Ukrainian Insurgent Army: Heroes or evil-doers?

October 14 is Defenders of Ukraine Day, and Ukrainian Cossacks’ Day. It’s also the symbolic date when the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (or UPA) was established. Were the UPA’s partisans allied with the Nazis and Hitler, like they say in Russia?

Was the UPA Hitler’s ally?

In October 1942 in German-occupied Lviv, the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), supporters of Stepan Bandera, decided to set up combat units to fight the Germans as well as Soviet and Polish partisans. Their goal was to await Germany’s defeat, then launch a rebellion and proclaim Ukrainian independence.

In March 1943, the OUN-B ordered its supporters in the German polizei to take to the woods with firearms. A year later they were fighting in Western and Central Ukraine, home to almost half the country’s population. The UPA was instrumental in stopping young people from being deported to Germany and preventing peasants’ food from being requisitioned.

The German army lost 12,000 troops in battles with the insurgents. During its peak of activity in 1944, the UPA had around 40,000 soldiers. Soviet historians estimated the number of red partisans in Ukraine at 220,000.

Was Bandera Head of the UPA?

Stepan Bandera never commanded the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. He spent most of the war in prison. Bandera was held in the cell block at Sachsenhausen concentration camp until October 1944. Other important Reich prisoners were also jailed there, such as the French prime minister Léon Blum, Polish Resistance leader Stefan Rowecki, and Stalin’s son, Yakov Dzhugashvili.

The leader of the OUN’s radical wing had been arrested a year-and-a-half before the UPA was created. That happened in July 1941, after Bandera and his comrades-in-arms in German-occupied Lviv announced the formation of a Ukrainian state.

Involvement in ethnic cleansing

From spring 1943 to autumn 1944, Ukrainian troops slaughtered about 100,000 Poles in Volhynia, mostly civilians. Another 200,000 had to flee. In retaliation, the Polish polizei and partisans killed around 3,000 Ukrainians.

Dmytro Klyachkivsky was commander of the UPA-North task force. Polish historians call him the initiator of the Volhynia massacre. The UPA leaders realised that the German occupation would soon end, and planned to “cleanse” Western Ukraine of people who wanted it to rejoin Poland.

“The UPA forcibly mobilised the local population to attack Polish villages,” Polish historian Grzegorz Motyka said.

The UPA didn’t taint itself with massacres of Jews, but many of those who later became partisans may have been involved in the Holocaust. In 1943, half of the 20,000 UPA fighters were former polizei. The polizei guarded the ghettos, escorted Jews to execution sites, and cordoned off areas where SS men murdered Jews, partisans, and civilians.

Historians also criticise the ideology of the UPA’s founders. Until the end of 1943, the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists was a right-wing radical movement, in which racist and anti‑Semitic ideas, and admiration for fascist regimes were not unknown.

“During the Second World War, this movement spread nationwide. Its activists numbered people with varying political views, from left to right, which is why the pro-Ukrainian movement was so sizeable in the 1940s and 1950s,” Ukrainian historian Volodymyr Viatrovych said.

The bottom line

Ukrainians in the ranks of the UPA didn’t fight for German victory or ideas of Nazism. But fighting for their land against the Stalinist USSR was not a crime. Ethnic cleansing, however, is a crime. Many who joined the UPA had previously helped the Germans murder Jews and attack the partisans.

But the war only covered two years of the UPA’s history. The rebels fought against communist rule up until the mid-1950s. Today the UPA is a symbol of the struggle for an independent Ukraine, yet the reality is not as simple and beautiful as the symbolism…

Alyaksandr Papko, Vot Tak TV