Be wary of faulty Nachtigall lessons

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March 27, 2008, 1:11 a.m. | Op-ed — by Editorial
We should not trust Ukrainian scholars more than other scholars. We should look for the truth, plain and simple, painful or not. r 2007 that someone at Yad Vashem had raised the old accusations against Nachtigall. I understood the consensus of Holocaust specialists to be that, although some soldiers of the battalion participated in the pogrom in Lviv in July 1941, the unit as a whole did not. In fact, it was well known that the soldiers of Nachtigall enjoyed a week’s furlough after the city was taken on June 30.

In the wake of Yad Vashem’s accusations, Nachtigall’s reputation was vigorously defended in the Ukrainian press by a historian of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), Volodymyr Viatrovych. Using material in the public domain, he carefully traced the origin of the accusations against Nachtigall to a Soviet attempt to discredit the Adenauer government in Germany in 1959.

Later, the State Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) cited newly declassified documents confirming that Soviet agentura was behind the entire campaign and demonstrating that Soviet organs were unable to locate any genuine evidence of Nachtigall’s participation in the pogrom. Next, Viatrovych, together with the head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, Ihor Yukhnovskiy, traveled to Yad Vashem and demanded to see the documents that allegedly demonstrated Nachtigall’s guilt. Yad Vashem was, of course, unable to produce any proofs of the original claim, and Nachtigall as a unit has been vindicated.

There are lessons that Yad Vashem should draw from this episode. The uncritical resurrection of allegations that had already been questioned by leading scholars of the Holocaust indicates a lapse in professionalism and suggests a prejudice beclouding scholarly objectivity. Certainly, this incident has not contributed positively to Yad Vashem’s efforts to promote Holocaust awareness in Ukraine.

On the other hand, reading the Ukrainian press, I cannot help but be struck by notes of misplaced triumphalism and some unwarranted conclusions people seem to be drawing from this episode.

The reason Yad Vashem raised the Nachtigall issue in the first place was because it objected to the Ukrainian government’s honoring of Nachtigall’s Ukrainian commander, Roman Shukhevych, who later became the commander­in­chief of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). Some have misinterpreted the vindication of Nachtigall to be the same as the exoneration of Shukhevych of crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, that is not possible.

Shukhevych commanded UPA at the time that it committed mass murders of Polish civilians in Volyn and Halychyna in 1943­44. To my knowledge, no Ukrainian historian has challenged that fact. Ukrainian historians of a nationalist perspective have argued that the Poles started the conflict and they have argued that UPA mainly aimed to make the Polish intruders flee Ukrainian territory, but they have been unable to deny that UPA wiped out entire Polish villages. The evidence for these atrocities can even be found in collections of archival documents edited by pro­UPA historians in Ukraine.

Furthermore, the vindication of Nachtigall does not mean that Shukhevych was not complicit in the Holocaust. In 1942, Shukhevych and most of the soldiers of the former Nachtigall served in Schutzmannschaft Battalion 201 in Belarus. No one has specifically studied the activities of Schuma 201 in relation to the destruction of the Jewish population. But we do know that the Germans routinely used the Schuma battalions in Belarus both to fight partisans and to murder Jews. This is a topic that should have been investigated before Shukhevych was named Hero of Ukraine.

The exoneration of Nachtigall from participation in the Lviv pogrom is not, as some seem to think, the same as the exoneration of OUN from participation in the Lviv pogrom. In fact, there is considerable evidence pointing to OUN involvement in the wave of pogroms that encompassed western Ukraine as the Germans advanced into Soviet territory.

Among the newly declassified documents cited by the SBU in support of Nachtigall’s innocence is one that purports to be a chronicle of OUN activities from March to September 1941 entitled, “To the Beginning of the Book of Facts.” According to this document, the Gestapo on July 4 to 7, 1941 invited Ukrainian nationalists to stage a three­day pogrom, but OUN forbade its members to participate, since they considered this “a German provocation to compromise Ukrainians by (participation in) pogroms.”

This document is very fishy. The Lviv pogrom started on June 30, 1941 and the Germans put an end to it on July 2. So why does the document refer to a German invitation to commence a pogrom days after it had already taken place? The reason is that this account was prepared years after the pogrom actually occurred.

The Ukrainian Embassy was kind enough to send me a scanned copy of the first three pages of the document. On page 3, the document states that the Gestapo arrested Yaroslav Stetsko and thousands of other activists and kept them “throughout the war in prisons and concentration camps.” This shows that the document was prepared in 1944 or later. The question is: Why did the OUN prepare this post­factum record and what was it meant to replace? The answer is surely connected with an order of OUN's leadership from October 1943 to compile a documentary record showing that Germans, not Ukrainians, were responsible for the pogroms.

Finally, although the Nachtigall episode reflects badly on Yad Vashem, that does not mean Jewish scholars, or anyone else, should “consider Ukrainian scholarship ... as a more reliable and objective record of events....” (Editorial, “Trust Ukraine Scholars,” Kyiv Post, March 13). Ukrainian scholars have no monopoly on truth, and Yad Vashem does not have the monopoly on misleading and distorted presentations of history.

Even the hero of the Nachtigall incident, Viatrovych, has written a very one­sided book on OUN’s attitude towards the Jews. In it, Viatrovych manages to exonerate the OUN of charges of anti­Semitism and complicity in the Holocaust only by employing a series of highly dubious procedures: rejecting sources that compromise the OUN, accepting uncritically censored sources emanating from emigre OUN circles, failing to recognize anti­Semitism in OUN texts, limiting the source base to official OUN proclamations and decisions, excluding Jewish memoirs, refusing to consider contextual and comparative factors, failing to consult German document collections, and ignoring the mass of historical monographs on the subject written in English and German.

We should not trust Ukrainian scholars more than other scholars. We should look for the truth, plain and simple, painful or not.

John­Paul Himka is professor of Ukrainian, and East European history at the University of Alberta. He is currently researching the topic “Ukrainians and the Holocaust in History and Memory.”
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