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FEATURE - Historians end Cold War myth of '53 Soviet executions
By Erik Kirschbaum and Robert Eksuyzan

BERLIN/MOSCOW, June 13 (Reuters) - It was one of the more compelling stories of the Cold War, an act of heroic defiance by Soviet soldiers who were later executed for refusing to shoot civilians during the 1953 uprising in East Berlin.

But like many of the other shadowy tales to emerge from Cold War Berlin, the executions turn out to be a myth.

German and Soviet historians and government researchers have said there is no evidence to support the popular account spread through the west and included in western history books that between 18 and 41 Soviet soldiers were summarily executed for disobeying orders to shoot unarmed East Berlin demonstrators.

Next week, Germany marks the 50th anniversary of the June 17, 1953 uprising, the first of a series of popular protests crushed by the communist East German government with help from Soviet forces which occupied the country. Subsequent uprisings were put down in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in 1980.

With the help of archives opened since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, German and Russian historians have determined -- just in time for the latest anniversary -- that there is no truth in reports that Soviet soldiers defied their superiors and paid with their lives before a firing squad.

"I have worked together with other archivists and no one has found any substantiation of reports that Soviet soldiers disobeyed orders to open fire on East German demonstrators and were later killed by a firing squad," Mikhail Lyoshin, of the Institute of Military History in Moscow, told Reuters.

"We have checked further to establish whether there were any such victims by trying to contact relatives (of soldiers said to have been shot)," added Lyoshin. "But we found no evidence of any disobedience of orders or executions as punishment."


There are monuments in west Berlin honouring the Red Army soldiers for what generations of West Germans saw as a stirring glimmer of hope for humanity despite the bloody clampdown.

It began when East Berlin workers protested at Communist demands to raise production quotas and developed into a general strike with workers demanding free elections. Prisons and police stations were stormed. Pictures of East Germans throwing rocks at tanks went around the world. The uprising ended in a crackdown on June 17 and about 100 demonstrators were killed.

"Dedicated to the Russian officers and soldiers who had to die because they refused to shoot the freedom fighters on June 17," reads one memorial still standing in western Berlin.

West German political leaders paid moving tributes to the mythical Soviet martyrs in Cold war speeches, especially on the sombre anniversary of June 17 -- a public holiday until 1990. The story also circulated in communist East Germany.

Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk, a researcher at the German government's office for East German security agency files who has spent years looking through Berlin and Moscow archives for evidence of the executions, said the search was futile.

"There's just no proof," said Kowalczuk, who has written a book on June 17 and finds the story of the executions improbable at best. "There are indications that not a single Soviet soldier was shot to death because of June 17, 1953."

He said some letters home from Soviet soldiers stationed in East Germany at the time referred to executions.

"But not a single one wrote that he had actually seen anything himself," Kowalczuk said.


The Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel reported recently that the lone source of the story appears to have been a flyer from an anti-Soviet resistance group in East Germany known as NTS. The flyer said that on June 28, 1953, 18 soldiers from the Soviet Union's 73rd regiment were executed near Magdeburg for refusing to obey orders. Other accounts later spoke of up to 41 soldiers executed.

Germany's leading weekly news magazine Der Spiegel concluded, based on its own research, that it was a superbly crafted Cold War myth, probably spread if not created with backing from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The flyer was backed by an "eyewitness" account from a Soviet deserter, Major Leonid Ronshin from the Ukraine.

"The alleged disobedience of the Soviet soldiers fit perfectly to the image of the anti-communists who were cooperating closely with the CIA," wrote Der Spiegel.

But the magazine said the story has major flaws -- Ronshin, who was believed to be working with the NTS before deserting, had left East Germany in April and could not have witnessed the executions.

And the 73rd regiment was no longer in East Germany.

Historian Matthias Uhl told Der Spiegel his research found it was disbanded in 1946. Three Soviet soldiers were listed who were supposedly executed -- there are no traces in official files anywhere of those named.

"Our soldiers behaved disciplined during the entire period of the events," wrote Red Army Colonel Ivan Fadeykin in a cable to Moscow two days after the uprising was crushed, casting further doubts on any executions for disobedience.

"They were heroes of the Cold War, tragic victims in the fight against evil," wrote Der Spiegel author Klaus Wiegrefe. "Soviet soldiers were honoured because they wouldn't shoot at German demonstrators -- now it appears that was pure fiction."

(Additional reporting by the Editorial Reference Unit in London)

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