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A modern historian’s view on Ukraine in WWII


Professor Yury SHAPOVAL, Ph.D., a prominent Ukrainian historian, presents his own view of some of the WWII pivotal events, which to a greater or lesser extent affected Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union.


In fourteen years of independence there have occurred a lot of profound and conspicuous changes in Ukraine, in its political and economic structures, and in the private life of her citizens as well. Some of the changes were less conspicuous, but important nevertheless. Among other things, a new look at and new analysis of the Ukrainian history were and are needed. The soviet interpretation of history in general, and Ukraine’s history in particular, was badly affected by the soviet ideological precepts. History was rewritten and adapted to the soviet views on how things should have been rather than what they actually were. The history of the Second World War and Ukraine’s place in it need to be re-examined, available facts to be studied more thoroughly, and suppressed facts to be revealed.

Let me begin with two events that give “the Ukrainian colouring” to the whole of the Second World War. On March 15 1939, the Hungarian army invaded the Carpathian Ukraine, which had just declared its independence. In blood, death and despair, Zakarpattya was joined to Hungary. And on September 2 1945, Kuzma Derevyanko, a young soviet general of Ukrainian descent, signed the Act of Capitulation of Japan on behalf of the Soviet government. The capitulation act was signed by US, Soviet and Japanese representatives on board of the US battleship Missouri.

These two events begin and conclude the infernal history of WWII. It is often said that the devastating and merciless hurricane of war swept across Ukraine two times — first from west to east, and then from east to west. It was on the battlefields of Ukraine that about 60 percent of the Wermacht (Germany’s armed forces) divisions were deployed and almost half of the Red Army divisions. It was in Ukraine that many battles of strategic importance were fought. It was from Ukraine that the Red Army troops marched into Central Europe and the Balkans in pursuit of the retreating Nazi forces. Ukrainians themselves showed that they knew how to fight the enemy well.

In Hitler’s plans, Ukraine occupied a special place. In fact, in working out these plans, the capture of Ukraine was a priority. In Joseph Stalin’s strategic plans, Ukraine was always given a special consideration. The soviet dictator never forgot that the Ukrainians had sought independence (it took the soviets a lot of effort to deal with Ukraine’s bid for independence in 1917–1920) and he fiercely and brutally suppressed any signs of Ukrainian striving for independence; as a matter of fact, event vague hints at such signs were harshly dealt with. Ukraine was doomed to be subjected to ruinous pressure by the two totalitarian powers — Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Once Ukraine became a bone of contention between them, it brought her devastation and death.

On August 22 1939, Hitler, speaking at a meeting of top commanders of Germany’s armed forces, said, “In the fall of 1939, I decided to go along with Stalin… Stalin and I are the only ones who look only into the future. In the next few days I’ll meet Stalin at the German-Soviet border and together we will begin to divide the world between ourselves.” And on August 23, as is well known, the notorious “Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact” was signed. The two dictators, Stalin and Hitler, divided Europe, and each of them tried to make sure that their interests would be served. But neither of them saw Ukraine as an independent state. The Polish government, before the partition of Poland in September of 1939, had not thought in terms of independent Ukraine either (western parts of Ukraine were, at that time, under Poland’s dominion — tr.). Back in 1939, the minister for foreign affairs of Poland suggested to Hermann Goering, one of the leaders of Nazi Germany, that the Carpathian Ukraine should be joined to Hungary. And here comes the irony of history — a year later, after this suggestion was made, Poland itself fell victim to Germany; the predator and the victim had both shown disrespect to Ukraine.

On September 17 1939, sixteen days later after Germany had invaded Poland in the west, the Soviet Union entered the war — its troops attacked Poland from the east, entering western Ukraine and western Belarus. The Red Army was in Lviv on September 22, and the German army took Warsaw on September 27. The soviet propaganda trumpeted the soviet “success,” calling it “liberation,” “the golden days” for western Ukraine, and “the fraternal reunion of the Ukrainian lands.” These soviet propagandistic cliches are repeated even today. Attempts to repudiate such claims, which should have been discarded long time ago, continue to provoke certain circles in Ukraine and particularly in Russia into loud protestations and lamentations. “Stalin was the one who united the Ukrainian lands!” “The Red Army troops were welcomed in western Ukraine with flowers!” — such and similar soviet falsehoods are repeated all over again. But they cannot be used as facts for assessment of the perfidious acts of the two dictators who divided between themselves the enormous territories stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and from Finland to Bessarabia, into spheres of influence.

Stalin, “the father of the soviet nations,” as he was servilely and obsequiously called, was not the one “who united Ukrainian lands.” He planned, as the recently discovered documents unequivocally show, to continue to destroy all the Ukrainian nationalist organizations and to “liquidate” all the Ukrainian patriots (“Ukrainian bourgeois nationalists” in the soviet parlance — tr.), and to create a strategic base in the western Ukrainian lands for launching massive strikes against Germany.

The soviet invasion of eastern Poland that followed the signing of the Soviet-Nazi pact, was, from the point of view of international law, a blatant act of aggression which violated a number of international agreements. September of 1939 was not “golden” — it was of the red-and-black colour (the soviet flag was red, and the Nazi flag was red too, with a white circle in the centre, and the swastika inside the circle — tr.). The Soviet Union was as much an aggressor as Nazi Germany was.

Both the Polish patriots and the Ukrainian patriots fell victim to the two aggressors in that “golden September.” Less than three months after the invasion, in December 1939, preparations for the deportations of a great many of those whom the soviets regarded as “unreliable” or “hostile elements” in the occupied western regions of Ukraine and Belarus, were under way. They were to be deported to distant northern and eastern parts of the Soviet Union. The deportations began in February 1940; among the deported were people of Polish descent too. In the second round of deportations, in April 1940, the relatives of the deported in the first round were rounded up and deported too. June 1940 and May and June of 1941 saw two other major waves of deportations. All in all, about 320,000 people were deported. It has never been established how many of them died on their way to the places they were deported to (deportees were transported in freight trains — tr.), how many died in prisons, or how many were executed by firing squads on trumped-up charges. Besides, thousands of prisoners and Polish POWs were executed shortly after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.

The German invasion affectively terminated all the Soviet-Nazi agreements and pacts. Ukraine, among other Soviet “republics”, was hit the hardest. The soviets tried to evacuate all the equipment from factories and plants they could from Ukraine to the eastern regions of the Soviet Union. A great number of people were also evacuated. It is estimated that about three and a half million Ukrainians and 550 factories and plants were evacuated from Ukraine as the German forces pushed into the Ukrainian territory. The soviet communist party leaders and the soviet government ordered the local authorities in Ukraine to destroy everything that could not be evacuated — lathes and other industrial equipment at factories; agricultural machinery; stored grain and food, and the crops in the fields. The special directives of the Council of People’s Commissars and of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, issued on June 29 1941, detailed what had to be destroyed. Joseph Stalin, in his address to the nation, broadcast on July 3 1941 (his first such address since the beginning of the war — tr.) spoke, among other things, of these “scorched earth” measures, and a July 22 special decree of the State Defence Committee and other documents provided “the scorched earth” instructions.

In writing about the events of the war in later times, the soviet historians did mention this “scorched earth” policy, but they were not allowed to write about excesses, which occurred when this policy was carried out. As a matter of fact, in some areas, people tried to prevent the implementation of this policy, as the total destruction of agricultural machinery and implements, of stored grain, vegetables and food would doom the local population that could not be evacuated, to starvation. It is high time we started writing about the horrible crimes and atrocities perpetrated by the soviet regime against the soviet citizens rather than only about the crimes against humanity committed by the Nazis. The people of Ukraine who survived the war knew only too well about suffering that had been caused by both the Soviets and the Nazis.

The struggle against Nazi Germany came to be called in the Soviet Union “the Great Patriotic War.” An article, written by Omelyan Yaroslavsky, a servile academician, and published in Pravda (“the central organ” of the soviet communist party — tr.) on June 23, that is one day after the outbreak of the war, was called “The Great Patriotic War of the Soviet People.” Ever since, it was the only reference to the war that the Soviet Union fought against Nazi Germany, used in the soviet media and in books.

But the events that unfolded after June 22 cast some doubt on whether the war could actually be called “patriotic”; “the legendary enthusiasm” all the soviet people were putting into their war effort, “the monolithic support” of the civil population given to the defence of “the socialist Fatherland,” and other slogans of Soviet propaganda should also be viewed with reservation. The Ukrainian society of those times was split into three basic groups: those who, for several reasons (including those who did it because of their convictions), joined the Red Army; those who did not want the return of the communists and joined the open struggle against them; and those — “the silent majority” — who were prepared or forced to get adjusted either to the Soviet or Nazi totalitarianism.

It was Stalin himself who at a reception on June 25 1945, pronouncing a toast, said, “Our government has made quite a few mistakes; we had moments of desperate situations in 1941 and in 1942 when our army was retreating, and leaving the places, so dear to us — villages and towns of Ukraine, Byelorussia, Moldavia, Leningrad Oblast, the Karelo-Finskaya [Autonomous] Republic — leaving because there was no other way but to retreat. Some other nation could have told its government, ‘You have not lived up to our expectations, go away, we’ll choose another government that will conclude a peace treaty with Germany and will give us peace.’ ”

The soviet society was terrorized and disunited, and because of that a considerable number of people had hopes and expectations that the invading Germans would do away with the Bolshevik tyranny. At the early stages of the war, not only the peasants of Halychyna in western Ukraine, as it is often said and written, hoped that the Germans would liberate them from the communists, but also the peasants of the Land of Kyivshchyna in the heart of Ukraine entertained the same hopes. In his reminiscences, Demyan Korotchenko, a former secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine, said that early in the war, “the absolute majority of the civil population of Ukraine did not want to struggle against the Germans but rather tried in every possible way to adjust to the new regime of [German] invaders.”

The war split the Ukrainian society. There were some people, who in the words of the Ukrainian poet, Pavlo Tychyna, would say,

“We’ll win because on our side are

The truth, and strength and Stalin

in the Kremlin,”

and those who clearly realized that neither Berlin nor Moscow would have given freedom to Ukraine. It was this realization that led to the proclamation of the reestablishment of local self-government in Ukraine by the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) activists on June 30, shortly after the German troops entered Lviv. The local government that was set up, was headed by Yaroslav Stetsko. It was not an isolated act of allegiance to Germany performed by a group of Ukrainian nationalists who wanted independence of Ukraine so much that they were prepared to collaborate with the invaders in order to achieve it — the proclamation reflected the situation in the Ukrainian society at that time. The Ukrainians are often described as having many phobias, but there was never a phobia of having their own statehood.

Now let’s go back to what Stalin said on June 25 1945: “…Some other nation could have told its government, ‘You have not lived up to our expectations, go away, we’ll choose another government that will conclude a peace treaty with Germany and will give us peace. But the Russian people did not do that because they believed in the policy of their government and made the supreme sacrifice in order to bring about the defeat of Germany. And this trust of the Russian people in the Soviet government turned out to be the decisive force that made the historic victory over fascism, the enemy of mankind, possible. Let’s thank the Russian people for that! [Let’s drink] to the health of the Russian people and this trust of theirs!”

The official figures of Ukraine’s losses in the war come up to ten million people, with the whole of the Soviet Union losing twenty-seven million. Among them were people of various ethnic backgrounds — but the soviet dictator emphasized the role of only the Russian people. It did not bode well for all the other peoples and ethnic groups that lived in the Soviet Union. Ukrainians were among those who had to watch out — the soviet government did not trust the Ukrainians who had stayed in Ukraine during the years of German occupation. Further, anger was caused by the armed resistance that the soviets encountered in the western land of Ukraine to their power where the soviets were regarded as an occupying force. This resistance continued from 1944 up to the mid-fifties.

In January 1944, Stalin addressed a sitting of the Politburo of the communist party with a speech entitled: “About Anti-Leninist Mistakes and Nationalistic Perversions in the Film Directed by the Ukrainian Film Director and Writer Oleksandr Dovzhenko Ukraine in Fire.” The film was more than just severely criticized — it was branded “an anti-Soviet work” and called “a flagrant manifestation of nationalism and of petty nationalistic narrow-mindedness.” It was taken as a go-ahead for still another wide-scale anti-Ukrainian campaign, which was launched right after the war.

During the war, there were two holocausts perpetrated in Ukraine. One holocaust aimed at the total extermination of the Jews, and the other at the extermination of people of Slavic backgrounds — Ukrainians, Russians, Poles and Byelorussians. The Nazis planned to build a huge extermination centre, Totenberg, close to Kyiv, on the bank of the Dnipro River. It never got built, but there were many other “extermination centres” — concentration camps set up all over Ukraine. Many Ukrainians were herded into concentration camps outside Ukraine as well.

One of such Ukrainians was the father of the current Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko, Andriy. Andriy Yuschenko was put in the concentration camp at Auschwiz, known better under its Polish name Oswiecim. Over four million people were “exterminated” in this concentration camp. The Red Army troops took the town of Oswiecim and the camp on January 27 1945. In January 1945 General Vasyl Petrenko, Hero of the Soviet Union, commanded the 107th Rifle Division of the 60th Army of the 1st Ukrainian Front (Army Group). He said in reminiscences that his division was to take the town of Neuburp, six kilometers away from the site of the concentration camp, about which he did not know anything at that time. “When in November 1944 the military operation to seize Silesia was being planned, Stalin kept emphasizing that the most important thing was to preserve the industrial potential of hat region because it would be of great use for the country in the future. Not a word was said about people, about the inmates of concentration camps… And Moscow did know about the concentration camp at Oswiecim…”


Photos have been provided

by Head of the National Association

of Photo Artists of Ukraine,

Honored Art Worker,



At the opening of the Crimea Conference between
President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill
and Generalissimo Stalin in Yalta, February 4 1945.


The monument to those Who Have Given Their Lives
for the Independence of Ukraine in the town of Morshyn.


German officers in Kyiv at Askoldova Mohyla (Askold’s Tomb), 1941.





Horrifying glimpses in Nazi concentration camps.


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