The year 1945 brought to an end the catastrophic conflict between Allied and Axis nations across the world. Great cities lay in ruin while millions had perished in what had become the bloodiest war we’ve ever seen by far. For the Allies, and those countries who had fallen under Axis rule, it was a time of deliverance, a sense that evil had been conquered and the forces of good had finally prevailed.
The reconstruction process in different parts of the world would take years as nations attempted to rebuild and move on from the shattering experience that had been World War Two. For many, it was more important to look forward than back, to dream and plan for a brighter future, rather than wade back through the murky underworld of the past six years.
During the post-war years, there were few topics quite as contentious as Axis collaboration. Immediately after the conflict, and even while it was still ongoing, there was certainly plenty of recriminatory actions against those who were deemed as traitors but as the war slipped further into history many nations actively tried to suppress the fact that not all of their citizens had fought the valiant fight against the Axis powers.
This is a topic that has become hugely taboo in many countries even to this day. A facet of history that sits uncomfortably outside the propaganda inflamed version of the past that we tell our children. But whether we like it or not, Axis collaboration happened in practically every single country involved in World War II.
The term collaboration here covers a broad spectrum of actions that occurred during World War II, but is usually defined as the people of conquered nations cooperating with their subjugators and perhaps even actively helping them. Yet even here there are a wide variety of reasons that a person might choose collaboration over staunch resistance.
Collaboration could be either voluntary or involuntary. There were huge numbers of cases of people being forcibly turned against their own and even fighting for the other side, while any parent alive would struggle not to collaborate if a member of the Gestapo asked kindly for your assistance while also pointing his luger at your child’s head.
Then there is the voluntary collaboration and here is where things get significantly more complex. Those who actively chose to side with the Axis powers often did so for personal gain, nationalism, ethnic hatred, anti-communist or antisemitic purposes. The uncomfortable truth, that we still don’t like to discuss too much, is that it wasn’t just ethnic Germans and Japanese who carried out some of the worst atrocities across the war. In fact, as World War II came to a close, roughly 60% of Waffen-SS members were non-German volunteers and many of those who made the desperate final stand within the skeletal remains of Berlin were born well outside the traditional German boundaries.
As I said, this is a deeply contentious topic for some and one which many nations pretend just never happened. It would take us several videos to go through all of the Axis collaborations around the world, so we’re going to focus on some of the more interesting stories. Often the problem when talking about this topic is that some nations and specific nationalities tend to get a little tetchy when their assigned history is questioned, but as I said, collaboration was rife in almost every country.
So for the sake of fairness today, and not wanting some to feel like the bony finger accusation is being pointed at them, we’re going to begin this video close to home.
Britain, as you’ll probably know, was never actually invaded by an Axis power, with the exception of the Channel Islands which fell under Nazi control in June 1940.
While there were a few instances of collaboration on the Channel Islands, it wasn’t done to any great degree, no doubt simply because of the size of the islands and relatively decent conditions under German rule.
However, there was another interesting tale of Britons and citizens of the empire working with the Nazis. The British Free Corps (BFC) was a Waffen-SS unit made up entirely of British and Dominion prisoners of war that was set up by British fascist John Amery. Numbers were always low, with 54 names included overall but never more than 27 at one time, over a two year period between 1943 and 1945.
In the final months of the war, the BFC was placed into active service, but despite being moved around Germany quite a bit, it’s not exactly clear whether they actually took part in any combat. Apparently, the Corps baulked at the idea of actually fighting the British, so were eventually moved out to the east. Several of its members were court-martialed after the war, with John Amery hanged as a traitor in December 1945.
In China, the situation was complex as the Japanese occupation force set up several Chinese puppet governments in different regions. In reality, these governments had very little actual power but were responsible for organizing armies that would fight on the side of the Chinese.
The numbers here were quite extraordinary with between 1 and 2 million people fighting under the banner of the Collaborationist Chinese Army at various times between 1937 and 1945. However, we do need to be careful to point out that impoverished Chinese peasants who were press-ganged into fighting, often in distant lands from their own, with very little, if any ideological skin in the game, hardly constitutes what we might consider serious collaboration.
While numbers may have been impressive, the standard of soldiers and equipment they were given was often pitiful, to such an extent that many involved with the Collaborationist Chinese Army were used in non-combat roles, such as policing and transportation.
If you’re a little surprised to find the infinitely non-offensive Danes on our list of Nazi collaborators, well then this might get a little interesting because Denmark’s relationship with the Nazis was uncomfortable at best and downright cosy at worst.
When German soldiers began streaming across the border into neutral Denmark on 9th April 1940, it took the Danish government just two hours to surrender. Now, we don’t have time to argue over who fought the Nazis the longest and hardest but it’s perfectly clear that the Danes placed self-preservation above outright resistance. And considering that none of us alive today ever stared down the barrel of Nazi gun, who are we to say what was right or wrong.
But the fact was that because of the Danish government’s speedy acceptance of their new rulers, the country escaped much of the carnage handed out to other countries. Denmark joined the anti-Comintern pact in 1941 – a military alliance founded by Germany and Japan – and both the government and the king openly discouraged resistance while quietly encouraging its citizens to inform on resistance movements.
Also in 1941, just days after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Free Corps Denmark was formed which eventually numbered around 6,000 men – though 12,000 volunteered in total with half rejected – and were deployed several times to the front lines to fight the Red Army. When they returned to Denmark in between deployments many were met with hostility from the local population and their existence remains a diverse issue in Denmark today. While as we’ll see, many other corps were formed from different countries, this was one of the few instances where the ruling government of the country officially gave its blessing.
The tale of France during World War II is a sordid mess that included some of the most dramatic resistance stories of the entire war and widespread collaboration with the Nazis that the French do not like talking about one little bit.
The collapse of France in 1940 was an embarrassment that has taken some time to heal. The speed at which the “mighty” French forces were routed by the Wehrmacht weighed heavily on the French psyche during the war and for decades after, but it was the actions of the Vichy collaborative government that have left a deep scar across French society.
After the French formally surrendered on 22nd June 1940, in the very same disused railway carriage where the Germans themselves had surrendered after World War I, the nation became divided, with an occupied region in the north and the Free Zone, otherwise known as Vichy France, to the south.
The French people also faced a decision as to whether to rally behind the then little known General Charles de Gaulle who had fled to Britain and resist the German occupiers or to fall into line with the neutral, but really far from it, Vichy government, under World War I hero, turned Hitler scoundrel, General Philippe Pétain. Of course, there were many that fell somewhere between the two and neither joined the French resistance nor openly collaborated with the Germans, but there were plenty that fell into both camps.
The role of the Vichy government in what happened during this period is a minefield in modern France with many choosing to focus on the glorious tales of resistance rather than the fact that the French puppet government actively participated in the Holocaust as well as the persecution of other minorities. It’s thought that 76,000 French Jews were deported from France thanks largely to the assistance of the French police, with only 2,500 coming back after the war.
To complicate the French memory even further, it wasn’t simply the Jews, Roma and other minorities that were targeted. In 1943, the Vichy government set up the Milice Française (French Militia), a political paramilitary unit that hunted down members of the French resistance. At its largest, the group numbered close to 30,000 men who carried numerous atrocities across France, including the infamous Tulle massacre three days after the D-Day landings in which 213 civilians were killed and 149 were sent to the Dachau Concentration camp.
Whether you want to call it collaboration or simply survival is up to you, but thousands of French people worked either with or for the Germans during the war, often in shipyards but also to build the vast Atlantic Wall that Hitler hoped might be able to throw the allies back into the Channel if they ever attempted an invasion. It’s clear that many, many ordinary people did whatever they could to survive during this period, and again, with our modern 21st Century world, it’s difficult to pass judgment on people like this and the decisions they made.
But like many other nations, there were thousands of Frenchmen whose participation in the German occupation went much further than slowly tightening bolts on German U-boats or mixing concrete to build bunkers. In the early years, a series of French combat units were formed to fight alongside their German allies. These included the Legion of French Volunteers Against Bolshevism, formed in 1941 and which totalled just shy of 6,000 men, the Legion Imperiale, a relatively short-lived unit that fought in Tunisia and consisted of around 500 men, of whom two-thirds were French and one-third Algerian.
Then we come to the 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne (1st French) which was an amalgamation of other French units that was formed in 1944 and consisted of 7,340 men. This division fought first in Poland before being pulled back to Germany, where, quite remarkably, they were some of the final defenders around Hitler’s bunker during the final days of the Battle of Berlin.
Perhaps the strangest tale of Nazi collaboration was the Indian Legion that was formed in 1941 initially as a liberation force for British-ruled India. Say what you will about Adolf Hitler but the man was ambitious and his far-reaching aspiration to one day threaten India itself with the help of the Indian Legion, also known as the Tiger Legion, stretched the imagination to the very limits of reality.
Established by Indian independence leader Subhas Chandra Bose, the legion was first seen as a way of forcing India’s independence from Britain through conflict with a little help from the most despised and feared dictator of the age.
Numbers never got above 5,000 and recruits were volunteers, some, expatriates living in Germany at the time and others prisoners of war whose heads had been turned against the British by some carefully placed propaganda. Most of these soldiers were given non-combat roles in occupied countries in Europe but were also involved in the Axis defence of Europe after D-Day.
On the other side of the world, and fighting alongside a different nation but against the same, the Indian Liberation Army (ILA) was a much larger enterprise that numbered some 43,000 men, again, principally fighting for Indian independence from Britain. Fighting alongside the Imperial Japanese Army, the ILA was formed of Indian prisoners of war and first saw combat during Operation U-Go in which Japanese troops attempted to break through into India through the northeast Indian regions of Manipur and the Naga Hills.
Of all of the collaboration stories here, this is certainly one of the more understandable. With the Indian people often suffering horribly under British rule, it’s not hard to see how many thousands could be easily swayed by another power offering to help rid India of its colonial master. After the war, the British government, fearing mass revolts and uprisings across its empire in support of groups like the ILA, banned the BBC and other media organizations from covering the topic. In India, a series of trials were held with various charges of treason, torture, murder and abetment to murder placed against the accused, but a massive public outcry over the trials led to almost all of them being scrapped. Today, the ILA is still openly revered by many in India as heroes of the independence movement, while others look upon them as little more than traitors.
The Soviet Union
The final nation that we’ll look at was also one of the most complex when discussing the notion of collaborators. The Soviet Union was, of course, essentially an occupying force in itself so it’s hardly surprising that there were numerous instances of groups choosing to fight alongside the Nazis rather than their Soviet oppressors. However, what may come as a shock was the sheer numbers that chose to do so. Estimates here are a little blurry, but perhaps as many as 1 million people under Soviet rule chose to fight for the other side in one way or another.
In what is considered Ukraine today, but was then divided between the Soviet Union and Poland, memories of Stalin’s terror famine and various purges throughout the 1930s that had killed millions remained a lingering point of hatred when it came to the Soviet Union.
Even before Operation Barbarossa, there were large numbers of Ukrainians who had actively chosen to back the Germans and this rose dramatically after Hitler sent his troops into the Soviet Union. The collaboration here came in various shapes and sizes, including administrative duties, policing, the German military, within units such as the SS Division Galicia, and even as concentration camp guards. Those working within the auxiliary police forces became implicated in actions against the Jews and very much participated in the mass roundups that led to some 1.2 to 1.6 million Ukrainian Jews being murdered.
The Turkestan Legion was another group that fought in the Wehrmacht during World War II, composed almost exclusively of those of Turkic descent, a collection of ethnic groups across a wide expanse of area, but mostly situated in Central Asia.
Though initially considered racially inferior by the Nazis – I mean who wasn’t really – the Germans changed their tune after the difficulties of invading the mammoth Soviet Union became apparent and they sought any help they could find. The Turkestan Legion eventually numbered some 16,000 men with the majority of their combat coming in Yugoslavia before most were captured by the allies and eventually returned to almost certain death or lengthy imprisonment in the Soviet Union.
We could go on and on about groups that chose the Nazis over the Soviet Union because there were just so many. There was an Armenian Legion with around 18,000 men, an Azerbaijani Legion with 13,000 and a Georgian Legion with 14,000 soldiers – all of whom actively chose the other side often after spending time in a prisoner of war camp. However, Hitler never quite took to the soldiers from the east and they were often shuffled around to areas where the Wehrmacht could afford to deploy some foreign troops who they didn’t entirely trust.
One of these places was the small Dutch island of Texel where the majority of the Georgian Legion was deployed in the final stages of the war along with around 400 Germans. Just after midnight on 6th April 1945 – just over a month before the final German surrender and with Adolf’s dreams already well and truly in tatters – the Georgians, along with members of the Dutch resistance, rose up and took control of most of the island. Half the Germans were killed almost immediately but the uprising had expected an allied landing, which never came, and when the remaining German artillery batteries began pounding away at where they thought the rebels were, the situation degenerated quickly.
Such was the determination to hang on to Texel, a 2,000 strong German detachment arrived on the island to wrestle control back, and the ensuing fighting destroyed much of the island. The Germans were able to gain control again, but quite incredibly, fighting on Texel continued after Hitler had committed suicide and even after Germany had formally surrendered. In fact, it wasn’t until the arrival of Canadian soldiers on 20th May, nearly two weeks after the official German surrender, did fighting on Texel reach its conclusion. This small battered island became one of the final areas in Europe to see fighting during World War II.
And so we come to the final, and perhaps most controversial collaboration throughout the war. Of all of the ethnic, religious and other minorities that were targeted during World War II, the Nazis set upon the Jews like no other. Around 6 million Jewish men, women and children were murdered during the Holocaust, but that didn’t mean that there weren’t some who were willing to help the other side.
It appears that there were a tiny number of Jews who genuinely felt an ideological connection with the Nazis – or perhaps just used the war as a vehicle for their own psychopathy or for personal gains. There was a notorious Polish organization known as Group 13 that operated in Warsaw with between 300 and 400 uniformed Jewish officers who reported directly to the Gestapo through its own chain of command. This was a very loosely formed police force who actively partook in racketeering, blackmail and extortion for their own gains. Unlike the Judenrat, the Jewish councils which were set up throughout Nazi control areas and used as administrators to essentially police their own, Group 13 was entirely more insidious. While the Judenrat appeared to collaborate with the Germans as a way of trying to ensure long-term survival for Jews in the ghettos, those in Group 13 played a far more devious role in the Holocaust and often offered up their own to be killed – having robbed them blind first.
There are numerous individuals we could point to but for many, it’s difficult to really understand the reasons behind their activities. Some were arrested and tortured before agreeing to collaborate, while others had their families held hostage before agreeing to help the Germans. For this reason, identifying individual Jewish collaborators who did so out of genuine malice is difficult – but not impossible.
One man we will talk briefly about became the only Jew to be formally tried and executed by a state for their actions during the Holocaust. His name was Vital Hasson, a Jewish man from Thessaloniki in Greece who grew up in a comfortable middle-class family. In 1942 or 1943, after the German invasion of Greece, Hasson somehow managed to reach the position of head of the Jewish police of Salonika – a position that placed him as the leader of a group of 200 Jewish volunteers.
He later formally offered his services as a Jewish bounty hunter and even crossed over into Italian occupied Greece in pursuit of runways. Eventually, he became an integral cog within the Salonika ghetto where he exercised his psychopathic tendencies with an uncomfortable glee. This was a truly bad man who was said to strut through the ghetto in a smart uniform, stealing as he went and picking and choosing which men would be sent to the labour camps while also inflicting his sickening behaviour on the women and girls of the ghetto as he pleased.
In August 1943, Hasson fled Greece along with his wife, daughter and pregnant lover – if there was any doubt over his rascalian ways – and was eventually captured by the allies after refugees pointed him out. He was returned to Greece and in the summer of 1946, was tried and convicted of aiding the Nazi cause and hung shortly after.
As I said earlier in the video, this is a hugely controversial topic and one which is all too often whitewashed. Quite simply it would be difficult to find a single occupied nation under Axis rule during the war that didn’t see collaboration in some way or another. Some countries saw more of it than others, but it must be said that numerous areas in Eastern Europe were already under Soviet rule so it’s not exactly a clear good vs bad debate.
There were a huge variety of reasons why people would help the enemy. Some did so out of pure necessity to save their own lives or that of their loved ones, while others saw the war as an opportunity to further their own cause or to inflict revenge on others for past feuds.
Then there were those, like Vital Hasson, who took to their collaboration with genuine dedication, whether through very real ideological beliefs or simply as a way of exercising their own sickening behaviour. It’s easy to think of the Allies and their populations as all inherently good in their struggle against evil, but alas, history isn’t that straightforward and the story of who worked with the Axis powers and to what extent, remains a difficult conversation to have, even now, over 75 years since the end of the war.