Ukrainian Official Changes Tune on 'Unacceptable' March Honoring SS Unit

'I'm sure that the absolute majority of Ukrainians do not support it,' writes the director of Ukraine's Institute for National Memory, marking a small, but significant, shift in Kyiv’s approach

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Ukrainian nationalists carry emblems of the so-called 1st Galician Division during a commemorating march in Kyiv, Ukraine, last week.
Ukrainian nationalists carry emblems of the so-called 1st Galician Division during a commemorating march in Kyiv, Ukraine, last week.Credit: Efrem Lukatsky,AP

The head of a Ukrainian government body long known for its work rehabilitating the images of Holocaust collaborators condemned an ultranationalist march in memory of a Ukrainian SS unit last week, marking a small, if significant, change in Kyiv’s approach to the seamier aspects of its national history.

Around 300 people paraded through the Ukrainian capital last Wednesday to mark the 78th anniversary of the establishment of the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, also known as the 1st Galician, a German unit implicated in crimes against humanity. Many of the division’s troops were members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a group which is celebrated in contemporary Ukraine for its anti-Soviet activities.

The Kyiv march was an import from the western city of Lviv, which for several years has hosted such events. It was held just under four months after an annual parade celebrating the 112th birthday of OUN leader Stepan Bandera. According to historians, Bandera’s followers engaged in a wide-ranging campaign of ethnic cleansing against Jews and Poles during the World War II.

In a statement on Facebook, Dr. Anton Drobovych, the director of Institute for National Memory, spoke out harshly against the march, dismissing its participants as “marginal” and out of step with Ukrainian public opinion. 

“Glorification of SS troops is unacceptable for a European country and I'm sure that the absolute majority of Ukrainians do not support it,” he wrote, adding that he believed the group ought to be the subject of academic scrutiny and not “black and white simplifications.”

Drobovych’s condemnation constitutes a stark departure from the institute’s approach under his predecessor Volodymyr Viatrovych, who defended the legality of the SS division’s symbols and declined to condemn marches in their honor.

Viatrovych’s comments were the subject of a 2018 lawsuit brought by the Kyiv-based Ukrainian Jewish Committee, an advocacy group critical of government’s national memory policies. The suit, which was ultimately dismissed, alleged that Viatrovych, in his capacity as a civil servant, violated Ukrainian law by defending the legality of the 1st Galician’s symbols.

In 2015, the Ukrainian parliament passed a bundle of bills which prohibited the denigration of groups like the OUN and proscribed a variety of communist and Nazi symbols, although not that of the 1st Galician.

Between then and Viatrovych’s ouster in 2019, the institute engaged in a wide-ranging campaign to rehabilitate the reputations of various 20th century ultranationalist movements and figures, bringing it into repeated conflict with local Jews, Holocaust historians and the state of Israel. 

Drobovych, a former senior figure at the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, has promised to tone down such efforts. But the government has continued to memorialize figures seen as problematic by Jews, including members of various Ukrainian auxiliary police units established by the Germans.

President Vlodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, also decried the marches. “We categorically condemn any manifestation of propaganda of totalitarian regimes, in particular the National Socialist, and attempts to revise truth about World War II,” he said Friday in a statement.

“This shameful march was just another round in a series of similar marches in Western Ukraine taking place in recent years. They have never been condemned by Ukrainian authorities, except this one,” Ukrainian Jewish Committee director Eduard Dolinsky told Haaretz on Tuesday.

“Ukraine condemned the march after statements by the German ambassador and the Israeli [foreign ministry]. This is the first condemnation from President Zelensky of such [a] march. [At] the same time, Ukrainian officials support glorification of Nazi collaborators, many of whom took part in Holocaust.”

JTA contributed to this report.