Staunton, June 2 – Yesterday was the 71st anniversary of the Lienz tragedy when British military forcibly handed over to the Soviets 30,000 Cossacks and their families, almost all of whom were executed without trial as “traitors to the Soviet motherland,” even though they had left Russia at the time of the civil war and had never been Soviet citizens.
But because these Cossacks had fought on the German side during World War II against Tito’s partisans and because Stalin insisted at Yalta that they be returned, the Western powers agreed to this action as part of a larger policy that sent back to the USSR some two million Soviet citizens who had been in Germany during the war.
Because of the complexities of the situation and also because of the involvement of the Western allies in this tragedy, many have long preferred to forget or downplay this event much as they do other tragedies like the Soviet extermination of the East Prussians at the end of World War II.
However, as the great Roman poet teaches us, “nothing human” is or at least should be “alien” to us; and we must remember such events because of what they should have taught us originally and what they can still teach us about the world and the human condition -- if we are open to instruction.
In an essay prepared for this anniversary, Vladimir Tikhomirov tells the sad story, one that as he notes Alexander Solzhenitsyn called “the Great Betrayal” given that the British had promised the Cossacks that they would not be handed back to Moscow and then did exactly that (stolcom.livejournal.com/21494.html).
The Cossacks and their families had been fighting against Tito’s partisans in early 1944 but with the approaching end of the war moved to Tolmezzo in the Italian Alps in the hopes of waiting out the conflict and then being able to settle somewhere not controlled by the Soviet government.
When British and American forces approached, the Cossacks retreated into their mountain redoubt rather than gave battle and assumed that they would be protected by countries they never viewed as enemies and instead always viewed as allies against communism. The British promised them exactly that.
But as Tikhomirov points out, “the British lied: the fate of the Russian emigres and the Kuban Cossacks in Europe had already been decided at Yalta when at the insistence of Stalin, the West allies agreed to hand over “not only Soviet citizens who had taken part in the war against the USSR but in general all former Soviet citizens” in areas of German control.
As the Soviets expected, the British and the other Western allies did not make a clear distinction between Russians and Cossacks who had fled Russia in 1920 and had never been Soviet citizens and those who had been caught up in the battles of World War II and had at one point carried Soviet passports.
Consequently, the British insisted that the Cossacks of Tolmezzo move to a concentration camp in the Austrian city of Lienz, from which the British military would subsequently hand them over in what London called Operation Keelhaul, a term that refers to one of the most notorious and lethal punishments meted out in the British navy.
The British separated the Cossack officers from everyone else to deprive the group of leadership and were ready to hand the Cossacks en masse over to the Soviets on May 31, but the Soviet SMERSH unit leaders asked for a brief delay because the Soviet side did not have enough space or bullets in the camps to which the Cossacks were to be sent.
That should have been enough to alert the British as to what the fate of the Lienz Cossacks would be. It was certainly enough to re-enforce the fears of the Cossacks themselves who assembled to do the last thing they could before meeting this fate: they prayed and held themselves in circles to make it more difficult for the British to put them on trucks.
Some Cossacks fled into the surrounding forests where the British hunted them down, killing most; others committed suicide, throwing themselves and their children into the rivers. But the handover went quickly nevertheless and by the end of the day, 30,000 innocent men, women and children were in Soviet hands. Most were shot soon after.
Some of the British soldiers and officers were horrified by what they had been asked to do, but they followed their orders – as did British and American military personnel elsewhere who ultimately handed over to Stalin two million people who were killed or at best sent to the camps or the mines to be worked to death.
Today, as Tikhomirov notes, “the cemetery in Lienz has become a real place of pilgrimage for the Russian emigration.” But one need not go there to recognize that what was done as a real crime, the result of confusion and ignorance on one side of a geopolitical divide bowing to the evil of another.