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IN Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, the German military cemetery holds the remains of many thousands of German and Austrian POWs from both the first and second world wars who died in captivity, as well as downed airmen who died on British soil.
It includes senior officers from the Waffen SS, including General Maximilian von Herff, a key figure in the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Apart from the simply historically inquisitive, it occasionally attracts the unwanted modern pilgrims of Hitlerism, who come to lay wreaths and shout “Sieg heil” over the silent graveyard.
In one part of the cemetery a small plaque reads: “In everlasting memory of Ukrainian soldiers who rest here in peace.” Sure enough, several tombstones are engraved with unmistakably Ukrainian names.
This memorial commemorates the deaths in Britain of former members of the 14th Galizia SS Volunteer Division, a force idolised by the neofascist right in Ukraine today. The story of how they ended up on British soil is one that is worth retelling.
In late April 1943, in the aftermath of the Soviet victory at Stalingrad and the heavy losses inflicted upon the nazi war machine, Waffen SS chief Heinrich Himmler approved the creation of the Galizia Division.
It was to be recruited from anti-Soviet Ukrainians from around the Lvov district of western Ukraine.
With strong Polish roots and with a substantial Jewish population, Lvov was part of the region of Galicia that fell under Austrian rule in 1772, when the city was known by its Germanic name of Lemberg.
The choice of the name Galizia for the SS division was to emphasise Germanic rather than Slavic claims to the territory.
Nazi collaborators justified their adherence to the Third Reich in terms of anti-communism and by a reactionary racial conception of Europe, which embraced the Ukrainians but excluded the “Asiatic” Russians and, of course, Jews.
For example, following the announcement of the Galizia Division’s formation, Volodymyr Kubiyovych, head of the Ukrainian Central Committee in nazi-occupied Krakow, wrote: “Today, for Ukrainians in Galicia, is a very historic day, because in today’s Act of State one of the most coveted wishes of the Ukrainian people is realised — to fight against Bolshevism with weapons in our hands… This wish was the result of the deeper conviction, that it is our duty not to stay neutral in the great fight for building the new European order, and what we can do for the victory of the new Europe… This historic day was made possible by the conditions to create a worthy opportunity for the Ukrainians of Galicia, to fight arm in arm with the heroic German soldiers of the army and the Waffen-SS against Bolshevism, your and our deadly enemy. We thank you from our heart. Of course we ought to thank the Great Fuehrer of the united Europe for recognising our participation in the war, that he approved your initiative and agreed to the creation of the Galicia division.”
Further evidence that the Galizia division was not fighting for Ukrainian interests is that during the formal ceremony on August 29 1943 to establish the SS division, the Ukrainian volunteers made the following oath: “I swear before God this holy oath, that in the battle against Bolshevism, I will give absolute obedience to the commander in chief of the German armed forces Adolf Hitler, and as a brave soldier I will always be prepared to lay down my life for this oath.”
By May 1944, after several months of training and nazi political indoctrination, the Galizia Division reached its full strength of 15,229 personnel and was soon thrown into battle against the Red Army’s 1st Ukrainian Front.
The result was hardly heroic. In the decisive battle of Brody in July 1944, the Galizia Division was decimated.
Only 3,500 Ukrainian SS stormtroopers escaped encirclement out of the 11,000 committed to battle.
With the tide turning against them, the increasingly desperate nazis rebuilt the Galizia Division.
A reconstituted force, bolstered by Ukrainian military police units and other militias, was deployed in the Slovak national uprising in September 1944, where numerous atrocities against civilians and Slovakian partisans were committed.
As the Red Army rumbled through central Europe, the Galizia Division retreated into Yugoslavia and then Austria.
With the Third Reich in its final death throes, in March 1945 the division was hastily renamed the First Division of the Ukrainian National Army, but as the Swedish historian Per Anders Rudling has pointed out: “On 28 April 1945, nine days before the surrender of the division to the British and Americans in Austria, the division’s journal Do Boiu!/Zum Kampf! still carried the SS symbol, the Siegrunen, and the subtitle Ukrainian military journal of the Grenadier Division of the Waffen-SS in its letterhead. It carried a large tribute to SS-Brigadenfuehrer Fritz Freitag on his 51st birthday and an article about the struggle of the German capital and enthusiastic accounts about how ‘the forces of Bandera’ and the UPA [Ukrainian Insurgent Army] fought the Judeocommunist intruders.”
The captured Ukrainians were kept first in Austria and then transferred to the Italian resort town of Rimini.
Britain and the US turned down requests by the Soviet Union to have the prisoners repatriated on the grounds that they had been born in pre-war Poland so the Yalta agreements on prisoner exchanges did not apply.
The truth was that with the cold war well under way Britain was unwilling to hand over a potential military ally to face Soviet justice.
In April 1947, the Attlee Cabinet took the decision to transfer the Galizia Division to Britain.
Whereas in Italy its members were designated as surrendered enemy personnel, Britain reclassified them as prisoners of war.
During May and June of 1947, 8,570 Ukrainians were transported by sea from Venice to Britain.
Instead of a thorough investigation for probable links to war crimes, the Galizia Division veterans were admitted with only peremptory screening.
After a few months in detention camps, where the Cannock Chase Ukrainians died, the majority were freed into civilian life.
Many emigrated to other parts of the empire and in particular Canada, where a large number of post-war Ukrainian emigres settled, but others settled permanently and played a major role in the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain (AUGB).
Today the AUGB still proudly proclaims that among its incorporated organisations is the Association of Former Combatants, effectively the British wing of the Brotherhood of Former Soldiers of the First Ukrainian Division of the Ukrainian National Army, formed in 1949 in West Germany.
Following a 2001 TV documentary and a press exposé in the Daily Mail, of all places, the AUGB wrote letters of complaint to the Press Complaints Commission on what it viewed as hostile coverage of these Ukrainian “former combatants.”
The AUGB claimed implausibly that the Galizia Division “volunteers were neither pro-nazi, nor sympathetic to the nazi cause.
Members of the division believed that the impending defeat of Germany would be followed by a war between Stalin and the West in which they, having received formal combat training and equipment from the nazis, would be able to defend their homeland, Ukraine, against Stalin’s Red Army and Soviet partisans.” The PCC rejected the AUGB’s claims.
Today, the AUGB continues to promote the causes of the Ukrainian collaborationist right. Its website and those of its associated uniformed Ukrainian Youth Association (CYM) promote such events as volleyball, folk dancing, five-a-side football matches alongside a “Requiem for General Roman Shukhevych,” the infamous nazi collaborator and a commander of the genocidal Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA).
Many of the events are held at the private CYM camp in Weston-on-Trent in Derbyshire.
Each year it organises what it calls in English “Ukraine Remembrance Day.” However, a more direct translation from Ukrainian is “Heroes Day.” No prizes for guessing what kind of “heroes” are celebrated here.
Indeed in 2012, the CYM adopted a resolution at its summer camp: “The participants of the Youth Association’s summer camp, named in honour of the heroes of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, found out this week that the president of Ukraine had signed the disgraceful language Bill. In 13 administrative regions and in Kyiv itself, Russian-speaking citizens can demand that Russian should be an official regional language. This is the first step to adopting Russian as the second official language of Ukraine.”
The diplomatic, financial, organisational and ideological role of right-wing emigre organisations in Ukrainian since the collapse of the Soviet Union has largely been underplayed, but the continuity between them and the defeated and exiled collaborationist forces of WWII is undeniable.
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