Canada, Britain and the whitewashing of Ukrainian Nazis

The 14th Grenadier Division of the Waffen SS ‘Galizien’ is sworn in. In the foreground, soldiers taking the oath and giving the Nazi salute.

On 22 September the Canadian House of Commons gave a standing ovation to the former Waffen SS Galicia Division combatant Yaroslav Hunka. Following protests Canada’s Prime Minister had to apologise and the House Speaker had to resign.

The article below explains the context of the Canadian Parliament’s tribute to a Nazi veteran. It is a combination of two pieces by Kenny Coyle, published originally in the Morning Star (here and here).

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Who is Yaroslav Hunka? – A sordid cold war story

If the standing ovation in the Canadian House of Commons to 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka, a former Ukrainian Nazi fighter, has come as shock to some, it’s because they simply weren’t paying enough attention.

You are a “Ukrainian hero,” the now disgraced former Canadian speaker of the house Anthony Rota told Hunka, to rapturous applause.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, admittedly no intellectual heavyweight, and his ministers feigned ignorance of Hunka’s wartime service for the Third Reich in the 14th Galicia Division of the Waffen SS, despite Rota’s clear introduction of the Ukrainian as a fighter against the Russians during the second world war.

Any Canadian secondary school student with a history book could have spotted that awkward anomaly.

This was not simply a “gaffe” or an “embarrassing mistake” but an inevitable result of the conscious rewriting of 20th century history that casts certain theatres of WWII as a precursor to the current Russia-Ukraine conflict.

In this narrative, Ukrainian fascists — perpetrators of genocide against Jews, ethnic Poles and Russians — have their crimes repackaged as a heat-of-the-moment misjudgement in an age-old fight for Ukrainian independence against Russian imperialism.

However, it’s not just Canada’s Establishment that needs to be held to account for this shameful celebration.

The bigger picture is that Hunka’s tale is part of a sordid story of cold war collusion between the decaying British empire and the defeated remnants of Ukrainian fascism.

Hunka lived in Northamptonshire for several years after the war, working as an aircraft fitter. He married his Warwickshire-born wife Margaret in 1951, before emigrating to Canada in 1954.

How did this happen, and why is the mainstream British media so uninterested in investigating this episode in Hunka’s life?

During Hunka’s time in England, he was an active member of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain (AUGB). This group, which exists to this day operating from offices in London’s Notting Hill Gate, attracted so many former Waffen SS members that an affiliated group, the Association of Ukrainian Former Combatants in Great Britain (AUFC), was formed on July 30 1949 in London.

At its height, the AUFC had as many as 5,800 members organised in 74 branches and 52 groups across Britain. According to the website, 84 per cent were former soldiers of the Waffen SS Galicia Division.

In his book, The Waffen SS: Hitler’s Elite Guard at War, 1939-1945, the military historian George H Stein noted the contrast between the gullible enthusiasm of the Ukrainian nationalists to volunteer for the Nazis’ Galician Division, as Hunka did, with the uncomfortable reality that, according to Nazi racial theories, these troops, unlike their Dutch or Scandinavian Waffen SS counterparts, were “non-Aryans.”

“On April 28, 1943, a call went out for volunteers for a ‘Galician’ SS division. The response was overwhelming: nearly 100,000 Ukrainians volunteered, fewer than 30,000 of whom were accepted. Although a special effort was made to limit recruiting to that part of German-occupied Poland which had before 1919 been Austrian Galicia, the fact remained that the division was composed of Ukrainians; the euphemistic designation 14th SS-Freiwilligen-Division ‘Galizien’ fooled no-one, least of all the personnel of the division, who were mostly Ukrainian nationalists. But after years of Slav-baiting it was difficult for the SS leaders to admit that they had created an SS division of ‘subhumans’.”

Stein even quotes Hitler, to whom Hunka — as with all SS volunteers — swore a personal oath of allegiance, disparaging the Galicia Division in savage terms: “If it is composed of [former] Austrian Ruthenians, one can do nothing other than immediately to take away their weapons. The Austrian Ruthenians were pacifists. They were lambs, not wolves. They were miserable even in the Austrian Army. The whole business is a delusion.”

Indeed, in their very first action, the Ukrainians were decimated by the Soviet Red Army’s 1st Ukrainian Front at the 1944 Battle of Brody.

Falling back into Nazi-occupied Slovakia, the Galician Division took part in unsuccessful rearguard efforts to hold back the Soviets, while in the meantime helping the Germans to repress the 1944 anti-fascist Slovak national rising.

Retreating as fast as they could, they reached Slovenia in Yugoslavia, where the partisan resistance led by the Yugoslav communists was wreaking havoc among the fascist forces.

Replenished by new forces, the 14th SS Division, newly rechristened the 1st Division of the Ukrainian National Army, reached Austria and in May 1945 surrendered to the British, who interned approximately 11,000 Ukrainians across the Italian border in Rimini.

According to Howard Margolian, author of Unauthorized Entry: The Truth about Nazi War Criminals in Canada, 1946-1956, a concerted effort was made to prevent the Ukrainian SS members from facing jail or death for treason in the Soviet Union.

“Having been captured in German uniform, most faced certain repatriation to the USSR. In the end, however, only about three thousand were actually sent back. The reason was the intervention of powerful forces. Shortly after the termination of hostilities in Europe, General Pawlo Shandruk, the former leader of a Nazi-sponsored Ukrainian ‘national liberation committee,’ contacted Archbishop Iwan Buchko, a high-ranking prelate in Rome who specialised in Ukrainian affairs. Describing the former SS soldiers as good Catholics and fervent anti-communists, Shandruk implored Buchko to intervene on their behalf. The archbishop agreed to try. During a special audience with Pope Pius XII, Buchko pleaded the division’s case. The pontiff was very sympathetic and promised to contact the appropriate British authorities. As a result of the Vatican’s efforts, London agreed to change the Ukrainians’ POW status to that of surrendered enemy personnel, a seemingly minor distinction, but one that freed the British from their repatriation obligations under the Yalta agreement.”

In addition, the confusion over the Ukrainians’ citizenship proved to be a lifesaver for the likes of Hunka.

During muddled interrogation procedures conducted by British officers, the bureaucrats endlessly refined the national definitions used to categorise the Waffen SS POWs, with one document insisting that “Ukrainian” was not a nationality.

In her work, “Undetermined” Ukrainians — Post-War Narratives of the Waffen SS Galicia Division, Olesya Khromeychuk quotes from a British internal document that suggested: “If it is desirable to refer either to former inhabitants of the Ukraine by nationalities, or to nationalities by their geographical relationship, the expression Soviet (Ukrainian), Polish (Ukrainian), Roumanian (Ukrainian) or Czech (Ukrainian), or Stateless (Ukrainian), may be used. For persons formerly living in the Ukraine, but whose nationality has not yet been established, the expression Ukrainian ‘Undetermined’ may be used until such time as they are classified as being of a definite nationality or as being Stateless.”

This was literally a “get-out-of-jail-free” card for most of these Waffen SS prisoners. There could be no question of returning undetermined or stateless individuals to either Poland or the USSR.

This created the technical loophole some in Whitehall needed to bring the Waffen SS fighters to Britain and then later to disperse them to friendly subordinate countries such as Canada.

Although born in the Polish state in 1925 in a village that had been returned to the Soviet Union in 1939, and from which he volunteered for the SS in 1943, a certain “Jaroslaw Hunka” set sail on June 14 1954 on board the Arosa Star for his new life in Canada. He was registered as a “stateless” person.

Canada and the whitewashing of Nazis

“This was a mistake that has deeply embarrassed parliament and Canada. All of us who were in this house on Friday regret deeply having stood and clapped even though we did so unaware of the context.”

This was how Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attempted to justify his ovation and that of his fellow parliamentarians for the “Canadian hero” Yaroslav Hunka, a former Waffen SS combatant and, as far as the record shows, an unrepentant Nazi volunteer.

This was no mistake, and “deep embarrassment” should be reserved for those who think blackface is funny. Applauding Nazis is simply in a category all by itself.

However, there’s no need for every Canadian to feel shame over their politicians’ ignominious veneration of Hunka. Canadian anti-fascists can hold their heads high.

After all, this is the same country that produced the Mac-Paps, the more than 1,000 Canadian anti-fascists of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, who fought in the ranks of the 15th International Brigade in Spain in the 1930s.

Canada also gave the world Norman Bethune, the communist and internationalist surgeon, who volunteered to oppose Franco’s forces in the Spanish civil war and who later “died a martyr at his post” in the Chinese war of liberation against Japanese aggression.

Slightly older Star readers might remember the Ukrainian-Canadian-born Baruch Rahmilevich Mendelson, better known as Bert Ramelson, who fought in Spain and later became a legendary industrial organiser of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Ramelson was brought up in the rich tradition of pre-WWII Ukrainian migrants of all faiths who stood firm against fascism and anti-semitism.

They were also targeted by the Canadian state. During 1940, when the Canadian Communist Party was banned outright, around 100 Ukrainian labour-farmer community centres, suspected of pro-communist sympathies, were shut down by the Canadian state and their assets seized.

Beyond the left, indeed pretty much across the Canadian political spectrum, outside of the parliamentary elite, there is a keener awareness of the inescapable historical context that Trudeau and others apparently spurn.

The adoration of Hunka is a step too far even for generally conservative Nato-loyalist Canadians. Too much Canadian blood was spilt in World War II, around 42,000 Canadians died, for this to go without notice.

The only WWII German war criminal imprisoned on Canadian soil, tried by a Canadian court martial and convicted of the butchery of unarmed Canadian POWs was Kurt Meyer who, like Hunka, was a member of the murderous Waffen SS.

Meyer had joined the Nazi youth group, the Hitlerjugend, in the mid-1920s at the tender age of 15, then he went on to the Nazi Party in 1930 and the SS a year later.

He joined the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler in 1934, with the unit eventually becoming absorbed into the Waffen SS. Meyer served in the blood-stained Nazi occupation of Soviet Ukraine, where his division became notorious for its atrocities against civilians of all ethnic groups and unarmed POWs.

One incident in Ukraine alone, near the city of Kharkiv, recorded the butchery of more than 850 villagers, by this division.

Transferred to Normandy in 1944, Meyer’s new Hitlerjugend division killed numerous Canadian POWs, perhaps 156 in all. He was found guilty after the war for his specific role in the murder of 20 Canadians at the Abbey Ardennes, following the D-day advances, and was sentenced to death by a Canadian military tribunal.

However, Meyer’s death sentence was commuted at the last minute by the Canadians. Instead of the firing squad, he served just five years in a Canadian prison, followed by a short stint in a jail in West Germany.

Outrage in Canada and the Soviet Union over this leniency was brushed aside and Meyer spent the remaining years promoting the Mutual Aid Group for Members of the former Waffen-SS (German acronym HIAG), seeking to exonerate his former comrades from war crimes.

If he had lived longer, Meyer would no doubt have counted the Canadian House of Commons’ celebration as a crowning achievement.

Trudeau’s sorrowful contrition over Hunka does not ring true. Not in the least.

If there is anywhere outside the territory of Ukraine or Russia where the historical “context” of Ukrainian fascism has been at least formally acknowledged, studied, debated and contested, it is within Canada itself.

It is fair to say that during the 1970s-90s, a number of Canadian scholars, some of Ukrainian-emigre origin, were at the forefront of highly politicised academic discussions; on the one hand, promoting the concept of the so-called Holodomor — the claim that famine in the Soviet Union in the 1930s was not only “man-made” but also genocidally targeted against ethnic Ukrainians — and, on the other, mitigating the intentions of voluntary enrolment in Nazi brigades.

The cold war saw the proliferation of Soviet and east European studies centres or institutes at most major Canadian universities, often generously funded by nouveau riche Ukrainian emigres and Nato’s military-academic complex of foundations and NGOs.

Aside from numerous universities offering generic Slavic programmes with some Ukrainian elements, the Canadian Association of Ukrainian Studies notes the following major research centres: the Ukrainian Resource and Development Centre, MacEwan University, Edmonton; the Centre for Ukrainian Canadian Studies, University of Manitoba; Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Centre, Toronto; and the Prairie Centre for the Study of Ukrainian Heritage, St Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan.

One of the most prestigious of these academic foundations was the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta. Yet it appears that, despite its declared aim of investigation and research into Ukrainian history and its impact on Canada, the institute somehow missed the glaring fact that in recent years one of its major benefactors was the family of a certain Yaroslav Hunka, and that a research programme, the Yaroslav and Margaret Hunka Ukrainian Research Endowment Fund, was dedicated to him and his late wife.

Verna Yiu, interim provost and vice-president academic at the University of Alberta, issued a statement several days after the scandal, saying: “Following the introduction of Yaroslav Hunka on September 22 in the Canadian House of Commons, the university began a review of a [CAD] $30,000 endowment fund that existed in Mr Hunka’s name.

“In 2019, Mr Hunka’s family provided the donation to the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the university. Endowments can be named for the donor or someone else they choose.

“After careful consideration of the complexities, experiences, and circumstances of those impacted by the situation, we have made the decision to close the endowment and return the funds to the donor. The university recognises and regrets the unintended harm caused.

“On behalf of the university, I want to express our commitment to address anti-semitism in any of its manifestations, including the ways in which the Holocaust continues to resonate in the present. The university’s core values include a commitment to academic integrity and to inclusivity in its research, teaching, and community-building efforts.”

Hardly a ringing endorsement of the university’s sterling research skills, but at least some form of belated apology, if not reparation as yet, to Waffen SS victims.

Watch this space.

But this whole “embarrassment” could certainly have been avoided if only Justin Trudeau had found someone who had been aware of “the context.”

Why could he not include a reliable academic expert on Ukraine in his cabinet? Someone, perhaps, with personal family knowledge of Ukraine? Better still, a former Rhodes scholar familiar with the history, and culture of the region? An adviser who had studied not only at Harvard and at Oxford but also in Soviet Ukraine? A Liberal Party activist fluent in both Russian and Ukrainian, and who had mixed for decades at the highest levels of Canadian-Ukrainian circles. It would be even better, of course, if such a person had an impeccable journalistic background at The Economist, the Financial Times, Reuters and the Washington Post.

Pierre Trudeau found such an expert in the shape of Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s deputy prime minister. Yet unfortunately, Freeland was also visibly one of Hunka’s most fervent parliamentary devotees.

Sometimes context is indeed everything.