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A Deep Dive into the Canadian Parliament's Debacle. How the Canadian Parliament's inadvertent praise

Anthony Rota, former speaker of Canada’s Parliament, has resigned due to controversy stemming from the invitation and celebration of Yaroslav Hunka during a visit from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Hunka was introduced as a veteran of the First Ukrainian Division and described as a “Canadian hero.” What seems to have been overlooked is that the First Ukrainian Division was an iteration of the SS 14th Waffen Division (Galicia Division), which operated under Nazi command during WWII. This means Hunka participated in a Nazi-affiliated military unit. What would appear to be an embarrassing and troubling mistake by the Canadian government, resulting in apologies from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has far broader implications.

Rightful condemnation to spin for various agendas flooded all forms of media. B’nai Brith Canada was among the first Jewish groups to speak out. An excerpt from their statement:

“During Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to address Canada’s House of Commons last week, Speaker Anthony Rota acknowledged 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka to demonstrate solidarity with Ukraine as it fends off Russia’s unprovoked and illegal invasion. Hunka, who immigrated to Canada after serving in the 14th Waffen SS – a Nazi unit whose members swore allegiance to Adolf Hitler during WWII – received a standing ovation from members of Parliament and senators in attendance.”

“We understand an apology is forthcoming. We expect a meaningful apology. Parliament owes an apology to all Canadians for this outrage and a detailed explanation as to how this could possibly have taken place at the centre of Canadian democracy.”

Unscrupulous sources exploited the incident to push a pro-invasion narrative. Other pro-Russian social media personalities joined the bandwagon.

Many fake or authoritarian left accounts have pushed the Ukronazi narrative to divide the left and manufacture consent for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Another angle contextualized Hunka as a 19-year-old who saw the hope of independence from Soviet rule in the German military. His unit formed in a region that was part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire before WWI. With the onset of war, the Russian Empire invaded and occupied the territory. Eventually, Russian forces relinquished control, and the Russian Empire collapsed. This led to the Polish-Ukrainian War, as Ukrainian nationalists attempted to create an independent state while Poland claimed the territory. Poland was victorious and absorbed the region into the Second Polish Republic. Nazi forces almost seized the territory early in WWII but retreated when the Soviet military began pushing into Poland. Germany and the Soviet Union used a pretext of defending ethnic minorities “whether they be German, Russian, Belarusian or Ukrainian” to justify the invasion of Poland. However, this decision had already been made during the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. Russia has used the protection of ethnic Russians as a pretext in contemporary times to justify intervention in the region ranging from Moldova to Ukraine.

The Ukrainian National Democratic Alliance (UNDO) had been the most significant nationalist group before Soviet occupation. It was a liberal, social democratic organization that worked with diverse groups, including Jewish organizations from within the political and legal framework of the Second Polish Republic. Soviet occupation led to a ban on political parties in the region, imprisonment, and deportation of Ukrainian nationalists. Ukrainian nationalists were not the only ones to face violence during Soviet occupation. Massacres against the Polish population, such as the Katyn massacre, also occurred. The radical underground Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) filled this political vacuum. It was in this setting that Taroslav Hunka was raised.

A blog post authored by Hunka in 2011 emerged entitled "My Generation." Hunka discusses his uncle's military membership in the USF and nationalism in the Urman village. Children knew about the OUN, but it was considered a secretive club. The entire section is portrayed through the eyes of a child as he refers to the Nazi military as "mystical German knights" and claims not to have understood why Jewish children fled from them. Signs of Stalin's rule over the region came in the form of citizens disappearing to Siberia and never being heard from again.

"In July 1941, the German army occupied Berezhany. We gladly welcomed the German soldiers. The people felt the thaw, knowing that there would no longer be that dreadful knock on the door in the middle of the night, and at least they would now be able to sleep peacefully."

The rest of the blog discusses his military service and returning to Ukraine in 1989.

This sentiment was echoed in another article that portrays Hunka as a teenager who was most likely unaware of what was happening in Nazi Germany but saw an opportunity to join a military force that would potentially defeat what, in his eyes, was a greater enemy, the Soviet occupation.

"Historical accounts indicate that most Ukrainians who joined the First Ukrainian Division during World War II were not motivated by a desire to assist Hitler and the Nazis in conquest and genocide. Instead, these Ukrainians saw the division as an opportunity to resist Russian imperialism and try to establish an independent Ukrainian state free from Soviet domination."

The article correctly states that the Nuremberg Tribunal did not find his unit guilty of war crimes. Instead, it portrays him as a young Ukrainian who saw an opportunity to resist Russian imperialism.

Conservative politicians have used the event to attack the Canadian Liberal Party despite their issues with antisemitism, racism, and bigotry. Pro-Russian accounts have also attacked Trudeau as most align with reactionary, conservative social politics. These accounts portray themselves as leftists while exerting their energy attacking left-of-center Western politicians and promoting reactionary Russian propaganda.

Let's start the analysis from back to front. The conservative political angle is straightforward. It's disingenuous for a Canadian or US conservative party member to express performative condemnation over this incident when they promote broad spectrums of hate ranging from anti-LGBTQ laws to Islamophobia. There isn't much need to delve into that reality, as its only purpose is to equivocate and drag others into the mud. It’s difficult to take their criticisms as anything other than political opportunism, given what they accept and promote from within their parties.

The more interesting discussion is in efforts to contextualize Hunka's role in WWII and how it is inseparable from what is happening in the world today. It's tempting to take the narrative about Hunka at face value, given Russia's current invasion of Ukraine, which was partially justified by the fallacious "denazification" argument. It is frustrating to see pro-Russian social media accounts and confused Westerners perpetuate and amplify these efforts. Still, that frustration can't be used to gloss over historical atrocities to make a modern point. Even if the depictions of him are accurate, it still gets dangerously close to historical whitewashing or, at worst, holocaust minimizing.

First, the Nuremberg Tribunal did not find the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division guilty of war crimes, but it did conclude that the entity was a criminal organization. The Canadian Jewish Congress found no hard evidence to support ongoing criminal activity with the unit, but it did find that members participated in crimes before joining the unit. The unit is tied to the Huta Pienacka, Pidkamin, and Palikrowy massacres, albeit in various forms. Historian Timothy Snyder found the majority of Poles were not killed by the Galicia Division but instead by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). The same UPA that both collaborated with and fought against Nazi forces. Ambiguity regarding the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division led the Canadian Deschênes Commission to conclude that the unit should not be condemned. It instead stated that individual members who participated in crimes supported with evidence should be held accountable. The number of qualifiers and conflicting information in this discussion should have been enough for the Canadian Parliament to choose another honoree.

There is a fine line between adding context for an honest discussion and participating in atrocity apologia. For instance, "Ukrainians in the German Armed Forces During the Second World War" begins with excerpts from "Diary of a National Hero," which satirically depicts the unintended recruitment of a Ukrainian into the Waffen SS. The paper adds context to the dichotomic representations of these individuals as freedom-fighting heroes or genocide participants. Satire aside, it highlights complexities in analysis such as cases of compulsory conscription. This kind of research is necessary but delicate. If done incorrectly, such endeavors can wander into the myth of the clean Wehrmacht territory.

The term Wehrmacht means combined military forces of Nazi Germany. The myth states that soldiers in the broader Nazi military complex had "clean hands" regarding war crimes and genocide since it was the Nazi Party and not them who created policies. In other words, they were following orders or unaware of what was happening around them. This extends to those who assisted and expressed approval of the Nazi military. While arguments about hard evidence and culpability can and should be had, the reality of collaboration for whatever reason is a closed case.

The Austria victim theory can also be applied to this scenario. The theory claims that Austrians living during Hitler's rule were all unwilling victims regardless of their participation or support of the Nazi regime. These theories and historical revisionism were used to reintegrate people into society after the war, and one cannot help but see correlations to the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division.

Another example might be the claim that Hunka saw the German military as the lesser evil, given his experiences under Soviet occupation and limited understanding of global events at the time. This was highlighted in his blog post in which he recalls wondering why Jewish children ran from Germans. The counterpoint to this perspective is the double genocide theory. Double genocide theory seeks equivocation between the holocaust and other events. Traditionally it has focused on equivocating the holocaust perpetrated by Nazi Germany and Soviet atrocities against Eastern European citizens. Use of the theory can include explicit Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy to suggest collaboration of Jewish people with the Soviet military. Double genocide theory is closely related to equivalence canard theory. The equivalence canard does very much the same by again equivocating the holocaust and atrocities committed by the Soviet Union.

The balance of acknowledging all these various factors is indeed complicated. When biased sources attempt to tip the balance one way or another, it can easily lead to misinformation, whether pro-Soviet or nationalist whitewashing. This brings us back to Hunka and how efforts to contextualize his life story might inadvertently lead to anti-Semitic narratives regardless of intent.

This controversy has been ongoing for years, whether it be memorials across the world for units that, in one way or another, collaborated with Nazi Germany or views on veterans who participated in such units. In 2021, a march of about 300 people occurred in Kyiv to honor the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division. In response to the march, President Zelensky said, "We categorically condemn any manifestation of propaganda of totalitarian regimes, particularly the National Socialist, and attempts to revise truth about World War II." Zelensky has previously denounced such events and has been targeted at others.

The Russian government has leveraged this complicated past to justify its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This is doubly insulting to Jewish people who lost their lives in historical conflict or genocide and contemporary Ukrainians fighting for their existence. Modern Russian leadership is by no means absolved of eliminationist rhetoric, which compounds the audacity of such propaganda.

Those arguing that the Canadian mishap justifies Russia's brutal invasion stand alone with this opinion. One of the first Canadian Jewish organizations to demand an apology and explanation from Canadian government leadership also made it clear that it stands with the people of Ukraine against Russian aggression.

Cursory investigation into Russia's contemporary role in Ukraine refutes false narratives of denazification. Many of the private military companies and partisans from Russia that entered Ukraine in 2014 had ultranationalist and, at times, Nazi sympathies despite Putin's claims of denazifying Ukraine. This was most recently highlighted by the Wagner Group's short-lived rebellion that brought Dimitry Utkin and Wagner's ultranationalist past into the spotlight.

Dangerous rhetoric from Russia has further complicated things. RIA news (Russian state media) published an article by Timofey Sergeystev entitled "What Russia Should Do With Ukraine." Sergeystev says, "Denazification is necessary when a significant part of the people - most likely its majority - is mastered and drawn into its politics by the Nazi regime. That is when the hypothesis "the people are good - the government is bad" does not work." Note the use of "majority" as opposed to government or soldiers. This is his thesis for how the Russian military can justify targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.

He goes on, "Denazification is a set of measures about the Nazified mass of the population, which technically cannot be directly punished as war criminals.”

"Further denazification of this mass of the population consists in re-education, which is achieved by ideological repression (suppression) of Nazi attitudes and strict censorship: not only in the political sphere but necessarily also in the sphere of culture and education."

The article explains how this denazification program cannot occur while Ukraine remains a sovereign country.

The Deputy Chairman of the Security Council for Russia and former President, Dmitry Medvedev, has echoed these sentiments. In a tweet, he referred to Ukraine as "Unterukraine," a reference to the "untermencsch" or subhuman. He described Ukrainians as "blood-sucking parasites," another anti-Semitic trope. Similarly disturbing rhetoric is easily found across Russian social media such as VK.

Use of the term Nazi can have broad meaning in the world of Russian propaganda. Contradictions about its use frequently arise. An example might be this propaganda image of the Russian ultranationalist PMC Task Force Rusich that engaged in vital battles early in the conflict. The group's leader has been photographed with Nazi flags, while its propaganda combines Banderists (Nazis in this framing) with Zionism.

From within this environment, we must condemn equivocations of atrocities committed in the past with the holocaust and not allow contextualization of complicated situations to whitewash history. The counter-balance acknowledges how misrepresented history is used today as propaganda to manufacture consent for war. This is all complicated, but what should not be is solidarity with victims of antisemitism and Ukrainians facing military invasion by Russia. As the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs stated, Hunka should not have been celebrated, but we all stand in solidarity with Ukraine in its fight against the Russian invasion. The Canadian Parliament's mistake does not somehow legitimize Russian propaganda used to justify its war. We can have honest, nuanced conversations without engaging in historical whitewashing.


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