Most of Galicia’s men ended up in the UK after the Second World War. There is just a handful of real participants and eyewitnesses surviving who could answer the hard questions. Their lives are a lesson to be learned from history
“I couldn't sleep at night. One thought kept haunting me: Oh no, father served in a SS Nazi division!” The lanky fair-haired young man spoke to me with a very slight East Anglian accent. He did not understand Ukrainian, even though he introduced himself as Michael Melnyk. That day, nearly 18 years ago, he brought along a thick pile of meticulously arranged plastic pocket-size copies of documents and black-and-white photos of men wearing what were clearly Nazi WWII uniforms. “This is my father,” he said pointing to one of them.
Born in the small town of Norwich in Norfolk, Michael was one of those postwar generation representatives who had to seek on their own the answer to the question: What did my relatives do during the Second World War and why? In Michael’s case, the complicating circumstance was the fact that his father was a Ukrainian who ended up in Great Britain after the war, married a local girl, Rose, and never thought it necessary to share much about his past experiences.
Near Brody. A solemn public prayer and office for the dead on Zhbyr Hill in Yaseniv.(Біля Бродів – служба по загиблим в Ясеніві.)
The curious son could have, perhaps, fished out many memories from his father, but he lost him at the age of six. When he was about 20, Michael tried to obtain information from the few and taciturn (as it turned out) Ukrainian friends of his late father. However, he immediately grasped that it would not be easy to figure it out, because their terse stories were surprisingly complicated, especially coming from people who fought on both sides of the front and, sometimes, in three different armies. Michael also wanted to learn how it happened that his mother, a war veteran of the British Army, which fought against the Nazis, married his father and raised three children with him? He launched a search to find explanations and facts that would corroborate them.
EASY ANSWERS TO HARD QUESTIONS
At about the same time I had a chance to talk about the Galicia division with a much more experienced person, politician and the then leader of the Ukrainian socialists – Oleksandr Moroz. Under his guidance the Socialist Party of Ukraine opposed the idea of holding any official events in Ukraine on the occasion of the division’s 50th anniversary. “There is nothing to study and learn there,” Moroz said over the phone in a firm and confident voice. “They served in the Nazi army! It is enough to know this much. Hitler’s Germany was vanquished and condemned by the international community. There is no need for any further investigations.” Evidently he expressed the opinion of a larger part of the Ukrainian government and political elite.
These views are dominant in Kyiv even today. However, there is one difference as compared to the mid-1990s – there is much more information about the causes, circumstances and consequences of the Galicia division’s activities. But it is accessible largely to specialists: researchers and, perhaps, keen lay students of history. As a result, the division is still fairly often used in political and even geopolitical battles by those who would like to exploit this historical episode to stigmatize the Ukrainian nation overall.
Some historians have accused politicians of deliberately lumping the Ukrainian Riflemen in the First World War and the UPA together with the SS division in the Second World War to label the resulting mixture “fascism” without any scruples. These accusations have a loud and convincing ring to them in the perception of generations that have never been told what actually happened or why. In our time, it is a question of political battles, geopolitical goals, propaganda and historical debate, but this ideological confrontation brought about some real victims only not so long ago.
FROM THE HEIGHT OF THE 21ST CENTURY
In a spacious West London house with barely noticeable but clearly Ukrainian elements in the interior design, I once spoke with an old man named Mykhailo Shkromyda. He kindly invited me to his place and at dinner was going to tell me about the Galicia division of which he was a member to the very end, i.e., until the spring of 1945 when nearly 14,000 division members went from the Eastern Front across Austria to the Western Front to surrender to the British troops there.
When I produced a notebook and said I wanted to jot down some facts, he changed in the face and began to stutter and mumble, constantly losing track of his thoughts. I decided to put the notebook away and be simply someone to talk to rather than a journalist. I was a representative of that generation of Ukrainians who studied in Soviet schools and were not permitted to know history. What stunned me the most about the story was not even the conflict-ridden relationship between Ukrainian soldiers and the German officers in the division or not even the fact how, after the defeat near Brody in July 1944, some surviving division members deliberately stained their uniforms with blood, put their IDs on the deceased and deserted the Germans, hoping to find UPA units in the forests.
What impressed me the most was how, in the camps for displaced persons in the Western occupation zone in Austria and later in PWO camps in Italy, Galicians invented biographies for their fellow countrymen from Soviet Ukraine so that the latter could also present themselves as Western Ukrainians, who refused to be identified as Soviet citizens, and thus avoid deportation to the Stalinist USSR. Ivanenko from the Kyiv region would become Ivantsiv from a small village near Peremyshl and thus would escape the Soviet special service commissions who searched out Soviet citizens in PWO and refugee camps and transferred them directly to the NVKD and GULAG with the silent consent of indifferent Western allies.
The Galicia division, which was reformatted after the defeat near Brody and renamed the First Ukrainian Division, was composed primarily of Galicians and Ukrainians who resided in the lands that were under Poland before the war. But there were also others – Soviet Ukrainian PWOs, civilians, Ostarbeiters and former members of other military formations. In the chaos of the war, peoples` lives took unpredictable and largely tragic paths.
GALICIA DIVISION: TIMELINE
March 1943– Otto von Wächter, governor of the Galicia district, suggests to Berlin setting up a Ukrainian division to strengthen German troops on the Eastern Front and prevent young man from joining the UPA.
April 1943– recruiting starts.
October 1943 – voluntary Galicia division officially numbers 13,000 men.
June 1944– the division is dispatched to the Eastern Front.
July 1944– defeat near Brody. About 3,000 men return to the division’s ranks. The majority dies in action, while some desert and join the UPA.
November 1944– the Germans make concessions by allowing adding the words “First Ukrainian” to the official name of the division.
March 1945– Hitler learns, to his surprise, about the existence of a Ukrainian division. Enraged by the fact that German resources are spent on Ukrainians, he orders it to be disarmed, but the local command cancels his order.
April 1945– Galicia takes the new oath of allegiance to Ukraine as the First Ukrainian Division of the First Ukrainian People’s Army.
May 1945– the division leaves the Eastern Front and surrenders to the British troops in Austria.
April-June 1947– over 8,000 imprisoned division members are transferred from camps in Italy to Great Britain. Many of them emigrate to the USA and Canada.
Fall of 1948– the division members are relieved of the PWO status, but most of them obtain the right to free employment and free choice of residence in Great Britain only in 1952.
1986-87– a state commission works in Canada and finds no evidence of the division’s involvement, as a military unit, in any crimes of war. In Great Britain, a parliamentary committee and a special Scotland Yard unit investigate its activities but find no reasons to bring charges against any of the former Galicia division members.
50 years of solitude. A veteran at the world congress of the Galicia division soldiers in the mid-1990s. (50 років самотності. Ветерани на світовому конгресі дивізії Галичина в середині 90-хх)
ABOUT THE BEGINNING
The most common and simplest question division members are asked is “Did you have to serve the Germans? Didn’t you know about the inhuman essence of Hitlerism?” Critics say that thousands of less informed Ukrainians evidently made an irretrievable mistake by joining the division, while the more knowledgeable representatives of the Ukrainian elite in Galicia carry personal responsibility for the shortsighted and even malicious steps. One of the participants in negotiations with the Germans, Mykhailo Dobriansky, who also happened to live out his age in London, replied to this criticism more than once. During the war, he was one of the leaders of the Cracow-based Ukrainian Central Committee headed by the scholar Volodymyr Kubiiovych, which tried to defend the political and social interests of the Ukrainian population in the Nazi-occupied territories.
The leadership of the UCC was composed of educated and moderate intellectuals of the older generation who had the experience of political activity in pre-war Poland and with whom the revolutionary OUN, especially Stepan Bandera’s followers, could not quite cooperate. The political figures who tried to find a common language with Warsaw before the war deemed the UPA’s desperate warfare on all fronts ill-advised. Professor Kubiiovych, Dobriansky’s older comrade-in-arms, led the negotiations with the Germans, believing that Germany was about to collapse and that Europe was facing similar catastrophic changes as took place after the First World War when empires broke up and only the nations with a military force were able to form their own states.
Ukrainians lost back then, while the young Polish state at the time did not only rule over the Western Ukrainian lands but also served as an example, a painful reminder of what the Ukrainian National Republic (UNR) could have achieved. In his last conversations in the 1990s in London, Dobriansky nearly shouted, with the desperation of an old man hurrying to explain historical lessons to the next generations while he was still alive: “This was the only obvious solution at the time. The Germans were recruiting Ukrainians by force anyway.”
Germany indeed recruited Ukrainians, often times forcibly so, to various military formations in order to use them as cannon fodder in the interests of their own army. According to Dobriansky and Kubiiovych, they hoped to force the Germans to at least put Ukrainians together in one military unit. The other demands set by the UCC were rejected, except perhaps promises that the division, which was set up on the initiative and by the decisions of the Germans themselves, would have to fight on the front line and be engaged only on the Eastern Front to prevent a possible reinstatement of Stalinist Bolshevism. In the 1940s, Galicians already knew that the 21 months of Soviet government led to tens of thousands people being shot and hundreds of thousands repressed, and many realized that German occupiers were going to be replaced by their match.
Older Ukrainian politicians in Galicia were convinced that, as one anti-Ukrainian empire was fighting another one, it would be an unforgivable mistake to waste the opportunity to create a well-trained and armed Ukrainian formation. Intellectuals, who received their education in Vienna universities, believed that history clearly showed the way they had to go. They knew about the Polish legions in Napoleon’s army in the 19th century who served the French Empire in order to fight against another empire that was hostile to the Poles – Russia. They also saw that in the early 20th century, the brief existence of the UNR and the Western UNR would have been even shorter if it had not been for the Ukrainian Galician units composed of the Sich Riflemen in the Austro-Hungarian army.
But didn't the activists understand back then that if they joined the German Wehrmacht, they would forever be stained by Hitlerism? Some historians say that they had some understanding of the fact but believed that Hitler would be eventually destroyed anyway, while Ukrainians would have an increasing need for their own army in the slaughterhouse of a world war. The complicated situation in which Galicians found themselves in the German army is emphasized by Volodymyr Hotsky, a former Galicia member who published his memoirs in London. In them, he recounts how on a summer night in 1944, the Germans installed machine gunners around the division’s barracks in Noheimer and kept everyone on the inside for several days. This happened after a group of German officers made an attempt on Hitler's life in Berlin. According to Hotsky, “they didn’t know who Galicia might side with.”
There was a lack of trust between the German officers and Ukrainian soldiers in the division which is cited as one of the reasons for the defeat near Brody in July 1944. Kubiiovych wrote in the preface to one of the first books about the Galicia division: “Most German officers in the division, including its commander, refused to understand its political significance. To those who were involved in creating it – both Germans and Ukrainians, – as well as to thousands of Ukrainian soldiers, it was a Ukrainian division under German command. To most German officers, it was, however, an ordinary German division composed of Ukrainians… The failure to understand the division’s political role led to its defeat near Brody.”
Shared memories. Scattered around the world, former division members meet in Lviv.Спільні спогади. Розкидані по світу, колишні члени дивізії зібрались у Львові.
A NEW GENERATION
Until the mid-1990s, there was an almost unbreakable tradition in a Ukrainian church located in the heart of London: for Sunday services men sat to the right from the entrance. They were almost always dressed in suits complete with ties. On the right-hand side were women, some wearing bonnets. With time, their gray hair became even grayer, especially in the pews to the right where many Galicia division members sat, and the numbers of parishioners dwindled. There is just a handful of those who can share eyewitness memories of wartime events.
However, it happened that in the summer of 2011 the idea to set up a new veterans organization in England was hatched. The division members’ descendants want to join their efforts to this end.
Michael Melnyk is likely to be among them. Sons are picking up their fathers’ cause. It will not be easy, but they are able to convey their facts and opinions in a bolder and more skilful fashion.
After 15 years of dedicated research, Melnyk published an English-language book about the Galicia division. Rich in archival documents, photos and testimonies, To Battle was met with a great deal of interest by professional historians. Now Michael is considering the proposal of a German publisher to bring out an expanded version of his study. “The first book contains a mere third of the material I collected,” he says. He wants to add more personal accounts. Some tragic stories are still haunting him. History may be a lesson to people only when they know it.