A controversial part of Ukraine’s history and related monuments in Canada have once again come into focus after the Canadian Parliament praised a former Ukrainian soldier who fought alongside Nazi Germany.
This week, the Canadian Parliament praised Ukrainian former soldier Yaroslav Hunka, who served in a military unit in Nazi Germany. The name of this unit, formed in 1943 under the Schutzstaffel (SS), a paramilitary organization of Nazi Germany, was ’14th Waffen Grenadier Division’. It is also called ‘Galesia Division’.
Jewish groups and other MPs unanimously opposed Yaroslav Hunka’s presence in Parliament. After this, the MP who had invited Yaroslav, Anthony Rota, resigned from the post of Speaker of the House of Commons, saying that he regretted his mistake.
But this is not the first time that in Canada, the country with the largest number of Ukrainian immigrants, there has been a discussion on what was the role of Ukraine during the Second World War.
Memorials have been erected in many parts of Canada to honor many former Ukrainian soldiers who served in the Galicia Division during the Second World War.
Jewish groups have long opposed these monuments. He says that the people working in this division had sworn loyalty to Adolf Hitler and have either been involved in the crimes of Nazi Germany or have themselves committed the crimes.
But for some Ukrainians, these former soldiers are freedom fighters who supported Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union to liberate Ukraine.
The Galicia Division of the Waffen-SS was a military unit found to be involved in numerous atrocities, including the massacre of Jewish civilians.
More than one million Jews were killed in Ukraine during the war. Most of them were shot near their homes by Nazi Germany and their collaborators.
The Galicia Division has been accused of war crimes, but its members have never been found guilty in any court. Jewish groups have condemned the construction of a monument in Canada commemorating Ukrainian former soldiers who served in the Waffen-SS. He says that this is to glorify the participants of the Holocaust.
One such monument stands in a private Ukrainian cemetery in Oakville, Ontario. The emblem of the Galicia Division has also been placed in it. Another memorial has been built by former Ukrainian soldiers who took part in World War II in Edmonton, Alberta.
There is another monument in Edmonton that contains a statue of Roman Shukhevych, a Ukrainian nationalist leader and Nazi sympathizer. His unit is accused of genocide of Jewish and Polish people.
Some monuments were built in the 1970s and 1980s and have been vandalized in recent years. On some, ‘Nazi’ was written in red paint.
Why are opinions divided on monuments?
David Marples, professor of Eastern European history at the University of Alberta, says that to understand this, one must understand the history of Ukraine during the war and the nature of the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada.
Professor Marples explains, “During the Second World War, millions of Ukrainians served in the Soviet Union’s Red Army, but thousands more sided with Germany and served in their Galicia Division.”
Those who supported Germany believed that this would give them an independent nation separate from the Soviet Union.
In 1932-33 there was a severe famine in Ukraine which is called Holodomor. Five million Ukrainians lost their lives in this. There was a lot of anger among Ukrainians about the role of the Soviet Union in this.
Professor Marples explains that in the 1930s, extreme right-wing ideology was on the rise in most European countries, including Britain, and Ukraine was also no exception to it.
Then, after the war with Germany, the soldiers of the Galicia Division surrendered to the Allied forces and were allowed to come to Canada. Jewish groups had criticized this move even at that time.
Some Canadians of Ukrainian origin consider these soldiers and the Galicia Division as ‘national heroes’ who fought for the country’s independence.
He also says that these people had supported Nazi Germany for a short time while they were fighting both the Soviets and Germany for independent Ukraine.
But the Jewish community sees it from a different perspective.
B’nai B’rith Canada leader Michael Mostyn told the BBC, “The bottom line is that this unit, the 14th SS Unit, was Nazi.”
A commission was also formed in Canada in this regard. This commission, formed in 1985, was given the responsibility of investigating allegations that Canada had become a haven for Nazi war criminals.
The report issued by this commission the following year said that there was no evidence that Ukrainians fighting on behalf of the Nazis had committed any war crimes.
The report said that merely being a member of the Galicia Division was not enough to prove that he had committed any atrocities.
Jewish groups and some historians have been protesting the report’s findings ever since.
Professor Marples says that at the time this report was prepared, Second World War documents present in Ukraine and Russia could not be obtained. But ever since those documents have become public, research on this topic has gained momentum.
“It was only later that some research revealed that people who served in the Galicia Division, even though they were never found guilty, were involved in war crimes,” he said.
Ukraine’s history the target of Russian propaganda
As this historical discussion entered the 21st century, things became more complicated due to Russian propaganda. Russia falsely accuses the Ukrainian government of being ‘Nazis’ to justify the attack on Ukraine.
Professor Marples says that although far-right extremism still exists in Ukraine, it is not as extreme as Russia is trying to show people. Also, the people elected in Ukraine are not associated with any far-right group.
He says, “Russia has presented the story in a very simple form.”
Ukrainian groups present in Canada say that the ongoing controversy over the monuments and the opposition to Yaroslav Lyubka’s entry into Parliament are the result of this propaganda.
In 2017, when tensions between Ukraine and Russia were at their peak, the Russian Embassy in Canada criticized the Ukrainian monuments, saying that Canada was paying tribute to the Nazis’ comrades.
A statue of Ukrainian former soldier Shukhevich stands at the Ukrainian Youth Unity Complex in Edmonton. Taras Podilsky, spokesman for this complex, says that Canadian politicians’ opposition to Hunka is the result of Russian propaganda.
He says there is no evidence that Hunka was involved in any war crimes.
Podilsky says, “This man has become a victim of Russian propaganda.”
At the same time, B’nai B’rith leader Mostyn says that he believes that history is very complicated in this regard.
But he said that having links with the Nazis is not something that we should allow our future generations to celebrate or whitewash.
The downplaying of the role played by Eastern European countries in the genocide of Jews during World War II has come under strong criticism in recent years from scholars who study the Holocaust.
Jewish groups present in Canada and the Canadian citizens of Ukrainian origin who built these monuments say that this topic has been discussed many times between them.
However, both say that they could not find a way out.
Podilski says, “This monument is on our own property, not on public property. And for us it is a symbol of Ukrainian independence. We know he did nothing wrong. ,
Mostyn says that he feels that the recent incident in the Canadian Parliament shows that there are some shortcomings in the knowledge of Canadians about Nazi history.
He says, “The situation in Canada is such that we are not aware of our own history regarding Nazi criminals coming here.”
Mostyn and others in the Jewish community in Canada have called for this history to be re-examined.
He says, “It is important that our Prime Minister shows good leadership on this issue because the Jewish community has been demanding this for decades.”