Western journalists covering the Euromaidan riots and murders in Kiev in late February of 2014 encountered a historical figure few recognized. The black-and-white image of pasty-faced Stepan Bandera was plastered everywhere in the Ukraine capital— on barricades, over the entrance to Kiev’s city hall, and on the placards held by demonstrators calling for the overthrow of the Russian-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych. Now who in the hell is that? Bandera, the journalists likely thought, had simply been a nationalist … even though controversial. But so what? The Russians said he was a Nazi and an anti-Semite but according to Western media that was just more Moscow propaganda. So foreign journalists hedged in their reports from Maidan. The Washington Post reported that Bandera had had only a “tactical relationship’ with Nazi Germany and that his followers “were only accused of committing atrocities against Poles and Jews.” According to the New York Times he had been vilified by Moscow as a pro-Nazi traitor. Foreign Policy simply dismissed Bandera as “Moscow’s favorite bogeyman and metonym for all bad Ukrainian things.” Whoever Bandera was, he couldn’t have been as nasty as Putin claimed.
Some historical figures seem to just fade away into the gossamer past. They gradually sink into oblivion. But this man Bandera? Who was he anyway? Well: the name of Stepan Bandera (b, 1909 in West Ukraine, d. Munich1959) is today the symbol of Ukrainian Nazism, the symbol of the ideology and practice of the big, new-old nation of Ukraine, a former Republic of the Soviet Union. In the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv—better known as Kiev—once one of Russia’s major cities, the name Bandera lives again. To his memory are dedicated streets, squares, monuments in Ukraine, especially in his native West Ukraine. Today, Nazis of all nationalities pay homage to his memory.
But then those terrible Russians were right again. For the vast majority of Russians, the term Banderovtsy or Banderite is even worse than Liberal applied to that small minority who worship Western things, yearn for America, the European Union and NATO and detest Putin and Russian nationalists.
In his lifetime, however, the little Bandera—he stood 5 feet and 2 inches—Russian-hating, West Ukrainian Nazi was detested literally by everybody. His political opponents within the Ukrainian independence movement hated him, as did many of his own allies and followers. Jews and ethnic Russians hated him for his crimes against them. Even his German Nazi masters considered him despicable because he betrayed and murdered his own people. The masses of displaced Ukrainians living in West Germany after World War II hated him for his crimes against other Ukrainians. Elements of the post-war German government and many of Germany’s American occupiers hated him… even those he served. Poles hated him for his crimes against the Polish people. Russians hated him in a special way because Bandera, in his German SS uniform, was responsible for the elimination of hundreds of thousands of Russians, soldiers, prisoners of war and civilians alike. Today his figure is hated by nearly all Russians because of everything he stood for. Ukrainian immigrants in Russia hate him and dislike being called Banderites simply because they are Ukrainian.
Yet, among nationalists in western Ukraine, he is revered as a patriotic freedom-fighter, a martyr who led the struggle for independence from the Soviet Union, though in the pro-Russian east of the country he is reviled as a fascist traitor and terrorist who collaborated with the Nazis and whose followers murdered thousands. But Bandera remains a hero in the eyes of the growing number of extreme rightists and Nazis in today’s nationalist, jingoistic Ukraine, among Ukrainian nationalists abroad and right-wing extremists elsewhere..
In 2010, Stepan Bandera was named “Hero of Ukraine” by the pro-West President Yushchenko. His image was honored on a postage stamp while his memory assumed founder-of-Ukrainian-nationalism proportions. Moscow Avenue in the Ukraine capital of Kyiv was changed to Bandera Avenue. Meanwhile, articles galore have emerged in the international press of the life of an ugly and justifiably hated man, especially in Polish, German and English writings which can be seen on Internet. To the joy of re-flowering Nazi-Fascist organizations and parties across Europe in today’s Ukraine the Nazi- Banderite Svoboda (Freedom) and Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) parties run things.
Bandera was the son of a nationalist-minded Greek Catholic priest. Stepan was a self-punishing fanatic who stuck pins under his fingernails to prepare himself for torture at the hands of enemies. As a university student in Lviv (Lvov), he is said to have whipped himself with a belt. “Admit, Stepan!” he would cry out. “No, I don’t admit!” Yet a follower said Bandera was hypnotic: “You couldn’t stop listening to him.”
Stepan enlisted in the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) at age twenty of which he quickly steered an already violent faction into more extreme directions. In 1933, he organized an attack on the Soviet consul in Lviv, killing an office secretary. A year later, he directed the assassination of the Polish Interior Minister. He ordered the execution of two alleged informers and was responsible for other deaths as well when the OUN took to robbing banks, post offices, police stations, and private households in search of funds.
A study by the German writer Rossoliński-Liebe of what drove Bandera’s violence takes us through the times and the politics that captured Bandera’s imagination. Galicia—Western Ukraine today—had been part of Austro-Hungary prior to WWI. The Polish-controlled western half of Galicia was incorporated into the newly established Republic of Poland in 1918, the Ukrainian-dominated eastern portion (of West Ukraine) where Bandera was born in 1909, was absorbed also by Poland in 1921 following the Polish–Soviet War and enjoyed a brief period of independence. Bitter at being deprived of a state of their own, Ukrainian nationalists there refused to recognize the takeover and, in 1922, responded with arson attacks on thousands of Polish-owned farms.
Warsaw resorted to mass arrest. By late 1938, some 30,000 Ukrainian-Poles languished in Polish jails. Polish politicians spoke of the “extermination” of the Ukrainians while a German journalist who traveled through eastern Galicia in early 1939 reported that local Ukrainians were calling for the German Führer to intervene and impose a solution of his own on the Poles.
The conflict in the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands of mixed peoples, languages and cultures exemplified the ethnic wars that erupted throughout Eastern Europe as WWII approached. Bandera meanwhile moved ever farther to the right. He read the works of militant nationalists who dreamed of a united Ukraine stretching “from the Carpathian Mountains to the Caucasus, a Ukraine free of Russians, Poles, Magyars, Romanians, and Jews. He studied the works of Dmytro Dontsov, the ultra-rightist spiritual father who translated Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Mussolini’s La Dottrina Del Fascismo and taught that ethics should be subordinate to the national struggle.
The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) was marked by extreme anti-Semitism. Anti-Jewish hatred had branded Ukrainian nationhood since the seventeenth century when Ukrainian peasants, maddened by the exactions of the Polish landlords and their Jewish estate managers, engaged in vicious pogroms.
Gruesome pogroms during the Russian Civil War resulted in waves of Jewish emigration to Israel and accelerated the acquisition of Palestinian lands by legal Jewish emigrants, the subject of a Spanish novel, Dispara, yo ya estoy Muerto, by Julia Navarro. A curiosity in the novelist’s presentation was that many of the early Jewish settlers who bought their lands near Jerusalem legally were Socialists/Communists and their small farms and orchards were organized as communist collectives.
In the Ukraine anti-Semitic passions intensified in 1926 when a Jewish anarchist named Sholom Schwartzbard assassinated the exiled right-wing extremist Ukrainian political leader, Symon Petliura, in Paris. Such events accelerated the Jewish flight from East Europe to Palestine in the years following the Balfour Declaration in 1917 pertaining to the British commitment to the creation of a state of Israel in Palestine.
Polish-Russian relations remain one of the most contentious political issues in Eastern Europe today. Some understanding of currents in the huge area between Germany and Russia—Poland, Ukraine, Russia in a West-East sequence—shed light on the significance of the US coup in Kiev and the emergence of a fake country under US/NATO dominance. Ukraine with its 233,000 square miles is almost size of France with 248,000 square miles. Stretching back centuries, the memory of the confusing past of East Europe influences the policies of the present.
The era beginning from World War II provides a useful starting point in understanding the current state of political affairs between Ukraine and Poland and, because Ukraine was once part of Soviet Russia, also between Russia and Poland which once shared a common border. Reflecting also the complexity of Polish-Ukrainian-Russian relations in general and thus US/NATO encirclement of Russia.
Western Ukraine, particularly the city of Lviv-Lvov, occupies a special part of the Polish psyche—something like Kosovo for Serbs which NATO stole and the USA built there a huge military base, Camp Bondsteel. Therefore the separation of the former western portion of Ukraine, former Galicia, from the Polish state after WWII was hard for Poles to accept despite the new socialist ideology in East Europe. Nationalism was not supposed to take on emotional significance. Socialist solidarity between peoples counted more than nationalism; emphasis was on economics, not nationality. Nonetheless, the border changes proved to be a strategic miscalculation caused by blindness to the ever-present nationalism. At the time there was little that Poland could do about what it felt was the unfair dislocation of its eastern provinces (with it many Ukrainians and peoples of complex and uncertain feelings of nationality).
Contemporary Poland has believed that the influence of the EU can re-establish its cultural and historical hegemony in its eastern regions. Poland believes it can rival Russia in terms of influence in the now western regions of Ukraine: whereas Russia influence is dominant in East Ukraine. Thus the European Union, via Poland, has a strong influence in the West Ukraine. On the other hand, the EU is also concerned about the quasi Fascist government of Poland: it worries that an unpredictable super-nationalistic Poland could consider a Polexit; the European Union could not stand up to another defection from its ranks. Moreover, such fears and hopes create confusion over both Polish and Ukrainian state identity.
Polish nationalists dream of their former great state. A kind of Polish Exceptionalism emerged out of the influence of Polish Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) and Solidarity’s historical victory over the communist government in 1989. Aided by God via the Polish Pope, Poles successfully defied Soviet power. Today Poles feel they have a future historical role because of their Exceptionalism.
Poles believe their historical legacy entitles them to a major presence in Eastern Europe. And it wants its eastern lands back. Therefore Poland’s opposition to Russia and its historical legacy. In order to pursue this destiny, after the end of the Cold War Poland decided on its pro-Western course of political and military development. Poland exploits concepts of putative Exceptionalism also within the institutions of the EU and NATO in order to advance its national interests at Russia’s expense. Poland uses what it subjectively considers Russian Guilt to justify Polish Exceptionalism, thereby damaging Russia’s soft power potential. (See: Russian Guilt and Polish Exceptionalism by Andrew Korybko, August 1, 2017 for more on the above)
Stepan Bandera in the Post-War Era
In such confusion, nationalism and Nazism flourished. Men like Stepan Bandera and Adolf Hitler played major roles. During the post-war of the late 1940s and early 50s, Stepan Bandera was an immigrant in West Germany. He worked for the BND, the German Intelligence Service, and its forerunner, the Gehlen Org, a top secret organization established in a Munich suburb run by Hitler’s former intelligence chief in East Europe, General Reinhard Gehlen. Financed by the USA, the Gehlen Org was specialized in espionage and training of spies to be infiltrated into the Soviet Union. Bandera and his wife, Yaroslava, and their three children had also settled in Munich. While the Germans and Americans used Bandera only sparingly and for many he seemed forgotten, the Soviet Union had not forgotten him. Repeated attempts were reportedly made on his life. Yet Bandera remained in Munich, living under the name of Stepan Popel, still a thorn in the side of his many enemies.
On October 15th, 1959, Bandera was killed at his apartment on Kreittmayrstrasse 7 in downtown Munich, allegedly by the KGB assassin Bogdan Stashinsky. According to the police report Bandera had let his bodyguards off that day. When Stashinsky produced his cyanide gun inside a rolled-up newspaper, Bandera didn’t even draw his own gun. Shot in the face, the fifty year-old Bandera died on a third-floor landing before the ambulance arrived. A medical examination established that the cause of his death was poison by cyanide gas. On 20 October 1959, Stepan Bandera was buried in the Waldfriedhof Cemetery in Munich.
Bandera’s murder was one of the most publicized assassinations of the Cold War. In the sensational show trial in 1962 in the Federal Constitutional Court in the city of Karlsruhe, the 30-year old assassin Bogdan Stashinsky, a self-declared Soviet citizen, was both defendant as well as star witness about the “nefarious” KGB. He allegedly defected to Germany together with his wife in 1961 and after spilling the beans to the CIA was handed over to German authorities. The young man was presented as a KGB killer and spy; he confessed to having assassinated another Ukrainian émigré in the 1950s. After weeks of testimony, Stashinsky was condemned to only eight years prison. For at least two assassinations! The whole affair stank. It seemed like a false flag operation.
Some reports claimed that the Bandera faction of the OUN had been backed by British MI6 since the 1930s. In any case Banderites were associated with the CIA in the post-war for espionage in the Soviet Union. Yet American intelligence organizations too described Bandera as “extremely dangerous”, traveling around in disguise, killer, counterfeiter and political abductor. When the Bavarian government cracked down, Bandera promptly offered his services to the German BND intelligence despite CIA’s growing mistrust of him.
I fictionalized the Bandera-Stashinsky story in the political novel, The Trojan Spy, from which the following excerpts:
Truth is elusive, many-sided. In any case, a young Ukrainian KGB agent by the name of Stashinsky was later tried in Karlsruhe and convicted for the murder of Bandera with a poison spray concocted in Moscow. They said he was an agent of “Smersh”.… A Russian acronym for Death To Spies. Once a top secret NKVD organization for its wet work. For the assassination of enemies. Killers all. Maybe they wanted to enlist him. But I doubt it. One said that during the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine, Stashinsky learned enough German to pass for a German and that he was hired by the KGB already at the age of nineteen after he was caught on a train without a ticket. All unlikely. Not KGB style. He admitted he worked in Germany…. He traveled around Germany…. He had a supervisor in Berlin…. But it’s a long jump from that to Smersh. I’ve always suspected Ukrainian émigré political opponents of Bandera’s murder. Western Ukrainian émigrés were always killing Eastern Ukrainians. With German and American help. That is, if Bandera was even murdered. He might have had a heart attack. As in a fairytale the cold-blooded assassin Stashinsky allegedly repented after he saw a newsreel in an East Berlin theater of poor Bandera lying in his coffin and his wife and children weeping. Can you imagine that touching scene? Oh, the soft heart of a KGB killer! ….Unimaginable…..It’s a ridiculous story from beginning to end. Not even the stuff of mythology. Who knows what really happened? Once he got back to East Berlin the handsome young Ukrainian fell head over heels in love with a German woman … who hated the Soviet Union….When she learned Stashinsky was a KGB agent, she convinced him of the perfidy of Communism and they escaped to West Germany the day before the Wall was built. Soap opera stuff. An American story, the whole Stashinsky affair. A Reader’s Digest story. The naiveté is disgusting….
Two feature films have been made about Stepan Bandera – Assassination: An October Murder in Munich (1995) and The Undefeated (2000), both directed by Oles Yanchuk—plus a number of documentary films.