They are either war criminals or national heroes, depending on who is telling their history.
In the annals of the still-heated debate over Ukraine’s tragic World War II experience, one is hard-pressed to find another 200 survivors who still stir more passions than the former members of the SS Galicia division. Their youngest known surviving member is 83 years old, but the controversy they inspire shows no sign of dying out soon.
The Nazi regiment was created in 1943. By then, the tide had already turned in favor of the Allies after Soviet troops ravaged the Nazi fighting machine in the epic Battle of Stalingrad. The racist Hitler had dropped his insistence on having only German soldiers of the “master race” go to war for him, a sign of his growing desperation.
The Ukrainians who joined the SS Galicia division – and who took battle orders from Nazi commanders – consisted of up to 20,000 men selected from 70,000 Ukrainian volunteers. Uniformed and trained by the Nazis in Germany, France and Denmark, the division won praise from Heinrich Himmler, the Gestapo chief who was one the most feared men in Europe at the time.
How could Ukrainians join such an outfit?
The most benevolent description of the motives of the men of the SS Galicia division is that they were gambling on the defeat of Nazi Germany. According to this logic, they wanted to rid Ukraine of Stalin’s Red Army and secure Western support to reclaim national independence after the war.
The harshest description is that they betrayed their nation, committed war crimes and slowed the Allied Victory.
“This is what I ask myself, what made those people volunteer?” said Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the nationalist Svoboda Party, which is currently gaining popularity in western Ukraine. “I can tell you what motivated those people. Before their eyes, the Communists destroyed their families, [and so] they didn’t care what flags they fought under against the Bolsheviks.”
Western Ukraine, and particularly the part called Halychyna or Galicia, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When the empire dissolved after World War I, Ukrainians there seized the moment to declare independence in 1918. The freedom was short-lived. The western region fell under Polish rule, making Ukrainians chafe for a liberator. In 1939, after Stalin and Hitler signed their non-aggression pact, the Soviet Army invaded – claiming they were freeing the Galicians.
Although the Soviet soldiers were initially welcomed with bread and salt by the population, Stalin-ordered repressions and murders quickly turned the lives of western Ukrainians into nightmares.
“My grandfather was buried alive in jail by NKVD [the security service] because he was a priest,” said Tyahnybok, whose party recently paid for an advertising campaign to promote the SS Galicia, or the 14th Grenadier Division Der SS Galicia (Number 1 Ukrainian), as it was officially called by the Nazis.
Tyahnybok’s party purchased 20 advertising light boards on Lviv’s streets in April, advertising the SS Galicia as “defenders of Ukraine” who fought against Communist oppression. The campaign, organized to mark the division’s 66th anniversary, triggered an explosive reaction among public and politicians. The advertisements were commissioned for a month, but taken down a day early because of public pressure.
Mykola Posivnych, a historian at the Institute of Ukraine Studies, said volunteers of the SS Galicia had complicated motives for joining the military unit, including strong financial incentives by the Nazis.
“Everybody had different motivations, but most people went there because they needed to feed their family,” Posivnych said. In exchange, newcomers to the division had to pledge an oath to Hitler to fight Bolshevism.
Ukraine was World War II’s primary battleground, with Nazis and Soviets alternating control of the territory, which was coveted for its rich fertile land and ability to feed millions. An estimated eight million Ukrainians, including four million civilians, were killed during the war. The Nazis and Soviets practiced scorched-earth policies of burning or destroying everything they could – including factories and villages – when their armies retreated.
Those in western Ukraine had few options for avoiding the ruthless armies of the dictators from the east and west. Apart from the SS Galicia, they could join the underground Ukrainian Insurgent Army – known by its UPA acronym. UPA members, the military wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, fought against all foreign enemies of Ukraine and were primarily active in the western half of the country. Their guerrilla battles against Soviet power in Ukraine continued until the 1950s, despite Soviet assassinations of their top leaders in exile abroad.
Some Ukrainians, however, thought the insurgent army’s quest was futile. SS Galicia members "thought it was impossible to fight against four enemies: Poland, Romania, Hungary and Soviet Union,” Posivnych explained. “They had to choose allies.”
The SS Galicia’s military record was mostly brief and tragic. Some believe they were used as Nazi cannon fodder. Most were killed in a major battle in the western Ukrainian town of Brody in 1944. Soviet troops so overpowered them in battle that only some 5,000 soldiers survived the encounter.
After the Battle of Brody, the remnants were scattered and many reorganized into a different military unit. After the German surrender, the SS Galicia survivors also surrendered to the Western allies and were sent to a prisoner of war camp in Rimini, Italy. Apart from Ukraine, its members later resettled in Germany, Britain, Australia, Brazil, United States and Canada.
As a part of the Nazi SS force, the division was also investigated for its potential role in mass killings of Jews and Poles and the suppression of uprisings in Slovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia and France.
Marcial Lavina, representative of Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human rights organization (www.wiesenthal.com), said “there are indications that [the unit] might have committed war crimes at the end of the war in Poland, but this is still being investigated.” The organization, which has doggedly pursued war criminals responsible for the Holocaust, recently gave Ukraine an “F” grade in hunting down Nazis, citing a lack of political will.
But a number of other international investigations, including one by the Canadian Commission of Inquiry on War Crimes, also known as the Deschenes Commission, and another one led by Polish historians, cleared the Ukrainian group of accusations of participation in war crimes. “Commissions justified [SS Galicia] as soldiers, meaning they did not commit crimes against humanity or terrorist acts against unarmed population. Their function was solely to fight at war,” Posivnych said.
But many Ukrainians are unconvinced. Oleksandr Feldman, a deputy from Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s bloc, said SS Galicia members were “military criminals, whom current moral freaks are trying to rehabilitate, whiten up and present as victims of historical injustice.”
Leonid Mukha, an 84-year-old resident of Mykolaiv and a former member of the division, said many myths surround the SS Galicia. He witnessed two historical tragedies that he said the SS Galicia is wrongly implicated in.
One of them was the suppression of an uprising in Warsaw, Poland, in the autumn of 1944. “The Galicia [division] did not take part in this suppression,” Mukha said. “For 63 days, the Soviet army was standing on the right side of the Warsaw, watching Germans suppress that uprising. They did nothing because it was the uprising of people they didn’t respect, the Polish nationalists.”
The other tragedy he witnessed was the May 1944 massacre of an estimated 500 to 1,200 people in the Polish village of Huta Pieniacka. “The German punishing unit, like the Russian NKVD, came into this village, the fight began and Germans destroyed the village,” Mukha said.
Ukrainian historian Posivnych said that, “regarding mass killings, there is no black and white in this case. There are more politics here than real events.” Asked whether the men of the SS Galicia were patriots or traitors, Posivnych replied: “The truth is somewhere in the middle.”