Interview with historian John Paul-Himka

SS paramilitaries murder a Jewish mother and child, in 1942, at Ivanhorod, Ukraine.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union which commenced on 22 June 1941.    The war on the Eastern Front was the largest front of World War Two, it saw some of the fiercest battles and worst atrocities – an estimated 30 million people were killed. 

The then Soviet Ukraine was occupied in full, millions were lost, an estimated one in six inhabitants perished in the conflict, over two million sent to Germany as slave labour, one quarter of all Holocaust victims lived in Ukraine.  The journalist Edgar Snow after visiting Ukraine wrote, that “which some are apt to dismiss as “the Russian glory,” has, in all truth and, in many costly ways, been first of all a Ukrainian war.  No single European country suffered deeper wounds to its cities, its industries, its farmlands and its humanity.”

What happened in Ukraine remains a matter controversy to this day, to mark this anniversary Christopher Ford of the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign has interviewed the historian Professor John-Paul Himka who is author of a forthcoming major study Ukrainian Nationalists and the Holocaust. 

A village in Galicia, Western Ukraine, June 1941

Often an image is presented of Ukrainians welcoming German forces as liberators, whilst on the other hand we can see in summer 1941 large mobilisations of the populace and heroic defences being mounted such as in Odesa and on the approaches to Kyiv – what is the accurate picture?

Most of my research has concentrated on Western Ukraine. There, in Galicia and Volhynia, the Germans were welcomed by large segments of the Ukrainian population, by some segments of the Polish population, and, for obvious reasons, not at all by the Jewish population. There were several reasons, in my opinion, that the Ukrainian population of Western Ukraine greeted the Germans as liberators. The main reason was the experience of Soviet rule in the period 1939-41. All urban inhabitants underwent an immediate and drastic decline in their standard of living. Many familiar food products and household goods disappeared from stores within weeks of the establishment of the Soviet order. The lively newspapers and magazines of interwar Poland were replaced by a communist press that consisted largely of propaganda and in which there was neither debate nor differing perspectives. I am sure that many people in Lviv saw the invading Germans as restoring them to Central Europe and its way of life.

            More important, the Soviet regime arrested and deported hundreds of thousands of inhabitants of Western Ukraine – Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews. Certain categories of the population, e.g., dissident communists, were murdered immediately. And soon after the Germans launched their attack on the Soviet Union, the NKVD arrested suspected OUN members in mass. The prisons were crammed with Ukrainian nationalists, but also with members of Polish political parties and with Zionists. Before retreating to the east at the end of June, the NKVD murdered about 15,000 political prisoners in Galicia and Volhynia. When the Germans arrived and the prisons were opened, the great number of decomposing bodies produced a horrible stench. The inhabitants of Lviv and Lutsk and other cities had never witnessed or smelled such carnage, even during World War I.

Bodies of victims of the NKVD prison massacre in Lviv July 1941

            Furthermore, the only Ukrainian political organization that survived the Soviet period was the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. It had had years of experience as an underground organization in interwar Poland, and this enabled it to survive Soviet repressions. The nationalists emerged from the underground as the Soviets were beginning their retreat. They had already been in alliance with Germany for over a decade, and they eagerly both greeted and collaborated with the Germans.

A uniformed militiaman abuses a woman during the Lviv pogrom July, 1941.

            As to the rest of Ukraine, what I know about the situation comes from reading the monographs of other scholars rather than from original research. Ukrainians in the territories of Soviet Ukraine as it existed prior to 1939, i.e., without Galicia, Volhynia, or Bukovina, did not welcome the Germans. They had been included in the Soviet sphere for twenty years. They had experienced collectivization, dekulakization, the famine of 1932-33, and the political terror that raged from 1930 to 1937. They had had little contact with the outside world, and as vicious as Stalinist rule was, they had gotten used to it. Clearly, they were not enthusiastic about it or there would not have been as many desertions and surrenders as there were in the summer of 1941. But the reputation of the Germans was not high, since German rule in central and eastern Ukraine in 1918 had been very unpopular, provoking numerous peasant revolts. Most accounts I have read indicate that the Soviet Ukrainian population had a wait-and-see attitude to the German invaders in 1941.

Residents making barricades during the defence of Odessa, the city was besieged for 73 days.

By late summer Ukraine was occupied in its entirety by the Nazis – some nationalists thought it would be like the 1918 occupation – what was the reality of German plans for Ukraine?

Perhaps some of the older generation of nationally minded Ukrainians in Galicia, such as Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, thought that the Germans of 1941 would behave like the old Habsburg Austrians, but the members of OUN knew better. The nationalists understood that the German national socialists stood for a new, much more ruthless, race-based order. On many points the Nazis and OUN saw eye to eye, e.g., the need to destroy Poland and the USSR, the will to power, and antisemitism.

            A number of them also understood that the Nazis wanted to expand their empire into Eastern Europe, including Ukraine. On the eve of World War II and operation Barbarossa, two OUN theoreticians, Mykhailo Kolodzinsky and Ivan Mitrynga, entertained fantasies of creating a large, expansionist Ukrainian state, and both recognized that the major threat to these imaginings came from Nazi Germany. They knew what Hitler had written about Lebensraum in Mein Kampf. Kolodzinsky died in Carpatho-Ukraine in 1939, but Mitrynga was issuing his warning shortly before Germany invaded its Soviet ally. Mitrynga and his followers in the organization argued against OUN’s alliance with Germany and broke with the Banderites in September 1941 precisely over this issue.

            Although there were people in OUN who understood that Hitler wished to use Ukraine as a colony for exploitation and German settlement (Hitler made no secret of this), many nationalists hoped that the Germans would realize that they needed the help of the oppressed peoples of the USSR to win the war. Prominent Nazi ideologue and head of the Ostministerium Alfred Rosenberg was in favor of creating a large Ukrainian state within the Nazi-dominated New Europe. Many Ukrainians hoped that Rosenberg’s views would prevail over those of Hitler and Himmler. But such was not to be.

            The ultimate German plan for Eastern Europe, as is well known, was to reduce and enslave the autochthonous population, educate that population only to the extent that it would be able to understand German orders and rules, and repopulate the conquered territories with ethnic Germans.

Jewish residents of Kyiv murdered on the road to Babyn Yar  where 33,771 were massacred.

Were Ukrainians passive victims, collaborators or did they resist the Nazi occupation?

We can find in Nazi-occupied Ukraine every type of behavior you could imagine. Certainly there were many passive victims among the Ukrainian population. An example might be a fellow who was drafted into the Red Army, captured by the Germans, and then held in a POW camp for a few weeks until he perished of hunger and exposure to the elements. And of course there were collaborators, for example, the police in German service throughout Ukraine: they were key instruments in the persecution and murder of the Jewish population and also rounded up Ukrainian youth for slave labor in Germany. And there were also those who resisted the Germans, most effectively by joining the Soviet partisans, but also by joining UPA, or hiding Jews or POWs.

Mass deportation of woman from Kyiv to slave labour in Germany

The scale of the Nazi terror was immense; one estimate considered one in every six who was on occupied territory of Ukraine perished. What was the impact of this experience for Ukrainians?

I spent quite a bit of time doing research in Soviet Ukraine and elsewhere in the Soviet Union – in 1976, in 1983, and in 1989-91. My impression then was that the fundamental myth of the Soviet state was no longer the October revolution but rather the victory over fascism in World War II. Few veterans of October were still alive in the 1970s (and not simply as a function of age – so many had perished at the hands of the Stalinist regime). But there were many veterans of World War II around, and many people remembered the war and occupation painfully. I remember an encounter I had in Leningrad in the mid-1970s. My friend and I began talking with the waitress who was serving us, a somewhat older woman. It turned out that she had spent all her life in the city. When I asked her if she was in Leningrad during the siege, she simply broke out crying.

            It is useful to remember that what is today Ukraine was chopped into pieces during World War II. Transcarpathia was occupied by Hungary, and Bukovina and the Odessa region (Transnistria) were occupied by Romania. Even the Ukrainian territories under German occupation were divided into three separate administrative zones: Distrikt Galizien, the Reichskommissariat Ukraine, and regions under direct military administration (areas around Kharkiv, the Donbas, Crimea). The wartime experiences of the population of these different parts of Ukraine were therefore not the same. Even the course of the Holocaust played out differently in each of these separate regions.

Queuing for food in occupied Kharkiv

            The most brutal occupation regime was in the Reichskommissariat, the largest piece of Ukraine. The urban population was not adequately provisioned, and in fact there was a deliberate policy of starvation. Reichskommissar Erich Koch set the tone for the occupation with his total contempt for the local population. His policies were ruthless. The families of suspected partisans were murdered in their entirety. Entire villages were razed. Young people filing out of church or a dance were captured and sent off to Germany for forced labor. Soviet POWs were starved and exposed to the elements. The population of the Reichskommissariat was generally horrified by the mass murder of Jews and Roma by the Einsatzgruppen. The situation was so bad that spontaneous acts of resistance broke out, and the number of Soviet partisans was on the rise. OUN was very strong in Volhynia, which was the westernmost part of the Reichskommissariat. And even OUN saw that it had to launch an anti-German resistance if it did not want to lose the population’s trust. Of course, the nationalist resistance was carefully calibrated so as not to undermine the Germans as they fought the Red Army. Unlike the Soviet partisans, the nationalist partisans would not derail German supply trains heading to the front. But they would attack local German patrols and disrupt the roundups of young people for forced labor. UPA’s anti-German resistance was a reflection of the mood of the population in the Reichskommissariat.

            The experience in Galicia, which was part of the General Government, not the Reichskommissariat, was very different, and this perhaps helps explain the political culture of Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv, and Ternopil oblasts today. In Distrikt Galizien the Germans favored Ukrainians over their longtime rivals, the Poles. Governor Otto Wäсhter (appointed January 1943) liked Ukrainians, and OUN even set up its own bodyguard for the governor. Many of the higher ranking officials were, like Wäсhter, Austrians, who knew something about Galicia and shared a Central European culture. Hans Koch (no relation to Erich), the liaison between the Abwehr and OUN and an occasional guest at the palace of Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, had fought in the Ukrainian Galician Army in 1918-19. In conversations I have had with elderly members of Lviv’s intelligentsia, I often heard that there were many cultured gentlemen among the German occupation elite. There were also roundups of youth for forced labor in Galicia, but here it was mitigated by the presence of a Ukrainian police force in German service. They sometimes warned the youth of roundups, and they could use their position to exempt relatives, friends, and nationalists from deportation to the Reich. Because antisemitism and nationalism were widespread in the region, the mass murder of the Jews did not shock the population as much as it did the population of pre-1939 Soviet Ukraine; indeed, in nationalist quarters, the Holocaust was welcome.

Soviet Partisans talking to peasants in West Ukraine during the ‘Great Raid’ west.
Red Partisans in Ukraine – 1942

            Symptoms of these different experiences were particularly visible in the summer of 1943. Soviet partisans were attracting more followers in the Reichskommissariat, and even the nationalists there had to demonstrate that they had turned against the Germans. But at the same time in Galicia the Soviet partisan raid of Sydir Kovpak met with little sympathy on the part of the local population and therefore fizzled out. More strikingly, in Galicia tens of thousands of Ukrainians felt it was their patriotic duty to join the Waffen-SS Division Galizien.

            For Galician Ukrainians, the horrors that stuck in their minds were not those of the German occupation but the deportations and mass murders perpetrated by the “first Soviets” of 1939-41 and by the brutal counterinsurgency in the aftermath of the Soviet reconquest of Western Ukraine.

Approaches to the German invasion have changed considerably in recent years; indeed it was reported in Ukrayinska Pravda that Ukraine will predictably pay much less attention to this historic anniversary than neighbouring Russia, why is this the case?

The Euromaidan, Russia’s invasion of Crimea and interference in the Donbas, and the politics of President Petro Poroshenko have set Ukraine on a more nationalist course in which the “Galician” remembrance of World War II is propagandized at state and NGO levels. Ukraine’s most important ally is the United States, where the influence of the Ukrainian nationalist diaspora on Ukraine policy is substantial. Canada, a less powerful country, is even more guided by the nationalist diaspora than the US. Notably, the European Union has kept its distance from Ukraine; most European countries view the Nazis as the embodiment of evil. It used to be thought that the ticket to entry to the EU was coming clean with a country’s Holocaust history. But entering the EU is clearly not on the cards for Ukraine, and America and Canada could not care less about having Ukraine honestly investigate the history of the Holocaust. So Ukraine creates its own myth of World War II, which includes downgrading the importance of the Red Army’s victory over Nazi Germany.

Soviet Prisoners of War near Kharkiv in 1941 – millions perished in German hands.

The Ukrainian ambassador rejected Germany’s invitations to a Berlin exhibition opening for victims of Hitler’s invasion, pointing to Stalin’s terror, there has also been an emphasis that the war began for Ukrainians in 1939 with Stalin’s occupation of West Ukraine.  Is this a fair approach or does it diminish the experience of most Ukrainians in the war?

I think I have provided much of the answer to this question already. Of course the “Galician remembrance” diminishes the experiences of most Ukrainians in the war. It is one of the reasons why there is a considerable resistance to the nationalist framing of the history of World War II in areas outside of Galicia, particularly in eastern and southern Ukraine. But as time passes, the actual memory of the war is also fading and melting into whatever patriotic mythos the state chooses to propagate. Already polls show that the youth of the East and South are more sympathetic to the heroic Bandera narrative than are their parents and grandparents.

June 2021 – The funeral with military honours in Kyiv of an ‘SS Galicia Division’ veteran Orest Vaskul

In recent years there has been a tendency to glorify certain nationalists from the wartime period; there was even a funeral of an SS Galicia Division officer with military honours in Kyiv. To many in the West this seems bewildering and repugnant. How should Ukraine approach the experience of the Operation Barbarossa and the occupation?

Ukraine stands before a choice: either to accept the almost universal condemnation of what Hitler’s Germany and its allies did during World War II or to continue to send signals that align it with the ever more vociferous neo-fascist movements across the West. Ukraine at present is one more battlefield between a politics of reason and compassion and a politics of toxic myth and xenophobia.

The Day of Liberation – Partisans who helped liberate Kyiv from the Nazi’s march past the Bohdan Khmelnytsky Monument in November 1943.