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Ukrainians in World War II Military Formations: An Overview

Peter J. Potichnyj

There is a great deal of confusion about the behaviour of Ukrainians during 1939-45, and it is not limited to non-Ukrainians. Forty years after World War II, some Ukrainians are themselves unclear on issues that affected them four decades ago and have influenced their thinking to this day.

The common view of the war is that of an enormous struggle between the forces of good and evil, in which the former triumphed. It follows from this view that the nations and individuals who were not on the side of the Allies (except, of course, for the neutral countries) must have been on the side of the Axis powers or, worse still, on the side of the Nazis. Whatever does not fit this neat pattern is either overlooked or misunderstood, and so it has been with the present debate over collaboration and war criminality among Ukrainians.

During World War II Ukrainians collaborated with all sides, for two main reasons. First, as one of the world's largest national groups without a sovereign state, Ukrainians did not control their destiny at a crucial time in world history. Second, not unlike Jews, Ukrainians were - and still are - scattered throughout the world; thus in 1939-45 they could be found in all kinds of places and situations.

Since the war's fiercest battles were on Ukrainian territory, it is not surprising that Ukrainians fought in various armies and military formations, in large numbers and on all fronts. In the Soviet army alone were 4.5 million citizens of Ukraine. According to Soviet statistics, 409,668 Ukrainians were awarded medals for bravery in the war; 961 became heroes of the Soviet Union; and 60 per cent of the 250,000-strong Soviet partisan force in Ukraine was Ukrainian.

Thousands of Ukrainians served in the Polish army of General Wladyslaw Anders and fought with him on the British side in Egypt, Libya, and Italy. Ukrainians also joined the Polish units that advanced with the Soviet army into Poland. Czech units attached to the Allied forces and formed in the USSR had Ukrainian troops. In 1943, of the 15,000 soldiers in the brigade led by General Ludvik Svoboda, 11,000 were Ukrainians. Most of them became members of the brigade after a three-year sojourn in Soviet concentration camps, where they had been kept since 1940. (Thirty thousand Ukrainians had originally fled to the Soviet Union from Subcarpathian Ukraine to escape the Nazi-supported Hungarian occupation of their territory. The Soviet authorities, suspicious of their national consciousness and eager to assure the Germans that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact would be honoured, promptly arrested them and sent them to concentration camps.)

Ukrainians served in the Romanian and Hungarian armies, and they played an important role in bringing about peace between the latter and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). Ukrainians fought on the side of the Serbian monarchist Draza Mihailovic and with Tito's Yugoslav partisans. A large number of Ukrainians served in the American and Canadian armed forces (an estimated 40,000 in the latter). They could also be found in the French Resistance.

World War II Ukrainian milita formations fall into three categories: those established on the basis of a political agreement with the German authorities; those organized by the Germans without any regard to political considerations (precise figures on the number of Ukrainians in such units are not available); and those connected with the underground.

To the first category belong the Nationalist Military Detachments (VVN), the Brotherhoods of Ukrainian Nationalists (DUN), the Galician Division of the Waffen-SS, Ukrainian units in the Russian Liberation Army (ROA), the Ukrainian Liberation Army (UVV), and the Ukrainian National Army (UNA).

The Nationalist Military Detachments, organized in 1939 by the leadership of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) (still unified at the time), was put under the leadership of Colonel Roman Sushko. It had the blessing and support of the Germans immediately, before the war with Poland, but existed for a very short time, being disbanded when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact came into effect. Many of its members later entered the Ukrainian auxiliary police, Werkschutz units, and the Baudienst. Its real importance lies in its efforts to renew the traditions of the World War I period, when a national legion, Sichovi striltsi, became the nucleus of the Ukrainian Army.

The Brotherhoods of Ukrainian Nationalists was also organized with the understanding and support of the Germans. It fought under the auspices of the Bandera faction of the OUN (OUN-B) and was divided into two groups: Nachtigall and Roland. Nachtigall had about 1,000 men in Lviv when a Ukrainian state was proclaimed in June 1941. After the arrest of the OUN-B leadership, both battalions were returned to Frankfurt an der Oder and there organized into Guard Battalion 201, which was sent to Belorussia to combat Soviet partisans. Because of various complaints about the Ukrainians' insubordination, almost all the Ukrainian officers were arrested and the unit disbanded. One officer, Captain Roman Shukhevych, escaped and later became Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). He headed the Ukrainian underground until his death in a battle with Soviet MVD troops in March 1950, near Lviv.

The most important and largest regular unit in this first category was the Galician Division, organized in mid-1943 amid much controversy. Initially, the Ukrainian underground strongly opposed its formation, but once the Galician Division became a fait accompli, the underground used the division to train its own people. However, the trainees later deserted and rejoined the underground. Many division members also joined the underground after the division's defeat during the Battle of Brody in July 1944. The remaining troups regrouped in 1945 into a division that became the lst Division of the UNA.

Other units were formed from Red Army prisoners of war. This was the case of the Sumy (Ukrainian) Division, created in late 1941 and early 1942, although without a political agreement with the Germans. The division was nearly destroyed during the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-3, and its remnants were attached in 1944 to General Vlasov's Russian Liberation Army (ROA). As a result of Ukrainian protests, all Ukrainian units (but not all individual Ukrainians) separated from the ROA and reorganized as the Ukrainian Liberation Army in the spring of 1944.

In early 1945 former Red Army officers and soldiers formed an anti-tank brigade, Free Ukraine, near Berlin. The recruits came mostly from the Berlin fire brigades, 85 per cent of whom were allegedly composed of Ukrainians. The brigade was organized according to geographical region and included, among others, companies from Myrhorod, Lubni, and Chernihiv.

All of the above-mentioned units or their remnants were brought together under one command in early 1945, when the Ukrainian National Committee, headed bv General Pavlo Shandruk, was established in Berlin. In a very difficult situation, pressured from all sides, the Germans finally agreed to the creation of the Ukrainian National Army. The core of the army was to be the reorganized Galician Division, which was to become part of the UNA's 1st Division. Although this plan was never fully realized because of Germany's defeat, the Germans' consent to Ukrainian control of these units gave Ukrainians a free hand to negotiate with the Allies at the war's end.

Once removed from the Eastern front, the Ukrainian units were often less than reliable. For example, two guard battalions of the 30th SS Infantry Division, composed of Ukrainian forced labourers in Germany who were pressed into service, were sent to fight the French underground. In late fall 1944 these units deserted to the French side and became part of the Forces Francaises de l'Interieur (the Resistance). The units were first named the Bohoun and Chevtchenko (Shevchenko) Battalions, and later became the First and Second Ukrainian Battalions. Both battalions were dissolved at the request of the Soviet authorities at the end of 1944. Another unit within the French resistance, led by Lieutenant Osyp Krukovsky and composed of the remnants of three battalions of the Galician Division sent to the West for training, immediately tried to desert to the French side. The attempt was thwarted by the Germans but a small group managed to escape in 1944. The rest were shipped back to Germany.

In the second category (formations organized by the Germans without any prior political agreement) were the guard and construction units: Werkschutz, Bahnschutz, Baudienst, Hilfswillige (Hiwis), and the Schutzmannschaften, the Ukrainian auxiliary police. They were made up mainly of former Red Army soldiers who joined these units to save their lives, since Soviet POWs were not covered bv the Geneva Convention and the Germans treated them most inhumanely.

In the third category were the formations of the Ukrainian underground, composed of those who joined neither the Soviet nor German forces. This third alternative became a possibility only when the brutality of the Nazi regime and its position on the question of Ukrainian statehood was no longer a mystery.

The first underground unit formed was led by Taras Bulba-Borovets. It was variously named the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), Polissian Sich, and the Ukrainian National Revolutionary Army (UNRA). The UPA originated in 1942. Initially, it was politically connected to the Ukrainian People's Republic (UNR) government-in-exile and was later associated with the OUN-M. It became a popular force so large that in 1944 the Ukrainian Supreme Liberation Council (UHVR) was created to lead the struggle and co-ordinate political activity. By then the UPA had come under the control of the OUN-B and was active well into the 1950s, when it was liquidated by the Soviets.

There are many misconceptions about the underground. One concerns its origins, and the approach to this question in the West has often been oversimplified. Because the underground was created by nationalists, many of whom had earlier served in units associated with the Germans, they were by definition considered fascists. Another misconception relates to its membership, since once the UPA began to operate, it drew on all organized nationalist groups. Many members of the auxiliary police forces, particularly, in Volhynia, deserted and joined the UPA, as did members of the Galician Division. As a result, uninformed writers in the West and an absolute avalanche of Soviet publications give the impression that the Ukrainian underground was created by the Germans in order to fight against the USSR and, as such, harboured all kinds of war criminals.

What is overlooked is that the UPA drew its members from all areas of Ukraine and that Red Armv soldiers also belonged to it. Many of the UPA's leading officers and political leaders were from areas controlled by the Soviet Union before 1939. Osyp Pozychaniuk, a former Komsomol member, was a prominent leader within the UHVR and in charge of its Information Bureau. He was not the only one. In his memoirs, Danylo Shumuk mentions members of the Communist Party of Western Ukraine who eventually joined the underground units.

It is important to re-emphasize that Ukrainians were to be found on all sides during World War II. The main reasons were that Ukraine was one of the largest nations in Europe without an independent nation-state; the territory of the Ukrainian people was divided among four states on the eve of the war; and there existed a large and dynamic Ukrainian diaspora. Ukrainians who were in German military units were there for various reasons, few of which included sympathy for Nazi ideology or racial policies. Most nationalist Ukrainians had a political agenda - an independent Ukraine, which placed them squarely in opposition to the two main adversaries of the region, Germany and the Soviet Union.


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