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.
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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
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