Copyright © 2024

The work of Euromaidan Press is supported by the International Renaissance Foundation

When referencing our materials, please include an active hyperlink to the Euromaidan Press material and a maximum 500-character extract of the story. To reprint anything longer, written permission must be acquired from [email protected].

Privacy and Cookie Policies.

Memory wars and other battles

The Lviv massacre of Jews in 1941 is an example of the many memory wars defining Ukraine’s present. Photo:
Memory wars and other battles
Article by: Colette Hartwich
A large-scale debate on historical memory, started by Ukraine’s Ambassador to Germany H.E. Dr. Andrii Melnyk, encourages each and every one of us, those with Ukrainian roots and of Ukrainian origin, in particular, to try and partake in this open, important discussion. This public debate arose out of different attitudes between H.E. the Ambassador and the head of the Ukrainian chair of the German-Ukrainian Commission of Historians (Deutsch-Ukrainische Historikerkommission, DUHK) Prof. Dr. Yaroslav Hrytsak.

The main issue was how a historian – in this particular case of Ukrainian descent – should and could contribute to the fierce struggle for recognition of the Holodomor as genocide in Germany by the Bundestag. Those who are interested in history know that Holodomor was an engineered famine by Stalin in the years 1932/33. Millions of Ukrainian people have perished and countless villages have been erased from the face of the earth. Stalin himself had put the death toll at 10 Million in various conversations with his ministers of the Soviet Union. Even though the death toll is to this day subjected to debate, many scholars call Holodomor a genocide for good reason.

And, I ask, is the Bundestag maybe scared of politically alienating Russia?

Let’s take a look at how Russia remembers its history. For example, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently tried to falsify Russia’s responsibility in WWII. Putin suggested, at the beginning of 2020, that, according to “his cabinet of historians,” Poland started WWII, twisting the historical fact, that Russia invaded Poland, following Nazi-Germany’s invasion and was/is as responsible for WWII as Nazi-Germany.

Holodomor, Genocide & Russia: the great Ukrainian challenge

Let us not forget the non-aggression Ribbentrop-Molotov pact Nazi-Germany and Russia signed in 1939, which allowed both these powers to divide Poland among them. In Russia, to this day, WWII is still remembered as the “Great Patriotic War” and seems to be very much influenced by the country’s Soviet past. In the Soviet Union, this “Great Patriotic War” was championed as the greatest achievement of the Soviet people. Possibly, the only great thing too, historically that is. No other country is as proud of winning a war as Russia is.

Do other post-Soviet countries remember this specific achievement as gleefully as Russia does? Ukraine for the first time in 2015 joined most of Europe and the world to mark the end of WWII a day earlier than Russia, 8th May. President Poroshenko also had ditched the title of “Great Patriotic War” in favor of “World War Two” as part of a reinforcement of Ukrainian identity by the pro-Western government.

Since the 18th century, historians have often played the role of public intellectuals, who provided society with orientation in questions not only of the past but also of the present. The way history as a discipline works is that it explains by narrative the origins of the present situation. As the present situation changes, the questions asked of history change as well, but history as such does not have much to say about the direction of change – future – and it at least formally refrains from advocating such a direction. In Prof. Hrytsak’s point of view, historical objectivity allegedly requires a conscious silence, whereas Ambassador Melnyk, after so many years of silence, expects a larger involvement from the Ukrainian members of the DUHK.

It feels like many intellectuals see history as more a fight between the political powers – left and right – and less a reconstruction of what actually happened. Chains of causality are very important, so are the archival proofs, as long as they are not falsified. Memories are important too, but they should not be trusted completely: neuroscientists have shown that each time we remember something, we are reconstructing the event, reassembling it from traces throughout the brain. We could say that, as a result, memory is unreliable. We could also say it is adaptive, reshaping itself to accommodate the new situations we find ourselves facing. Either way, we have to face the fact that memory is “flexible.”

For decades in the Ukrainian SSR already the mere mention of the word Holodomor could buy you a one-way ticket to the Gulag. The wisdom of the Holodomor’s descendants cautioned: “The Russian murderers will come back” and the descendants were right in the end. The Russian murderers did come back: to Donetsk, to Donbas and to Crimea.

From the Ukrainian side, since its independence in 1991, many mistakes of historical memory have been made: glorification and heroification of and for OUN-UPA and Stepan Bandera, among others, misunderstanding the role of the Holocaust in the global and national historical memory among other things. These grave mistakes created rather unwelcome controversies in the eyes of the global world and now if ever is the best time to clean up your act, Ukraine.

The politicization of history

Russia, a major international player in global politics, has recently intensified its traditional policy (inherited from the Soviet times) of systematic “glorious mother (Father, in the image of Putin) Russia” image creation, which reflects the traditional concept of the “Russkiy Mir”[1] – also widely known as simply Russian propaganda. The main feature of the Soviet legacies in memory politics is a view on history that promotes only one “proper” view on history. The post-Soviet model of politics of history is now being actively exploited by the political regimes in Russia. It comes down to the nationalization of the myth of the “Great Patriotic War” with very little space for acknowledgment of the Stalinist crimes and it highlights imperial Russian values. Memories of the war are required above all to legitimate the centralized and repressive social order. The victory of the Soviet Union in 1945 is not simply the central junction of the meaning of Soviet history. It is in fact the only positive point for post-Soviet society’s national consciousness.[2]

Read also: The “Russian World” as a political technology used against Ukraine

Does this image creation have something to do with accusing Poland of starting WWII? Maybe it’s silly to hope that historians are presenting an objective big-picture of history. I guess in Russia’s case the “gifts” and/or threats decide what’s objective.

International Courts of Justice, a considerably more objective weapon of society, have recently played important roles in modernizing the definition of genocide. For deeper reading, please look into The Gambia v. Myanmar: The Rohingya Genocide Case and Drelingas v. Lithuania: Ethno-Political Genocide Case. The outcomes of both these cases have widened the scope for what is legally to be understood as genocide. These have definitely positive political and historical overtones in our time and day.

There’s hope that a broader definition of genocide would allow at last for Ukraine and others a deserved recognition and for the perpetrators the overdue remorse. As the British human rights activist, V. Bukovsky once said “There would have been in Germany neither remorse nor awareness without Nuremberg’.’

Was Holodomor a genocide? Examining the arguments

Prior to Ukrainian independence, it was the Soviet state’s policy to eradicate any separate mention of ethnicities that fell victim to various atrocities throughout history, especially WWII. Those include both Jews and Poles. Post-1991 Ukraine found itself in desperate need of foundational myths and heroes that could bind its disparate regions into a coherent whole. The government then turned to the legacy of OUN-UPA – the mythologies of freedom fighters. President Yushchenko, during his time, established a state institute of national memory and not only mythologized the legacies of the OUN-UPA, but also awarded one of their leaders Stepan Bandera the title of “Hero of Ukraine.”

With the coming of President Yanukovych Bandera’s awarded title was rolled back, but following the election of President Poroshenko in 2014 the title came roaring back together with the passing of four new state laws. These laws, passed in 2015, established that “public denial of the legitimacy of the struggle for independence of Ukraine in the 20th century is recognized as an insult to the memory of fighters for the independence of Ukraine […] and is unlawful,” in effect banning the criticism of the OUN-UPA.[3]

Read also: Ten myths about decommunization in Ukraine

Who is responsible for the Lviv pogrom of 1941 and other massacres?

Determining the responsibility of various actors during the pogrom in Lviv of 1941 has been and is still very difficult due to the lack of documents (and research) and still inaccessible archives.

Lviv was a multinational city on the eve of WWII: in 1939 Poles formed a slight majority (157.490 or just over 50%), followed by Jews (99.595 or 32%) and Ukrainians (49.747 or 16%). Before WWII broke out Lviv was part of Poland. In September 1939 it came under Soviet rule and was joined to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. In June 1941, Germans took the city.

The Jewish population cheered the Soviet takeover. The Soviets were seen as liberators from bourgeois Poland. As soon as the Soviets took the city of Lviv, mass deportations of Poles and Jews started. Alone in 1940, at least 30.000 people were deported eastwards. In June 1941 Nazis invaded the USSR, and the retreating NKVD forces spent a week killing political prisoners in Lviv – at least 8000 people lost their lives, including Poles and Jews. The Nazi-German troops were seen as liberators from the deadly Soviets.

Irena Lille, a memoirist and Holocaust survivor, remembers the day the German army marched into Lviv, June 30, 1941:

“Young, beautiful, looking like athletes, they wore unbuttoned shirts with rolled-up sleeves, joyfully singing ‘Heili Heilo.’ Some civilians embrace them, women throw bunches of flowers, in sum, a jubilant mood everywhere. Among the crowd I spot the couple who take care of the building, they wear yellow-blue armbands, Ukrainians!!! Before today they always passed as Polish, and always spoke Polish to each other, Count Baworowski would not have hired Ukrainians as caretakers of his property.”[4]

Lviv’s Ukrainians greeted Germans with joy, suddenly revealed their previously hidden Ukrainian identity, and proudly took to wearing blue-yellow armbands. Multiple studies and memoirists describe that day in a similar manner. It may seem as though these writers faithfully capture two moods of Lviv on June 30, 1941: Polish and Jewish majorities were terrified and the Ukrainian minority was overjoyed. The young writer Ostap Tarnavsky did not hide his enthusiastic reaction to the change in occupiers because now the streets displayed Ukrainian national symbols. But he also noted:

“Blue-yellow flags appeared on buildings. Streets were filling with Lviv’s lowlifes. Immediately the persecution of Jews began. I myself almost got beaten up because I was not wearing the blue-yellow armband, which guaranteed that no one would touch you. Various characters procured those armbands; they did not even know Ukrainian but were now reacting to every thing they lived through under Soviet rule.”[5]

Yet other testimonies exist and they compel us to scrutinize the scene of mass welcome and flowers for the marching German units. Ignacy Chiger, father of the “GIRL IN THE GREEN SWEATER”[6] writes that Poles in Lviv greeted the Germans no less enthusiastically than Ukrainians did and justified their reactions with schadenfreude:

“Now not only Poland, but the boastful, imperial Russia has fallen as well.”[7]

His words raise a suspicion: what if, when authors recall the ethnic makeup of those jubilant crowds, they are guided by their own identifications? It is important to remember, that in contrast to Chiger’s recollection, a different picture dominates accounts by other Polish writers: the joy of traitorous Ukrainians who had long been awaiting this event, and the horror of everyone else.

In the first two years of German occupation, Nazi terror against the civilian population of Poland, especially against the educated class, turned into an everyday occurrence. Though those reports made their way to Lviv, the city’s inhabitants still insisted that nothing could be worse than what they were subjected to under the Soviet rule. The Massacre of Lviv’s Professors sent shockwaves through the city: as the former imperial and royal Habsburg subjects, Lvivians could not fathom that Germans would have committed such atrocities. 39 professors of Lviv (mostly of Polish descent) lost their lives.

It is important to mention that the 1941 pogrom in Lviv took place in the light of the proclamation of a new Ukrainian state on the first day of the German occupation.[8] The pogrom itself lasted, according to some sources four weeks, according to others, longer. An important circumstance of the pogrom was the discovery of thousands of decomposing corpses of political prisoners murdered by the retreating NKVD. The Germans had the Jews retrieving the bodies and laying them out in public for display.

Prison on Lontskoho in Lviv: Ukraine’s museum of soviet horror

The German military reported that already in the late afternoon of 30 June the population of Lviv were taking out its anger for the NKVD murders “on the Jews living in the city, who had always collaborated with the Bolsheviks”[9].

Jews were made to clean the streets, houses, and toilets, carry dead corpses and otherwise engage in demeaning physical work. Anticommunist spectacles accompanied the pogrom: tearing down of soviet posters, monuments, making Jews sing soviet songs while marching up and down the streets. The locals had a chance to vent their anger at the Jews, which allegedly, thanks to the Nazi propaganda machine, had prominent roles at the top of the Soviet regime’s political staircase.

The Germans made sure to expose as many locals in Lviv as possible to the violence and documented the atrocities on film, for newsreels that were to be shown in theaters across Germany and occupied Europe. Horrendous rumors about how the inmates, men and women were tortured and killed by the Soviet authorities were translated from German papers such as “Völkischer Beobachter” and reprinted in the local Ukrainian press. It appears that the explanation of blaming communism on Jews and the exercise of collective punishment through undifferentiated violence against them has roots going well beyond the Soviet terror of 1939-41.

Many Holocaust scholars attribute much of the killing to the Ukrainian nationalists. However, the killers’ actual political orientation and relation to the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) is still subject to debate. The modus operandi of the Germans was always to work with some organized local group and have them spearhead the incident.

In Lviv, the best candidate to spearhead the pogrom was the OUN, which supposedly worked closely with the Germans since the 1930s and ideologically were close to National Socialism in Germany. Aside from motivations for anti-Jewish and anti-Polish violence, OUN also had the means to implement the pogrom.

It would also be logical to incline that it was the militia set up by the OUN government on 30 June 1941 that spearheaded the pogrom on the following day. Nachtigall veteran Myroslav Kalba spoke in his memoirs about an alleged order from Nachtigall battalion commander:

“Do not commit any crimes or retaliation against our enemies, whether Poles or Jews, because it is not our task to deal with them.”

If such an order did exist, Nachtigall’s task was to fight at the front, while the destruction of the enemies from the civilian population was the responsibility of others.

Ukrainian memoirists emphasize that there was large Polish participation in the violence of the Lviv pogrom of 1941. Kost Pankivskyi said that since Poles made up a majority of the Lviv population, it was only logical that they were the ones who were beating the Jews in the streets. Both Pankivskyi and Ievhen Nakonechnyi wrote that Polish pogromists would often wear yellow and blue armbands, but they could be recognized by how feebly they spoke Ukrainian[10].

Lvvv, late June or early July 1941: people turn on the city’s Jews following the expulsion of the occupying Russian forces by the Nazis. Photograph: Rex/The Weiner Library, via The Guardian

It may very well be true that Polish criminals used the occasion of the pogrom to rob Jewish apartments, but it is significant that they chose to disguise themselves as Ukrainian militiamen.[11]

Why is it that all the criticism is reserved for the ethnic Ukrainians, who at the time were a small majority of Lviv’s population, for the atrocities of the pogrom?

In various sources about the pogrom in Lviv in 1941 very little is said about the Polish majority, who truly have a very bad record of tolerating minorities and that includes Ukrainians, Jewish, Belarusians, and Lithuanians among others.

The urban crowd that participated in the pogrom was clearly of mixed ethnicities. To think though that it was the ethnical majority of the city – the Polish and the Polish only – were the perpetrators of the pogrom would be a mistake.

The human milieu of the 1941 pogrom in Lviv was particularly complex and explosive. It was only the city of Lviv that had the majority Polish population. The suburban areas of the city of Lviv were always dominated by the Ukrainian ethnic majority. Plus, the auxiliary police was created from the volunteers – all, including boys as young as the age of 14 could sign up.

The question of responsibility still stands unanswered. The strategy of divide and conquer, consciously and consistently implemented by the Germans, relied on racial segregation, placing Germans at the top of the pyramid, then Ukrainians, after them Poles; right below the category of the “untermenschen” were the Jews.

We know that the Massacre of Lviv’s Professors was systematically organized and executed by the Gestapo and not by the Nachtigall. But the guilty party of Lviv’s pogrom of 1941 is still to this day not found. And, one of the possible responsible parties in Ukraine are standing on the mythical heroic pedestal. If you didn’t know, by 1944, when the Soviet forces reached Lviv only 200–300 Jews remained – that’s only 2-3%.

Babi Yar and the circus of distortion

A small memorial dedicated to the victims of Babyn Yar. Source:

In Ukraine, it sometimes seems as if rather than merely attempting to drift toward the universal, a sort of replacement theology is at work, with Ukrainians seeking to compete with the Jews in a game of victimhood.[12]

Since 1991 a logic of “one people” has been applied to the ideological formation of an independent Ukraine. Rather than “one Soviet people” there is now one Ukrainian people under which numerous historical tragedies are being subsumed, and the unique historical tragedies of other peoples on the territory of Ukraine, such as the massive destruction of Jews, is being suppressed.

Fifty years of communist rule has either taken away the opportunity from Ukrainians to reflect upon and critically analyze what had happened or severely limited their freedom to do so. Ukraine is not an exception in this regard: the 20th century brought a multitude of traumatic experiences, none of which were fully worked through before.[13]

“The single largest shooting of Jews in Ukraine occurred on 29 and 30 September 1941, on the western outskirts of Kyiv in a large ravine known as Babi Yar.” For almost 50 years Soviet authorities avoided acknowledgment of this event as well as a broader acknowledgment of the eradication of the Jewish population. In essence, little has changed in the close of 30 years of Ukraine’s independence. Babi Yar went from being a mass grave of Soviet people to a fraternal grave for many groups of Ukrainian people. The result of decades of conscious effort on official levels to distort the history of Babi Yar and to minimize or ignore the Holocaust means that “above Babi Yar there is no monument”[14].

Jewish survivors of Babi Yar Holocaust massacre recall events, reconstruct exact shooting location

Monument in Babyn Yar. Photo:

The depiction of Babi Yar by a president of Ukraine (President Yushchenko approved plans to memorialize OUN and “comrades in arms in Ukraine’s liberation movement” in 2006) as primarily a place of suffering for Ukrainian nationalists indicates not only a profound disrespect for the history of Babi Yar as truly a place of suffering for tens of thousands of Jews but also implies a purposeful distortion of historical reality. This distortion is in keeping with the history that is being rewritten for the school textbooks in Ukraine where “the Holocaust has no tie ‘with the national history’.”[15]

In the textbooks of world history, it is mentioned that the Holocaust took place in various countries in Europe, but not in Ukraine.[16]

Several attempts were made to erect a memorial at Babi Yar to commemorate the fate of the Jewish victims. All attempts were overruled. There are, however, today, plans to finally build a memorial in Babi Yar. The current president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, expressed his support in July this year:

“The establishment of the memorial is extremely important for our country. Its history contains a lot of tragic pages. But we must bear them in mind and tell the coming generations about them. Such moments should stay in the history of Ukraine. They are in our talks, in our memory, in books. It would be very good if this project were brought into life and we built history together with you.”

It is important to watch the developments and gather hopes. I hope that the memorial will finally be built.

“Holocaust Disneyland” on mass graves in Kyiv – result of weak national memory policy

A turning point in the memorialization of Babi Yar was Yevtushenko’s 1961 poem on Babi Yar, which begins “Nad Babim Yarom pamyatnikov nyet” (“There are no monuments over Babi Yar”); it is also the first line of Shostakovitch’s Symphony No. 13. An official memorial to Soviet citizens shot at Babi Yar was erected in 1976.

The Menora dedicated to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Babi Yar. The memorial was built in 1991. Photo: 112.Ukraine

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Ukrainian government allowed the establishment of a separate memorial specifically identifying the Jewish victims. On the night of 16 July 2006, the memorial dedicated to the Jewish victims was vandalized.

In 1992, a wooden cross in memory of the 621 members of OUN-UPA murdered by the Germans in 1942 was erected. In the year 2000, an oak cross marking the place where two Ukrainian Orthodox Christian priests were shot on November 6, 1941, for anti-German agitation was installed. And these listed above are only a few examples of the many memorials erected to many different victims at Babi Yar. Today Ukraine remains the only European country without a national memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

Read also: False accusations of antisemitism haunt Ukraine as Putin pushes his narrative at Holocaust Forum

The Volhynian Massacre of 1943

Although Ukraine continues to be a multiethnic state to a certain degree, multiethnicity in a more than ethnographic sense ended after WWII. This is especially true in Western Ukraine – Galicia and Volhynia, currently almost entirely mono-ethnic regions. Thus, skeletons of Jews and Poles sometimes fall out of the Ukrainian “closet,” illustrating that this mono-ethnicity has not been achieved without bloodshed.[17]

Every poll in Ukraine shows that the younger the respondents, the more positive their attitudes toward the rehabilitation of the UPA.[18] Even though the Volhynian Massacre was one of the largest mass killings during WWII, it’s barely known in Ukraine. At the same time, in post-socialist Poland, the topic of the “Volhynian genocide” is gradually moving into the very center of the memorial culture and plays a significant role in the country’s attitude towards Ukraine.

Ethnic Cleansing or Ethnic Cleansings? The Polish-Ukrainian civil war in Galicia-Volhynia

A short summary of the facts, based on the balanced opinions of Polish and Ukrainian historians reveals that in 1943-1945 in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia an ethnic purge of Poles was perpetrated by Ukrainians. The initiators and the main perpetrators were UPA troops, under whose supervision the murders were carried out with the participation of Ukrainian neighbors. The murders were extraordinarily brutal and constituted a part of the UPA’s strategy to purge ethnically mixed territories of their Polish population. After the first wave of attacks, the Poles began organizing self-defense units, which participated in equally brutal retaliatory attacks. The destruction was completed by the flight of the surviving Poles and postwar forced resettlement, masquerading as “repatriation,” organized by the Soviet authorities. Poles disappeared almost completely from Volhynia and Eastern Galicia.

An ethnic purge of Poles is perceived as a fratricidal conflict provoked by outside forces, in which both sides suffered equally. On the level of vernacular and local memory, a myth was being spread in Galicia that during the war Poles collaborated with the Germans and killed Ukrainians, while Ukrainians only killed Poles in retaliation.[19] In regions where these events took place, collective memory regarding the purges is fragmentary, disappears in younger generations, and is characterized by whitewashing the perpetrators.[20]

It is telling that even critical Ukrainian essayists tend to stress that “the recognition of the responsibility of the perpetrators of the Volhynian Massacre does not automatically mean the condemnation of the entire Ukrainian underground”.[21]

Both the Ukrainian and Polish underground, in this case, committed crimes against civilians and some essayists speak of “bilateral genocide,” even if the numbers of people killed were different, the intent of the perpetrators was the same. There is no longer any dispute among scholars that the UPA killed tens of thousands of Poles in Western Ukraine. But given the central place of UPA in nationalist mythology, the mass murder of the Poles is still a matter that is hushed up in the Ukrainian diaspora public sphere.[22]

History of OUN-UPA: the Bandera controversy that eclipsed 200,000 people who fought for the independence of Ukraine

Final thoughts

Nearly all important historical events which constituted, or could constitute, Ukrainian national identity in opposition to Russia/USSR were glossed over prior to 1991 for obvious reasons. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukrainians began to zealously fill in the blanks, retell history, rehabilitate heroes, and mourn victims. Because Jews were not perceived as “our victims,” they had to give up their place in the queue for historical justice in favor of other groups and persons – the victims of the Holodomor, OUN-UPA insurgents, and Soviet dissidents.

In fact, the Holocaust became a larger topic in Ukrainian historical policy only during the presidency of Yushchenko, but it was used instrumentally – to promote the concept of the Holodomor as the “Ukrainian version of the Holocaust,” thus the memory of the Shoah had to be mentioned as well.[23]

It is certain that Ukrainian armed units – be it OUN in 1941, Ukrainian Auxiliary police 1941-1943, or UPA partisans after 1942 – took an active part in the Holocaust during the war.[24] This fact is not only completely absent from vernacular memory about OUN-UPA, the Shoah, and WWII in general but also entirely nonexistent in Ukraine’s official historical policy.

People do not like to remember that they were perpetrators – they prefer the image of their collective selves as victims.

A persistent absence of the tendency to regret and ask for forgiveness in Ukrainian historical policy – taking the blame for one’s cooperation in the Holocaust cannot be made into a priority of Ukrainian historical policy because the goal was, ever since Yushchenko, a construction of OUN-UPA’s positive heroic mythology.

The decision to base Ukraine’s identity on the one-sided only-positive history of a nationalist-independence movement does necessitate critical reflection concerning the Holocaust. The mythologies of these “heroes” must be scrutinized in a critical fashion.

New ruling elites, as well as various social groups while carrying out elite change promote their own vision of the past, naming those they would like to hold responsible for the plight of the nation, and trying to justify political transformation and potential punishment through it. This transitional justice includes the memorialization of the former regimes, which may be expressed in renaming streets and other public places, removing statues and erecting new ones, opening museums and other places of remembrance, or rewriting history textbooks.

Carrying out transitional justice in its narrower sense also inevitably entails the reconstruction of national history, the reframing of national memory, even myth creation in order to make the past more comfortable to live with and at the same time justify the elite change and perhaps also a redistribution of material goods and financial assets.[25]

Blaming Germany for most of the war crimes solved some international issues and also helped states to reconstruct their history on the basis of the “resistance myth” or “victimization” as well as facilitating the creation of “national unity” necessary for reconstruction.[26] Current debates probing the “equally evil” or “which one is more evil?” questions reiterate some of the issues already touched upon in the German “historikerstreit.”

Nazi dreams of an enslaved Ukraine: the blind spot of Germany’s historical memory – Timothy Snyder

In the end, what is required to find answers to all the uncomfortable unanswered questions is not so much just “fact-checking.” We need emotional intelligence to understand why so many countries prefer fiction to facts.

The memory wars are fierce and one has to understand the motivation and interest of the main parties claiming to be the victims: Israel and many non-Israeli Jews overtly, and Russia claiming its innocence and rewriting history.[27]  

It is however still sometimes hard to understand the rationale behind overt violence against the Jewish population in Eastern Europe: Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine among others, all have collaborated and partaken in the pogroms at the arrival of the German army during WWII. These countries did not enjoy independence and sovereignty for a while by then. In the example of Ukraine, the rule of various empires had existed for longer than just a century.

Various tactics from the Russian Empire to undermine and completely evaporate the cultural and national ideals had been in vain and the October revolution in Russia gave all of Eastern Europe a chance for new-found independence. The arrival of the renewed Soviet threat and the danger of being reannexed (Russia argues, that all of the countries entered the Soviet Union at their own will and contractually) pushed many to accept the Nazi-Germany as a savior.

The dream and chance that Nazi-Germany would allow another shot at independence made collaboration even easier.

This is where the historical ambivalence comes into play: the openly Nazi collaborators, partakers of pogroms, murderers of Jews and other ethnicities and cultures that didn’t belong in the cosmos of Nazi ideology and who even after the defeat of Nazi-Germany fought the Soviet regime are considered to be heroes in the national histories of the Eastern European countries.

Today, we know that many of these heroes have a dark past, which seems to have been forgotten or erased. A hero is not a hero if he took part in the murders of innocent people.

Historical ambiguities must be considered when elevating so-called heroes on the pedestal of heroism. Memories may be rosy, but the historical facts show the ghastly reality. We may be a progressive society living in a progressive world and it might be Christian to “forgive and forget,” but we are talking about massive human suffering, large-scale tragedies, and Holocaust may be forgiven, but must never be forgotten.

It would be backward to suggest that nations and nationalism today flourish despite the Soviet regime’s ruthlessly anti-national policies. Nationhood and nationalism flourish today largely because of the regime’s policies.

Ukraine must complete a quest to reexamine bonds between local ethnicities, which is instructive of relations among the nations of the region still affected by stereotypes, prejudice, and mutual grievances dating back to the years of WWII. One example of such a lasting holdover are the Polish-Ukrainian and, to a lesser extent, the Jewish-Ukrainian memory conflicts. Even more gravely, the legacy of the war years continues to fuel the hostilities between Russia and Ukraine. As Ukrainians defend the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state and reassert the right to their identity, history, and sovereignty, they again face Russia’s opposition. Russia’s and Germany’s imperial designs have often determined the trajectory of world history, and they have left deepest scars on the populations of Central-Eastern Europe.


  1. Russian: Русский мир is the social totality associated with Russian culture. Russkiy Mir is the core culture of Russia and is in interaction with the diverse cultures of Russia through traditions, history, and the Russian language. It comprises also the Russian diaspora with its influence in the world. The concept is based on the notion of “Russianness,” and both are ambiguous. The Russian world and awareness of it arose through Russian history and shaped itself through the respective periods. Created by a decree of Vladimir Putin in 2007 the Russkiy Mir Foundation, as a government-sponsored organization, aims at promoting the Russian language worldwide, and “forming the Russian World as a global project” in co-operation with the Russian Orthodox Church, promoting values that challenge the Western cultural tradition.
  2. Oleksii Polegkyi, Identity-building in post-communist Ukraine: post-imperial vs Post-colonial discourses, in: B. Törnquist-Plewa, N. Bernsand, E.Narvselius (ed.), Beyond transition? Memory and identity narratives in eastern and Central Europe, Media-Tryck, Lund University, Lund 2015, p. 169-190.
  3. Sam Sokol (2017): Babi Yar as a Symbol of Holocaust Distortion in Post-Maidan Ukraine, Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, DOI: 10.1080/23739770.2017.1315694
  4. Lille, Moje zycie / unpublished manuscript 1981, typescript is writer’s Ola Hnatiuk’s Collection and as cited in Ola Hnatiuk’s “Courage and Fear”, 2019.
  5. Ostap Tasrnavskyi, Literaturnyi Lviv (Lviv:Prosvita, 1995), 67.
  6. The Girl in the Green Sweater: A Life in Holocaust’s Shadow, written by coauthors Krystyna Chiger and Daniel Paisner, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2008.
  7. Ignacy Chiger, Swiat w mroku, 81.
  8. The Germans did not recognize this state and only tolerated this proclamation for a few days. They then in September 1941 arrested the nationalist leaders, including Stepan Bandera. After the arrests of their leaders, the OUN was pushed underground. OUN continued fighting not only the Soviets and Poles but also the Nazis.
  9. Bundesarchiv/Militärarchiv, Freiburg, Darstellung der Erreignisse, RH 24-49-9, f. 176.
  10. Nakonechnyi “”Shoah” u L’vovi”, 2nd. ed. (Lviv, Piramida, 2006) 112-113. Pankivskyi “Vid derzhavy do komitetu” 35-36.
  11. During the Anschluss pogrom in Vienna in 1938, criminals also donned Nazi armbands and robbed Jewish houses of their money, jewelry, silverware, furniture, and carpets. Leonidas E. Hill „The pogrom of November 9-10, 1938 in Germany“, 96., in Paul R. Brass (ed.) “Riots and pogroms”, NY: New York University Press, 1996.
  12. Sam Sokol (2017): Babi Yar as a Symbol of Holocaust Distortion in Post-Maidan Ukraine, Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, DOI: 10.1080/23739770.2017.1315694
  13. Blecker and Etkind, 2013 as cited in Anna Wylegała (2017) Managing the difficult past: Ukrainian collective memory and public debates on history, Nationalities Papers, 45:5, 780-797, DOI:10.1080/00905992.2016.1273338
  14. Yevgeni Yevtushenko’s 1961 poem “Babi Yar” begins with these words and it is also the first line of Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 13”.
  15. Whatever one might call it, the fact remains that the subject of the extermination of Jews did not exist in the USSR. In the “History of the Ukrainian SSR”, published in the 1980s, the Jews were not mentioned at all. Soviet historiography counted Jews who died in the Holocaust among the general number of Soviet war casualties as “civilians” and they were commemorated in the same way – if at all. As a matter of a course, the subject of Ukrainian collaboration in the Holocaust was also entirely absent from the public sphere. It is clear that despite the fact that the Soviet Union dissolved over two decades ago, the burden of silence borne from that period still influences Ukrainian memories of the Shoah.
  16. Jilge 2014, in Aleksandr Burakovskiy (2011): Holocaust remembrance in Ukraine: memorialization of the Jewish tragedy at Babi Yar, Nationalities Papers, 39:3, 371-389.
  17. Anna Wylegała (2017) Managing the difficult past: Ukrainian collective memory and public debates on history, Nationalities Papers, 45:5, 780-797, DOI:10.1080/00905992.2016.1273338
  18. Anna Wylegała (2017) Managing the difficult past: Ukrainian collective memory and public debates on history, Nationalities Papers, 45:5, 780-797, DOI:10.1080/00905992.2016.1273338
  19. Ruda 2009 as cited in Anna Wylegała (2017) Managing the difficult past: Ukrainian collective memory and public debates on history, Nationalities Papers, 45:5, 780-797, DOI:10.1080/00905992.2016.1273338
  20. Anna Wylegała (2017) Managing the difficult past: Ukrainian collective memory and public debates on history, Nationalities Papers, 45:5, 780-797, DOI:10.1080/00905992.2016.1273338
  21. Andrii Portnov, Clash of Victimhoods. The Volhynian Massacre 1943 in Polish and Ukrainian Memory, 16/11/2016 published:
  22. John Paul Himka, Collaboration and or Resistance: The OUN and UPA during the War, Ukrainian Jewish Encounter Shared Narrative Series: Conference on Issues Relating to World War II, Potsdam, 27-30 June 2011.
  23. Hrytsak 2011b as cited in Anna Wylegała (2017) Managing the difficult past: Ukrainian collective memory and public debates on history, Nationalities Papers, 45:5, 780-797, DOI:10.1080/00905992.2016.1273338
  24. Finder and Prusin 2004, Himka 2011, Rudlin 2011 as cited in Anna Wylegała (2017) Managing the difficult past: Ukrainian collective memory and public debates on history, Nationalities Papers, 45:5, 780-797, DOI:10.1080/00905992.2016.1273338
  25. Csilla Kiss, Transitional Justice and the Politics of Memory in Europe: An East-West Comparative Exercise, in: B. Törnquist-Plewa, N. Bernsand, E.Narvselius (ed.), Beyond transition? Memory and identity narratives in eastern and Central Europe, Media-Tryck, Lund University, Lund 2015, p. 23-37.
  26. Judt 1992, as cited in: Csilla Kiss, Transitional Justice and the Politics of Memory in Europe: An East-West Comparative Exercise, in: B. Törnquist-Plewa, N. Bernsand, E.Narvselius (ed.), Beyond transition? Memory and identity narratives in eastern and Central Europe, Media-Tryck, Lund University, Lund 2015, p. 23-37.
  27. Reference to V. Putin’s accusation of Poland as the starter of both the Holocaust and WWII.

Colette Hartwich is a creator and founder of Hadassah Luxembourg, WEGA Aide Humanitaire a.s.b.l Luxembourg; Co-Founder of L’Ukraine and ALPHEE Paris. She has 40 years of experience in humanitarian and environmental assistance projects in 7 different countries all around the world: the Philippines, Ukraine, Armenia among others. For more than 25 years she is educating and coaching in fields of microfinance, humanitarian, and development assistance project drafting.

Further reading:

You could close this page. Or you could join our community and help us produce more materials like this.  We keep our reporting open and accessible to everyone because we believe in the power of free information. This is why our small, cost-effective team depends on the support of readers like you to bring deliver timely news, quality analysis, and on-the-ground reports about Russia's war against Ukraine and Ukraine's struggle to build a democratic society. A little bit goes a long way: for as little as the cost of one cup of coffee a month, you can help build bridges between Ukraine and the rest of the world, plus become a co-creator and vote for topics we should cover next. Become a patron or see other ways to support. Become a Patron!

To suggest a correction or clarification, write to us here

You can also highlight the text and press Ctrl + Enter

Please leave your suggestions or corrections here

    Euromaidan Press

    We are an independent media outlet that relies solely on advertising revenue to sustain itself. We do not endorse or promote any products or services for financial gain. Therefore, we kindly ask for your support by disabling your ad blocker. Your assistance helps us continue providing quality content. Thank you!

    Related Posts