Russian President Vladimir Putin must be delighted that Germans, Poles, Israelis, Ukrainians and others are suddenly in each other’s hair about a historical figure named Stepan Bandera.
Part of Putin’s web of lies is that Ukraine, a democratic country he attacked without provocation, is allegedly run by Nazis and must therefore be “de-Nazified.” This is absurd, as almost everybody understands — at least outside of Russia and the reality distortion field of Putin’s propaganda. The counter-narrative is much closer to the truth: Ukraine has become a nation of heroes and heroines fighting for their freedom.
But life is complicated, in part because there are so many ways to spin narratives. The stories we tell are about events that already happened, and the past is a veritable minefield even for well-intentioned people in the present. Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany has now stepped onto one of its explosives.
All year, Andrij Melnyk, Kyiv’s envoy to Berlin, has basked in controversy. With relish, he’s been berating Germany for coddling Russia in the past, for wallowing in naivete, for ducking responsibility, and not helping Ukraine boldly and swiftly enough. He’s made Germans squirm. And, most of the time, he’s been right.
The other day, however, he wasn’t. Melnyk was talking to Tilo Jung, the host of a provocative German webshow. Like a heat-seeking missile, Jung homed in on a historical figure the ambassador has long admired and paid public homage to.
Stepan Bandera (1909-59) was a Ukrainian ultranationalist and quasi-Fascist. He was born in Galicia, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, turned into the short-lived West Ukrainian People’s Republic, then became part of Poland, later the Soviet Union and eventually today’s Ukraine.
In the 1930s, when the region was Polish, Bandera became a leader of the radical wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. In effect, he was a partisan fighting for national independence and arranging things like the assassination of the Polish interior minister.
When Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, Bandera spotted an opportunity to push his cause. Collaborating with the Nazis, his OUN massacred their perceived national enemies — Jews, Poles and Russians — in a quest to ethnically cleanse Ukraine and prepare it for fascist statehood. Bandera was to lead this new nation, and Hitler was to be his ally. Bandera didn’t personally partake in the mass killings perpetrated in Ukraine by the Germans and their local helpers. But his underlings — presumably with his blessing — did.
On June 30, 1941, the partisans declared an independent Ukrainian state. But to their surprise, their putative patron, Hitler, decided that he didn’t want a separate country in what he viewed as the German people’s future Lebensraum. The Fuehrer had Bandera arrested and locked up in a concentration camp — albeit as a privileged prisoner in comfortable surroundings. In 1944, Bandera was released.
After the war, he made a home in Munich, where the Soviet Union’s KGB found and murdered him in 1959. This was the height of the Cold War, so the Ukrainian diaspora in the West built a hero cult around Bandera, painting him as a freedom fighter against, and victim of, the Soviets — which he was, but only in part.
After the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine became independent, the mythology around Bandera was revived, especially in western Ukraine, where Melnyk comes from. Statues and monuments went up in Bandera’s name. People marched under his banners. In recent years, however, the government has wisely distanced itself from the man and his complicated legacy.
In his interview with Jung, Melnyk dove headlong into this morass of biographical, historical and ethical ambiguity. The ambassador insisted that Bandera was a freedom fighter. He denied Bandera’s role in wartime atrocities. Sure, Melnyk conceded, times were tough. Bandera was caught between two evils, Hitler and Stalin, but his motive — Ukrainian independence — was good. People also love Robin Hood, Melnyk added, and he was a rogue, too.
It wasn’t a good showing, especially for a professional diplomat at a time when his country is at war, its enemies are calling it Nazi, and its closest allies include Poland. The Polish foreign ministry called Melnyk’s performance “absolutely inacceptable.” The Israeli embassy said that his distortions “belittle the Holocaust.”
Even Kyiv realized that something had gone badly wrong. Melnyk’s view of Bandera “does not reflect the position” of Ukraine, the foreign ministry clarified, while emphasizing how grateful it is to Poland for “its unprecedented support in the fight against Russian aggression.” There are rumors that Melnyk will be recalled to Kyiv.
Melnyk’s faux pas reminds us how treacherous the past is for all of us, as we build the fragile narratives we base our lives on. Very little that happened in human history can reliably be labelled all good or all bad. Historical figures, like most of us, were often simultaneously heroes and villains, victims and perpetrators, signers of declarations that all men are created equal and slave owners, freedom fighters and terrorists, partisans of good and of evil.
Does that mean we should cancel all our stories? No, because story-telling is part of human nature; it is inevitable. But it does mean we must approach the past with ruthless honesty, embracing all facts — the convenient and the countervailing — and surrendering to life’s ambiguity.
As we do that, we must constantly reevaluate what role the past plays in the present, which is our ward. What matters today is not who Stepan Bandera was on balance. It’s who Vladimir Putin is, what atrocities he’s committing every day, and how Ukrainians are resisting. Ukrainians have plenty of contemporary role models to choose from in their valiant struggle. They can afford to leave behind those no longer fit for purpose.