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Consciously or unconsciously, I have largely avoided the controversy concerning Ukrainian–particularly Ukrainian nationalist–participation in the Holocaust.  Two primary reasons for this are that there is still considerable debate about the issue even among historians, which makes me reluctant to speak definitively, and because much of the debate among non-historians, which is where I would fit in, is inane.  There is scant effort among non-academics (and sadly even among some academics) to determine the truth.  Rather, the WWII-era Ukrainian nationalist resistance is often branded, as it was by Soviet propaganda, a fascist, Nazi-collaborating band of barbarians.  There is no attempt to see the movement in its historical context, and any misdeed by a Ukrainian during the war is held as evidence of every Ukrainian’s attitude.  (To be fair, there are some defenders of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army who deny any member of either group ever committed an atrocity, a statement that, if true, would make OUN-UPA the only armed group in history of which such a thing could be said.)

In short, I have been afraid to wade into the controversy, because it is fraught with bitterness and pain on both sides.  I have spent almost seven years now writing about Ukraine; I have my biases.  But I am not Ukrainian, nor am I Jewish.  I have been loathe to offend either group by proffering absolute pronouncements on their history.

I wrote about the issue recently, though, not here but in comments on two other blogs.  Even as I was commenting, I feared I was making a mistake.  The issue is delicate to begin with, and comments sections on the Internet tend to be where critical thinking and civility go to die.  To my surprise, the exchange that followed, while passionate, even heated at times, became a respectful, thoughtful conversation.

The conversation began when I read this post on Clarissa’s Blog.  I encourage you to read it in its entirety, but to sum up, the author was objecting to a piece on The Blog of Garnel Ironheart about the unhappiness among some Ukrainian-Canadians that the Holocaust is receiving greater attention than the Holodomor (Stalin’s genocidal famine of Ukrainians) in the new Canadian Museum of Human Rights.  Among Garnel Ironheart’s comments was the claim that “the Ukraine has an extensive history of Jew hatred.”  Clarissa condemned the post, commenting that she found it particularly objectionable as a Ukrainian Jew.

On both blogs, I shared a quote from “The Anti-Imperial Choice: The Making of the Ukrainian Jew” by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, in which Shtern describes the anti-Ukrainian sentiment that predominated in Israel.  Petrovsky-Shtern explains how Soviet efforts to stigmatize the Ukrainian nationalist movement led many Jews to equate Ukrainian nationalism with antisemitism.  Garnel Ironheart replied to my comment, and in the initial exchange we were both testy, as you can read in the comments section of the post to which I linked above.  But rather than follow whatever animosity was present, Garnel and I explained our points of view in somewhat greater detail.   I do not think it is necessary for me to summarize his views, because he can present them better than I, and they are available on his blog.  I expressed frustration that the Ukrainian nation is often judged by the worst actions of any Ukrainian during the war, and that efforts to explain–not condone–antisemitic attitudes in Eastern Europe during WWII (by noting the disproportionate Jewish membership in the Soviet NKVD secret police, for example) is often dismissed as antisemitic itself.

I am certain that Garnel and I have not reached significant agreements, but I am pleased that we conveyed strongly held views without resorting to the kinds of tactics that often pass for debate on the Internet.  The experience taught me that rather than leaving the most sensitive issues to ideologues, I might do better by saying my piece and by trying to understand how others arrive at their conclusions.

Seventy years ago today, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. For millions who lived in Eastern Europe, this marked the end of a brutal Soviet occupation that had begun in October 1939.  The successive occupations brought uncertainty, fear, and even hope that the new army would be better than the last. This brief excerpt is taken from my book in progress, SCATTER WITH THE WIND, which tells the story of two Ukrainian brothers and their experience during the Second World War. The excerpt describes how the events of June 22, 1941 unfolded in the area around the city of Stanislaw/Stanyslaviv, now Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine.

The circus came to Stanyslaviv in late June. The 1:00 p.m. performance on June 22, 1941 was packed with children and teenagers who had finished their school year the day before. The acrobats, clowns, and animal trainers were even more thrilling for those feeling the euphoria of an entire summer stretching before them. The audience cheered throughout the first hour, the first of three hours scheduled in the show.

Then everything stopped, and member of the circus stepped forward to address the audience. The performance was over, they were terribly sorry to say, but the show could not continue due to circumstances beyond their control. The crowd, disappointed and confused, filtered out into the city. A group of Polish boys walked toward the train station to travel back to Lackie Szlacheckie. At the station, they learned most of the trains had been cancelled. There was no explanation for that either.

The Polish boys had no way to get home other than to walk, and it was a warm day so they set off immediately. Their route took them past an airfield. The languid quiet of the afternoon gave way to an explosion. The boys turned to see where it had come from, and they saw planes roaring toward them so low that they glimpsed the pilots’ heads. The boys threw themselves on the ground and gazed up. The planes had black crosses painted on their fuselages.

“Germans!” the boys yelled.

After life under the Bolsheviks the boys were overjoyed to see the Germans, even though the German army had humiliated Poland less than two years before. Hitler had now sent his army to defeat the Soviets, and if Germany succeeded that could be forgiven.

A group of Poles back in Lackie Szlacheckie stood watching black smoke fill the southern sky. The oil refinery in Nadvirna was burning, they figured. The sight pleased them. The Poles’ optimism recalled Ukrainian anticipation of the Soviets in 1939.

“The Germans are intelligent people, cultured,” one of the Poles said. “They aren’t like this Bolshevik rabble. Let’s pray they come as quick as possible.”

The Soviet leadership was as surprised by the German invasion as the people of Lackie Szlacheckie. Stalin dismissed intelligence about the invasion, refusing to believe Hitler would renege on the treaty the two powers signed in 1939. The attack was as massive as it was unexpected. The German invasion, named Operation Barbarossa, comprised three million men. The front stretched more than nine hundred miles from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south, about the distance from New York City to Florida. The campaign, which would last six months, remains the largest military operation in history. One million Germans overwhelmed Soviet forces in Ukraine on their way to Kyiv.

In the first few months of the invasion, Germany inflicted losses on the Soviet military that were greater than many of the chief combatants would sustain throughout the entire war. From the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 to V-J Day on August 14, 1945, 362,561 members of the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps were killed.[i] By the end of September 1941, 2,067,801 members of the Red Army were killed or missing,[ii] including 172,323 in Ukraine during the first two weeks of fighting.[iii] Another 616,304 Red Army personnel were killed or missing between July 7 and September 26, 1941 during the battle for Kyiv.[iv]


[i] Martin Gilbert, The Second World War: A Complete History, Revised Edition. (New York: Owl Books, 1989), 746.

[ii] David M. Glantz & Jonathan House, When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hiter. (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1995), 292.

[iii] Ibid, 293.

[iv] Ibid.

It is rare to hear news about Ukraine on the radio and rarer still hear a report that evinces an understanding of Ukraine’s history, so I was encouraged by this story on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” yesterday:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126630828.

The report explains why many Ukrainians do not have a positive view of World War II and Victory Day, the Soviet holiday marking the defeat of Nazi Germany that is still observed in many former Soviet states.  The day has historically included massive military parades through Moscow and Kyiv and was a centerpiece to Stalin’s myth-making about the “Great Patriotic War”: the idea that the Soviets alone saved the world from fascism, the efforts to erase from history the Soviets’ pre-war pact with Nazi Germany, the denial of Soviet crimes like the massacre of 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals at Katyn.

Public Radio International journalist Brigid McCarthy provides the Ukrainian context for the war.  Before the Nazis entered Ukrainian territory, millions of Ukrainians had died under Stalin’s rule.  The Stalinist propaganda, which persists to this day, that many Ukrainians were Nazi-sympathizers emerged from the fact that Ukrainians hoped Nazi Germany would deliver them from Soviet oppression.  This, of course, turned out not to be the case and the true nature of Hitler’s Germany was revealed.  But for too long Ukrainians and other Eastern European nations have had their actions during the war judged through the lens of post-war knowledge.  (I tried to make a similar distinction in this post.)

Give the NPR report a listen.  Much of it will be familiar to those who have studied Ukrainian history, but it is a more nuanced treatment of this history than one usually finds in the mainstream media.

Please subscribe to my email list for updates on the blog and my book in progress, Scattered Graves, which tells the story of a family’s struggle to survive WWII in Ukraine.

After five years of studying Ukraine’s history and observing its politics, I thought I could no longer be shocked by Russified Ukrainians, anti-Ukrainian Russians, and those who remain proud Communists with no shame over Communism’s crimes.  But yesterday I read that Communists in Ukraine are preparing to erect a monument to Josef Stalin in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia.  (I learned about the story on the great Ukrainiana blog, which is a must-read, along with the author’s @Ukroblogger Twitter feed.)

Proud Communist, Oleksandr Zubchevskyi, explains that the monument to Stalin is a tribute to the murderous totalitarian’s victory over Nazi Germany in WWII.  At this point, it’s almost tedious to list the reasons why that view is imbecilic: Stalin’s pre-war alliance with Hitler emboldened Nazi Germany and helped the war happen; Stalin’s pre-war purges of his Army’s officers weakened the Soviet military and likely made the war a longer conflict than it would have been; Stalin’s victory over Hitler meant that much of Europe exchanged one murderous tyrant for another.

But even if Stalin had been a masterful tactician whose leadership was the main reason for Germany’s defeat, would that mitigate his crimes?  Would that make it appropriate for a monument to stand in the nation where millions were intentionally starved on his orders and millions of others deported to Siberia?

The monument is an outrage, and it is more evidence that the Communist Party should have been made illegal after the fall of the Soviet Union, just as the Nazi party was banned in Germany after the war.  Instead, there were no trials of Communist and KGB criminals, no acknowledgment of Soviet crimes.

The real outrage, though, is that this is another instance of anti-Ukrainian, pro-Communist bias that will likely be ignored by the same entities that were up in arms over then-President Viktor Yushchenko’s honor of WWII-era Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera.  The European Parliament condemned the honor, citing Bandera’s alliance early in the war with Nazi Germany.  Never mind that Bandera was later arrested by the Nazis and imprisoned in a concentration camp, or that his two brothers died in Auschwitz.  (As I explained in this post, Bandera’s alliance with Nazi Germany, like the entire war, was a more complicated affair than most acknowledge.)  Those waiting for anyone in the West to condemn the monument to Stalin will likely wait a long time.

Stalin had the advantage of being on the winning side of the war, so he seldom elicits the rage that Hitler does.  The world learned about the crimes of Stalinism more gradually.  But by now, we know enough that those who would deny Stalin’s crimes by building a monument to him deserve the same derision as those who deny the Holocaust.  Even Zubchevskyi seems to know this, as he says the monument will be guarded around the clock to prevent attacks.  Here’s hoping the people of Ukraine make sure the guards work hard for their pay.

Please subscribe to my email list for updates on the blog and my book in progress, Scattered Graves, which tells the story of a family’s struggle to survive WWII in Ukraine.

President Viktor Yushchenko’s recognition of nationalist resistance leader Stepan Bandera as a Hero of Ukraine has generated controversy and condemnations, including criticism from Simon Wiesenthal Center, which cited charges that Bandera was a Nazi collaborator.  More recently, the head rabbi of Ukraine vowed to return an award he’d received from Yuschenko to protest the recognition of Bandera.

So did Bandera collaborate with the Nazis?  Strictly speaking, yes.  But he was also a prisoner in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.  The tag of “Nazi-collaborator” in Bandera’s case is divorced from the historical context in which he and the Ukrainian nationalists struggled.  His “collaboration” consisted of accepting German support and training for Ukrainian nationalist troops prior to the German invasion of the territory that is now Ukraine.  (For an analysis of Bandera’s dealings with Nazi Germany, I recommend Ukrainian Nationalism by John A. Armstrong.  That is the source from which I’ve drawn most of this information.)

Why would Bandera and his fellow Ukrainian nationalists seek the support of a regime like Nazi Germany?  This is where context is key.  After Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, the region that is now Western Ukraine fell into Soviet hands in accordance with the agreement between Hitler and Stalin.  For the next year and a half, the Soviets murdered and exiled tens of thousands of Ukrainians.  When the Germans invaded what had become Soviet territory in June 1941, the Soviets realized the could not evacuate their thousands of prisoners in Western Ukraine.  A few years ago, I interviewed a woman, Stefania Protschack Kostuik, who had visited the prison in Ivano-Frankivsk (then Stanyslaviv) days after the Soviet retreat.  The floor was covered with black jelly–congealed blood–and brain matter had dried on the wall in fragments resembling papier-mâché, she said.  The Soviets murdered more than ten thousand Ukrainian prisoners in a matter of days.

Now, none of this, nor any other facts about the brutality of the the Soviet NKVD secret police or the Red Army, excuses or justifies the crimes of the Nazis or those who helped the Nazis achieve their horrific goals.  But I think this context is important to illustrate why Bandera and other Ukrainians decided that early in the war the Nazis were the lesser of two evils.  We look back from 2010 knowing about the Nazis, about the Holocaust, about the extermination campss, about all of it.  In 1941, Bandera knew that the Soviets had killed thousands and thousands of Ukrainians and that the Nazis had killed none.  Yet.  Judging Bandera’s actions through the lens of information he couldn’t have had is foolish.

I want to note here that to explain is not to excuse.  I am not a historian.  I am a journalist.  I lack the expertise to have researched the primary sources to convict Bandera or to exonerate him.  But I’ve read enough–and interviewed enough veterans of Bandera’s Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists–to know that to label the man and the movement a Nazi is a distortion at the very least.

I urge anyone interested in the Second World War and the tragedy it wrought to read The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn, which details the author’s search for information about members of his family who were killed in the Holocaust.  At the end of his powerful, beautiful book Mendelsohn ruminates on the complicated circumstances that both Ukrainians and Jews faced.  He writes on page 456, “The tragedy of certain areas of Eastern Europe between, say, 1939 and 1944, was… a true tragedy, since… the Jews of eastern Poland [Western Ukraine today], who knew they would suffer unimaginably if they came under Nazi rule, viewed the Soviets as liberators in 1939… whereas the Ukrainians of eastern Poland, who had suffered unimaginably under Soviet oppression during the 1920s and 1930s, viewed the cession of eastern Poland to the Soviet Union in 1939 as a national disaster, and saw the Nazis as liberators in 1941, when the Germans invaded and took control.”   Mendelsohn notes that this doesn’t explain the worst violence among neighbors, but he observes, rightly, that this formulation acknowledges the awful complexity of life in that place at that time.

Mendelsohn’s perspective helps explain why many Ukrainians regard Bandera as a hero.  I would argue that it also renders any dismissal of Bandera as a Nazi-collaborator as narrow and inadequate.