Monday, March 8, 2010

Armenische Legion

During the first twenty years of 1900s, the existence of Armenians, one of ancient peoples who live in the world, almost wiped-out as a nation. Millions of western Armenians, who live in theirs ancient land in Anatolia, died or deported by nationalist Turks. A chance to build an Armenian state in remaining Armenian areas in southern Caucasus destroyed when Ataturk’s Turkish and Lenin’s Bolshevist forces invaded it and divided the remaining Armenians between them.

Armenian Nationalist Parties
After the destruction of a short-lived Armenia state, two most powerful Armenian parties in the Diaspora emerged as the Dashnaks and the Ramkavars. Ramkavars have always held that Soviet Armenia is the best Armenia that they are likely to get, since it is protected by Russia; and without Russian protection (of whatever political complexion) Armenia would disappear from the map of the world for ever. The Dashnaks agreed not to take part in any act leading to the dismemberment of the USSR, upon which the safety of Armenia depended. They also agreed not to provoke any internal disorders or try to overthrow the regime. However, they would continue their relations with anti-Soviet forces, because, should the USSR collapse, it was prudent to be on good terms with any regime that might take its place. They remembered 1917–18.

In the years before the Second World War a small Fascist element appeared within Dashnak followers. Although the Dashnak party never adopted Fascism and the few pro-Fascist comments that appeared in its press at the time can no more be taken as wholesale endorsement of Fascism than can the favorable remarks of some European leaders on the first year of Fascist rule in Germany, a veteran party member, and a hero from the independent republic, Garegin Nzhdeh, went from community to community in North America, establishing ‘Tseghakron’, or racists, group. The basic idea behind Nzhdeh’s activities was to link the North American youth to a clear notion of national identity. His main premise was that the race, or the nation, should be considered above all else.

Initially, the ‘Tseghakron’ had some success mainly due to Nzhdeh’s charismatic personality. However, they could not maintain the momentum in the long run. Some time afterwards, when they couldn’t endorse Nzhdeh's extreme and racist views again, the Dashnak expelled him from its ranks. Nzhdeh, who was an anti-Soviet and anti-Turkish Nazi sympathizer, eventually left for Europe where he sought allies to overthrow the Soviet regime in Armenia.

Collaboration with the Nazis
As a whole, Armenians supported the Allied war efforts against the Axis during World War II. Around 300,000 to 500,000 Armenians served within the Red Army and contributed more than 50 Soviet generals, including the renowned General (later Marshal) Baghramian. For theirs enthusiasm for the Soviet cause, Armenian was called as the only pro-Soviet and pro-Russian nation in the Caucasus—for obvious historical reasons.

Nevertheless, some Armenians collaborated with the Germans during the Russo-German War. While as a whole Dashnak party did not take this stance (the section of the party in Cairo affirmed its loyalty to the Allies), members of the party who lived in the occupied areas, including a number of names famous from the period of the republic, adopted a pro-Nazi stance. However, except for Nzhdeh, no Armenians who collaborated with the Nazis have ever been a theoretical Fascist.

There are some reasons of this collaboration. It is possible to see it as a purely vengeful desire to retake Armenia from the Bolsheviks. Other reason is a Nazi view that suspected Armenians of being racially inferior because of their alleged proclivity for “parasitic trade practices,” said to derive from a presumed kinship with the Semitic race and miscegenation with the Jews. Hence it was important to prove to the Nazis that the Armenians were 'Aryans'. They seem to have achieved this when Alfred Rosenberg, Reich Minister of the Eastern Occupied Territories, declared that the Armenians were Indo-European, or Aryans. Thus, Nazis did not persecute Armenians, just for being Armenians, in the occupied lands.

Other main reason, share among many Dashnaks, was a memory that had been an overwhelming constituent of their policy in the preceding two decades, the events of 1917–18, when the strength and organization of their party apparatus was the only guarantee against the final extermination of theirs nation from the Armenian plateau. With Russia again threatening to break up, it made sense to prepare to enter Yerevan with the forces that might supplant Bolshevism, in order to assure public security before the Turks swept in from the west.

The last reason is understandably. Although Rosenberg had a plan to build an Armenian state as a buffer zone against Pan-Turanism, Hitler and many German leaders look more interested to ally the Third Reich with Turkey than a small nation like Armenians. In fact, although Turkey maintained grudging neutrality throughout the war, there was a revival of Pan-Turanism, resurfaced in July 1941 under the leadership of Professor Zeki Velidi Togan of Istanbul University, who lead a pro-Nazi organization which adopted the trappings of Fascism, down to an imitation-Hitler hairstyle and colorful uniform. Even some of Pan-Turan leaders, invited by the Reich Foreign Ministry, came to Germany to aid the administration liberated Turko-Tartar areas of the Soviet Union, which promised by the Nazis will became a part of Turkey if she joined the Axis cause. However, while the Nazis inducements profoundly impressed many Turkish leaders, including Marshal Cakmak, after Stalingrad these Fascist notions were put back in the filing-cabinet, and the Turkish authorities felt compelled to prosecute the official Fascist party in September 1944, to sanitize the country before she joined the Allies.

Meanwhile, on 15 December 1942, an 'Armenian National Council' was granted official recognition by Alfred Rosenberg. The Council's president was Professor Ardashes Abeghian, its vice-president Abraham Giulkhandanian. Among its members included Nzhdeh and Vahan Papazian. The Council published a weekly journal, Armenien, edited by Viken Shant, son of another well-known Dashnak leader Levon Shant, who also broadcast on Radio Berlin. Initially, the Armenian National Council fulfilled the function of “governments in exile”, but in the middle of 1944 they were officially acknowledged as government—at least on the paper.

Hitler’s Armenian Soldiers
During the first year of the Russo-German War, the Wehrmacht captured millions members of the Red Army. Initially, like many other Soviet POWs, Nazi racial prejudices exacted a heavy toll among Armenians during the first months of the war. Thousands of them perished due to the inhuman conditions and treatment in the POW camps.

Yet even as thousands continued dying in the camps, many German units used Soviet prisoners as helpers by supply troops. Before the summer was out, Red Army volunteers began to appear in regular Wehrmacht combat formations, even in small all-Soviet units under German command. In October 1941, the Abwehr created a special unit consisted exclusively from members of the Caucasian nationalities, the Sonderverband Bergmann, under Professor Theodor Oberlānder. Theirs members included a company of Armenian volunteers. The unit was deployed in the Caucasus in the summer of 1942 and distinguished itself in combat. However, the Armenian company practically destroyed during the fierce battle in Perekop peninsula in the end of November 1943.

The possibilities to use Soviet minorities against Russians made the Nazis change theirs racist views about “these primitive tribes.” On December 30, 1941, by Hitler’s order, the Germans formed four Ostlegionen (Eastern Legions) from the Turkic and Caucasian nationalities. One of them was the Armenische Legion (Armenian Legion).

The Armenian legion had camps and headquarters in Poland, in the area of the towns of Radom, Pulawa, Demblin but the central forming staff was situated in the region of the town of Pulawa, Lublin region. Some Armenian immigrant leaders were sent to the Red Army POW camps to recruited Armenians volunteers in there. Many Armenian POWs, having heard the calls of national heroes such as Garegin Nzhdeh and Dro Kanayan (an ex-Defense Minister of the short-lived First Republic of Armenia and a popular military leader after his victories over the Turkish forces in 1918 which essentially saved the Armenian Republic from total destruction) voluntarily joined the service in the legion. However, majority of those volunteers joined the legion only in order to survive and to come back to their native land. Some of them were forced by the Germans.

Like other Ostlegionen, the Armenian legion actually was a training center for Armenian volunteers, mainly in battalion’s strength. In fall 1942, the first Armenian Legion battalions, the 808th and 809th, were formed. They were followed by other battalions. Totally, there were eleven Armenian battalions served the Ostlegionen during the war.

Armenian soldiers performed were different between units. While the 809th battalion was known as an effective unit in the Eastern Front, the 808th largely deserted to the Red Army when they were put in the front. Some Armenian battalions later transferred to the Western Front to prevent another desertions and served as guards of the Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. Other Armenian battalions attached to 162. Deutsche-Turkestanische Division, which fought in Slovenia and Italy, mainly as an anti-partisan unit, until the end of the war.

In the beginning of December 1944, an Armenian Waffen-SS unit was formed following a directive of Heinrich Himmler. Known as SS-Waffengruppe ”Armenien”, they were attached under the Kaukasiches Waffen Verband der SS. This Armenian unit was lead by Waffen-Standartenführer der SS Vardan Sarkissjan. However, as other units of the Kaukasiches Waffen Verband der SS, they were never thrown into combat.

The Bitter End
Altogether 20,000 Armenians served in various units in the German Armed Forces during World War II. With the end of the World War II, many of volunteers who surrender to Western allied were handed over to Stalin. Many of them died in Soviet gulags, including Nzhdeh himself who died in a Soviet prison in 1954. Others succeeds escape from repatriation and lives among Armenian Diaspora in Western Europe, North American, and Lebanon.
Copyright © 2010 by Nino Oktorino

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