Strictly speaking, the Vlasov armies were those World War II Soviet troops who switched sides while German prisoners to join former Soviet general Andrei Vlasov in the war against the Soviet Union, thereby serving as a German propaganda weapon to undermine support for the regime of Joseph Stalin. More broadly, the term applies to Soviet citizens, numbering perhaps in the millions, who served Germany in some capacity during World War II.
From the first months of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the German army had relied on Soviet auxiliaries for manual labor and personal service. These "volunteer helpers" (Hilfswillige, or Hiwis), while not officially sanctioned, were vitally necessary to hard-pressed German units. As casualties mounted, the German military relied more heavily on Osttruppen, Soviets under arms in German service. Because of Adolf Hitler's adamant opposition on racial and ideological grounds to arming Slavs, they served on an ad hoc basis under German officers, as individuals or units of battalion-size or smaller. Primarily intended for security and antipartisan warfare, some did see frontline combat.
By 1942, a growing number of German officers and officials believed that victory might be more easily won by moderating German occupation policy and making the war, either in propaganda or reality, a struggle not to conquer Russia but to end the tyranny of Stalin and Bolshevism. The undoubted usefulness of Soviet manpower, together with the support of Alfred Rosenberg (1893–1946), Hitler's minister for occupied territories in the east, and Joseph Goebbels (1897–1945), his propagandist, meant Soviet-manned units became more widespread and officially approved in late 1941 and 1942. Many served garrison duty in the west, freeing German troops for the eastern front.
These included a variety of national legions for Armenians, Georgians, Azerbaijanis, and Tatars, and still others for Baltic nationalities. Slavs presented greater difficulties, as Nazi racial theories consigned them to subhuman status. As a result, the German military and later the SS (Schutzstaffel) strove to avoid calling Slavic units by Slavic names. Russians and Ukrainians, for example, were enrolled in large numbers into "cossack" units.
What drove so many Soviets to support the German war aimed at enslaving or exterminating their own people? For most rank-and-file, the goal was escaping starvation in a German prisoner-of-war camp. By contrast to British and American prisoners, generally treated by Nazi Germany in accord with international law, Soviet prisoners suffered appalling treatment that killed them by the millions and encouraged many to join the Germans merely to survive. Others saw German service as a means to get close enough to Soviet lines to escape to their homeland. They had little idea that returned Soviet prisoners of any sort were treated as traitors by Stalin's regime. For still others, including Vlasov, the chief motivation was genuine anticommunism.
A fundamental contradiction lay at the heart of German policy in the east. Germans wishing to enlist Soviet support found more humane occupation policies and political concessions were utterly at odds with the ravenous territorial aggression that led Hitler to launch the war. Recruiting laborers from prisoner-of-war camps did little to solve the German propaganda problem of winning Soviet support for a German war of conquest and extermination. By 1942, German officials were already wishing for a "Russian de Gaulle" to unify and inspire anti-Stalin Soviets. They found their de Gaulle in Andrei Vlasov.
Born a peasant, Andrei Andreyevich Vlasov (1900–1946) joined the new Red Army in 1919. Serving with skill and distinction, he enjoyed a successful career, and spent 1938–1939 as a Soviet military advisor in China. He returned to the Soviet Union and developed a reputation as a master at turning bad units into showpieces of discipline and training.
When Germany attacked the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, Vlasov commanded the 4th Mechanized Corps, part of the Soviet southwestern front. In the first disastrous weeks, Vlasov was one of the few relatively successful Soviet commanders, and repeatedly fought his way out of German encirclement. Promoted to command of the 37th Army, Vlasov was caught in the great German encirclement of Kiev, which cost the Soviets six hundred thousand men. Vlasov again escaped the trap. Based on this success, he was transferred to command the Soviet 20th Army outside Moscow, where he joined the massive December 1941 counterattack that drove German troops away from Moscow and saved the Soviet Union.
Now one of Stalin's top commanders, Vlasov was sent north and in April 1942 given command of the 2nd Shock Army, one hundred thousand Soviet troops fighting behind German lines to break the siege of Leningrad. After two months of desperate combat without adequate support, reinforcements, or supplies, Vlasov's embattled forces collapsed. Vlasov himself was captured by the Germans in July 1942.
Imprisoned in a special camp in Vinnitsa, Ukraine, Vlasov soon wrote a memorandum with Colonel Vladimir Boyarsky proposing a Russian national movement to fight alongside the Germans against Stalin. German sympathizers made Vlasov the centerpiece of propaganda to encourage Soviet desertion to the Germans. Leaflets in Vlasov's name, falsely denying German mistreatment of Soviet prisoners and aggressive intent toward the Soviet Union, were scattered among Soviet troops.
On 27 December 1942, as chairman of the "Russian Committee," Vlasov signed the "Smolensk Declaration," calling on Russians and other nations of the Soviet Union to abandon the Stalinist dictatorship in favor of Germany's Europe "without Bolsheviks and capitalists." The declaration mixed outright falsehood—claiming Hitler's Germany had no designs on Russia—with a platform to redress the worst grievances of the Soviet people, a platform that remained remarkably consistent over time. It called for eliminating collective farms and forced labor while restoring private enterprise and freedoms of speech and religion. It promised broad guarantees of social justice and security for working people. The declaration announced its own Russian Liberation Army (RLA). The German military believed that Vlasov's appeals increased desertion, and the Soviet government saw his message as a danger. In its condemnation of Vlasov, during the war and for fifty years after, it never revealed Vlasov's platform to the Soviet people.
Vlasov's message was powerful; his new Russian Liberation Army was fictitious. Hitler's adamant opposition to a Russian army meant the RLA was only an idea to rally Soviet troops entirely subordinate to German control. Nonetheless, it remained a powerful symbol, and many Soviets in German service wore its insignia.
Change in steadfast Nazi opposition to any genuine anti-Stalin Russian movement came in 1944. With Allied forces in France, and especially the destruction of Germany's Army Group Center in Belarus, Germany's position was desperate. As a result, on 16 September 1944, the SS chief Heinrich Himmler (1900–1945) met with Vlasov and made a series of landmark concessions. Himmler agreed to a new Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia as a provisional government for Russia, should Germany ever regain control of any Russian territory. Himmler also allowed, in principle, Russian troops under Vlasov's command, though he quickly limited their numbers.
As Nazi Germany's collapse accelerated, the Committee's first meeting in Prague on 14 November 1944 maintained Vlasov's line of a democratic and socialist Russia without Bolsheviks. Military units under Vlasov were also forming. Germany was, however, hard-pressed to equip its own soldiers, let alone Soviet troops. By spring 1945, though, Vlasov had two divisions and perhaps fifty thousand soldiers nominally under his command, the strongest the 1st Division under Sergei Bunyachenko.
In April 1945, Vlasov's troops went into action for the first time. Bunyachenko's 1st Division was mauled in a failed assault on a Soviet stronghold on the Oder River. Deciding there was little point to sacrificing his soldiers in a losing cause, Bunyachenko disregarded German orders and marched his troops south through war-torn Germany toward relative calm in Czech lands. By the end of April 1945, Vlasov and Bunyachenko's 1st Division were both outside Prague. Hoping to reach an accommodation with the western Allies, Vlasov's forces were in close contact with the Czech resistance.
Czech plans for a last-minute revolt against the Germans were disrupted by a spontaneous, premature uprising by the population of Prague on 5 May 1945. As the German military began reprisals, Vlasov and Bunyachenko intervened on the Czech side in an episode that remains quite mysterious. After two days of confused fighting that expelled the Germans, Vlasov's troops headed out of Prague, hoping to reach American lines. When American permission to cross over was denied, Vlasov's forces disintegrated, most (including Vlasov) falling immediately into Soviet hands. Vlasov and his associates were tried secretly and executed in summer 1946. His soldiers, like the many Soviet prisoners who had suffered loyally in German captivity, were dispatched into Stalin's network of prison camps.
Official Soviet historiography always portrayed Vlasov as a cynical opportunist, a traitor motivated solely by personal ambition. Many Soviet dissidents and émigrés viewed him more sympathetically, as a man caught between and betrayed by two totalitarian dictatorships. Russia in the early twenty-first century is no nearer a consensus on the man and his movement.
Andreyev, Catherine. Vlasov and the Russian Liberation Movement: Soviet Reality and Émigré Theories. Cambridge, U.K., 1987.
Dallin, Alexander. German Rule in Russia, 1941–1945: A Study of Occupation Policies. 2nd ed. London, 1981.
Fischer, George. Soviet Opposition to Stalin: A Case Study in World War II. Cambridge, Mass., 1952.
Strik-Strikfeldt, Wilfried. Against Stalin and Hitler: Memoir of the Russian Liberation Movement, 1941–5. Translated from the German with a foreword by David Footman. London, 1970.