Traitors to the fatherland?


Posters in light-boxes in Lviv praised the SS Galicia, a Ukrainian unit that fought under Nazi Germany, as defenders of the nation against Soviet aggression. Nationalist politician Oleh Tyahnybok placed the ads.

The debate still rages over the SS Galicia, hailed by some as anti-Soviet nationalists.

They are either war criminals or national heroes, depending on who is telling their history.

In the annals of the still-heated debate over Ukraine’s tragic World War II experience, one is hard-pressed to find another 200 survivors who still stir more passions than the former members of the SS Galicia division. Their youngest known surviving member is 83 years old, but the controversy they inspire shows no sign of dying out soon.

The Nazi regiment was created in 1943. By then, the tide had already turned in favor of the Allies after Soviet troops ravaged the Nazi fighting machine in the epic Battle of Stalingrad. The racist Hitler had dropped his insistence on having only German soldiers of the “master race” go to war for him, a sign of his growing desperation.

The Ukrainians who joined the SS Galicia division – and who took battle orders from Nazi commanders – consisted of up to 20,000 men selected from 70,000 Ukrainian volunteers. Uniformed and trained by the Nazis in Germany, France and Denmark, the division won praise from Heinrich Himmler, the Gestapo chief who was one the most feared men in Europe at the time.

How could Ukrainians join such an outfit?

The most benevolent description of the motives of the men of the SS Galicia division is that they were gambling on the defeat of Nazi Germany. According to this logic, they wanted to rid Ukraine of Stalin’s Red Army and secure Western support to reclaim national independence after the war.

The harshest description is that they betrayed their nation, committed war crimes and slowed the Allied Victory.

“This is what I ask myself, what made those people volunteer?” said Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the nationalist Svoboda Party, which is currently gaining popularity in western Ukraine. “I can tell you what motivated those people. Before their eyes, the Communists destroyed their families, [and so] they didn’t care what flags they fought under against the Bolsheviks.”

Western Ukraine, and particularly the part called Halychyna or Galicia, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When the empire dissolved after World War I, Ukrainians there seized the moment to declare independence in 1918. The freedom was short-lived. The western region fell under Polish rule, making Ukrainians chafe for a liberator. In 1939, after Stalin and Hitler signed their non-aggression pact, the Soviet Army invaded – claiming they were freeing the Galicians.

Although the Soviet soldiers were initially welcomed with bread and salt by the population, Stalin-ordered repressions and murders quickly turned the lives of western Ukrainians into nightmares.

“My grandfather was buried alive in jail by NKVD [the security service] because he was a priest,” said Tyahnybok, whose party recently paid for an advertising campaign to promote the SS Galicia, or the 14th Grenadier Division Der SS Galicia (Number 1 Ukrainian), as it was officially called by the Nazis.

Tyahnybok’s party purchased 20 advertising light boards on Lviv’s streets in April, advertising the SS Galicia as “defenders of Ukraine” who fought against Communist oppression. The campaign, organized to mark the division’s 66th anniversary, triggered an explosive reaction among public and politicians. The advertisements were commissioned for a month, but taken down a day early because of public pressure.

Mykola Posivnych, a historian at the Institute of Ukraine Studies, said volunteers of the SS Galicia had complicated motives for joining the military unit, including strong financial incentives by the Nazis.

“Everybody had different motivations, but most people went there because they needed to feed their family,” Posivnych said. In exchange, newcomers to the division had to pledge an oath to Hitler to fight Bolshevism.

Ukraine was World War II’s primary battleground, with Nazis and Soviets alternating control of the territory, which was coveted for its rich fertile land and ability to feed millions. An estimated eight million Ukrainians, including four million civilians, were killed during the war. The Nazis and Soviets practiced scorched-earth policies of burning or destroying everything they could – including factories and villages – when their armies retreated.

Those in western Ukraine had few options for avoiding the ruthless armies of the dictators from the east and west. Apart from the SS Galicia, they could join the underground Ukrainian Insurgent Army – known by its UPA acronym. UPA members, the military wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, fought against all foreign enemies of Ukraine and were primarily active in the western half of the country. Their guerrilla battles against Soviet power in Ukraine continued until the 1950s, despite Soviet assassinations of their top leaders in exile abroad.

Some Ukrainians, however, thought the insurgent army’s quest was futile. SS Galicia members “thought it was impossible to fight against four enemies: Poland, Romania, Hungary and Soviet Union,” Posivnych explained. “They had to choose allies.”

The SS Galicia’s military record was mostly brief and tragic. Some believe they were used as Nazi cannon fodder. Most were killed in a major battle in the western Ukrainian town of Brody in 1944. Soviet troops so overpowered them in battle that only some 5,000 soldiers survived the encounter.

After the Battle of Brody, the remnants were scattered and many reorganized into a different military unit. After the German surrender, the SS Galicia survivors also surrendered to the Western allies and were sent to a prisoner of war camp in Rimini, Italy. Apart from Ukraine, its members later resettled in Germany, Britain, Australia, Brazil, United States and Canada.

As a part of the Nazi SS force, the division was also investigated for its potential role in mass killings of Jews and Poles and the suppression of uprisings in Slovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia and France.

Marcial Lavina, representative of Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human rights organization (, said “there are indications that [the unit] might have committed war crimes at the end of the war in Poland, but this is still being investigated.” The organization, which has doggedly pursued war criminals responsible for the Holocaust, recently gave Ukraine an “F” grade in hunting down Nazis, citing a lack of political will.

But a number of other international investigations, including one by the Canadian Commission of Inquiry on War Crimes, also known as the Deschenes Commission, and another one led by Polish historians, cleared the Ukrainian group of accusations of participation in war crimes. “Commissions justified [SS Galicia] as soldiers, meaning they did not commit crimes against humanity or terrorist acts against unarmed population. Their function was solely to fight at war,” Posivnych said.

But many Ukrainians are unconvinced. Oleksandr Feldman, a deputy from Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s bloc, said SS Galicia members were “military criminals, whom current moral freaks are trying to rehabilitate, whiten up and present as victims of historical injustice.”

Leonid Mukha, an 84-year-old resident of Mykolaiv and a former member of the division, said many myths surround the SS Galicia. He witnessed two historical tragedies that he said the SS Galicia is wrongly implicated in.

One of them was the suppression of an uprising in Warsaw, Poland, in the autumn of 1944. “The Galicia [division] did not take part in this suppression,” Mukha said. “For 63 days, the Soviet army was standing on the right side of the Warsaw, watching Germans suppress that uprising. They did nothing because it was the uprising of people they didn’t respect, the Polish nationalists.”

The other tragedy he witnessed was the May 1944 massacre of an estimated 500 to 1,200 people in the Polish village of Huta Pieniacka. “The German punishing unit, like the Russian NKVD, came into this village, the fight began and Germans destroyed the village,” Mukha said.

Ukrainian historian Posivnych said that, “regarding mass killings, there is no black and white in this case. There are more politics here than real events.” Asked whether the men of the SS Galicia were patriots or traitors, Posivnych replied: “The truth is somewhere in the middle.”

Maryna Irkliyenko


Russian troops in Warsaw after the January insurrection of 1863–1864.

After decades of harsh limits on Polish autonomy, many Poles were hopeful that the situation would improve after the 1855 coronation of Alexander II. There were indeed concessions: Martial law was lifted, an amnesty was declared for all political prisoners, a new Archbishop of Warsaw was named (the position had been vacant since 1830), and censorship was made somewhat less restrictive. In 1862 a Pole named Aleksander Wielopolski was made governor of the Polish Kingdom, in an attempt to cooperate with the aristocratic elite and marginalize more radical national separatists and democratic revolutionaries. All these attempts at conciliation failed, as patriotic demonstrations broke out in late 1861 and intensified throughout 1862. The Russians tried to suppress these protests with deadly force, but that only generated more anger among the Poles, and the unrest spread.

Wielopolski tried to quash the disturbances on the night of January 23 by organizing an emergency draft into the army targeted at the young men who had been leading the demonstrations. This, too, failed, as it prompted the national movement leaders to proclaim an uprising (which was being planned in any case). The rebels proclaimed the existence of the “Temporary National Government,” which would lead the revolt and (they hoped) pave the way for a true independent Polish government afterwards.

The “January Uprising” (as it is known in Poland) was fought primarily as a guerrilla war, with small-scale assaults against individual Russian units rather than large pitched battles (which the Poles lacked the forces to win). Over the next one and one-half years, 200,000 Poles took part in the fighting, with about 30,000 in the field at any one moment. After the revolt was crushed, thousands of Poles were sent to Siberia, hundreds were executed, and towns and villages throughout Poland were devastated by the violence. All traces of Polish autonomy were lost, and the most oppressive period of Russification began.

Leslie, R. F. (1963). Reform and Insurrection in Russian Poland, 1856–1865. London: University of London, Athlone Press.

Wandycz, Piotr. (1974). The Lands of Partitioned Poland, 1795–1918. Seattle: University of Washington Press.


Louis (Lajos) Kossuth . August Prinzhofer (1817–1885)

In spite of the failure of the various revolutionary movements in Austria in the spring of 1848, the Metternich regime could not be maintained. A constituent assembly or preliminary parliament had to be convoked by Emperor Ferdinand I even before he abdicated, on December 2, in favor of his nephew, Francis Joseph I. That assembly, meeting first in Vienna and later in Kromeriz (Kremsier) in Moravia, had to prepare a constitution for the Habsburg monarchy which would not only establish a parliamentary government and introduce social reforms but also give satisfaction to the claims of the various nationalities. Under a Polish speaker, Francis Smolka, both German and Slav deputies made a serious effort to solve these two problems. The latter, particularly the Czechs, wanted a real federalization of the empire which Palacky, in his plan of January 13, 1849, proposed to divide into eight entirely new provinces corresponding to the main ethnic groups. In order to avoid too drastic changes of the existing boundaries and the breaking up of the various historic units, the final draft of the new constitution, of March 1, attempted a compromise. Self-government was provided for each of the historic lands of the monarchy, but those which had a mixed population were to be subdivided into autonomous districts (Kreise) for each nationality. This constructive idea was never to materialize, however, and the whole “Kremsier Constitution” was abandoned when the new prime minister, Prince Felix Schwarzenberg, dissolved the assembly and returned to an absolute and centralistic form of government under German leadership.

One of the reasons for that final defeat of the Austrian revolution, even in its moderate expression, was indeed the military strength of the imperial regime. The Austrian army under Field Marshal Radetzky twice defeated the only foreign power which interfered with the internal troubles of the monarchy. This was the kingdom of Sardinia which, aiming at the unification of Italy, tried in vain to liberate the Italian populations still under Habsburg rule. But for the history of East Central Europe the second reason for the temporary victory of imperialism and absolutism is even more significant. It was not only difficult in general to reconcile the frequently conflicting claims of the various nationalities for instance, the claims of Italians and “Illyrians” (Slovenes and Croats in the maritime provinces or the claims of Poles and Ruthenians in Galicia) but any federal transformation of the empire, following ethnic lines, found an almost insurmountable obstacle in the basic opposition between the historic conception of the kingdom of Hungary and the aspirations of the non-Magyar nationalities of that kingdom which Vienna was able to play off against Budapest.

In that respect failure to arrive at an agreement was the more regrettable because the Magyars represented by far the strongest force of opposition against the central regime. Realizing this, Ferdinand I, the fourth as king of Hungary, accepted the demands of the bloodless revolution which also broke out in Hungary’s capital in the middle of March, 1848. Count Louis Batthyány became the first Hungarian prime minister and the liberal bills voted by the Hungarian Diet were approved. But the delicate issue of the relations between the new democratic kingdom and Austria, which was left in suspense, alarmed both the reactionaries in Vienna and the non-Magyar peoples of Hungary. The latter were afraid of the nationalism of the most influential Magyar leader, Louis Kossuth, a man who was favorable to social reforms but who was unprepared to recognize the equal rights of all nationalities.

Most of these were Slavs, including the Slovaks of northern Hungary—close kin of the Czechs in the Austrian part of the empire—and the Serb minority in southern Hungary looking toward the autonomous principality of Serbia on the other side of the border. But more than any other Slavs and more than the Rumanians of Transylvania, who at once protested against the incorporation of that province with Hungary and who were influenced by the rising Rumanian nationalism in the Danubian principalities, the Croats were to prove the most dangerous opponents of the Hungarian revolution. Fearing for the traditional autonomy of their kingdom if the ties with a free Hungary were to be made closer, they hoped to best serve their own national interests by siding with the imperial government in Vienna. It was therefore the Croat army, under Baron Joseph Jellachich, appointed ban of Croatia by the emperor and also ready to cooperate with the Orthodox Serbs, which was used by Austria to crush the Magyars.

Jellachich’s army was defeated when it entered Hungary in September, 1848. Even the occupation of Pest, early in 1849, by the same Prince Windisch-Graetz who had stopped the Slavic movement in Prague, and in October, 1848, another uprising in Vienna which was favorable to the Hungarians, did not put an end to the fierce resistance of the Magyars. On the contrary, equally opposed to the projects of the Kromeriz Assembly and to the centralized empire which was supposed to replace them, the Magyars, fearing that their kingdom would be made a mere province of Austria, with Transylvania and even the Serb territory (Voivodina) being separated, decided to dethrone the Habsburg dynasty, and on April 14,1849, at Debrecen, they approved a declaration of independence which was partly drafted on the American model. At the same time the parliament named Kossuth “Governing President.”

He also had to conduct the war in defense of the new republic whose establishment seemed to be a turning point in the history of East Central Europe, a first step in the direction of the complete liberation of all nations placed under foreign rule. As such it was particularly welcomed by the Poles whose friendship with the Hungarians was traditional. But in spite of that friendship the Polish leaders were fully aware of the fateful mistake which the defenders of Hungarian nationalism were making by disregarding the nationalism of the non-Magyar peoples. A reconciliation between Magyars on the one hand and Slavs and Rumanians on the other, was strongly encouraged both by Prince Czartoryski, who continued to conduct Polish diplomacy from Paris and who established relations even with Sardinia and Serbia, and by the Polish generals who participated in the Hungarian independence war.

One of them, Henryk Dembinski, was for a certain time even commander in chief of the Hungarian forces. Another, Josef Bem, a better strategist and more popular in Hungary, particularly distinguished himself in the defense of Transylvania where he tried in vain to better the relations between Magyars and Rumanians. He had to fight not only against the Austrians but also against the Russians, because after the defeat of Windisch-Graetz the emperor had asked for aid from Czar Nicholas I who had been able to prevent any revolutionary outbreak in his own realm and had stopped a liberal revolt in Rumania. The czar now was ready to offer his assistance in crushing the last and most alarming insurrection in East Central Europe.

The Polish participation in that revolution was for him a special reason for interfering since he was afraid that a Hungarian victory would also encourage the Poles to resume their struggle for independence, possibly under the same generals, and with the revolutionary movement eventually spreading from Austrian to Russian Poland. On his way to Hungary the Russian field marshal Paskevich, the same who had crushed the Polish insurrection in 1831 and now governed the former “kingdom,” took his auxiliary army through Galicia which was still restless after the troubles of 1848. The first Hungarian territory which he entered was the Ruthenian region south of the Carpathians, where among close kin of the czar’s “Little Russians” or Ukrainians—another national minority rather neglected by the Magyars—a feeling of solidarity with Russia was created on that occasion.

Attacked from two sides by superior forces, the exhausted Hungarian army, in spite of the courageous efforts of its last commander, General Arthur Görgey, had to capitulate. This took place at Világos near Arad on August 13, 1849, and all fighting ended in October when General George Klapka had to surrender the fortress of Komárom. This was at the same time the end of the whole revolutionary movement in the Habsburg Empire, and although even the Russians suggested an amnesty, the long resistance of the Hungarians was now ruthlessly punished. The victorious Austrian commander, General Julius Haynau, instituted a regime of terror which culminated in the execution of the former prime minister, Batthyány, and thirteen high officers. Kossuth had to go into exile and it was in America that he was received with special enthusiasm in 1851. But in general the Hungarian emigration was no more successful than the Polish in getting Western support for the oppressed peoples of East Central Europe.

Moreover, it was not only the Magyars who had to suffer from the new era of reaction. This was similar to the Metternich regime in its twofold trend of centralization and Germanization, which after the end of the military operations lasted for about ten years in the whole Habsburg monarchy under prime minister Alexander von Bach. After fighting on the Austrian side, even Croatia lost her former autonomy and separate diet, and the non-Magyar nationalities of Hungary proper, including the Saxons of Transylvania, were equally disappointed, the new Serb voivodina being placed under military administration.

In the Austrian part of the monarchy, all administrative and judicial reforms which had to be undertaken under pressure of the barely suppressed revolution were also aimed at a complete unification of the empire through a German bureaucracy. Contrary to the promises which had been made in March, 1849, the Bach administration, instead of a parliament, merely created a “council of state” which was composed of officials and which proved hostile to any kind of provincial self-government and particularly to the claims of all non-German nationalities. Only in Galicia was some progress made by the Poles, when after General Hammerstein’s military regime, one of them, Count Agenor Goluchowski, was made governor or viceroy of the undivided province. But even that prominent statesman was to find greater possibilities of action only in the reform period ten years later.

Immediately after the revolutionary crisis of 1848, which in East Central Europe began two years earlier and lasted one year longer than in the West, that whole region returned to a condition similar to that which prevailed after the Congress of Vienna. In the case of the Poles, that situation was even worse as far as Russian Poland and Cracow were concerned, and all stateless nationalities resented their oppression much more than ever before because of the continuous progress of their national consciousness and the high hopes which the various revolutions had raised. These revolutions having failed, it seemed that only a European war could improve their lot, especially if Western Europe would show a real interest in the freedom of all nations in opposition to the autocratic empires in the eastern part of the Continent. Nobody expressed that idea better than the Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz, who, turning from literature to political action, had tried in 1848 to create a Polish legion in Italy, as in the days of Bonaparte. He was now ready to welcome another Napoleon as a liberator and the Crimean War as an occasion for reorganizing Europe on a basis of national rights.

Gokstad Ship

 By James Grout

“So great, also, was the ornamentation of the ships, that the eyes of the beholders were dazzled, and to those looking from afar they seemed of flame rather than of wood. For if at any time the sun cast the splendour of its rays among them, the flashing of arms shone in one place, in another the flame of suspended shields. Gold shone on the prows, silver also flashed on the variously shaped ships. So great, in fact, was the magnificence of the fleet, that if its lord [Cnut] had desired to conquer any people, the ships alone would have terrified the enemy, before the warriors whom they carried joined battle at all. For who could look upon the lions of the foe, terrible with the brightness of gold, who upon the men of metal, menacing with golden face, who upon the dragons burning with pure gold, who upon the bulls on the ships threatening death, their horns shining with gold, without feeling any fear for the king of such a force?”

Encomium Emmae Reginae

With thirty-four oars on a side, the Long Serpent was exceptionally large. Only seven ships with even fifteen or more oars on a side are mentioned in the period between AD 995 and 1061. Three are described in the saga of King Olaf Trygvesson: the Long Serpent, and the Crane and the Short Serpent, both of which had fifteen oars on a side.

More representative of the Viking longship, at least in its number of oars, is the Gokstad Ship, with sixteen on a side. The finest and best preserved of the longships, it was excavated at Gokstad, near Oslo, in 1880. A thousand years before, the ship had served as a burial chamber, preserved under a barrow of impermeable blue clay. Seventy-six and a half feet long, seventeen and a half feet wide, and less than six and a half feet deep from the keel to the gunwale at midship, the keel, itself, was almost fifty-eight feet long. It is the length of the keel, in fact, that determined the size of such a ship. Constructed of a single piece of oak to ensure strength, there cannot have been too many trees that would have yielded straight timber much longer than that.

The remnants of thirty-two shields, alternately painted yellow and black, were found along each side, two for each oarport, which seems to indicate a crew of approximately the same number or possibly twice that if they rowed in shifts. Overlapping one another, the shields hung from a batten on the uppermost strake. Such a display presumably was ceremonial and decorative. Once under sail, the shields were at risk of being washed away and, while the ship was being rowed, they would have covered the oarports. The oarports were cut at the second strake of the ship, which permitted a higher freeboard than if the oars had been secured by oar locks on the gunwale and an advantage over the enemy.

There also were oars and spars, tubs and kegs for food and water, and even remnants of the woolen sail cloth, which often was interwoven to give a checkered or striped pattern. A rudder or steering board was affixed to the right side of the ship, its name providing the origin of the word “starboard.” Curiously, there were no benches (thwarts) for the oarsmen, who probably sat on their sea-chests. There were found, however, the bones of a peacock, which must have seemed exotic indeed to these Norsemen.

The Gokstad ship was built around AD 900 and represents the finest expression of a technical achievement that already had been attained by the mid-eighth century and had begun long before. Writing eight hundred years earlier, Tacitus describes in Germania the Suiones (Svear), a tribe in Sweden, as being known for their love of wealth and the strength of their fleet. “The shape of their ships differs from the normal in having a prow at both ends, which is always ready to be put in to shore.” (Much of this wealth was in gold solidi, one-ounce coins that were used by the Romans to pay mercenaries and from which the word “soldier” is derived.)

As the Gokstad ship is representative of the langskip, so the sturdy knörr (knarr) represents the hafskip (ocean ship). A merchant vessel, built for the transportation of cargo and livestock, it was shorter and broader in the beam than the longship (about fifty feet long and fifteen feet wide), with a deeper draft, and a higher freeboard to keep waves from washing over the side. Unlike the longship, which quickly could lower its mast, the knörr had a fixed mast and relied primarily on its sail. With ships such as these, the Vikings were the dominate sea power in the ninth and tenth centuries.

“Gokstad Ship” <> by James Grout, part of the Encyclopaedia Romana <>


A remarkably realistic depiction of a sea fight between two cogs, dated to c. 1300-1320 by details of the armour and the ships’ construction. The picture emphasizes the importance of shock combat as the ultimate arbiter of boarding fights, although the two archers, identifiable as English longbowmen by the size of their bows and their full draw to the ear, seem to be playing a major role in the fight.

An English fleet landing at Lisbon during the time of the Hundred Years War, from a near-contemporary illuminated manuscript. A significant function of fleets at the time was to convey important persons and delegations to their destinations, though the vagaries of wind and weather made the business an uncertain one. As usual, the medieval artist’s focus is on noble personages.

From a near-contemporary manuscript illumination depicting the 1340 battle of Sluys, vividly conveys the character of sea fights in the pre-gunpowder era: desperate contests with edged weapons;, bows and crossbows, fought out behind the dubious protection of wooden bulwarks. The exaggerated size of the combatants and the prominence of armoured men-at-arms reflects the social and military dominance in Europe of chivalric elites who excelled in shock combat. The ships are cogs.