When one sets out to find the worst unit attached to the Waffen-SS during World War II, it usually comes down to Dirlewanger’s or Kaminski’s. As evil as were the units that culminated in the 36th Waffen-Grenadier Division der SS “Dirlewanger,” there were at least moments where portions of those units delivered some credible military competency.
Not so the Kaminski Brigade, a.k.a. SS-Sturmbrigade RONA (stood for Russian National Liberation Army in Latin-transliterated Russian; in Cyrillic it looked like POHA). It had little function but atrocity, few tactics save thievery and murder, no use but evil. In that, it was a reflection of its founder.
Of Polish and German descent, Kaminski had done time in the USSR’s infamous gulags during Stalin’s paranoid 1930s. Seems he had been a vocal critic of farm collectivization, which–fair’s fair–was a disastrous policy. In this case, Stalin made an enemy that would have terrible consequences for his own people; not that Stalin was notorious for empathy. When the German Army took over the Bryansk area where Kaminski lived, he signed up with the local German collaborationist anti-partisan unit. When partisans killed its commander, Kaminski stepped in.
Soon Kaminski’s force was keeping the Bryansk region relatively clear of partisan attacks, and the occupiers took notice. By mid-1943 he commanded a brigade known to his overlords as the Kaminski Brigade, but titled by him the Russian Army of National Liberation. At about that time, the Germans begin to sick their collaborating attack dogs on partisans in and around the region. The tactics were brutal and the troops undisciplined. SS-Sturmbrigade RONA, as it became known, killed tens of thousands of its own countrypeople, exceeding even the considerable ruthlessness of partisan reprisals against collaborators.
Having lost its locality to the Soviet advance, the SS-Sturmbrigade RONA fell back toward Poland. Whatever else may have been true of Kaminski, he wasn’t suicidally stupid enough to stick around long enough to explain his recent past to the NKGB. By 1944 Kaminski held the rank of Waffen-Brigadeführer der SS, a rank held by no one else and equivalent to a brigadier general.
The German high command had two competitors for the mantle of chief Russian collaborator: General Vlasov, who had defected in captivity, and Kaminski. Hitler didn’t trust Vlasov even a little bit, probably because Vlasov seemed intelligent and rational enough to develop a significant military force if permitted. Kaminski was a thug leading thugs, and useful enough from a Nazi standpoint in that limited context. It was not reasonable to suppose Kaminski might ever raise and lead a force large enough to give the Nazi regime trouble.
Before it was all over, Kaminski’s men perpetrated one last atrocity. In July 1944, the Polish Home Army (underground) used its long-husbanded weapons to revolt against Nazi occupation and take back Warsaw. The logic was that the Soviet Army would press forward to liberate the city. Nothing doing; Stalin was delighted to let the Nazis kill off tens of thousands of potential nationalist rebels, and if that meant the deaths of over a hundred thousand civilians along with the flattening of their city, to Stalin that was no great loss. A rogues’ gallery of SS and anti-partisan units moved to crush the rising, including a detachment from Kaminski’s RONA, which was in the process of being raised to SS divisional status.
The surface version of what happened was that Kaminski’s men exceeded even Nazi boundaries for atrocity. While this was true–they cut a swath of indiscriminate rape, arson, torture, and murder through any area they visited–there’s no good reason to believe that his fall came as a result of Himmler clutching his pearls. Another story was that Kaminski’s troops mistakenly killed a couple of German girls; probably true, but unlikely to result in his downfall. Yet another goes that he was accused of disobedience and theft; again likely true but unlikely to lead to a wall. So why did the SS liquidate Kaminski?
It seems that by mid-1944, the Nazis were rethinking the value of Vlasov relative to Kaminski. To me it seems like a day late and a dollar short, with most former Soviet territory now in Soviet hands once again. Whatever the reason or reasons, on 19 August 1944 the local SS chief, von dem Bach-Zelewski, summoned Kaminski and his staff to a meeting. Some say that they were put on trial, then shot; others that the SS simply lined them up against a wall and shot them. Kaminski’s men were told that he had died in a Polish partisan attack.
However it happened, everyone at least agrees that this was the violent end of Waffen-Brigadeführer der SS Bronislav Kaminski. The Nazis sent his demoralized unit north to dig trenches, then assigned the remainder to Vlasov’s command. One supposes that they tried very hard not to surrender to the Soviet Union. Of whatever RONA prisoners Soviet forces might have taken, one supposes they experienced bad outcomes.
As bad as Dirlewanger was, one could make the argument that Kaminski was worse. Unfortunately, in this realm of scumbag studies, comparisons are elusive and creepy. Which is worse, pulmonary anthrax or pneumonic plague? Most people would respond that neither one sounds very pleasant.
In fact, the Nazi regime spawned many little Kaminskis. Every ethnicity that had once felt like (and perhaps been in fact) an oppressed minority had its collaborators, and many were all too ready to vent their rage as tools of the occupation regime. Some became more infamous than others. In fact, if all the truth were known, one could probably write a book just detailing all the deeds of Nazi collaborators. For all I know, someone has.
A complete reference would be elusive, but any such book would be an incomplete joke without a section on Kaminski. He was one of the very worst.