Dealing constructively with international conflict requires consideration of history, even when that history is disturbing and politically inconvenient.
The Russian attack on Ukraine — like the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan, Iraq, Serbia and Syria — is a blatant violation of the United Nations Charter and requires severe condemnation. But Americans must understand why many Russian people might worry about the legacy of Ukrainian fascism and its continuing influence on Ukrainian politics and culture.
The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) was established in Vienna in 1929 and adopted a right-wing nationalist ideology, similar to that of Italian fascism. This included both terrorism and violent overthrow of governments.
Stepan Bandera eventually became the most important leader of OUN. Bandera preached an ethnically exclusive interpretation of Ukrainian nationhood. He advocated murderous violence against Poles, Jews and Russians whom he considered enemies and polluters of the pure Ukrainian nation.
When Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 21, 1941, many western Ukrainians welcomed the Nazis as liberators from oppressive Soviet rule. If OUN became useful to the invading Germans, Bandera believed the Nazis would help Ukraine become an independent nation. Of course, the Nazis regarded Ukrainians, like all Slavs, as genetically inferior humans, but they were quite willing to use Ukrainians for German military and genocidal purposes. The Germans were able to recruit about 250,000 native Ukrainians to fight against the Soviet Union.
These numbers, it must be remembered, were dwarfed by the 4.5 million Ukrainians who served in the Red Army, plus another 250,000 Ukrainians who operated as anti-German partisan fighters. Also bear in mind that 4 million Ukrainians, including 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews, died as a consequence of the German invasion.
But Ukrainian collaboration with the German occupiers was not inconsequential. Around 100,000 Ukrainians joined police units that directly assisted the Holocaust. Some even joined in the mass shootings of Jews and were among the guards at Nazi death camps. A military arm of the OUN rounded up Jews for the infamous Babi Yar massacre of 34,000 on Sept. 29-30, 1941. Other OUN military formations helped suppress the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and hunted down Jews hiding in forests.
Jews weren’t the only victims of Ukrainian fascism. Between 1943 and 1945 OUN military forces killed over 130,000 Poles including numerous women and children. These murders were intended to lay the foundation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state.
After the German surrender in 1945, the OUN military continued partisan warfare against both Soviet and Polish authorities. Both British intelligence and the CIA covertly assisted the OUN insurgency. About 200,000 people died before the OUN insurgency was finally defeated in 1949. In October 1959 Bandera was assassinated in Munich by the Soviet KGB.
The current people of Ukraine are certainly not responsible for OUN crimes during and after World War II, nor can the Russian attack on Ukraine be justified as an exercise in denazification. But it is also true that Ukraine has not fully exorcised its fascist legacy.
Stepan Bandera remains an admired hero of Ukrainian nationalism among considerable parts of Ukrainian society. Many streets are named after Bandera, and a Ukrainian postage stamp carries his image. The OUN remains an inspiration for radical right wing parties in Ukraine. The Simon Wiesenthal Center writes that “Ukraine has, to the best of our knowledge, never conducted a single investigation of a local Nazi war criminal, let alone prosecuted a Holocaust perpetrator.”
Contemporary right-wing Ukrainian militias, such as the Azov Battalion and CI4, are aggressive, well organized, fiercely anti-Russian and trace their lineage to Ukrainian nationalist organizations allied with the Nazis in World War II.
Although they constitute a small minority of Ukrainian society, these militias exercise disproportionate political power. They were largely responsible for making the February 2014 revolution both violent and savagely anti-Russian. These militias spearheaded eight years of military attacks on the Donbas separatist regions. Their threats and menacing presence made implementation of the Minsk 2 Accords politically impossible.
This inconvenient history certainly does not vindicate the illegal and immoral Russian assault on Ukraine, but it may illuminate why Putin’s war rationalizing rhetoric is able to mobilize some ghastly historical memory.