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Canada Nazi row puts spotlight on Ukraine’s WWII past

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Image source, Getty Images

When Canada’s parliament praised a Ukrainian war veteran who fought with Nazi Germany, a renewed spotlight was put on a controversial part of Ukraine’s history and its memorialisation in Canada.

Yaroslav Hunka, the Ukrainian veteran who was applauded in parliament this week, served with a Nazi unit called the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS – also known as the Galicia Division – that was formed in 1943.

His appearance was criticised by Jewish groups and other parliamentarians alike. MP Anthony Rota, who invited him, has since resigned as the Speaker of the House of Commons, saying he deeply regretted the mistake.

But this is not the first time that Ukraine’s role in WWII has sparked a debate in Canada, which is home to the largest Ukrainian diaspora outside of Europe.

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Several monuments dedicated to Ukrainian WWII veterans who served in the Galicia Division exist across the country. Jewish groups have long denounced these dedications, arguing soldiers in the Galicia Division swore allegiance to Adolf Hitler, and were either complicit in Nazi Germany’s crimes or had committed crimes themselves.

But for some Ukrainians, these veterans are viewed as freedom fighters, who only fought alongside the Nazis to resist the Soviets in their quest for an independent Ukraine.

A contentious history

The Galicia Division was a part of the Waffen-SS, a Nazi military unit that on the whole was found to have been involved in numerous atrocities, including the massacring of Jewish civilians.

During the war, more than one million Jews in Ukraine were killed, mostly between 1941 and 1942. Most of them were shot to death near their homes by Nazi Germans and their collaborators.

The Galicia Division has been accused of committing war crimes, but its members have never been found guilty in a court of law.

Jewish groups have condemned Canadian monuments to Ukrainian veterans who fought in the Waffen-SS, saying they are “a glorification and celebration of those who actively participated in Holocaust crimes”.

Roman Shukhevych controversial sculpture located near the Ukrainian Youth Association in Edmonton

Image source, Getty Images

One such monument sits in a private Ukrainian cemetery in Oakville, Ontario, and features the insignia of the Galicia Division. Another was put up by Ukrainian WWII veterans in Edmonton, Alberta.

A third, also in Edmonton, depicts the bust of Roman Shukhevych, a Ukrainian nationalist leader and Nazi collaborator, whose units are accused of massacring Jews and Poles.

Shukhevych’s involvement, however, is a matter of debate and he was not a member of the Galicia Division.

The monuments, which date back to the 1970s and 80s, have all been vandalised in recent years, with the word “Nazi” painted across them in red.

Why is there disagreement on what the monuments stand for?

It goes back to Ukraine’s history in the war, as well as the make-up of Canada’s large Ukrainian diaspora, said David Marples, a professor of eastern European history at the University of Alberta.

During WWII, millions of Ukrainians served in the Soviet Red Army, but thousands of others fought on the German side under the Galicia Division.

Those who fought with Germany believed it would grant them an independent state free from Soviet rule, Prof Marples said.

At the time, Ukrainians resented the Soviets for their role in the Great Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33, also known as Holodomor, which killed an estimated five million Ukrainians.

Far-right ideologies were also gaining traction in most European countries in the 1930s – including the UK – and Ukraine was no exception, said Prof Marples.

Following the defeat of Germany, some of the Galicia Division soldiers were allowed entry to Canada after surrendering to the Allied forces – a move that was resisted by Jewish groups at the time.

Some Canadians of Ukrainian descent view these soldiers and the broader Galicia Division as “national heroes” who fought for the country’s independence.

They also argue that their collaboration with Nazi Germany was short-lived, and that they, including Shukhevych, had eventually fought both the Soviets and the Germans for a free Ukraine.

But the Jewish community views this differently.

“The bottom line is that this unit, the 14th SS unit, were Nazis,” B’nai Brith Canada leader Michael Mostyn told the BBC.

Canada has reckoned with this history in the past through a commission in 1985, which was tasked with investigating allegations that Canada had become a haven for Nazi war criminals.

A report released by the commission the following year concluded that there is no evidence tying Ukrainians who fought with Nazi Germany to specific war crimes.

And the “mere membership in the Galicia Division is insufficient to justify prosecution,” the report added.

The report’s findings have since been contested by Jewish groups and some historians.

Roman Shukhevych - Bataillon 201 (1942)

Image source, Alamy Stock Photo

Prof Marples said that at the time of the report, some WWII archives in Ukraine and Russia were not accessible and have since become public, prompting renewed research on the issue.

It was then revealed through this additional research that some of those who served within the Galicia Division were involved in war crimes, he said, although none were ever convicted.

Russian disinformation targets Ukraine’s history

As this historical debate entered the 21st century, it was made more complicated by modern Russian propaganda, which falsely labelled the Ukrainian government as Nazis to justify its invasion of the country.

Prof Marples said that while far-right extremism still exists in Ukraine, it is much smaller than what Russian propaganda tries to make people believe.

And Ukrainian elected officials are not tied to any far-right group in the country.

“Russia has greatly simplified the narrative,” Prof Marples said.

Ukrainian groups in Canada say the row over monuments and Mr Hunka’s appearance in parliament is the result of this propaganda.

As far back as 2017, before the invasion but when Russia-Ukraine tensions were high, the Russian embassy in Canada criticized the existence of Ukrainian monuments in Canada, accusing them of paying tribute to “Nazi collaborators”.

Taras Podilsky, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Youth Unity Complex in Edmonton that houses the bust of Shukhevych, said Mr Hunka’s swift renunciation by Canadian politicians is the latest effect of Russia’s disinformation campaign.

He added there is no evidence linking the veteran to war crimes.

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“Without any due process, this person is a victim of a Russian narrative that has now been successful,” Mr Podilsky said.

Mr Mostyn of B’nai Brith said he acknowledged the complicated nature of this history, especially to some within the Ukrainian diaspora.

But he said any ties to Nazism “is not something that we can allow future generations to celebrate or whitewash”.

More broadly, Holocaust scholars have called out several eastern European countries in recent years for downplaying their role in the massacre of Jewish people during WWII.

Both Jewish groups in Canada and Canadians of Ukrainian descent behind these monuments said they have had conversations about the issue.

However, both said they were unable to agree on a path forward.

“It is on our own private property, it is not on public property, and it is for us to have a symbol of Ukrainian freedom,” Mr Podilsky said of the Shukhevych bust in Edmonton. “We know there was no wrongdoing.”

Mr Mostyn said that, to him, the recent episode in Canada’s House of Commons shows that there are gaps when it comes to Canada’s knowledge of Nazi history.

“We have a situation in Canada where we don’t know our own history when it comes to Nazi perpetrators that made their way into this country,” he said.

He and others within the Jewish community in Canada have called for a renewed examination of this history.

“It really is important that leadership be shown at the highest level by our prime minister, to finally open this up, because this is something that Jewish community has been demanding for decades.”

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