Somebody has to defend the 98-year-old Canadian-Ukrainian who fought with the Nazis

I never thought that I would find myself on the same side of an argument as Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for the Kremlin. But in the hullabaloo over the Canadian Parliament applauding Yaroslav Hunka, a 98-year-old Ukrainian man who had fought with Nazi Germany, he was on the money.

"Many Western countries, including Canada, have raised a young generation that does not know who fought whom or what happened during the Second World War," Peskov told reporters.

Peskov was peddling the Kremlin’s line that Ukraine is a state literally governed by Nazis The absurdity of this is underscored by the fact that President Zelensky is Jewish and that some of his relatives perished in the Holocaust. But Peskov is absolutely right about the West’s ignorance of history, even history as recent as World War II.

First of all, consider the ignorance of the speaker of Canada's House of Commons, Anthony Rota. He invited Hunka, who lives in his legislative district, and praised him as "a Ukrainian Canadian war veteran … who fought for Ukrainian independence against the Russians”.

It was a terrible gaffe. Politicians need 360 degree vision to see how every move will be interpreted by critics. How could Rota not have known that Ukrainians who fought the Russians (actually the Soviets in the 1940s) were likely to be troops serving with the Germans? Whom else would they be fighting with? The Canadians? The French? The Israelis?

Second, consider the ignorance of the media. What about nuance and fact-checking? No one came to Hunka’s defence. Yes, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre declared that Hunka was “a Ukrainian veteran who served in a Nazi military unit during the Second World War implicated in the mass murder of Jews and others.”  But not a shred of evidence has been produced to link Hunka himself with atrocities.

In 1986 the Deschênes Commission established by the Canadian government investigated allegations by Simon Wiesenthal that Canada was harbouring Nazi war criminals. As part of that, the commission examined the record of the Galicia Division, also called the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, the unit in which Hunka served. It found that:

“The Galicia Division (14.Waffengrenadierdivision der SS) should not be indicted as a group … Charges of war crimes against members of the Galicia Division have never been substantiated, either in 1950 when they were first preferred, or in 1984 when they were renewed, or before this Commission. Further, in the absence of evidence of participation in or knowledge of specific war crimes, mere membership in the Galicia Division is insufficient to justify prosecution.”

The members of the Galicia Division were unlikely to have been angels. There were myriad demons but very few angels in the bloodlands of central Europe in World War II. But unless someone has evidence that Yaroslav Hunka is a criminal, it appears that he has been smeared by the media and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Third, consider the dilemmas faced by Ukrainian teenagers who had grown up in Galicia, a district which is now divided between western Ukraine and Poland. The Germans and Soviets partitioned Poland in September 1939. The Soviets annexed Galicia. Atrocities followed. Some 200,000 “enemies of the state” were deported to distant parts of the USSR. In June 1941, Hitler invaded the USSR. Before evacuating, the Soviets massacred tens of thousands of people who had been held in prisons, for whatever reason.


Join Mercator today for free and get our latest news and analysis

Buck internet censorship and get the news you may not get anywhere else, delivered right to your inbox. It's free and your info is safe with us, we will never share or sell your personal data.

After such treatment, it’s hardly surprising that the Nazis were initially hailed as liberators by Ukrainians. Those who were keen to fight the “Bolsheviks” enlisted in the Galician Division. They didn’t necessarily join up to slaughter Jews and Poles. In a 2011 article Hunka recalled the terror of living under Soviet control. He described joining the Galician Division as a patriotic duty.

Today, shaking hands with Nazis seems unimaginable. In 1943, it was a way to avenge atrocities committed by the USSR. Nothing can excuse the Holocaust, but a 98-year-old man should not be condemned without proof – or even without any allegations.

World War II was incredibly complicated. Historian Antony Beevor tells the story of Yang Kyoungjong, an 18-year-old Korean drafted into the Japanese Army in 1938. He was captured by the Soviets in the Battle of Khalkhin Gol in 1939. After some time in a gulag he was conscripted into the Soviet Army. In 1943 he was captured by the Germans in the Battle of Kharkov in Ukraine. Once again he was drafted, this time into the Wehrmacht, and was sent to Normandy. D-Day came and he surrendered to the Americans. Should he have been punished for the atrocities of the Japanese, or the Russians or the Germans or for all of them?

“Yang remains perhaps the most striking illustration of the helplessness of most ordinary mortals in the face of what appeared to be overwhelming historical forces,” Beevor wrote.

"Such sloppiness of memory is outrageous," said Peskov. In this, at least, he was right. Even a stopped clock tells the time twice a day.  

Michael Cook is editor of Mercator.

Image credit: Yaroslav Hunka in Canada's House of Commons / CBC News screenshot  


Showing 3 reactions

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
  • Frank Daley
    commented 2023-10-01 13:46:49 +1100
    Extending on Peter’s point, the author’s claim that “President Zelensky is Jewish and that some of his relatives perished in the Holocaust” and therefore the Russian statement that “Ukraine is a state literally governed by Nazis” is absurd, shows the author’s lack of understanding of the history of Ukraine, during both WWII and the post WWII period.

    For example, official US Government documents, now released to the public, describe the CIA’s active role in post WWII to develop anti-Soviet cells within Ukraine as a way to attack Soviet-era Russia. Within these contacts, there was always a strong connection with former Nazis, in line with the extensive involvement of former Nazis in the formation of NATO itself (that is a topic perhaps the author would like to do further research for Mercator so that more people become aware of the deep and dark connections between Nazis and NATO).

    More immediate was the extensive 2014 media coverage in Western mainstream media of the alarming rise of Nazism within Ukraine, that included BBC TV coverage of Ukraine’s Nazi ‘problem’. However the same mainstream media tries to tell us that everything it uncovered and presented in 2014 is now conspiracy theory!

    There was also an interesting relevant comment in 2017 by FBI Special Agent Scott J. Bierwirth in an affidavit in which he stated:

    “Based on my training and experience, I know that the Azov Battalion is a paramilitary unit of the Ukranian National Guard which is known for its association with neo-Nazi ideology and use of Nazi symbolism” (page 9)

    Yes, and perhaps it is beyond time for the author to also study the history of the Ukranian hero Stepan Bandera and his deep connections with Nazism so that in future he can write articles that reflect a balanced understanding of history, rather than one driven by hatred of a Soviet Russia that no longer actually exists.
  • mrscracker
    Our late country doctor had served in the Luftwaffe. He must have got some sort of refugee status following the war & ended up way out in the Southern US serving rural folk. Everyone knew his past but didn’t hold it against him. Most people came to terms with the fact that young men had few options open if they were to remain in Germany during the Third Reich.
    We think we’d behave differently if we lived back then but who knows?
  • Peter
    commented 2023-09-30 04:14:23 +1000
    While your attempt to provide a nuanced perspective on the recent Canadian Parliament controversy is commendable, there are several aspects of your argument that demand critique and challenge.

    Firstly, your defense of Yaroslav Hunka hinges on the absence of evidence that directly ties him to war crimes. While this may be true, it is crucial to remember that it is not just about one individual’s actions but about the larger narrative that such an ovation could be seen to support. By applauding someone associated with the Nazi regime, it can be perceived as an inadvertent endorsement of Nazi ideologies, a fact that any democratic institution should be cautious about.

    Your assertion that President Zelenskyy being Jewish is evidence against the notion of Ukraine being governed by Nazis is somewhat misleading. Zelenskyy’s faith or ancestry doesn’t erase the fact that there are groups in Ukraine, like the Azov Battalion, that have shown neo-Nazi tendencies. It’s also worth noting that the Bolshevik revolutionaries, which later became the foundation of the USSR, had a significant number of Ashkenazi Jews. History is a mosaic, and plucking one tile out doesn’t give an accurate representation of the entire picture.

    Further, drawing a parallel between the situation of Yaroslav Hunka and that of Yang Kyoungjong seems like a false equivalence. While both stories underscore the complexities of wartime loyalties and allegiances, Yang Kyoungjong’s journey across different armies appears to be one of survival and circumstance, rather than ideological allegiance, which is arguably different from Hunka’s narrative.

    Lastly, though WWII was undeniably complex, it’s important to tread cautiously when attempting to provide context or defend individuals or groups associated with the Nazis. The weight and implications of that association are monumental, and any discussion surrounding it demands utmost sensitivity.