Czech researchers gain access to Soviet World War II prisoner of war records

Photo: Post Bellum, Adam Hradilek

Czech and Slovak researchers have received a wealth of documents from the Russian authorities about the fates of thousands of Czechoslovak citizens imprisoned within the Soviet Union during and after the Second World War. The access only pertains to military archives, and involves around 38,000 Czechoslovak soldiers fighting on behalf of Nazi Germany – mostly ethnic Germans, Slovaks and Hungarians. I spoke with Adam Hradilek of Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, which received a copy of the documents this week, and began by asking him about how helpful this information might be to the surviving families of such prisoners:

Photo: Post Bellum,  Adam Hradilek
“The majority of the prisoners of war were from the (subsequently expelled) German minority in Czechoslovakia. Then there were Slovaks; and Hungarians, who served either in the (Axis) Hungarian army, or in the Wehrmacht in the east. So for us as Czechs it is very problematic to help the families of such people to search these documents – but it is very valuable for our Slovak colleagues. But we have received some questions…even though the majority of the Germans were moved out of Czechoslovakia after the Second World War, there are still some of these relatives unaware of what happened to their family members.”

So what did happen to these prisoners? Did they die in captivity?

“Not as many as in the Nazi (prisoner of war) camps. Approximately 60 percent of Soviet prisoners of war died in Nazi captivity. Approximately ten percent of Nazi prisoners died in Soviet captivity. For example, concerning the Slovaks, there were approximately 10,000 Slovak prisoners of war, and around 7,000 of them were released even during the war. They then joined the Czechoslovak military units in the Soviet Union and helped in the liberation of Czechoslovakia from the Nazis.”

So it is not correct to say that this information relates to people who disappeared and were never heard from again…

Photo: Post Bellum,  Adam Hradilek
“No, but they are there as well. Because it is a database of approximately half of the prisoners of war that came from Czechoslovakia. Of course there are cases of people who died in the POW camps – it could be from injuries sustained in fighting, from malnutrition, or from other causes.”

Does this represent something of a thaw with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has been known in recent years to be closing its archives rather than opening them.

“Definitely not. There are false reports in the media that ‘this is the first time that historians have received such a list’. I think that we are the last country that received this list. I think the Germans, Poles, Hungarians and Japanese already managed to obtain these materials in the 1990s, when the archives were more open than these days. Czechs and Slovaks are among the last to receive the list, and that is mainly due to their lack of interest in the topic. But, of course, if you want to search for the fate of political prisoners (in the Soviet Union), to search their political files, then that is very complicated in today’s Russia, and far more complicated than it used to be during the Yeltsin era.”