On Nov. 10, 1943, a most unusual proclamation was jointly issued by two men at the very top of the Nazi German hierarchy: Army Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of the High Command of the Armed Forces, and Alfred Rosenberg, Adolf Hitler's Minister of the Occupied Eastern Territories of the conquered Soviet Union.
Headlined simply with the single word "Cossacks," it read:
"The Cossack troops have never recognized the Bolsheviks. The Don, Kuban, Terek, and Zaporogian Cossacks have always sought a free and independent life. Now, your villages are occupied, and have been plundered by the Bolsheviks. Where are your horses, where are your swords?
"The Cossacks are marching together with the German Wehrmacht/Armed Forces. They are fighting for the rights of their own, for the Cossack way, for their own land to live on again. The German Army has found in you true and honorable comradeship; therefore, the German government promises the Cossacks the following:
"1) All service rights and privileges; 2) The maintenance of Cossack customs which have earned you historical fame; 3) The inviolability of Cossack territories which through service and blood your ancestors earned; 4) When the Cossacks reach the land of their ancestors, the German government will undertake the obligation to settle the Cossacks in East Europe and in so doing, will supply them with land and everything necessary for the independent life; 5) As compensation for this, the German government calls all Cossacks to work together as comrades with Germany, and to take part with the other peoples of Europe to organize a Europe of freedom and order, and provide for years of free, happy work."
This declaration was all the more unique in that just two years before, Nazi Fuhrer/Leader Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler had asserted the following as the official policy of his conquest of the Soviet Union: "We will never build up a Russian Army! That is a phantom of the first order. Only the German may carry arms---not the Slavs, not the Czechs, and not the Cossacks!"
His attitude was echoed by other top Nazi chieftains as well. Reich Marshal Hermann Goring boomed out, "Shoot dissident Russians who look sideways!" while the sinister grand high lord of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, referred to all Russians as sub-humans in the various magazines aimed at his own racial warriors in the East, the Waffen/Armed SS.
What happened between the fall of 1941 and that of two years later to change all their minds to the contrary? First, the German Army was stopped cold in the snow outside Moscow by a resurgent Red Army. Then came the complete annihilation of the famed German 6th Army at Stalingrad in February 1943, followed by the loss six months later in the Kursk/Orel Salient of the world's greatest tank battle ever, before or since. Moscow had sent a tremor through the Nazi establishment, while Stalingrad convinced it that the war could, indeed, be lost, and Kursk seemed like the confirming nail in the Third Reich's coffin.
Now, the Reich's top leadership---especially RFSS Himmler---began to look at captured or turncoat Russians as a fresh manpower pool from which to draw new recruits to halt the Red Army's drive on Berlin. This was nowhere more true than with former Imperial Russia's famed mounted warriors from the far Steppes---the Kozaks---as the Germans called these legendary warriors.
Noted author Francois de Lannoy, "As a general rule, there were no cowards among them." Writer John Galey termed them, "Warriors and adventurers, rebels and killers, and---above all---irrepressible romantics. War was their principal occupation, and they were seldom unemployed." Their best role was in scouting and reconnaissance.
Aside from the better known Don, Kuban, and Terek Cossacks, there were also Siberians, Georgians, Ossetians, Armenians, and Azerbaijani riders, who now wanted to ride for the Reich. The downsides of their renowned excellent horsemanship and unequalled bravery in battle were alleged problems of looting, rape, and excessive alcohol use.
Why would these men want to fight at the side of the Nazi Third Reich, a state that had launched a war of extermination against all Slavs in the East?
The term "Cossack" comes from the Russian word Kazak, meaning "free warrior," and is first found in 1444. Initially, they famously fought the Poles (as in Nikolai Gogol's novel Taras Bulba), Muscovy, and then the Russian Empire before becoming the latter's most famous cavalrymen and border guards, helping to defeat the Swedes as well.
Surprisingly, early in the Napoleonic Wars---in 1800---they supported France, and Tsar Paul sent them to conquer British India. At his murder, they were recalled by Paul's successor Alexander I, and are mainly remembered today for their harassment of Napoleon's retreat from Russia in 1812, famously set out in Tolstoy's War and Peace.
They'd occupied Berlin during the Seven Years War and helped take Paris in 1814, fought the Turks in 1877, and---anti-Jewish and anti-Red---sabered generations of anarchists and unruly mobs on the streets of St. Petersburg. They reemerged in the Great War, when fully 360,000 Cossacks answered their Little Father's call, "To arms, for Tsar and Fatherland!"
These hardy shock troopers---who were in the saddle by age 12---served as the personal guard of 2,575 officers and 60,000 men for the last Tsar and Field Ataman General, His Imperial Majesty Nicholas II, until his abdication and murder left them both leaderless and rudderless amidst the chaos of world war, revolt, and civil unrest.
This was followed by the Red-White Civil War of 1918-20, in which the Cossacks fought against the Reds once more. During his dictatorship that followed, Communist Vozhd/Leader Josef Stalin executed 15,000 Cossack rebels during 1929-33; 50,000 starved in the Kuban alone, and they were now forbidden to serve in the new Soviet military. Meanwhile, émigrés turned up in Berlin, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, and as waiters in Paris; 3,000 more joined the famed French Foreign Legion. Still, as Galey noted, "Many Cossacks stayed loyal to Russia."
The embarrassing defeat by the Finns of the Red Army in the Winter War of 1939-40 led Stalin once more to include the Cossacks in his cavalry lineup, and thus it was that they faced the invading German Army of June 22, 1941 as unwilling warriors defending atheistic Bolshevist Communism---but not for long!
The first Cossack leader to formally---and dramatically---come over to the Nazis was Maj. Nikitovitch Kononov (1902-47), who commanded the 436th Motorized Fusliers of the Red Army, which on Aug. 3, 1941 was operating in the Mogilev area against the 3rd Panzer/Armored Group of German Army Group Center.
Born in 1902 the son of a captain in the Don Cossacks from the village of Novonikalesk, Maj. Kononov suffered both of his parents being executed by the Reds in 1918 during the Civil War, when he was 16. Seeking to survive, he concealed his identity and joined the Red Army himself two years later, in 1920, as an enlisted man. In 1924, he joined the Komsomol (Communist Youth) organization as well, while serving with the 14th Cossack Division as part of Gen. (later Marshal) Budenny's 1st Cavalry Army, and had been commissioned an officer in 1922, at age 20. In 1927, Kononov joined the Communist Party, attending courses at the elite Moscow Military Academy.
By 1935, he'd served as troop, squadron, regimental school, and then regimental commander with the 5th Blinov Cavalry Division, before being admitted to the prestigious Frunze Military Academy, from which he was graduated as a staff officer. He commanded the 436th Motorized Fusilier Regiment during the Winter War of 1939040, and was awarded the order of the Red Star.
This, then, was the rather remarkable man who decided---in the middle of the preparations for a supposed counterattack against the Germans---to lead his entire regiment over to the enemy as the nucleus of a future Russian Army of Liberation against Stalin, whom he secretly hated. Calling the regiment together, he made the following direct appeal:
"My victorious soldiers! I have decided to speak to you from the bottom of my heart. I have chosen this day to declare war on Stalin and the Communist regime! As a result, I have decided to cross the front line with those who wish to accompany me. Those who wish to join me in fighting for our Mother Russia, stand to my right; and those who prefer to stay, on my left."
He'd previously secretly contacted the Germans opposite his unit and already knew that he'd be welcomed in their lines. His entire regiment followed with him, in one of the more dramatic---but not so well known---incidents of the war on the Eastern Front. German Gen. von Schenkendorff---despite Hitler's orders to the contrary---immediately authorized him to form German Cossack regiment 102 in the rear of army Group Center.
This created a sensation---not only at the front, in the Kremlin, and at Fuhrer Headquarters (FHQ) ---but also within Russian émigrés in Berlin, where resided the ancient Ataman of the Don Cassacks in exile, Gen. Pyotr N. Krasnov, who wrote an effusive letter to Maj. Kononov on Dec. 20, 1941, a mere two weeks after Marshal Georgi Zhukov had halted the German offensive to take Moscow.
"Our territories---await their liberation!---You are the sole hope!---We are all with you---" But Hitler and the top Nazi leadership cadre were not. Indeed, at the start of 1942, he issued an order forbidding units formed from the red army being allowed to exceed battalion strength, and thus Kononov's regiment was renamed Kosaken-Troop 600, but secretly still retained its full complement thanks to Gen. Von Schenkendorf.
In all, 70,000 Cossacks deserted to the Nazis in 1941 alone.
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