More than 6,000 collaboration cases have already been filed in Ukraine — but how does the law distinguish between wilful collaboration and simply trying to survive? And what should happen to the guilty?
KYIV — After the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, many more Ukrainians have been forced to survive under occupation. That means the question of collaboration with the Russian occupiers, and how to determine responsibility for it, is a pressing issue.
The term "collaboration" appeared in Ukrainian legislation only in March 2022, but it has a far longer history. Collaboration was first used to describe the cooperation of local residents with occupying German authorities in France and Belgium during World War I. At the time, it did not yet have a sharply negative connotation.
The more widespread use of "collaboration" appeared during World War II, when it became the official name for cooperation between Germany and France's Vichy government.
A bit of history
Hundreds of thousands of cases of collaboration were considered in different states after World War II. These states were both guided by their own interests and forced to respond to the pressure of the winners.
In particular, the peace agreement between Italy and the Allies required the adoption of "all necessary measures" for the detention and trial of those suspected of war crimes, as well as citizens of the Allied States accused of treason or cooperation (collaboration) with the enemy during the war. Moreover, the boundaries of "collaboration," as considered by the courts, were not defined.
In Europe — Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and France — about 170,000 collaborators were imprisoned. Eleven thousand were sentenced to death, and of them, 2,500 were eventually executed. In Norway alone, 90,000 cases of treason were considered, which was about 4% of the population.
In the Soviet Union, there were many more cases involving citizens who collaborated than there were German war criminals. Most “traitors to the Motherland and accomplices” were arrested in western Ukraine. The reason: the Soviet government wanted to restore its influence on territories that had been under German occupation. And in territories that became part of the USSR only in 1939 after the German attack on Poland, this was more difficult to achieve.
A similar situation played out in most Asian countries, where cases against local collaborators were opened quickly and more actively than against Japanese war criminals. In the two years after the end of World War II, there were more than 25,000 cases of collaborators charged in China.
The exception was South Korea. The American government, which at the time controlled South Korea, did not support the law of 1947 which criminalized “anti-national behaviour." After all, most of the qualified personnel in high positions who ruled the state, one way or another, had collaborated with Japanese occupation authorities.
It wasn't until 1948, after the end of U.S. military rule, that the Korean government passed a law and set up a Special Investigation Committee to look into the cases of those who supported the occupiers. In total, they found 293 collaborators.
What was considered "collaboration?"
But the elite and police continued to hinder the activities of the Committee, because the people in charge were the very same who had collaborated with the occupation authorities. As a result, the special tribunal delivered sentences in just 78 of the 293 cases.
When the Committee was dissolved in 1949, the Korean Supreme Court, under political pressure, suspended the sentences.
The next attempt came over 40 years later. Researchers used media and archives to collect information about those who collaborated with the occupation government of Japan, and in 2008 a list of 4,776 people was released, called the Encyclopedia of Collaborators.
Based on this work, Korea passed a law in 2004 to investigate anti-national behaviour during the reign of the Japanese Empire.
Free Corps Denmark leaving for the East Front from Hellerup Station, 1941
What is collaboration?
The issue of responsibility for collaboration, then, has always had a political connotation.
This led to selectivity and hasty prosecutions, or, on the contrary, unjustified delays in justice. In addition, it further split society and distorted historical memory. After all, what was considered "collaboration?"
Throughout history, it has been very difficult to clearly distinguish actions taken to survive the occupation from real cooperation with the enemy.
"Collaboration" included both service in the occupying army and, for example, economic cooperation with the enemy or membership in cultural or social organizations that collaborated with the enemy.
In Eastern Europe and the USSR, collaboration had a very broad meaning. Both those who actively served in the enemy army and prisoners of war, who were considered traitors because they were captured, found themselves wanted. Civilians who were simply unlucky enough to find themselves in territory under German occupation were also considered traitors.
In 1943, the Supreme Court of the USSR clarified what actions of citizens could be considered cooperation with the occupiers. In particular, it was assumed that those who collaborated with the enemy, but supported Soviet partisans or engaged in sabotage of the occupiers, would be spared a trial. Employees in low administrative positions, as specialists who simply did their jobs, were not charged if they did not commit other crimes.
When there is no clear definition of the crime, it's difficult to talk about a fair punishment.
In France, when considering the cases of collaborators from among the members of the Vichy government, the main indicator of high treason was not so much the intention as the impact of the collaborator's actions on state interests.
Several major groups of people were accused of treason in France. The first was mainly media representatives, who, in print publications or broadcasts, expressed support for Germany, the Vichy government or opposed the Allies.
The second was those who gave up resistance forces to the German authorities or the Vichy government, or who committed serious crimes against members of the resistance forces, were responsible for their arrests or contributed to their deportation to Germany.
That is, there was a clear line between those who collaborated with German authorities and those who also committed other serious crimes. Few amnesties were granted for the latter.
In the Philippines, the following distinction was used: those who had traded with the enemy or collaborated in administration were granted amnesty. After all, it was these groups that were forced to agree to such cooperation in order to help the local population survive the occupation and reduce the influence of the Japanese occupation administration on it.
How "collaboration" was punished
Obviously, when there is no clear definition of the crime of "collaboration," it is difficult to talk about a fair punishment.
The greatest "boom" of collaboration cases came in the first post-war years, when society sought harsher punishments. The states used these cases for preventive purposes , to intimidate the public and prevent any cooperation with the "enemy" in the future.
In later years, the focus shifted to more practical considerations: prison overcrowding and costly maintenance of prisoners, as well as the capacity of the judicial system to withstand such a load and the efficiency of such work, labor shortages and the prospects for the restoration of society and the reintegration of convicts.
In Belgium in 1945, 50,000 people awaited trial in prisons designed for 5,000. A flood of new cases overloaded judicial systems, forcing states to create additional mechanisms, including military and special courts, and to look for other solutions.
Some came up with an alternative to court. In post-war France, thousands of police officers, judges and civil servants were fired from their posts. This administrative procedure provided for punishment in the form of a reprimand, dismissal, dismissal with deprivation of a pension, or sending the case to court.
Other countries had similar procedures. In the Netherlands, mayors and police officers were fired, while other people were deprived of citizenship and property for “joining the military service of a foreign state.”
In later years, as the focus began to shift to rebuilding the state, pardons, amnesties, and commutation mechanisms were introduced.
More than 6,000 cases
In Ukraine, there is also no clear distinction between different forms of cooperation with the enemy: several articles in legislation refer to the same action, but penalties are different.
More than 6,000 criminal cases of collaboration have already been opened in Ukraine. This number does not include cases of treason, aiding the aggressor state etc.
At the same time, Ukrainian police and judges are faced with the task of working through more than 100,000 cases of war crimes — the investigation of which requires significant resources, due to the high standards and difficulty of proving guilt.
There are hundreds of cases of reposts on social networks
At the same time, 324 out of 607 convictions for collaboration concern a public objection or public calls for support for the decisions or actions of the aggressor state. These include hundreds of cases of reposts on the Odnoklassniki social networking platform, as well as statements made on the streets.
All of these cases consume judicial and law enforcement resources, which are already overloaded. In the future, budget funds will also be spent to keep people in prison. To reduce the burden and effectively handle these cases, it is necessary to improve the legislation, so that the state has enough strength to punish the guilty, and not ordinary citizens who simply survived the occupation.
*Viktor Kevlyuk, a Colonel and Reserve of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, works for the Centre for Defence Strategies (CDS), a Ukrainian security think tank.