The Gestapo and the NKVD: a history of Soviet-Nazi cooperation

Soviet star
Soviet star / Corbis

In West Berlin, on Heinrich Dernburg Street, among other “memorial plaques” that commemorate the names of the victims of Nazism, there is a brass plate with several dates engraved. It is tucked away in the place where the house of the businessman, Max Zucker, stood before the war. When Adolf Hitler came to power, he decided to emigrate from Germany and moved in with his son, who lived in the Soviet Union. The decision had fatal consequences, says Dmitry Volcek, editor-in-chief at svoboda.org.

In 1937, in Moscow, the NKVD accused M. Zucker of espionage, arrested him, and deported him to Nazi Germany in 1939, following the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. At the border, he was turned over to the Gestapo staff. Since Zucker was a Jew born in Poland, he was sent to the Warsaw Ghetto. On October 23, 1941, he was fatally beaten in the street in the ghetto by the SS.

Documents recently uncovered in the Ukrainian SSR KGB archives opened to investigators after the 2014 revolution, show how the NKVD handed over to Gestapo German refugees hoping to find deliverance from Hitler in the Soviet Union.

One such document is a protocol signed on January 5, 1938, by the People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs of the USSR, Nikolai Yezhov, and the USSR prosecutor, Andrey Vishinsky, listing the names of 45 German, Austrian and foreign nationals condemned to expulsion from the USSR. After Joseph Stalin and Hitler became allies in 1939, refugees were betrayed and given to the Nazis as if by a conveyor. By the summer of 1941, the NKVD had sent hundreds of people to Germany. Many of them were members of Hitler’s defeated the German Communist Party. Stalin handed over communists and Jews, who had sought refuge in the Soviet Union, to Hitler.

Heinz Neumann, a member of the German Communist Party and former deputy of the Reichstag, entered the Soviet Union in 1935 with his wife, Margaret. In 1937, the NKVD arrested Neumann. He was convicted and shot the same day. His wife was sent to a camp in Karaganda for five years as a “dangerous element to the public”. In 1940 she was deported to Germany. Margarete Buber-Neumann wrote about this in a memoir “Between Two Dictators”:

… The train started moving during the night of December 31, 1939, to January 1, 1940. It carried seventy broken people … We travelled on through devastated Poland to Brest Litovsk. On the bridge across the Bug River, we were greeted by the staff of another European totalitarian regime, the German Gestapo. Three people refused to cross this bridge: a Hungarian Jew named Bloch, a communist worker convicted by the Nazis, and a German teacher whose name I have forgotten. They began to be dragged across the bridge by force. The wrath of the Nazis and the SS immediately poured over the Jew. We were boarded onto the train and taken to Lublin … Lublin handed us over to the Gestapo. That is when we were convinced that we were not simply handed over to the Gestapo, but that the NKVD also gave the SS all the documents which related to us. Yes, for example, my dossier noted that I was Neumann’s wife, and Neumann was one of the Germans most hated by the Nazis …

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Margarete Buber-Neumann was locked up in the Ravensburg concentration camp and only survived by a miracle.

Ernst Fabisch (1910-1943) was a member of the youth organization of the German Communist Party. When the National Socialists came to power, he became one of the leaders of the anti-Nazi resistance. The Gestapo tried to arrest him, but in 1934 he escaped to Czechoslovakia and then to the USSR. Here, he worked on the construction of a power plant in Stalinsk (now Novokuznetsk) in Pamaskwe. In April 1937, the NKVD arrested Fabisch. He spent six months in Soviet prisons before being deported to the German Reich in January 1938. At the border, the Gestapo greeted him. In prison, Fabisch contracted tuberculosis, and after five years in prison, in 1943, he was killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The cooperation between the NKVD and the Gestapo predated the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and was initially concerned with the deportation of German citizens to their homeland, through formal contacts on the number of deportees and the timing of the transfer. Between 1939 and 1940, following the signing of the Pact, several so-called “Gestapo-NKVD conferences” were held on the territory of Poland, shared by the two Allies. The primary intention was to discuss the issues of suppressing Polish resistance.

The historian Robert Conquest refers to a total of four such conferences that were held. The documents of these negotiations in the Soviet archives are still classified.

The German historian Wilhelm Mensing created a website named “The NKVD and the Gestapo”, dedicated to the fates of Germans fleeing Hitler, who were arrested in the USSR, sent to the gulag, shot or handed over to the Nazis.

In his book “From the Ruhr to the Gulag,” he talks about German workers who were victims of Stalin. In the early 1940s, newspapers in the Ruhr Coal Basin published advertisements inviting them to work in the Soviet trust Soyuzugol, promising fabulous wages to the miners. Fritz Baltes, a miner, signed a contract at the Soviet Trade Representation in Berlin, in 1931, to travel to Kizel in the Perm region to work in the Mikhail Kalinin mine, where he rose to the top ten.

On 15 October 1937, he was arrested. The NKVD interrogator Blizniak immediately began beating him. The Chekists needed to create a conspiracy, and the miner Franz Winter was chosen to be another German spy-victim, who had signed the same contract at the Soviet Trade Representation. “During my interrogation, I experienced the most brutal torture. Eight of my teeth were knocked out. My eardrum was ruptured because of the blows to my left ear so that I can’t hear with that ear anymore.”, he later said.

On January 7, 1938, the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the USSR Communist (Bolshevik) Party authorized the Sverdlovsk NKVD Board to organize an open show trial for “saboteurs active in the Kizel Coal Basin” by a resolution “On the Organization of the Demonstration Process in Kizel”. Baltes and Winter were sentenced to death, but the sentence was later changed to 25 years in a correctional labour camp. They were sent to a labour camp in Kotlas from where they wrote letters to the German embassy asking for help.

On May 2, 1940, they were brought to Brest Litovsk, where they were greeted and crossed the border with German border guards. Now Winter and Baltes are in the hands of the Gestapo and have been locked up in Lublin prison. This story is just one of many told in the book “From the Ruhr to the Gulag”.

W. Mensing responds to questions from svoboda.org:

– When did you start your investigation? Does this relate to your family history?

– I can tell you exactly how it all started: This was when I read a volume of “In the Fangs of the NKVD” that first told the fate of hundreds of German expatriates from the USSR, especially the members of the German Communist Party. In this book, I found the names of the unemployed who left for the USSR in the early 1940s, hoping to become employed and help build socialism. Many of them disappeared in the Soviet Union, and some were arrested and repatriated. It has nothing to do with my family history. I have never been a member of the Socialist or Communist parties, nor have I personally known the victims of Stalin’s terror. The principles of humanity (remembering the victims, not forgetting the criminals) and a desire to know the truth guided me.

But there is another reason. I’ve spent a long time researching communist politics in Germany. In 1983, I published a study on the influence of the Communist Party on media, literature, and art, and in 1989 a two-volume work on the revival of the German Communist Party was published. So, I was intimately familiar with the history and worldview of communism.

– Why did you decide to write the book “From the Ruhr to the Gulag”?

– When I read the collection “In the Fangs of the NKVD,” I began to ask Ruhr historians if they were prepared to investigate the fates of Ruhr expatriates who had travelled to Stalin’s USSR and then returned to Hitler’s Germany. And everyone replied, without exception, that they were so busy with the Nazi history that they had absolutely no time for it. And then I decided I had to do it myself. I cannot allow these people to be forgotten.

– Is it known exactly how many Germans were arrested in the Soviet Union during the Great Terror and how many were deported to Germany? And what were the leading principles of the repression?

– I see no logic in Stalin’s repression, and I doubt that anyone understands it. The exact numbers are also unknown, though it is possible to estimate how many people were sent following the signing of the Stalin-Hitler pact. My website lists 325 people. I don’t think that there were more than 350. At the same time, approximately 80 German and Austrian citizens were granted permission to leave the USSR without deportation.

– What was the fate of the deportees?

– Many escaped arrests. The youngest ones were sent to serve in the Wehrmacht. Some (former) members of the Communist Party were locked up in concentration camps, and a few were lucky to survive. Almost all Jews became victims of the Holocaust, with only a few able to leave for Britain, the United States and other countries.

– Why did you decide to create a website dedicated to the collaboration between the NKVD and the Gestapo, and are you getting feedback?

– I decided to create this website after the publication of the book “From the Ruhr to the Gulag”. It was not possible to include all the material that I had collected in the book because that would have made the book too expensive, so I decided to put it all on a special website. Later, as I began to explore other aspects of Stalinist terror, especially emigration and re-migration, I realized that posting the names on the Internet was the best way to attract anyone interested in the subject. Appeals from historians and from descendants of the people that I write about to testify that I have chosen the right form.

– Are there any interesting papers on the subject in the Stasi archives? Have you tried to find anything in the KGB archives?

– The Stasi archive repository has very few documents on the subject. The topic of Stalinist repression was taboo for the German Socialist Party. In the German Democratic Republic, in the late 1960s, when the returnees, who suffered in the Soviet Union, were rehabilitated, they were strictly forbidden to talk about both repression and rehabilitation.

I have seen a number of documents from the Russian State Archives of Social and Political History, dossiers, lists of ex-pats, people expelled or arrested. However, many documents (including Comintern papers) remain classified.

In his book, W. Mensing pauses to relate several tragic fates. Journalist Willy Harzheim became a member of the Communist Party in 1923. In 1929 he moved from Gelzenkirchen to Berlin and worked for the Union of Proletarian Writers. In 1930, the German delegation participated in the International Conference of proletarian and revolutionary writers in Kharkiv. After the Nazis came to power, he emigrated to the USSR and sent to Siberia as a “cultural worker”. In Prokopyevsk he worked for the newspaper Red Miner. On November 20, 1937, Harzheim was arrested and shot on December 17 for “counter-revolutionary activity”.

The communist Arnold Klein emigrated to the USSR in 1934. Publishing under the party codename Hans Bloch, he worked on publications, published by the German Communist Party, then worked for the Lower Novgorod car factory. On March 8, 1938, he was arrested by the NKVD and charged with Trotskyism. On February 5, 1940, the Soviet organs handed him over to the Gestapo. He was accused of treason and locked up in Lublin Prison, then transported to Düsseldorf Prison, where he died on 25 January 1942.

W. Mensing’s answer to the question “What do the NKVD and the Gestapo have in common?”

– Common among them are the specific features of the secret police. The Gestapo was involved in the extermination of Jews in the occupied countries, a unique feature. The number of NKVD victims is visibly higher. The numbers are different, and ruthlessness is the same. Both the Gestapo and the NKVD were instruments of criminal leaders, of despotic tyrants.

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