Bandera, Ukraine & the Holocaust Part II: 1939-1943

Read Part I, covering Stepan Bandera’s early life and the birth of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists.

Bandera’s life imprisonment was cut short by Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939. Acting in concert with the USSR, Hitler had traded his pact with the Poles against the Soviets in favour of one with the Soviets against the Poles. And the OUN, once again useful to the Abwehr now that their master’s priorities had shifted, was instructed to rise up. Around 7,000 Ukrainians supported the German invasion (although it’s worth noting that over 100,000 also served in the Polish army), disarming Polish soldiers and killing hundreds of Polish civilians.

Released from his incarceration in Brest (now a part of Belarus), Bandera returned to a UON in ideological turmoil, eventually splitting into two competing factions after the assassination of one of its leaders by Soviet agents. Statiev notes that the OUN alone of all the Ukrainian nationalist groups fought back in the Soviet sphere of Poland, continuing its campaign of sabotage and assassination against their new imperial masters.

Taking command of the younger, more radical OUN-B (the OUN-M was led by Andrii Melnyk), Bandera’s faction – to its (minor) credit – resolved that their dream of a totalitarian Ukrainian state could only come through revolutionary struggle, while the OUN-M believed that it could be handed out like a reward in exchange for supporting the German war effort.

The partition of Poland in 1939 between Nazi German and the Soviet Union
The partition of Poland in 1939 between Nazi German and the Soviet Union

Nonetheless the ideological difference between the UON-M and UON-B proved to have little distinction in the reality of the Eastern Front and the maxim of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ pulled Bandera’s faction into an ever-closer relationship with the Nazis as readily as their rivals. By 1940 Bandera, as well as Melnyk, was regarded as a German proxy by the Abwehr and in one report, Captain Lazarek, deputy commander of Abwehrstelle 202 Section, claimed that Bandera had received 2.5 million Reichsmarks to undertake guerilla warfare in the Soviet-sphere of Poland.

Despite Bandera’s hatred of the Soviets, he was more than happy to learn from their ruthless enforcement of political doctrine and in 1940 formed the Sluzhba Bezpeky (Security Service) modelled on the Cheka, Lenin’s infamous secret police. The Cheka had been incorporated into the NKVD in 1922 as its political wing, but their reputation loomed large and in their image the SB would later become a byword for summary justice and political terror in the shadow of the Eastern Front.

Between February and May 1941, the Abwehr – at Bandera’s urging – began to mobilise Ukrainian nationalists for their forthcoming invasion of the Soviet Union – Operation Barbarossa – forming two Ukrainian infantry units of over 350 men each, Special Group Nachtigall (meaning Nightingale) and Special Group Roland. Uniformed in standard Wehrmacht battle dress with the blue and yellow ribbon of the Ukrainian flag on their shoulders, they were recruited prominently from the OUN-B and Bandera followed them into battle on 22 June 1941 as they rolled across the frontier and into Soviet-occupied Poland.

Nachtigall Battalion outside of Lwów, 30 June 1941
Nachtigall Battalion on the streets of Lwów, 30 June 1941

While Nachtigall and Roland fought on the front, the OUN organised raids behind the lines, ordering: “wholesale execution of enemies.” These partisan actions were quickly put down by the Soviet secret police, but the German onslaught proved far more difficult for the woefully unprepared Red Army to resist.

On 30 June, the German army and their Ukrainian cohorts entered the city of Lwów (now Lviv in Ukraine) where Bandera’s second-in-command Yaroslav Stetsko fired up Radio Lwów and proclaimed an independent Ukraine without apparently running this by the Germans. Oblivious to the faux pas and filled with zeal for his apparently marvellous benefactors, Stetsko urged his new countrymen to “cooperate closely with National-Socialist Greater Germany, which under the leadership of its Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, is creating a new order in Europe and in the world.”

OUN-B leaflets similarly foamed, “the Red Jewish-Muscovite plague has been destroyed… glory to the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists and its leader Stepan Bandera! Glory to the liberating German Army and its Fuhrer Adolf Hitler!”

Bandera and Stetsko were soon arrested for their hubris. But while they exulted in their triumph, blissfully ignorant of the German reaction, the streets of Lwów ran slick with blood.

Bandera and xxx proclaim an independent Ukraine in 1941
Bandera and Stetsko proclaiming an independent Ukraine in 1941

While the Axis forces were advancing, the Soviet secret police – the NKVD – had begun liquidating the contents of the city’s prisons, including the Ukrainian insurgents who had risen up at the OUN’s request. Confronted with between 2,000 and 10,000 executed prisoners and German claims that the city’s Jews were responsible, ad-hoc Ukrainian militias (later organised into auxiliary police units called the Ukrainische Hilfspolizei) sprang up – some spearheaded by OUN-B members and SB enforcers – and kicked off bloody reprisals.

Once the SS’s murderous Einsatzgruppe turned up, the genocidal disorder became genocidal order and OUN militants took an active role.

Over the course of 30 June to 2 July and then again from 25 to 29 July an estimated 8,500 to 9,000 Jews were killed in the city, which at that time had the third largest Jewish population in Poland.

Bandera’s exact role in this barbarism is unclear, but as the leader of Ukrainian nationalist aspirations in a city where Ukrainian nationalists were running rampant, he had to have been aware and it’s entirely possible he approved. Perhaps symptomatic of Bandera’s feelings, the grand old man of the OUN whose involvement went right back to the UVK, Stepan Lenkavskyi, informed an OUN conference in Lwów on 18 July: “As for Jews, we are taking all measures leading to their extermination.”

Jews lined up for execution in Lviv, from the collection of the Yad Vashem World Centre For Holocaust Research
Jews lined up for execution in Lviv, from the collection Yad Vashem

Similarly the participation of Nachtigall Battalion in the pogrom is contested, with claims that eyewitness reports of their involvement were falsified by the Soviet Union batted back and forth between Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and Israeli sources on the Holocaust. Research by Franziska Bruder quoted in Nazi Policy on the Eastern Front, 1941: Total War, Genocide, and Radicalization quotes a diary purportedly written by an OUN-B member of the battalion, which recalls, “During our march, we saw with our own eyes the victims of the Jewish-Bolshevik terror, which strengthened our hated of the Jews, and so after that we shot all the Jews we encountered in two villages.”

A German report from October 1941 hints at the involvement of Bandera’s OUN in the collaborationist Ukrainische Hilfspolizei – responsible for further atrocities in the German-occupied Ukraine – explaining, “military units in many towns of the region have set up a Ukrainian militia, which it is agreed would now be taken over by the higher SS and police leader as auxiliary police. In this militia strong efforts for independence have been noticed since this militia is in part composed of [….] members of the Bandera national independentist movement.”

While the Germans made use of the OUN-B’s murderous exuberance, its mastermind languished in captivity. Refusing to renounce his claim of Ukrainian statehood, Bandera was sent to Berlin under house arrest and then to Sachsenhausen concentration camp as a political prisoner. The incarceration of Bandera was cruelly echoed back in Poland and Ukraine as German administration moved into the power vacuum left by the retreating Soviets, bringing with it two formidable arms of political repression: the Gestapo secret police and intelligence wing of the SS, the SD.


Ukrainische Hilfspolizei pictured in 1943
Ukrainische Hilfspolizei pictured in 1943

In September 1941, the Gestapo began registering known Ukrainian nationalists and from 1941 to 1943 over 80% of the UON-B leadership was arrested. The UON-M fared slightly better, but even their sycophancy failed to protect them from German disdain and the organisation was outlawed in 1942.

Bandera’s family suffered too: his two brothers were killed by Polish prisoners in Auschwitz, another brother may have been executed by either the Gestapo or the NKVD (his fate is officially unknown), his father was executed by the Soviets for harbouring an UON fugitive and his sisters were exiled to a Siberian GULAG by the Soviet secret police.

It was now painfully clear that Nazi Germany was not the ally of an independent Ukraine and by 1942 the mood had changed.

Although the occupying authorities were keen to make use of tensions between the ethnic groups (they continued to deploy Ukrainische Hilfspolizei – now renamed Schutzmannschaft – in round-ups of Jews and actions against Soviet partisans, and from 1943 recruiting Ukrainians into a volunteer brigade of the Waffen SS), the Ukrainian underground press had ceased hailing the Germany Army as its liberator and instead denounced both the Nazis to the West and the Soviets to the East.

SS General Jürgen Stroop issues orders to Ukrainian  Schutzmannschaft in 1943, from the collection of Yad Vashem
SS General Jürgen Stroop issues orders to Ukrainian Schutzmannschaft in 1943, from the collection of Yad Vashem

Nonetheless, actions against the Germans were few and the cautious UON leadership – believing that the Germans would win the war and the Soviet Union be destroyed – tentatively explored further collaboration, recognising as their chief foe the threat poised by Soviet partisans whose following had grown in the wake of Nazi repression and the inability of the Ukrainian nationalists to confront it.

In October 1942, the surviving UON-B leadership formed a militant arm, which would later known as the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), and retreated back into their heartland in Galicia to stockpile weapons and disseminate propaganda.

In early 1943, the UON-B changed tack and the UPA leapt into action. Members had been encouraged to join the Schutzmannschaft with a view to make use of the weapons and training, and in March and April 1943, around 5,000 men defected to the UPA, bringing its numbers up to an estimated 10,000.

These men brought with them not just experience and weapons, but the stain of some of the most appalling excesses of the Holocaust in Ukraine – including the murder of 150,000 Jews at Volhynia and organising the two-day slaughter of 33,771 Jews at Babi Yar. In total, between 1941 and 1945, 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews were exterminated and Ukrainian nationalism cannot escape its part-share in this horror.

Read Part I, covering Stepan Bandera’s early life and the birth of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists.

Read Part III, covering genocide of the Poles the Ukrainian Insurgent Army’s war with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

For more stories from World War II, pick up the new issue of History of War or subscribe now and save 30% off the cover price.


  • In the Shadow of Hitler: Personalities of the Right in Central and Eastern Europe by Rebecca Haynes and Martyn Rady
  • The Soviet Counterinsurgency in the Western Borderlands by Alexander Statiev
  • Ukrainian Nationalism: Politics, Ideology, and Literature, 1929-1956 by Myroslav Shkandrij
  • Nazi Policy on the Eastern Front, 1941: Total War, Genocide, and Radicalization by Alex J Kay and Jeff Rutherford