Soviet Secret Police, Collaborator Trials, and the Holocaust

This week’s podcast is a interview I conducted at the University of Pittsburgh for the Center for Russia, East European, and Eurasian Studies Spring Series, “Spying, Archiving, Reporting: Information in Eastern Europe”

Here’s a partial transcript to whet your appetite. 

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This abridged version of the interview has been edited for clarity. Look out for the full audio version soon.

Jared McBride is a lecturer in the History Department at UCLA specializing is in ethnic diversity and mass violence in Nazi-occupied Volhynia, Ukraine, during the Second World War.  He’s currently finishing a book titled Webs of Violence: Occupation, Revolution, and Terror in Western Ukraine, 1941-1944. He’s the author of “Peasants into Perpetrators: The OUN-UPA and the Ethnic Cleansing of Volhynia,1943–1944” in the fall 2016 issue of Slavic Review and “Who’s Afraid of Ukrainian Nationalism?” in the Summer 2016 issue of Kritika.

What got you interested in researching the role of Ukrainian locals in ethnic cleansing and the murder of Poles and Jew during World War II in western Ukraine.

The background of my work was my early experiences as an undergraduate. I had an adviser who was brave enough to take me to the archives in Moscow. The research I did there ultimately became my senior thesis. We worked with a collection, which was known at the time and it’s much more known now, especially over the last decade, called the Extraordinary State Commission, or ChGK. This was a massive collection of testimonies, among other things, collected immediately after the Red Army pushed the Nazis out of Eastern Europe and Russia. This commission was sent in to record the damage and what had happened during the Second World War.

They did everything from counting how many chickens were lost in the entire Soviet Union to the Nazis as well as recording the very macabre history of violence during the war.

These testimonies from people who survived and their descriptions of what happened during the conflict that had a big effect on me. I became immediately ensconced in this idea that the bigger picture of this war as the Nazi versus Soviet military provides only one half of the story. The other half is really what’s going at the local level. This includes questions about collaboration, working with the Nazi regime, tensions between different groups in the borderland region in the Soviet Union. The violence between these groups, and a whole host of other issues at the local level.

Your work is part of a growing body of scholarship looking at the fundamental role locals played in carrying out ethnic cleansing and genocide on the eastern front. How do historians understand the role of locals’ collaboration in mass ethnic violence in the period?

There’s a deeper historiographical discussion. It’s gone on now from the second half of the 20th century until today and deals with extremely difficult, highly politicized discussions about what happened during the Second World War at the local level.

The early discussions must be put in the context of the Cold War. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union presented a very one-sided argument about what people did during the war, branding anybody who worked with the Nazi regime as collaborators. These people were often demonized after the war and in the Soviet press.

There wasn’t as much interest in the topic initially in the west. Especially when it came to topics like ethnic cleansing within the larger context of the Second World War. Inter-ethnic violence was not really studied that much at all in the west until the 1980s and 1990s.

Questions like that were sort of off the table. And when the western historians looked at the Holocaust, it was very much talked down. The focus instead was on Nazi participation and that the Holocaust was a plan ultimately carried out by Nazis in Eastern Europe.

It was only towards the end of the Soviet Union when people began to really look at the role of locals was during the Second World War.

Since then there have been a lot of very heated debates about how to contextualize and think about local participation in this violence. In many ways, you can make a comparison between this investigation of local violence and participation in mass violence, whether it’s the Holocaust or other events. It mirrors some of the earlier debates about Nazi participation and violence during the war in the Holocaust.

So earlier discussions focused on things like ideology, which is what drove Nazis to commit violence, until ultimately scholars get to a point, like in the work of Christopher Browning, where we begin to look at ordinary people, and why and how they get drawn into violence. Yes, we know that there are highly ideological actors. People have been trained to commit certain acts of violence. But there’s also lots of average people that get brought into these events as well.

We’re still, I guess, in the middle of this discussion right now. The question of ideology looms large. And it’s not necessarily the ideology of Nazism per se in Eastern Europe, but there are questions about nationalist ideology and how much that drove certain actors at the local level to participate in violence. Also, the ideology of anti-Semitism, and whether it’s a more a modern form or even other pre-modern traces of anti-Semitism, and whether that drove people to participate in violence.

We’ve begun to move away from that in how we look at violence at the local level. Now we ask regular social science questions about peer pressure, economic motivations, and other social dynamics at the local level that are also playing into why local collaborators, or just the local population becomes implicated in violence.

Your work is highly reliant on using Soviet police archives, particularly from Ukraine because the Ukrainians have opened the access to them. Talk about these archives, the access to them, and the types of information they contain that is relevant for your work.

That’s a big question to talk about the archives. I guess we can come at this from several different angles. I’ll even go back to what I began with during the first question. In my answer to the first question, I mentioned this ChGK, the Extraordinary State Commission, which was these testimonies that were collected by a Soviet commission immediately after the war. They provide a very nuanced, detailed look into what happened during the occupation. After 1991, this has been a source for a lot of historians who wanted to tell a much more detailed account of the Second World War.

The police archives are like the Extraordinary State Commission times a million. The Extraordinary State Commission would often give lists of local collaborators or people who worked with the Nazi regime to the secret police. They also got these lists from other sources as well. The secret police, the NKVD at the time, and later the KGB, would arrest individuals for crimes that they committed during the occupation, interview other locals or witnesses for what they had done, and then often sentence them to very, very steep sentences. Oftentimes up to 25 years in Siberia.

These cases provide a very detailed account about what had happened during the war. And there’s also a very explicit discussion about the Holocaust and inter-ethnic violence. We tend to think that these two topics are often off the table when it comes to the Soviet conceptualization of what happened during the Second World War.

It was reasonable to think that, because if you read newspapers or formal Soviet publications about the war, all sorts of victims were streamlined into one category. We would often joke about this, a macabre joke, about how every victim during the war was just a peaceful Soviet citizen. I know it’s joke, of course, they were Soviet citizens and they were likely peaceful. But it’s not accurate because the millions of Jews who were murdered during the war were subsumed into these categories as well.

But if you look behind the curtain of official Soviet propaganda into things like the police archives, you realize that there’s just millions of pages of documents that account for what happened during the war.

What’s important in looking at the police archives when it comes to answering questions about local violence and motivations and why people—even simple questions like why people worked with the Germans or why they participated in the Holocaust—is that there’s an evolution of these cases against local participants in violence.

It’s probably not a surprise that the earlier cases from 1944 and 1945 are carried out when the war’s still going on, often as NKVD units are passing through. They tend to be the least reliable and the sloppiest work is done at this time. You’ll see two or three witness statements. The most obvious sign that you’re not reading a particularly solid case is when witness statements tend to resemble each other. So, you’ll see two or three witness statements, and then a sentence is handed out. Often they’re shot or sent to Siberia. And that’s all.

But as soon as the war ends, and the Soviet government reestablishes power in these regions, more experienced police forces are brought in. Then the trials become more extensive. The number of cases against local collaborators are in the hundreds of thousands by the Stalin’s death in 1953. Then there’s a pause in these trials. And many of the local collaborators who were sentenced to Siberia come back during Khrushchev’s Thaw.

This pause in the interest in collaboration during the war lasts until roughly the 1960s. We’re still trying to work out the chronology and the timeline of this.

Starting in the 1960s and especially in the 1970s, many of these local collaborators and nationalists as well are retried by the Soviet government. Often they’re tried under the premise that new evidence and crimes have been discovered. Many people look at this and make the argument, “Oh well, this is obviously double jeopardy.” And of course, it is in a lot of ways. This is Soviet justice, after all.

But the flip side of it is that so many people were murdered during the Nazi occupation in these regions that it’s very possible that they found people who had not been accounted for.

They’ll use this as a premise to reopen trials. Then the police will re-interview witnesses from 20 years prior. In some of these cases, the police will interview every single person in a county, or even in multiple counties, who was alive during the Second World War. Every single person.

You’ll have thousands of testimonies from a small county about what had happened during the war. So that’s the kind of material in the police archives, and of course I can say a few words about what you need to look out for or the methodological concerns, if that’s of interest.

I wanted to ask about the issues with using Soviet police files. We know for example, that files, say during 1937-1938, the accuracy of the information is quite suspect. How do you deal with the information that’s in these documents?

This often colors a lot of our approach to the police archives, like everything else when it comes to Soviet history, in that it’s seen through the lens of high Stalinism. We need to obviously move away from that. And then there’s obviously ironies upon ironies when you’re studying Soviet history or working in Eastern Europe.

One of the biggest issues working with police archives is in the trials against local collaborators or local participants in violence versus cases against people who participated in the Ukrainian nationalist movement or even other movements in the Baltics.

If you’re looking at local collaborators, the irony is most of these cases, and I would say this in terms of my research, the overwhelming majority of these people participated in the crimes that they were accused of. Now the degree to which they were culpable is debatable. So, whether you were the head of the police, whether you were pulling the trigger at a mass grave or you were just basically surrounding people at the mass grave. We can obviously discuss the levels of culpability.

But this idea that these were fabrications of crimes is completely absurd.

In any sort of archival research in police files, whether it’s the KGB archives or it’s the FBI archives, you want to be able to corroborate your information with other sources. And the sadness and the beauty of these archives is when it comes to issues like the Holocaust, we have wonderful testimonial archives, memoirs, and other books. You’re able to bring together a hybridity between police documents and testimony of people often taken 40, 50, or 60 years later in a different country at a different time.

I’ve done a couple of presentations at the Shoah Foundation to show how useful their archives are, which turns out they like to hear. I will show a testimony taken in the 1990s of a Ukrainian or a Jew from a village in western Ukraine describing the local policemen or describing events during the war. And then I’ll pull up a testimony from Soviet police archives describing the same exact events.

And so, you’re really able to bring together an array of sources now to tell this story in a nuanced way.

Nationalists are tried after the war as well, and some of them had been participants in the local police and implicated in other violence. When it comes to participation in the nationalist movement, those sorts of cases are much trickier to deal with. Because often you will see people who ran into one insurgent in the woods, and then they’re accused of being in the nationalist organization.

But that really gets to the point that you need to understand the politics and the motivations of people creating the documents. Which again, I would say this is not a special thing about KGB archives. You cannot read CIA documents without understanding their political motivations.

In the case of the Soviet Union there was very much a drive, and it didn’t matter what decade it was, to vilify and demonize anyone in the Ukrainian nationalist movement. So, you must be much more careful when it comes to that aspect of the files. It’s really difficult to take at face value whether someone was actually implicated in the Ukrainian nationalist movement or not.

I want to talk about the actual trials, because I remember when you first told me about these war crimes trials a few years ago, and the fact that they’re not only going on right after the war, but all the way up into the 1980s. Why would the KGB hold these trials repeatedly throughout the decades?

I think the reasons change over time. And this gets back to this larger chronology about the trials themselves. There’s a number of contextual levels you need to keep in mind when you’re discussing KGB archives. First, you need to, as I’ve already said a few times, realize that KGB archives are archives. The tools you’re bringing into these archives should the ones you bring into all archives.

Second, when you’re talking about KGB trials or these political cases, there’s about a million of them in Ukraine in all. You need to think about the era in which they’re being carried out. Because they’re all not the same.

The trials immediately after the war or even towards the end of the war are not necessarily public. You could read about them in local newspapers. But they’re not necessarily going to harp on the fact of local collaboration because revealing all of the people who were not loyal during the war is not really the message they want to send to the Soviet public. You will not see the focus of that in the postwar trials or that there was any sort of public event. People are typically tried privately and then they’re sentenced.

You will see long investigations in the later trials. These are the bigger trials from the 1970s and 1980s. People will be investigated. Often the investigation will last for a year or sometimes two years to produce something like 11 or 12 stacked volumes with 10,000 pages of material, and, as I’ve already noted, everybody in a county is interviewed. These will take a great deal of time. And of course, the conclusions are not necessarily the most surprising, and these guys have already been tried in the 1940s or 1950s, so we already know what they had done during the war. They will then have a public trial.

These trials obviously mirror the show trial in our imagination of Soviet justice. You can see this in local newspapers at the time. The trials are well coordinated events. Defendants will sit in the docket. Witnesses and people from the war will come in, yell and accuse them of things. Sometimes there’s even newsreel footage, which I’ve found in some of these cases. Then the accused will often be executed after these trials.

When it comes to what this means for the local population, there’s this idea that just because they were secret police trials or the people were tried after the war, that again, it’s Soviet justice so it must be perverted in some way, and that everyone was somehow coerced into giving a statement or a testimony.

But when you take a step back and you think about the unimaginable levels of violence during the Nazi occupation in Eastern Europe and the fact that there were lots of neighbors, loved ones, and other folks who were complicit in this violence, the idea that people would want to testify about what had happened to them or to seek justice and redress, even if they don’t even like the secret police, seems pretty human and understandable. Some have argued that these trials provide some form of an outlet for people. Yes, it’s not going to be on the front page of Pravda, but it gives people a way to seek justice. This sort of mirrors, obviously, arguments about participation from below in a number of topics in Soviet history.

I would say for the trials in the 1970s and 1980s, and this is my view from having talked to witnesses and people who lived through the war, everyone knew that they were just trotting something out. I don’t think that they necessarily knew why they were retrying three policemen who maybe did 10 years in the Gulag, came back home in the 1950s, and have basically been part of the community again. And, of course, everyone knows who they are. Everyone knows what they did. I don’t necessarily think that communities were aware of why these trials were being done again in the 1970s and 1980s.

I should say we historians are still trying to figure out why these trials were being trotted out again at this time. I think it’s connected to the Cold War and the international context. Which I’m sure locals were not necessarily aware of at the time.

How was the Holocaust understood, even within these documents, in the Soviet Union?

The very short answer is that it was instrumentalized. The goal of Soviet justice, and especially in these later trials, but also earlier trials too, when it came to the Holocaust wasn’t to right wrongs. It wasn’t to remember the Holocaust as a unique event.

You have this interesting split on different sides of the Iron Curtain. In the west, especially until the 1970s and 1980s, there’s no conceptualization of what the Holocaust meant in Eastern Europe. There’s just no understanding.

Whereas on the other side of the Curtain, these communities all understood what the Holocaust meant. They all understood that this was carried out by locals and obviously conceived by the Nazis—but carried out by locals. The Soviet government was aware of this. The Soviet secret police was aware of this. They knew what the Holocaust meant in Eastern Europe.

There’s this moment in the 1970s, especially the late 1970s, when it turns out that the west becomes aware of the fact that a number of these local perpetrators, some of whom had been involved in the nationalist movement, some of them hadn’t, had come to the west after the war. They had fled with the Nazis. This is typically the heads of local police. Even if you’re in a village of middle of nowhere, the heads of the local collaborationist police would leave with their German bosses, end up in displaced persons camps, claim that they were forced laborers, and then come to the United States after the war.

The US becomes aware of this and it becomes a big issue. The Soviets are largely driving this narrative. They’re using this as a weapon against the west. They’re making an ethical or moral argument against the west, that the west doesn’t care that there were Holocaust perpetrators in their midst. That they’ve done nothing to root them out or punish them. Whereas we, the Soviet Union, have punished everybody who committed crimes during the Second World War.

So, these later Soviet trials are actually then linked to a larger propaganda effort where you see books being published in English. Sometimes these books published in the west are in Ukrainian, Russian, and English where they take narratives out of these trials. They’ll often even call out where a number of these local collaborators are living in the west. These books will sometimes tell a horrible story about what happened in a village somewhere, and then they’ll list the address of the person who was the head of the police, and say so and so lives in Philadelphia on this street.

So, I think that Holocaust issue becomes entangled in a Cold War fight between the Soviet Union and the west, which is again back to what I began the answer with—the Holocaust, as an issue, is being instrumentalized.