The truth about the 98-year-old Ukrainian former Nazi is complicated
Justin Trudeau’s government has been forced to apologise to Canadian Jewish organisations, after House Speaker Anthony Rota honoured a 98-year-old war veteran — who then turned out to have fought under the Nazis.
The incident occurred following a visit to the Canadian government by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Rota called out Yaroslav Hunka, a veteran sitting in the gallery, prompting a round of applause. Then someone dug up a blog post Hunka wrote in 2011 describing his wartime service — under Hitler.
It’s easy enough to laugh and point at a politician making such a gaffe. But perhaps the lesson is that the Manichean moral lens we’ve inherited from the Second World War sheds very little light even on how people at that time understood what was afoot — let alone on contemporary conflicts.
When the Second World War broke out, Ukraine was part of Soviet Russia. In his memoir post, Hunka describes the disappearance of friends and acquaintances to Siberia at the hands of the secret police. He recounts that Germany was reputed to be a highly civilised country; no one, he recalls, understood why so many Jews seemed to be fleeing this beacon of light.
Under Soviet rule, Hunka recounts longing for aid from the “German knights” who might rescue them from tyranny. And Hitler did indeed occupy the Ukraine from 1941 onwards, where many Ukrainians — presumably including Hunka — greeted them as liberators. Hunka suggests that German occupation wasn’t as much of an improvement over the Soviet kind as they had hoped, but at least fewer people seemed to be sent to Siberia. So when faced with the threat of Soviet re-invasion, he and many others from his school enlisted to fight against their former oppressors — which meant, unavoidably, fighting under the Nazis.
If this account is true, the picture here isn’t of full-throated ideological endorsers of Nazism, but of a provincial young man between a rock and a hard place, and doing what seemed most likely to be in the interests of his people. Hindsight, though, has so thoroughly entrenched Hitler’s regime as the ne plus ultra of evil and the Second World War as so simple a binary battle of Good versus Evil, that such a tragic view has become all but impossible.
I dare say someone will call me a Nazi apologist for suggesting such a view here. Meanwhile, though, the side keenest to identify itself as inheritors of the Good that defeated Hitler’s Evil is, today, indulging in just such Nazi apologism — in the course of legitimising even ideologically unsavoury combatants in today’s Ukraine conflict.
Until Putin invaded, the Western press would periodically point out fascist elements in that country’s politics. Now Azov is on the side of the Goodies, though, Forbes blithely declares them ‘deradicalised’, as does the ADL. So that’s alright then.
None of this is to take a position on the Ukraine conflict itself, or even Azov. It’s simply to note that the crude binary lens of Absolute Good and Absolute Evil has zero interpretive value save as a crude propaganda bludgeon.
The world is often an ugly place, where sometimes there are no unambiguously good choices. The most measured way of understanding Hunka’s story would be in this light. And perhaps, whether national or international, contemporary political debates would also be less unhinged if we were willing to embrace this tragic dimension.