The Galician SS Division

From an email to a friend:

If you want to get into some very delicate history, we can talk about Nazi symbols which make a rare (thankfully) appearance among Ukrainian nationalists. Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands does the best job of illustrating the plight of people trapped between Hitler and Stalin.

Much to the Kremlin’s delight, you occasionally see SS symbols among the protesters. Swastikas, never (as far as I know), only SS symbols. Why?

There was a “Galician” SS Division formed of western Ukrainians that gets a sympathetic narrative. I’m not saying the following is the complete story, but the narrative goes like this:

The division formed in 1943 when it was absolutely clear the Nazis were going to lose the war.

It formed with two stipulations: 1. they only be used to fight the advancing Red Army and 2. they be the only SS Division allowed to have priests. Point #2 is significant because when the Soviets first took over Western Ukraine (then-Poland) in 1939, they immediately slaughtered all the priests and, after some hesitation, deported all the seminary students. Stalin himself had been a seminary student, so, according to an old man I know who was a seminary student at the time and survived the Gulag, their captors weren’t sure whether they’d in trouble for executing the students.

The Division was supposed to form the core of an eventual Ukrainian Army. This followed the model of the “Sich Riflemen” of the Austro-Hungarian Army who went on to fight first the Polish Army, then the Bolsheviks for the creation of a Ukrainian state, losing eventually on both fronts, but allowing for the declaration of an albeit short lived Ukrainian state in 1918.

The Galician SS Division, about 13,000 men, took something like 70-80% killed in action in the Battle of Brody which was goes down in history as a mere speed bump along the Red Army’s advance to Berlin.

Again, I’m not saying this is the complete story, but you can understand why they get a sympathetic narrative — their story is viewed as a heroic but futile last stand against the Soviets.

You can also probably imagine why this received with such hostility. Both Soviet patriotism and the flavor of Russian nationalism invoked by Putin derives much of its legitimacy from victory over the Nazis.

Two interesting details:

– At Brody, the Galician SS faced the Red Army’s First Ukrainian Front. It was brother against brother. Both World Wars had the catastrophic nature of civil war on the territory of Ukraine.

– One survivor of the Galician SS Division, Hryhoriy Hevryk, joined the Red Army and was killed in action in Poland, becoming an official Hero of the Soviet Union.

There is no serious neo-nazi or fascist movement in Ukraine, but a very small number of idiots sometimes use SS symbols to represent resistance to the Soviets and, by inference, to Russia.