Certainly, World War II history enthusiasts may know that the transfer to the United States of German scientists specialized in cutting-edge weapons at the end of the conflict was called Operation Paperclip. What is not as well-known is that the Soviets carried out a similar action, adding more than two and a half thousand specialists who were forced to travel to the Soviet Union and work for it for a decade. This was known in Russian as Operazija Ossoaviachim, or Operation Osoaviakhim.

OSOAVIAKHIM is not a word in the dictionary but an acronym. Translated, its initials correspond to the Union of Societies for Assistance to Defense and Aviation-Chemical Construction of the USSR, a paramilitary organization founded in 1927 with the aim of preparing the population for the defense of the homeland. Its mission was to form a reserve for the armed forces, providing military training (weapons, tactics, topography, parachuting, communications, etc.) through a series of courses.

OSOAVIAKHIM was inspired by voluntary groups that had emerged in the twenties, during the civil war, and allowed citizens to join from the age of fourteen. By 1941 (when the Soviet Union entered World War II), it had thirteen million members distributed among almost seven thousand groups, each with its corresponding leadership. It had abundant equipment (gliders, radio towers, shooting ranges, parachute schools, cavalry, etc.).

In 1946, at the end of the conflict, some of its activities were reconverted, giving rise to a sports shooting club, an aeroclub, a radio amateur club, several motorcycle clubs, etc. Two years later, the organization split into three (one for each branch: land, sea, and air), and in 1951, it reunified, changing its name to DOSAAF, acronym for “Voluntary Society for Assistance to the Army, Air Force, and Navy”. After the dissolution of the USSR, it maintained that name adapted to each republic, but in Russia in 1991, it was renamed ROSTO, “Sport Technical Organization of the Defense of Russia”, to revert to the DOSAAF name in 2009.

What interests us here is the period between 1946 and 1958. In May of the first date, the newly created Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD, the new name assigned to the former NKVD or People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs of the Soviet Union) issued a resolution to achieve the “transfer of construction offices and two thousand German specialists” by the end of the year. What did that have to do with OSOAVIAKHIM? In reality, nothing; it was simply a naming error issued by a German broadcaster that the Central Intelligence Group (CIG) and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessors of the CIA, accepted (and, incidentally, served to mislead Soviet spies).

Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill had agreed at the Yalta Conference that Germany should pay about twenty million dollars in war reparations. However, given the chaos in the German economy at that time, with its fields devastated and its industries destroyed, it was proposed that at least part of it could be paid in kind, delivering goods and labor. This implicitly included the use of the work of scientists and intellectuals, who would be distributed among the powers, with the USSR getting fifty percent.

The fall of the Nazi regime and the end of hostilities marked the start of a frantic race to secure the services of the best, especially the engineers, physicists, and chemists who had developed the so-called wonder weapons of the Third Reich (jet fighters, delta-winged aircraft, V-1 and V-2 rockets) and worked on the failed plan for an atomic bomb. The groups responsible for hiring or capturing these scientists were called Trophy Commissions, and sometimes they abducted them outright and put them to work in secret locations, as happened with a dozen scientists who were interned in Farm Hall (Cambridge, England) through Operation Epsilon.

As is known, Germany was divided into two sectors. In the one controlled by the USSR, a series of institutions were founded (Nordhausen Institute, Berlin Institute) to take over the unfinished work of German brains, with special attention to rocket-related projects; up to six thousand local workers had to work in a Nordhausen factory under the direction of engineer Helmut Gröttrup, who had collaborated with Werner von Braun in the V-2 program at Peenemünde. However, the agreements reached at the Potsdam Conference banned the study and manufacture of weapons in Germany, so it was necessary to move production elsewhere.

This, of course, included the scientists. In the spring of 1945, even before the war had ended, the Soviets managed to gather a hundred of them, including some as illustrious as Gustav Hertz, Manfred von Ardenne, Peter Adolf Thiessen, and Nikolaus Riehl, all related to atomic research, to cooperate in the development of a bomb. They were pressured, though not forced, as happened to others who first passed through the Moscow prison of Butyrka and later through GULAG laboratories known as Sharashka, which had various locations. This was the case of Ferdinand Branner, a designer of Junkers engines.

However, for the time being, technicians from other research areas (for example, rockets, gyroscopes, jet engines, general electronics, chemical weapons, and color video) could work on German soil, in the so-called OKVs (experimental design offices), which originated from large German companies with thousands of employees (Carl-Zeiss, Junkers, Jenaer Glaswerk Schott & Gen) and evolved into SAGs (Soviet joint-stock companies). The problem was twofold: on the one hand, there was the Allied prohibition on manufacturing weapons in Germany; on the other, the reluctance of many leaders to move these factories to the USSR due to the competition they would pose to the national industry. Stalin personally made the final decision in favor.

The following year, in April, Mikhail Khrunichev, Minister of Aeronautical Industry, signed a secret order on the relocation of the German aeronautical and engine industry, which was reflected in the aforementioned decree of May 13, 1946. Ivan Serov, an artillery officer who had been commissar of the NKVD (where he served as lieutenant to Lavrenti Beria) and later became the first president of the KGB, was appointed to lead the mission. Among other merits, Serov’s resume included massive deportations of Tatars and Chechens, so relocating a few thousand eminent Germans would not be difficult for him.

In this way, once designed, on October 22 of that same year, Operation Osoaviakhim effectively began; a date probably chosen intentionally because the day before, elections had been held in Berlin. According to testimonies, first, ninety-two freight trains were prepared to transport seized material, telephone lines were temporarily cut, and public transportation was suspended. Then, that night, specially assigned agents proceeded to arrest the scientists chosen by the various interested ministries, whose homes had been previously located; apparently, they didn’t even need to break down doors because they had keys.

Including their families, who generally went with them, the total number was around six thousand five hundred people: almost fourteen hundred worked in the aviation sector (aircraft, rockets), over five hundred in armaments (liquid fuel rockets), three hundred and fifty in communications (radars, telemetry), one hundred and seven in light industry, eighty-one in chemistry, sixty-two in naval (navigation systems and gyroscopes), just under thirty in agriculture (rocket engines), fourteen in the audiovisual industry, and three in the oil sector.

Despite the secrecy surrounding the operation, simultaneous actions in several cities (East Berlin, Halle, Leipzig, Dresden, Dessau, Jena, Rostock, Brandenburg, and Potsdam) made it impossible to keep it hidden, and protests began to emerge: the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the Kommandatura (the government of the city of Berlin imposed by the victorious powers), and even the Free German Trade Union Federation (FDGB), quickly silenced. The Allied Control Council convened a meeting to address the issue but had to postpone it because the Soviets claimed that the displaced individuals had moved voluntarily.

This was something they always insisted on, despite it being inaccurate or false, using as a reference what the British and Americans had done before. The truth is that those scientists and technicians were relocated forcibly, but they had contracts and were paid a salary, which was also higher than that of their Soviet counterparts. In return, they could not disclose the nature of their work outside of it or correspond about it (in practice, some managed to bypass censorship), and several dozen were forcibly taken due to their resolute refusal, becoming the inmates of the Sharashka under surveillance.

However, their stay in the Soviet Union was not intended to be permanent, and gradually they were allowed to return to their country between 1950 and 1958, with the majority leaving in 1954, after Stalin’s death; that is, the average stay was five years. Some of them were rewarded with university chairs in the newly formed German Democratic Republic (GDR) and positions in factories -not always at their level because the industry there was quite incipient-, and their families received a house to live in and various perks; a minority managed to move to Western countries, such as the mentioned Gröttup (who created the integrated circuit card in 1967), Kurt Magnus (a pioneer in mechatronics, promoter of modern navigation through gyroscopes), and Fritz Karl Preichskat (inventor of a teletype with a matrix printer).

It is impossible to list here the names of all the scientists and technicians who were “relocated” to the USSR during those five years, but their work can be evaluated succinctly, and therefore, the result of Operation Osoaviakhim can be established. It can be said without a doubt that Soviet scientists benefited from that import of talent, even though the authorities never acknowledged the merit of the Germans, focusing praise on their own to avoid responsibility for the controversial deportation and to exalt national science.

Special emphasis was placed on aviation, rocketry, weapons, and optics, fields in which the Germans made significant contributions, some during that time and others later, when they had already returned to Germany or moved to another country. For example, former Nazi Brunolf Baade led the development of the aircraft industry in the GDR, including the manufacturing of the first passenger jet, the Baade 152.

In the same vein, Siegfred Günter is considered the father of turbojet engines, while former SS Colonel Ferdinand Brandner developed the engine used by the Tupolev Tu-95 bombers. Likewise, Helmut Gröttup sketched and designed studies for space rockets, just like Erich Apel (who would become Minister of the GDR).

On the other hand, Hugo Schmeisser designed the first great assault rifle (the StG 44), and chemistry housed other notable figures, including Karl-Herman Geib, who discovered the Girdler sulfur process to obtain heavy water; Alfred Rieche, a developer of a type of formylation reaction; and Friedrich Asinger, another former Nazi party member who achieved the reaction of multiple components that bears his name to synthesize thiazolines (used in the pharmaceutical industry).

In summary, while emulating previous efforts by its allies, from the aforementioned Operation Paperclip to the joint Alsos Mission (in which the British, Americans, and Soviets participated), Operation Osoaviakhim acquired much larger proportions, with the aggravating factor that it constituted a violation of the Kontrollratsproklamation (Proclamation of the Control Council), the legislative initiative of the Allied Control Council (the authority established by the four major victorious powers, the United States, the United Kingdom, the USSR, and France in the four occupation zones), whose second point, published on September 20, 1945, stipulated that the selection of German workers sent abroad as reparations would be carried out by German authorities in accordance with the orders of all Allied representatives.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 11, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Operación Osoaviajim, el traslado forzoso a la URSS de miles de científicos y técnicos alemanes en 1946


Norman N. Naimark, The Russians in Germany. A history of the Soviet Zone of occupation, 1945-1949 | Timothy C. Dowling, Russia at war. From the Mongol conquest to Afghanistan, Chechnya, and beyond | Georgios Karkampasis, What Happened to the German War Reparations after the end of WWII | Anatoly Zak, German A-4 team in Moscow | Gunther Hebestreit, Vor 70 Jahren: Geheimoperation „OSSAWJAKIM“ | Simone Schlindwein, Deutsche Raketensklaven im Luxus-Gulag | Summary of Operation Ossavakim | Wikipedia

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