Soviet Collaboration Trials – guest post by Franziska Exeler

From 14 to 17 July 1943, eleven Soviet citizens stood trial in Krasnodar, a city in southwestern Russia. During the German occupation of the town from August 1942 to February 1943, all but one of the defendants had worked for the SS, primarily in auxiliary functions. Accused of having committed crimes under German rule, a Soviet military tribunal sentenced eight of the defendants to death, and three to long prison sentences. The proceedings were publicised broadly in the Soviet media, and also included two subsequent publications in English and German that sought to disseminate information about the proceedings abroad. On 18 July 1943, a day after the verdict was pronounced, the eight men were hanged on the town’s main square. Their execution, as the image below shows, was a public spectacle. An estimated 30,000 people – some of them Red Army soldiers, others inhabitants of Krasnodar and the region – attended the hanging. Signs around the men’s necks informed the audience of their names and the crime that they were punished for: treason, izmena rodine (literally: betrayal of the motherland).

Krasnodar

Public execution of Soviet citizens, 18 July 1943, after the 14–17 July 1943 trial at Krasnodar, Russia. Courtesy of the Russian State Documentary Film & Photo Archive

The Krasnodar trial was one of numerous trials for treason (or what could also be called collaboration) that Soviet military tribunals conducted as the Red Army reconquered the Soviet western regions from the Germans. In absolute numbers, the Soviet Union prosecuted more of its own citizens than any other country that fought in the Second World War. Most people were tried during and immediately after the war, although prosecution also continued, in successive waves, all the way into the 1980s. By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953, about 260,000 Soviet citizens had been arrested for ‘treason and helping the German occupiers’ (predatelstvo i posobnichestvo nemetskim okkupantam) and another 358,000 for ‘treason’ (izmena rodine). It is unclear, however, how many of the latter were soldiers or civilians, just as it is uncertain whether all of those arrested for izmena rodine were accused of collaboration with the enemy.

During their occupation, the Germans depended heavily on local personnel – in particular, as policemen, town mayors and villages heads – and willingly or unwillingly, Soviet citizens became complicit or entangled in German crimes. Yet the circle of people who, simply because of their profession, had regularly come in contact with the Germans was much wider, and included teachers, agricultural specialists, office clerks and the like. For the returning Soviet authorities involved in the processes of punishment and retribution (above all members of the secret police, the judiciary and prosecutors, and party leaders at different levels of the state apparatus), investigating what people in occupied territory had done was a task of utmost importance, inextricably linked to the reestablishment of Soviet power. While the authorities also sought to punish local participation in German atrocities, at its core, the search for alleged traitors was about defining who had, and who had not, been loyal to Moscow during the war.

Contrary to what the 1943 Krasnodar trial suggests, the majority of Soviet civilians accused of collaborating with the Germans were prosecuted in secret, in trials that lacked the basic principles of the rule of law. As part of pre-trial investigations, the secret police routinely subjected the accused to psychological or physical torture, most commonly beatings. Some trials were open to the public. During the Red Army’s reconquest phase, these public trials were often conducted within a few hours, outdoors, and in front of village audiences. Subsequent public trials of alleged wartime collaborators were more carefully prepared in advance, usually took place in large buildings like theatres or clubs that could accommodate hundreds of people, and over the course of several days. They closely followed the model that was established at the 1943 Krasnodar trial.

At these public trials, the authorities took great care to project a high degree of legality, which always included the presence of witnesses and defence attorneys. Yet while some, maybe even many of the convicted, had probably committed all, some, or similar acts that they were accused of (which distinguished Soviet collaboration trials from the public treason trials of the 1930s, at which the crimes were often imagined or fabricated), that did not make the collaboration trials any fairer. On the contrary: The authorities determined prior to a trial that the defendants would be declared guilty; in question was merely what sentence they would receive. During and after the war, the Soviet legal system continued to lack fundamental standards of rule of law-based legal systems such as independent lawyers and judges that form the precondition for any trial to be considered as impartial as possible. As such, then, Soviet justice was unable to establish the criminal responsibility of the individual on trial – although the extent to which this might have mattered to people in the audience who had suffered under German occupation is another question.

Franziska Exeler

Franziska.Exeler@fu-berlin.de | fe252@cam.ac.uk

Free University Berlin | University of Cambridge

 

Further Reading (Selection)

Ilya Bourtman, “Blood for Blood, Death for Death!” The Soviet Military Tribunal in Krasnodar, 1943,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 22, 2 (2008), 246–265.

Aleksandr Epifanov, Otvetstvennost’ za voennye prestupleniia, sovershennye na territorii SSSR v gody Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny. 1941–1956 gg. (Volgograd: MVD 2005).

Franziska Exeler, “The Ambivalent State. Determining Guilt in the Post-World War II Soviet Union,” Slavic Review 75, 3 (2016), 606–629.

Tanja Penter, “Local Collaborators on Trial. Soviet War Crimes Trials under Stalin (1943–1953),” Cahiers du monde russe 49, 2 (2008), 341–364.

Vanessa Voisin, L’URSS contre ses traîtres. L’Épuration soviétique, 1941–1955 (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2015).


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