Moscow demanded that Ukraine surrender the besieged port city of Mariupol on the Black Sea by 5am local time yesterday (21 March 2022), a demand the Ukrainian government and the forces defending the city said was ‘out of the question.’ Mariupol has been a stronghold of the ultra-nationalist Azov battalion since 2014, when the Kyiv government began its assault on the ethnic Russian population of Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Now, locked inside the ‘cauldron’ that is the siege of Mariupol, the Azov battalion has unleashed a horrifying reign of terror on the civilian population; people these ultra-nationalists have refused to allow leave the city. Civilians caught attempting to escape the city have been shot and killed, and ‘dissenters’ — civilians who refuse to fight — and other ‘criminals’ have been tied to lampposts, stripped, sexually humiliated (and in some cases raped), and beaten in the name of Ukrainian patriotism.
Alarm bells have been sounding across Europe since 2014 because of these so-called ‘neo-Nazis.’ Since the Maidan coup, the ultra-nationalists responsible for bringing down the democratically elected government of Viktor Yanukovych have occupied key positions in the Ukrainian government (Deputy Prime Minister, Attorney General, and the Ministry of Defence), integrated their CIA-trained far-right paramilitary organisations into the Ukrainian army, established auxiliary police forces, and have placed their leaders at every level of the state bureaucracy and military command. As recently as May 2018 Stephen Cohen wrote in The Nation that:
…stormtroop-like assaults on gays, Jews, elderly ethnic Russians, and other “impure” citizens are widespread throughout Kiev-ruled Ukraine, along with torchlight marches reminiscent of those that eventually inflamed Germany in the late 1920s and 1930s.
Even without popular support, it is clear that the ultra-nationalist Svoboda Party — known as the Social-National Party of Ukraine until its rebranding in 2004 — has the power to capture the state in another coup d’état, and some influential figures in the Azov battalion have expressed their desire to do just that (Walker, 2014). It does not take a genius, then, to realise the special threat this movement poses to Ukrainian democracy and to the future of the state, and in the last few hours we have been given a terrifying demonstration of the brutality of this regiment’s ideology against the civilian population of Mariupol. Yet, efforts to downplay this danger by the western media after the Russian invasion (24 February 2022) have caused considerable confusion about the nature of the extreme far-right in Ukraine, with many casual observers seeing the Ukrainian ultra-nationalists as generally similar to neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups elsewhere — as a fringe element or as ‘a few bad apples.’ But nothing could be further from the truth.
The single most important distinction we must make concerning these far-right groups and organisations is that Ukraine’s ultra-nationalists are not neo-Nazis, they are real old-school ideological Nazis with an unbroken pedigree reaching back to the SS-Einstazgruppen death squads and the death camps of the Holocaust. In order to explain what exactly is meant by this, we must start with a few simple definitions. The racist far-right and white supremacism, whilst not necessarily being ‘Nazi,’ are chauvanistic racist attitudes about the superiority of the ‘white race.’ White supremacism is the racist idea of the far-right, and the far-right describes the politics or political action of white supremacists. Nazism is a white supremacism and a type of far-right politics.
What makes Nazism different, however, is the particular nature of Nazi — or ‘National Socialist’ — ideology. Nazism is a form of ideological racism based on a pseudo-scientific ‘racial science’ that imagines a hierarchy of races; with white ‘Aryans’ at the top and ‘subhuman’ races — Untermenschen — like Jews, blacks, and Romani gypsies at the bottom (or beneath the bottom). This twisted ideological racism teaches that these subhuman races pose a threat to the ‘purity’ of the blood of the white race and so should be prevented from breeding with white Aryan people — and, in the most extreme application of this doctrine, by their physical extermination.
‘Nazism’ is a problematic term. In the strictest sense, there are no Nazis today. The word ‘Nazi’ is derived from the German acronym NSDAP (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, the National Socialist German Workers Party), the name of the far-right German political party founded in 1920 by Anton Drexler which became the political vehicle of Adolf Hitler’s murderous totalitarian regime. Following the defeat of the Third Reich and after Hitler’s suicide in Berlin, the NSDAP was dissolved (10 October 1945) and criminalised. Yet, the word Nazi has survived as a shorthand for the particular racist ideology of Hitlerism.
It is in this sense, problematic as it is, that we use this terminology here. Thus, by Nazi and Nazis we are describing a white supremacist ethno-nationalism which categorises the Aryan — white — race as the ‘master race’ or Herrenrasse, and all other races as inferior to it or not truly human qua subhuman. The ultra-nationalist and fascistic Weltanschauung or political worldview of this ideology imagines the white master race to have privileged and sole ownership of the land of the nation for its genetic propagation.
Neo-Nazism, as the ‘neo-‘ prefix (meaning: ‘new Nazism’) suggests, is similar but different to Nazism. This describes the post-1945 far-right revivalist movement which seeks to revive the political ideas of the Third Reich, but which is not located on the same politico-historical continuum of Hitlerist Nazism. As a revivalist movement, neo-Nazism — whilst being virulently antisemitic and racist — is more of a cultural and political fetishisation of the Third Reich. It lacks the governmental centralisation and political continuity of true historical Nazism. It is correct, therefore, to describe many far-right white supremacist groups and organisations around the world as neo-Nazi in character, but not Nazi. They have no historical link or line of political succession to the Nazi ideologues of the Third Reich in mid-twentieth century Europe. Ukrainian Nazis, however, are fairly unique in the fact that they have both a historical link and a political line of succession to the Nazism of the Third Reich, to the Schutzstaffel (the SS), and to the Nazi extermination camps. The Nazism of the Svobado Party, the Azov battalion, and many of the other Nazi groupings in Ukraine is a fossilised and authentic Third Reich Nazism.
How this happened, how this pernicious ideology survived for almost eighty years is a complex story with a number of interesting dynamics. In a word, we might simply say that the strange conditions of the Cold War preserved it, and this happened as a consequence of three semi-independent socio-historical factors: Soviet reluctance to continue a painful and divisive ideological war within the USSR, the United States’ identification of Ukrainian Nazis as a useful weapon against the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain, and that, certainly in western Ukraine, ultra-nationalism became a locus of resistance within Ukraine to Russian Soviet domination. With all these greater wheels turning, over the course of seven decades, the Nazism that was checked in Germany and Austria found an air pocket quite actually in the borderlands between the capitalist West and the communist East.
At least a decade before the launch of Operation Barbarossa — the German invasion of the Soviet Union (22 June — 5 December 1941), Ukrainian nationalists, no doubt inspired by Italian and German fascism, were constructing their own political ideologies of racial supremacy, and antisemitism was certainly not new to Ukraine. The Imperial Russian territory west of the Dnieper — western Ukraine, Belarus, eastern Poland, and Lithuania — had been the Pale of Jewish Settlement; the part of the Russian Empire where Jews were permitted to live, and by 1941 Ukraine had one of the largest populations of Jews in the world. Ukraine was an ethinic patchwork of Ukrainian, Russian, and Tartar towns and a myriad of Jewish shtetlach. In the frustrated Ukrainian nationalist mind, ‘the Jew’ became the dangerous other — the outsider-insider — responsible for all Ukraine’s economic and political ills, and the German invasion gave them the perfect opportunity to unleash centuries of bitter hatred on their Jewish neighbours.
At Lwów — now Lviv — in western Ukraine, it was the ultra-nationalist Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (the OUN) led by Stepan Bandera and not the SS death squads of the Einsatzgruppen that rounded up the Jews of the city and murdered them in a series of pogroms on the streets in a demonstration of barbarism that shocked even soldiers of the SS. Where the OUN never had a perfect relationship with the Third Reich — they were competing ultra-nationalisms — and while Bandera was imprisoned by the Germans for the duration of the war, Ukrainian ultra-nationalists of the OUN were formed into an all-Ukrainian division of the Waffen-SS and many willingly served as Trawniki — guards — in the Operation Reinhard extermination camps at Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Chełmno, Majdanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. These Ukrainians were entirely unlike the police and military collaborators in other parts of Nazi-occuped Europe; these were ideological Nazis and enthusiastic and willing participants in the greatest crime against humanity in history.
Fearing reprisals and Soviet justice after the war, thousands of these murderers made their way to the western allied zone of Germany where something unexpeted and extraordinary happened. Sensing the chill ahead in US-Soviet relations, Harry S. Truman and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) he established saw in these criminals the perfect weapon with which to wage a clandestine war against the Soviet Union from the inside. Given immunity from prosecution and later exempted from the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, they were shipped to the US where they would, with CIA assistance, setup organisations to represent the ‘free peoples’ of Europe oppressed by Soviet tyranny. These associations became breeding grounds for Nazis and over the years they continued to recruit and indoctrinate new members from the Ukrainian-American community. Throughout the Cold War they remained in touch with the OUN-B — the underground ultra-nationalist resistance to Soviet rule — in the Ukrainian SSR and funded its terrorist activites. This US Cold War scheme ensured the survival of Ukrainian Nazism right up to the present, and now the CIA has found a new job for them.
From at least as early as 1996 the United States government and the CIA have been working closely both with Ukrainian ultra-nationalists in the US and in Ukraine to the end of preventing Ukraine reintegrating with Russia. In this, Washington is not concerned about Ukraine or the people of Ukraine. Its long game is the weakening of Russia and the geopolitical strategy of keeping it isolated from its neighbours. Ukrainian Nazis have been invaluable as US assets in this game; playing a crucial role in the Orange Revolution and the Maidan coup.
Aware that this long-game strategy of strangling Russia was likely to provoke a violent military response from Russia — as it now has, in 2008 the CIA started the Ground Department programme, where ultra-nationalist militias could receive specialised military training in the States. With a focus on intelligence gathering an asymmetric warfare, Nazi paramilitaries have been prepped to fight a prolonged insurgency against a Russian occupation designed to bleed Russia.
Yesterday, the world was given a ringside seat — thanks to mobile phone cameras and social media — to a show of what this eight decades of CIA-Ukrainian Nazi collaboration has produced. Blockaded by the Russian navy and surrounded on all sides by the Russian army, the openly Nazi Azov battalian has refused to surrender. True to form, these Nazis refused to allow civilians leave the city through the humanitarian corridor kept open by the Russians. Over the past weeks video footage has emerged of Azov soldiers threatening to shoot women and children trying to escape the city, and yesterday we were flooded with video evidence of their inhuman treatment of ‘dissenters’ — civilians who refuse to take up arms. Men and women were strapped to trees and lampposts throughout the city, stripped of their trousers, skirts, and underwear in freezing conditions, to be humiliated and degraded, and mercilessly beaten across the legs, buttocks, genitals, and faces. These images are horrifying, and so conditioned by the narrative of the western media are viewers in the west that they are struggling to see this for the monstrous crime it is.
Ideological Nazis are nihilists. The worthlessness of the individual is a central tenet of their faith. Human value, to them, is measured only by its usefulness to the nation. People who do not want to fight, people who cannot fight, and people they deem racially inferior have absolutely no value to them as human beings. Watching this nightmare unfold yesterday, it was difficult not to imagine that many of the people trapped in Mariupol — held hostage — now see the Russian invasion as a liberation.
The prevailing message in the West is that these Nazis are like the far-right and neo-Nazis elsewhere; a fringe group of racist extremists. At best, this is ignorance. At worst, it is a lie. These are not neo-Nazis. What we have is a well-trained, well-armed, CIA-backed ideological weapon; a relatively small group of men and women who have the influence in the state and the military wherewithal to take the state. What we know of this pedigree of Nazism is that it has no need for democracy. The ‘rule by the people’ is as worthless to them as the people who do not accept their vision of the racially pure Ukrainian nation. Now that they are battle-hardened and existing under the cover of a western media-manufactured veil of heroism, they pose a greater threat to the peace and security of Ukraine, Europe, and the world than they have since 1933.
What Russia has done is wrong. Those busying themselves arguing that to criticise these ‘heroes of Ukraine’ is giving support to Russia are ignoramuses — splendidly ignorant of the harshest lessons of our collective recent history. Soon this war will be over, Russia will doubtless achieve its objectives and what is left of Ukraine will be a mess. Vladimir Putin will be rightly demonised for having done this, but the mess will remain — and it is in the mess, like in the mess of Weimar Germany, that this cancer flourishes best. The United States of America, to the service of its own selfish imperialist ambitions, has created the most able force in Ukraine to exploit the post-war political terrain. Having armed Ukraine to the teeth, NATO has unwittingly supplied the most dangerous political ideology in Europe with the material it needs to secure its place in Ukraine’s future. And the smart among us know that Ukraine’s future has a great deal now to do with our future.
Jason Michael McCann, M.Phil. (TCD) Conflict Studies The author holds a postgraduate degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, and an academic fellowship in the study of conflict from the University of West Flanders. He has published on the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the murder of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.
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