Shortly after pro-German Yugoslav forces from Croatia and Slovenia had been handed over by the British Army to their Communist hangmen since mid-May 1945, another tragedy took place in southern Austria. On May 28th, 1945, Operation Keelhaul began. The name itself proved to be a bad omen, as it referred a form of brutal punishment and potential execution once meted out to sailors at sea. It referred to the transfer back home of all Soviet citizens, mostly soldiers, but also forced laborers, which were stranded in Western Europe at the end of World War II.
Cossacks, an East Slav social group that had begun to develop their own identity long before the downfall of the last Czar, were among them. Historically they had played a relevant role in the colonization of distant frontier regions as local guardians of vulnerable borders like those in Siberia and the Caucasus. After Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Decossackization policy started almost immediately. This systematic repression against Cossacks all over the former Russian Empire lasted until 1933 and was aimed at their total elimination as a separate ethnic, political and economic entity.
Therefore, until the end of the Russian Civil War in 1922 they bitterly resisted the rise of Communism. Some of these surviving “White Russians” later emigrated to the West and often became stateless. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union on June 22nd, 1941, they came back from exile and joined them. Together with the Cossacks volunteers recruited among the over five million Red Army soldiers that fell into German hands at the very beginning, they fought Stalin’s regime bravely. Hence, all of them were to be treated as traitors by the winners.
As a result, in the small town of Lienz the first 2500 Cossack soldiers and some family members were forcibly “repatriated” by the British, whose protection they had sought in good faith. A significant number of them never had Soviet citizenship or was even born abroad. Asked to assemble under an excuse, and relying on the word of honor by a British officer that there was mothing to worry about, the Cossacks complied reluctantly. That assurance proved to be an outright lie and the British delivered the Cossacks to the Bolshevik security forces that were already waiting for them nearby. When the betrayed realized the truth, they started to commit suicide. The rest had to be beaten into submission repeatedly. Some of the Cossacks were executed on the spot by their new masters. The vast majority was sent to labor camps, where most of them perished.
At the beginning of June, in Judenburg and near Graz another 58,000 Cossacks shared the same sad destiny. The exact number who ended up on the gallows or in Stalin’s Gulag system isn’t known, but a minimum of 60,000 can be considered realistic.
Great Britain feared that their Soviets allies might either delay or refuse repatriation of their own prisoners of war liberated by the Red Army. But can that alone be a valid explanation, as they actually exceeded what was agreed on at the Conference of Yalta in February 1945? Some historians consider this surrender an act of double-dealing consistent with the spirit of traditional English diplomacy…
In contrast, the Cossack’s German commander Helmuth von Pannwitz, extremely popular with his men as he often wore their uniform, didn’t abandon them. He was executed for alleged war crimes in Moscow in January 1947, together with other high-ranking Cossack officers.
Rehabilitated by a Russian military prosecutor in April 1996 after the Soviet system had finally collapsed, in June 2001 the reversal was surprisingly overturned and the conviction reinstated. Supposedly, there was enough evidence that von Pannwitz indeed had been involved in those misdoings. On the other hand, considering that the topic of (Soviet) defectors and turncoats during the “Great Patriotic War” remains a very sensitive topic in Russia, political motivations for this unexpected decision can’t be excluded.
P.D.: In the Austrian town of Lienz there is a Cossack graveyard and a memorial stone dedicated to General Helmuth von Pannwitz, commander of the XV SS Cossack Cavalry Corps, and his men.