Andriy Melnyk defends the nationalist leader Stepan Bandera against accusations of being responsible for mass murders, including of Jews. It would have been better if he hadn’t done that, because it’s a falsification of history. And grist to the mill of Russian propaganda.
Why should you care about history? Because history is over, but never over. The history of Ukrainian nationalism still strains relations between Poland and Ukraine to this day. And the reason given by the Russians for their war of aggression against Ukraine is that they want to “denazify” the country. So you have to understand what was in order to understand what is.
Andriy Melnyk calls Stepan Bandera a “freedom fighter” and compares him in the podcast with journalist Tilo Jung to Robin Hood. When Jung confronted the ambassador with a clearly anti-Semitic decision by the Ukrainian underground organization OUN, of which Bandera was head, Melnyk says Bandera wanted to “exploit” the fight between Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin “to create the Ukrainian state”. That didn’t work, and after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Bandera was arrested by the Nazis and taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
That corresponds to the facts. However, Bandera was treated in this concentration camp as a so-called special or “honorary prisoner” – and in 1944, with the advance of the Soviet army to the west, he was released as one of the very few concentration camp prisoners of the Nazis. “Brothers in spirit” comments Jung.
Then, in this truly remarkable interview, Jung and Melnyk argue whether Bandera was involved in the murder of 800,000 Jews (which Jung does not say here: by the Germans). Which Melnyk denies, also pointing out that had it been otherwise, Bandera would have been convicted by the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. However, Israel wanted to sue Bandera, as did Poland.
Bandera “did not give any order to exterminate Jews,” says Melnyk. However, as Ukraine historian Franziska Davies points out, Bandera’s OUN committed these atrocities. Whether he was personally involved is not relevant to the assessment of his role. Not every Nazi killed a Jew, and yet the Nazis murdered Jews.
Then there is the atrocity known as the “Massacre of Volhynia”. Up to 100,000 Poles were murdered by the OUN in “Western Ukraine”, which was part of Poland at the time. Back then, in the 1930s and early 1940s, Ukrainians were the largest minority in Poland, a quarter of the Polish population was Ukrainian – and was oppressed by the majority. For the Ukrainians, Melnyk explains, Poles were enemies – comparable to the Nazis and Stalin’s communists. Melnyk does not deny the massacres, but refers to the Polish massacres that followed.
Both are true. Only: Even if there were no orders personally signed by Bandera to murder Jews or Poles – the OUN, which he led, committed these acts.
Melnyk refers to the works of the historian Grzegorz Rossolinksi-Liebe (who lives in Berlin). However, in 2014 he wrote this in the Quarterly Journal for Contemporary History: With the invasion of the Nazis into the Soviet Union, the first phase of the murder of the Jews began. “In the largest pogrom, the one in Lviv, which began a few hours before the proclamation of the Ukrainian state at around 8:00 p.m. on June 30, 4,000 Jews were killed. The perpetrators of the pogroms were the militia set up by the OUN-B (B=Bandera), which worked together with the Germans, parts of the local population and various German units, including those of the Wehrmacht.”
The minutes of the Nuremberg war crimes trials state: “In the spring and summer of 1944, 120,000 Ukrainians withdrew with the German troops and administrative staffs, who must have seen the extermination of Jewish fellow citizens either as spectators, helpers or perpetrators.”
In Bloodlands, the definitive work on the history of the countries between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, Yale historian Timothy Snyder writes: “The nationalist OUN Bandera, which led the partisan army, had long vowed to exterminate the minorities to evict Ukraine. Their ability to assassinate Poles was a result of German training, and their determination had much to do with a desire to clear the area of seemingly hostile individuals before a final battle with the Red Army. The UPA, as the partisan army was called, murdered tens of thousands of Poles and provoked retaliatory actions by Poles against Ukrainian civilians.”
After the war, the role of (not: the) Ukrainians as Nazi collaborators and perpetrators was swept under the carpet – fascist nationalists became patriotic heroes; also from Bandera. On May 8, 2015, Melnyk laid a wreath at his grave at the Soviet War Memorial.
The worship of Bandera as a “freedom fighter” is widespread in western Ukraine. Ambassador Melnyk also comes from Lemberg (Lviv). In eastern Ukraine, this view of history is not shared.
Unusually, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has distanced itself from Melnyk’s statements. The Polish foreign minister had previously intervened with his Ukrainian counterpart about Melnyk. Poles and Ukrainians have been at odds for years over the interpretation of this historical period. That is the reason why the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba distanced himself from his ambassador: Hardly any other country supports Ukraine against the Russians like Poland. Ukraine has no need to provoke the extremely loyal Poles of all people with painful interpretations of history (falsifications of history).
It also doesn’t take much imagination to imagine how Vladimir Putin and Co. are rubbing their hands. The Russians also justify their revisionist, imperialist war with the alleged need to denazify Ukraine. A Ukrainian ambassador who relativizes or denies Nazi-era fascist atrocities by Ukrainians fits this reading all too well.
That would be the foreign policy damage that Melnyk has done to the country he represents. Which is likely to be most painful for those who stand with Ukraine.
The basic flaw of this narrative: the historical distortion of a single Ukrainian government official does not make Ukraine a Nazi people like the Russians portray.
One thing in conclusion: German know-it-all, a gesture of moral superiority, is absolutely inappropriate. It took Germany a long time to come to terms with its own Nazi history, and a staging as a “master of memory” (Davies) would only be embarrassing.