Has it really come to this? As we mark the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, we discover that members of the Canadian Armed Forces, successors of those who fought against Nazi Germany, attended the unveiling last week of a monument to Nazi collaborationists. The head spins. It’s really quite hard to know what to make of this, except that contemporary geopolitics have combined with historical ignorance to produce a rather shameful outcome.
The monument in question is in the town of Sambir in Western Ukraine. It is dedicated to 17 members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists’ (OUN) military wing – the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) – said to have been executed in Sambir by the German Gestapo in 1944 (although whether this is actually what happened is apparently contested). As Radio Canada International reports,
The monument is a large granite cross erected on the grounds of a derelict Jewish cemetery, where more than 1,200 Jews were shot and dumped into mass graves in 1943 by the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators.
What, you might ask, is a monument to the OUN-UPA doing in a Jewish cemetery which marks the site of a Holocaust-era massacre? The answer lies in local politics. For some time, the Ukrainian Jewish community has being trying to renovate the cemetery and create a memorial for the Jews murdered in Sambir, but it has been unable to do so ‘because of fierce opposition from modern-day Ukrainian nationalists in the area.’ In the end, therefore, the Jewish community agreed to a compromise: it would be allowed to build its own monument if it gave away some of the land for a memorial to the OUN-UPA.
This ‘compromise’ has come in for a lot of criticism, as it is not unreasonably seen as giving into blackmail. Eduard Dolinsky, head of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, told Radio Canada that it was ‘a blatant insult to the memory of the Jewish victims’, and ‘like erecting a monument to murderers on the graves of their victims.’ However, I’m not interested in criticising the Ukrainian Jews who agreed to this ‘compromise’. I’m neither Jewish nor Ukrainian, and ultimately it’s not my decision to make. If they felt that this was necessary given the current political climate, and that it was the only way to get what they wanted, that’s a matter for them. What pertubes me, though, is the fact that the Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine attended the unveiling of the two monuments (one to the Jewish victims, the other to the OUN-UPA) along with several members of the Canadian Armed Forces, the latter of whom were photographed next to the memorial to the Ukrainian nationalists. I have to assume that these Canadian soldiers had no idea what they were doing.
Currently I’m reading a book entitled Hitler’s Collaborators by British historian Philip Morgan. Morgan draws a useful distinction between collaboration and collaborationism, collaborators and collaborationists. Collaboration with German occupiers in the Second World War took many forms and was driven by many motives. At its most basic, it could mean simply carrying on doing exactly the same job as one was doing before the occupation – for instance, a Belgian railway worker who kept on working the railways after 1940 was in a sense ‘collaborating’ because he was now working for the occupiers and so enabling their war effort. Such collaboration might willing, but it also might be reluctant, or even coerced. Collaborationism was something else – it was deliberate, completely willing, and often associated with an affinity for Nazi ideology. Oddly enough, says Morgan, the Germans tended to prefer collaborators to collaborationists, because the latter had nationalist agendas which clashed with those of the Nazi Party. But as the war turned against Germany they increasingly overlooked this and proved more and more willing to give collaborationists full rein.
So what was the OUN-UPA, whom Canadian soldiers are now honouring with their presence? According to Morgan’s definition, they weren’t collaborators, they were very much collaborationists. That is to say that they worked alongside the Nazi occupiers of Ukraine willingly and zealously and shared certain key aspects of their ideology, including anti-Semitism. They also shared many of the occupiers’ methods, attempting to ethnically cleanse Ukraine of ‘foreign’ elements, most notably through massacres of Poles and Jews. Defenders of the monument in Sambir state that there is no evidence linking the 17 OUN-UPA members commemorated there with any murders. One can view them as ‘victims’ of the Nazis, and there is therefore nothing wrong in erecting a monument to them. This, however, ignores the nature of the organization to which they belonged, an organization which not only committed terrible atrocities but also fought alongside Canada’s enemies in the Second World War and which Canadian soldiers therefore have absolutely no business celebrating.
Canadian politicians continually like to say that they are unwavering in their support of Ukraine. In reality, what they are unwavering in their support of is a certain image of Ukraine, and the specific political and cultural program of a very specific group of Ukrainians, which includes rewriting history so as to portray Nazi collaborationists as victims. The aggressive pursuit of this program has proven to be deeply divisive, has plunged Ukraine into civil war, and is preventing it from making the compromises necessary for peace. ‘Supporting’ Ukraine in this way is not supporting it at all.
From a purely Canadian perspective, I find it staggering that the Canadian Armed Forces should get involved in such a morally dubious affair. As I said, I don’t wish to judge whether the ‘compromise’ in Sambir was worthwhile. That’s for Ukrainians to decide. But that’s the point. It’s for Ukrainians. Canadians should have nothing to do with it. We shouldn’t be disgracing ourselves by laying wreaths to those who collaborated with our enemies and participated in some of the greatest crimes of the twentieth century.
I don’t blame the soldiers who attended the ceremony in Sambir personally for what they did – I assume that they are simply ignorant of the historical context. Nevertheless, as a former Canadian army officer, their actions make me cringe in embarrassment. The colours of our regiments bear the names of the honours won by our forebears in the war against Nazi Germany. However unintentionally, those who attended the ceremony betrayed their past. So too did those who put them there.