Nazi symbols on the front lines of Ukraine highlight the thorny issues of history

KYIV, Ukraine – After Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Ukrainian government and NATO allies posted and then quietly deleted three seemingly innocuous photos from their social media accounts. and an emergency worker posing in front of the truck.

In each photo, the uniformed Ukrainians wore patches bearing symbols popularized by Nazi Germany and which have since become part of the iconography of far-right hate groups.

The photos and their erasures highlight the Ukrainian military’s complicated relationship with Nazi imagery, a relationship that developed during both the Soviet and German occupations during World War II.

That relationship has become particularly delicate since Russian President Vladimir Putin falsely declared Ukraine a Nazi state, which he used to justify his illegal invasion.

Ukraine has worked for years through legislation and military restructuring to contain the fringe far-right movement, whose members proudly wear symbols steeped in Nazi history and espouse views hostile to the left, LGBTQ movements and ethnic minorities. But some members of these groups have been fighting Russia since the Kremlin illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 and are now part of a wider military establishment. Some are considered national heroes, even as the far right remains politically marginalized.

The iconography of these groups, including the skull and crossbones worn by concentration camp guards and the symbol known as the Black Sun, now appears with some regularity on the uniforms of soldiers fighting on the front lines, including the soldiers who say the images. symbolizes Ukraine’s sovereignty and pride, not Nazism.

In the short term, it threatens to bolster Putin’s propaganda and fuel his false claims that Ukraine should be “denationalized,” a position that ignores the fact that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish. In general, Ukraine’s ambivalence toward, and sometimes even acceptance of, these symbols risks breathing new, mainstream life into icons that the West has spent more than half a century eradicating.

“What worries me in the Ukrainian context is that people who are in leadership positions in Ukraine either don’t or don’t want to accept and understand how these symbols are viewed outside of Ukraine,” said Michael Colborne. A researcher with the Bellingcat investigative group who studies the international far right. “I think Ukrainians should be more and more aware that these images are undermining support for the country.”

A statement from the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine said that as a country that suffered greatly under the German occupation, “We emphasize that Ukraine categorically condemns any manifestation of Nazism.”

So far, the images have not eroded international support for the war. However, it has left diplomats, Western journalists and advocacy groups in a difficult position. drawing attention to the iconography risks playing into Russian propaganda. Saying nothing allows it to spread.

Even Jewish groups and anti-hate organizations that traditionally call out symbols of hate have remained largely silent. In particular, some leaders worry about being perceived as talking points for Russian propaganda.

Questions about how to interpret such symbols are as divisive as they are persistent, and not just in Ukraine. Some in the American South argue that the Confederate flag today symbolizes pride, not a history of racism and segregation. The swastika was an important Hindu symbol before it was co-opted by the Nazis.

In April, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry tweeted a photo of a soldier wearing a skull and crossbones known as a “Totenkopf” or “Death’s Head.” The particular symbol pictured was made infamous by the Nazi unit that committed war crimes and guarded concentration camps during World War II.

The photo patch places the Totenkopf above the Ukrainian flag with a small number 6 below. That patch is the official merchandise of Death in June, a British neo-folk band that the Southern Poverty Law Center says produces “hate speech” that “exploits themes and imagery of fascism and Nazism.”

Totenkopf considers the Anti-Defamation League “a common symbol of hate.” Jake Hyman, a spokesman for the group, however, said it was not possible “to draw a conclusion about the carrier or the Ukrainian military” based on the patch.

“The image, while offensive, is the image of the band,” Hyman said.

The group is now using a photo posted by the Ukrainian military to market the Totenkopf patch.

The New York Times asked Ukraine’s Defense Ministry about the tweets on April 27. A few hours later, the post was deleted. “After studying this case, we came to the conclusion that this logo can be ambiguously interpreted,” the ministry said in a statement.

The soldier in the photo was part of a volunteer unit called the Da Vinci Wolves, which was formed as part of the paramilitary wing of Ukraine’s “Right Sector,” a coalition of right-wing organizations and political parties that have been militarized since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. .

At least five other photos on the Wolves’ Instagram and Facebook pages show their soldiers wearing Nazi-style patches, including the Totenkopf.

The NATO military, an alliance Ukraine hopes to join, does not tolerate such patchwork. When such symbols appeared, groups such as the Anti-Defamation League spoke out, and military leaders quickly responded.

Last month, Ukraine’s state emergency services agency posted a photo on Instagram of an ambulance worker wearing the symbol of the Black Sun, also known as the Sonnenrad, which appeared at the castle of Nazi general and SS director Heinrich Himmler. Black Sun is popular among neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

In March 2022, NATO’s Twitter account posted a photo of a Ukrainian soldier wearing a similar patch.

Both photos were quickly removed.

In November, during a meeting with Times reporters near the front lines, a Ukrainian press officer wore a Totenkopf version made by a company called R3ICH (pronounced “Reich”). He said he doesn’t believe the patch is Nazi-related. A second press officer present said other reporters asked the soldiers to remove the patch before taking pictures.

Ukrainian historian and religious scholar Ihor Kozlovsky says the symbols have a special meaning for Ukraine and should be interpreted in terms of how Ukrainians feel about them, not how they have been used elsewhere.

“A symbol can live on in any community or story, regardless of how it’s used in other parts of the Earth,” Kozlowski said.

Russian soldiers in Ukraine have also been spotted wearing Nazi-style patches, underscoring how complicated these symbols can be interpreted in a region steeped in Soviet and German history.

The Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939, so two years later it was caught by surprise when the Nazis invaded Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. Ukraine suffered greatly under the Soviet government, which created a famine that killed millions. Many Ukrainians initially viewed the Nazis as liberators.

Factions of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and its rebel army fought alongside the Nazis in what they saw as a struggle for Ukrainian sovereignty. The members of these groups also participated in atrocities against Jewish and Polish civilians. Later in the war, however, some groups fought the Nazis.

Some Ukrainians joined Nazi units such as the Waffen-SS Galizien. The insignia of the group, commanded by German officers, was a sky blue patch showing a lion and three crowns. The unit participated in the massacre of hundreds of Polish civilians in 1944. In December, after a years-long legal battle, Ukraine’s highest court ruled that a government-funded research institute could continue to include the unit’s insignia as exempt from Nazi symbols banned under the law. 2015

Today, as a new generation struggles against Russian occupation, many Ukrainians see the war as a continuation of the struggle for independence during and immediately after World War II. Symbols such as the flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and the Galizien patch have become symbols of anti-Russian resistance and national pride.

That makes it difficult to distinguish Ukrainians enraged by Russia’s incursion, who support the country’s far-right groups, easily based on icons alone.

Units such as the Da Vinci Wolves, the more famous Azov Regiment, and others originating from far-right members have been incorporated into the Ukrainian military and have played a major role in defending Ukraine against Russian forces.

The Azov Regiment was celebrated last year after resisting the siege of the southern city of Mariupol. After the Da Vinci Wolves commander was killed in March, he received a hero’s funeral, which Zelensky attended.

“I think some of the far-right units are mixing their own myths a little bit into the public discourse about themselves,” Colborne said. “But I think the least that can and should be done everywhere, not only in Ukraine, is to prevent far-right symbols, rhetoric and ideas from entering public debate.”

Source link