“…(We) can all clearly see the intentions of these ideological heirs of Bandera, Hitler’s accomplice during World War II.” Vladimir Putin
“The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly – it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.”
― Joseph Goebbels
For the six months prior to the recent ceasefire that the Ukrainian government and the rebellious Donbass region entered into earlier in September, Russian state controlled TV, radio, and publications daily castigated all loyal Ukrainians as “Banderists,” or “fascists,” and the government as a “junta.” In the effort to help promote peace in another sovereign nation not-their- own, these government sanctioned insults have suddenly ceased altogether.
But, who was this ‘Bandera’ that has had a whole nation spewing anti-Ukrainian rhetoric hysterically for so long?
Stepan Bandera was born to a Ukrainian Greek-Catholic priest in Uhryniv Staryy, about 60 miles from Lemberg, on January 1, 1909, in what was then Austria-Hungary.
When he was only eight years old, the Ukrainian National Republic was established in the wake of Russia’s collapse in World War I. In November 1918 the western Ukrainian territories joined, following the collapse of Austria-Hungary.
The newly created state of Poland was promised these western territories at Paris, however, and on June 25, 1919, occupied them. It was the beginning of a ruthless occupation. “Thousands of prisoners-of-war and civilians died, Ukrainian property to the value of milliards was pillaged and destroyed, Ukrainian cultural achievements were annihilated, and the Ukrainian population of Galicia was in danger of being exterminated.” (1) In 1920 the remainder of the republic would fall to the even harsher hand of the Bolsheviks.
This was the world Stepan Bandera was growing into. He acquired his Ukrainian nationalist sentiments while still in grade school. The Poles had introduced the “borderlands policy” in an attempt to eradicate Ukrainian cultural, and the Ukrainian educational system was among the first targets. Ukrainians were to be deprived of higher educational opportunities. Deprived by Polish authorities of an opportunity to attend the Ukrainian College of Technology and Economics in Podebrady, Czechoslovakia, Bandera returned at age 19 to Lemberg, now renamed Lviv, and began studying in the department of agriculture at the Technical College, the only facility open to Ukrainians. He also joined the Ukrainian liberation movement (UVO).
The following year, 1929, the First Congress of the Ukrainian Nationalists was held in Vienna between Ukrainian nationalists in the Polish west and the Soviet East. The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, or OUN, was founded, and Bandera was among its earliest members.
Back in the western Ukraine, Bandera helped organize successful boycotts of Polish state monopolies, and the OUN increasingly found itself combatting communist subversion in the region as well. Polish farms and businesses fell victim to an arson campaign. The Poles, under the leadership of Minister of the Interior Bronisław Pieracki retaliated with their own ruthless “pacification” efforts, which attracted the attention of the world press.
Bandera had risen quickly through the OUN ranks, becoming chief propaganda officer 1931, second in command of Galicia in 1932, Head of the National Executive of the OUN, and in 1933 was appointed Chairman of the Executive. With his planning and guidance, Pieracki was assassinated in Warsaw on June 15, 1934. The Poles responded with mass arrests among many opposition groups, and founded the Bereza Kartuska concentration camp.
Aware of the mass, state sponsored starvation that was taking place in the eastern Ukraine, Bandera may also have been involved the year before in the assassination of a Soviet diplomat (in Poland) as an act of revenge.
Arrested for his role in Pieracki’s assasination, Bandera was sentenced to death in 1936. The sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.
Bandera was either released or escaped from prison in the turbulent circumstances Poland faced in September 1939, when first the Germans and then the Soviets overran the country. The western Ukrainian regions of Lemky, Kholm and Pidlyasha fell into German hands, while Volhynia, Polissia and Galicia went to the Soviets.
From Krakow, where the German General Governorate sat as the occupiers of the subordinate Polish Second Republic, Bandera and his followers organized for the conflict that each felt and hoped was coming: The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Rather naively, they saw Germany as an ally who would help free the Ukraine from the Bolshevist yoke. In early 1941, many OUN members began to train under the Germans to be able act in harmony with the Wehrmacht when the invasion came.
To this degree, the OUN is often portrayed as being anti-Semitic, and undoubtedly there were probably more than a few anti-Semites within their ranks. At this early point, though, there were also some Jews. Alexander John Motyl, professor of political science at Rutgers, writes “the resolutions of the Second Great OUN Congress, held in Krakow in April 1941, on the eve of the German invasion, specifically cautioned Ukrainians against anti-Jewish activity and pogroms.” (5)
When the invasion of the Soviet Union began on June 22nd, 1941, units of OUN militants often preceded the advancing Wehrmacht, and eight days later some assisted Nazi extermination squads in the liquidation of Jews, communists, and others in Lviv (formerly Lemberg).
Bandera, however, was in Krakow, making the great mistake that would prove his own undoing:
He declared a new, independent Ukrainian state.
Hitler and the Nazi state had no intention of allowing an independent Ukrainian nation. The Ukraine was to be the breadbasket of the Greater German Reich, much as the Kaiser had envisioned it during World War I. When Bandera refused to retract his proclamation, he was arrested and sent to the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, where he spent the next three and a quarter years. His brothers Aleksandr and Vasyl died in Auschwitz, murdered by Polish inmates or guards.
His father was executed by the NKVD in Kiev in July 1941. His sisters Oksana, Marta-Maria, and Volodymyra were all arrested and spent many years in Soviet gulags.
Another brother, Bohdan, was executed by either the Gestapo or NKVD, in 1943 or 1944.
The OUN continued to support the Germans for some time, but gradually shifted their activities to fighting both the Soviets and Nazis. Increasingly, they were replaced by the UPA (Ukrainian Peoples’ Army). In late 1944, they committed horrible atrocities against the Polish population in the western Ukraine region.
It was not until the late 1940’s that the UPA was finally crushed by the Soviets.
The German successes on the Eastern Front were reversed at Stalingrad in 1943, and by September the next year had been expelled entirely from the Ukraine. That month Bandera was released from Sachsenhausen, as the Nazis hoped that he might be able to help incite further uprisings against the Soviets. He was never able to assist the Nazis afterwards, although his detractors give him credit for doing so. He considered returning to the Ukraine, was dissuaded from doing so.
He settled in Munich following the war, and as he had never been a Soviet citizen, was not repatriated to the Soviet Union to face certain death, as so many former Soviet citizens who sided with the Germans did. He may have worked with organizations such as MI6 and the CIA to help the UPA’s ongoing resistance to the Soviets.
In 1959, Bohdan Stashynsky, a KGB agent, assassinated Bandera with cyanide gas on October 15, 1959.
He is buried in the Waldfriedhof Cemetery. His grave was vandalized in April this year.
Bandera has become a symbol of Ukrainian struggle and unity, despite his questionable associations.
In 2010, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko bestowed the title “Hero of Ukraine” on Bandera, but this was immediately protested by Poles, Jews, Russians and the European Union, and the posthumous award was withdrawn.
But, regardless, nowadays “To glorify Bandera is to reject Stalin and to reject any pretension from Moscow to power over Ukraine.” (5)
It’s an message that resonates in today’s Ukraine.
- STEPAN BANDERA, HIS LIFE AND STRUGGLE. Danylo Chaykovsky.
- Good News From Ukraine: Everyone Still Hates Hitler. The Atlantic. Matt Ford, March 20,
- The Stepan Bandera Quandary. The Kyiv Post. Andriy J. Semotiuk. April 19, 2010
- A Fascist Hero in Democratic Kiev. Timothy Snyder, The New York Review of Books. February
- Why Are Jews So Afraid of Stepan Bandera? Historians explain the man of the moment in
Ukraine. The Scroll. Batya Ungar-Sargon. March 7, 2014