisals had been removed by victory.
Concerns over retaliation, first by Germany and subsequently by Soviet Russia, played a crucial role in shaping the decision and timing of the Western Allies to forcibly repatriate Russian prisoners. The democratic powers were well aware of the humanitarian implications of their policy. They appeared more than willing to trade the lives of millions of Soviet soldiers and civilians in order to ensure the safety of several thousand of their own troops. In a somewhat morbid reference, U.S. Army historians gave the top-secret documentary record for their country's repatriation of Soviet citizens the code name Operation Keelhaul. Keelhaul refers to an old method of naval punishment, which involved dragging a bound individual from bow to stern underneath a ship.136 As one historian concluded, “The West's humanitarian concern appears, in retrospect, to have been restricted to Westerners."137
Some defenders contend that the democratic powers eventually realized the error of their ways and by 1947 the United States allegedly refused to engage in any further forced repatriations.138 Yet by then the damage had already been done to millions of Russian soldiers. Furthermore, the democracies had little reason not to now claim the moral high ground as East-West tensions steadily grew and their own prisoners had been returned, thereby reducing concerns over retaliation. It may be unreasonable to expect democratic governments to always uphold in their foreign affairs the norms preached at home, since some exceptions will inevitably occur. What seems more problematic for a normative perspective was the ease with which the democratic powers were willing to abandon Soviet prisoners and civilians in their care.