Review- Rossliński-Liebe, “Stepan Bandera”

Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe, “Stepan Bandera: The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist” (2014) – Ukraine! Tough country. Learning history seriously put a crimp in my desire to live in other time periods/places. Even leaving aside the toilet arrangements, in so many times and places there are just no good choices. Ukraine is one such place that finds itself in that position time and again, including right now. In this book, German historian Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe takes us back to an even harsher time, which has all too many echoes of contemporary Ukraine.

How to even describe Ukraine’s situation in the early twentieth century? Well, for one thing, there was a lot of disagreement about where it began and ended, who was a Ukrainian, and what being Ukrainian meant. After WWI, there were major Ukrainian populations in three or four countries and in none of them were they well-treated, between the famine and the terror in the USSR and minority status in Czechoslovakia (where they were at least left alone) and Poland (where they weren’t). Eastern Ukrainians were more culturally Russian where western Ukrainians were in uneasy proximity to Central Europe and especially the Poles.

Ukrainian nationalism was profoundly frustrated, especially in the west where, after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, there was no major power for them to look to the way Eastern Ukrainians looked (and look) to Russia. Frustrated nationalism in the early twentieth century was dynamite, dynamite sweating out little beads of nitroglycerin and waiting to blow. One of the men who slammed down the plunger on that little bundle of explosive joy was Stepan Bandera.

The son of a Greek Catholic priest (don’t ask me how Greek Catholicism came to be the national church of western Ukraine, I do not understand it) and raised in the Ukrainian part of postwar Poland, Bandera was the right (or, really, exactly wrong) kind of crazy for his time and place. A nationalist extremist from the beginning, he made his name by taking an already angry nationalism and bringing it to a higher boil, ever to the right, ever more purist, ever more violent. Schoolmates report the young Bandera as sticking pins under his fingernails and whipping himself with his belt in order to prepare for the tortures he expected from the Polish secret police. He was a real character.

He joined the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) as a youth and proceeded to help take the group in an ever more violent, fascist, and antisemitic direction. He built a following with younger, mostly Poland-based members. Like Hitler, he was one of those guys where people argue over whether he was truly charismatic or not — he was a dweeby little twerp who looks for all the world like Stephen Miller — but clearly had something that got him over with angry young Ukrainians. One thing that probably helped was the stark simplicity of his answers to the complex questions of Ukrainian nationality. Ukraine has a unique destiny, it’s defined by Ukrainian blood, and anyone foreign and anyone who stands in the way — Poles, Russians, Jews, democrats, communists, anyone who questions the Provydnik (leader) — need to be exterminated. This message proved popular and soon Bandera’s branch of the OUN has outstripped more moderate Ukrainian nationalists and began undertaking terror campaigns.

Bandera was in Polish jail for conspiracy to kill the interior minister when the Nazis invaded. From the beginning, Bandera and the OUN hailed the Germans as liberators (note- these were not Ukrainians who suffered from the famine in the USSR, this was Ukrainians who were somewhat discriminated against in Poland) and as the people who could help bring about an independent Ukraine. As these groups do, OUN had split, there was an OUN-B (for Bandera) and an OUN-M (for Melnyk, another fascist chieftain). When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and quickly rolled over much of Ukraine, these two competed to become the puppet government of Ukraine. Bandera had more popular appeal but Melnyk appealed more to the Germans, in large part because he was less egotistical and more pliable.

The early parts of the Nazi war against the Soviet Union saw massive atrocities carried out by both Axis soldiers and local civilians against Jews and other minorities. The book has numerous sickening depictions of Ukrainian nationalists teaming up with the Nazis to beat, humiliate, and kill Jews. Both OUN factions saw this as a positive thing at the time, the beginning of the great cleansing that would lead to a Ukrainian national rebirth. In some cases, the Germans even intervened to slow the Ukrainians down- they were getting too messy, too disorderly.

Of course, in the end, the Nazis did not want to see an independent Ukraine, even as a loyal puppet state. They wanted a slave colony. They were happy to use Ukrainians as muscle (like in the SS-Galizien division) but had no intention of making Bandera, Melnyk, or anyone else leader of a Ukrainian state. The Nazis wound up arresting Bandera, keeping him in a special division of one of the camps, a nice sort of place for high-end political prisoners like the last of the Hapsburgs and Otto von Bismarck’s grandson.

This turned out to be important, because both Bandera and the OUN (and it’s tedious subfactions and minor rivals) survived the war. While not giving up their fascist ideas, they pivoted towards the west and sought to aid in the American side of the Cold War. The CIA, as well as British and West German intelligence, made cat’s paws of numerous Ukrainians (and many others) with dubious war records, allowing thousands to slip into new lives in the west. They didn’t turn out to be that useful — there would be no “rollback” in Eastern Europe — but it allowed them to hold on. Moreover, they could enlist the Cold War propaganda establishment, including academic historians, to whitewash their crimes, defining away their fascism and turning a blind eye to the atrocities.

Bandera got got by the KGB in Munich in 1959 (the KGB tried to frame a Nazi war criminal in the West German government- too bad that didn’t work, would’ve been a two for one). This was probably a convenient time for him to die, from a Ukrainian nationalist perspective. He wasn’t too much use — the Americans thought he was too egotistical to work much with — and the promised Third World War that would allow the Ukrainians their next bite at the apple likely wasn’t going to materialize by then.

Instead, Bandera became a martyr, and more than that, a synecdoche for right-wing Ukrainian nationalism more generally. Diaspora Ukrainians carefully tended to his cult for decades. Soviet propaganda helped, too, by insisting any Ukrainian they didn’t like, even if it was just for speaking Ukrainian where they weren’t supposed to, was a Banderist. This made him a symbol for resistance even among Ukrainians who didn’t share his violent ultranationalism. Bandera managed to outlive a Melnyk, Bulba, and the other little fascist chieftains of the area to become this symbolic figure in time for Ukraine’s independence in 1991. While a many Ukrainians, especially in the more russified east, don’t really care about Bandera or his cause, a critical mass (especially in the west) see him as a key symbol for what the Ukraine should be. This is, to say the least, unsettling. In nearly the same breath, Ukrainian nationalists will uphold Bandera, insist that Bandera did nothing wrong and was a democrat (he hated democracy), and say anyway, it’s all the fault of those nasty Jews like Soros. If it’s for a western audience, they’ll throw in Putin too.

I, for one, love big fat serious books about the ideological madness of the twentieth century, and this fits the bill. It was Rossoliński-Liebe’s dissertation, and he’s very careful with his historiography (which always takes me back to my early grad school days, all that wrangling over defining fascism- good times) and evidence. If there’s one thing he didn’t address enough, I’d say it was “why Bandera” — why he got to be the symbol instead of his rivals. Was it just the martyrdom? The extremity? I don’t know. I do know this book got Rossoliński-Liebe in some trouble- between his claims about national hero Bandera and the gauntlet he throws at nationalist (and Cold War) historiography, when he came to Ukraine the only place he could do a reading was, ironically, the German embassy. Everywhere else was threatened to the point where they cancelled (and one gets the idea the Ukrainian academic establishment wasn’t thrilled to help out either). Bandera, who wasn’t above petty shit like that — no fascist, no matter how bloodied, is ever anything other than petty — would have been proud. *****

Review- Rossliński-Liebe, “Stepan Bandera”

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