The controversial Ukrainian ambassador in Berlin, Andriy Melnyk, has triggered a crisis between his country and neighboring Poland by defending the Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera. Shortly thereafter, Israel also reacted with outrage and accused Melynk of playing down the Holocaust.
“The statements of the Ukrainian ambassador are a distortion of historical facts, a trivialization of the Holocaust and an insult to those who were murdered by Bandera and his people,” the Israeli embassy in Berlin said on Twitter on Friday. Melnyk’s statements “also undermine the courageous struggle of the Ukrainian people to live by democratic values and in peace”.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has distanced itself from Melnyk’s statements. In Germany, too, the diplomat’s claim that there was no evidence of Bandera’s involvement in the murder of Jews provoked opposition. The historical truth is different. Melnyk is known as an admirer of Banderas and had visited his grave in Munich, among other things.
The opinion that Melnyik expressed in an interview with a German journalist “is his own and does not reflect the position of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine,” the ministry said in Kyiv. In the interview with Tilo Jung, the ambassador described Bandera as a Ukrainian “freedom fighter” and denied his responsibility for the massacre of Jews and Poles in World War II.
“He gave no order to exterminate Jews,” said Melnyk. There is no evidence that “Bandera troops murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews,” he added. “That’s this narrative that the Russians are still pushing through today and that also finds support in Germany and also in Poland and in Israel.” He resists blaming Bandera for “all the crimes in the world”.
Bandera is one of the most controversial figures in Ukrainian history, for many in Ukraine he is still a national hero to this day. During World War II he fought against Soviet rule as a leader of Ukrainian nationalists, but historians have accused him of collaborating with the Nazis.
“Across western Ukraine, there were cruel anti-Jewish pogroms, in which Ukrainian nationalists and militias played a key role,” said Franziska Davies, a historian of Eastern Europe from the University of Munich, on Twitter about the time after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941
Melnyk also defended Bandera against this accusation. “What does collaborative mean? There were collaborators all over Europe – in France, in Belgium, in every country,” he said. Bandera later spent several years in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp after turning against the Nazis and proclaiming an independent Ukrainian state.
Bandera was tracked down in Munich in 1959 by agents of the Soviet secret service KGB and murdered with a hydrogen cyanide pistol. What is remarkable about the murder is the fact that the use of poison by the Russian secret service, such as in the case of Alexei Navalny, has a long tradition that goes back to predecessor Soviet organizations.
Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz called Melnyk’s statements on Friday “completely unacceptable”. “We know exactly how Polish-Ukrainian relations were and what happened in 1943 and later in Volhynia and eastern Galicia,” he added, referring to the massacres committed by Ukrainian ultranationalists. However, Warsaw is “interested in the position of the Ukrainian government, not in that of individuals”.
In its statement on the Melnyk interview, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry expressly praised relations between Ukraine and Poland and thanked the neighboring country for its “unprecedented support in the fight against Russian aggression”. Both countries agree that it is necessary “to maintain unity in the face of common challenges”.
Attempts are also being made in Ukrainian society to critically review its own history, but Melnyk is apparently unaware of these. Years ago, the Ukrainian historian Volodymyr Malsiychuk wrote in an article for the Heinrich Böll Foundation about the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) founded by Bandera’s OUN wing at the end of 1942: “The participation of the UPA in the Holocaust and in massacres should be emphasized in the Polish civilian population in Volhynia, a fact that the Ukrainian nationalists have only reluctantly and ambivalently acknowledged.” Bandera, the historian continues, had already become a symbol of the struggle, especially against Soviet power, during his lifetime.
Against this background, Volker Beck, Managing Director of the Tikvah Institute for Combating Anti-Semitism, demands: “Bandera’s tactical kinship with Nazi Germany and the role of the OUN in the murder of Jews must not be denied.” particularly difficult to look critically at one’s own history.
Nevertheless, the following applies: “Ukraine will have to face its past.” The statements about Ukraine “do not change the fact that the Shoah must always be primarily and first of all about German responsibility,” the long-time Green politician told the Tagesspiegel
However, Melnyk is unreasonable. The diplomat reacted rudely to statements by the Jewish pianist Igor Levit (“Ashamed of yourself!”) on Twitter. “Ukrainians don’t need post-colonial history tips from Germany, which is responsible for 10 million victims of the Nazi reign of terror,” he countered in the same medium. Instead of finally coming to terms with the Nazi crimes against civilians, they “rather chose Bandera as a target”.