Discover more from Bug-eyed and Shameless
About the SS Officer in the Gallery
History is messy, horrible, complicated. All we can do is face it.
Mārtiņš Kaprāns pointed out the window of the cafe, across the street and through the park, to a towering statue in the middle of Riga.
Kaprāns is a scholar of Latvian nationalism and its social memory. He is fascinated, he explained, by “the potential of using history as a source of conflict.”
And the Freedom Monument is the physical embodiment of that potential. Conceived in the 1920s, it epitomized the country’s newly-found independence: A massive stone pillar, supporting a bronze cast of a woman holding aloft three golden stars, representing the three distinct regions of Latvia. The reliefs on which it stands are carved scenes representing Latvia’s constant struggle, both against its neighbors, against nature, and against itself.
When it was unveiled in 1935, Latvia’s newfound freedom had already been suspended by a coup d’état. A few years later, the Soviets invaded: 35,000 Latvians were murdered or sent to the gulags of Siberia. When the Nazis invaded in 1941, Latvians assembled around the monument, hoping for a return to independence. It never came: In the ensuing occupation, approximately 70,000 Latvian Jews were murdered. The Soviets returned to recapture, and annex, the country in 1944: Another 60,000 Latvians were deported to the Soviet slave camps.1
The successive occupiers tried to remake Riga in their image. The Soviets had tried to force Latvians to re-remember the statue as mother Russia, holding the three stars of their Baltic empire: Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia. The streets alongside the park were changed and changed again: From Brīvības Iela, or “freedom street”; to Lenin Street; to Adolf-Hitler-Strasse.
Through all that horror, the monument remained. So now, every year, it is where Latvians gather to commemorate the horrors of war and occupation. Just not always on the same day.
On March 16, nationalist Latvians assemble around the monument to honor the roughly 100,000 Latvians who fought in the Waffen-SS, against the Russians: The Remembrance Day of the Latvian Legionnaires. Two months later, on May 9, a crowd mostly composed of Riga’s Russian community assembles across town, at the Monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German Fascist Invaders, to observe Victory Day.
The Latvian state has tried, at various times, to ban both memorials. Riga would prefer you celebrate one of their two national holidays: In November, to commemorate its initial independence; or on May 4, to mark the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
“World War II is somewhere in the background, usually,” Kaprāns told me. “It is in the air all the time.”
World War II came to the foreground this week, after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to the Canadian House of Commons. In the public gallery above him was 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka. Recognized by Speaker Anthony Rota as a “Ukrainian-Canadian veteran from the Second World War, who fought for Ukrainian independence against the Russians and continues to support the troops today,” Hunka rose gingerly and waved to the standing ovation below.
The brief moment became an international scandal. Hunka — like so many Latvians, Estonians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians — had fought for the Waffen-SS.
This week, on a very special Bug-eyed and Shameless, we take some cues from our friends in Europe on how to face history.
Bug-eyed and Shameless is always on the right side of history.
It’s hard to put aside just how big of a screwup this whole affair is.
The short synopsis is that Hunka is one of Rota’s constituents, and came on the personal invitation of the speaker.
While he attended a reception with Trudeau and other dignitaries, vetting him was the speaker’s job. It seems no one entered the room with any information about Hunka, beyond Rota’s brief introduction. Hunka is not exactly a well-known name — though any keen student of history should have been able to put two and two together from the context. (I was present in the gallery that day, but ducked out of the chamber before Hunka was introduced.) [Trudeau did not, in fact, attend a reception with Hunka. He was, however, pictured in the speaker's office, and with Government House Leader Karina Gould.]
That’s how we got a veteran of the SS-Waffen sitting, perched over President Zelensky, as the President tries desperately to keep together his loose-knit coalition of Western supporters during one of the most pivotal moments of the war. (Dispatch #64, #63)
With that background, let’s get a few things out of the way, before we embark any further. I’m putting them in bullet points so they’re abundantly clear:
While you can play with words — does one need to be a member of the National Socialist German Workers' Party to be a Nazi? Is fighting with the Nazis the same as fighting for the Nazis? — it doesn’t change the material reality that Hunka was under the command of the Schutzstaffel and in the Nazi chain of command.
While you can have complicated feelings about those who were pressed into service to fight for the Nazis, or those who volunteered for complicated reasons, we should agree that it’s wrong to applaud any veteran of the SS for their service.
The Russian accusation that the Ukrainian state is stuffed with Nazis is disinformation — but, like all good narratives, it contains kernels of truth. This scandal is not Russian disinformation, but it sure helps those Kremlin narratives.
There’s no but here. Hunka should have never been invited, and he certainly shouldn’t have been applauded. Rota resigned on Tuesday: Good.
Yet the fallout of this episode makes clear just how unprepared many North Americans are in dealing with the past. Historically inaccurate recriminations flew. White nationalists revelled in Trudeau’s celebration of a “literal Nazi,” deploying the old I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I technique. Russian stooges like Ivan Katchanovski (Dispatch #52) are parroting the same lines they have used since the start of Putin’s “de-Nazification” campaign. There are tankies who are giddy at the prospect of smearing any Ukrainian as a Nazi. They all insisted that Hunka’s presence in the chamber represented some greater truth about Ukraine and the West’s mission to help them resist Russia’s newest invasion.
This memetic approach to history is infuriating. It is history-by-tweet. At best, it is simplistic: A missed opportunity to better understand our nasty collective history, in hopes that we may never repeat it. At worst, we are being led by the same actors who joined an actual neo-Nazi campaign to silence the Anti-Defamation League (Dispatch #62) as they smear liberals and progressives for celebrating actual Nazis.
Not all of the outrage was performative: Jewish groups were, naturally, horrified. Politicians of all stripe stood, furious, that the speaker had put them in such a position.
Some reaction was mixed. The Polish government was understandably outraged. But one Polish minister went so far as to demand that Canada extradite the 98-year-old to face charges, essentially accusing Ottawa of harboring a war criminal.
In this melee, there has been virtually no coverage of the actual history. We have not, like our friends in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, bothered to actually confront our past and our citizens’ role in it.
Instead, we threw Hunka back to Ukraine and insisted he is their problem.
Hunka isn’t the only one. Dozens of veterans of the Ukrainian 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, the Galicia Division, came to North America after the war. As did soldiers from the 15th and 19th Waffen Grenadier Divisions, the Latvian Legion. As did others from Estonia, Lithuania, and elsewhere. Back then, we considered their actions and, ultimately, welcomed them here. And then we tried to forget about it.
While there are occasions where crying “Nazi!” should be the beginning and ending of the conversation, this isn’t one of them.
So, rather than just weaponizing history, let’s try to unravel the past from the present.
Yaroslav Hunka was 14 years old when Nazi Germany and Communist Russia signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, invading Poland and divvying up Ukraine.
Ukraine had briefly achieved independence amid the February Revolution of 1917, a position that became untenable as Ukraine became a frontline in the First World War. Under a Polish-Russian treaty, Poland took control of Galicia, in the west, and the Bolsheviks took control over much of the east. Hunka, growing up in western Ukraine, was technically born in Poland. Things were worse in the east: Soviet policies intentionally withheld food from Ukraine, at least in part to suppress its strong independence movement. Millions died in the famine, the Holodomor. And now, the USSR was taking over all of Ukraine.
A teenage Hunka spent his days “hoping that those mystical German knights who were so kicking the hated Poles in the ass would appear any minute,” as he wrote in a 2011 blog.2 “Instead, one day a column of horsemen with red stars on their hats arrived.”
In 1940, Hunka recounted, he had begun to look at one of his Polish teachers as a member of his family, a grandfather. One day, his teacher — and two students — were escorted from the school, to the railway station. He watched as the train left the station, headed east. He would learn later that his aunt, uncle, and two cousins were also aboard the train. “It was the first demonstration of ‘Father’ Stalin's care for us. The first echelons of ‘enemies of the people’ to Siberia. More and more followed.”
He moved to a new school, where he studied with a mix of Ukrainians, Poles, and Jewish refugees from elsewhere in Europe. “We wondered why they were running away from such a civilized Western nation as the Germans,” Hunka wrote.
After a brutal year of Soviet occupation, Nazi Germany swept into Eastern Europe under Operation Barbarossa, capturing Ukraine as they advanced towards Russia. “We greeted the German soldiers with joy,” Hunka recalled.
The arrests and detentions continued, but he said German occupation was easier. Unlike the Russian NKVD, German intelligence didn’t speak their language and didn’t seem interested in imposing German culture onto a people they saw as inferior. “The next two years were the happiest years of my life,” he wrote. Groups like the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists sprung up and organized Ukrainian youth: That became the nucleus of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which fought all foreign powers inside Ukraine: Soviet and German alike. (Some factions also sought to “cleanse” Poles from its territory.)
It wasn’t until 1943 that Germany, facing declining fortunes in the war, opted to organize legions in its occupied territories. That’s when Hunka joined the Galicia Division, formed under the SS under the encouragement of the Ukrainian Central Committee. “The thought of turning those beasts into human form with a red star on the forehead became real,” Hunka wrote.
Hunka doesn’t detail much about his time in the war. Luckily, a new book meticulously chronicles the history of the Galicia Division: In the Maelstrom: The Waffen-SS 'Galicia' Division and Its Legacy.
Author Myroslav Shkandrij — the son of a member of the Galicia Division — offers both a sweeping and meticulous history of the Galicia Division. He does this by analyzing the history of the Division in four parts: The motivations of those who joined, the relationship between Ukrainian nationalism and Nazi Germany, the Division’s operational history, and the century of reflection on those years.
His findings reflect some of Hunka’s diary, but also investigates the actual role the Division played in the war and in the shaping of a modern Ukraine.
He writes how Germany actually resisted the creation of a Ukrainian legion, fearing it would inflame the nationalist sentiment that Hunka recalls. When it was created, the Division was denied the official titles, symbolism, and uniforms of the SS. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, even wrote the Division should never be referred to as “SS men,” as the Ukrainians don’t deserve it. “This should be correctly defined as a Ukrainian serving in the combat units of the SS.”
The Ukrainians were divided on the idea of collaboration or cooperation. Some were ideological compatriots, including Volodymyr Kubijovyč, a fan of Hitler who supported ethnic cleansing in Ukraine. He worked with the occupational government to create the Division. But those ideologues were likely a minority. Hitler’s concept of racial purity explicitly excluded the Ukrainians, and he was unlikely to ever tolerate real Ukrainian independence. During political indoctrination sessions at the training camps, one Ukrainian recalled, “our interpreter translated very loosely. It was a farce. Nobody cared what he said. Most dozed off.” Instead, joining the Division was framed as a fight for Ukrainian statehood and an “armed struggle against Bolshevism,” as Kubijovyč himself said in a speech.
“The population of course opposed Hitler’s ultimate aims, which included enslaving them,” Shkandrij writes. There was a divide between the Galicia Division and the anti-Nazi partisans, but it wasn’t always a clear one. “The underground was continually supplied with weapons and goods stolen from the Division’s storehouses and hundreds of soldiers deserted to the UPA,” he writes. But “not everyone was enthusiastic about joining the forest partisans.” Even if many partisans saw Nazi Germany as the lesser of two evils, they hoped both sides would lose. If both German and Russian fell, Ukraine would emerge independent, with a fully-trained and equipped army.
Ukrainians were likely not ignorant to Hitler’s crimes. By 1943, the worst Nazi atrocities in Ukraine had already occurred. Mobile death squads and forced deportations, sometimes with the help of Ukrainian collaborators, had already murdered approximately 1.5 million Jews in and around Ukraine. Unlike elsewhere in Europe, the Nazis conducted these murders in the open, often by firing squad.
“It is more likely, however, that many were aware of the desperate wartime situation, had witnessed the treatment of Jews, and drew the conclusion that whatever circumstances lay ahead it was better to be armed and prepared to fight,” Shkandrij writes.
In the record of one meeting between Dmytro Paliiv, the Division’s highest-ranking officer, and Himmler; the German even boasted of the murder of Ukrainian Jews. But when he called on the Ukrainians to help eliminate the Poles, Paliiv bristled:
We Ukrainians are not preparing to slaughter the Poles and that is not why we voluntarily enlisted in the Division Galicia. But after observing German policies in Eastern Europe, we cannot fail to cite how you Germans continue to incite us against the Poles, and the Poles against us. Unfortunately, I feel that it is necessary to inform you that your politics in Eastern Europe are not correct and lead to nothing good. Forgive me for such an unpleasant rebuttal, but that is the way it is.
It is a sentiment that, unfortunately, did not remain constant during the war. There is ample documentation that the Galicia Division Still, committed atrocities against Polish resistance fighters and civilians. The burning of the Polish town of Huta Pieniacka by the Galician Division likely killed around 500 civilians.3 Some soldiers in the Division faced court marshal and consequences for violence against civilians, some didn’t.
In addition to the Galicia Division, there were volunteer regiments made up of Ukrainians deemed unsuitable for the SS. These units, commanded by German officers, were also responsible for crimes against civilians. Shkandrij writes that some of those atrocities may have been misattributed to the Division, and points to scholarly research in Poland which has “rejected often-repeated accusations against the Division and verified others.” He also points to instances of Polish volunteers conducting anti-partisan operations for the Nazis against Ukrainian resistance fighters. There is no nationality who uniformly opposed the Nazis, nor one that uniformly supported them.
The Galicia Division’s main utility to the Nazis came in late 1944 and early 1945, when it was ordered to frustrate Soviet advances in central Europe. It may have slowed their advance, but it failed to hold them back. But by early 1945, even before Germany’s surrender, the Galicia Division formally changed its name to the “1st Division of the Ukrainian National Army.” Many Polish and Ukrainian partisans joined forces to resist Soviet take-over.
We do not know anything more specific about Hunka’s service during the war, except that he surrendered to the British in Austria after the war and was sent to an internment camp in Italy.
He emigrated to Canada and spent the ensuing decades pushing for the Ukrainian independence he had never really experienced. “Our mission was difficult, because the world knew very little about us, and what it did know, it was falsely presented by our neighbors,” Hunka wrote.
In the 1980s, Canada began wrestling with the possible presence of Nazi war criminals on its soil. So it set up an inquiry: The Deschênes Commission. And that study spent a significant amount of time investigating the role the Galicia Division played in the war. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police conducted a parallel investigation.
Both studies found that Canada adequately screened the members of the Galicia Division before they entered Canada, that there had been no credible evidence that those émigrés had committed war crimes, nor had evidence emerged since then. “Mere membership in the Galicia Division is insufficient to justify prosecution,” the Commission found. It further found no evidence of fraud or misrepresentation: “The members of the Galicia Division have never hidden their membership in the Division, nor indeed could they.”
Canada did, however, target some Ukrainians for their role in the war. Ukrainian-born Helmut Oberlander volunteered as a translator for a mobile death squad in 1941. He came to Canada by lying about his war record. Ottawa tried on multiple occasions to revoke his citizenship and deport to face prosecution. A protracted legal battle meant Oberlander died on Canadian soil in 2021.
Those who served in the Division were hardly nostalgic about their former occupier. “European neo-Nazi re-enactments and revivals, although a fascinating topic for contemporary Western researchers, were ignored by the Division’s veterans,” Shkandrij writes.
But the allegation that the Ukrainian fighters were adherents to the Nazi ideology, and continued to be so, was a useful piece of Soviet propaganda as it continued to occupy Ukraine. Resistance to the Soviet regime became akin to glorification of Hitler. It manifested again in a particularly pernicious way, after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last year, under the guise of “de-Nazification.”
Memorials for Division fighters still exist in Ukraine and in North America, although they tend to be devoid of any explicitly Nazi symbolism. Some in Ukraine, mostly younger nationalists, have tried to revive the political significance of the the Galician Division in light of renewed Russian aggression. The Ukrainian government, however, has generally rejected the Division as a symbol of Ukrainian independence. Zelensky himself has condemned the use of the Galicia Division symbol as historical revisionism.
The Galician Division, like many aspects of the war along the eastern front, is caught in a tension. It exists in a difficult space between one genocidal regime and another. For those of us in North America, whose democracies sided with one over the other, we often pretend as though the choice was a simple one. It wasn’t.
The compromise we settled on long ago is, I think, a good one: For those who fought with the SS in Eastern Ukraine and the Baltics, we looked for evidence of war crimes and, finding none, we accepted that war is hell. We let these men go about their lives, without ever forgetting that history. We chose not smear that fight for independence — which is still happening today in Ukraine — with the decisions made during the war.
Rota’s decision to put Hunka in that gallery upset that fragile compromise. The histrionics have only made things worse.
As Shkandrij concludes: “The force’s controversial, complex, and long story presents contemporaries with a range of lessons and challenges, and obliges them to consider how a previous generation reacted when trapped in the maelstrom of war.”
That’s it for this special dispatch.
I have to stress that this post is not supposed to be a complete and authoritative history on the topic — how could it be? But I hope this was instructive, as I suspect that this story has a few days of energy left.
I’m opening up the comments for those who want to offer some thoughts — but given the subject matter, I’ll be policing them pretty aggressively.
Until next time.
The translations from here on out will be rough, care of Google Translate and DeepL.