Ukraine’s decision last month to extend official recognition to a nationalist militia that collaborated with the Germans during World War II has drawn condemnation from the US.
In a statement last week, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) expressed deep concern over two bills passed by the Ukrainian parliament in April.
One allowed for official government commemoration of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, an ultra-nationalist faction that sought to establish an independent Ukrainian state, while the second would ban propaganda and symbols associated with both the Nazi and Soviet regimes.
While the law’s prohibition on the use of such symbols does not apply within academic contexts, it does prevent broadcast media from airing material that “justifies the fight against participants in the struggle for Ukraine’s independence in the 20th century,” according to a translation of the law provided by the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group.
Such provisions, the USHMM claims, “attempt to legislate how the history of Ukraine should be discussed and written, especially regarding the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA).”
“As Ukraine advances on its difficult road to full democracy, we strongly urge the nation’s government to refrain from any measure that preempts or censors discussion and politicizes the study of history,” the Washington- backed Holocaust memorial organization entreated.
While the UPA, an offshoot of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, engaged in warfare against both the Soviet Union and the Nazis, it also collaborated with Germany and took part in actions against local Jews.
“The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) fought for Ukrainian independence against Poland until 1939, from 1939-1941 against the Soviet Union, and after that against Germany,” the Ukrainian Embassy in Tel Aviv said.
“The attempt in summer of 1941 of the liberation movement to try to restore Ukrainian independence was suppressed by the German occupiers. The OUN leaders were imprisoned in concentration camps.”
While OUN chief Stepan Bandera and his faction initially fought on the side of the Germans, they later turned against Berlin and the nationalist figure wound up in a concentration camp. He was killed by the KGB in Munich in 1959.
Such public support for Bandera has drawn criticism, especially from Jewish groups and from Russia, which maintains that Ukraine is sliding toward fascism. Jewish leaders in Ukraine have accused the Kremlin of using allegations of anti-Semitism to justify its annexation of Crimea and backing of pro-Moscow rebels in their country’s east.
“The passage of a ban on Nazism and Communism equates the most genocidal regime in human history with the regime which liberated Auschwitz and helped end the reign of terror of the Third Reich,” Wiesenthal Center director for Eastern European Affairs Dr. Efraim Zuroff said last month after the passing of the bill.
Not everybody agrees, however, with one Jewish communal leader, speaking on condition of anonymity following a pro-Bandera march in Kiev earlier this year, saying that “in contemporary Ukraine, Bandera has nothing to do with anti-Semitism, but more with national self-identity of Ukrainians.”
Support for Bandera for many has less to do with anti-Semitism than anti-Russian sentiments, he added.