The Spaniards who fought alongside the Nazis during the invasion of the Soviet Union in World War II were not considered as cruel as their German counterparts, who took part in murders and rapes of citizens during the occupation, according to a Russian historian.
In his new book, Voluntarios en una guerra ajena (Volunteers in someone else’s war), Boris Kovalev, a professor at Novgorod State University, offers various accounts of the Francoist Blue Division force that fought the Soviets alongside the Nazis from 1941 to 1943.
More than 20,000 were mobilized, including Falangists and volunteers who fought for various reasons
As part of his research, Kovalev consulted provincial security and interior ministry files, sifted through the Russian Defense Ministry’s central archive, and read diaries and letters written by fallen Spaniards, which were later confiscated by the Soviets.
He also interviewed around 50 people who lived in the territory that the Blue Division controlled near Lake Ilmen and the River Volkhov in the provinces of Novgorod and Leningrad.
In all, his work presents a multifaceted view of an historical episode involving the German Wehrmacht and the Spaniards who traveled to the Soviet Union on a solidarity mission.
More than 20,000 were mobilized – from diehard Falangists to volunteers who had various reasons to fight, including the prospect of economic or social advancement, and those who simply wanted to spend time in the Soviet Union.
But cold and hunger plagued both Spaniards and Germans throughout their ordeal.
From Germany, the Spaniards marched on foot to the western region of the Soviet Union in 1941. Because their uniforms were inadequate for facing the long cold winter, they stole clothes and blankets to keep themselves warm after reaching Novgorod province in the fall.
They also took warm winter valenki felt boots from local residents, sometimes lifting them from the dead they found in the fields. Spurred on by the cold, they also lit fires that threatened to burn the modest rural homes in which they were staying.
Covered in lice – they had not bathed since leaving Germany – and consumed by hunger, the Blue Division troops took everything they found along their way: chickens, cows and even cats.
One old woman who was invited to have a meal with them was afterwards shocked to discover that, instead of the rabbit she had thought she had eaten, she had in fact consumed her own pet cat. She only found out when she went to give the feline some leftovers she had saved.
Soldiers took warm valenki felt boots from local residents, sometimes lifting them from the dead bodies they found in the fields
According to testimonies given by the residents in the occupied zone to a USSR commission investigating war crimes, the Spanish could become very hotheaded and would not hesitate to kill anyone at random during a quarrel.
In one incident, Novgorod Mayor Fedor Morozov, who collaborated with the Nazis, was shot dead by a Spaniard after he pushed the soldier during a milk handout.
Alexandra Ojapkina, a teacher who was 12 years old in 1941 and had been evacuated to the town of Shevelevo, recalled that the Spaniards “were a bunch of thieves, but were not cruel and had compassion for the local residents.”
The Russian population learned quickly to distinguish between the groups taking part in the “crusade against Bolshevism,” said Kovalev in an interview with EL PAÍS.
“Despite everything, the Spaniards were much more humane than the Germans,” he said.
One woman invited to have a meal with them was shocked to discover that she had eaten her own cat
Ojapkina recalled one incident in which the Nazis accused the residents of Shevelevo of looting a warehouse that stored provisions for the Spanish soldiers.
The Germans made the people line up for the firing squad with a mother of six children the last to be put in place. Without arousing attention, one Spanish soldier managed to pull her away and save her life.
The culprits responsible for the lootings were residents of a nearby town, where a colony of German descendants lived.
In another incident that took place in December 1941, German artillery fired on 11 Spanish soldiers who had been captured by the Soviets, killing four of them.
Despite everything, the Spaniards were much more humane than the Germans”
Historian Boris Kovalev
The Soviet command learned from interrogations of captured prisoners and others that the Blue Division’s morale had diminished as difficulties increased. The Spaniards played cards for money and some paid other soldiers to perform their duties for them.
There was a strict warning issued by the Blue Division command against soldiers shooting themselves to avoid front-line duty. One prisoner, Juan Diego Trias, confirmed to the Soviets that those who injured themselves were either shot by Division officers or received harsh punishments such as being forced to patrol in their underwear or being abandoned in front of the trenches with a lit lantern.
English version by Martin Delfín.