A number of high-profile controversies related to the SS Waffen Division Galicia have recently emerged, including a major governmental flap in Ottawa, a more private one in Philadelphia, and a number of others, including the posthumous withdrawal of national honors. But the issues underlying all of these controversies are the same. They relate to the question of whether any membership or association with the Division should be treated as toxic.

In reaction to the Yaroslav Hunka episode in the Canadian Parliament, the editorial board of one of Canada’s leading newspapers, the Globe and Mail of Toronto, wrote in its Sept. 27, 2023, editorial: “All Canadians should be clear on one simple fact: anyone who enlisted in the Galicia division, whatever their motivation, was consciously siding with the Nazi regime. That is a morally reprehensible and indefensible act, even if not a war crime in the formal sense.” 


The editorial later went on to conclude: “If the last few days have made anything clear, it’s that Canada suffers from a lack of historical memory, not too much.”

However laudable such sentiments may be, the problem with the Globe and Mail’s self-imputed historical memory is that it is fundamentally distorted. It is distorted becausewith respect to Eastern Europe, it rests on historical illiteracy that leads to decontextualization and producescaricatures rather than a credible version of actualhistorical events. 

The historical context

Between 1914 and 1950, parts or all of Ukrainian territories were invaded and occupied by more than 10 different armies; during this same period of foreign invasions and occupation, demographers estimate that over 15 million inhabitants of Ukraine were killed. That’s like during that same period the US being invaded andhaving 40 million killed or Canada being invaded andhaving 3-4 million killed.


During that same period from 1914 to 1950, Ukrainians were stateless, except for a precarious period of several years in the wake of World War I. At different times their territories were occupied by different foreign powers, andthey were at a huge disadvantage in terms of being able,whether individually or collectively as a nation, to protect themselves against the whole range of depredations to which they were subjected – from discrimination, oppression and forced assimilation (under Polish rule) to genocidal policies (the Holodomor, along with multiple other mass terror actions) or enslavement, whether under Soviet or German occupation.

Repeatedly renewing the same allegations every several decades does not confer any new weight upon them, except perhaps as time passes for those who now know little history.

And even during peacetime, Western governments were simply oblivious or indifferent to what was happening in Ukraine. For example, after Walter Duranty of the New York Times had lied about what was going on in Ukraineduring the Holodomor, when more than four million Ukrainians were purposefully starved to death by the Soviets, the United States decided to grant the Soviet Union diplomatic recognition in the fall of 1933, the sameyear of the greatest number of Holodomor deaths.


Towards the end of World War I, the Austrian government, whose empire included western Ukraine, allowed the Ukrainians in the Austrian army to form a Ukrainian unit, which was named the Sich Riflemen. After the Austro-Hungarian Empire exhausted itself and fell apart in 1917, the Sich Riflemen became the best trained and best disciplined military force that fought for an independent Ukraine from 1918 to 1920.

Two and a half decades later, in 1943, Nazi Germany, by then desperate for additional manpower for the Eastern Front, agreed to the creation of a Ukrainian military unit with Ukrainian officers to be made up of Ukrainians fromGalicia, the Ukrainian region that prior to World War I hadbeen ruled by Austria for some 150 years. They were promised full military training and equipment and received it.  

The German occupation of Ukraine, regardless of region, was equally genocidal for any and all of Ukraine’s Jewish population. The German treatment of non-Jewish Ukrainians throughout most of Ukraine, the area formerly ruled by the Soviets and before them by the Russian Empire, was contemptuous (the sign put up by the Germans on the Kyiv ballet theater stated “No Ukrainians or dogs admitted”) and marked by murderous brutality. But at least initially, the German occupation of Galicia was less so, a contributing factor toward the possibility of forming a Ukrainian military unit in the German army in 1943.


The Galicia Division

The Germans attached the Galicia Division to the Waffen SS. The Waffen SS was the armed branch of the SS (Waffen means “weapons”) used for combat. This was done not because Ukrainians wanted to be attached to the Waffen SS but because Germans did not allow non-Germans to be part of the Wehrmacht, the regular German army. And as historian Myroslav Shkandrij explains in his recent volume In the Maelstrom, the Galicia Division was formally known as the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS. The designation “of the SS” was used to distinguish it from the full-fledged SS Divisions, which could only be composed of Germans or persons considered to be Germanic. Ukrainians as Slavs, whom the Germans considered Untermenschen or subhuman, obviously fell outside that barrier.


As my parents and other relatives told me – all of whom lived in Lviv during the war, and none of whom had any relationship to the Division – the public discussion in Galicia in 1943 was that at all costs Ukraine needed some kind of military force. The thinking was that if Nazi Germany and the Soviets were to exhaust themselves fighting each other, Ukrainians would have to have somemeans of defending themselves against renewed attempts to subjugate them, as the Sich Riflemen had sought to defend Ukrainians after World War I. To accomplish that, the nucleus of an army was essential.

So many of the men who volunteered for the Division saw themselves as doing something patriotic vis-à-vis Ukraine, particularly since they would be fighting against what was perceived to be Ukraine’s greatest enemy, the Soviets. Some others may have joined out of a sense of self-preservation. 

In 1943, individual Ukrainian men had four options for the purpose of trying to survive the fiercely contested war going on around them. Simply hiding under a bed would not work. The four options were: 1) being dragooned into slave labor by the Germans; 2) waiting until the Red Army arrived and then being conscripted for cannon fodder intounits of “black jackets” (any and all remaining men in Ukraine in 1943-44 between the ages of 18 and 60 (mainly peasants who during Soviet times were issued black vests for farm labor) were forced by the Soviets to charge German positions without training, uniforms or arms); 3) joining the Ukrainian underground in the forests; or 4) joining an organized military unit to be armed and trained by the Germans to fight the Soviets.


As a stateless nation and as members of a stateless nation facing unforgiving options, Ukrainians during World War II sought an escape from powerlessness, whether in the Division or in the Ukrainian underground. 

The 13,000 volunteers in the Division did indeed receive military training and arms. In the summer of 1944, 10,000 were sent into battle against the Red Army near the Ukrainian town of Brody. Most of them, 7,000, were killed or captured. After being reconstituted, the Division was used in some anti-guerilla actions in Slovakia and ultimately, in the spring of 1945, surrendered to the British in Italy.

Results of investigations

The statement by the editorial board of the Globe and Mailbetrays a kind of historical illiteracy in two different respects. For the reasons explained above, it betrays a near total ignorance of the Ukrainian historical context prior to and during World War II. But the statement alsobetrays a second type historical ignorance, one that relates to prior efforts to denounce the Division and the previously considered judgements in response to those efforts, which were made by relevant officials in the UKand in Canada.  

In 1950, the Canadian Jewish Congress objected to the decision to allow members of the Division to immigrate to Canada from the UK. This prompted Canada to seek clarification from the UK as to who and what the Division had been and what it had done. The British Foreign Office provided the following response:

“While in Italy these men were screened by Soviet and British missions and neither then nor subsequently has any evidence been brought to light which would suggest that any of them fought against the Western Allies or engaged in crimes against humanity. Their behavior since they came to this country has been good and they have never indicated in any way that they are infected with any traces of Nazi ideology…

“From the reports of the special mission set up by the War Office to screen these men, it seems clear that they volunteered to fight against the Red Army from nationalistic motives which were given greater impetus by the behavior of the Soviet authorities during their earlier occupation of the Western Ukraine after the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Although Communist propaganda has constantly attempted to depict these, like so many other refugees, as ‘quislings’ and ‘war criminals’ it is interesting to note that no specific charges of war crimes have been made by the Soviets or any other Government against any member of this group.”

There is no record of anyone having provided any evidence to the contrary of the above assessment, and then some members of the Division immigrated to Canada (and the United States) in the 1950s.  

Without anything having changed in the interim as regards evidence of wrongdoing, some three decades later in the 1980s, Simon Wiesenthal and his Nazi-hunting group in Canada made a number of wild accusations about therepurportedly being hundreds or thousands of war criminals in Canada, among them the former members of the Division. This prompted the Canadian government to form the Commission of Inquiry on War Criminality and appointed retired Justice Jules Deschenes to conduct an inquiry into the charges and to issue a report.

In December 1986, after two years of investigative work, the Deschenes Commission issued a lengthy report. The Commission reported, among other things, that from a listprovided by Wiesenthal of 217 former members of the Division who had impliedly engaged in objectionable behavior and allegedly were in Canada, a list which had then independently and concurrently been investigated both by the Commission and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), neither the Commission nor the RCMP were able to locate or confirm any of the allegations.  

Most of the persons on the Wiesenthal list, 86 percent, had never set foot in Canada; others had died or were persons against whom there was no “prima facie case.” This prompted the Commission to report: “It is obvious that the list of 217 officers of the Galicia Division furnished by Mr. Wiesenthal was nearly totally useless and put the Canadian government, through the RCMP and this Commission, to a considerable amount of purposeless work.”

After engaging in a series of legal analyses, the Commission reached the following highlighted conclusions:

56. The Galicia Division… should not be indicted as a group.

57. The members of the Galicia Division were individually screened for security purposes before admission to Canada.

58. Charges of war crimes against members of the Galicia Division have never been substantiated, either in 1950 when they were first preferred, or in 1984 when they were renewed, or before this Commission.

59. Further, in the absence of evidence of participation in or knowledge of specific war crimes, mere membership in the Galicia Division is insufficient to justify prosecutions.

Repeatedly renewing the same allegations every several decades does not confer any new weight upon them, except perhaps as time passes for those who now know little history. And just as there was no new credible evidence of war criminality by the Division between 1950 and the 1980s, there has not been any between the 1986 Deschenes Commission Report and this year’s renewed controversies.

In the early 1950s, US Senator Joseph R. McCarthy launched a campaign to purge the government and centers of influence such as the entertainment industry of communist agents and influence. His campaign has long been viewed with justifiable opprobrium. However, thatdoes not mean there had not been any agents of Soviet influence in the US; rather, that McCarthy’s campaign wasindiscriminate. He traded in guilt by association and guilt by insinuation.

Statements such as those made by the Globe and Mail’seditorial board betray historical ignorance in the two waysalready explained above. They also bear some resemblance to McCarthyism insofar as they impute guilt by association and insinuation. That should not be the trade of an important media outlet such as the Globe and Mail.

Bohdan Vitvitsky has written and presented on legal, historical and philosophical subjects. He is a retired US federal prosecutor and former diplomat. He served as a Resident Legal Advisor at the US Embassy in Kyiv in 2007-2009 and as Special Advisor to Ukraine’s Prosecutor General in 2016-2017. He holds a Juris Doctor and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University.


The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

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Comments (2)

David McCormack
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Excellent article that highlights the continuing demonisation of the Galician Division for political ends. David McCormack (author of 'The Galician Division 1943-45: Ukrainian Conscripts and Volunteers in the Waffen SS'

L Luciuk
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Good article. Most of the documentation cited can be found in "Operation Payback: Soviet Disinformation and Alleged Nazi War Criminals in North America," (Kingston: Kashtan Press, 2022).