Fragments from a War Diary: Part #101
I never thought I would spend time studying the life of Stepan Bandera, the controversial Ukrainian nationalist who some regard as a heroic figure in the struggle to found the modern Ukrainian nation state and who others regard as a Nazi collaborator. Nevertheless it is undeniable that this man, who did a lot to fight for Ukrainian statehood in the 1930’s but whose methods were violent and indeed barbaric and who by all accounts advanced Nazi anti-semitic policies and did indeed collaborate with the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, has enjoyed a renaissance in Ukraine and many people have come to admire him. For this, Ukraine has been the subject of significant international ire.
We need to start with the atrocities in which Bandera was complicit, so that there is no moral ambiguity about the sort of person we are dealing with. Between the two twentieth century World Wars, western Ukraine was part of the Second Polish Republic and the area was the subject of ethnic unrest by reason of Ukrainians’ dissatisfaction with Polish rule. Western Ukraine was organised into a series of voivodeships, federal units of the Polish Republic administered by centrally appointed Governors. The government of the Second Polish Republic, under fascist influence sweeping through other regions of Europe, became reactionary, and antisemitic and anti-Ukrainian policies were implemented based upon ethnic discrimination. The anti-Ukrainian policies gave rise to various Ukrainian nationalist movements, of which Bandera’s Banderites were arguably the most prominent. Bandera joined the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (UON) in 1929. The OUN was a sort of paramilitary political movement, that took to assassinating prominent Polish politicians as part of a campaign to liberate Ukraine from Polish rule.
Bandera was the commander of a number of what today we would call terrorist cells, and in 1934 he was arrested for terrorist offences, tried, convicted and sentenced to death but he was not executed and he remained in prison. In September 1939, as Poland was jointly invaded by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Bandera was released from Brest prison (Brest then being part of the Second Polish Republic; it is now a city in western Belarus) but he fled from what he realised would be Soviet-occupied Polish territory and moved to Krakow which was the capital of the Nazi German governorate of Poland. With the support of Nazi Germany’s military intelligence, he initiated a campaign of acts of terror within the Soviet Union and inside Soviet-occupied Ukraine in particular. As a result, his Banderites killed a number of Poles and Jews inside occupied Soviet territory and for this reason Bandera is associated with Nazi antisemitism.
In June 1941, as Nazi Germany declared war on the Soviet Union and invaded Soviet-occupied Ukraine, Bandera unilaterally declared an independent Ukrainian state and appointed a Prime Minister in Lviv, now occupied by Nazi Germany. He declared the new Ukrainian state’s allegiance to Nazi Germany but both he and his Prime Minister were arrested and taken to Berlin. Bandera then lived at liberty until the Nazis discovered that he was planning subversive acts to establish a Ukrainian state once again, whereupon in January 1942 he was transported to Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
By September 1944 the war in the East was going against Nazi Germany and Bandera was released from incarceration to organise a special unit of Ukrainian fascists to fight the Red Army that was moving forwards towards Ukraine, Poland and ultimately Berlin. However this never really happened and instead, as Berlin was occupied by the Allied forces Bandera moved to the American zone where he initiated cooperation with British and American intelligence as a former Nazi prisoner who might be able to maintain Ukrainian sympathies for the West and against the Soviet Union. He changed his identity and maintained anti-Soviet Ukrainian fascist activities until the KGB found him in Munich in 1959 and assassinated him with potassium cyanide.
The controversy surrounding Bandera derives from the fact that while he was a Nazi sympathiser and indeed a collaborator, and conducted activities that in modern terms we would describe as appropriate to a terrorist organisation, he encapsulated the aspirations of Ukrainian nationalism for generations of Ukrainians whose hopes of statehood were consecutively quashed by the Second Polish Republic, the Soviets, the Nazis and then the Soviets again. He was a fanatic, using the sort of extreme nationalist language characteristic of the European inter-war period associated with fascism and racial supremacy; he was a violent revolutionary, prepared to use murder, sabotage and terrorist cell structures to sew political havoc. He was also profoundly antisemitic. He was also anti-Polish, and towards the end of World War II paramilitary units under his command were involved in massacres and acts of ethnic cleansing against Poles in Ukraine. Yet his supporters highlight that the Nazis interred him and he was a victim. The reason for that, however, may have been simply because he was too extreme and unstable even for them. He was a renegade and an outlaw which is why they could not countenance a Ukrainian government led by him and his allies.
For the Soviets, he was so dangerous in organising subversive activities in the territory of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, himself Ukrainian (from the Donbas region), ordered his murder in the West. He had been collaborating with Western intelligence to sew chaos and fomenting political unrest in the Soviet Union at a time when stability in Ukraine after World War II was essential to the Soviet programme for modernisation and industrialisation of Ukraine, and harmony throughout post-war Ukraine irrespective of ethnic or linguistic background was considered essential to achieve progress.
In 2010 President Yuschenko of Ukraine awarded Bandera, posthumously, the title of “Hero of Ukraine” although it was subsequently rescinded on a technicality. As part of various processes of de-Sovietisation and de-Russification of place names, at least twelve streets in various Ukrainian towns and cities have been renamed in honour of Stepan Bandera. Nevertheless his legacy remains profoundly controversial, his name being associated with far-right nationalist groups and symbols in the current era of confrontation with Russia. One survey indicated that only a third of Ukrainians consider his reputation as unqualifiedly positive; many Ukrainians from the east and the south continue to to regard him in the most negative of terms, because they associate him with a sort of far-right nationalism without broad popularity in Ukraine and as portraying Ukraine in a poor international light.
Therefore, in the interests of national unity at this time of crisis in Ukraine’s hour of need, Bandera is not much discussed. He is too divisive, too fanatical a figure to unite Ukrainians around their common cause of resisting Russian aggression; his distinctly mottled life history also makes him an unsavoury character to be mentioned amongst the western corridors of power that are supporting Ukraine in her struggle against her neighbour. If you search hard, you can learn a little bit about him in Lviv; elsewhere in the country, his name is not much mentioned at all.