Stepan Bandera: A true nationalist or Nazi collaborator?

August 17, 2017 10:50
Stepan Bandera is hailed as a hero in western Ukraine but regarded as a Nazi collaborator in the eastern part of the country. Photo: Russia Insider

The resurgence of ultra-right and Neo-Nazi groups in the US has given rise to historical revisionism in recent years, under which the mainstream and orthodox views held by academics about controversial historical figures are being challenged or even toppled.

One example is Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the US that I discussed yesterday, and today I am going to talk about another example: Stepan Bandera, the “founding father” of modern independent Ukraine.

In fact, Bandera makes a very unique topic for case study among historians because he is such a controversial and divisive personality in the history of Ukraine so much so Ukrainians' perceptions of him have remained polarized to this day: in western Ukraine, he is widely regarded as a national hero, whereas in the eastern part of the country, he is often seen as a Nazi collaborator.

Born in 1909 in western Ukraine, which was at that time under Polish rule, Bandera became the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) in the 1930s, a paramilitary nationalist group that advocated sovereignty for Ukrainians and the removal of other ethnic groups from their soil, primarily the Poles.

However, apart from the Poles, Bandera and the OUN also had another enemy to fight, i.e. the Soviet Union, which at that time controlled the eastern part of Ukraine, and which was aggressively seeking to annex western Ukraine as well.

In the face of Polish colonial rule in the west and Soviet aggression in the east, Bandera was well aware that the unification and independence of Ukraine would be impossible unless he was able to find a powerful foreign ally. And in the 1930s, the only foreign power he could turn to for help was Nazi Germany.

The outbreak of the World War II and the subsequent German invasion of Poland and then the Soviet Union presented Bandera with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to realize his dream of creating a unified and independent Ukraine.

After the Wehrmacht had invaded the Soviet Union and conquered the entire Ukraine in June 1941, the Nazis approached Bandera and the OUN and pledged to help the Ukrainian people achieve secession from the Soviet Union.

Yet, the honeymoon period between Bandera and the Nazis didn't last long, as the latter were getting increasingly concerned about the potential threat posed by the escalating Ukrainian nationalist movement to the Third Reich, which seized Ukraine mainly for its vast oil reserves.

Finally in late 1941, the Nazis began to mount a massive and brutal crackdown on the OUN and other Ukrainian nationalists, and Bandera himself was arrested and jailed in Germany. 

In the meantime, however, during the German occupation, a good number of OUN members collaborated with the Nazis in exterminating Jews, Russians and Poles within Ukraine.

Even though Bandera had continued to disavow any knowledge of the OUN's involvement in the Holocaust right until his assassination by the KGB in 1959, the OUN's collaboration with the Nazis in carrying out the “Final Solution” during the war did make a lasting dent on his reputation.

Over the decades, Bandera has remained a highly controversial historical figure in Ukraine. The western Ukrainians, who identify themselves strongly with western Europeans and virtually hate anything related to Russia, have been hailing him as a national hero.

Former pro-western Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko even granted him the official title of “Ukrainian national hero” when he was in office.

In contrast, however, in the eastern part of Ukraine, Bandera has been a much hated figure, mainly because of his collaboration with the Nazis.

After the pro-Moscow Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych had taken office in 2010, he immediately stripped Bandera of the title.

During the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, which eventually led to the fall of the Yanukovych regime, anti-government protesters in Kiev were waving giant posters of Bandera, whereas pro-Moscow protesters were stamping angrily on his pictures. In fact, many Russian-Ukrainians were calling anti-government protesters “Neo-Nazis” during the movement.

And mainstream Russian media, too, also referred to the 2014 revolution in Ukraine as a “Nazi resurgence”, a point of view that was rarely adopted by western media throughout the movement.

Ironically, while western and eastern Ukrainians, as well as the Russians have been portraying, embellishing or smearing Bandera in their different ways in order to serve their own political agendas, it appears the original ideals embraced by him back in the 1930s have become irrelevant.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 16

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal