Russia Insider, a right-of-center web site run by Moscow-based expats, has spotlighted an article in The Daily Beast, which, with amazing loopiness, poses the question, “Why Are Swastikas Hot in the West Ukraine?” After noting that such images are popping up all over – on military helmets, in party insignias, in demos, etc. – the reporter, Anna Nemtsova, assures us that neo-Nazism has nothing to do with it. To the contrary, the swastika merely stands for national independence and resistance to Russia. To be sure, “most nationalist and ultra-right youth organizations in Ukraine today use symbols that millions of Ukrainian citizens associate with the Nazi army.” But, she says, “one reason, certainly, is that the much longer and very deadly occupation by the Soviets is also a huge part of the national consciousness.” Given that the Soviet occupation was so much more recent, the old one has thus acquired a certain burnished glow. “[I]n Lviv,” Nemtsova goes on, “…legislators and the local administration insist the Nazi symbols are not dangerous for the country.” She quotes a political official declaring, “I don’t care what flags or symbols they use for as long as they fight for Ukraine’s freedom,” and passes along comments by a certain Ostap Stakhiv, the 28-year-old leader of a start-up ultra-right group calling itself Idea of the Nation:
The swastika is a very strong symbol, and as soon as we adopted it, we immediately grew popular among young people. Those who join us know exactly what they want, and they are ready to go to the very end. … A yellow swastika on a black field stands for power and spirit.
All this without a hint from Nemtsova that anything is amiss. So not to worry: the swastikas that nice young Ukrainian nationalists are waving these days have nothing to do with the ones that bad old Nazis used to display. The new ones stand for strength and nationalism whereas the old ones stand for, umm, nationalism and strength.
This is all quite ridiculous, of course. The new swastikas are exactly the same as the old ones. The reason they’re so popular among Ukrainian nationalists fired up with anti-Russian zeal is that they remind them of the last time the Russians took a good beating, which was at the hands of Hitler’s Wehrmacht in June 1941. What everyone else remembers as the start of a long nightmare was, from a Ukrainian nationalist perspective, a short-lived period of national liberation. Since the Nazis were on the side of freedom and patriotism, local rightists welcomed them with open arms, declared a fascist Ukrainian republic in their honor, and then went on a rampage against local Jews just to show that their heart was in the right place. In Lviv, for example, where the slaughter claimed an estimated seven thousand lives, the killings began as soon as German troops arrived in town on July 1, 1941, and went on for days after. By displaying the swastika, Ukrainian nationalists are essentially adopting the same logic. It they don’t specifically endorse the actions that followed, they don’t reject them either.
Not that this is particularly surprising. When the Euromaidan barricades went up last November, leftists raised the alarm about the prominent role that ultra-rightists were playing in Kiev, only to be dismissed either as hysterics or pro-Russian stooges. But Nemtsova’s article is one more piece of evidence that the left was correct and that the stooges were entirely on the other side. The New York Times has written about a growing neo-Soviet trend in the pro-Russian east where people are increasingly nostalgic for the good old U.S.S.R. But what seems to be happening in the rest of the country, the portion under Austro-Hungarian domination prior to 1918, is an equal and opposite process of neo-fascism, one in which the swastika is more and more popular and the World War II collaborator Stepan Bandera, whose forces slaughtered not only Jews but tens of thousands of Poles, is more and more hailed as a national hero.
Although fascists like the Svoboda Party and Right Sector have gotten most of the attention, the phenomenon is much more widespread. In 2011, parents with small children waving Ukrainian flags crowded into downtown Kiev to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the German “liberation” while soccer fans have long made a point of taunting opponents from the east by hoisting Bandera’s portrait. Last week, Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s “moderate” president, declared October 14, the day Bandera’s Ukrainian Insurgent Army was founded in 1942, to be “Day of Defender of Ukraine.” As Alya Shandra, the editor of Euromaidan Press, helpfully explains (in somewhat imperfect English), the purpose of the proclamation is to
go beyond the black-and-white painted by Soviet historiography … by giving room for glorification of forces that fought against Red Army and Soviet powers, such as the army of the Ukrainian People’s republic and the UPA. Vilified in Soviet times … these military formations [are] gradually getting the appreciation and attention they deserve. This gains a special meaning nowadays, as thousands of Ukrainian men and women are giving their lives to fight off the regular Russian army invading its East.
So there you have it. Contrary to Soviet propaganda, World War II was not all black and white and the Ukrayins’ka Povstans’ka Armiya, as Bandera’s fighters were known, are finally coming in for a bit of their own. The Ukrainian People’s Republic, led by the Ukrainian nationalist Simon Petlyura, is coming in for praise since its forces fought against the Red Army during the Russian Civil War, even if they killed around 50,000 Jews in the process.
A Banderist-Petlyurist state has thus arisen on the banks of the Dnieper, one that vilifies Russians, brands dissidents as “terrorists,” and, according to Human Rights Watch, uses cluster bombs against the civilian population in the east. As The Times noted, “The army’s use of cluster munitions, which shower small bomblets around a large area, could also add credibility to Moscow’s version of the conflict, which is that the Ukrainian national government is engaged in a punitive war against its own citizens.”
Precisely. Where the Times once airily dismissed Moscow’s depiction of neo-Nazi running amuck as “caricatures in the Russian media’s fun-house mirror,” it is now forced to backtrack. This is why pro-Washington shills like Nemtsova are rushing into action, telling readers to pay no attention to the proliferating number of swastikas because they’re really quite benign.
The Daily Beast piece is a joke, but a dangerous joke since the effect is to disarm readers and allow fascism to slip in through the back door. Neo-Nazism under the impact of the economic crisis is spreading not only in the western Ukraine, but in Hungary, the Baltics, and elsewhere as well. The more people turn a blind eye to it, the stronger it will grow. It wasn’t so long ago that nice respectable people thought that fascists were people they could sit down and do business with. FDR referred to Mussolini in 1933 as “that admirable Italian gentleman” while, less than three weeks after Hitler took power, Winston Churchill was among those singing the praises of a new Germany
with its splendid clear-eyed youth marching forward on all the roads of the Reich singing their ancient songs, demanding to be conscripted into an army; eagerly seeking the most terrible weapons of war; burning to suffer and die for their fatherland.
Eighty years later, The Daily Beast is serenading western leaders as they go down that same garden path, oblivious to the consequences.