The unbreakable General Karbyshev
Dmitri Mikhailovich Karbyshev – Hero of the Soviet Union*, General-lieutenant of engineering troops, Doctor of Military Sciences, a professor, born in a family of Siberian Cossacks. A few weeks before the start of the Great Patriotic War, Karbyshev was sent to Grodno to assist with the defensive construction on the western border. On the 8th of August Karbyshev was contused and captured by Nazis while attempting to break out from a siege in south Mogilev.
Karbyshev spent three and a half years in Fascist dungeons. Unfortunately, till this day there has been no research (or even a true publication) about the tragic and heroic period in the life of the great Soviet General. For a few years in Moscow, the fate of Karbyshev was unknown. It is noteworthy that, in 1941 in his “personnel file”, an official note was made: “Missing”.
Therefore, it is no secret that some journalists began “formulating” downright unbelievable “facts” like the fact that the Soviet government in August 1941, having learned of the capture Karbyshev offered the Germans to arrange an exchange of the Soviet General for two Germans, however in Berlin the exchange was considered “non-equivalent”. As a matter of fact, at that point our command had no idea that Karbyshev was held in captivity.
Dmitri Karbyshev began his concentration camp suffering in the distribution camp in the Polish city of Island Mazowiecki. Here, prisoners were written about, they were assorted into groups and were interrogated. At the camp Karbyshev suffered from a severe form of dysentery. At dawn, on a cold October day, 1941, the echelon cramped with people, including Karbyshev arrived in the Polish town of Zamosc. The general was assigned to barrack no. 11, where subsequently the title of “The General’s” stuck to that number. There, as they say, was a roof over the head and almost a normal diet, which in those captivity conditions was extremely rare. According to German historians, the Germans were just about certain that after all Karbyshev had experienced, the outstanding Soviet scientist will have “feelings of gratitude” and agree to cooperate with the Germans.
However, the plan did not work and in March 1942, Karbyshev was relocated to a special officers concentration camp in Hammelburg (Bavaria). This camp was especially and exclusively designed for Soviet prisoners of war. The camp had a clear order- to do all that was possible (and impossible) to shift the “unstable, vacillating and pusillanimous” Soviet officers and generals to the side of Hitler. That is why the camp respected legality and the humane treatment of prisoners, which, admittedly, gave positive results (especially in the first year of the war). However, not in the case of Karbyshev. At exactly in this point of his life, his famous motto was born: “There is no big victory, than victory on oneself! The most important- is for one not to fall on their knees before the enemy”.
PELIT AND THE HISTORY OF THE RED ARMY
In the beginning of 1943, it became known to the Soviet Intelligence that a commander from one of the German infantries, Colonel Pelit was urgently recalled from the Eastern Front and appointed commandant of the Hammelburg camp. At the time, the colonel had graduated military school in St. Petersburg and had excellent command of the Russian language. However, it is extremely noteworthy that the former officer of the Tsarist army, Pelit, once served in Brest with Captain Karbyshev. Despite this, the fact caused no specific associations for Soviet intelligence officers . They believed that among those, who served in the Tsarist army , there were traitors as well as real Bolsheviks.
However, it is the fact that namely Pelit was commissioned for this personal task with “the prisoner of war General-Lieutenant of engineering troops”. Beforehand though, the colonel was warned that the Russian scientist had shown a “particular interest” for the Wehrmacht and notably for the main control engineering services in Germany. Maximum strength needed to be applied to make sure that he served for the Germans.
In fact, Pelit was not only an expert in military affairs, but also well-known in German war circles as the master of “Intrigues and Intelligence”. Already at the first meeting with Karbyshev, he began playing the role of a person far from politics, a normal old warrior who with his whole soul sympathetically honoured the Soviet General. With each step the German tried to emphasise his attention and affection for Karbyshev and called him his guest of honour as well as flowering him with compliments. He spared no words and told the combat General all sorts of stories on the information that reached him and said that the German command had decided to provide Karbyshev complete freedom and if he wished, the opportunity for him to travel abroad to one of the neutral countries. Many prisoners could not resist from their temptations, however this was not the case with General Karbyshev. Moreover, he immediately saw through the true mission of his” longtime colleague”.
I’ll make a note since we’re here, namely at this period in Hammelburg, German propaganda began to fulfill it’s “historic invention”- here the “commission on drafting the history of the Red Army’s operations during the current war” was established. German experts in this field made their way into the camp as well as SS soldiers. The chatted with the officer prisoners, leaving the impression that the aim of drafting the “history” was entirely scientific (fact-based), and that the officers would freely write they way they wanted them to. In passing, it was said that all officers which had agreed to write the history of the operation of the Red Army would receive extra food, a nice room for for work and housing, as well as honorarium for their “literary” labour. The first bet was made on Karbyshev, but the General categorically refused to collaborate as well as being able to talk most of the other POWs out of the involvement in “Goebbels adventures”. The Fascist command’s attempt in organising a “commission” ultimately failed.
BELIEF AND FAITH
According to some reports, towards the end of October 1942, the Germans began to understand that “it wasn’t that easy” with Karbyshev- it was rather problematic to pull him onto the side of Fascist Germany. Here is content from one of the secret letters, which Pelit received from “higher authority”: ” The general command of engineering services once again asked me about Karbyshev , professor and General-lieutenant of engineering troops, located at your camp. I was forced to delay the solution of the problem, as I was hoping that you would follow my instructions in respect of the prisoner named above, be able to find a common language with him and convince him that if he properly assesses the situation and follows our desires, a happy future will await him. However, Major Peltzer, who was sent by myself to you for an inspection noted in his report of the poor overall performance and completion of all plans involving the Hammelburg camp and especially the prisoner Karbyshev.
Soon the Gestapo command ordered for Karbyshev to be sent to Berlin. He understood why he was taken to the German capital.
The General was settled in a lonely chamber without windows but with a bright and constantly flashing electric lamp. In the chamber
Karbyshev lost count of time. Days spent there were not separated into day or night, there were no strolls. However, he late told his fellow prisoners, that it seemed, no less than two-three weeks had passed before he was called for the first interrogation. This was the usual method of jailers, – Karbyshev later remembered with professorial precision as he analysed this “event”: the prisoner was brought into a state of complete apathy and atrophy of willpower before he would take the “offer”.
However, to Karbyshev’s surprise, he was did not meet a jail interrogator, but a well-known German fortifier professor Heinz Raubengeymer, whom he had heard a lot about in these past two decades, and his works on technical journals and literature which he closely followed. He came across his work a few times.
The professor politely greeted the prisoner, expressing his pity for any inconveniences for the great Soviet scientist. Following which he took a sheet of paper from a file and began reading a text which was written beforehand. The Soviet General was being offered to be freed from the camp, an opportunity to settle in a private apartment and also full material security. Karbyshev will have access to all libraries and archives of Germany, thus having the opportunity to become familiar with any other materials which interest him in the fields of war-engineering. If necessary, to arrange a laboratory and perform development work and other activities to ensure research character, any number of assistants were guaranteed.
The independent choice of subjects of scientific development was not prohibited, and the freedom to travel to the front to check theoretical calculations in the field conditions would be granted. Although it was stipulated that the Eastern Front was not on the list. The results of the work should become the property of German specialists. All officers of the German Army would also treat Karbyshev as a General-lieutenant of engineering troops of the German Reich. After carefully listening to the terms of their “collaboration”, Karbyshev calmly replied with: “My beliefs aren’t falling out together with my teeth from the lack of vitamins in this camp. I am a soldier and will remain faithful to my duties which forbid me to work on the side which is at war with my homeland”.
ABOUT THE TOMBSTONES
The German did not expect such stubbornness: a compromise could have been made with the learnt colleague, but the lonely iron doors slammed shut behind the German professor.
Karbyshev then began receiving salted meals, and was denied any water. They replaced the lamp- it became so powerful that even with the eyes shut, the eyes still would have no rest. They began to aggravate excruciating pain. They practically denied him any sleep. As well as this , with German diligence, they tabled the moods and psychological state of the Soviet General. And just when it seemed that he was about to “loose heart”, they once again came back with their offerings of working together. The answer was the same- “no”. It continued that way for no less than half a year.
Thereafter, Karbyshev was transferred to the concentration camp at Flossenburg, which was located in the Bavarian mountains, 90 kilometers from Nuremberg.
The camp was known for its hard labour conditions of the utmost gravity, and there were no limits on the inhumane treatment of prisoners. The prisoners in striped clothing and with their heads shaped crosswise worked on the granite quarries from day to night under the supervision of the SS men who were armed with whips and pistols. A minutes break, a glance to the side, or a word to the neighbouring labourer, or any other movement with the slightest infraction all provoked a furious rage and whip bashing from the supervisors. Gun shots were often heard. They were shot right into the back of the head.
One of the Soviet officer prisoners, recalled after the war:
One day myself and Karbyshev were working in a barn and hewing granite columns for the road, facing the faces of the gravestones. Karbyshev (who even in the most difficult situation still had a sense of humour) suddenly said: “This work gives me real pleasure. The more tomb plates the Germans order us to make, the better we are doing at the front”.
On one August day in 1943, Karbyshev’s just about six month’s work of hard labour ended. The prisoner was transferred to Nuremberg and imprisoned by the Gestapo. After a brief “quarantine” he was sent to a so called “block”- a wooden barrack in the midst of a huge cobble courtyard. Here, many recognised the General: for some he was a colleague from the past, for some a teacher, for others he was known by his literary works and some knew him from their past encounters in Nazi prisons.
This was followed by Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen – camps that forever go down in history as the monuments of mankind’s most terrible atrocities of Nazi Germany. The constantly smoking ovens which both the dead and alive burned; the gas chambers, where tens of thousands of people were terriby killed; mounds of ashes of human bones; huge bales of women’s hair; mountains of children’s boots before they were taken and sent on their last journey. The Soviet General went through this all.
Three months before our Red Army entered Berlin, 65 year old Karbyshev was transferred to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp, where he died.
It first became known of Karbyshev’s death only a year after the war ended. On the 13th of February, 1946, the Canadian Army Major Seddon De St. Clair, who was being treated at a hospital near London, invited the representative of the Soviet mission for reparation to England to report “significant details”.
“I don’t have long to live,- the Major told a Soviet officer,- so I am worried that the facts known to me about the heroic death of the Soviet General, do not leave with me to the grave, but should live in the hearts of the people. I’m talking about General-lieutenant Karbyshev, with whom I had to stay with at the German concentration camps.
According to the officer, on the night of the 17th to the 18th of February, around one thousand German prisoners were driven to Mauthausen. The frost was around 12 degrees Celsius. Every one was dressed badly in rags. “As soon as we stepped our foot on the territory of the camp, the Germans immediately forced us into the showers, ordered us to undress and let a stream of ice cold water over us. This continued for a long time. Everyone turned blue. Many fell to the ground and died: their hearts could not take it. Then we were ordered to only wear our underwear and wooden clogs and were kicked out into the courtyard. General Karbyshev stood not far from me with a group of Russian comrades. We understood that we were living our final hours. In a few minutes, the Gestapo were standing behind our backs with fire hoses in their hands and began to hit us with currents of cold water. Those who tried to dodge the streams of water were bashed on the head with wooden bats. Hundreds of people fell to the ground from freezing to death or crushed skulls. I saw how General Karbyshev also fell.”- the Canadian Major expounded with pain in his heart.
“On that tragic night, only seventy of us were left. Why they didn’t finish us, I can’t imagine. Perhaps they were tired and left it for the morning. It turned out that closely allied Soviet troops were approaching. The Germans were panicking. I beg you to write down my story and send it to Russia. I consider it as a sacred duty to testify impartially all I know about General Karbyshev. It will be my little duty for the memory of the Great man”,- the Canadian officer finished his story with these words.
And this is what happened. On the 16th of August 1946, General-lieutenant Dmitri Karbyshev was posthumously awarded the title of a Hero of the Soviet Union. As recorded in the decree, the high title was awarded to the General-hero who martyred in a Nazi prison for “exceptional resilience and courage in the fight against German invaders in the Great Patriotic War.”
On the 28th of February, 1948, the Chief of the Central Group of Forces Colonel-General Kurasov and Chief of the engineering troops, General-Major Slyunin, in the presence of honour guards and the government of the Republic of Austria unveiled a monument and a plaque on the site where the Nazis brutally tortured General Karbyshev, in the former Nazi Mauthasen concentration camp.
In Russia, his name is immortalised in the names of military groups, ships, railway stations, streets and boulevards of many cities, as well as numerous schools. Between Mars and Jupiter there is a small planet, number 1959- Karbyshev, making her way orbiting the solar system.
In the early 1960s, a movement was launched for young Karbyshevs, with the leader as Yelena Dmitrievna- the daughter of the Hero and Colonel of engineering troops.
A documentary in Russian about General Karbyshev
* The title Hero of the Soviet Union (Russian: Герой Советского Союза) was the highest distinction in the Soviet Union, awarded personally or collectively for heroic feats in service to the Soviet state and society
Of possible interest, as we just mentioned Anti-Maidan, more info can be found on the Borotba web-site