De-mythologizing Ukraine under Nazi occupation

Ukraine was quickly and violently occupied by the Nazi military in 1941 in the onset of Hitler’s Barbarossa plan for defeat of the Soviet Union, and the most intense and extensive period of the campaign to exterminate the Jews of Europe quickly ensued. Massacres of the Jewish populations of villages, towns, and cities throughout the Ukraine occurred within weeks and months, from Miropol (link) to Kiev and Babi Yar. The Ukrainian people suffered enormously during the years of fighting from 1941 to 1944. But it is also clear from history that Ukrainian people participated in Nazi atrocities and war goals in numerous ways. Since the 1990s there have been major efforts by Nationalist parties in Ukraine to sanitize its World War II history, and to provide a mythical and heroic narrative for nationalist Ukrainian military organizations and units including the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). (OUN was a far-right, pro-fascist organization. The UPA was created in 1942 as the paramilitary arm of the OUN-B (the radical wing of OUN led by Stepan Bandera).)

Anna Wylegala is one of the historians who has made a serious effort to come to grips with the politics of memory in Ukraine since the 1990s. Her co-edited volume (Wylegala and Glowacka-Grajper, The Burden of the Past: History, Memory, and Identity in Contemporary Ukraine), provides an important contribution to a better and more honest rendering of Ukraine’s history during 1941-44. As the editors make clear in their introduction, Ukraine’s history during World War II has been subject to two different kinds of lies and myth-making efforts: the Soviet effort to paint Ukraine as thoroughly pro-Nazi and fascist from 1941 to 1944, and the post-Soviet Ukrainian nationalist effort to paint Ukrainian militia and military formations as purely nationalist and defensive. And the memory of these events in different regions of Ukraine became indistinct following the end of the war: “After the war, the memory of some of these atrocities became hidden or even forbidden during the communist era, which itself has also generated a new set of tragic memories” (Wylegala and Glowacka-Graijper, p. 2). Further, the ultra-nationalist parties that have gained dominance in Ukraine, including Svoboda, have a very distinctive interest in securing their view of the facts in the public memory. What is difficult to reconstruct is the historical truth of the matter.

The situation in Ukraine during World War II was undeniably complex. As Snyder emphasizes frequently, it was subject to “double occupation”, eventually triple occupation, under Stalin, Hitler, and Stalin again. It had been devastated by the effects of forced collectivization, mass starvation, and mass deportations by the Stalinist regime only a few years earlier. And — again paraphrasing Snyder — it was subject to “state smashing”, with almost no functioning institutions of state by the time of the Nazi invasion. Serhii Plokhy notes the strategic alliance that was possible between the Nazis and the OUN nationalists in The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine. “Many in Ukraine welcomed the German advance in the summer of 1941, hoping for the end of the terror unleashed by the Soviet occupation authorities in the years leading up to the war. This was true not only for the recently occupied regions of western Ukraine but also for central and eastern Ukraine, where the population never forgave the regime for the horrors of the famine and collectivization” (264). So there was an existing basis of potential support among Ukrainians for the invading Nazi forces, along the lines of the wisdom, “the enemy of our enemy is our friend”. And OUN-B, soon after its split from the smaller and more moderate faction of OUN, quickly formed common cause with the Germans: “In February 1941, they [Bandera’s faction] made a deal with the leaders of German military intelligence (Abwehr) to form two battalions of special operations forces from their supporters. One battalion, Nachtigall, was among the first German troops to enter Lviv on June 29. The next day it took part in the proclamation of Ukrainian independence by members of the Bandera faction of the OUN. This spelled the end of German cooperation with Bandera’s followers” (Plokhy, 264).

So it is true — the history of Ukraine in 1940-44 is complicated. And yet it is crucial to confront the realities of Ukrainian actions during the war honestly. Honestly confronting its history, as Vasily Grossman insisted, is the only possible foundation for a nation’s creating a better future for itself. Here are a few important contributions from several historians who have attempted to do exactly this.Timothy Snyder was one of the earliest English-speaking historians to examine Ukrainian complicity in atrocities in 1943 in his 2003 “The Causes of Ukrainian-Polish Ethnic Cleansing 1943” (link). This article was one of the earliest expressions of the line of argument that Snyder developed later in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

The ethnic cleansing carried out by the OUN-B against Poles in 1943 was a deliberate strategy aimed at securing an ethnically pure post-war Ukraine:

Yet by April 1943, after three and a half years of war, the Ukrainian nationalist Mykola Lebed’ proposed ‘to cleanse the entire revolutionary territory of the Polish population’. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Ukrains’ka Povstans’ka Armiia, UPA) then cleansed the Polish population from Volhynia. Ukrainian partisans killed about fifty thousand Volhynian Poles and forced tens of thousands more to flee in 1943. (202)

The OUN-B, true as ever to its radicalism, interpreted the party programme in a more decisive fashion than OUN-M, and followed a more ruthless strategy. It meant to pre-empt the return of Polish statehood by expelling the Poles from west Ukraine before the war was over. (213)

Snyder describes the rapid process through which OUN-B formed the paramilitary UPA in March 1943 and initiated violent ethnic cleansing almost immediately. It is interesting to note that Plokhy expresses an agnostic position on the violence that occurred in Volhynia in 1943: “Ukrainian and Polish historians still argue over whether the OUN leadership sanctioned Ukrainian attacks on Polish villages and, if so, on what level. There is no doubt, however, that most victims of the ethnic cleansing were Poles. Estimates of Ukrainians killed as a result of Polish actions in Galicia and Volhynia vary between 15,000 and 30,000, whereas the estimates for Polish victims are between 60,000 and 90,000 — two to three times as high” (276). Plokhy’s book was published in 2015 — twelve years later than Snyder’s article. So his agnostic stance about the role of OUN is puzzling; does he disagree with Snyder’s reasoning and historical scholarship? 

John-Paul Himka provides additional historical detail concerning the murderous ethnic cleansing of Poles and Jews conducted by the UPA / OUN during 1943 in “Former Ukrainian Policemen in the Ukrainian National Insurgency: Continuing the Holocaust outside German Service” (link). Himka demonstrates that a significant portion of the paramilitary forces involved in these actions were Ukrainian policemen who had deserted en masse from German police units within the preceding months, and had already had extensive training and experience in annihilating villages. UPA and its political leadership in OUN-B pursued strategies of murderous ethnic cleansing against Poles and Jews using these and other paramilitary forces. Himka reports testimony from a Ukrainian prisoner: “In addition to continuing to murder Poles while ostensibly tolerating national minorities, OUN and UPA remained largely antisemitic. Responding to Soviet interrogators, Ukrainian prisoner Volodymyr Porendovsky stated that in 1941-1942, OUN openly preached a racist ideology, called for the annihilation of the Jews, and took part in their murder” (144).

Himka provides extensive evidence of the killings of Jews and Poles by UPA forces in the forests of Volhynia. Here is testimony from a Jewish survivor from the forests of Volhynia: “Vera Shchetinkova recalled how she hid with about eighty-five other Jews in the general vicinity ofSarny, a raion capital in Rivne oblast, in mid-January 1944. The Banderites discovered their bunkers and decided to destroy all the Jews who lived in them. In her view, the Banderites wanted no witnesses left when the Soviets came” (145). And another account of witness testimony: “Many Jews found refuge in the houses abandoned by the Poles, while others hid in the nearby forest. Jasphy estimated that there were several hundred Jewish refugees in the vicinity in the fall of 1943. They made contact with the Banderites, who said that they would not kill Jews, so the surviving Jews of the area went to work for them. This lasted until early January 1944. On the 4th of the month, she learned that all the Jews living near the former Polish houses had been killed by the Ukrainians (she in the meantime had moved to another part of the forest). She and a few others hid in the hay in a barn. The next day, some Ukrainians came searching for them with pitchforks, but missed them by a meter. She stayed in that barn for eight days. In her opinion, the Banderites had deliberately gathered the Jews together to kill them” (145).

Here is a very interesting piece of historiographic reasoning by Himka to rebut the Ukrainian nationalist claim that it was the Germans who committed these acts of murder against the Jews in the forest:

However, overriding Friedman’s doubts and Shankovsky’s defensive explanation are at least two key arguments: the testimonies generally refer to a time after the summer of 1943, when the German offensive was said to have occurred; and more testimonies of the liquidation of the labor camps and the luring of Jews from hiding have come to light, indicating a pattern of activity. We do not have testimonies, on the other hand, from Jews who survived the UPA labor camps and witnessed no attempt at liquidation; nor do we have any survivor testimonies indicating that the Germans liquidated UPA camps in the crucial period of winter 1943-1944. (150)

Here is Himka’s assessment of the survivor testimony evidence: “Considering the context, the number of testimonies that are extant is impressive and indicates that these systematic murders of Jews must have been a widespread feature of the Holocaust in Volhynia. I see no reason to doubt the essential story that these testimonies tell” (149). Himka acknowledges that there is a wide range of uncertainty concerning the number of Jewish victims of these campaigns, ranging from a few thousand to a few tens of thousands. But the intentions and willingness of UPA-M were clear: to continue a campaign of mass murder against Jews and Poles even after the Germans had lost their military foothold in Ukraine.

Swedish historian Per Anders Rudling addresses a different part of Ukraine’s troubled history: the collaboration of Ukrainian military and paramilitary forces with the Nazi occupiers of Ukraine. In particular, Rudling focuses on the military goals and activities of the Ukrainian Waffen-SS Galizien unit. Rudling elucidates the historical realities that are concealed by current attempts by nationalist politicians in Ukraine to sanitize the Waffen-SS Galician. His account, “‘They Defended Ukraine’: The 14.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS(Galizische Nr. 1) Revisited”, is published in The Journal of Slavic Military Studies (link). (Here is a short account of Rudling’s findings about new efforts at mythologizing the Waffen-SS in Ukraine and Estonia, posted in Defending Historylink.) Nationalists have tried to represent the Waffen-SS Galician as a Ukrainian self-defense force. However, Rudling demonstrates in great detail that it was fully incorporated into (and loyally committed to) Nazi war aims and plans. (Snyder also refers briefly to the formation of a Galician Waffen-SS division (link; 214).) Rudling goes into substantial detail about the history and behavior of this unit. He documents several crucial and historically well established facts: The Ukrainian Waffen-SS division was recruited specifically in support of Hitler and his war goals agains the USSR; the unit actively conveyed Nazi ideology, ethnic cleansing, and anti-Semitism through training of its soldiers and officers; and the Ukrainian Waffen-SS committed mass killings and atrocities against Ukrainian Jews and Poles.

The organizers of the Waffen-SS Galizien emphasized the importance of the unit for Hitler’s New Europe and a Nazi victory: ‘All call-ups to Ukrainians for the Division have been geared towards their planned deployment, not for Ukraine or Ukrainian culture, but rather as the contribution of the Ukrainian ethnic group in the battle to defend against Bolshevism and for a new Europe.’ (338-339)

Rudling makes it clear that the effort to romanticize the Ukrainian Waffen-SS as a purely nationalist military organization devoted to securing the independence of Ukraine is simply unsupportable. Here is just one well-documented atrocity committed by the Ukrainian Waffen-SS: the massacre of Poles and Jews at the Polish village of Huta Pieniacka, near Lviv:

A 2003 investigation by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance into the massacre concluded that:

“the crime was committed by the 4th battalion of the 14th division on February 28. On that day, early in the morning, soldiers of this division, dressed in white, masking outfits, surrounded the village. The village was cross-fired by artillery. SS-men of the 14th Division of the SS “Galizien” entered the village, shooting the civilians rounded up at a church. The civilians, mostly women and children, were divided and locked in barns that were set on fire. Those who tried to run away were killed. Witnesses interrogated by the prosecutors of the Head Commission described the morbid details of the act. The crime was committed against women, children, and newborn babies.”

In 2005, the Institute of History at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences arrived at the same conclusion—that the 4th SS Police regiment indeed killed the civilian inhabitants in Huta Pieniacka. (347)

In addition to the atrocities committed by the Waffen-SS Galizien troops, Rudling provides evidence showing that UPA bands participated in the murders that took place during those two days of wanton killing:

The participants from the UPA bands, who at that time had arrived in the village . . . together with the commander of the Volhynian band also surrounded the village and did that, what the Germans did, that is burned houses and various buildings, and drove the residents into the Roman Catholic Church. Those who tried to hide were shot on the spot, and shots were fired at those running. After that, as the ring that encircled the village was dissolved and the operation came to an end, the residents were being convoyed to the barn and the houses, locked up, and burned. There were four or five barns, filled with the residents of Huta Pieniacka, about 700–750 people, all of whom were burned. The above mentioned pogrom continued from eight in the morning until two or three in the afternoon. (351-352)

Rudling provides documentation of other atrocities committed by the Waffen-SS Galician in eastern Poland, including the burning of villages and murder of all inhabitants. And he documents the engagement of the division in Slovakia, conducting similar “pacification” campaigns against Slovak nationalist activism, including repression of the Slovak National Uprising.

Rudling summarizes his findings and recommendations in these terms:

While not claiming to provide a full and complete account of the unit’s history, this essay sets out some of the problems associated with the partial rehabilitation of the unit. Issues such as the unit’s institutionalized racism and anti-Semitism, its commitment to Adolf Hitler and the victory of Nazi Germany, and the involvement of officers, soldiers, and affiliated police regiments in atrocities call for more research and further inquiry into the unit’s past. The problem it raises are not only historical, but also political and ethical. (368)

Here again it is interesting to consider Plokhy’s treatment of the Waffen-SS Galician division of Ukrainians in The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine. Here too he takes a less critical view than one might expect (as was noted above with respect to the responsibility of OUN-B for murderous Polish ethnic cleansing). Plokhy does not emphasize the Nazi ideology of the division or the atrocities in which it was involved. “Backed by mainstream Ukrainian politicians and presented to Ukrainian youth as an alternative to going to the forest to join the Bandera insurgents or staying under imminent Soviet occupation, enrollment in the division seemed a lesser evil to parents who sent their sons to join its ranks. Most would soon have reason to regret their choice. Trained and commanded by German officers, the division got its baptism by fire in July 1944 near the Galician town of Brody” (279). This interpretation seems to line up more closely with the “rehabilitationist” line than the “face the dark facts of history” line.

In light of the real and documented history of the Waffen-SS Galician division, its loyalty to the war aims and person of Adolph Hitler, and its involvement in multiple atrocities against civilians in Ukraine, Poland, and Slovakia, the “rehabilitation” of the organization is roughly as repellent as the rehabilitation of the Nazi Party itself. These were not “freedom fighters”; they were willing auxiliaries within Hitler’s unrestrained campaigns of murder and extinction. This history needs to be remembered in its painful details.

None of these sources have shed light on another form of Ukrainian responsibility during the Holocaust, the role of Ukrainian Auxiliary Police to carry out the transport, confinement, and murder of Jews. Gabriel Finder and Alexander Prusin address this question in “Collaboration in Eastern Galicia: The Ukrainian police and the Holocaust” (link). Finder and Prusin look at the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police (UAP) as the “institutional epicentre of Ukrainian collusion with the Nazis in this region in the destruction of the Jews” (95). They believe that the readiness of Ukrainians to enter the UAP and to serve as facilitators of mass murder of Jews derived from the nationalist ideology demanding ethnic purity in Ukraine, and (like Jan Gross) an economic impulse to take advantage of the sacking of Jewish property and lives, on the other hand. “An intended consequence of this partnership was the eradication of the region’s Jews, in which the Ukrainian police actively took part” (96). “When Germans expelled Jews from their apartments and shops in Lwów in conjunction with the Ukrainian auxiliary police, Ukrainians as well Germans moved into them” (97). 

Here is the description of UAP roles in the execution of mass killings of Jews in Ukraine, as described by Finder and Prusin:

From its inception, the Ukrainian police played an integral part in the German destruction of the Jews in eastern Galicia, especially in ghetto clearances (Aktionen). They would form a cordon around ghettos on the threshold of mass deportations to discourage and impede escape. They apprehended and herded Jews to the edge of town for mass executions or to the tracks of railway stations, which they guarded while Jews were being killed or loaded into trains. During these operations they did not recoil from acts of violence, including killing. On a number of occasions Ukrainian policemen often implored their German superiors to allow them to kill Jews during Aktionen. Their role in the destruction of east Galician Jewry was not, however, limited to Aktionen. They maintained surveillance in Jewish neighbourhoods. They demanded their share of spoils from defenceless Jews. They kidnapped Jews off the streets for shipment to labour camps, which they helped guard. They pursued Jews in hiding, including those hidden by fellow Ukrainians. They combed the surroundings of labour camps for Jewish escapees from the camps. They joined raids into the forests in pursuit of Jewish partisans. They frequently killed Jews on their own initiative. (106-107)

Several fundamental facts about Ukraine’s World War II history today seem undeniable. (1) There was substantial collaboration between Ukrainian nationalist parties in 1941 and the Nazi occupation, and Ukrainian nationalists regarded the Red Army as being as much of a threat to Ukrainian interests as the Nazi armies. (2) The OUN was committed to violent ethnic cleansing and anti-Semitism throughout its history. This included the explicit intention of expelling the Polish population from the region. (3) The formation of the Waffen-SS Galizische division represented a full engagement between volunteer Ukrainian forces and Nazi military and genocidal aims. (4) Ukrainian nationalist parties — the OUN — were strongly engaged in the goal of driving Poles out of western Ukraine, and in 1943 OUN-B forces engaged in a merciless campaign of ethnic cleansing in Volhynia to that end. These efforts included organized attempts to kill the surviving Jews taking refuge in the forests of Volhynia. (5) The “triple occupation” of Ukraine created surprising configurations and alliances, and as Snyder documents, many Ukrainian police and administrators who had served the Soviet system prior to the German invasion, also served the German military administration.

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