Nazi nostalgia in Lviv —or is that Lemberg?

Ukraine's resurgent far right is sure providing plenty of fodder for the Russian propaganda machine that seeks to protray all Ukrainian nationalism as "fascism." Russia Today gleefully informs us that hundreds marched in the western city of Lviv last week to mark the anniversary of the formation of a Ukrainian SS division, which fought for the Nazis against the Soviet Union during World War II. Some 500 took to the streets to celebrate the creation of the SS Galician Division on April 28, 1943. Photos show marchers holding aloft banners with the division's insignia, a gold lion on a blue field (the national colors of Ukraine). The march culminated with a rally at the city's monument to Stepan Bandera, the wartime Ukrainian nationalist leader who briefly collaborated with the Nazis (although he had nothing to do with the Galician Division). But almost as ominous as the content of the RT report is its own terminology—refering to the city by its Soviet-era name of Lvov. Only the photo captions, lifted from AFP, use the contemporary name of Lviv. Some explanation is in order…

Like Transcarpathia/Ruthenia immediately to the west, Lviv is a former Austro-Hungarian holding that wound up in Ukraine. Under Austro-Hungarian rule, it was called Lemberg, and was the chief city in the Kingdom of Galicia, a Hapsburg crownland; then under Poland after World War I, it was known as Lwów. But it wasn't firmly in Polish hands until 1920, as the Polish army, Ukrainian nationalist partisans and the Soviet Red Army each contested the territory. In the midst of the fighting, the city's Jews of course got slapped around. "Pogroms broke out in 1917 and 1918, leaving over 100 Jews dead and hundreds more wounded, as mobs burned and looted homes," according to the Jewish Virtual Library—although it fails to tell us if this happened at the hands Poles or Ukrainians, or both. 

At the start of World War II in September 1939, Lwów was taken by the Soviets, officially annexed, and renamed Lvov. "Refugees poured into the city from German-occupied western Poland, and the Jewish population ballooned to more than 200,000. In the summer of 1940, many of them were expelled to the remote regions of the Soviet Union." Under the Soviets, Lvov underwent a process of "Ukrainization," and Jews came under persecution there as well, with the Yiddish language supressed. Of course, things got much worse when Germany broke the Hitler-Stalin Pact and invaded in June 1941. Some 10,000 Jews fled the city with the retreating Red Army. Few of those who remained would survive; the city's ghetto was liquidated in 1943. June of that year saw a last desperate uprising in the ghetto, with Jewish partisans fighting German occupation troops and Ukrainian collaborationist forces with Molotov cocktails and other improvised weapons. But by the time the Soviets re-took the city in July 1944, only a handful of Jews remained.

The name Lvov was restored by the Soviets; the Nazis had revived the Hapsburg name Lemberg.

Inidicating the level of confusion and ignorance on this history, we (alarmingly) had to call out Northeastern University poli-sci chair Mitchell A. Orenstein for writing in a Poland profile in Foreign Affairs that Stalin "kept all the parts of eastern Poland that he had annexed in 1939 and compensated the country with a large chunk of the eastern German territories of Silesia, Pomerania, and East Prussia." Assuredly not the case. With some minor variations, the USSR kept only those terrritories which Poland had itself annexed in the war of 1921. Bialystok and other areas which had been annexed by Stalin in '39 were returned to Polish rule in 1945. Lvov was among the territories Stalin kept.

The name was changed yet again upon Ukrainian independence in 1991—this time to Lviv. According to Wikipedia, while a full third of the city's population had been Jewish before World War II (numbering more than 140,000), today there are barely over 1,000 Jews in the city—partially due to an exodus to Israel following the Soviet collapse. As the Jewish Encyclopedia notes, a Jewish presence in the city goes back at least to the thirteenth century.

The Economist took an amusing view of the historical and political baggage that goes along with the name changes, writing: "Anyone who spells the capital of Galicia as Lwów is a Polish nationalist who bayonets Ukrainian babies for fun. Anyone who says it is spelled Lviv is a Ukrainian fascist who bayonets Polish babies for fun. Anyone who spells it Lvov is a Soviet mass murderer. And anyone who calls it Lemberg is a Nazi." 

Cute, but it may not be a laughing matter if Polish nationalists (or even, God help us, German neo-Nazis) start making irredentist claims to Lviv and "eastern Galicia," as Hungary seems to be broaching in the case of Transcarpathia/Ruthenia. And, meanwhile, we're sure Israel will be happy to exploit the city's remaining Jews by encouraging them to flee to the Jewish state or Occupied Territories to be used as demographic cannon fodder against the Palestinians…

  1. Historical revisionism advances in Ukraine

    A May 21 article in The Guardian is suddenly making the rounds on Facebook, posted by the pro-Russian pseudo-left crowd (obviously). It is pretty disturbing…

    Two new laws that ban communist symbols while honouring nationalist groups that collaborated with the Nazis have come into effect in Ukraine, raising concerns that Kiev could be stifling free speech and further fragmenting the war-torn country in the rush to break ties with its Soviet past.

    The first law "on the condemnation of the communist and Nazi totalitarian regimes" forbids both Soviet and Nazi symbols, making something as trivial as selling a USSR souvenir, or singing the Soviet national hymn or the Internationale, punishable by up to five years in prison for an individual and up to 10 years in prison for members of an organisation.

    It also makes it a criminal offence to deny the "criminal character of the communist totalitarian regime of 1917-1991 in Ukraine" in the media or elsewhere.

    The second law recognises controversial nationalist groups – including the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) – as "independence fighters" and makes it a criminal offence to question the legitimacy of their actions. While these two groups at different times fought both Soviet and German forces, they also collaborated with the Nazis and took part in ethnic cleansing. One of the authors of the law is the son of UPA leader Roman Shukhevych.

    A pretty twisted irony is that the law criminalizing Soviet nostalgia is obviously modelled on the stupid and counterproductive European laws banning Nazi nostaligia, while the OUN and UPA were Nazi collaborationist Bandera's organizations. As if this weren't bad enough, it is pretty dishonest to implicitly condemn the entire Soviet era as the moral equivalent of Nazism. In fact, it was only the Stalin period that approached Hitlerian levels of evil…