Russian Liberation Army

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The Russian Liberation Army (RLA),[1] created from a nucleus of Soviet soldiers captured by the German Wehrmacht in the early days of the invasion of the Soviet Union in the Second World War, achieved neither German goals nor its own anti-Soviet objectives. While it had some supporters in the German command structure, it never received full support due to the anti-Slavic doctrines of the Nazis in general and Adolf Hitler in particular. Lacking any effective German support, it was never more than a "symbolic initiative versus a real fighting force."[2] After the war's end, the Soviets were harsh on its members, whom it considered to be enemies of the state.

Relations between the Soviet Union and Germany, prior to the German invasion and during the first years of fighting, were complex. Germany had achieved strategic surprise with its attack, with success in both the diplomacy of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 and clandestine deception. Soviet theory called avoiding war with German the "wise peace policy" of Comrade Stalin.[3]

Writing about the invasion planning some 60 years later, then-Major Bob E. Willis Jr. of the U.S. Army observed that "very little effort was expended on the transition between the destruction of the Red Army and the establishment of the security necessary to realize the ultimate political and economic goals." His paper for the School of Advanced Military Studies draws parallels between the effective military operations in this operation, as well as the U.S. advance in the Iraq War, and the failure to establish the post-high-intensity-combat environment.

Soviet context

Prior to the invasion, there had been a brief period of relatively warm German-Soviet relations. Soviet citizens, independent of ethnic Russian patriotism, had had much reason, however, to distrust their own government. Memories of the "Great Terror", or massive purges of the 1930s, were fresh, and both Soviet leadership and ordinary citizens lived in fear of the Organs of State Security. As long as the Soviet government could not stimulate patriotic sentiment, there indeed were conditions where Germany might turn opposition to its advantage. Ironically, Stalin was probably more concerned about this threat than was Hitler.


Stalin received a warning document, in May 1939, about The Future Plans of Aggression by Fascist Germany, based on a German briefing obtained by Soviet spies in Warsaw. A Soviet agent first reported that Hitler planned to declare war on the Soviet Union in March 1941, and refined the estimate, by February 28, to May 20. Confirmation came from sources in Bucharest, Budapest, Sofia and Rome, and especially the Richard Sorge (code-named Ramsay) espionage network in Tokyo; Sorge's cover identity was that of a German journalist and he had excellent contacts in German circles. [4]. On April 17 a Prague informant predicted a German invasion in the second half of June. The precise date and time of the invasion were revealed by a reliable source in Berlin fully three days before the Germans attacked: June 21.

Stalin refused to believe the threat. Typically, he scrawled on the bottom of the Prague report: English provocation! Investigate! On May 19, Sorge predicted that 150 divisions were being readied by the Germans for an invasion of the Soviet Union. Stalin retorted with an expletive.

Literally nothing was done to prepare for the German assault. Soviet planes were not camouflaged. Troops were not in defensive positions; indeed they were ordered not to occupy such positions, for fear of provoking the Germans. Worse, Stalin responded to the gathering storm with yet another purge of suspected threats to his own authority. Stalin had previously, in 1937, purged the senior command staff of the Red Army, leaving a leadership vacuum when the Germans launched the Operation Barbarossa invasion.

Security operations

Even though the Soviets did not do well in preventing the formation of the RLA, they had significant intelligence penetration of German-sponsored resistance movements. Boris Miklashevsky was a former boxing champion and clandestine intelligence officer, resident in Berlin between 1941 and 1944. After the war's end, he was assigned to hunting down RLA forces; he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner and returned to boxing in 1947.[5]

Early defeats and Vlasov

After the invasion on June 21, Soviet defenses were ineffective. The Volkhov Front [6]had been formed in late 1941. It was positioned to support the Leningrad Front, and later as a counterattack force to help break the siege of Leningrad. Red Army lieutenant general [7] Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov (1900-1946) was made its deputy commander of the Front in March 1942, arriving directly from General Headquarters, accompanied by Georgi Malenkov, a member of the inner cabinet, and Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, defense minister. This indicated he was regarded well at the high command level; subsequent criticism of his military skills are likely to be part of the Soviet effort to discredit a traitor.[8]

The Volkhov Front, however, was dissolved on 23 April, and subordinated to the Leningrad Front. Vlasov was reassigned, after its commander became seriously ill, to command one of major counterattack forces, the Second Shock Army. It was overrun in late June. There are reports that Merentsov tried to rescue Vlasov with a tank unit, but he preferred to share the fate of his men.[9] He was captured during this time.

After issuing several no-retreat orders, Stalin issued Directive 270 on 16 August 1942: [10] "I order that

  1. anyone who removes his insignia during battle and surrenders should be treated as a malicious deserter whose family is to be arrested as a breaker of the oath and betrayer of the Motherland. Such deserters are to be shot on the spot.
  2. Those falling into encirclement should fight to the last and try to reach their own lines. And those who prefer to surrender should be destroyed by any available means, while their families are to be deprived of all State allowances and assistance."

Capture and early opposition

After his capture, Vlasov worked in developing anti-Soviet statements, culminating in the Smolensk Manifesto of 27 December 1942.[11] While it opposed the Soviets and proposed an opposition, it was not pro-German.

By June 1943, he was arrested by Hitler for being too independent, although he later met with Himmler and others and issued the Prague Manifesto of 14 November 1944.[12]

Lack of development

While the RLA was under the command of Vlasov, the Germans never fully armed it nor gave it an adequate command structure. Instead, they regarded it as the putative military wing of the German-created Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia (KONR).

War's end

Vlasov was tried by the Soviets and executed in 1946.[13] The Soviet trial record says "Here is where things got bogged down. The prisoners of war refused to serve in the ROA. With the greatest of effort, Vlasov was able to recruit people for the second division. Hitlerites who were aware of the pro-Soviet mood among the majority of the soldiers in this division, provided them with no weapons until the end of the war."

No personal papers of Vlasov are known to exist. Even though the number of anti-Soviets may have been in the millions, Vlasov was only allowed to form a two division force in January 1945. [14] Earlier, some of the ROA troops were used against Soviet guerrillas in the Balkans and against the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1944.[15]

While the Soviet official position was that he was merely an opportunist, his commander, Marshal K. A. Meretskov, said the defeat of his force in 1942 was due to more than his choice. [16] Vlasov, as opposed to his subordinates, never wore a German uniform. He joined the Red Army in 1919, and rose through the ranks, entering the Communist Party in 1930.[17]

At his trial, which started on 30 July 1946, the Soviet record states all responses were voluntary. [18] Vlasov was quoted as saying "I took advantage of the invasion of the Germans in the village where I was and surrendered voluntarily."

German context

Hitler was personally opposed to any strategic relationships with independent leadership in the East. Even tactically, Germany simply was unprepared to fight on an effective political and psychological level, dooming any Russian resistance.

Policy level

During the invasion planning on March 1941, he stated policy (emphasis added) as

Clash of two ideologies. Crushing denunciation of Bolshevism, identified with a social criminality. Communism is an enormous danger for our future. We must forget the concept of comradeship between soldiers. A Communist is no comrade before nor after the battle. This is a war of extermination. If we fail to grasp this, and though we are sure to beat the enemy, we shall again have to fight the Communist foe 30 years from now. We do not wage war to preserve the enemy. . . .

War against Russia. Extermination of the Bolshevist Commissars and of the Communist intelligentsia. The new States must be Socialist, but without intellectual classes of their own. Growth of a new intellectual class must be prevented. A primitive Socialist intelligentsia is all that is needed. We must fight against the poison of disintegration. This is no job for military courts. The individual troop commander must know the issues at stake. They must be leaders in the fight. The troops must fight back with the methods with which they are attacked. Commissars and GPU men are criminals and must be dealt with as such. This need not mean that the troops get out of hand. Rather the commander must give orders which express the common feelings of his troops.


As was typical under Hitler (and, to a lesser extent, Stalin), authority was split. Hitler himself, as well as Alfred Rosenberg's Ostministerium, had no interest in an independent Slav state, but rather its exploitation.

Joseph Goebbels, Propaganda Minister, noted in April 1942 that Ukrainians had initially welcomed the Germans, but had turned against them due to harsh treatment. He favored working with puppet regimes, and taking a stand of fighting Bolshevism rather than the Russian people, although German domination was never questioned.[20]


As an example, General Walter von Reichenau, commanding the German Sixth Army in the invasion, penned his own order that “historic and cultural values do not have any significance.[21] The movement, surprisingly given the racial theories of the Schutzstaffel, did have the support of Heinrich Himmler, but "continuously derailed by Hitler’s refusal to alter his policy on limited self-rule and the creation of an autonomous Russian Army in the occupied areas...From historical hindsight however, it is clear that Stalin and the Soviet government effectively tapped into the Russian cultural consciousness whereas Hitler and the German Army proved unable, or unwilling, to do the same."[22]


Key to establishing the preconditions for the RLA was Captain Wilfried Strik-Strikfeldt, an ethnic Baltic German who had served in the Imperial Russian Army during World War I.[23] He joined to join German Army Group Center in 1941, serving on Russian affairs as special advisor to Field Marshal Fedor von Bock. His official role was to train Russian propagandists for the German military. His personal goal, in the special camp he established at Dabendorf near Berlin, to form a resistance army.[24]


  1. ROA is the Russian abbreviation
  2. Bob E. Willis Jr. (Academic Year 2004-2005), After the Blitzkrieg: The German Army’s Transition to Defeat in the East, School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College, p. 27
  3. Josef Stalin and Georgi Dimitroff (1975), The Present Rulers of the Capitalist Countries Are But Temporary; The Real Master of the World Is the Proletariat (Seventh Communist International, 1935), in Georgi Dimitroff, The United Front: The Struggle Against Fascism and War, Proletarian Publishers, p. 133
  4. Gordon Prange (1984). Target Tokyo: The Story of the Sorge Spy Ring. McGraw-Hill. 
  5. Pavel Sudoplatov; Anatoli Sudoplatov, Jerrold L. Schecter, Leona P. Schecter (1994). Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness—A Soviet Spymaster. Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0316773522. , pp. 115-116
  6. A Soviet front was a high command headquarters roughly equivalent to a U.K. or U.S. Army Group
  7. A Soviet lieutenant general is equivalent to a two-star Western major general
  8. Catherine Andreyev (1987), Vlasov and the Russian Liberation Movement: Soviet Reality and Emigré Theories, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 9780521389600, pp. 24-26
  9. Andreyev, p. 28
  10. Andrew Nagorski (2007), The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-0743281102, p. 71
  11. Michael Parrish (2004), Sacrifice of the generals: Soviet senior officer losses, 1939-1953, ISBN 978-0-8108-5009-5, p. 425
  12. Donald W. Treadgold, Herbert J. Ellison (1999), Twentieth century Russia, Westwood Press, ISBN 978-0813336725, p. 302
  13. General Vlasov's Last Hours, Radio Free Europe Research, 27 April 1973
  14. Andreyev, p. 3
  15. Sudoplatov, p. 170n.
  16. Andreyev, p. 10
  17. Andreyev, pp. 19-21
  18. A.V. Tishkov: "Predatel' pered sovetskim sudom" in Sovetskoe gosudarstvo i pravo" No. 2/1973, cited by RFE
  19. Adolf Hitler, quoted in war diary by Fritz Halder (30 December 1947-28 October 1948), Part III, (b) Evidence with Particular Reference to the Commissar Order, Case No. 72 The German High Command Trial, Trial of Wilhelm von Leeb and thirteen others, United States Military Tribunal, Nuremberg
  20. Andreyev, p. 31
  21. Leonid Grenkevich (1999), The Soviet Partisan Movement, 1941-1944, Frank Cass and Company, p. 9, cited by Willis
  22. Willis, p. 43
  23. Wilfried Strik-Strikfeldt (1970), Against Stalin and Hitler: Memoir of the Russian Liberation Movement, 1941-1945, Macmillan
  24. Willis, pp. 40-41