by Gordon M. Hahn
In light of the ongoing Ukraine crisis coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazism in Europe and fascism more globally, there has been a tug of war over the legacy of the victory. In Ukraine, there is a question of whether there was a victory at all for the Ukrainian people; Ukrainians simply fell victim to a different but equally sinister totalitarian system. What the USSR called and what many in the post-Soviet space, including many in Ukraine, still hail as a victory in the ‘Great Patriotic War, many in Kiev and in particular in western Ukraine view as simply bringing a new occupation and tragedy, which it was. Indeed, the civil war in Ukraine that resulted from the Maidan’s seizure of power in February 2014 is in significant part driven not just by ethnic and linguistic differences between western and eastern Ukraine but also by differences over which legacy — communism symbolizing the Red Army or neo-fascism represented by the radical Ukrainian nationalist organizations that to one extent or another sided with Hitler and the Nazis against Stalin and the USSR.
Still, can we say that communism or class-based totalitarianism was no better or worse than the ethno-national totalitarianism of Nazi fascism? What would have been the fate of the Ukrainian nation had Hitler and the Nazis defeated Stalin and the USSR in the war? If the war had developed differently, what alternative choices would have been presented to the Ukrainian nation? A couple of counterfactuals might help flesh out the answers to these and other cursed questions.
Imagine the USSR loses the Great Patriotic War or is at least froced to abandon much of its western territories perhaps up to the Urals for decades. Ukraine as well as Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan (with its oil fields) are cut off from the USSR and under Nazi rule. According to Nazi ideology, the Slavic peoples were relegated to just a notch above the Jews. Whereas the Jews were to be systematically destroyed immediately, the Slavs were to function as the Nazi empire’s slaves and be worked to death before being discarded into the dustbin of history. This fate would have been a marked downgrade from even the Ukrainians’ disastrous and later ‘merely’ dismal Soviet experience.
Or imagine together with a Soviet retreat behind the Urals that instead of opening up the second front from Europe’s western shores in France, the Western powers decided to so through from Europe’s southern shores south in Italy. Under this scenario and subsequent alternative scenarios springing from it, it could have come to pass that US forces would have ended up fighting in eastern Europe, perhaps as far as eastern Poland, today’s western Ukraine. That region is center of gravity of the Ukrainian nationalism, the birth place of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and later the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). Against whom would our American boys have been fighting? The answer: German Nazis and the Ukrainian ultra-nationalists who eagerly assisted the former in slaughtering tens of thousands of Jews and Poles. Would the Ukrainian-American immigrant acolytes of the OUN and UPA be so welcome here in the US if that had been the case? The counterfactual raises a fundamental question for Americans: On whose side were the OUN and UPA? Ours or the Nazis? A possible, though less likely alternative outcome under this counterfactual is that the OUN and UPA would have defected from the Nazis turning their guns on them and siding with the West.
Indeed, Russians and pro-Soviet sympathizers should not be sanguine in the virtual world of counterfactual histories. Imagine that in our alternative second front scenario, US and Western forces defeat the Nazi, OUN, and UPA forces. If the West established its control over Ukraine or at least western Ukraine without provoking a war with the USSR, Ukraine would have become the flourishing European country of which so many Ukrainians dream today.
Or what if the US had never entered the war? Without doubt, the second front would not have materialized at all, and the USSR would most certainly have been defeated or at least driven beyond the Urals for a significant period of time. Not only Ukrainians but millions of Slavic Russians would have been enslaved and destroyed in that scenario. The rump, essentially Asia-based USSR possibly would have dissolved into chaos and civil wars, destroying not only the Soviet state but making reconstitution of a single Russian state unlikely, if not impossible.
The question of whether the Soviet ideology and system were more or less evil than those of Hitler and the Nazis opens a vast quandary of endless other questions. In real history, we have the USSR’s gradual, albeit limited, softening through the post-Stalin decades and the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika which began the process of transforming both the ideology and the system into something that in its last years could be recognizable as approximating ‘normal’, certainly in aspiration, if still not fully in practice.
Presuppose that Nazi Germany survived for 70 years as the Soviet communist system did. Can one honestly imagine a softening of the Nazi ideology and system in comparable ways as that which developed in the USSR from the mid-1950s to 1991? Class-based totalitarianism is not necessarily fatal for nations and ethnic groups. For certain (in our case, non-German) nations – which is the unit of analysis, the reference point for the majority of Ukrainians today — fascist ideology is indefatigably and inevitably fatal. Certainly for many nations and ethnic groups, any imaginable Nazi ‘perestroika’ would probably have arrived decades late, long after their demise. This would have been true for Ukrainian and Russian Slavs, among others.
Real history as opposed to our counterfactual one demonstrates conclusively that the Ukrainian people and national identity, despite the Soviet project to create a proletarian ‘national identity in place of ethno-national ones, survived 70 years of communist rule, golodomor, NKVD, and the Great Terror notwithstanding. Indeed, several decades into Soviet history, Ukrainians became the second to the Russians ‘among equals’ in receiving coveted party posts overseeing the empire. For example, after Russians it was Ukrainians who held the posts of second secretaries witching over native first secretaries in the USSR’s various ethno-national administrative-territorial units – its matryoshka of SSSRs, ASSRs, and ASSOs.
Finally, it needs to be said that no one envies and one should feel sympathy for a Ukrainian nation trapped between the two flames of Hitler’s Nazis and Stalin’s communists in the first half of the 20th century. It is almost equally sad that now Ukraine and Ukrainians — and to some extent Russia and Russians — must re-live and sort out that tortured history in order to move forward in the 21st century.
Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; and Senior Researcher and Adjunct Professor, MonTREP, Monterey, California. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and wrote, edited and published the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report at CSIS from 2010-2013. Dr. Hahn has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute.