Kiev’s glorification of wartime Ukrainian nationalists threatens to turn away its Western allies — just when it needs them the most.
Coming to terms with the past is always a messy business. But in few countries is the debate over history as fraught — and as consequential — as it is in Ukraine. This has much to do with the complex history of a nation that was caught, for much of the 20th century, between two totalitarian powers that sought its destruction. Nor does it help that the successor of one of those powers — Vladimir Putin’s aggressive and chauvinistic Russia — is cynically exploiting the most controversial elements of Ukraine’s history as part of its war against Kiev. Increasingly, however, some of the responsibility must lie with Kiev itself.
Of particular issue is the historical interpretation of a radical nationalist party that sought to carve out an independent Ukraine around the time of the Second World War — the diehard “Bandera faction” of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-B). The dilemma is that, while many of the OUN-B’s leaders and ordinary members gave their lives in Ukraine’s fight for independence, most were also virulent nationalists, to the point of outright xenophobia. Some were even complicit in the Holocaust and other mass crimes against civilians. As a result, though the group enjoys considerable sympathy among Ukraine’s governing class and large parts of the intellectual elite, it is highly controversial among the country’s Russian-leaning population, its Jews, its liberal intelligentsia, and its foreign partners. The question of how Ukrainians should interpret this wartime history requires nuance and restraint.
It was therefore surprising that Ukraine’s political leaders decided in 2014 to hand over the Ukrainian Institute for National Remembrance (UINP in Ukrainian) — the main government body responsible for historical memory — to a group of relatively young activists with unknown scholarly credentials.
Under its new director, Volodymyr Viatrovych, the institute has since been pushing a whitewashed version of the OUN-B’s ideology and actions during the war. Through its various popular publications, media appearances, web projects, and other initiatives, the UINP portrays the group’s leaders, such as Stepan Bandera, Roman Shukhevych, and Yaroslav Stetsko, as national heroes of unimpeachable nobility. As a result, even as Ukraine tries to integrate with the West, its notorious wartime ultra-nationalist movement has come to enjoy official recognition as the pinnacle of Ukrainian patriotism. But — apart from other worrisome repercussions inside Ukraine — this approach is in danger of subverting Kiev’s all-important relationships with its Western partners.
In particular, the institute’s campaign to honor an extreme nationalist movement runs entirely counter to the principles that underlie the whole enterprise of European integration. In contrast to what some Ukrainians believe, the unification of Europe, which began in the 1950s, was not primarily an anti-Moscow project. Instead, it was a response to the challenge of radical nationalism, which begat two world wars in just half a century. That’s why the UINP’s embrace of the ultranationalist OUN-B is so problematic — it lionizes precisely those aspects of European history that the continent has been working to transcend since 1945.
A related problem of the OUN-B’s history is its anti-Semitism. To be sure, hatred of Jews was not as prominent a feature of the group’s xenophobia as it was with the German Nazis. But it was strong enough to motivate a considerable number of its members to actively participate in the Holocaust, either as German collaborators or as self-motivated Jew-hunters.
Needless to say, the UNIP and Ukraine’s other pseudo-historians prefer to gloss over these events, instead emphasizing the many real cases when Ukrainians (and even some nationalists) helped save Jews during the war. But this approach leaves little room to properly acknowledge the crimes committed by the OUN-B. As a result of the UINP’s misleading statements and publications, most Ukrainians have little idea that some of the group’s militias participated in anti-Jewish pogroms during the war, even though this is now extensively documented by both Western and Ukrainian historians.
In view of the continued relevance of the Holocaust in Western public discourse, these developments will have an increasingly corrosive effect on Ukraine’s foreign relations, its international image, and its cultural diplomacy (not to mention its ties to Israel). The contradictions will only grow as the most recent research about the OUN-B’s involvement in war crimes spreads from the academic community to Western history textbooks, Holocaust education, and mass media. Gradually, Ukraine’s soft-pedaling of the OUN-B’s crimes will become less and less acceptable. (The fact that none of the UINP’s new staff seem to have proper academic credentials, and that its director has become notorious among academic historians for his selective approach to history, makes it unlikely that a positive narrative about the OUN-B will make much headway in the West.)
The most immediate political problem arising from Kiev’s official World War II narrative is its unacceptability to European Union and NATO members, such as Poland and Germany, which have especially high stakes in how Europe’s wartime history is interpreted. Poland will accept nothing less than a full acknowledgement and appropriate memorialization of the massacre of tens of thousands of Polish civilians by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which was under the OUN-B’s command. For Germany, any suggestion that honors are due to Nazi collaborators such as OUN leader Roman Shukhevych — an officer of the Wehrmacht and of a notorious auxiliary police battalion — is out of the question.
Apart from the United States and Canada, Poland and Germany are Ukraine’s most important Western partners. Berlin has played a crucial role in imposing and extending EU sanctions against Russia, and Germany is one of Ukraine’s main Western donors (and potential future business partners). And, though it is less powerful than Germany, Poland may be an even more important partner for Kiev, since its level of knowledge and interest in Ukraine exceeds that of any other EU member.
Given its acute understanding of the Russian threat, Poland is often the most insistent pro-Ukrainian advocate in Western organizations, particularly on matters of security. Warsaw also remains Kiev’s main regional ally, as Ukraine cannot hope to join either NATO or the EU anytime soon. But Kiev’s continuing glorification of the Bandera movement risks estranging Warsaw from the Ukrainian cause.
To make matters worse, Ukraine’s embrace of the OUN makes it that much easier for Russian propagandists to portray Kiev as a nest of fascists. Of course, Putin’s violent assault on the Ukrainian state since 2014 has been one of the main reasons for the country’s embrace of its nationalistic heroes in the first place. Nevertheless, the more Ukraine’s official historiography diverges from what is commonly accepted in the West, the easier it will be for Putin to win converts and sow doubt among Kiev’s friends.
The repercussions of Ukraine’s failure to properly study, acknowledge, and teach the darker sides of its past are making themselves felt. Indeed, they seem to be causing international scandals with increasing regularity. The UINP and other activists are alienating Ukraine’s most important international partners and allies at a time when Ukraine needs their help the most. For these and other reasons, Ukraine should embrace a more academic and less escapist approach to understanding its wartime history — as most Western countries have eventually done.
In the photo, nationalists march in Lviv, Ukraine on January 1 as they mark the 107th anniversary of the birth of Stepan Bandera.
Photo credit: YURIY DYACHYSHYN/AFP/Getty Images