THE EASTERN FRONT
Garip Sultan lay flat in a machine-gun nest, his stomach pressed to the ground. He craned his neck forward, looking out into the grasslands for the enemy. His superiors had ordered him to hold one of the Red Army's forward positions outside the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. It was May 1942, and the Germans were launching a giant counteroffensive. All around him he heard shells roar and panzers rumble. The nineteen-year-old swept his binoculars left and right across the Ukrainian steppes but saw nothing. He felt doomed. (This book is a work of history, based on interviews and documents. Unless explicitly noted in the text, sources are listed in the notes at the back of the book.)
He thought back unhappily to how he had ended up here. Sultan was a minority in Stalin's Soviet Union, a Tatar from the district of Bashkir. Turkic peoples had settled this region when the last great wave of nomadic invaders swept out of Central Asia in the thirteenth century, under Genghis Khan. As Russia expanded, the Tatars had lost their independence, becoming one of the many non-Russian peoples who made up nearly half the vast country's population.
Under Soviet rule, oppression of these peoples had increased, especially for those like Sultan's parents who had run small businesses. Soviet cadres called them capitalists and took everything. They nationalized his father's transport business and confiscated the family home. Even their horse was taken. The family, once rich, was able to keep just two pieces of furniture bought during a trip to England: a mirror, now cracked, and a clock, now broken. Before Sultan's father died, he encouraged his son to join the Young Pioneers, then later the young people's organization Komsomol, and eventually the party. This was the only way to survive in Stalin's Soviet Union, the older man had said. Sultan followed his father's advice. He joined Komsomol, attended high school, and had planned to study metallurgy. He tried his best to become a new Soviet man.
Then came June 1941 and the German invasion. The Red Army wasn't yet the formidable fighting machine that would eventually destroy the bulk of Hitler's armies. In the first year of the war it suffered enormous casualties and surrendered huge territories. Every available man was called up and thrown straight into action. Sultan was conscripted and quickly assigned to a ragtag group of non-Russians like himself, miserably equipped and poorly led. They were set to disintegrate upon contact with the enemy.
As his unit took up position outside Kharkov, Sultan keenly felt his status as a minority. When the troops lined up for inspection, the commanding officer, a Russian, asked minorities to step forward. The officer gave four of them, including Sultan, the suicidal task of creeping across the no man's land between the two armies and throwing German-language propaganda toward the enemy lines. According to this quixotic plan, the German soldiers would read the pamphlets, revolt against their officers, and surrender. No one anticipated that the Germans had set up tripwires. Sultan's group was cut to pieces by the ensuing machine-gun fire; Sultan was the only survivor. He hid for two days in the high grasses of the steppe before creeping back to his lines. For his bravery, his commanding officer promised him a medal. But Sultan felt the honor was hollow. His loyalty to the Soviet system, which he had honestly tried to cultivate, was evaporating.
Then his unit was ordered to make ready for the German offensive. Again, Sultan observed the brutality of Stalin's regime. Soviet officers forced prisoners from the gulag labor camps to work in the open, digging anti-tank trenches while facing German fire. One old prisoner, also a Tatar, talked to Sultan during a break. Gaunt and weak, he told Sultan how he had fought in World War I and been captured by the Germans. Life in the German camps had been better than in the czar's army. The prisoners had even fought for the Germans against the Russians. Sultan listened carefully and went back to work. The officers finally selected soldiers to man various positions on the front. Sultan felt that the minorities were selected for the most hopeless placements, but he trudged to his post.
He was lying in a shallow foxhole with another minority soldier, who manned the machine gun. Sultan had nominal command - he had served in Komsomol. But he had no idea how to stop the tanks with machine guns or what the point was of holding one piece of land at all costs in a fluid, mobile front. Sultan put his binoculars down for a moment and listened carefully. He could hear gunfire getting closer but couldn't see any movement. Suddenly, a squad of Germans burst through the grass from one side. The gunner swung partway around, but at the same time another group of Germans rushed from the opposite flank. The young Soviets had been surprised; if they fired at one group of Germans, they would be cut down immediately by the other. A hero's death: Sultan's officers expected soldiers to attain it. He had a split second to choose his fate.
“No, don't do it,” the German squad leader yelled as his men flung themselves to the ground and took aim. “Don't fire. Surrender!” Sultan hesitated. In his mind flashed images of the gulag slaves and his own family forced from their home; this didn't feel like his war. He raised his hands and the gunner did too. They became prisoners.
“Shoot them,” several of the Germans shouted. This often happened; the eastern front was brutal and both sides ignored international protocols for the conduct of war.
As the soldiers debated, an officer walked up, and Sultan sensed an opening. He could speak a bit of German - he'd learned it in high school - and decided to give it a try.
“Sir, you are an educated man,” Sultan said, addressing the officer. “What did you study?”
Surprised that a Soviet soldier could speak German, the officer smiled and answered: “Law.”
“Judges are supposed to show mercy,” Sultan said. “Don't kill us.” The officer laughed. He was wearing the Nazi swastika, but he was old-school Prussian. The men were his prisoners, his responsibility. Duty bound, he sent them to the back lines to be processed.
Sultan's surrender formed a small part of the Red Army's colossal collapse. Already, a staggering three million Soviet troops had surrendered to the Germans. Demoralized by Stalin's reign of terror, Soviet soldiers were capitulating wholesale. Many supposed the Nazis couldn't be worse than the communists. Soviet minorities were especially unenthusiastic about the Russian cause. To them, the Soviet Union was nothing more than a more brutal version of the old Russian Empire. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Russia had expanded south and east. By the time the czar was deposed in 1917, almost half the country's population was made up of non-Russians.
The Soviet Union inherited from the czar two large regions where Russians were in the minority: Central Asia and the Caucasus. The former is made up of present-day Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Back then the region was simply known as Turkestan, a Muslim part of the world whose various peoples spoke Turkic dialects. It encompassed nomadic peoples and great cities like Samarkand and Tashkent. Located far from the fighting, the region held little appeal for the Nazis.
The Caucasus lay closer to Nazi interests. It was the mythic home of the Caucasian people, important in Nazi lore, and a region of impenetrable hills and mysterious legends. Noah, it was supposed, landed here after the Flood. The Greeks saw it as one of the pillars of the world, its mountains holding up the sky and marking the edge of civilization. In geographic terms, the Caucasus Mountains were traditionally seen as a dividing line between Europe and the Middle East.
It was also a region Moscow had never subjugated. The area was demographically complex. The southern Caucasus had three clearly defined sectors: Georgia and Armenia, both Christian, and Muslim Azerbaijan. The north was a different story. It was mostly Muslim and dotted with small but fiercely independent peoples, such as the Dagestanis, Kalmyks, Chechens, and Ossetians.
Nazi ambitions were simple. The cities of Baku, in Azerbaijan, and Grozny, in Chechnya, were then key centers of oil production. Germany had plans to take over the oil fields and use them to fuel the Reich. But unlike many parts of the Soviet Union, the Caucasus was not slated for German colonization. That let the Germans play the role of liberators - and many locals greeted them as such. Even if the people were skeptical about the intentions of the Nazis, they were glad to see someone stand up to their oppressors.
This local reaction provided a glimpse of the Soviet system's fragility - something that would become apparent several decades later as the Soviet Union collapsed. In the early 1990s, these largely Muslim regions would shatter into more than a dozen countries. During the war, a similar splintering happened among individuals who felt loyal to their homeland and religion rather than to the Soviet Empire. There were hundreds of thousands of men like Sultan: Tatars, Georgians, Chechens, Kazakhs, Uzbeks. Most of them were Muslims, and many were happy to fight against the Soviet Union.
In time, they would congregate in Munich, a group of bitter anticommunists who would prove valuable to the West. Trained and organized by the Nazis during the war, they would eventually be discovered after the war as potential ammunition in the fight against communism. Islamists too had designs on them: these co-religionists now located in Germany could provide a beachhead to the West. But at this moment, they were a group of men - boys, really - unformed and untrained. Sultan was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp designated for educated Soviet prisoners. The Germans were beginning to realize that they possessed a potent weapon.
In October 1941, an Uzbek named Veli Kayum visited a Muslim prisoner-of-war camp in the German province of East Prussia. Conditions there were appalling. Typhus was rampant and most prisoners were near death; all were slowly starving. The men were also in shock because thousands of their comrades had been shot by Nazi liquidation squads. A young Uzbek soldier remembered thinking: “How long does it take to die?”
Kayum appeared with a German major, who shocked the captives by speaking in Uzbek and promising to improve conditions. Then Kayum addressed them.
“I am Uzbek. My name is Veli Kayum-Khan. I was born in Tashkent and came to Germany in 1922 when the Soviet government wanted helpers that could control Turkestan and were sending people to Germany to school. I decided to stay in Germany where we have a political organization formed to liberate Turkestan from Russia. You will hear very soon from me some good news.”
Kayum kept his word. Within two weeks, conditions in the camp improved dramatically. Food was suddenly plentiful, and medical care became available. Then the Germans culled the educated prisoners and sent them to a German army camp south of Berlin. There they learned to handle German weapons, breaking down and cleaning rifles, machine guns, and mortars. Most important, emigres like Kayum gave them political training, including history lessons - a topic about which many of the young Soviets were ignorant. They learned that their homelands had a long, proud history and could rise again if liberated from Soviet rule.
By November 1941, these trainees were reunited with the twelve hundred Soviet Muslims who had stayed behind in the prisoner-of-war camp. Jubilant celebrations followed, tempered with fear: the men began to realize that they were being groomed to fight the Soviets.
All of them hated the Soviets, but it was a shock to make such a dramatic change in direction: they now must serve their former enemies, the Germans, and become traitors to Moscow. It was a point of no return. Another Uzbek spoke to the prisoners, a schoolteacher named Baymirza Hayit. He had also been captured by the Germans and would be their chief officer, a direct liaison with the German high command in Berlin and East Prussia. The soldiers, he said, should think of themselves as an army of liberation.
“You are the foundation of the Eastern Legions,” Hayit said. “One day, when the eastern countries are free, you will be the backbone of the homeland.”
The men's fear swung back to jubilation. The next month, the Germans gave the soldiers uniforms of the German army, or Wehrmacht. They were identical to standard uniforms except that they lacked epaulettes. Instead, the men got something more powerful than a measure of rank: an arm patch with a stitched outline of the famous Ch_h-I-Zindeh mosque in Samarkand and the phrase Biz Alla Bilen - “God with us.”
The training was part of a little-known plan called Operation Tiger B. Kayum had put it together in close cooperation with the Wehrmacht's intelligence division, the Abwehr. While believers in Nazi racial theories held every “Asian” or “Slav” to be racially inferior, many Germans were eager to make allies out of the prisoners. The German army had already set up formations of Cossacks, feared horsemen with little love for the Soviets. Tiger B was part of this experiment.
In early 1942, the soldiers were sent to the front west of Stalingrad. They acquitted themselves with distinction, following German tanks into battle and attacking Soviet troops in a pincer movement that garnered hundreds of Soviet prisoners. Tiger B was deemed a success and the idea of predominantly Muslim units was pushed forward.
Other Soviet minorities would also fight for the Germans, but the Muslims were special: their identification with the Soviet Union seemed especially weak. When the first Muslim Soviet prisoners began arriving, the Germans surveyed them. Many didn't identify themselves as Kazakhs, Dagestanis, or members of other ethnic groups, let alone as Soviets. Instead, they simply said, “I am a Muslim.” That made them especially interesting to the Germans; here were men fighting for a religion that was diametrically opposed to communism.
Two Turkish generals had put forward the idea of Muslim units. Although Turkey was neutral in the war, the generals had traveled to Berlin and lobbied senior German military leaders for better treatment of ethnic Turkish soldiers. The Wehrmacht quickly expanded Tiger B into a regular unit, the 450th Infantry Battalion. It was staffed almost exclusively with Turkic soldiers and officers. Three other legions were soon added.
These were not elite units. Their morale fluctuated wildly; initially high, it fell as the Germans were pushed back from Muslim areas. The troops were also lightly armed. One unit of ninety thousand men had just over four thousand machine guns, three thousand grenade launchers, and three hundred artillery pieces; it entirely lacked tanks and self-propelled guns. Its main tasks were fighting partisans and guarding supply lines.
But the numbers were significant. By the end of 1942, roughly 150,000 Turks, Caucasians, and Cossacks were fighting. Throughout the course of the war, roughly one million Soviet citizens of several faiths and ethnicities served the Germans in the war, most in nonmilitary roles. The best estimate for the Muslim participation is 250,000, with most in military roles.
The preference for Muslims was clear from the start. In March 1942, the Wehrmacht issued an order allowing Soviet minorities to serve in armed units for police and anti-partisan actions. These units were explicitly not allowed to serve at the front or possess heavy weapons. An exception was made for “Turkic peoples,” who were trusted enough to fight the Soviets.
Hitler himself backed these policies. He seemed to have a soft spot for Muslims, perhaps because the Austrian-born dictator had dealt with Muslims in the Austro-Hungarian Empire or because Turkey had been one of the Central Powers during World War I, in which he had fought. It was also true that the Muslims occupied few territories that the Germans wanted to colonize. In any case, Hitler explicitly blessed the use of Muslims.
“I consider only the Mohammedans to be safe. All the others I consider unsafe,” Hitler said during a talk at military headquarters in 1942. He warned the military leadership to be careful in setting up military units of subjected peoples but allowed for an exception: “I don't see any risk if one actually sets up pure Mohammedan units.”
Soon, the SS wanted non-German troops, too. When the 450th and other units were grouped into a division in 1943, the SS took it over, renaming it the East Turkestani Armed Formation. The unit fought partisans in Ukraine, Greece, and Italy. It won infamy for helping put down the Warsaw city uprising in 1944.
Soon after Sultan was sent from the front to a prisoner-of-war camp, an inspection team from Berlin paid a visit. It was headed by Heinz Unglaube, a German lawyer with a love of Tatar language and culture. Unglaube had been recruited into the army, but officials recognized that his knowledge was more valuable elsewhere. He was sent to a new bureau, the Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories, or Ostministerium, and put in charge of the Tatar liaison office.
Sultan immediately impressed Unglaube. Here was a youngster, not even twenty-one years old, who spoke German and hated the Soviets. He would make a good ally. Unglaube pulled Sultan out of the line for a chat. He asked the usual questions: how he had learned German and what he thought of the Russians. Sultan decided to showcase his German by telling a bit of family history.
“I learned German because a distant relative is related to a German.”
“Interesting,” Unglaube said.
Sultan sensed the German's indifference but plunged on.
“One of my mother's distant relatives married a German woman who had served as a nurse in World War I. She had tended to my relative. They fell in love and got married.”
“The German nurse had an unusual name.”
“Which was?” Unglaube said, his ears perking up.
It was the name of Unglaube's boss. Sultan was now slated for something better than a low-level position in a Muslim unit. He was quickly put on a train to Berlin. His destination: the Ostministerium and an appointment with Gerhard von Mende, the architect of Nazi Germany's use of Muslims.