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Viktor Korol, a historian, reveals truths about Ukraine in WWII
Viktor Korol, Ph.D. in history, was born in 1944. Upon graduation from Kyiv Shevchenko University in 1971, he continued his studies at post-graduate courses and earned an M.A. in 1977 and a Ph.D. in 1990. He has authored more than 500 scholarly works and four History of Ukraine manuals. One of his subjects that he has done a particularly deep research in is the history of the Second World War.
Mr Korol was interviewed by Mariya VLAD.
In spite of the fact that more than sixty years have already passed since the end of WWII, no comprehensive and thoroughly researched histories have yet been published in Ukraine after its independence. There are several reasons for that. In the soviet times, the history of the second World War was a very sensitive subject and one-volume and many-volumed histories published then were heavily biased; very many facts were suppressed or twisted in an attempt to hide the appalling truth about the war. Soviet propaganda used the war as one of its tools and the soviet authorities heavily censored or altogether banned works which could alter the distorted picture of the events of WWII created by the soviet communist party ideologues and venal historians.
Probably, like in so many other cases, to establish “one and final truth” will never be possible, but the search for it must continue. Prof. Korol is one of those who conduct such a research.
He focuses on Ukraine in WWII.
One of the reasons the truth was prevented from being revealed in the soviet times was the unjustified deaths of millions of soviet soldiers and civilians in that war — deaths which resulted from mistakes made by soviet commanders at all levels and from the pressure exercised by Stalin and other soviet leaders to have a city defended or captured, or a battle won at all costs by certain dates, important for propaganda reasons. Are there any solid facts to support the claim that there were millions of unjustified deaths?
Oh, yes there are many such well-documented facts. For obvious reasons they were not revealed in the soviet times, and, unfortunately, many of the appalling facts about the Second World War, or rather about that period of the war in which the Soviet Union was directly engaged in a military confrontation with Nazi Germany — that is from June 1941 to May 1945. Incidentally, this period of the war the soviet propaganda and historians called “The Great Patriotic War,” and many people in today’s Ukraine continue to call it that. With your permission we shall talk not only about “unjustified deaths” but about many other things that need to be told at last.
The secret protocols that were signed in August and September 1939 during the Soviet-German negotiations which resulted in a friendship treaty between the two totalitarian regimes, were made public only recently. They were kept top secret by the soviets. Now, some of the documents unearthed in the Russian Federation archives indicate that there was a super secret meeting of Stalin and Hitler held in Lviv in western Ukraine in October 1939.
Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1 1939, thus triggering the Second World War, and the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east on September 17, thus becoming an active war ally of Germany. Almost 900,000 Poles who lived in the soviet-occupied territories, were rounded up and dispatched to the eastern provinces of the Soviet Union where most of them were put into concentration camps and prisons. 250,000 Polish POWs that were captured by the Soviets, were put into 146 concentration camps which were built especially for them. Over 100,000 are known to have died in the camps. Almost 22,000 Polish officers were executed by firing squads — these executions were sanctioned by the top soviet leaders.
Stalin took repressive measures against soviet army commanders, which resulted in their executions or imprisonment of over 40,000 thousand officers of various ranks in the massive purges and terror of the late 1930s. Incidentally, Stalin himself signed the lists of those who were to be executed. Hitler’s timing of the attack on the Soviet Union, was, to a great extent, determined by this decimation of the soviet military. At one of the meetings of the German military held some time before the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler said, “The Red Army has been decapitated — 80 percent of its officers have been destroyed. The Red Army has been greatly weakened, and this weakness we should use to our advantage. We should launch war before the new soviet military cadre are trained.”
What about speculations then that claim that the soviets themselves were planning to attack Germany? No attack would be possible with so many officers displaced or destroyed.
The thing is that after such soviet military leaders as Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Iyeronim Uborevich, Yona Yakir, Vasyliy Blyukher and Alexander Yegorov had been executed in 1937 and in later years, the military theory was changed to proclaim that the soviet armed forces “will conduct future wars only on the enemy territory” and “with a little loss of blood.” And young officers, who replaced the dismissed or executed ones, did believe the Red Army was prepared to do that — that is “to fight the enemy on the enemy’s territory” and “with a little loss of blood.” Incidentally, one fact alone out of many can illustrate the state the Red Army was in shortly before the war broke out — at one of the large meetings of regiment commanders, there was not a single one who had been trained to command regiments at military schools — most had just graduated from the “young lieutenant’s courses.” The ideological and propaganda pressure was such that these young officers did believe they could lead their forces into war “on the enemy territory” and win it “with a little loss of blood.”
Another thing should be mentioned here too. The Red Army had more tanks and military planes than Germany at the time when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. This fact was also suppressed by the soviets for a long time. On the day of the German invasion, that is June 22 1941, the Red Army had in the western regions of the Soviet Union alone — those closest to the border — 9,200 tanks, 8,450 military planes, 46,630 field cannons and mortars. According to Georgiy Zhukov, the then head of the soviet general staff, the Red Army with the reserves in those regions included, had up to 100,000 field guns and mortars, 12,000 tanks, — 1,861 of them the new KV and T-34 tanks, 18,000 planes — 8,700 of which were of the new types. The German forces involved in the invasion numbered 5.5 million people — the soviets had 5 million; the Germans had only 3,580 tanks, self-propelled artillery pieces included, 2,740 planes, 47,200 filed guns and mortars.
The Red Army had more than enough of military equipment and weapons to be the first to attack. The hard lessons of the recent Soviet–Finnish war, when the overwhelming soviet superiority had not brought the immediate desired results and cost too many soviet lives, were forgotten. Georgiy Zhukov, Alexandr Vasilevsky (one of the soviet top military commanders) and Semyon Timoshenko, the then “people’s commissar” (minister) of defence worked out a plan of attacking Germany no later than on May 15 1941. According to this plan, the soviets were to attack the German forces while they were in the process of deployment (the German forces were, at that time, being deployed along the soviet borders, from the Baltic in the north and to the Black sea in the south — tr.). But when in May 1941, Rudolf Hess flew on a mysterious mission to Great Britain where he was imprisoned, Stalin began to fear Germany’s alliance with Britain, and never signed the attack plan into action (Rudolf Hess, 1894– 1987 — German Nazi leader; when Hitler became chancellor in 1933, he named Hess as deputy Fuhrer and later as second in succession to the Nazi leadership; in May 1941 Hess was captured in Scotland, where he had flown apparently in a bid to start peace talks with Britain; at the Nuremburg trials in 1946, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in Spandau Prison, Berlin, for war crimes — tr.).
Was the idea of attacking Germany abandoned altogether?
No, it was not. Moreover, even the date for such an attack was fixed — July 6 1941. It was, of course, absolutely top secret, and was kept secret for decades to come. Stalin did hesitate whether to launch that attack — he must have still been under allusion that his non-aggression pact with Germany would hold for some time, but military depots “for strategic purposes” continued to be set along the western borders of the Soviet Union. He must have known about it — but did not stop their creation. Incidentally, about 200 of such depots were captured by the invading German forces in the first days of the war. The Germans captured 5 million 400 thousand rifles, 191 thousand machine guns, and millions upon millions of rounds of ammunition. The Red Army, fighting against the invading German forces, found itself short of ammunition — soldiers were issued only several cartridges each per day, machine gunners got only one cartridge belt with cartridges per one machine gun, and one cannon was supplied only with a round! It was surely not enough to repel the enemy attacks, particularly in view of the fact that there were not even enough rifles for all the soviet soldiers to shoot at the enemy with. No wonder, Red Army soldiers surrendered in hundreds of thousands or even millions.
The German invasion progressed so fast that from August to November 1941 the German forces captured 303 factories that produced cartridges and powder that could be used for making millions upon millions rounds of artillery and rifle ammunition, million of mines and bombs, dozens of tons of powder and of TNT. Great amounts of lead, bras and alloyed steel necessary for making ammunition were also captured. These huge amounts of war material, stored at the soviet ammunition making factories, were used by the fast advancing Germans. The tragic situation of the first days of the war was exacerbated by the initial refusal of Stalin to accept the fact of a massive invasion, and by his continued insistence on “the invasion being just a provocation.” There is enough hard evidence that suggests that Stalin, hours after the invasion had begun, prohibited using artillery against the invaders.
The soviets insisted for many years that the German invasion was “sudden,” “treacherous” and “unexpected.” It is just another soviet myth. It was impossible not to notice that Germany was amassing and deploying millions of troops along the soviet border; there were many warnings coming from the soviet spies and other sources about the imminent attack; even the date of the attack was known — but nothing was done even when some of the German deserters informed the soviets who captured them that the attack was to begin at such and such hour. Their evidence was disbelieved and they were executed as “purveyors of false information.”
What can you say about the “scorchedearth policy” ordered by Stalin and employed by the retreating soviet troops?
Stalin called upon the soviets to pursue the scorched-earth policy in his address made on July 3. Not only military installations, factories and other things that could be put to military or other use by the invading forces were to be destroyed, but also all the foodstuffs too. A great many people were indeed evacuated — but millions remained in the territories occupied by the Germans. Without food, they faced starvation. There were many civilian casualties when the soviets blew up factories and other facilities without warning the people who lived nearby — the way it happened, for example, when the soviets blew up the dam of the Dniprohes power station on the Dnipro.
Untold number of the helpless wounded and sick were left behind or physically destroyed. These harrowing things are described in the recently published book, Velyka Vitchyznyana Viyna. Spohady ta rozdumy ochevydtsya (Great Patriotic War — Reminiscences and Reflections) by Fedir Pihido-Pravoberezhny. But in the postwar years, soviet propaganda and servile soviet historians claimed that the evacuation was well-organized and omitted mentioning the horrors of the scorched-earth policy.
The NKVD’s (Narodny Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del — People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, the predecessor of the KGB) crimes were many — and never mentioned in the soviet times. Thousands of political prisoners were executed by the NKVD forces in prisons as the soviets retreated. Architectural landmarks, such as the eleventh-century Uspensky Cathedral in the Kyiv Pechersk, and hundreds of buildings in Kyiv were dynamited and destroyed by the soviets with the direct NKVD involvement.
You mentioned that hundreds of thousands of soviet troops surrendered to the Germans. What was their fate?
In the early stages of the war, the Germans took over 6 million prisoners of war in Ukraine alone, and at least 1 million 800 thousand of them died. In June 1941, the soviet government pronounced all those Red Army soldiers, who had been taken prisoner, to be “traitors of their Motherland.” There were several reasons why so many soviet soldiers and officers surrendered and were taken prisoner, and one of them I mentioned earlier. 665 hundred thousand soviet soldiers and officers were taken prisoner in the vicinity of Kyiv alone, and more than one hundred thousand Red Army soldiers were taken prisoner in the vicinity of the town of Uman. By the end of 1941, the general number of soviet POWs taken by the German forces was almost 3,9 million people. These facts were suppressed or only hinted at in the soviet times, and even after Ukraine’s independence, history books preferred to avoid mentioning them.
There are several reasons for this reluctance to admit these massive cases of surrender. Stalinists and their present-day followers hate to admit that so many military commanders of the Stalin era were incompetent and had to try to cover their incompetence up by sacrificing so many lives. The Central Archives of the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation do not seem to have any documents, which would be able to throw light on the actual numbers taken prisoner, or the reasons why so many people surrendered to the enemy. These documents were either destroyed, or those who surrendered were listed as “missing in action” and thus the number of those who actually surrendered rather than were “missing in action” is impossible to determine. Incidentally, in the spring of 1942, Stalin ordered that soldiers’ dog tags were taken away from them and not issued again in the future.
Also, there were three special orders issued by the soviet top military commanders that concerned those who surrendered — Order # 001919 of September 12 1941, Order # 270 of August 16 1941, and Order # 227 of July 28 1942. The texts of the last two orders were published for the first time in Ukraine in my book Trahediya viyskovopolonenykh na okupovaniy terytoriyi Ukrayiny in 1941–1944 (Tragedy of POWs in the Occupied Territories of Ukraine in 1941–1944), in 2002. Even a short quote from Order # 270 will suffice to show the inhuman character of the Stalinist regime: “Military commanders and political workers who surrender to the enemy shall be considered as deliberate and intentional deserters and treated as such…, and their families shall be arrested…” These orders also instituted “special detachments” to be deployed behind the soviet troops to prevent them from deserting or running away from the battlefield, and “penal battalions” were set up as punishment for deserters and transgressors. Very few of those enlisted in “penal battalions” survived even the first military engagements.
Hundreds of thousands of those who survived the most terrible conditions of the German POWs’ camps were later arrested by the soviet authorities and put into the soviet concentration camps as “traitors of the Motherland.”
The issue of Ukrainian forces involved in fighting both against the Germans and the soviets remains a controversial one in Ukrainian society. Would you care to comment on this controversy?
Yes, you are right; it is still a controversial issue. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA) and its role in the war are an emotive and contentious subject. In the soviet times, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and its fighters were described only in a highly negative way — they were branded as “cruel murderers” and “accomplices and stooges of the Nazis.” After Ukraine regained her independence in 1991, the UIA veterans and nationalistically minded citizens of western Ukraine began to demand that truth about the UIA be told at last, and that the UIA veterans be recognized as legitimate WWII participants in struggle against the Nazi invaders and soviet occupiers. The Red Army veterans and communists were dead against the recognition of UIA’s role in the struggle against Nazi Germany, but neither the Verkhovna Rada nor the president were able to settle the conflict.
The very fact that in contrast to practically all the other resistance movements in the countries occupied in WWII by Germany, the Ukrainian resistance movement was not getting any outside help, and the fact that it could go on fighting first against the Germans and later against the soviets showed that the UIA had a very substantial support of the local Ukrainian population. The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army began their struggle against the invading Germans as early as in September, following the German refusal to allow creation of an independent Ukrainian state. The OUN and the UIA not only engaged in skirmishes with the Germans, they also committed acts of sabotage and of disruption of the German rear communication systems; they did what they could to prevent young Ukrainians from being sent for forced labour to Germany. The OUN and UIA fighting units increased in size and in 1943 they took on German military units in fierce fighting. The Germans began to lose control over large areas in the lands of Volyn, Podillya and Zhytomyrshchyna. In order to deal with OUN and UIA units in their rear, the German forces had to move some of their combat units from the front and send them against the Ukrainian fighters. In June 1943 alone, over a thousand troops of military police, 10 motorized battalions reinforced with artillery, 50 tanks and armoured vehicles, and 27 military planes were deployed against the OUN and UIA fighters. According to prof. V. Kosyk, in July and August, there were hundreds of attacks conducted by OUN and UIA fighters on German strongholds and industrial facilities, and hundreds of acts of sabotage on the railroads. In the land of Volyn, in July, August and September of 1943, the German forces lost over 3,000 persons killed in action, whereas the UIA’s casualties were 1,237 fighters killed and wounded. In October and September of the same year, the German losses were 1,500 killed in action and the UIA lost 434 of its fighters. These and many other similar facts clearly demonstrate neither the OUN nor the UIA could be classified as “accomplices and stooges of the Nazis.” The Ukrainian fighters for the independence of their native land did their best the way they could.
In conclusion, could you say a few words about the losses Ukraine suffered in the Second World War?
According to some historians, the Soviet Union is estimated to have lost 46 million in WWII, 22 million of whom were the military, and the rest were civilians. And it is probably a conservative estimate. Germany is estimated to have lost 6 million people, three million of whom were soldiers and officers. On the Eastern Front, the German loses are estimated to have been about 1.5 million people. Most of the Germans killed in action were buried in a proper way, whereas most of the soviets killed in action were buried in common graves or covered, at best, with some earth at the places where they fell. The ratio is one German dead in WWII against fourteen soviet deaths. Alexander Yakovlev, a knowledgeable historian, war veteran and former member of the Soviet Communist Party Politbyuro, in his interview given in 2005, put the losses of the soviet military in the Second World War at 30 million people.
Ukraine’s military losses are estimated at over 6 million people. It was an enormously high price paid for the victory. The enemy was drowned by Stalin and his regime in the blood of millions of soldiers and civilians. And I am not sure we have revealed all the terrible truths about WWII and the Soviet Union and Ukraine in it.
Photos are from the archives
of the War Museum in Kyiv
and from the book Bezsmertya.
1941–1945 (Immortality. 1941–1945)
Joseph Stalin, soviet dictator, and Joachim
Red Army soldiers surrendering. 1941.
Yakiv Dzhugashvili, Stalin’s son,
German troops on march. 1941.
A Red Army soldier who died
Belongings of Jewish people
German soldiers removing explosives
Peasants working in the field
Getting a filed gun across the River