Which country suffered the greatest WWII losses? Which country saw the most fighting during WWII? Which country fought the largest partisan independence war of WWII? Which country was to form the core of Hitler’s envisaged ‘Lebensraum’ empire? Which country gained the most territory from WWII? The answer to all these questions is – arguably - Ukraine.
For over seventy years, this central Ukrainian role in WWII has remained almost completely unrecognized. In the decades following the conflict, the outside world was preoccupied with Cold War considerations while the Soviets themselves adhered strictly to a collectivist approach. Until the collapse of the USSR, it was taboo for Communist historians to consider Ukraine’s WWII experience in isolation from the broader Soviet tragedy. Many academics still regard it as incorrect to speak of Ukraine’s WWII legacy, arguing that attempts to separate Ukraine from the rest of the Soviet Union are historically absurd. Nevertheless, the pivotal position of Ukraine as the main battlefield, chief victim, primary prize and major territorial beneficiary of WWII will cause future historians to ponder why nobody ever thought to call it ‘The Great Ukrainian War’.
Endless echoes of WWII
Anyone who wants to understand modern Ukraine must first confront the country’s staggering WWII inheritance. They must examine the many ways this monumental catastrophe changed the nation, and they must explore how Soviet-sanctioned attitudes towards WWII continue to shape people’s perceptions of what it means to be Ukrainian.
Ever since 1991, echoes of WWII have served to shackle the nation’s post-Soviet search for an inclusive national identity. Meanwhile, the totalitarian choices of WWII have continued to haunt the Ukrainian political arena and polarize the population. Pro-European voices in independent Ukraine have routinely been labelled as fascists, while sacred relics of the fight against Hitler have been brandished to justify closer contemporary ties with the Kremlin and derail efforts to distance the country from the Soviet era. The result has been a never-ending series of memory wars that have achieved nothing except to distract the nation from the far more important task of building a functioning modern state.
WWII used to promote Kremlin hybrid war
This exploitation of Ukraine’s WWII trauma reached a crescendo in 2014 when it became the central narrative underpinning the Kremlin’s hybrid war in Crimea and east Ukraine. The Russian media portrayed Ukraine’s pro-democracy Euromaidan Revolution as a ‘fascist coup’, while the interim authorities in Kyiv were depicted as the heirs to Hitler. Posters promoting separatism in Crimea offered people a straight choice between the Russian flag and the swastika, while separatist forces in east Ukraine resurrected slogans from the fight against Nazism. This propaganda proved remarkably effective. Russians who flocked to fight the Ukrainian government openly spoke of emulating their Red Army ancestors, while far-left forces across Europe raised the alarm about an alleged ‘Nazi takeover’ in Ukraine. Even the symbol adopted by Putin’s proxy forces in Ukraine was borrowed straight from WWII. The orange and black St. George’s Ribbon worn by Putin’s unidentified hybrid troops in Ukraine is closely associated with the Soviet triumph over Nazism and has been actively promoted by the Kremlin for the past decade as part of a defiant modern-day victory cult designed to counter criticism of the USSR’s own crimes against humanity.
National Remembrance and Reconciliation Day
Even before the adoption of Soviet WWII symbols by Russian-backed forces fighting in Ukraine, the continued prominence of WWII in Ukrainian political dialogue had already served to make the annual 9 May Victory Day holiday a particularly awkward celebration. While the majority of Ukrainians take great pride in the defeat of Nazism, the holiday’s close associations with the Putin regime’s efforts to rehabilitate the Soviet Union and bolster Russian patriotism made many increasingly uncomfortable. In a bid to sidestep confrontation and distance itself from Kremlin-led Victory Day triumphalism, Ukraine introduced a new holiday in 2015 – National Remembrance and Reconciliation Day. The holiday, which was marked on the immediate eve of Victory Day, came complete with a new symbol – the poppy. President Poroshenko positioned the move as part of broader efforts to leave Soviet dogmas behind and align the country with modern European traditions.
The inaugural National Remembrance and Reconciliation Day saw a range of well-attended and poignant events across Ukraine. The gigantic Motherland monument in Kyiv served as the centerpiece for the holiday, receiving a giant poppy headdress to mark the occasion. While other attempts to distance modern Ukraine from Soviet traditions have provoked considerable social tension, there was widespread support for the nod towards reconciliation inherent in the new holiday, with its overtones of national healing.
Remembering Stalin’s pact with Hitler
As well as switching the emphasis from military victory to remembrance for the victims of the conflict, the new holiday also pointedly referred to the dates of the conflict as 1939-45. This represents a complete departure from the Soviet practice of whitewashing Stalin’s 1939-41 alliance with Hitler and reducing the timeframe of the war to the 1941-45 conflict between the two competing totalitarian systems. Soviet histories generally chose to ignore the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the subsequent Soviet invasions of eastern Poland (today’s western Ukraine), Finland and the Baltic states. Instead, the Stalin regime was depicted as a victim of unprovoked Nazi aggression, while Ukrainians who collaborated with the invading Germans or fought both Nazi and Soviet forces were condemned as fascists and traitors.
The reality of the choices facing WWII-era Ukrainians is far more complex than this black-and-white portrayal would suggest. Prior to the onset of Hitler’s Soviet invasion, Red Army forces in the newly occupied west of Ukraine had conducted a two-year reign of terror, executing thousands and deporting tens of thousands more. Meanwhile, the rest of Ukraine was still recovering from the 1930s Holodomor terror famine, an entirely manmade atrocity that claimed the lives of three to five million rural Ukrainians. When viewed in this contemporary context, it is hardly surprising that portions of the Ukrainian population at the time may have viewed the invading Germans as the lesser of two evils, or seen the totalitarian clash as an opportunity to create their own state.
Epicenter of 20th century totalitarianism
Ukraine’s 2015 decision to focus national WWII memorial events on the victims reflects a growing understanding of the country’s role as a hostage to the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin. In future years, this emerging perspective may yet evolve into a coherent narrative for the whole period, with Ukraine positioned at the epicenter of the entire totalitarian epoch of European history. Both Hitler and Stalin committed many of their worst crimes against humanity in Ukraine, leaving wounds that have yet to heal and changing the entire makeup of the country. The death toll will never be satisfactorily calculated, but between the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the death of Stalin in 1953, perhaps as many as fifteen to twenty million Ukrainians perished as a result of Nazi and Soviet crimes.
The scale of Ukrainian suffering in the first half of the 20th century defies comprehension, but this unrivalled totalitarian tragedy holds the key to understanding the challenges facing today’s Ukraine. The introduction of 2015’s National Remembrance and Reconciliation Day represented an important step along the road to national recovery, but far greater recognition of Ukraine’s totalitarian suffering is required before genuine closure can be achieved.