UPA insurgents from the Kosiv region (photo from Litopys Ukrains'koi Povstans'koi Armii)
Article by: Volodymyr Birchak, Sergii Riabenko
Christopher Miller’s article “‘Banderite’ Rebrand: Ukrainian Police Declare Admiration For Nazi Collaborators To Make A Point” was published last week on RFE/RL.
The article tells about the “I am a banderite” flashmob launched by some Ukrainian police members as an apology to their colleague’s phrase “Lay down, Bandera” when on 9 February police arrested and beat members of the nationalist C14 organization, which had come to a rally of presidential candidate Yuliya Tymoshenko with a “Who killed Katya Handziuk” banner. It is widely suspected that a high-ranking member of Tymoshenko’s party was involved in ordering the murder of Handziuk, a city official and activist fighting corruption in the south-Ukrainian city of Kherson. The arrest of C14 took place during the rally apparently without reason, leading to suspicions that the police were carrying out a political order.
It was already clear from the title that the article will not only deal with the situation regarding the beating of C14 activists and police misconduct, but also about the “Banderites” themselves, named by the author as Nazi collaborators.
Is this in line with the facts? And on what basis has Miller claimed them to be Nazi collaborators? Let us go a little deeper into the subject.
The article says:
“They, too, are “#Banderites.” Or, to be clear, supporters of militant Ukrainian nationalists who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.”
The author goes on:
“Stepan Bandera, a hero to many Ukrainians whose Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its military arm, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), fought both Soviet and Nazi forces during World War II but is also accused of carrying out murderous campaigns against Poles and Jews.”
Interestingly, the author contradicts himself: at first he says that the “Banderites” cooperated with the Nazis during WWII, but then asserts that they were fighting against those very Nazis.
So did they collaborate with, or fight against, the Nazis?
The Banderites first appeared in 1940, when OUN members had an arduous debate on the strategy of further struggle. Stepan Bandera represented the younger generation of nationalists, who believed that they should rely first of all on their own strengths. On the other hand, the older generation, headed by Andriy Melnyk, drew on the experience of World War I and the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917-1921, and believed that gaining independence was possible only with the support of Germany. These contradictions led to the split of the OUN into two separate organizations in 1940.
Stepan Bandera (1909-1959)
Did the “Banderites” really collaborate with the Nazis and if they did, when and for how long?
After World War I, an international legal system came into being in which there was no place for an independent Ukraine. Its territory was divided among neighboring states, while the government and the remnants of the army had to go abroad. Accordingly, the main task of the OUN was the struggle to restore independence. It was possible to achieve this only by breaking the post-war system. Therefore Germany, which was destroying this system for its own purposes, was seen by the nationalists as a potential ally.
At the same time, Stepan Bandera and the OUN leadership clearly expressed their position at the very beginning: without taking into account the Ukrainian state interest, cooperation with Berlin would be impossible, leading instead to confrontation.
Before the 1941 German invasion of the USSR, the Ukrainian nationalists prepared and sent a special memorandum to the leaders of the Third Reich. They warned the Nazis that policies unfavorable to Ukraine “could lead to undesirable consequences for relations between the two nations” and “would also cause great harm to Germany.” It was emphasized that the “Ukrainian problem” could not be solved along the path and by the methods that Germany had applied with regard to the satellite states Slovakia and Croatia.
Veiled threats run all through the text:
“It is clear that at first when German troops march into Ukraine they will be welcomed as liberators, but this situation may soon change if Germany comes to Ukraine with inappropriate slogans and not in order to restore the Ukrainian state… A new European order is unthinkable without an independent Ukrainian nation state.“
In other words, in 1941 the “Banderites” provided for the possibility of confrontation with Berlin if the Nazis did not recognize the independence of Ukraine.
On 22 June 1941, Germany attacked the USSR. And just a week later, when Soviet forces left Lviv, a group of OUN members led by Yaroslav Stetsko a deputy of Bandera, entered the city. They convened a National Assembly and proclaimed the restoration of the Ukrainian state and established its interim government.
Proclamation of the restoration of the Ukrainian state, Sambir Lviv region
The decision was greeted by other Ukrainian organizations and heads of churches. But the Nazis, despite being given certain diplomatic courtesies in the text of the act of restoration of the Ukrainian state, did not recognize the new state. The German army command instead received strict directives from Berlin:
“The aspiration of Ukrainians to establish political independence of the Ukrainian nation state and the creation of a Ukrainian army should be stopped in a combat zone. Military authorities should not explain to Ukrainians their attitude to this issue.”
The German SD security service arrested Stepan Bandera on July 5, and on July 9 they arrested Yaroslav Stetsko. For two months, the Nazis applied force on them to withdraw the act of independence. However, they categorically refused. Then the Nazis started repressions against members of the OUN.
As a result of mass arrests in September 1941, more than fifteen hundred “Banderites” ended up behind bars.
Stepan Bandera, Yaroslav Stetsko, Stepan Lenkavsky, Volodymyr Stakhiv and other OUN leaders were imprisoned at Sachsenhausen concentration camp in early 1942. They stayed there until September 1944. The conditions were cruel: the prisoners were held in single cells, correspondence was prohibited, walks only with the special permission of a commandant.
Further, from November 1941 the Nazis pursued the physical destruction of “Banderites.” The SD and other Reich security services received a special order:
“It is undeniably established that the Bandera movement is preparing an uprising in the Reichskommissariat (Ukraine), whose goal is to create an independent Ukraine. All the activists should be immediately arrested and, after a thorough interrogation, secretly destroyed as robbers.”
Only a part of the “Banderites” – those who went underground, or were in the ranks of the Nachtigall and Roland battalions – managed to escape arrest. The German intelligence service agreed with the OUN to form these battalions in spring 1941. The Germans regarded them as commando units in the war against the USSR. On the other hand, for the Ukrainians this was an opportunity to obtain weapons and gain military experience in order to build their own army on its basis. But those plans were not to come to fruition. Having found out about the arrest of Bandera and Stetsko, the soldiers demanded their release. Then the Nazis withdrew both battalions from the front, reformed them into a single unit and later sent it to Belarus to fight against Soviet partisans.
In December 1942, all the soldiers refused to continue service. Then the unit was disbanded, and the soldiers were arrested. Since the beginning of 1943 those who managed to escape joined the newly-formed UPA troops as commanders and instructors (among these was the future UPA main commander Roman Shukhevych). And the experience gained in the German service was used effectively by the “Banderites” in the fight against the Nazi occupation.
After WWII, Nachtigall was accused of carrying out a Jewish pogrom and murder of Polish professors in Lviv in July 1941. However, the West German court acknowledged the falsity of these allegations in 1960. Moreover, KGB documents discovered in 2008 proved that this myth was created by the Soviet secret services.
In any case, during the entire period of the anti-Nazi struggle, the “Banderites,” members of the OUN and soldiers of the UPA carried out more than 2,500 actions against the occupiers, including 22 attacks on district and regional centers, and 11 attacks on camps to release the prisoners. 12-18,000 Nazis, their allies and collaborators were killed. The nationalists themselves also suffered losses: more than 7,000 of them died in battle, while up to 10,000 were arrested or executed. About 600 “Banderites” and their supporters served time in Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Gross-Rosen, Bergen-Belsen and other concentration camps.
As we have seen, cooperation between the OUN and the Nazis ended in the first weeks after the German invasion of the USSR. And after the beginning of repression in the autumn of 1941, there was nothing resembling collaboration between them.
Murderers of Poles?
Miller’s second thesis is also quite revealing:
“UPA … is also accused of carrying out murderous campaigns against Poles and Jews.”
As an example, he quotes a social network post of Eduard Dolinsky, the head of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee:
“Yesterday, February 9, was the anniversary of the first massacre of Poles by Banderites. In the village of Parosl, the UPA cut down more than 150 children, women, and men.”
The idea that the OUN and UPA struggles during World War II were mainly directed against the Poles is quite popular in Poland.
By the efforts of some local politicians and historians, a whole concept of “genocide” was created, according to which the OUN and UPA exterminated all the Poles who were within their reach, while the Poles themselves were just victims.
In the justification of this theory, a significant role is played by the destruction of the population of Parosl, since on the eve of the attack an armed group of Ukrainian nationalists attacked the German garrison in the nearby town of Volodymyrets.
However, the involvement of the “Banderites” in the events in Parosl is nothing more than the assumption of individual historians. It is not confirmed by any direct evidence. And the memories of the only witness of the events were recorded many years later and remain quite controversial.
The reality, however, was different.
During World War II Ukrainian and Polish nationalists fought against both Nazi and Soviet invaders. The Poles wanted to rebuild their state on the basis of the 1939 borders, which included the Ukrainian lands of Galicia and Volhynia. At the same time, the Ukrainians sought to “nullify” the situation and delineate a border between Poland and Ukraine on an ethnic basis.
Back in the spring of 1941, the leadership of the “Banderites” decided:
“The OUN fights against the actions of those Polish groups that are competing to rebuild the Polish occupation of Ukrainian lands. Elimination of anti-Ukrainian actions by the Poles is a prerequisite for the normalization of relations between the Polish and Ukrainian nations.“
The position of the Poles was quite the opposite.
“Let us acknowledge that we will not abandon the eastern lands of Rzeczpospolita [i.e. Republic of Poland], in the southern part of which the Poles have long been living alongside Ukrainians, and where the Polish Nation has for centuries been making a gigantic civilizational and economic contribution,”
one of the structures of the Polish émigré government wrote in summer of 1943, expressing a common position of the majority of Polish organizations.
None of the parties was going to give way to the other. Repeated attempts to get along were unsuccessful. Both Ukrainians and Poles tried to conquer the disputed territories first, with the enemy and “alien” populations considered as obstacles.
Both parties relied on the experience of World War I and believed that the advantage of one or another population in the disputed territory would be decisive for its affiliation of Ukraine or Poland.
In other words, the question is not only about the “UPA’s campaign for the destruction of the Poles,” but about the larger-scale conflict between the insurgent movements of both nations, which sometimes had the character of hostilities.
Both Ukrainian and Polish detachments carried out both offensive and protective actions. And some of their participants committed war crimes against the Ukrainian and Polish civilian population.
Murderers of Jews?
Now to the question of Jews, or rather the part of the relationship between them and the “Banderites,” which Miller does not mention.
Besides Ukrainians, members of other nationalities also fought in the UPA ranks, including Georgians, Azerbaijanis, Tatars, Belgians, Russians, and others. During the German occupation, the “Banderites” helped some Jewish doctors to escape from ghettos, and many of them, having been released, joined the UPA or the OUN underground. One such example is Abraham Shtryker from Lviv, who became the “Banderite” doctor “Popper.” Another example is doctor Samuel Lieberghal, who until recently was known only under the pseudonym “Gil.”
There were cases when Jews were not only doctors in the UPA but also fighters. For example Gersh Keller, who later became one of the organizers of the famous anti-Soviet Kengir uprising.
There were also Jews occupying relatively high positions in the UPA. Leyba-Itsyk Dobrovskii worked in the political department of the UPA Headquarters in Volhynia. He was the author of well-known UPA appeals to other nations, in particular to Asia and the Caucasus who served in the German legions. Brothers Lazar and Moses Steinbelonged to a mixed Russian-Jewish family, yet both of them became Ukrainian insurgents. Lazar (“Ryzhy”) was very close to the kurin (battalion) commander Makar Melnyk (“Kora”), while Moses (“Bosco”) was a member of the headquarters of the UPA “Zagrava” military district.
The last of the now-known Jews who died along with the UPA rebels was Shrebert, a front line doctor who was blown up by the MGB in the kryivka (i.e. bunker) in Ivano-Frankivsk region.
So we see that in reality the history of the “Banderites” movement and their relationship with the Poles and Jews is much more complicated than black and white labels. Bandera was the leader of the liberation movement and we should form an attitude to his activity based on a detailed study of documents and understanding of the situation of those days. Nowadays, Ukraine is returning to the study of its real history and all media publications about its past should do the same.
Volodymyr Birchak – historian, Head of Academic Programs of the Center for Research on the Liberation Movement
Sergii Riabenko – lawyer, Head of Legal Department, Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance