The True Yet Unknown Tragedy in Lost Kin: A Novel

Appeasing Stalin: Forced Repatriation After WWII

Grim rumors were spreading among Eastern Europeans stranded in the West at the end of World War II. Those repatriated back home to areas controlled by the Soviet Union were facing treason trials, mass lynchings, labor camps, executions. Word was, anyone who’d ended up in lands run by the Germans during the war was now considered highly suspect. Peasants, forced laborers, refugees, even POWs. To Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin, anyone touched by the West was contaminated. 

Yet the Western Allies kept sending them back to the Soviet Union. In one of the most horrific incidents, the British handed over some 18,000 Cossack peoples to Soviet authorities at the Judenburg collection point in Austria in the summer of 1945. The tragedy has been called the “Betrayal of the Cossacks” and the “Massacre of Cossacks at Lienz.” Faced with overwhelming numbers to send back, the British resorted to subterfuge, then brute force.

Betrayal of the Cossacks at Lienz, 1945. Artist: S.G. Korolkoff (Faz.net)

Roughly 50,000 Cossacks had ended up in Austria in May 1945, some of them tribes that had fought against the Soviets with the Germans and, with their families, retreated westward as the Third Reich collapsed. With the war ending, they now had nowhere to go. British army units intercepted many of the Cossacks near Lienz and interned them, cramming them into a canyon on the banks of the Drave River. The Cossacks surrendered without a fight. The British fed them and led them to believe they would be protected from undue retribution inflicted by the Soviet Army advancing well into Austria, only a few miles to the east. The Cossacks believed the promise. They dared feel something like comfort, like safety.

In late May the British, still pledging protection, disarmed the Cossacks’ couple thousand officers and generals and trucked them to the town of Judenburg, just over the Soviet lines. There the British handed them over. Many of the older officers had emigrated years before — during the Russian Civil War — and were not even Soviet citizens, so they were technically exempt. But the British did it anyway — to appease their wartime ally, “Uncle Joe” Stalin.

Repatriating the Cossack officers was only the start. The British operation had left thousands despairing in the canyon on the Drave — the woman and children, the elderly, the poor regular soldiers who were fathers, sons, brothers. And thousands of their beloved Cossack horses had come with them. Three days later, on June 1, British troops received orders to prod these helpless people at gunpoint into cattle cars and trucks. In the ensuing panic, the British soldiers bayoneted some. Ghastly scenes emerged. Many Cossacks committed suicide, or begged to be shot. The refugees started stabbing themselves, pounding themselves with rocks, whatever they could grab, leaping into the fast river if they could reach it. When the trucks came, people tried to break the British troops’ barrier, great mobs of children and old women — but only so they could jump into the river, off bridges, find the tools to kill themselves. Even after the trucks carrying them started off they leapt out, breaking their backs, or were run over, the trucks not stopping. It was mass hysteria, but not a brief mass hysteria. This played out over days. Similar mayhem was occurring across Southern Austria, involving Cossacks and many other Eastern Europeans.

No matter what the Cossacks did as soldiers, whether fighting to stay alive or even committing atrocities, it’s inexcusable that innocent woman and children should have had to suffer for it. The only sliver of hope in this sordid tale was that some in Lienz managed to escape, helped by British Tommies feeling the strain and looking the other way. A fictionalized group of these escaped Cossacks poses a crucial moral imperative in my recent novel Lost Kin, in which long-estranged brothers Harry and Max Kaspar reunite in war-torn 1946 Munich and resolve to rescue the refugees, who are in hiding but stranded, the Soviet Army hunting them down.

Such was the moral quagmire the Allies faced in the horrid aftermath of World War II in Europe. The tragic fate of these ill-fated refugees from Eastern Europe is rarely acknowledged to this day. Yet the forced repatriations to the Soviet Union are historical fact, and it happened to far more than Cossacks. By early 1947, the United States, Great Britain, and allies had returned nearly two and a half million refugees, forced laborers, and prisoners of war to the Soviet Union as agreed in the Yalta Conference. These people were sent back forcibly, without consideration of their individual wishes and genuine fears. Like those elderly Cossack officers, thousands of émigrés who had fled Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War — well before WWII — were sent back to the Soviet Union they had opposed. People of Russian descent who never set foot in Russia were forcibly sent east as well.

As in Lienz, many of the repatriated were tricked into going or outright lied to. When that didn’t work, they were forced at gunpoint. The bloody sellout was already set in motion by the Unconditional Surrender of May 1945, when the so-called Soviet Repatriation Commissions were roaming Western Europe operated by agents of the NKVD and SMERSH. Sometimes the Soviet officials promised those returning that Stalin would give them amnesty, appealing to a yearning to reunite with family and loved ones. Yet after hearing the grim rumors to the contrary, many knew what would happen once Stalin's agents got to them — they would land in a Gulag, if they were lucky.

  Click for Plattling Camp repatriation footage at CriticalPast.com

Click for Plattling Camp repatriation footage at CriticalPast.com

The forced repatriations continued, into 1946 and 1947. The Americans ran their own operations, notably at the former concentration camps at Dachau and at Plattling where thousands of Russians were brutally repatriated by US troops. As Nikolai Tolstoy reports in The Secret Betrayal (1977), American soldiers were left “visibly shamefaced” after one nighttime operation where they rousted terrified Russians from their beds at gunpoint shouting and wielding nightsticks and herded them into trucks and, hours later, handed over their prisoners to Soviet trains inside Bavarian woods at the Czech border. The American death march was soon reaping suicide and murder: “Before their departure from the rendezvous in the forest, many [US soldiers] had seen rows of bodies already hanging from the branches of nearby trees. On their return, even the SS men in a neighboring compound lined the wire fence and railed at them for their behavior. The Americans were too ashamed to reply.”

If there’s a lesson in this, perhaps it’s that we should always keep a careful watch on the victors no matter what evil has been defeated. We see it repeatedly, and certainly today, in war and in peace. Peace alone does not spare the innocent. 

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Adapted from the afterword to Lost Kin