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Helmuth von Pannwitz
Helmuth von Pannwitz in 1941
Born (1898-10-14)14 October 1898
Died 16 January 1947(1947-01-16) (aged 48)
Place of birth Botzanowitz, Kingdom of Prussia
Place of death Moscow, Soviet Union
Allegiance Germany
Years of service 1914–1945
Rank Lieutenant General/Feldataman
Commands held XVth Cossack Cavalry Corps
Battles/wars World War I
World War II
Awards Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves
Iron Cross 2nd and 1st Class

Helmuth von Pannwitz (14 October 1898 – 16 January 1947) was a German general who distinguished himself as a cavalry officer during the First and the Second World Wars. Later he became Lieutenant General of the Wehrmacht and Supreme Ataman of the XV. Kosaken-Kavallerie-Korps. He was executed in Moscow for war crimes in 1947 of which he has been rehabilitated by the military prosecutor in Moscow in April 1996 almost fifty years after his violent death. The revocation of the Red kangaroo court's conviction of Pannwitz was itself overturned in June 2001.

Early life

Pannwitz was born into a family of Prussian nobility on his father's estate Botzanowitz (today Bodzanowice), Silesia, near Rosenberg (today Olesno), now part of Poland but directly on the German-Russian border of that time. His family was original of the Lusatia. Members of his family came to the village of Pannwitz in the 14th century. From the 14th to 16th century the family held the office of Burggraf of Glatz.

Aged 12, he entered a German cadet school in Wahlstatt, near Liegnitz in Silesia, and later the cadet school at Berlin-Lichterfelde. Even before outbreak of World War I he was attracted by exhibitions of Cossack units that were organized in the neighboring towns of the Russian Empire.

As an officer cadet, Pannwitz upon the outbreak of the First World War joined the Imperial German Army as a volunteer (1st Regiment of Lancers, based at Militsch), in the course of which he was at the age of sixteen promoted to the rank of Lieutenant and decorated with the Second Class of the Iron Cross in the same year (and, a year later, the First Class) for bravery in action. Immediately after the war he fought in the ranks of the Volunteer Corps (Freikorps) against Communism in Germany. After spending a year in Hungary, Pannwitz went to Poland in 1926, where he lived and worked as an administrator of farms, at the last in charge of the estates of Princess Radziwill in Mlochow, near Warsaw. In 1934 he was recalled to the German Army as a cavalry squadron commander in the 2nd Cavalry Regiment in East Prussia. In 1938, when Austria became part of Germany, he was transferred to Austria and became detachment commander with the 11th Cavalry Regiment at Stockerau near Vienna. World War II found him as the commander of a reconnaissance detachment in Poland and France.[1]

World War II

On active service again in World War II, Pannwitz was awarded "bars" to his previous decorations and in August, 1941, was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. He received the Oakleaves as a Colonel a year later, when he was in command of a battle group designed to cover the southern flank in the battle of Stalingrad, where he wiped out a Soviet cavalry brigade, a Soviet cavalry division, and an enemy infantry division.

Pannwitz was instrumental in establishing a Cossack volunteer force, the 1st Cossack Division, which was formed on 21 April 1943. The division fought battles against partisans in Ukraine and Belorussia, and was then moved to fight against partisans commanded by Tito in Yugoslavia. During punitive operations in Serbia and Croatia, the Cossack regiments under Pannwitz's command committed a number of atrocities against the civilian population,[citation needed] including several mass rapes and routine summary executions.[citation needed] An order of General von Pannwitz dated October 20, 1943, made absolutely clear to all under his command that any crime of that kind would result in the death penalty.[2]

At the award ceremony in Berlin when Pannwitz received the "Oak Leaves" for his Knight's Cross on January 15, 1943, he told Hitler that the official Nazi policies which caused Slavs to be regarded as subhumans (Untermenschen) were totally wrong.[3] The Cossack Division became the XV Kosaken-Kavallerie-Korps within the German Wehrmacht in February 1945.

Because of the respect and understanding he always showed for his troops and his tendency to attend Russian Orthodox services with them, Pannwitz was very popular with his Cossack volunteers. Before the end of the war, he was elected Feldataman, the highest rank in the Cossack hierarchy and one that was traditionally reserved for the Tsar alone.[4]

From February, 1945, the Corps was placed under Waffen-SS administration for replacements and supplies, but without making the Cossack units a part of the Waffen-SS.[5][6]


Pannwitz surrendered on May 11, 1945, to British forces near Völkermarkt in Carinthia, Austria, and made every effort to ensure that his men would remain in the custody of the Western powers. But by mid-May it was obvious that the Cossacks would be handed over to their deadly enemies, the SMERSH, an action often referred to as The Betrayal of Cossacks. The same fate overtook the members of the Kazachi Stan at Lienz, another 30,000 old folk, women, and children. All were executed, were sent to GULAG prison camps, or committed suicide to avoid being repatriated.[citation needed]

Pannwitz was a German national, and under the provision of the Geneva Convention not subject to repatriation to the SMERSH. But on May 26, he was deprived of his command and placed under arrest while the forceable loading of the Cossacks into trucks began and continued through the following days. Although many escaped from their camps following these actions, General von Pannwitz and many of his German officer cadre did not want to leave their men alone and shared the uncertain fate of the Cossacks who had been comrades in combat for more than two years, so these Germans surrendered with the Cossacks to the NKVD at Judenburg.


Pannwitz was executed in Moscow on January 16, 1947, having been convicted by a Soviet court of war crimes in Yugoslavia.


Almost fifty years later, on April 23, 1996, during the Russian presidency of Boris Yeltsin, members of the Pannwitz family petitioned for a posthumous verdict of acquittal of the 1946 conviction. The Military High Prosecutor in Moscow subsequently determined that Von Pannwitz was eligible for rehabilitation as a victim of Stalin-era repression. On June 28, 2001, however, rehabilitation was reversed in a ruling that disputed jurisdiction of the 1996 proceedings, and Von Pannwitz's conviction for military crimes was maintained.

Awards and decorations

See also


  1. Kosaken und Wehrmacht, Werner Krause, ISBN 3-7020-1015-7
  2. War diary 1st Cossack Division, National Archives Microcopy No T-315, Roll 2281, Washington 1965
  3. Cossacks in the German Wehrmacht, Samuel J. Newland, p.108,ISBN 0-7146-3351-8
  4. Cossacks in the German Wehrmacht, Samuel J. Newland, p.164,ISBN 0-7146-3351-8
  5. Cossacks in the German Wehrmacht, Samuel J. Newland, p.145,ISBN 0-7146-3351-8
  6. Rolf Michaelis: Die Waffen-SS. Mythos und Wirklichkeit. Michaelis-Verlag, Berlin 2001, p. 36

Further reading

  • Cossacks in the German Army, Samuel J. Newland, U.S. Army College, 1991 Frank Cass & Co.Ltd. London, ISBN 0-7146-3351-8.
  • Die Verratenen von Yalta, Nikolai Tolstoi, 1977 Langen Müller, ISBN 3-7844-1719-1.
  • Erich Kern: General von Pannwitz und seine Kosaken, 1971 Verlag K.W. Schütz;
  • The Minister and the Massacres, Nikolai Tolstoy, 1986 Century Hutchinson Ltd. London, ISBN 0-09-164010-5.
  • The cost of a reputation, Ian Mitchel, 1997 Topical Books Lagavulin, ISBN 0-9531581-0-1.
  • Die Illusion, Jürgen Thorwald, 1974 Droemer Knaur Verlag, ISBN 3-85886-029-8

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