Partisans in the Forest

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

On July 14, 1943, the Supreme Military Command in Moscow issued an order to all partisan units behind enemy lines to begin a coordinated assault against rail lines, focusing on the region around Orel and Bryansk, where a Soviet offensive was soon to begin. Although a year earlier this would have been impossible, the Soviet partisan movement had become a great factor in the war by summer 1943. Morale surged after Stalingrad, since fighters knew they would soon be liberated, and the central command began airlifting supplies. Partisans had food, medical aid, and heavy weapons such as mortars and even artillery. Partisan ranks swelled to over a half million people by late 1943, concentrated in the Belorussian forests near the Polish border, but strong as well in Ukraine and in enemy-held Russian territory. Entire districts behind enemy lines were partisan controlled, enemy communications were severely disrupted, and German garrisons lived in constant fear of attack. Claims have been made that the partisans killed over a half million Germans, including many high officers and High Commissioner Wilhelm Kube, betrayed by his beautiful Belorussian mistress.

Reality had not always matched propaganda for the Soviet partisans. Although official descriptions liked to emphasize how the movement had been planned and was led by the Party, it began chaotically in the early days of the war, when the surprise attack caught many behind enemy lines. Army officers more often than party representatives led the uncoordinated bands, and there was little communication with Moscow. Supplies were pitiful, and many partisans died of the cold and hunger, or when attacks they mounted with mere rifles left them with untreatable wounded. Relations with local populations were uncertain, since partisans dealt with peasants who still remembered collectivization, or non-Russian Slavs with uncertain loyalty to the Soviet order. Although tales of heroism, such as that of Zoya Kosmodemianskaia, a Komsomol girl dropped behind enemy lines during the Battle of Moscow, and executed with words on loyalty on her lips, were common in the popular press, the reality was much grimmer. Only German brutality and contempt for Slavs made for common cause.

Reintegrating the older partisan survivors, who were accustomed to autonomy and had a tremendous sense of their own worth, back into the Soviet system was not easy. Scarred physically and emotionally, their vengeance against traitors and German collaborators could be fierce. Newer recruits merged easily into the Soviet Army as their territory was liberated, but the older partisans, who remembered a period when they seemed abandoned by the Soviet state, did not always. In Ukraine, partisan bands dedicated to an independent homeland turned their guns against Soviet troops when they arrived, and a new partisan war against Soviet power ensued for several years after German surrender in 1945.

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