Minor yet significant events are easily swallowed up in the digestive tract of history. Personal tragedies get buried under the steamroller of power politics.
Over 60 years ago, in 1948, I was drafted into national service in the British army. After training in Northern Ireland (in the company of IRA sympathisers on the run from the Irish Republic police), I was transferred to the British Zone of the Allied Forces in Austria, where I served in the Field Security Services of the Intelligence Corps. My job – this was 1948 – was to hunt for hidden Nazis.
Within months of my arrival, my orders were countermanded. Prompted in part by the rupture between Tito’s Yugoslavia and the Soviet Bloc, the ‘enemy’ was now not residual Nazism but Communism. Among other assignments, we were told to shadow Soviet mission vehicles whenever they moved through our geographical remit of Carinthia, including the Grossglockner mountain (3,800 metres of it), and the province of East Tyrol.
Only three years earlier, in 1945, Lienz had seen the forced repatriation to the USSR of Cossacks, the frontiersmen of the old Russian empire. Enemies of ‘the Reds’ from the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, they had thrown their lot in with the Germans in WWII. So, as the Soviets advanced westwards, the Cossacks backed into Austria and ended up in the Drau Valley section of the British Zone, many of them in or near Lienz where I was stationed.
By May 1945 there were already 2,500 Cossack soldiers and their families living in the Peggetz displaced persons camp in Lienz. As described on the website http://www.cossacks-lienz.net/lastride.html, “Brigadier Patrick Scott, 38th Irish Brigade, reassured the Cossacks that they would not be handed over to the Soviets. However, they did not realise the British were only trying to buy time while waiting for specific orders on how to deal with the Cossack army. Unknown to the Cossacks, their fate had already been predestined by the Yalta pact under the code name Operation Keelhaul” (a tasteless label for a cynical piece of horsedealing).
According to the same website: “On May 26, official talks began between the British and the Cossacks. The very same day, the British confiscated the Cossack Field Bank, estimated value at the time six million British Pounds. This was an illegitimate act, since the bank was composed mostly of private funds.”
That was only the beginning. On May 28, the British Lieutenant-General Sir Alexander Galloway invited about two hundred disarmed Cossack officers to a conference in the nearby town of Spittal. Twenty minutes after leaving Lienz, a British armoured escort joined the convoy and conducted them to a military camp, where their personal documents were confiscated. The following day, they were driven further eastwards. “In three days, a total of one thousand, six hundred and eighty-three officers were evacuated and handed over to the Soviets. A few days later in a nearby mine, hundreds of them were executed.”
The rest of the Cossacks, many of them herded into the Peggetz camp in Lienz, were joined by other refugees fleeing from the Soviets. Colonel Malcolm, commander of the British Lienz garrison, had orders to evacuate all Soviet citizens to the east, where they would be handed over to the Soviet military. “On May 30, 1945, the first contingent of Cossacks camped in nearby Lavant were evacuated and handed over to the Soviets in Judenburg.” Alarmed by these developments, the Cossacks in Peggetz decided the next day “to hold a Liturgy and create a shield of peaceful human defiance.
“A congregation of five thousand, three hundred and seventeen individuals had assembled. Men and cadets stood on the outer perimeter, circling themselves around the praying women, children, elderly and teenagers to form a passive, defensive human barrier.” To counter this resistance a British officer, a Major Davis, ordered his troops to evacuate the camp by force.
According to the website, “the Cossacks, men, women and children of all ages were beaten with riot batons and rifle butts. They were shot at and run over with vehicles. The wounded were slung like a sack of potatoes into the back of the waiting trucks. In the resulting mass panic, women and children were trampled to death. Some Cossacks chose to commit suicide before they would accept deportation to the Soviet Union; women jumped into the torrential river Drau still holding their children. Some even succeeded in escaping. When this mass evacuation procedure was complete, four thousand, four hundred and twenty-five victims had been transported to Judenburg. A sorrowful cloud hung over the Peggetz undertaking. Operation Keelhaul had claimed its first victims.”
All this happened only three years before I found myself in Lienz hunting for Nazis and Communists in quick succession, while at the same liaising with the regional administration and other bodies. And yet I returned to civilian life blissfully unaware of this tragedy. So much for being a member of the Intelligence Corps! Maybe, however, I could declare myself a victim of a conspiracy of silence mounted by my British predecessors and compounded by the indifference of the authorities and the good people of Lienz.
The local community, and the world, preferred to forget.