President Vladimir Putin has vowed to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. He means that Ukraine is somehow a “Nazi” country at present. To understand the Kremlin’s narrative we must go back to the Second World War and even earlier.
First, we must understand that the word “Nazi” or “fascist” and “Hitlerite” has been infinitely flexible in Moscow’s vocabulary. Initially, Lenin and his Komintern viewed Italian fascists as socially friendly, if confused, revolutionaries. They were to be wooed and co-opted by the Communists.
Then, in 1922, Mussolini seized power. The fascists and fascism in general became a primary threat to Communism. As a socialist-like phenomenon, the fascists poached supporters from various social democratic groups, including even the Communists. Germany’s National Socialist Workers Party (NSDAP) operated in a similar manner and targeted a similar, working-class base of support, while invoking socialism, nationalism, and fascism.
Fascism, as a generic term of opprobrium, became Stalin’s favorite invective. Nazis and Italian fascists were viewed as primary competition for the soul of the masses. But mass movements were equated with the followers of Hitler and Mussolini. Thus, Social Democrats who opposed Communism became “social fascists.” The worshippers of Trotsky were branded “Hitlero-Trotskites,” and so forth.
The civil war in Spain (1936-1939) was presented as being one between “fascism” and “democracy,” a brilliant simplification. It would be too confusing to call it instead, as it really was, a clash of a broad military-led coalition of nationalist radicals, conservatives, and monarchists, on the one hand, and a Communist-controlled alliance of leftist and liberal forces, including socialists, anarchists, and progressives, on the other. Thus, Stalin was a “democrat,” and Franco a “fascist.”
The label of “fascism” or “Nazism” is short and sweet. It is eminently marketable both in the West and Russia. In the West, the purveyors of the Kremlin’s propaganda tap into the pre-existing Western thought patterns. Since most of us have heard about the Nazis usually in the context of the Holocaust, we naturally associate Nazism with supreme evil by default and by reflex. Score one for the Kremlin in its campaign to influence the West.
On the domestic front, at home in Russia, Moscow deploys similar cliches but in a cruder manner. By deluging the Russian people with messages that the Russian armies are “liberating” the Ukrainians from Nazism, Putin stirs powerful emotions connected to the myth of the “Great Fatherland War” (1941-1945 for Russia). The Nazis attacked innocent Soviets who mobilized themselves for the defense of their country and prevailed over Hitler.
Moreover, in the process, the victorious Soviet troops “liberated” eastern and central Europe from Nazism. Not only did great Stalin defeat the Nazis but he also annihilated their native collaborators in the conquered satellite states of eastern and central Europe. The righteous hunt for Nazi collaborators continued during and after the war. The collaborators, of course, were real and imagined, anyone between an Arrow Cross stalwart, conservative Christian Democrat, or left-wing agrarian populist in Hungary. Anyone who displeased Stalin qualified, including the Polish Home Army—a “fascist” outfit, naturally.
This “liberationist” and “anti-Nazi” narrative remains widespread in the Russian Federation today. It uniformly triggers a mass reaction, sometimes bordering on hysteria, that is both elated and prideful, on the one hand, and angry and unforgiving, on the other.
This complex effusion no longer targets Germany (though it can, if appropriately channeled) but, instead, focuses on “domestic traitors,” like the Balts or the Ukrainians. Whenever Moscow’s thin skin suffers from, say, an Estonian celebration of its struggle for freedom, invectives of fascism fly. Hence, for every “Soviet tank liberator” monument and for every Red Army soldier (aka “Unknown Rapist”) statue toppled in Estonia or Latvia the Russians have a ready stream of venom: “fascists”! or “Nazi collaborators”!
And who were the native collaborators? Broadly speaking, anyone who opposed, or merely disagreed, with the Communists was tarred a “Hitlerite,” “fascist,” or “Nazi.” This invective could be stretched to embrace anyone from socialists through progressives and Christian democrats all the way to conservatives and monarchists.
Genuine native nationalist radicals were also included under the rubric of “fascists,” perhaps with some justification, but not all of them had been “Nazi collaborators.”
Poland stands out here as a shining exception. Its hard-right Christian nationalist National Party and National Radical Camp, proportionally, sustained the greatest losses of all Polish political orientations. This concerned anti-German (and anti-Soviet) underground struggle, mass execution, and concentration camps, including Auschwitz. No political collaboration occurred whatsoever.
However, the issue of collaboration is more problematic outside of Poland. Virtually all other central and eastern European governments allied themselves with the Third Reich during the Second World War. They cooperated because they thought Hitler a lesser evil than Stalin. Also, some, like Hungary and Bulgaria, hoped Germany would restore their old borders to undo the verdict of the First World War. Others, Romania for example, wished for the Nazis to guarantee their post-1918 frontiers against their revisionist neighbors.
In Yugoslavia there were collaborationist pro-Nazi (and even SS) formations among the Muslem Bosniaks and others. A collaborationist Croat state emerged. Even the Serbs were split between loyalists of the monarchist government in exile and local collaborating administration. The Czech civil service subordinated itself to the Germans and, after 1942, broke with the Czech authorities in exile who advocated armed struggle, considered suicidal by their compatriots at home. Berlin, meanwhile, granted the Slovaks a separate puppet state.
In the Baltics the people and the elites vainly thought that the Third Reich would restore their independence. The Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians thus remained pliable to Berlin and suffered rather mildly under the German occupation. Many fought against the “liberating” Red Army.
Things were different in Ukraine (and Belarus). The Nazi occupation regime was fierce, exploiting the land economically, kidnaping people for slave labor, and murdering many, including millions of non-Jews. Furthermore, millions of eastern and central Ukrainians fought in the Soviet forces against the Germans, and many perished at the front. Some Soviet Ukrainians did collaborate with the German occupiers at the lowest levels of administration. Some joined the Nazi auxiliary police forces, and even the SS. But there was no organized political collaboration, and that which took place was usually channeled through the medium of Russian supporters of Germany.
But in eastern and central parts of Ukraine (and Belarus) there was no centrally organized political collaboration, and that which took place locally and regionally was usually channeled through the medium of White Russian emigre and renegade Soviet supporters of Germany.
As for western Ukrainians, former Polish citizens, they equally suffered economic and labor exploitation as well as mass executions and death in German concentration camps. There was, however, political collaboration. The activists of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) certainly did try to collaborate but they were rebuked by the Germans just like the Balts.
As for western Ukrainians (like western Belarusians), former Polish citizens, they equally suffered economic and labor exploitation as well as mass executions and death in German concentration camps. There was, however, political collaboration. To a much greater extent than the significantly less numerous and popular western Belarusian nationalists, the activists of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) certainly did try to collaborate but they were rebuked by the Germans just like the Balts.
Some of the OUN, the faction of Andriy Melnyk (1890-1964) continued close cooperation nonetheless. The OUN splinter group under Stepan Bandera (1909-1959) returned underground just like during the Soviet occupation. However, the rank-and-file overlapped often in both OUN orientations and operated interchangeably.
Before 1941 the OUN activists were permitted to cooperate tactically and operationally with the German military intelligence. Their fighters were allowed to become engaged militarily against the Soviets.
Eventually, the Nazis even raised and equipped a volunteer Ukrainian SS-Galizien Division in 1943. About 60,000 volunteered; around 15,000 saw combat against the Soviets in 1944 and 1945. Meanwhile, some Ukrainian (and Belarusian) auxiliaries were dispatched to the Western front; a number even manned the Atlantic Wall.
From 1941, some of the Ukrainian nationalists elected to join the Nazi police as SS auxiliaries. Some of the recruits had been members of the Soviet militia, whether out of opportunism, anti-Polish animus, or other factors. Afterwards they served in the Third Reich’s auxiliary security detachments.
Many Ukrainian policemen participated in the Holocaust at various levels: as rural command post personnel and as special extermination units. They further fought Soviet and Polish guerrillas.
In March 1943, the entire Ukrainian auxiliary Nazi police force in the province of Volhynia deserted to the OUN forest partisan detachments. Together with their sylvan comrades they unleashed a massive ethnic cleansing campaign against the Polish minority. From Volhynia the slaughter spread west, ultimately grossing up to 120,000 Poles. Simply, having internalized the mechanics of the Holocaust, the Ukrainian extreme-nationalists deployed them against their Polish neighbors.
In the light of the above, is it justified to call contemporary Ukrainian nationalists “Nazis”? Let’s look at the roots of their ideology, in particular in Austria’s erstwhile western Ukraine or Galicia. Ukrainian nationalism developed not only differently but to a much lesser extent in the Russian part of the Ukrainian lands.
In Galicia, it was not a universalist cultural nationalism. Theirs was a folk nationalism of a rather fresh date—late 19th century. Non-historic nations such as Ukrainians (and Belarusians, Lithuanians, and others) rejected Polish inclusive “Jagiellonian” nationalism and exclusive “modern” nationalism. Both of the Polish iterations invoked the heritage of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where the elite was multi-ethnic but uni-cultural: Polish. Instead, non-Polish folk nationalists tended to look to Western models of nationalism, and not wax nostalgic about the historical Commonwealth that had been destroyed by Russia, Prussia, and Austria by the end of the 18th century.
Unlike “modern” Polish nationalists, folk nationalists of non-historic nations tended to ignore religious sources in their ideology. There was further a lack of conscious references to conservative Anglo-Saxon inspirations, in particular Edmund Burke. In addition to cruel social Darwinism, we can discern the impact of German Romantic and integral nationalist ideas as well as various socialist forms of collectivism. Folk nationalists were impacted by the Germanic “blood and soil” (Blut und Boden) message and a folkish ethnic movement (Völkische Bewegung) as well as regurgitations of Marxism. The last-named construct served as an important ideological feature which allowed folk ethno-nationalists to marry elements of class and ethnic struggle against the “Polish lords.” This nascent ideology slowly crystalized, and it articulated its articles of faith fully only following the First World War.
In the Ukrainian case, this folk nationalist hybrid took on a sobriquet of “active nationalism.” Its ideological essence was conceptualized by former socialist, Dmytry Doncow/Dontsov (1883-1973). He deified the nation and rejected all traditional moral commandments in its service. Forget about God, but worship the nation. This was a recipe for neopaganism with all its implications.
Stepan Łeńkawski (1904-1977) expressed this poisonous spirit of folk nationalism best in the “Decalogue of the Ukrainian Nationalist,” in which we find the following commandments:
1. Thou shalt conquer a Ukrainian state or thou shalt perish in the struggle for it…
7. Thou shalt not balk at carrying out the greatest crime, if the good of the Cause demands it.
8. Thou shalt employ hatred and deceit in hosting an enemy of Your Nation.
For a folk ethno-nationalist, things were rather simple. His nation is the best as a homogenous entity at all levels: linguistic, cultural, social, political, religious, and “racial.” He sings the peans to his particularisms and attacks universalism. Sometimes he even garbs his separateness in particularistic and folkloristic symbols and various myths invoking however contradictorily some kind of universalism.
However, the Galician version of Ukrainian nationalism, out of which the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists grew, was a minority sect. In central and eastern Ukraine, nationalism developed sometime later and from different sources. Although the intellectuals there were familiar with Western European, including German, theories, it was the Russian populists—narodniki and Socialists Revolutionaries—who had the greatest impact on central and eastern Ukrainian national activists like Symon Petliura (1879-1926). His brand of nationalism was folk nationalist, but not Social Darwinist; his was an agrarian socialist nationalism.
After 1917, Petliura and his confederates vainly struggled to defend Ukraine’s freshly gained independence from the Communists. Most of the Ukrainian lands fell to Lenin’s Bolsheviks. Under Stalin, Soviet Ukraine became a primary victim of Moscow’s collectivization. Millions died. The memories of such savagery seared themselves into the Ukrainian subconscious more than the wars of 1917-1921.
The carnage of collectivization became the defining event of mainstream Ukrainian nationalism. It has complemented and perhaps even overshadowed the Cossack myth of Bogdan Chmielnicki/Khmelnitsky (1596-1657) with its attendant hatred of the “Polish lords.” The tragedy of the collectivization most certainly overshadowed the myth of Bandera and the OUN. The latter remain important regional constructs of western Ukrainian identity, but cannot compete with the all-Ukrainian symbol of the Soviet mass slaughter in the countryside.
Whereas western Ukraine is still beholden to the myth of integral nationalism, surzhok speaking central and Russian speaking eastern Ukraine have not taken to extreme iterations of national ideology. There are exceptions, naturally, including, most prominently, the volunteer Azov battalion in the south-east. It boasts of neo-Nazi symbols and spews racialist ideology despite being funded by the Ukrainian-Jewish oligarch, Igor Kolomoisky.
But Azov is an aberration, not the norm. The cult of the OUN and Bandera is mostly a regional phenomenon. Mainstream Ukrainian nationalism is a project still in the process of forming. What shape it will take remains unknown. One thing is certain, however; the current Russian invasion has breathed new life and strength into Ukrainian nationalism. It will probably serve as a catalyst to forge an all-Ukrainian national identity out of its regional manifestations.
Whether the Ukrainians lose this war, which is likely, or not, they will emerge much stronger: united in their hatred of Russia. And that is only to be expected of any victim of Russian imperialism. That does not make Ukrainian nationalism Nazi. Yet, it is convenient for Putin to talk about “Nazis in Ukraine.” Anyone opposing Russian neo-imperialism must be a Nazi. Thus, the victim is dehumanized in a classical, propagandistic reductio ad Hitlerum maneuver. In this scheme of things, even President Volodymyr Zelensky is a Nazi, his Jewish roots notwithstanding.
We must resist falling for outdated World War II vintage propaganda cliches utilized by Putin. Allegedly ubiquitous “Nazis” in Ukraine are as real as are the alleged Russian “liberators” of the Ukrainian people.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a professor of history at the Institute of World Politics: a graduate school of national security and international affairs in Washington, D.C. He holds the Tadeusz Kosciuszko Chair of Polish Studies and heads the Center for Intermarium Studies.