The Galician Division 1943-45

Image of The Galician Division 1943-45: Ukrainian Volunteers and Conscripts in the Waffen SS
Release Date: 
April 5, 2023
Fonthill Media
Reviewed by: 

"This isn't an objective interpretation after all, but one bent on proving Ukrainian innocence, even to the extent of defending Nazis as simply fodder for a sensation-seeking media mill."

David McCormack is clear about his mission in The Galician Division: "the purpose of this book has been to produce an honest and objective appraisal of a group of people who, when faced with oppression and the possibility of destruction, temporarily sided with one despotic regime in order to be free from another."

He has certainly done a lot of research as the bibliography attests, along with ample citations throughout the book. McCormack starts by explaining why and how units of Ukrainian soldiers came to fight with the Germans. Even as he does so, however, he lays out his cards clearly, making a reader wonder how "objective" this history will be.

"The Galician Division was forged by political and military necessity. Today, strong emotions concerning its wartime activities are still in evidence, and former members of the division have been pilloried by academics, commentators, and the mainstream media. The accusations and criticisms appear to follow a general pattern: former membership of the Waffen-SS is regarded as sufficient evidence to establish guilt by association in various war crimes and criminal acts. There has been little attempt (and in some cases none at all) to understand the German military culture that shaped the division and which formed the basis of its operations against irregular forces in Slovakia and Slovenia."

The German military culture? That's the issue here? The Ukrainians were swept off their feet, impressed by German military might, as was the rest of Europe?

There's a clear argument to be made that the Ukrainians saw the Soviets as the real enemy, which is why they were willing to fight with the Nazis. The same is true of the Finns, and nobody accuses them now of being Nazis. Countries bordering the Soviet Union were all too keenly aware where the real threat lay, and nobody would argue that would be reason enough to ally with Germany.

However, and this is a big however, there were also shared values, which McCormack briefly admits: "collaboration with the Nazi authorities took on many forms in Galicia, but during the early stages of the occupation it was their shared hatred of Jews and Communists that set the agenda. Jews were regarded as being 'collectively linked with Soviet communism' and as such it was believed that the NKVD was dominated by them. In the days following the entry of German forces into L'viv, mobs of civilians and hastily recruited Ukrainian militiamen chased down Jews and marched them to the NKVD prisons where they were forced to exhume the bodies of those killed by their alleged Soviet allies."

And then, of course, they were killed themselves. So McCormack does admit that Jews were zealously murdered by Ukrainians. He later allows the same for Poles, another people despised by the Ukrainians. But these sections are short and sandwiched between much longer sections arguing that the Ukrainians were basically just following orders, put into impossible positions, and treated like second-class soldiers. All of which is probably true, but doesn't mitigate the crimes they did take part in.

The bulk of the pages detail poor German leadership and the Ukrainian drive to fight Bolshevism, all meant to convince the reader that these soldiers were actually fighting for a noble cause, the impulse to create their own country free from Soviet domination. Part of this narrative is clearly meant to serve the events happening today, to show the historical division between Ukraine and Russia and to defend against Putin's accusations that the Ukrainian government is led by Nazis. In this, McCormack does make a good point. Where he falls down is when he takes specific atrocities and argues how circumstantial the evidence is against this specific division. That kind of nitpicking is beside the point. As part of the German military, the Ukrainians surely did commit war crimes or at the very least aided in their commission. McCormack allows this but puts the responsibility squarely on the Germans for their brutal culture.

"The vortex of unlimited violence into which the previously untested Ukrainian troops were plunged cannot have failed to have brutalised them to some extent. Their role may have been 'marginal,' as Snyder asserted, but that does not mean it was insignificant."

Certainly, after the war, the Ukrainians were protected by their status as anti-communists, as McCormack describes. They were welcomed into England and the United States as refugees when Jewish survivors were still kept out. But then many high-level Nazis were welcomed as well, so long as they had scientific skills to offer (Werner von Braun, among others). So they weren't painted as Nazis until quite recently as part of the justification for Russia's invasion of Ukraine. In that sense, McCormack is right to defend them, but he veers into dangerous territory at the end of his book by offering a blanket defense of Germans and their allies.

"The persistent negative perceptions of both Germans and those who fought in Hitler's foreign legions are due to a number of factors including envy of German economic strength, the legacy of the Second World War, the Holocaust, and British post-war decline. All of the above factors will ensure that the public's appetite for sensationalist stories about Nazi Germany and those who made common cause with Hitler will remain for some time to come."

This isn't an objective interpretation after all, but one bent on proving Ukrainian innocence, even to the extent of defending Nazis as simply fodder for a sensation-seeking media mill. There may be evidence for McCormack's views, but he undercuts himself with his clear partisanship. As much as people want to root for the Ukrainians now, that doesn't excuse bad history writing.