Surrender or Capture? Files Shed Light on Fate of Stalin's Son
For decades, some have suspected that Yakov Dzhugashvili, the oldest son of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, surrendered to invading German forces instead of being captured. Files in a Russian archive now suggest that the suspicions might be warranted.
It's Wednesday, April 14, 1943, a spring evening in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp north of Berlin. A man jumps from a window in Barrack 3 at Special Camp A.
The man is wearing high boots and soldiers' trousers, and his black hair is uncovered. "Corporal, corporal," he shouts at SS Rottenführer Konrad Hafrich. "Shoot me!"
Hafrich shouts that he should return to the barrack, but the man keeps going. "Don't be a coward," the prisoner yells, as he walks toward the electric fence. "When he grabbed the wire," Hafrich said, "I shot him, as ordered."
It is shortly after 9 p.m. The man at the fence is dead. His body stiffened as he was jumping. The left leg is almost horizontal in the trip wire, and the right leg is bent. The body is left in this position for a considerable amount of time. It's a sensitive case for camp commandant Anton Kaindl, who has notified the Reich Security Main Office in Berlin. When an SS officer and two professors arrive the next day, the dead man is photographed, lifted out of the barbed wire and taken to the camp crematorium.
The coroners examine the body. In their report, they write that a bullet entered the head four centimeters behind the right ear and shattered the skull. But according to their assessment, the victim had already died after being electrocuted by the high-voltage fence. The body is cremated on the spot, and the urn is sent to the Reich Security Main Office along with the investigative report and the death certificate.
Eight days later, Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop receives a matter of "secret Reich business" from SS chief Heinrich Himmler. It reads: "Dear Ribbentrop, please find enclosed a report on the fact that prisoner of war Yakov Dzhugashvili, son of Stalin, was shot to death during an attempted escape at Special Camp A in Sachsenhausen, near Oranienburg."
Prisoner or Traitor?
For decades after the war ended, it remained unclear exactly how Dzhugashvili, the eldest son of Soviet dictator Joseph Dzhugashvili, better known as Stalin, had died. Dzhugashvili, a lieutenant in the Red Army, had fallen into German hands in the summer of 1941, but his father had vehemently refused to include him in any prisoner exchanges.
It was only in 1968 that documents turned up at the State Department in Washington that made it possible to reconstruct the prisoner's last few years. They indicate that Stalin's son succumbed to a prison psychosis and conclude that his death was tantamount to a suicide.
But another question has remained unanswered: Did the Germans truly capture Stalin's son during combat in 1941, or did he surrender? Did this officer in the Red Army, of all people, desert to the Germans shortly after the war had begun? And did his father know it and consequently refuse to lift a finger for his son?
Starting in 1940, the military oath of the Red Army read: "Surrendering to the enemy is treason." It was a sentence that sealed the fate of tens of thousands of Soviet citizens. Many who returned safely from German war captivity at the end of the war were executed at home or sent to prison camps for 25 years.
But Russians were not told that Stalin's own son had been in German captivity since one month after the war began. This meant that Yakov Dzhugashvili himself was considered a traitor to his country.
Was he? Even after Stalin's death, there was no mention of his son anywhere. His fate only became an issue when party leader Mikhail Gorbachev had the Moscow archives opened to the public during the perestroika era, although many documents still remained secret.
Dad, the Dictator
To this day, they are still kept at the central archive of the Russian Defense Ministry in Podolsk, south of Moscow. SPIEGEL was recently given access to the Stalin file. A 389-page document tells the story of a young man whose life was spent in the shadow of his overpowering father and ended after only 35 years. They also provide, 70 years after the Battle of Stalingrad, unexpected insights into the family life of a dictator.
Unlike his half-siblings Vasily and Svetlana, Yakov, nicknamed Yasha, born in 1908, was the product of Stalin's first marriage with a Georgian seamstress. The boy grew up essentially without parents. His mother died of typhus when he was eight months old, and Stalin paid hardly any attention to him. Dzhugashvili was entirely correct when he told authorities that his father was a "professional revolutionary."
Yakov was unable to cope with the pressure from his powerful and inconsiderate father. But he was popular among the girls. When he finished high school in 1925, he moved in with Zoya Gunina, a 16-year-old classmate and daughter of an Orthodox priest.
When Stalin found out, he turned it into such a scandal that his 18-year-old son grabbed a pistol in the kitchen of his Kremlin apartment one night and tried to shoot himself in the heart. But the bullet missed his heart, and after spending three months in the hospital, Yakov fled to Leningrad, where he stayed with relatives of his stepmother. But he married Soya.
In April 1928, Stalin wrote to his wife: "Tell Yasha that I think he behaved like a thug and an extortionist, someone with whom I no longer have anything in common and with whom I no longer want a relationship. Let him live where and with whom he wants. J. Stalin."
Although the connection was not actually severed, Stalin was displeased by his son's behavior. Yakov was soon living with another woman, and the couple had a child together.
After finishing school, Yakov attended the workers' faculty, a preparatory institute for the university, and at 23 he enrolled in the Dzerzhinsky Transport Institute. He completed his degree in 1935 and then spent a year working as an engineer in an auto factory in Moscow named after his father before joining the artillery academy of the Red Army.
Becoming an Officer
"I don't know why Yasha became a career officer," his half-sister Svetlana later wrote. "He was a deeply peaceful person -- soft, a little clumsy, very quiet, but inwardly solid and committed. He had nothing in common with his father except the almond-shaped Caucasian eyes. He had no brilliant abilities whatsoever. He was modest, simple and hard-working."
Yakov wasn't like his father, and he desperately tried to escape his influence. He wanted to emerge from the shadow of the forbidding family name and be a patriot, as others did, when it came to the fate of the fatherland. He rejected all offers to give him a special position.
He volunteered for the army in 1937, a choice that was also a way of fleeing from his father. In 1938, he finally married ballerina Yulia Meltzer, a Jew from Odessa. Yakov had met her in a restaurant, and their daughter, Galina, was born the same year. Stalin was also unable to warm to this daughter-in-law. Yakov became a lieutenant in 1940, and the next year, on May 6, 1941, he received a diploma from the artillery academy. He assumed his first official position three days later, as a commander in the 14th Howitzer Regiment of the 14th Tank Division.
The photo in his file shows him wearing the Red Army uniform, with collar patches but no epaulets, as well as a leather strap pulled across his chest and shoulder. His mouth and eyes look soft, and his black hair is combed back. The photo was taken only six weeks before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.
The war took him by surprise during firing practice near Naro-Fominsk, a town 70 kilometers (44 miles) west of Moscow. His regiment was mobilized and began marching westward in the direction of Minsk, and toward the enemy. He was unable to see his father before he left, but he did telephone him. "Go and fight," Stalin told his son.
Fighting the German Invasion
But what did fighting mean in June 1941? The army was in chaos, and Soviet soldiers were being sent to the front unprepared. In the first three weeks, 1.3 million Red Army soldiers were killed or captured.
Yakov's division was also marching to its doom, and its path can be reconstructed with the help of the files. The political officers' daily reports to the army leadership are full of propaganda messages, and yet they also contain hints of uncertainty and despair.
June 28: The soldiers and commanders are burning to plunge into battle with the fascist cutthroats However, there are also negative moods: They say the Germans are very experienced, and that it's difficult to fight them Some 300 men are missing in the mid-level leadership section of the division, 800 noncommissioned officers are missing, 35 percent of the planned trucks are missing, only 24 percent of all tanker trucks are here, and only 53 percent of armored vehicles.
The Russians launched a counteroffensive at 4 a.m. on July 7, but the Germans destroyed half of their tanks, and 200 soldiers died in the flames. Yakov's battery fired at the Germans from a knoll near the edge of the forest, but it soon fell silent as well. In the evening, regiment commander Abalashov was reported missing.
Four days after surviving the firestorm, Yakov and what was left of his unit turned up again. In a note to the division chief, written in pencil, his commanding officer said that Dzhugashvili was "especially brave," recommending him and 50 other men in the division for a medal.
When the Germans captured Vitebsk, in modern-day Belarus, on July 9, the Soviet army corps began to retreat. Yakov and his unit were given the task of covering the withdrawal.
The morning of July 14 must have been pure hell for Yakov and his men. The Germans were attacking the town of Yartsevo with 30 aircraft. Russian tanks were exploding, and so were the tanker trucks behind them.
Yakov Dzhugashvili, Stalin's son, had also disappeared.
- Part 1: Files Shed Light on Fate of Stalin's Son
- Part 2: Disappearance and Capture
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