Bandera, Ukraine & the Holocaust Part I: 1909-1936

His face looms out of frames held aloft by champions as diverse as the far right neo-fascists of Right Sector and Svoboda, and the liberal pro-European activists pounding the Kiev streets in protest. His war record condemned by voices as fractured as pro-Russian authoritarians and misty-eyed communists behind their barricades in Eastern Ukraine, centrist politicians across Europe and outraged Jewish groups worldwide.

He was awarded Hero of the Ukraine status in 2010 for “defending national ideas and battling for an independent Ukrainian state” by the nation’s president, a move later annulled on a technicality, after much international outpouring. While in 2014 summoning his very spectre was enough for Vladimir Putin to justify the annexation of Crimea in order to save its people from  “from the new Ukrainian leaders who are the ideological heirs of Bandera, Hitler’s accomplice during World War II.”

Stepan Bandera, fourth from the left, in 1928
Stepan Bandera, fourth from the left, in 1928

Stepan Andriyovych Bandera (1 January 1909 – 15 October 1959) is a figure as dramatic and provocative as the reactions he inspires over a century after his birth.

Poised between empires, the nation that is now Ukraine has at different times been a part (both as a whole, and in disparate chunks) of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, The Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.

Aside from a brief period during the chaos of the Russian Civil War when a succession of states declared their independence before being swallowed up once more by their rivals to the east and west, this vast swathe of land and its majority population hadn’t mastered their own destinies since the 16th Century.

Born to the Ukrainian minority in the Polish-dominated Kingdom of Galicia (a constituent part of the patchwork Hapsburg Empire) in 1909, Stepan Bandera made it through the First World War to see his home absorbed into Poland. Growing up a minority – marginalised and discriminated – he’d seen his Polish neighbours emerge from the Great War with a nation to call their own and yet Ukrainians remained subject to the rule of others as they had been under the rule of Emperors and Tsars the century before.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire in the aftermath of World War I with Galicia in the North ceded to Poland
The Austro-Hungarian Empire in the aftermath of World War I with Galicia in the North ceded to Poland

Politically active since childhood, Bandera rose quickly through the ranks of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists – the OUN – becoming chief propaganda officer by 1931, the second in command of OUN in Galicia by 1932 and the head of the National Executive or the OUN by 1933. The OUN had emerged from the ruins of the Ukrainian Military Organization – the UVK – a paramilitary force dedicated to armed resistance to the Second Polish Republic, the new organisation’s methods were a continuation of the war in all but name and they carried out acts of sabotage, arson and assassination.

Many of those killed were fellow Ukrainians who advocated compromise with the Polish government or Ukrainian communists believed to be marching in step with the predatory Joseph Stalin, whose genocidal agricultural policies had claimed the lives of over 2.5 million (and as many as 7.5 million) starving citizens of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

According to Ukrainian Nationalism: Politics, Ideology, and Literature, 1929-1956 by Myroslav Shkandrij, the extension of these bloody paramilitary-style executions to Soviet sympathisers was personally instigated by Bandera upon taking the top seat in the National Executive. On 15 June 1934, Polish Minister of the Interior Bronisław Pieracki was assassinated by the UON in retaliation for the government’s repressive ‘Pacification’ campaign against the UVO in 1930, which resulted in the arrest of 970 people and the seizure of 144 rifles, 156 pistols, 40 kg of dynamite, and 39 kg of gunpowder.

The funeral of Polish interior minister Bronisław Pieracki in 1930
The funeral of Polish interior minister Bronisław Pieracki in 1934

A crackdown was inevitable and Bandera and 11 other UON ringleaders were rounded up and tried in Warsaw over winter 1935 and 1936. The trial brought the Ukrainian struggle in Poland to the attention (and sympathy) of the Western media – and began the transformation of the accused into folk heroes for Ukrainians on both sides frontier.

The charismatic Bandera revelled in the stage he had been given, justifying the use of terrorism against his own people by saying, “We believe that it is every Ukrainians’ duty to subordinate his personal affairs and his whole life to the good of the nation. When someone voluntarily and consciously cooperates with the enemy in fighting the Ukrainian liberation movement – and with physical means at that, we believe that such a crime of national treason requires the death sentence.”

Of the 12 in the dock, three – including Bandera – were sentenced to death (later commuted to life imprisonment), while the others received prison sentences of between seven and 15 years. Far from quelling the stirring in Galicia, disquiet spread across Poland with one newspaper – Wiadomości Literackie (Literary News) – observing that “the Polish press […] for 17 years refused to recognise the word ‘Ukrainian’, has over these three weeks learned the word and will not forget it… This ‘Ukraine’ has now erupted with violence against us more strongly than in those old, troubled times [under the Austro-Hungarian Empire].”

If their uncompromising methods hadn’t been a sign of things to come, their beliefs were.

The First Congress of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), picture in 1929.
The First Congress of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) in 1929.

Even without close contact with the Nazi regime, Hitler’s toxic creed had begun to influence the UON. Although not a member, writer Dmytro Dontsov strongly influenced the political thinking of its opinion formers – especially Bandera – with his uncompromising gospel of “active nationalism.” He not only declared that Adolf Hitler had “a soul as great as the tasks Germany was facing” but translated Mein Kampf, as well as the writings of Italian and Spanish dictators Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco, into Ukrainian.

The exact level of interaction between Nazi Germany and the OUN in the run up to World War II is heavily disputed, but according to The Soviet Counterinsurgency in the Western Borderlands by Alexander Statiev, as early as the 1920s the UON’s predecessor the UVK had been sponsored by German military intelligence (the Abwehr) with a view to destabilising the new Polish state and feeding intelligence back to Berlin.

The relationship didn’t last. With the rise of Hitler, co-operation between the Abwehr and the OUN was suspended, thanks in part to Germany’s courtship of Poland in the mid-30s in the hope of a pact against the Soviet Union, and also because of the virulent racism of the Nazi creed which viewed all Slavic people as subhuman “untermensch,” regardless of their political sympathies or tastes in reading material.

Bandera with his family in 1935. Stefan is second from the right.
The Bandera family in 1935. Stefan is second from the right.

Despite their lesser status in the eyes of Nazi Party purists, the Ukraine that the OUN wanted to create was an increasingly one Hitler might have approved of.

Anti-democratic, illiberal and totalitarian, OUN pamphlets and newspapers increasingly identified the genocidal Bolshevik regime to the east with the Jewish people, pledging to rid the country of “the Muscovite-Jewish plague” and create a Ukraine exclusively for Ukrainians. In a chilling echo of Nazi anti-Semitism, one article opined, “The problem of race in Ukraine must be solved by cleansing Ukraine of the superfluous multiethnic elements of [Russians], Jews, Poles, Magyars, Tartars and others.”

Talk even became deed in 1935 and 1936 and in a series of pogroms organized by OUN militants the homes of around 100 Jewish families were burnt down.

Read Part II, covering collaboration with the Nazis and the role of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in the Holocaust.

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

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  • 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