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The SS, The Holocaust, and Yaroslav Hunka
The Canadian parliament cheers a former member of the Waffen-SS and commentators race to justify it. Perhaps a history lesson is in order.
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On September 22, 2023, the Speaker of Canada’s House of Commons praised 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka as a “Ukrainian hero” who had fought Soviet troops in World War II. Shocked commentators quickly noted that the Soviet Union had been Canada’s ally in that war and that Hunka had been fighting on the side of the Nazis as a member of Waffen-SS. The fallout was swift. The Speaker apologized two days later and resigned his position soon thereafter. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued his own apology on September 27.
On October 2, British author Keir Giles penned a defense of Hunka and those who had lauded him in parliament. His article, published in POLITICO, contains a truly shocking paragraph that is worth quoting in full:
This history is complicated because fighting against the USSR at the time didn’t necessarily make you a Nazi, just someone who had an excruciating choice over which of these two terror regimes to resist. However, the idea that foreign volunteers and conscripts were being allocated to the Waffen-SS rather than the Wehrmacht on administrative rather than ideological grounds is a hard sell for audiences conditioned to believe the SS’s primary task was genocide. And simple narratives like “everybody in the SS was guilty of war crimes” are more pervasive because they’re much simpler to grasp.
Giles thus suggests that most people have been “conditioned” (that is, misled) into believing that the SS was primarily concerned with perpetrating genocide. Let me be as clear as possible: the SS was an organization primarily concerned with perpetrating genocide. Suggesting that this fact is something that people have been “conditioned” to accept is disturbingly close to Holocaust denial.
The SS was founded in 1925 as an elite security squad within the Sturmabteilung (Stormtroopers or SA), the paramilitary of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP or Nazi Party). Since I find myself defending basic, widely-accepted facts here, it is worth pointing out that the NSDAP was a party founded in exterminationist antisemitism. Its party program, adopted in 1920 and never altered, called for German Jews to be stripped of their citizenship. Already in 1919, Adolf Hitler—who became party chairman in 1920--wrote that Jews were a “race-tuberculosis of the peoples” and that the “ultimate goal must definitely be the removal of the Jews altogether.” That is, the SS was founded as an elite branch of a political party dedicated to the cause of eliminating Jews from Germany. In 1936, Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS since 1929, described the SS as an “Anti-Bolshevik Battle Organization” that would fight against the “Jewish-Bolshevik revolution of sub-humans.”
The SS quickly grew in size, from 280 in 1929 to 300,000 in 1939 and 950,000 in 1944. The organization was instrumental in the so-called Night of Long Knives of 1934, in which leading members of the SA were murdered along with some prominent conservatives. The same year, the SS assumed responsibility for all concentration camps in Germany, creating SS Death’s Head Units to staff them. In 1936, Himmler became chief of German police and began the slow process of intertwining the two organizations. In 1939, Himmler founded the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) under the leadership of his lieutenant Reinhard Heydrich. The RSHA was tasked with coordinating intelligence between the SS and the police and would soon become the central clearinghouse for planning and carrying out the Holocaust.
On September 1, 1939, World War II broke out when German forces invaded Poland. From the start, the Nazi war in Eastern Europe was a war of racial extermination. In the first years of the conflict, German officials implemented brutal policies in occupied Poland. Much of what had been Poland was annexed to Germany and sweeping plans of ethnic cleansing were initiated to Germanize these provinces. The Germans established Jewish ghettos, murdered thousands of civilians, and incarcerated thousands more in concentration camps.
When Hitler declared war on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, he did so under the auspices of General Plan East (Generalplan Ost), an ambitious project of ethnic cleansing that foresaw not only the extermination of all Jews, but also the enslavement and murder of the continent’s Slavic inhabitants. Commissioned by Himmler in 1941 and formally approved by the RSHA in 1942, the plan called for the elimination of 80-85% of Poles, 64% of Ukrainians, and 75% of Belarussians. The SS was the lynchpin of these plans. When the German army, the Wehrmacht, began its invasion of the Soviet Union, it was accompanied by four SS units called Einsatzgruppen. Aided by the Waffen-SS, auxiliary police units, and the regular army, these units murdered at least 1.5 million Jews in Eastern Europe in what has come to be known as the “Holocaust by bullets.”
On July 31, 1941, Hermann Goering, Hitler’s officially designated successor, wrote to Heydrich, empowering him to “carry out all necessary preparations with regard to organizational, substantive, and financial viewpoints for a total solution of the Jewish question.” As the great Holocaust historian Saul Friedländer argues, this letter represented Göring’s confirmation that “the Jewish question was Himmler’s domain” — that is, it was the SS that would carry out the so-called Final Solution.1 On January 20, 1942, Heydrich convened the infamous Wannsee Conference, which brought fifteen bureaucrats, politicians, and SS leaders together for the purpose of coordinating the so-called “Final Solution.” In practice, this conference “ensured,” Friedländer writes, “the exclusive authority of the SS in the implementation of the ‘Final Solution’.”2 Historians agree that the conference played a key role in ensuring the coordinated murder of the 2.7 million Jews who were killed in the six extermination camps organized and run by the SS.
In this context of genocidal war, Hitler also authorized the creation of the Waffen-SS, a specifically military branch of the SS. These units consisted not only of Germans, but also eventually of foreign nationals, some of whom volunteered and others of whom were conscripted. Its numbers grew from 100,000 to 580,000 between 1940 and 1945. Like the regular SS and the Wehrmacht, the Waffen-SS helped perpetrate the Holocaust “through their participation in mass shootings, anti-partisan warfare, and in supplying guards for Nazi concentration camps.”
The Waffen-SS’s role in perpetrating genocide, however, has not prevented the perpetuation of what historian Charles Sydnor, Jr. once termed “the myth [...] that the Waffen SS was purely a fighting force little different from the German army” (a claim that also whitewashes the Wehrmacht’s role in the Holocaust).3 “Across Europe,” historian Per Anders Rudling notes, “Waffen-SS veterans presented their organization as a pan-European, anti-Communist force, defending Western civilization from Bolshevik hordes, essentially independent of the Allgemeine SS, on which they blamed the crimes of the Nazis.”4 Sound familiar?
Moreover, despite claims to the contrary, the unit to which Hunka belonged, the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Galician), was involved in wartime murders. In 2003, the Polish Institute of National Remembrance determined that the Division had committed the Huta Pieniacka massacre, a 1944 murder of hundreds of Polish civilians. That finding was confirmed in 2005 by the Institute of History at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences.5
This brief overview of the history of the SS and the Waffen-SS should convince any good faith reader that both were, in fact, organizations whose primary aim was the perpetration of ethnic cleansing and genocide. But you don’t have to take my word for it. On October 1, 1946, the International Military Tribunal sitting in Nuremberg found the SS to be a “criminal organisation.” The court’s judgment held that “the SS was utilised for the purposes which were criminal under the Charter involving the persecution and extermination of the Jews, brutalities and killings in concentration camps, excesses in the administration of occupied territories, the administration of the slave labor programme and the mistreatment and murder of prisoners of war” and explicitly included members of the Waffen-SS in this conclusion. That judgment has been reaffirmed in countless historical studies highlighting the role of the SS in the perpetration of the Holocaust and other atrocities. The SS was a criminal organization whose raison d’être was genocide.
Giles’ assertion is of consequence not only because of the Hunka affair, but also because it is symptomatic of a growing comfort with Holocaust denial in our culture. For instance: a Holocaust denier is currently running for office in Minnesota, last year a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives described Hitler as “the kind of leader we need today,” and the conservative group Moms for Liberty quoted Hitler in a recent newsletter. A 2022 UNESCO report likewise found a disturbing rise in Holocaust denial online. For decades this sort of talk was relegated to society’s margins. The resurgence of Holocaust denial suggests that many today are eager not only to forget the murder of six million Jews, but even to praise the perpetrators. If we cannot agree that murder and genocide are beyond the pale, just what sort of a society do we have?
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Saul Friedländer, The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945 (New York: Harper, 2007), 238.
Friedländer, The Years of Extermination, 343.
Charles W. Sydnor, Jr., “The History of the SS Totenkopfdivision and the Postwar Mythology of the Waffen SS,” Central European History 6, no. 4 (December 1973): 340-341.
Per Anders Rudling, “‘They Defended Ukraine’: The 14. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (Galizische Nr. 1) Revisited,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 25, no. 3 (2012): 333.
Rudling, “‘They Defended Ukraine’,” 347.