Who Was Stepan Bandera?
Lionized as a nationalist hero in Ukraine, Stepan Bandera was a Nazi sympathizer who left behind a horrific legacy.
When Western journalists traveled to Kiev in late 2013 to cover the Euromaidan protests, they encountered a historical figure few recognized. It was Stepan Bandera, whose youthful black-and-white image was seemingly everywhere — on barricades, over the entrance to Kiev’s city hall, and on the placards held by demonstrators calling for the overthrow of then-president Viktor Yanukovych.
Bandera was evidently a nationalist of some sort and highly controversial, but why? The Russians said he was a fascist and an antisemite, but Western media were quick to disregard that as Moscow propaganda. So they hedged.
The Washington Post wrote that Bandera had entered into a “tactical relationship with Nazi Germany” and that his followers “were accused of committing atrocities against Poles and Jews,” while the New York Times wrote that he had been “vilified by Moscow as a pro-Nazi traitor,” a charge seen as unfair “in the eyes of many historians and certainly to western Ukrainians.” Foreign Policy dismissed Bandera as “Moscow’s favorite bogeyman . . . a metonym for all bad Ukrainian things.”
Whoever Bandera was, all were in agreement that he couldn’t have been as nasty as Putin said he was. But thanks to Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe’s Stepan Bandera: The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist, it now seems clear: those terrible Russians were right.
Bandera was indeed as noxious as any personality thrown up by the hellish 1930s and ’40s. The son of a nationalist-minded Greek Catholic priest, Bandera was the sort of self-punishing fanatic who sticks pins under his fingernails to prepare himself for torture at the hands of his enemies. As a university student in Lviv, he is said to have moved on to burning himself with an oil lamp, slamming a door on his fingers, and whipping himself with a belt. “Admit, Stepan!” he would cry out. “No, I don’t admit!”
A priest who heard his confession described him as “an übermensch . . . who placed Ukraine above all,” while a follower said he was the sort of person who “could hypnotize a man. Everything that he said was interesting. You could not stop listening to him.”
Enlisting in the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) at age twenty, he used his growing influence to steer an already-violent group in an even more extreme direction. In 1933, he organized an attack on the Soviet consul in Lviv, which only managed to kill an office secretary. A year later, he directed the assassination of the Polish minister of the interior. He ordered the execution of a pair of alleged informers and was responsible for other deaths as well as the OUN took to robbing banks, post offices, police stations, and private households in search of funds.
What sent Bandera off in such a violent direction? Rossoliński-Liebe’s massive new study takes us through the times and the politics that captured Bandera’s imagination. Galicia had been part of Austro-Hungary prior to the war. But whereas the Polish-controlled western half was incorporated into the newly established Republic of Poland in 1918, the Ukrainian-dominated eastern portion, where Bandera was born in 1909, was not absorbed until 1921, following the Polish–Soviet War and a brief period of independence.
It was a poor fit from the start. Bitter at being deprived of a state of their own, Ukrainian nationalists refused to recognize the takeover and, in 1922, responded with a campaign of arson attacks on some 2,200 Polish-owned farms. The government in Warsaw replied with repression and cultural warfare. It brought in Polish farmers, many of them war veterans, to settle the district and radically change the demographics of the countryside. It closed down Ukrainian schools and even tried to ban the term “Ukrainian,” insisting that students employ the somewhat more vague “Ruthenian” instead.
When the OUN launched another arson and sabotage campaign in summer 1930, Warsaw resorted to mass arrest. By late 1938, as many as 30,000 Ukrainians were languishing in Polish jails. Soon, Polish politicians were talking about the “extermination” of the Ukrainians while a German journalist who traveled through eastern Galicia in early 1939 reported that local Ukrainians were calling for “Uncle Führer” to step in and impose a solution of his own on the Poles.
The conflict in the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands exemplified the ugly ethnic wars that were erupting throughout eastern Europe as a new world war approached. Conceivably, Bandera might have responded to the growing disorder by moving to the political left. Previously, liberal Bolshevik cultural policies in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, had caused a surge in pro-Communist sentiment in the neighboring Polish province of Volhynia.
But a number of factors got in the way: his father’s position in the church, the fact that Galicia, unlike formerly Russian Volhynia, was an ex-Habsburg possession and hence oriented toward Austria and Germany, and, of course, Stalin’s disastrous collectivization policies, which, by the early ’30s, had completely destroyed the Soviet Ukraine as any sort of model worth emulating.
Consequently, Bandera responded by moving ever farther to the right. In high school, he read Mykola Mikhnovs’kyi, a militant nationalist who had died in 1924 and preached a united Ukraine stretching “from the Carpathian Mountains to the Caucasus,” one that would be free of “Russians, Poles, Magyars, Romanians, and Jews.” Entry into the OUN a few years later exposed him to the teachings of Dmytro Dontsov, the group’s “spiritual father,” another ultra-rightist who translated Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Mussolini’s La Dottrina Del Fascismo and taught that ethics should be subordinate to the national struggle.
Entry into the OUN also plunged him into a milieu marked by growing antisemitism. Anti-Jewish hatred had been deeply bound up with the concept of Ukrainian nationhood since at least the seventeenth century when thousands of Ukrainian peasants, maddened by the exactions of the Polish landlords and their Jewish estate managers, engaged in a vicious bloodletting under the leadership of a minor nobleman named Bohdan Khmelnytsky.
Ukraine was the scene of even more gruesome pogroms during the Russian Civil War. But antisemitic passions rose a further notch in 1926 when a Jewish anarchist named Sholom Schwartzbard assassinated the exiled Ukrainian leader Symon Petliura in Paris.
“I have killed a great assassin,” declared Schwartzbard, who had lost fourteen family members in the pogroms that swept through the Ukraine when Petliura headed up a short-lived anti-Bolshevik republic in 1919–1920, on surrendering to the police. But after hearing testimony from survivors about impaled babies, children cast into flames, and other anti-Jewish atrocities, a French jury acquitted him in just thirty-five minutes.
The verdict caused a sensation, not least on the Ukrainian right. Dontsov denounced Schwartzbard as “an agent of Russian imperialism,” declaring:
Jews are guilty, terribly guilty, because they helped consolidate Russian rule in Ukraine, but “the Jew is not guilty of everything.” Russian imperialism is guilty of everything. Only when Russia falls in Ukraine will we be able to settle the Jewish question in our country in a way that suits the interest of the Ukrainian people.
While the Bolsheviks were the main enemy, Jews were their forward striking force, so the most effective way of countering one was by thoroughly eliminating the other. In 1935, OUN members smashed windows in Jewish houses and then, a year later, burned around a hundred Jewish families out of their homes in the town of Kostopil in what is now western Ukraine. They marked the tenth anniversary of Petliura’s assassination by distributing leaflets with the message: “Attention, kill and beat the Jews for our Ukrainian leader Symon Petliura, the Jews should be removed from Ukraine, long live the Ukrainian state.”
By this point, Bandera was already in jail serving a life sentence following a pair of highly publicized murder trials in which he taunted the court by giving the fascist salute and crying out, Slava Ukraïni – “Glory to Ukraine.” But he was able to escape following the German takeover of western Poland beginning on September 1, 1939 and make his way to Lviv, the capital of eastern Galicia.
But the Soviet incursion on September 17 sent him fleeing in the opposite direction. Eventually, he and the rest of the OUN leadership settled in German-controlled Cracow, about two hundred miles to the west, where they set about preparing the organization for further battles still to come.
The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, which the OUN leadership seems to have gotten wind of months ahead of time, was the moment they had been waiting for. Not only did it promise to free the Ukraine from Soviet control, but it also held out the prospect of unifying all Ukrainians in a single state. The dream of a greater Ukraine would thus be realized.
A month earlier, Bandera and his chief lieutenants — Stepan Lenkavs’kyi, Stepan Shukhevych, and Iaroslav Stets’ko — had put the finishing touches on an internal party document entitled “The Struggle and Activities of the OUN in Wartime,” a to-do list for when the Wehrmacht crossed the Soviet border.
It called on members to take advantage of the “favorable situation” posed by a “war between Moscow and other states” to create a national revolution that would draw up all Ukraine in its vortex. It conceived of revolution as a great purification process in which “Muscovites, Poles, and Jews” would be “destroyed . . . in particular those who protect the [Soviet] regime.” Although the OUN regarded the Nazis as allies, the document stressed that OUN activists should commence the revolution as soon as possible so as present the Wehrmacht with a fait accompli:
We treat the coming German army as the army of allies. We try before their coming to put life in order, on our own as it should be. We inform them that the Ukrainian authority is already established, it is under the control of the OUN under the leadership of Stepan Bandera; all matters are regulated by the OUN and the local authorities are ready to establish friendly relations with the army, in order to fight together against Moscow.
The document continued that “it is permissible to liquidate undesirable Poles . . . NKVD people, informers, provocateurs . . . all important Ukrainians who, in the critical time, would try to make ‘their politics’ and thereby threaten the decisive mind-set of the Ukrainian nation,” adding that only one party would be permitted under the new order — the OUN.
Although Bandera and his followers would later try to paint the alliance with the Third Reich as no more than “tactical,” an attempt to pit one totalitarian state against another, it was in fact deep-rooted and ideological. Bandera envisioned the Ukraine as a classic one-party state with himself in the role of führer, or providnyk, and expected that a new Ukraine would take its place under the Nazi umbrella, much as Jozef Tiso’s new fascist regime had in Slovakia or Ante Pavelić’s in Croatia.
Certain high-ranking Nazis thought along similar lines, most notably Alfred Rosenberg, the newly appointed Reich minister for the occupied eastern territories. But Hitler was obviously of a different mind. He saw Slavs as “an inferior race,” incapable of organizing a state, and viewed Ukrainians in particular as “just as lazy, disorganized, and nihilistic-Asiatic as the Greater Russians.”
Instead of a partner, he saw them as an obstacle. Obsessed with the British naval blockade of World War I, which had caused as many as 750,000 deaths from starvation and disease, he was determined to block any similar effort by the Allies by expropriating eastern grain supplies on an unprecedented scale. Hence the importance of the Ukraine, the great granary on the Black Sea. “I need the Ukraine in order that no one is able to starve us again like in the last war,” he declared in August 1939. Grain seizures on such a scale would mean condemning vast numbers to starvation, twenty-five million or more in all.
Yet not only did the Nazis not care, but annihilation on such a scale accorded perfectly with their plans for a racial makeover of what they viewed as the eastern frontier. The result was the famous Generalplan Ost, the great Nazi blueprint that called for killing or expelling up to 80 percent of the Slavic population and its replacement by Volksdeutsche, settlers from old Germany, and Waffen-SS veterans.
Plainly, there was no room in such a scheme for a self-governing Ukraine. When Stets’ko announced the formation of a Ukrainian state “under the leadership of Stepan Bandera” in Lviv just eight days after the Nazi invasion, a couple of German officers warned him that the question of Ukrainian independence was up to Hitler alone. Nazi officials gave Bandera the same message a few days later at a meeting in Cracow.
Subsequently, they escorted both Bandera and Stets’ko to Berlin and placed them under house arrest. When Hitler decided on July 19, 1941 to partition the Ukraine by incorporating eastern Galicia into the “General Government,” as Nazi-ruled Poland was known, OUN members were stunned.
Instead of unifying the Ukraine, the Nazis were dismembering it. When graffiti appeared declaring, “Away with foreign authority! Long live Stepan Bandera,” the Nazis responded by shooting a number of OUN members and, by December 1941, placing some 1,500 under arrest.
Still, as Rossoliński-Liebe shows, Bandera and his followers continued to long for an Axis victory. As strained as relations with the Nazis might be, there could be no talk of neutrality in the epic struggle between Moscow and Berlin.
In a letter to Alfred Rosenberg in August 1941, Bandera offered to meet German objections by reconsidering the question of Ukrainian independence. On December 9, he sent him another letter pleading for reconciliation: “German and Ukrainian interests in Eastern Europe are identical. For both sides, it is a vital necessity to consolidate (normalize) Ukraine in the best and fastest way and to include it in the European spiritual, economic, and political system.”
Ukrainian nationalism, he went on, had taken shape “in a spirit similar to the National Socialist ideas” and was needed to “spiritually cure the Ukrainian youth” who had been poisoned by their upbringing under the Soviets. Although the Germans were in no mood to listen, their attitude changed once their fortunes began to shift. Desperate for manpower following their defeat at Stalingrad, they agreed to the formation of a Ukrainian division in the Waffen-SS, known the Galizien, which would eventually grow to 14,000 members.
Rather than disbanding the OUN, the Nazis had meanwhile revamped it as a German-run police force. The OUN had played a leading role in the anti-Jewish pogroms that broke out in Lviv and dozens of other Ukrainian cities on the heels of the German invasion, and now they served the Nazis by patrolling the ghettoes and assisting in deportations, raids, and shootings.
But beginning in early 1943, OUN members deserted the police en masse in order to form a militia of their own that would eventually call itself the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Ukraïns’ka Povstans’ka Armiia, or UPA). Taking advantage of the chaos behind German lines, their first major act was an ethnic cleansing campaign aimed at driving Poles out of eastern Galicia and Volhynia. “When it comes to the Polish question, this is not a military but a minority question,” a Polish underground source quoted a UPA leader as saying. “We will solve it as Hitler solved the Jewish question.”
Citing the Polish historian Grezegorz Motyka, Rossoliński-Liebe says that the UPA killed close to 100,000 Poles between 1943 and 1945 and that Orthodox priests blessed the axes, pitchforks, scythes, sickles, knives, and sticks that the peasants it mobilized used to finish them off.
Simultaneously, UPA attacks on Jews continued at such a ferocious level that Jews actually sought the protection of the Germans. “The Banderite bands and the local nationalists raided every night, decimating the Jews,” a survivor testified in 1948. “Jews sheltered in the camps where Germans were stationed, fearing an attack by Banderites. Some German soldiers were brought to protect the camps and thereby also the Jews.”
Rossoliński-Liebe carries the story of Bandera and his movement through the Nazi defeat when the Galizien division fought alongside the retreating Wehrmacht and then into the postwar period when those left behind in the Ukraine mounted a desperate rearguard resistance against the encroaching Soviets.
This war-after-the-war was a deadly serious affair in which OUN fighters killed not only informers, collaborators, and eastern Ukrainians transferred to Galicia and Volhynia to work as teachers or administrators, but their families as well. “Soon the Bolsheviks will conduct the grain levy,” they warned on one occasion. “Anyone among you who brings grain to the collection points will be killed like a dog, and your entire family butchered.”
Mutilated corpses appeared with signs proclaiming, “For collaboration with the NKVD.” According to a 1973 KGB report, more than 30,000 people fell victim to the OUN before the Soviets managed to wipe out resistance in 1950, including some 15,000 peasants and collective-farm workers and more than 8,000 soldiers, militia members, and security personnel.
Even given the barbarity of the times, the group’s actions stood out.
Stepan Bandera is an important book that combines biography and sociology as it lays out the story of an important radical nationalist and the organization he led. But what makes it so relevant, of course, is the OUN’s powerful resurgence since the 1991.
Although Western intelligence eagerly embraced Bandera and his supporters as the Cold War began to stir — “Ukrainian emigration in the territory of Germany, Austria, France, Italy, in the greatest majority is a healthy, uncompromising element in the fight against the Bolsheviks,” a US Army intelligence agent noted in 1947 — the movement’s long-term prospects did not seem to be very promising, especially after a Soviet agent managed to slip through Bandera’s security ring in Munich in 1959 and kill him with a blast from a cyanide spray gun.
With that, the Banderites seemed to be going the way of all other “captive nations,” far-right exiles who gathered from time to time to sing the old songs but who otherwise seemed to be relics from a bygone era.
What saved them, of course, was the Soviet collapse. OUN veterans hastened back at the first opportunity. Stets’ko had died in Munich in 1986, but his widow, Iaroslava, returned in his place, according to Rossoliński-Liebe, founding a far-right party called the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists and winning a spot in parliament. Iurii Shukhevych, the son of the exiled UPA leader Roman Shukhevych, established another ultra-right group calling itself the Ukrainian National Assembly. Even Bandera’s grandson, Stephen, made an appearance, touring Ukraine as he unveiled monuments, attended rallies, and praised his grandfather as the “symbol of the Ukrainian nation.”
A homegrown group of Banderites meanwhile formed the Social-National Party of Ukraine, later known as Svoboda. In a 2004 speech, their leader, the charismatic Oleh Tiahnybok, paid tribute to the fighters of the UPA:
The enemy came and took their Ukraine. But they were not afraid; likewise we must not be afraid. They hung their machine guns on their necks and went into the woods. They fought against the Russians, Germans, Jews, and other scum who wanted to take away our Ukrainian state! And therefore our task — for every one of you, the young, the old, the gray-headed and the youthful — is to defend our native land!
Except for the omission of the Poles, the speech was an indication of how little things had changed. The movement was as xenophobic, antisemitic, and obsessed with violence as ever, except that now, for the first time in half a century, thousands of people were listening to what it had to say.
One might think that the liberal West would want nothing to do with such elements, but the response was no less unscrupulous than it was during the opening years of the Cold War. Because the banderivtsi were anti-Russian, they had to be democratic. Because they were democratic, their ultra-right trappings had to be inconsequential.
The Bandera portraits that were increasingly prominent as the Euromaidan protests turned more and more violent, the wolfsangel that was formerly a symbol of the SS but was now taken up by the Azov Battalion and other militias, the old OUN war cry of “Glory to Ukraine, glory to the heroes” that was now ubiquitous among anti-Yanukovych protesters — all had to be ignored, discounted, or whitewashed.
Citing unnamed “academic commentators,” the Guardian announced in March 2014 that Svoboda “appears to have mellowed” and was now “eschewing xenophobia.” US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt said that Svoboda members “have demonstrated their democratic bona fides,” while the historian Anne Applebaum announced in the New Republic that nationalism was a good thing and that what Ukrainians needed was more of it: “They need more occasions when they can shout, ‘Slava Ukraini – Heroyam Slava’ – ‘Glory to Ukraine, Glory to its Heroes,’ which was, yes, the slogan of the controversial Ukrainian Revolutionary Army [sic] in the 1940s, but has been adopted to a new context.”
Many, like Alina Polyakova at the Atlantic Council, voiced similar defenses: “The Russian government and its proxies in eastern Ukraine have consistently branded Kyiv’s government a fascist junta and accused it of having Nazi sympathizers. Moscow’s propaganda is outrageous and wrong.” Given Ukraine’s deepening economic woes, she continued, “should Ukraine watchers be concerned about the potential growth of extreme right-wing parties?” Her answer: “Absolutely not.”
That was on June 9. A few weeks later, Polyakova executed a 180-degree turn. “Ukraine’s government,” she declared on July 24, “has a problem on its hands: A far-right group has tapped into growing frustration among Ukrainians over the declining economy and tepid support from the West.”
As a result, Right Sector was now a “dangerous” force, “a thorn in Kyiv’s side,” one of a number of right-wing groups “taking advantage of public frustration to ratchet up support for their misguided agenda.” The international community would have to step up economic aid and political support, she warned, if it didn’t want Ukraine to fall into the hands of the radical right.
What had happened? On July 11, a bloody shootout had erupted in the western town of Mukacheve between heavily armed members of the neo-Nazi Right Sector and supporters of a local politician named Mykhailo Lanio.
The details are murky, and it is unclear whether the Right Sector was attempting to put a stop to highly lucrative cigarette smuggling in the border province of Zakarpattia or was trying to muscle in on the trade. One thing, however, was obvious: given the disarray in its own military, the Ukrainian government had grown increasingly dependent on private Banderite militias like Right Sector to battle pro-Russian separatists in the east and, as a consequence, was increasingly at the mercy of rampaging ultra-rightists whom it was unable to control.
Thanks to the military support that had flown their way, groups like the Right Sector and the neo-Nazi Azov Brigade were bigger than ever, battle-hardened and heavily armed, and fed up with rich politicians who made peace with the Russians and continued to rake in profits while the economy sank to new depths. Yet there was little the government in Kiev could do in response.
Polyakova’s nervousness was justified. Given Ukraine’s desperate economic straits — economic output is expected to fall 10 percent this year after dropping 7.5 percent in 2014, inflation is running at 57 percent due to the collapse of the hryvnia, while external debt now stands at 158 percent of GDP — there was a distinct whiff of Weimar in the air.
A few weeks later, on August 31, hundreds of Right Sector supporters battled with police in Kiev as the Ukrainian parliament voted in favor of the Minsk II accords aimed at defusing the crisis in the east. Three people were killed when a Right Sector supporter lobbed a grenade in the middle of the fracas and more than a hundred injured as the country hurtled toward civil war.
Although Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko labeled the attack “a stab in the back,” this was the same leader who in May signed a law making it a crime to “publicly exhibit a disrespectful attitude” toward the OUN or UPA. Once again, centrists who began by placating the fascists have wound up at their mercy.