Ukrainian and Russian Nazi collaborators in WWII

May 6, 2022

Quite a lot of Russian propaganda centers on Stepan Bandera, with the derogative “banderovtsi” (Banderistas) being used interchangeably with fascists and Nazis. (Kadyrov’s fighters in Ukraine are hunting for Bandera, and just recently claimed to have killed him. He died in 1959.) This is not a post about Bandera but about the extent of collaboration by Soviet citizens with the Nazis during the Second World War. I start with Bandera because his collaboration with Hitler’s Germany is always trotted out as evidence of supreme, and unique, perfidy by the Ukrainians.

Bandera was a leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. Born in Galicia (briefly part of the independent Ukrainian Republic after the disintegration of the Russian Empire in 1917 but then lost to Poland after the war in 1919), he became an ardent nationalist. He got sentenced to life in prison for organizing the assassination of the Polish minister of the interior in 1934, but was released when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. He collaborated with the Nazis in the hope that they will support Ukrainian independence. When Germany invaded the USSR, Bandera declared independence of Ukraine, and when the Germans demanded that he rescind the proclamation, he refused. For that, they arrested him and sent him to a concentration camp for political prisoners (Sachsenhausen, not an extermination camp). With Germany losing the war, he was released in 1944 to help stir resistance to the Soviets — the analogy with Lenin, whom the Germans helped transport from Switzerland to Russia to organize a Revolution during WWI is obvious. Bandera tried but was not successful and moved to West Germany after the war ended. He worked with anti-communist organizations from there, and was eventually assassinated in 1959 by the KGB.

It is obvious to any impartial reader that Bandera was a Ukrainian nationalist who was ready to fight anyone who opposed Ukrainian independence, Poles, Germans, and Soviets alike. In this, he did not shy from using extreme violence and abhorrent tactics that included massacres of civilians in Poland and of Jews in Ukraine. It is because of these murderous activities that he remains highly controversial to this day, with Ukrainian nationalists preferring to emphasize his decidedly self-negating struggle for Ukrainian independence, and critics pointing out that many of the means he used were, basically, war crimes. Because both sides are right, there is no way to settle this argument. Bandera’s legacy is destined for perpetual controversy.

What I want to focus on here is the label being applied to Ukrainians today. The Russians like to use it with the clear implication that Bandera is a unique stain on Ukrainian nationalism, and, by extension, on any aspirations for Ukrainian nationhood. In the view of the Kremlin, Ukrainians who wish to remain independent and outside of Russia’s embrace are all heirs to Bandera, and must therefore be treated as fascists and Nazis. Since Bandera’s collaboration with the Nazis is the reason for this identification, let us take a look at how uniquely Ukrainian this practice was.

I am not going to talk about the local collaborators whom the Germans pressed into service in the organized territories, as this is a well-known phenomenon and many of these people did that under threat of death. I am also not going to talk about the Baltic states, where national armies were also formed to fight the Soviets, as these are well known. (For a great history, see Joining Hitler’s Crusade, a volume edited by David Stahel.) Instead, I will take a look at voluntary participation by Soviet citizens on the German side — most of this was buried until the fall of the USSR, and even after historians flocked to the archives, some of the depictions tended to be romanticized. Still, there’s plenty we now know about this.

Let’s start with some (rough) statistics (from Mark Edele’s book Stalin’s Defectors):

  • At least 117,000 Soviet citizens went over the front line to join the Germans
  • 6% of the Soviet POWs defected and joined the German army (Hitler did not want them initially because it had to be Germans who won the war, for obvious reasons, but by 1942 — at which point already there were over 4,000 Soviet citizens in the Wehrmacht against his orders — he changed his tune; many of these were enthusiastic participants in the extermination of the Jews)
  • 1.6 million Soviet citizens collaborated with Germany altogether

The Soviet authorities tried to counter this by warning everyone that the Germans torture and kill POWs (which they did, up to 60% by 1942), they made it punishable by death to pass German leaflets urging surrender, and of course, they shot anyone who tried to desert. The extent of collaboration with the Nazis by Soviet POWs was astounding compared to the Allied POWs. Often, the organization was provided by White Russians who had escaped Bolshevism before the war. Also, the formations were not entirely reliable since sometimes the soldiers would desert. By the end of 1942, Hitler sanctioned the creation of Armenian, Georgian, Caucasian Muslim, and various other ethnic legions made up of Soviet citizens.

Ukrainian collaboration is also well known. The Germans had designated the Ukrainians as potential allies because they were aware of the massive harm inflicted on them by the Soviet regime during Holodomor and the Great Purge. Ukraine itself had been partitioned numerous times and the territories had been swapped between Poland, Russia/USSR, and Austro-Hungary for centuries. This is why they welcomed nationalist movements like OUN (which both protected German rear by administering law and order in the occupied territories and went to fight in the USSR, where they participated both in battle and in extermination of Poles, Russians, and Jews as Bolshevik collaborators). There was a more recent reason for this antipathy: when Lviv — the capital of Galicia — surrendered on June 30 1941 without a fight (the territory had been annexed by the USSR as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939), the Germans discovered the bodies of several thousand Ukrainian prisoners who had been shot by the NKVD before it left the city (this, by the way, was standard practice for Russian evacuation of cities in 1941). The resulting pogroms against Jews in Lviv killed at least 2,000 people. This pattern would repeat in many other cities, although OUN would fall prey to factional in-fighting. In all of this, however, the Germans maintained a tight lid on any talk of Ukrainian independence, which eventually caused a rift between them and OUN when the Germans started to implement Lebensraum. Timothy Snyder notes that, overall, more Ukrainian Communists collaborated with the Germans than Ukrainian nationalists.

In 1943, the Germans formed the 14th Waffen-SS Division ‘Galicia’, and it was made up of Ukrainians (and some Slovaks), with the agreement that it would not be used to fight Western allies. There was no Nazi indoctrination: the division had its Christian chaplains and its oath to Hitler was conditional on him fighting Bolsheviks. About 82,000 volunteered to serve but only 13,000 were actually enlisted (not all were called up and many failed to qualify). The division was destroyed in the summer of 1944 at Brody. Its remnants were used against Slovaks to quash their uprising and against partisans in Slovenia. It was rebuilt to a strength of 22,000, and fought the Red Army until the end of the war in Austria. There is no direct evidence that the division participated in war crimes. It is this division that Ukrainian ultra-nationalists have been honoring on April 28. (There are several streets in Western Ukraine named after it.) Overall, about 180,000 Ukrainians are estimated to have served the Reich forces in some capacity throughout the war.

The Russian collaboration is also known but not as widely as the Ukrainian or Baltic ones. The most famous is the Russian Liberation Army (ROA) organized by General Andrey Vlasov. Vlasov was the supreme opportunist. He defended Kyiv and managed to escape encirclement, then was decorated for defending Moscow, and was put in charge of the attempt to lift the siege of Leningrad in 1942. He was captured by the Germans, discovered a previously untapped reservoir of anti-Bolshevism, and defected. He founded the ROA, and spent most of his time recruiting Russians by writing pamphlets and giving speeches. He saw actual combat against the Red Army once, in February 1945, which he lost. In May, he turned yet again, this time to the Czech resistance against the Germans. The Czechs did not buy it and started to arrest ROA soldiers for execution, so Vlasov headed west to try to surrender to the Allies. He was captured by the Soviets and executed in 1946 for treason.

The ROA numbered about 120,000 personnel. The first units of Russian volunteers saw action in 1943 as part of the Osteinheiten (Eastern Units), mostly — like their Ukrainian counterparts — in the rear and against partisans. As the tide of war turned against the Germans, the units began to fall apart, with mutinies and desertions. Many were sent to the Western front to break contact with the local population, which the Germans thought was demoralizing them.

Another Russian formation was the 1st Cossack Calvary Division made up of Don Cossacks (13,000, together with 4,500 Germans). It was formed in 1943 and served with the Wehrmacht until 1944 when it was transferred to the Waffen SS. It fought in Croatia against partisans (and committed atrocities against the civilians) and eventually against the Red Army. The survivors surrendered to the British who transferred them to the Soviets. Most went to gulags and the leaders were executed.

Among the other Soviet legions were Azerbaijani (70,000), Georgian (30,000), Armenian (33,000), Caucasian (28,000), Turkestani (16,000), Idel-Ural (40,000), and the Regular Volunteer Division formed in 1944 in Southern France to fight against partisans there (including reprisals against civilians). Overall, the East legions — primarily ethnic Russians — comprised about a quarter of the 1 million volunteers from indigenous people.

In all, Soviet collaboration with the Nazis was massive, and the motivations range from nationalism (especially evident in areas that had recently been annexed by the USSR, like the Baltic states and Ukraine), anti-Bolshevism (dominant among Russians and non-Russians from areas annexed by the Russian Empire), opportunism (the Germans were often perceived, at least for a while, as the lesser of two evils compared to the Soviets), and survival (probably most of the local collaborators in occupied territories).

The Ukrainians were not unique in that regard, as the numbers above show. However, many of them were, in fact, motivated by nationalism and desire to secure independence for Ukraine, which is part of the reason they were so vehemently denounced by the Soviet authorities after the war. The Soviet government mostly suppressed information about Russian collaborationists like Vlasov, Russian volunteers, and the indigenous legions while emphasizing the Ukrainian perfidy and linking Ukrainian nationalism with Nazism and fascism.

In this way, Putin’s story about there being no Ukraine separate from Russia has very long roots that stretch through Soviet history despite his hatred for the latter. The idea has always been to suggest that any Ukrainian nationalism is, almost by definition, also Nazi. This is precisely the strategy the Kremlin is employing today, much to the confusion of Western commentators who spend their time wondering how it is possible to label a government headed by a Jew, “Nazi.” Well, this is how.

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