What was the 14th SS Division “Galicia” and Why does it Matter?
On April 28th, a march and celebration took place in Lvov (“Lviv”), Ukraine in “honor” of the 71st anniversary of the 14th SS Division, a “military” formation which ceased to exist 69 years ago. Between five hundred and three thousand people attended the march. These included a handful of Ukrainian SS veterans and a large number of contemporary Rightists, but it also included a surprising number of Ukrainian politicians from the “respectable” political Parties and various Ukrainian notables, as well as Fascists from throughout Europe.
By now, this celebration has become something of a tradition. Pretty Ukrainian girls with traditional folk dress and strong young Ukrainian men (many of whom would soon head off to Odessa or Donetsk), carried the Divisional crest of the 14th. Patriotic chants filled the air, “One nation; one people; one blood” (the “one leader” portion of the old slogan was omitted) and mixed-in were local slogans from the epicenter of Ukrainian nationalism, “The people of Lvov are the strongest”. Alternately, the mood was patriotic and light hearted. Who could object to such a scene?
It turns out that some could. An ever growing number of “anti-fascist” demonstrators (this year, of the same magnitude as the march) marred the event with shouts of “Nazis”. In Germany, a minor controversy blew up about the involvement of the Konrad Adenauer Institute, the think-tank of Angela Merkel’s political party, with the march and with its organizers. In some circles it was reported that the march was directly connected to attacks on Soviet veterans, some in their 90s, at several war cemeteries and wreath laying ceremonies. Some even implied that the marchers were an extremist fringe.
Of course, this was all nonsense. As speakers explained at the Stepan Bandera monument, the terminus of the march, the 14th SS Division was a unit of Ukrainian patriots whose entire history had been altered by the KGB. They had never sworn an oath to Adolf Hitler, not a single “atrocity” had ever been proven against them, and they were themselves a monument to Ukrainian bravery, prowess in battle, and “nationalism”. To reject them was to reject the “minutemen” of the Ukrainian nation. How could a nation exist without a history, without symbols, without a Civic Religion, and without heroes?
And as far as a “fringe” charge went, the political parties which sponsored the march might have gotten less than 10% of the vote nationwide but they had gotten over 40% of the vote in the region centered on Lvov. In that same region, over 70% now viewed Bandera, the Father of Ukrainian Fascism, positively versus 7% for the regions of the ignorant Russians in the Southeast. In Kiev, the power of Ukrainian Nationalism had grown steadily even as the economy declined and the “competing” visions of the “respectable” politicians had proven to be nothing other than confusion, incompetence, and personal corruption.
As their own power waned, the adoption by the major Parties of the symbols and myths of Lvov had been remarkable. Why even Bandera and many others had been rehabilitated and brought back to legitimacy… until all of that progess was reversed by that crook, Yanukovych.
With his ouster had come the support of the West and real power for the first time… ever. All that was now needed was a little subtlety and patience.
In 1977, a Ukrainian émigré named John Demjanjuk was accused of being a war criminal – specifically, the notorious guard, “Ivan the Terrible”, at the Treblinka Extermination camp during WWII.
In the US, finding Nazi war criminals who immigrated to the US on false pretenses is much like finding acorns under an oak tree. It is not rare. What distinguished this case was the ferocity with which a part the Ukrainian-American community (including most of the official ethnic Ukrainian orgnazitions) resisted Demjanjuk’s extradition to Israel. They insisted that all of the evidence associated, not just with Demjanjuk, but with Ukrainian participation or complicity in the Holocaust had been a fabrication of the KGB – intended to undermine Ukrainian nationalism.
In 1977 such a claim was still shocking and became even more so as several reporters dug into attitudes in at least a portion of this community. What emerged was a very broadly shared narrative on events which was a form of what would later be called “holocaust denial”: of marauding Jews and communists, of sub-human Russians, of the wholesale exaggeration of justifiable revenge, of victims who had been forced to cooperate, of the continued victimization of the brave and the pure, and so on…
This is the first time that I heard about the 14th SS Division. The division was iconic to the Ukrainian national story and, though it quickly passed from my memory, I remembered one thing.
It was a catechism of sorts, repeated each time that the Division specifically came up and sometimes in connection with the larger role of “Ukrainian Nationalism” in the war: They were patriots, they were brave and fearless, the Soviets were the bigger enemy, they never swore an oath to Hitler, no claim of atrocities was ever proven…
Sometimes the sequence is different but not the substance.
Thirty five years later, in the context of the current Ukrainian crisis, I heard the exact same words uttered in a television interview by a representative of the US-based Ukrainian National Association. A small variation on that same catechism was printed in the Kiev Post, on the occasion of the recent anniversary of the 14th. Searching on the simple words of that catechism produces hundreds of results.
It didn’t make any sense.
Why drag the bloody corpse of the SS out of its grave? Why invent and memorize a set of words, intended to whitewash the SS? Was there nobody else who Ukranian Fascists could look to for national “pride”?
The answer is no.
Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine had never really been a modern nation state. The two exceptions were as a proxy “states” of sorts during the First and Second World Wars, both times under German Occupation and both times in opposition to the Russian Revolution.
When the current Ukrainian Crisis began, the Western Press first ignored and then started calling the Ukrainian Svoboda Party and the Right Sector, “ultra-nationalists”.
What was wrong with the Press? They were talking about Nazis. These Nazis even staged their events on the same streets, in the same costume ensembles, with the same symbols (with perhaps only a few less lightning bolts and a few more lions). They were as faithful a remake of the original as their dedication could create.
And then, it came to me that the press was right. The men in the yellow and black armbands were “nationalists”.
Ukrainian nationalism IS Nazism today, and any possibility that it could have been anything else is long dead. The wartime collaboration of Lvov is now the iconography of Kiev.
Of course, it isn’t just the Ukraine. There are other new “nations” with a similar evolution. Behind them, there is the support and the cash of old Europe, finally willing to demonstrate in reality the answer to the age old question, “How could it have happened?”
But, what can Ukrainian Fascism do? As a young man wearing a yellow and black stylized wolfs angel armband (which has become the symbol of the Ukrainian right and is somewhat less well known but equivalent to the swastika in Nazi symbolism) said in the Maidan recently, “How can we abandon our heroes? Without them, there is no nation.”
But, we have strayed from our story…
The SS (Schutzstaffel) was the private security apparatus of the Nazi Party during Hitler’s Reich. In addition to encompassing a vast empire of police units, concentration camp staff, the Gestapo, and Intelligence organizations, the SS also included a military component called the Waffen SS. During the course of the Third Reich, this private army within an army grew from 300 to nearly 1 million men, entirely separate from the German State and owing allegiance only to Adolf Hitler.
There is a mythology to the Waffen SS which argues that it was an elite military formation, standing apart from the atrocities and brutality for which the larger SS became infamous. This is simply a bold-faced lie. The Waffen SS as a whole was branded a “criminal organization” at the Nuremburg tribunals and there is not a single one of its subunits which at one time or another was not engaged in the butchery of civilians which distinguished that organization.
More, only the 5 original SS Divisions (the 1st, growing out of Hitler’s own bodyguard; the 2nd recruited from the original SS paramilitaries; the 3rd or Totenkopf – “Death’s Head” – recruited from Concentration Camp guards; the 4th or “Police” Division recruited from the SS police; and the 5th, recruited from Scandinavian and Dutch/Belgian Nazis) plus a few others, of the thirty-eight SS Divisions which would eventually be created, had primarily a military role. The remainder were mostly used for the anti-partisan and “security” roles in the rear-areas of the occupied territories. As German manpower became scarce during the war, many of these were recruited from the occupied territories themselves and were of dubious “racial purity”.
By 1942, military reverses on the Eastern Front and intensified partisan warfare in the German occupied territories of the Soviet Union, caused Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, to consider forming a division of Ukrainian “volunteers” from the Western portion of the Ukraine. This segment of the Ukraine had originally been part of Austro-Hungary, had been the center of the abortive “national movement” led by German officers while occupied during the First World War and had also been the center of opposition to the Soviets during the Civil War.
Himmler began to extol the virtues of the “Galicians”, the administrative region of the Austrian Empire which had encompassed West Ukraine. According to Himmler, the Galicians had been properly “Germanized” over their long history of Imperial rule (he once said that they had become “well trained dogs”).
In vain did the SS governor of Galicia,Wachter, advocate for the establishment of an openly “Ukrainian” formation in order to take advantage of Ukrainian anti-communism. Himmler rejected this out of hand. Ukrainians were “sub-human” and acknowledging any such connection would have led to the unit’s instant rejection by Hitler himself. From that moment to the very end, 14th SS Division “Ukrainische” became the 14th SS Division “Galizien”. No mention of the Ukraine or Ukrainians was allowed.
The Division was authorized in March of 1943 and in addition to German officers seconded from other SS formations, Ukrainian speaking former officers and NCOs from the Polish and Austro-Hungarian armies were reactivated. In addition, a total of nearly 80,000 Ukrainian recruits came forward within a matter of weeks. This last surprised the Germans until it was learned that the UPA, Stepan Bandera’s anti-communist partisan army (which supposedly fought “both the Soviets and the Germans”), had ordered many of its fighters, including senior officers, into the SS 14th.
By July of 1943, 13,000 of the original 80,000 Ukrainian recruits were accepted into the 14th SS. The remainder were organized into SS “Police” battalions for security services behind the lines and as a replacement pool for the 14th SS Division.
It is important to understand that Himmler’s SS Ordnungspolizai was not responsible for issuing parking tickets. In the occupied territories, they were integral to the Nazi “Final Solution”. Not only were these police units one of the two main sources of recruitment for the unspeakable Einsatzgruppen but they were responsible on their own account for over 1 million murders of civilians in the East.
The connection of the Ukrainian “National Movement” to the SS Police is little spoken of, even as the white-wash of units such as 14th SS has proceeded without restraint. To the SS staff, however, the 14th SS Division “Galizien” was always seen as an extension of the “police system” and the first senior German officers of the division were career SS police officers from the notorious 4th SS “Polizei” Division. Finally, when the 14th SS Division was crushed in July 1944, in its one and only experience with serious combat, its ranks were refilled with 8000 replacements from these very same Ukrainian “police battalions”.
To return, the 14th SS went into training near Debica, Poland in the fall of 1943. The Division was indifferently equipped, the German officers never failed to show their contempt for the sub-humans they were charged with, any “national” sentiment was unceremoniously dismissed and morale was reported as “very low”.
In late winter and spring of 1944, the Division was employed in “anti-partisan” operations behind the front (on which more will be reported later) and then it was finally sent to the front in July though it was generally thought to be “unready”. The Division instantly found itself in the path of one of the preliminaries to the huge Soviet Summer offensive of 1944 and was immediately forced back and encircled in the town of Brody – ironically near the Western Ukrainian city of Lvov. The “Brody Pocket” was quickly crushed and less than 3000 Ukrainian survivors of the original 13,000 made it back to German lines.
There is a prosperous cottage industry in the Western Ukraine and in the U.S. émigré communities of the Mid-West based on lionizing the “heroic” military exploits of the 14th in the “Battle of Brody” but it is almost entirely fiction.
This was the 14th SS Division Galizien’s single real combat experience and it was destroyed nearly instantly. Very few military decorations were presented to the organization and only a single Knight’s Cross – though the SS typically lavished medals on Waffen formations, including even those populated by the “lesser races”. Soviet dispatches barely mention the events.
In August of 1944, the Division was refilled with 8000 replacements from the Ukrainian SS police battalions and was reformed in Slovakia. Here, the Division was employed to help crush a major Slovak uprising (on which more will be said) before being sent to Slovenia in early 1945 to fight partisans – the real specialty of the unit.
In March of 1945, Hitler finally discovered that the unit had been recruited from Ukrainians and not “Galicians” and ordered it immediately disbanded. Hasty negotiations with Himmler led to the compromise of handing it over to the re-formed “Ukrainian National Army”, now rebadged as the 1st Ukrainian Division. But this was only a paper exercise. The war ended two weeks later.
The Division (at a strength of nearly 14,000) surrendered to the British near Radstadt on May 8 and once again used the “Galician” fiction (and the intervention of MI6) to avoid being repatriated back to the Soviet Union. Over 7000 “veterans” were allowed to immigrate to the UK and 1500 to Canada. Some of these and many of the remainder eventually ended up in the US.
And that’s the story…
This is a miserable history indeed, compared to the build-up in our introduction.
Militarily, the 14th was a third rate formation, despised by those who organized it, and with poor morale. It was only at the Front for one month out of the 2 years of its existence, where it was unceremoniously crushed. It was then re-formed out of even more dubious human material than the original. Finally, it surrendered.
This is not exactly the stuff of monuments and parades.
But this is only the beginning. What the 14th did when it was not fighting the Russian Army is the real heart of our story.
Our narrative will continue with Part II…
This was written by Anaxarchos and is reposted with permission.