Are There Nazis In Ukraine?

President Zelenskyy visiting a wounded soldier in hospital
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy paid a visit to wounded soldiers in a military hospital; official photo, Public Domain

Putin has told the Russian public that he wants to “denazify” Ukraine. What exactly does he mean? Why is that such a powerful message for Russian people? And Ukrainians?

In order to understand this question, I borrowed a book from the Kent library e-collection. It was “Bloodlands” by Yale historian, Timothy D Snyder. I was horrified by how much of the history of that part of East Europe I did not know!

History stopped at 1914

History at school, even for those of us doing it for A-level, stopped at 1914. There was much more in it about the British Empire than there was about the Russian Empire. Although I vaguely knew about Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and that the last Tsar had been killed.

Then Lenin was sent (by the Germans) on a train to Russia, and the Russian Revolution happened. But what was actually happening inside what became the Soviet Republic I had no idea. I knew Stalin was ruthless and conducted “purges” and I had read about the Gulag in fiction. But I had no idea of the extent of the killings in that part of the world until I read “Bloodlands”.

Killing of Civilians is not new

Snyder reckons that 14 million non-military people were killed in the 12-year period between 1933 and 1945. This was through the policies of either Stalin or Hitler in that part of Europe. It started with the “Holodomor”, the great hunger in Ukraine.

This was probably not a pre-planned killing. But it was the lethal side-effect of Stalin’s wrong-headed effort to use Ukrainian agrarian surplus for growing industry in (Russian) towns. He assumed that by forcing the independent farmers (kulaks) of Ukraine into collective farms, the surplus would be available to develop Russian factories.

But the quotas were so extreme that the farmers had to hand over even their seed corn. Those who resisted were either killed or sent to labour camps in the Soviet east (Kazakhstan). The famine only ceased once the farmers, now mostly in collective farms, were allowed to till private plots around their houses for their own food. This food plot is what we saw on our TV screens recently. Here even in a Ukrainian town on the front-line an old woman was starting spring cultivation.

The Breadbasket of Europe

The important thing to realise about the geography of Eastern Europe is that Ukraine, with its rich black earth, is the breadbasket, producing the grain and cooking oil (sunflower) for export trade. Hitler was also well aware of this. His grand scheme was a land empire to the east which would include the breadbasket of Ukraine, the west of the Soviet Union and the oil riches of Baku in the east.

His idea was to conquer the terrain quickly (in three months!) and then repopulate the Slav lands with efficient German farmers of the master race. He had also calculated that Germany badly needed the food from Ukraine to feed the army.

Dividing the spoils

He started this move to the East with a pact with Stalin to divide Poland: Germany would take the western part, and Russian the eastern part, with the border at the “Curzon” line, which Snyder calls the Molotov-Ribbentrop line as agreed by those two leaders in a 1939 pact.

Thus World War II started in September 1939 with the invasion of Poland by the Nazi army and the Soviet army. Ukrainian young men, if they had survived the great hunger and the threat of the gulags, would have been conscripted to fight on the Soviet side.

Ethnic Melting-Pot

It is important to understand the ethnic make-up of the populations of Eastern Europe at this time. People, especially if they have been living under Empires with growing cities, do not live in neat ethnically pure locations. There was a large Jewish population living in cities like Warsaw: the Jewish population was 9.5% in Poland.

In what is now Ukraine there were many Poles. To the east of Germany there were many large German settlements, especially in Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately the imperial schemes of both Hitler and Stalin involved ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Hitler wanted to exterminate the Jews because he identified them both with an international rich people’s conspiracy against the master race and also as the ring-leaders of the communists. It was true that there were many prominent Jews in communist parties, including in the Soviet republics. In Hitler’s deranged strategy, these had to be eliminated before he could advance his empire.

Unintended Consequences

The fact is that once his armies had advanced across Poland, Belarus and Ukraine, the great proportion of Jews in Europe were in fact in the German-occupied lands. Hence the Holocaust. But because the focus has been on the horrors of the Holocaust, especially the fate of Jews in western camps like Auschwitz, western Europeans remained unaware for many years of the extent of other killings, of other ethnic groups, that occurred in the more easterly lands.

They were behind the Iron Curtain until the 1990s. Only since then have historians like Snyder (who can read in 15 languages) been able to get at the sources.

Hitler was intent on eliminating Jews for reasons mentioned above, but once he failed to capture the “breadbasket” zones, there was a looming shortage of food for the German armies and even civilians. So now the need for food led him to eliminate other undesirables such as Russian prisoners of war and Slavs in labour camps, who were often forced to work until they died.

A double occupation

In lands like Poland, Ukraine and Belarus, they suffered double occupation. First by the Nazi armies and then by the victorious Soviet armies. Indeed in the Soviet republics of Ukraine and Belarus there was a three-way fight between the Soviets, the Nazis and the nationalists. The last wanted independence from either Empire.

This was manifested especially in the resistance groups to the Nazis, “partisans”, who might be allied to communism (and so the Moscow) or to a nationalist group, or even, as in Belarus, to the Jewish partisans.

Whom should we listen to?

Ukrainian farmers have gone through several changes of perspective: first they welcomed communism as land laws got rid of estates. (These were mostly owned by Polish aristocracy, a legacy of Polish rule a few centuries back). Then with the Holodomor they felt the cruelty of collectivism and the gulags. Unsurprisingly, many Ukraine patriots welcomed the Nazis as liberating them from communism.

There was an added ethnic dimension as Stalin changed the multi-ethnic vision of Lenin’s soviet republics into a more Russian dominant politics. I happen to know about Lenin’s vision because the one time I visited Russia, in 1972, I found in the train an English version of Lenin’s proclamation on the 100 ethnicities of the USSR.

Maybe it had been put there deliberately as I was then a teacher trainee and had deliberately put on my visa application that I would like to visit teacher trainer colleges to discuss how they coped with minority languages. I never did get that visit, but at least I had a good read of Lenin’s admirable vision.

Lenin’s Vision Lost

Unfortunately Stalin rolled back this vision and from 1926 Ukrainian language in schools was downgraded. Even at the time I was reading Lenin’s proclamation, Ukrainian was being suppressed in Eastern Europe (mass closure of Ukrainian schools in Poland and Romania, teachers of Russian to be paid more, thesis defence only in Russian).

Instead of a vision of international communism, Stalin was promoting a Russian Empire. If various nationalist groups resisted this (Kazakhs, Tartars, Ukrainians) they must be eliminated. Whole areas, like the Crimea, were purged by shipping off the natives (the Tartars) to settle in the far east.

Ghosts of the Past

So when Putin says he wants to “denazify” Ukraine, he is calling up all these historic ghosts. First the Nazis from Germany were the enemies of 80 years ago, who besieged Leningrad (St Peterburg) and caused some 24 million deaths in Soviet regions (both military and civilian).

Second, it has always been national patriots who have resisted Russian imperialism. That is why Putin is so furious with Ukrainian patriotism. He, like Stalin, thinks Ukrainians must just all speak Russian. Many of them do actually speak Russian as their home language (like President Zelenksyy) but, from the experience of this war, many will prefer to stick to Ukrainian.