Bad Habits

Basil Davidson

  • The Repatriations from Austria: The Report of an Inquiry by Anthony Cowgill, Lord Brimelow and Christopher Booker
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 367 pp, £19.95, October 1990, ISBN 1 85619 029 3
  • Cossacks in the German Army 1941-1945 by Samuel Newland
    Cass, 218 pp, £30.00, March 1991, ISBN 0 7146 3351 8
  • Eyewitnesses at Nuremberg by Hilary Gaskin
    Arms and Armour, 192 pp, £14.95, November 1990, ISBN 1 85409 058 5

The notion that war can be carried on without crime is as novel, I suppose, as the companion notion that the crime should afterwards be punished by legal process: the first idea has encouraged the second, or, more probably, the desire for the second has promoted the illusion of the first. Both are in any case gaining support. ‘lt is not too late,’ Britain’s chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, Lord Shawcross, was writing the other day, in the tone of those who state the self-evident, since when other voices have echoed him, ‘to insist on the surrender of Saddam to be tried for his crimes.’ I am all for getting rid of the malodorous Saddam, but would trying him for his crimes of war, however monstrous these have been, constitute a good thing for the world, morally: meting out punishment while assuaging pain and anger? Is there in answer to this a useful guide to be drawn from war crimes’ trials already held, or currently projected? British law, as Shawcross reminds us, although with what sounds like regret, is about to be altered ‘so as to permit the trial of a handful of old men’ long resident here but now accused of war crimes in the Europe of half a century ago. Do the Nuremberg trials therefore constitute a precedent to be followed to the world’s advantage? Doesn’t the concept of war crimes rather go to reinforce the conceptual possibility of crimeless war, and is this to be welcomed?

Awkward ground to cross with any safety. As a sharer of my generation’s fate, settled one way or the other between 1939 and 1945, I have thought that the Nuremberg Trials and lesser assizes held in the wake of the Second World War were entirely necessary and even unavoidable, given the offences that provoked them; and I think this still. But I also think that judicial process of this kind has to be done at once, or not at all. Let time pass and opinions fade, memories disagree, young men forget. Nuremberg’s big achievement was to establish and publish, without delay, the record of appalling facts: precisely what was not done in the matter of the old men referred to by Shaw-cross. These views of mine are probably quite common. They are generally shared by the mixed bag of participants who saw much or little of the principal Nuremberg trials, 16 of them American, seven British and one French, whose fragmentary recollections are assembled in Hilary Gaskin’s book. ‘I thought then and think now,’ says one of them, ‘that it was inevitable that there should be war crimes trials. I wouldn’t at all have agreed with the idea of shooting [the accused] out of hand.’ But ‘I’m not too happy about people being prosecuted many years after the event.’ Another adds: ‘As for trying people nowadays, I think it’s being overdone somewhat.’

The other books here are concerned in different ways, and from different motives, with the bitterly difficult case of Cossacks and Yugoslavs who fought for the Wehrmacht and the SS over four terrible years, leaving a trail of havoc in their wake. Having surrendered to the British Army in 1945, they were handed on to the Soviet and Yugoslav Armies in line with the agreements made at Yalta. Judging by other such hand-overs at that time, little or nothing more would have been said of them had it not been for the fate that overtook them. That was utterly dreadful. Most of the 41,000 Cossacks perished in Soviet ‘camps’ after a minority were shot out of hand, while the fate of the Croat Ustasi (units formed at Hitlerite instigation in 1941, and given to Hitlerite beliefs and murderous behaviour) and Serbian Chetniks (who for different ideas had also fought for the Germans) was unimaginably brutal. All 26,000 of these remnants of enemy forces were wildly and mercilessly slaughtered by Partisan units to whom they had been handed. This was after they had been led to believe by British officers that they were being sent from Austria not to Yugoslavia but to Italy. Yet this deception, however shameful, would also have been scarcely noticed save for what followed. The British in that corner of Austria faced imminent warfare with Tito’s forces, who claimed it, and they could not sensibly allow their lines of communication to become cluttered with tens of thousands of prisoners and their refugee dependents. Ever since, there have been voices to insist that the British decision to hand over these prisoners, whether made by commanders in the field or by the senior British political figure there, Harold Macmillan, has deserved severe and even legal censure.

The purpose of the Cowgill-Brimelow-Booker volume is to lay bare the real circumstances of the hand-over, and thereby to exonerate from taint of guilt those who made it. This is done with what seems to me a laudable prudence and convincing success, while the archival evidence they have produced will scarcely be bettered any more than its conclusions are likely to be seriously questioned. Unlike the mob of ex-Wehrmacht Ukrainians and others who managed to reach Allied camps in Italy, the Cossacks and Yugoslavs had no such luck. A few years later, no doubt, the Yalta agreements could and would have been ignored: not in 1945.

What the Cowgill volume does not do, but perhaps should have done, is to look at the wartime record of these Cossacks and Yugoslavs who were thus treated without mercy or even sanity. The Cossacks, of course, simply fell into the full gruesomeness of Stalinist repression, and to that extent no further explanation is required. But those 26,000 Yugoslavs shot down by Partisans? Perhaps the final words on this horror, which nothing has excused or ever will, were written years later by the former Partisan leader, Milovan Djilas, then Tito’s right-hand man. ‘All were killed, except for women and young people under 18 years of age’ (but do we believe the exception?), he wrote in 1976, in mass shootings that were ‘sheer frenzy’ of revenge for what had been done by Ustasi in the ‘Croat Independent State’ and by Chetniks in Montenegro and Bosnia. Were these massacres ordered by Tito and his high command? Djilas, who belonged to that command, thinks not. But he also thinks that they would have happened anyway, because ‘an atmosphere of revenge prevailed.’ The British officers in question, and Macmillan himself, may have guessed that much or known it; they could not possibly have measured its ferocity.

To see further into all this, one has surely to know something of the record of these soldiers in German service. This is where the book by Samuel Newland might have helped, but falls seriously short. He became interested in the Wehrmacht Cossacks in 1973, twenty years after their ‘story’ began, and has delved into their official and to some extent their oral records. His conscientious findings are that they were gallant and worthy soldiers who happened to serve the wrong master in the conviction that Communism was worse than Nazism. This was just what the Serbian Chetniks alleged in their self-defence, but it was scarcely what could win them sympathy from Allied armies locked in a life-and-death struggle, not with Communism, but with Nazism. Given their wartime record, particularly atrocious in the case of the Ustasi, did these men deserve to become candidates for war-crimes tribunals? The Soviets and the pro-Allied Yugoslav partisans would certainly have thought so. Looking at the Shawcross thesis again, one sees that the answer to that question depends in practice on who asks it, but also where and when.

There is the testing example of the German commander of the Cossack Division raised by the Wehrmacht in 1941, transferred to the SS in 1944, and delivered to the Soviets in 1945. An undoubtedly brave and disciplined soldier, if with all the arrogance of a Baltic baron (which, however, he wasn’t quite), General Helmuth von Pannwitz had come to believe, in 1945, that the British would welcome him as a useful ally in an anti-Bolshevik crusade about to begin. Instead, the Soviets hanged him as a war criminal in 1947. Should they not have done so?

A useless question, perhaps. Yet to understand why the Soviets hanged him as a war criminal one needs to know at least something of what his opponents thought about him. In Newland’s enthusiastic reckoning, drawn from the Cossack Division’s anti-Partisan campaigns in Yugoslavia (where they mostly served), militarily the Cossacks under von Pannwitz ‘performed exceptionally well’ and deserved high credit, even if they had a tendency to ‘bad habits’ such as ‘destruction, looting and even rape’. But this, to put it mildly, is bland. As his Yugoslav opponents experienced him, von Pannwitz was the ruthless commander of a horde of murderous wreckers. Too strong? But what language could be too strong for what they did?

Von Pannwitz with his 13,000 Cossacks and 4500 Germans opened their anti-Partisan campaign in October 1943 with orders to destroy Partisan units based in hills near Belgrade. These little hills, called the Fruska Gora, are in size and prospect very like our Quantock hills in Somerset, being some twenty miles long and rather less across. At the outset of October 1943, far from being (or in any circumstances able to be) what Newland describes as ‘a major troop concentration area and supply area’ of Tito’s army, the Fruska Gora housed one small company of local Partisans, maybe a hundred or so, armed with nothing better than light automatics. Most of these withdrew before the Cossack assault began, their duty being to live and fight another day. What the Cossacks did find were the hamlets in these hills: Ledinci, Calma, Rakovci and other vine-embowered clusters. This was where the families of the Partisans in question dwelt: unarmed, very fearful, but unable to escape. Upon these hamlets the Cossacks of von Pannwitz fell with fury and destruction, ‘bad habits’ and all the rest. How do I know this? Admittedly I was bivouacked some thirty miles away at the time, pursuing a remote British military task: but I went into and stayed in the Fruska Gora as soon as von Pannwitz and Co had moved up into Slavonia. All through the grim winter that followed, the stench of incinerated peasant dwellings hung around the frozen tracks of armoured vehicles. As usual in those times, the peasant dead were mourned and yet buried as though they had never been – for this is what happens with mass graves.

Supposing von Pannwitz had got away to Italy and survived into the coming Cold War? Wouldn’t he then have found in the Bundeswehr a place as prominent as the one he had occupied in the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS? Who then in the Wert would have wished to arraign him for having done to Serbian villages, tucked away ‘out of sight’, what another German general less than one year later was going to do to French Oradour? Such questions recur as soon as one considers the war-crimes candidature of Saddam Hussein. If Lord Shawcross’s advice could be followed now, at once or very soon, then trying him might be feasible as well as useful. But if time has to pass, the idea had much better be given up: raison d’état or whatever will have risen to stand between. The threat of a trial would then backfire upon itself. What still remains feasible, and altogether desirable, is that charges against Saddam Hussein be examined in every detail and, if proven, published and publicised, and that this be undertaken without delay. In such matters the judgment of an informed public is always going to be the central value.