On 22 December 2018, the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed changes to the law, giving full recognition to several organisations that had long been written out of the official history of wartime resistance. Most prominent amongst these were the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) – two nationalist organisations which had fought for the independence of Ukraine, but had been viewed as Nazi collaborators and counter-revolutionaries during the Soviet era.
For the law’s supporters, it was finally recognition for those who had sacrificed so much opposing the twin threats of Nazism and communism. For the law’s opponents, it was an irresponsible rehabilitation of Nazi collaborators. This new law was the culmination of a concerted effort by nationalists to get the country to dispense of its Soviet and pro-communist past and replace it with a confident, and nationalist, Ukrainian identity.
The main architect of this policy was a young historian named Volodymyr Viatrovych, who sought to construct a history that glorified the country’s move to independence. The process began in May 2015, when President Poroshenko ordered the transfer of the country’s complete set of archives, from the “Soviet organs of repression,” to a government organisation called the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory. Viatrovych headed up the new project and was charged with the “implementation of state policy in the field of restoration and preservation of national memory of the Ukrainian people”.
According to Josh Cohen, writing in Foreign Affairs magazine in 2016, Viatrovych quickly set about reinterpreting Ukraine’s WWII history to one that “amplifies Soviet crimes and glorifies Ukrainian nationalist fighters while dismissing the vital part they played in ethnic cleansing of Poles and Jews from 1941 to 1945 after the Nazi invasion of the former Soviet Union.”
Cohen continues: “Viatrovych’s vision of history instead tells the story of partisan guerrillas who waged a brave battle for Ukrainian independence against overwhelming Soviet power. It also sends a message to those who do not identify with the country’s ethno-nationalist mythmakers — such as the many Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine who still celebrate the heroism of the Red Army during World War II — that they’re on the outside. And more pointedly, scholars now fear that they risk reprisal for not toeing the official line — or calling Viatrovych on his historical distortions.”
The Nachtigall Battalion
From Collaborators To “Heroes”: The Rehabilitation Of The Organisation Of Ukrainian Nationalists
At the heart of the controversial re-writing of Ukraine wartime history is the rehabilitation of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN).
Formed in 1929, the OUN campaigned for Ukrainian nationhood, although with its homeland divided between the Soviet Union and Poland, independence was a distant dream. In the 1930s a young leadership emerged that was more militant and politically extreme than its predecessors. Its main principals were Stepan Bandera, Yaroslav Stetsko and Mykola Lebed.
Reverting to a terrorist campaign against both Poland and the Soviet Union, the OUN suffered in the pre-war years, and many of its key figures were exiled in Western Europe. When Soviet agents assassinated the OUN chief on a Dutch pavement in 1938, the OUN split, with Bandera leading one faction and Andej Melnik, who was considered more moderate, heading the other.
The Bandera wing, the OUN/B, drew ever closer to Germany. Bandera took up residence in Nazi Germany and other OUN/B activists began training with the German army, in units such as the Nationalist Military Detachments, the Schuma and Werkschutz, whose jobs included guarding Jewish labour gangs.
In April 1941, two months before the invasion of the Soviet Union, the German army established two Ukrainian reconnaissance and sabotage units, called Roland and Nachtigall, to accompany it into Ukraine. Ahead of Operation Barbarossa, the OUN received 2.5 million Reichsmarks from the Germans to fund guerrilla operations against the Soviet army, and the two units were amongst the first to enter Soviet territory with the advancing German army.
Politically under the control of the two OUN factions, both units were involved in some of the worst anti-Jewish outrages on the Eastern Front. Even the Einsatzgruppen, the German mobile killing squads, were shocked at the severity of the Ukrainians’ actions.
The Ukrainian militia rounded up the Jews of the town of Zhitomir, killing more than 3,000 people
On 2 July 1941, it was reported that 1,160 Jews had been murdered by the Ukrainians with the aid of one police and army platoon. Two months later the Ukrainian militia rounded up the Jews of the town of Zhitomir, killing over 3,000 people.
Overall, the OUN, and its guerrilla wing the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), has been held responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews, including heavy involvement in the Lvov massacre, and as many as 100,000 Poles.
The close cooperation between the OUN/B and the Germans was not to last. Despite their common antisemitism, the Ukrainian dream of independence was at odds with the Nazis’ plans. Though the OUN/B leaders were arrested, many of its supporters remained in the service of the Germans. Some joined the Ukrainian police and militia who maintained the Nazis’ grip on the country and continued the rounding up of Jews and anti-fascists.
Even after the fallout with the Germans, the OUN/B did not drop its racist and antisemitic programme. A leaflet recovered by the Germans read: “Long live greater independent Ukraine without Jews, Poles and Germans. Poles behind the San, Germans to Berlin, Jews to the gallows.”
Hundreds of Ukrainians were sent to the Trawniki training camp in Poland, where they became part of Operation Reinhard, the cover name for the Final Solution in the East.
Determined to dispose of the 2.2 million Jews who lived in the region, the Nazis established three concentration camps at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. The Ukrainian contingent at Trawnika drew heavily from the Roland and Nachtigall units. So confident were the Nazis in the killing ability of their Eastern European recruits, each camp only had 35 SS officers attached to it.
In 1943, almost 400 Ukrainian recruits from Trawniki were used in the final assault on the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland. As the war turned against Germany, the need for men to fight the Soviets led to the formation of the 14th Galician SS Division. The OUN/B called on its supporters to join up, giving the lie to post-war claims of its anti-Nazi stance. Many of its leading activists were among those who answered the call.
The SS Galician Division was worse than useless. In its first battle at Brody in 1944, all but 3,000 of its men were killed. The Division was reformed, and this time many of its personnel were drawn from the Ukrainian police, militia and camp guard units. The very people who later found safety in the welcoming arms of the British were those who had collaborated in some of the worst atrocities in Eastern Europe during the war.
Kiev, UKRAINE: a communist and Soviet Army veteran (L) fights with veteran of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) 15 October 2005 during a march in Kiev to mark the 63rd anniversary of the creation of the UPA, which fought the Soviets.
(Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/ AFP via Getty Images)
The UPA, created in 1942 from the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, acted mainly in the west of Ukraine until the beginning of the 1950s and had more than 40,000 soldiers in its strongest period. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has often called for the reconciliation between the former nationalist fighters and former Soviet Army fighters, but both sides have barely responded to the call.
The OUN: An Alternative View
The OUN’s defenders are appalled at the allegation that they were Nazi collaborators and dismiss the notion as Soviet and Polish propaganda. They point to the German fury over the OUN’s proclamation of independence on 30 June 1941, a few days after Operation Barbarossa began, and the imprisonment of many of its leaders.
More importantly, they stress that accusations of collaboration mask the real war crimes that were committed by the Soviets, especially during the engineered famine which claimed the lives of several million Ukrainians in the 1930s. The decision of so many Ukrainians to join German military and police units, including the SS Galician division, has to be understood in the context of their hatred of Soviet communism.
For the OUN and their supporters, the 2018 decision correctly reinstated the organisation to its rightful place as part of the wartime resistance.
The 2018 law is part of a much larger nationalist rebirth
However, the 2018 law is far more significant than the simple reinterpretation of historical facts. It is part of a much larger nationalist rebirth, and is unquestionably a response to the Russian occupation of Crimea and the geopolitical battle for control of the future of the country.
The new law makes it a crime to “publicly exhibit a disrespectful attitude” towards the OUN and UPA or “deny the legitimacy” of Ukraine’s 20th century struggle for independence. As Josh Cohen concludes, “independent Ukraine is being partially built on a falsified narrative of the Holocaust.”
The Gestapo Graduate
Mykola Lebed’s small frame and quiet demeanour masked a lifetime of adventure and controversy. A Ukrainian nationalist and a one-time leader of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), he had been sentenced to death by the Polish authorities, trained by the Gestapo, hunted by the Gestapo, declared a wanted war criminal by the Soviets and then worked for the CIA for almost forty years.
Lebed was born in January 1909. He joined the OUN soon after it was launched in 1929 and in 1934 was implicated in a plot to murder the Polish Interior Minister. He and his other co-conspirators were sentenced to death, but this was later commuted to life imprisonment.
He escaped jail when the Nazis invaded Poland and by 1940 he was in charge of the OUN’s secret police, the Sluzhba Bezpeky.
Mykola Lebed, the one-time leader of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN).
A US army intelligence report noted that Lebed and his men received training at a Gestapo school in Zakopane, where Jewish families were murdered in cold blood to toughen up and desensitise the troops.
Mykyta Kosakivs’kyy, a former OUN member, later described Lebed as an eager pupil of the Gestapo. According to Kosakivs’kyy, Lebed led a 120-strong OUN unit at the German camp through a curriculum that included drills, interrogation and intelligence training, but emphasized “exercises in the hardening of hearts.” This included the rape, torture and murder of Jewish people grabbed at random from the local town.
After the war, Lebed went on to work for the CIA
Under his control, the OUN-SB hunted down political rivals, communist partisans and Soviet troops. Collective responsibility was often enacted, with entire Polish families and villages being killed – often in a sadistic way – and as the Red Army advanced, communist sympathisers and collaborators were increasingly targeted. He went on to found and lead the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in 1942.
After the war, Lebed fled to the West, where he eventually made contact with American intelligence, offering them access to his anti-communist intelligence network in return for safety. In 1949 he was secretly flown out of Rome for a new life in the US. He went on to work for the CIA for the best part of the next thirty years