World War II Soviet Ethnic and National Groups: Cossacks

World war II Don Cossack boy
Figure 1.--This boy is a Don Cossack who fought I believe with the Germans. The photograph was taken in 1944. A Russian reader tells us. In Russia thereis a term, "son a shelf". This is a boy who brings up shelfs. He/she is the general favourite and is surrounded by general attention, but brought up as the soldier. In a photo the young cossack the pupil 5 Don Cossack shelf." I don't entirely understand this comment. Perhaps a HBC reader will understand it better." One reader suggests 'shell' was meant rather than shelf. Another possibility iis 'serf'. We also notice tha tradition in the Russian and other European armies was 'son of the regiment'. They were sons of fallen soldiers adopted by the regiment. At the time. the family of a soldier killed was left destitute.

Cossacks after the NAZI invasion of the Soviet Union fought on both sides of the desperate struggle conducted on the Eastern Front. Precise statistics are not available, but most historians believe that most Cossacks fought with the Red Army. There were, however, a substantial number that fought with the Germans. Many were employed in bloody German anti- partisan activities. Few had any particular ideological affinity with the NAZIS, but as a result of Stalinist policies (Collectivization and Decossackization), many were anti-Soviet. They dreamed of an independent or autonomous Cosakia. The British turned over Cossacks that fought with the Germans to the Soviets after the War. The Soviets killed them or committed to the Gulag. They also instituted reprisals against the Cossack population.

Russian Cossacks

The Cossacks, were the highly independent, some would say predatory horsemen of the Russian steppe and Caucasus Mountains. Their range extended east to Siberia. Today the former range of the cossacks is more in the Ukraine and newly independent Caucasian republics, but continue to be strongly associated with Russia in the popular mind. Some historians trace the origins of the Cossacks to the Russian serfs from the principality of Moscow who fled the increasingly repressive regime of serfdom in the 14th and 15th centuries and settled in the valleys of the Dnipper, Don, and Ural Rivers and in Siberia. They were the marvelously skilled horsemen of the Western Steppe. The legends of the Cossacks claim that boys were taught to ride before they could walk. They are perhaps best known for effectively harassed Napoleon's Grande Armée as it retreated from Moscow after the 1812 invasion. Napoleon called them "a disgrace to the human race". They are also remembered for their plundering of Jewish villages in the vicious Tsarist pogroms.

World War I (1914-18)

Cossacks served in the Tsar's Army when World War I broke out in 1914. T They formed n important part of the Tsarist cavalry. The Don Cossacks in early 1917 as the Russian Army began disintegrating under remorseless German pressure defected and returned home. Tsar Nicholas II had granted the Cossacks in the Don area. There were about 2 million Cossacks in the Don region as well as 1.8 million peasants. Many had no land, other were tenant farmers. The Germans with the defeat of the Tsarist Army and the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litosk made major gains in the East. They planned to establish a satellite Don Cossack state in southern Russia. The German Army secretly armed one faction of Don Cossacks as the first step in creating a compliant Cossack state. Defeat on the Western Front, however, ended this and other efforts in the conquered Russian lands. The Germans had to renounce the hard-won Brest-Litosk Treaty and withdraw back to Germany.

Russian Revolution and Civil War (1917-21)

Many Cossacks supported the Tsar in the Russian, but eventually the Cossacks aligned themselves with the Germans who forced the Bolsheviks to sign the humiliating Treaty of Breast- Litosk (1918). The Cossacks wanted to create an independent state under German protection. This might have occurred only American intervention enabled the Allies to defeat the Germans on the Western Front. The Germans were forced to renounce the Breast-Litosk Treaty. Even without German support, the Cossack's refused to accept the authority of the Bolshevik Government. In particular they opposed the nationalization of their land through the Soviet Land Decree. The Cossacks fought with the Whites in their counter revolution, but primarily in defense of their land in Don area. There were some occasional forays with the Whites beyond the Don region and conducted vicious pogroms in seized villages and cities. Eventually Bolshevik partisans and the Red Army defeated the Don Cossacks in 1919. They were disarmed and their land distributed to peasants in the region. The Soviets instituted a decossackization campaign, but only for 2 months. An estimated 10,000-12,000 Cossacks were killed. [Holquist, p. 98.] Some Don Cossacks managed to escape West with the White armies. An estimated 30,000 cossacks escaped with the Whites and set up sanctuaries in Belgrade, Paris Prague

Soviet Policies toward the Cossacks (1920s-30s)

After the Revolution and Civil war, the vast majority of Cossacks remained in Russia and the Ukraine which was now the Soviet Union. The decossackization campaign proved short lived (1919). Small numbers could be found in Czechoslovakia and Poland who advocated for independence. Soviet policies toward Cossacks are complicated. Many Cossacks, especially those outside the Soviet Union argue that Soviet policy was profoundly anti-Cossack. Knowing what Cossacks felt within the Soviet Union is difficult because of the police state repression of any criticism of the state. The Soviet Government moved to normalize the status of the Cossacks, although individuals who fought with the Whites were liable for arrest. [Holquist, p. 98.] There were not, however, with the exception of the Civil War period any major crack down of the Cossacks are NKVD campaign to and large numbers of Cossacks to the Gulag. The Soviet Government moved to regularize the status of the Cossacks within the legal system. The problem for the Cossacks and other ethnic groups is none of them embraced Bolshevism to the extent of the Great Russians. The essential Soviet policy is explained by one historian, the Cossacks "were not singled out out in the Soviet period for persecution as a distinct population as they had been during decossackization [1919] --or as other groups were to be later. Indeed, the Soviet regime did not seek to obliterate the Cossackry but to transpose the firmer estate onto its grid of socialist nationalities and ethno-cultural groupings." [Holquist, p. 101.]

Red Army Cossacks

The overwhelming majority of Cossacks fought with the Red Army during the War. This occurred despite a strong anti-Communist sentiments among many Cossacks and often brutal Stalinist assault on Cossack traditions. There are no precise statistics but the great majority of Cassocks stayed loyal to the Soviet Union. The great majority of Soviet Cossacks were wholeheartedly loyal to the Soviet Union despite the treatment they received. They were mostly deployed in the Southern area (the Ukraine). The flat open steppes made mounted calvary useful for patrols and reconnaissance. A Cossack detachment honored the participation of Cossacks in the War by being assigned to marching in the Red Square victory parade (1945).

Cossack National Movement of Liberation

The Cossack National Movement of Liberation sought to create an independent Cossack state-- Cossackia. They saw a Cossack-ruled German protectorate extending from eastern Ukraine in the west to the Samara river in the east as the first step in securing independence from the Soviet Union. The Cossacks themselves did not have the ability to accomplish this. The German invasion seemed to offer an opportunity to break free of the Soviets. A Tsarist emigre General named Krasnov in Germany to attempted to create a space for Cossacks in the future NAZI-dominated East. This was not easy. At first the NAZIs did not think they needed much help. And the Cossacks were mostly of Slavic origins, escaped serfs. He tried to convince the NAZIs were no Russians. Thus they could make common cause against the Russians as should be treated better than the Russians. He obtained Hitler's permission to set up the Cossack Nationalist Party in Prague. At that the time the capital of a NAZI protectorate. The Part was formed by Cossack exiles who had fled the Soviet Union after the defeat of the White armies in the Civil War. Each member swore allegiance to the Fuhrer as "Supreme Dictator of the Cossack Nation". The NAZIs set up a "Central Cossack Office" in Berlin to oversee the Party. Not all Cassock emigre groups were located in the Reich. The Don Guardsmen were located in Paris and refused to support the NAZIs. Many hardcore "Whites", however, did support the Cossack political organization set up by the NAZI. And they support the effort of recruiting Cossacks for Wehrmacht military formations. Particularly prominent were Tsarists Cossack generals like Krasnov, Andrei Shkuro, and V. Naumenko. The NAZIs appointed Naumenko "Ataman" of the Kuban.

German Cossacks

The Germans formed the leadership of their Cossack units from Russian Civil War White Army refugees. Many soldiers were recruited from the POWs captured by the Germans in the first 2 years of the War. The Wehrmacht in the opening months of Barbarossa took huge numbers of Soviets prisoner. The advance of the Wehrmacht to the Volga allowed the Germans to recruit even more Cossacks from the general public. The Germans began forming Cossack detachments from POWs (1941). The initial recruitment was intensified when the sutuation on the Easter Front began to change.

Military situation (1941-42)

he Germans in Operation Barbarossa struck at the Soviet Union with three Army Group. The Soviets had prespositioned a great deal of Armor in the south and thus Army Group South made less progress than Army Group Center and North. Even so, they reached Rostov on Don (late November 1941). This put gave them possession of the homeland of the Don Cossacks. The Soviet offensive before Moscow, however, changed the situation on the Eastern Front and the Germans were forced to fall back. The German 1942 summer offensive again brought them to Rostock on Don (July 1942). This time they crossed the Don in force> Hitler decided to divide the German forces. One column struck south into the Caucasus and another struck east toward the Volga and Stalingrad. The German drive south took them into the rugged Caucasus Mountains, nearly to the border of Georgia and the city of Ordzonikidze. This meant that the Germans briefly occupied the homeland of the Don and Kuban Cossacks.


The Cossacks initially recruited by the Wehrmacht were Russian emigrees who had fought in the White Army. These middle-age men served as a leadership core. They helped recruit Cossacks from the vast numbers of prisoners that the Wehrmacht had taken in 1941 and to a lesser extent 1942. Occupation of the Donbas (Donets Basin) and the northern Caucasus in mid-1942 meant that the Germans could recruit from the general population. And there were many Cassocks that hated the Soviets. The privileges and autonomy they enjoyed under the Tsars were stripped away by the Bolsheviks. And Stalin initiated both Collectivization and Decossackization which resulted in much suffering and resentment in Cossack communities. Thus when the Germans arrived there were many willing volunteers. The Wehrmacht assigned Lieutenant Colonel von Freitag-Loringhoven (the Intelligence Officer of Army Group "South") to begin the recruitment effort. His task was to form German commanded Cossack units.


The Dubrovski Battalion formed of Don Cossacks was formed with German officers (December 1941). It was reorganized as the Pavlov Regiment (July 30, 1942). The first units were small. The Dubrovski Battalion had about 350 men. The Wehrmacht used the Cossack units in rear areas for anti-partisan actions. These actions were often extraordinarily brutal. With the deteriorating situation on the Eastern front, the Germans began to give greater attention to forming anti- Soviet units. The Wehrmact formed the 1st Cossack Division from the Pannwith Mounted Frce, the Cossack Platow Cavalry Regiment, and the Jung schutz Calvalry Regiment (August 4, 1943). Cossack emigrees, including Helmuth von Pannwitz, Andrei Shkuro and Pyotr Krasnov assumed prominent positions. The Wehrmacht formed the 2nd Cossack Division from a brigade of the 1st Division (late 1943). Both Cossack divisions at the end of the War were transferred into Waffen-SS and merged into XVth SS Cossack Cavalry Corps (April 30, 1945). This Corps included regiments composed from various Cossack groups (Don, Kuban, Terek and Siberian).

The Holocaust

The Cossacks had a horiffic reputation during the Tsarist era of terroizing Jews in brutal pogroms. These actions in the 19th century drive many Jews to America. As far as eknow, however, the Cossacks did not play a role in the NAZI Hollocaust. This was to an extent because most Cossacks fought with the Red Army. And the Germans did not begin forming Cossock units until the end of 1941 and they were not operational until 1942. Most of the killing of Soviet Jews was done by the SS Eisatzgruppen in 1941 before the Cossock groups were activated. And they were mostly deployed on the Eastern Front while the Holocaust unfolded in NAZI occupied Poland well to the west of the fighting in 1941-43. The Cossacks fell back with the Wehrmacht, but by the time they reached Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland, the Germans had already destroyed the Jewish communities throughout Eastern Europe.

British Turn Over the Cossacks

The Cossack units retreated west with the Wehrmacht. The NAZI surrender found them in Austria where they surrendered to the British Army. They had visions of joining with the Western Allies to fight Soviet Communism. The Cold war had not yet begun and the western Allies still had hopes of maintaining friendly relations with the Soviets. In addition the NAZI crimes were of such enormity that any group associated with them were tarnished. There were also reports of Cossack atrocities against partisans. The British thus turned the Cossacks over to Soviet authorities as required by the Yalta accords. The British "repatriated" 40-50,000 Cossacks. Another source suggests 90,000 and describes how the Cossacks were surreptitiously turned over. The officers were disarmed and told they were going to attend a conference in Jeudenberg about their future. When they arrived they found NKVD black marias awaiting them. Without guns and knives they could not even commit suicide. [Solzhenitsyn, pp. 259-60.] The rank and file soldiers and family members, women and children who accompanied the divisions as they retreated west, were subsequently turned over. Many were executed. Others committed to the Gulag. I am not sure what happened to the women and children. There has never been a complete accounting of what happened to them. The British turned over both the Soviet citizens and White Russian emigrees. The Cossacks call this event, "the Betrayal of the Cossacks".

Soviet Reprisals

Reader Comments

A Dutch reader write, "It's odd to see this Cossack boy in a German uniform. Of course the Volkssturm used young boys (and old men) to defend the Fatherland, but they were Germans. This is the first time I have seen a picture like this. I do remember during the German occupation in Holland having once a conversation with a Middle Eastern looking man in a Wehrmacht uniform, who told me that he was an Armenian from the Caucasus area of the Soviet Union. I sometimes wonder what happened to him. As for the Cossacks, I always admired their beautiful voices in the men's choirs they used to have."


Fowler, Dr. Jeffrey T. Axis Cavalry in World War II.

Johnson, Paul Louis. Horses of the German Army in World War II.

Newland, Samuel J. The Cossack Volunteers.

Newland, Samuel J. Cossacks in the German Army, 1941-1945.

Piekalkiewicz, J. Cavalry of World War II.

Richter, Christion Klaus. Cavalry of the Wehrmacht.

Polyan, Pavel. "Forced migrations in USSR".

Holquist, Peter. "From estate to ethnos: The changing nature of Cossack idenity in the twentieth century," Nurit Schleifman, ed. Russia at a Crossroads: History, Memory and Political Pactice Cummings Center, Portland Oregon, 1998).

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. The Gulag Archipelago (Harper & Row: New York, 1974), 660p.

"Stalin's Enemies" Combat Magazine Vol. III, No. 1.


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