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  • Stalin's Defectors: How Red Army Soldiers became Hitler's Collaborators, 1941–45 by Mark Edele
  • Helmut Langerbein
Stalin's Defectors: How Red Army Soldiers became Hitler's Collaborators, 1941–45, Mark Edele (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 240 pp., hardcover $81.00, electronic version available.

The horrible fate of the almost six million Soviet POWs captured by the Germans in World War II —declared defectors and traitors of the Motherland in Stalin's Order no. 270 of August 1941—was first documented in Christian Streit's 1978 monograph Keine Kameraden.1 Stalin's Defectors, however, is about the "true" defectors, or at least those who threw in their lot with the Germans for one reason or another. Mark Edele, a historian at the University of Melbourne trained in the United States, Germany, and Russia, builds on his earlier scholarship on the cultural and social history of the Soviet war. Drawing upon a wide variety of archival material and an impressive knowledge of the secondary literature, he concludes that survival and discontent with Stalin's dictatorship were the most important motivations.

When reading the preface's sweeping claims of combining many subfields of history, bringing back together different areas of historical specialization, and even recommending chapters to be skipped by non-historians, one could becomes skeptical. These doubts are potentially compounded when the author introduces his protagonist, Ivan Nikitisch Kononov, a Red Army Major who turned "Ataman of all Cossack Forces" fighting for the Germans against partisans in the occupied Soviet and Yugoslav territories. Kononov emigrated to Australia after the war and definitely was not representative of the vast majority of Red Army defectors. Fortunately, Edele recognizes the hagiographic character of a Kononov biography written by one of the latter's former subordinates, and acknowledges him as a "somewhat untypical case study" used only to illustrate the variety and fluidity of defection and to underscore the development of the early historiography, which was largely based on the above biography and Kononov's self-serving writings in exile. Indeed, Edele's greatest strength is his careful and nuanced evaluation of the sources and the circumstances under which they were collected, and he refrains from unwarranted judgments. This is most evident in the quantitative chapter. According to Edele's calculations, somewhere between two and six per cent of all Soviet POWs (117,000–318,000) voluntarily crossed the lines between 1941 and 1945, numbers vastly higher than among the Western Allies and attesting to the unpopularity of Stalin's regime.

The problems with the large discrepancy in Edele's numbers begin with the limitations of language to adequately convey the multifaceted reality of the Eastern Front. The Russian and German words for defector, perebezhchik and Überläufer respectively, literally mean "someone who runs across a line"—somewhat more descriptive than the English term. But especially in 1941 the Germans made little distinction between POWs and defectors and simply shot most would-be defectors, or let them perish from maltreatment, malnourishment, and exposure with the millions of other POWs. Edele therefore argues that it is better to think about defection along a continuum of experiences. On one end of this spectrum is the "ideal defector," a soldier who makes an active decision to throw away his weapon, raise his arms, and cross over to the enemy, or someone like Kononov who defected with his entire unit; and on the other end would be the "ideal captive," a Red Army man who fights to the last bullet and gives up only when severely injured. In actuality, the vast majority fell somewhere between those extremes.

Another reason for the different numbers is the character of warfare in 1941. The German Blitzkrieg was a war of fast movement and large encirclements that blurred traditional front lines and brought more than three million Soviet POWs into German captivity in the first months of the [End Page 127] war alone. During the planning phase and Germany's early "Euphoria in Victory"2 there were hardly any plans for POWs, defectors, or collaborators. Only after the Blitzkrieg turned into a war of attrition with more recognizable front lines (that could actually be crossed by defectors), did...


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