"Erschossen in Moskau..." Die deutschen Opfer des Stalinismus auf dem Moskauer Friedhof Donskoje 1950-1953

Title"Erschossen in Moskau..." Die deutschen Opfer des Stalinismus auf dem Moskauer Friedhof Donskoje 1950-1953
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsHarms, Victoria
Author(s) of reviewed materialArsenij Roginskij, Frank Drauschke, Anna Kaminsky(eds.)

Book. Title translated:
"Executed in Moscow…" The German Victims of Stalinism on Moscow’s cemetery Donskoje 1950-1953. 3rd, revised edition. First edition 2005.

PublisherIm Auftrag von Memorial International, Moskau, Facts & Files - Historisches Forschungsinstitut Berlin u. der Stiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur. Metropol- Verlag: Berlin
ISSNISBN-Nr. 978-3-938690-14-7
Review year


Full Text

The 2008 publication at hand is a revised and extended edition of the 2005 version titled Shot in Moscow. German Victims of Stalinism on Moscow’s Cemetery Donskoje 1950-53. It comprises 927 short biographies of Germans executed and buried in Moscow in the last years of Stalin’s rule, after the re-introduction of the death penalty in 1950.[1]   Four articles by renown historian experts contextualize the research and analyze the findings. A representative selection of facsimiles of archival documents is appended as well as an additional list of Austrian victims.
In 2003, the Russian NGO Memorial and its German partner, the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation, informed the Stiftung für Aufarbeitung, the Foundation for the Reassessment of the SED Dictatorship, that 600 German individuals were among the list of Stalinist victims received from the Russian Secret Service FSB. These people had been secretly sentenced to death by the Soviet Military Tribunal SMT still active in the territory of the GDR, whereupon they were imprisoned and executed in the Moscow prison Butyrka and subsequently cremated and interred on Donskoje cemetery. Upon the reception of this novel information, Facts & Files, a private research enterprise, was commissioned to conduct further research and eventually identified 927 Germans mostly executed on the order of the SMT 48420 and another 89 Austrians tried by the Military Tribunal of Unit 28990.[2]
The first results that were published in 2005 and followed by a traveling exhibition still lacked some of the information from the BStU, the Federal Commissioner for the Documentation of the Secret Service of the Former GDR. Moreover, many relatives learnt only then about the fate of their missing family members, since “secrecy was an inherent and formative element of Stalinist judiciary” (p.32). Many complemented the archival findings with private documents (especially pictures), so that in this new version from 2008 the additional information fills 80 extra pages. “Shot in Moscow…” thus documents 927 people including birth dates, profession, residence and a short biography as well as the court sentence and the date of execution.
Although “arbitrariness was a constitutive principle of Stalinism”, the editorial foreword draws insightful and balanced conclusions. It succeeds in overcoming many pitfalls of earlier often politicized studies on the topic. For instance, the editors argue that the number of NSDAP-members corresponds to the percent of Nazi-affiliated persons in the entire population. Yet, instead of prosecuting war criminals or Nazis, the main issue at stake was fighting the inner enemy (p.14) and a central aim was to guarantee the USSR’s superiority in the unfolding political-ideological struggle (p.22).
Generally, the victims come from all strata of the East and notably West German society; about a third of the executed were adolescents born after 1925; 100 of them were women; a large majority held membership of one of the other political parties; an unexpectedly large number of the executed had worked in the SAG Wismut (which mined uranium for Soviet nuclear armament).
Andreas Hilger, a German historian of Soviet repression, and his Russian counterpart Nikita Petrow concisely summarize the history and structure of the cooperation between the SovietMGB and the MfS, the East German Ministry for State Security. They scrutinize §58 of the Soviet Penal Code, which identified espionage, anti-Soviet agitation, and counter-revolutionary activities as capital crimes (“In the name of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. Soviet Military Justice in the SOZ/ GDR 1945-1955“, pp.21-37). Hilger and Petrow stress that §58 remained sufficiently vague in its definition for the SMT 48420 to apply it broadly. The two historians underline the Stalinist character of its implementation, the ideological bias of the courts and political significance of the trials (p.30, p.36). Arsinij Roginskij, the director ofMemorial International, explains the hierarchy of the judiciary, its dependence on the Politbureau and on Stalin himself. He minutely follows the handling of the futile clemency pleas [“Immediate implementation of the sentence is requested’. The final documents on the Germans executed in Moskow in 1950 until 1953“ (pp.39-68)].
Frank Drauschke and Marion Hohlfeld emphasize that the prosecution of foreign residents under Soviet law abroad, the negligence of factual proof, the coercion of confessions, and the discrepancy between crime and punishment violated any understanding of the rule of law [“The long Search for Relatives” (pp.69-89)]. They also reveal the unquestioned commitment and zeal of the MfS to please its “friends” (p. 70), the fraternal reference to the MGB, which controlled and guided all actions. Due to the secret re-introduction of capital punishment in January 1950, many underestimated the severity of their actions, when they provided Western services with even utmost basic information or contacted the UfJ, the investigative committee of liberal Jurists, or the KgU, the task force against inhumanity. Based on the imminent fear of Western subversion, Drauschke and Hohlfeld insist, any contact became suspicious in the eyes of the MfS (p.73). As Barbara Stelzl-Marx shows in her assessment of Austrian victims, even love affairs could end in a death sentence, [“The Military Tribunal of Unit 28990. Soviet death sentences in Austria“ (pp.91-100)]. The Austrians’ fate is almost identical to that of the Germans: the secret arrest led to weeks and months of isolated confinement until suitable confessions were obtained. The Military Tribunal of Unit 28990 in Baden assessed the allegations against Austrian citizens – mostly not in their favor. The convicted were transported first to a transitory prison in Brest-Litovsk, then onwards to Butyrka, where they usually awaited the denial of their clemency plea (in over 80% of the cases). The executions took place on the prison’s premises; the bodies were cremated and interred in an anonymous mass grave on Donskoje cemetery.
The form of arbitrary prosecution and abduction mitigated immensely after Stalin’s death in the spring of 1953. The GDR compiled a first list of ‘missing persons’ in 1957, the Red Cross issued individual requests in Munich, Hamburg and Moscow. Nevertheless, information was retained; only rarely were registration offices informed that the respective person had ‘deceased on Soviet territory’ on a date set two years later than the actual execution (concerning the German, yet not the Austrian cases). Pleas and investigative requests by relatives were largely ignored (yet archived) until the rehabilitation of political prisoners officially started in 1989 (now a law of the RF). German families have since received Russian certificates of the rehabilitation from the Foreign Office. Several commemorative stones have been placed on the Donskoje premises since 2005.
This research project finally provides the data for a balanced assessment of the Stalinist trials which has for long been subjected to moral arguments. Many of the archives have been opened for the first time, and information was scattered between Russia and Germany. The concise collection of the convictions, the procedures of the trials and the matter-of-fact short biographies are indispensable sources for experts. Meanwhile the articles offer a coherent contextualization of the trials for relatives of the victims as well as newcomers to the field. Moreover, the analyses include well-founded statements on the Stalinist practices in the early years of the MfS and coherently reconstruct the functions and relations within the system. References to remaining research gaps and the indication of still classified documents promise further studies and a continuation of this thorough and compelling project.

[1] Capital punishment had been suspended in the Soviet Union in 1947, but was re-introduced after the Leningrad Affair in January 1950 mostly for crimes of espionage, treason and anti-Soviet agitation.

[2] Another nine Austrian citizens were prosecuted in Moscow, five by the SMT 48420 in East Germany.